A Philosopher’s Appeal to Read Scripture

A fascinating new website has been started over at danherrickphilosophy.com, all of whose arguments merit careful reading.  This is not to say I agree with all of his arguments – I do not, which ought to surprise no one – but his essays often provide an interesting sidelight on the issue and frequently an unusual insight.  In particular, he just finished a series of four posts on how to read Scripture:

The first essay argues that the debate about whether the Bible can be read literally is pointless, because no one can miss the fact that the Bible is chock full of pungent metaphors.  The second post rejects the common liberal Christian assertion that the Bible is non-factual, but still in some sense inspirational.  The third article calls out the skeptics’ common assertion that those who believe the Bible to be truthful are simply failing to think, and that “all thinking people” reject what the Bible teaches.  The fourth essay draws an analogy from how modern scholars of ancient philosophy approach philosophical texts to how people ought to approach the Bible.

The author ought to be congratulated both for some provocative arguments and some felicitous turns of phrase.  It is the nature of this topic that most people are already convinced of their position, and no amount of reasoning will change that, yet for those few who may be swayed by reasoning, as well as for those who wish to think through their own position more closely, these essays will provide a useful stimulus.  In this regard, they approach the praise I accord to C. S. Lewis, who thought so clearly that even where I disagree with him, I find that he clarified my position for me.

As much as I broadly agree with these arguments, it seems to me that the author has overlooked some aspects of the topics at hand.  He does not engage with the many different things which have been termed the “literal meaning” of Scripture over the centuries, much less with the medieval four-fold model of Scriptural interpretation, but adopts the single meaning of “literal” as opposed to “metaphorical,” which in places the Biblical text undeniably is.  There are also various positions slightly different from the ones he argues against, to which it is not clear that his arguments apply.  So he critiques, I would say rightly, the position of those liberals who say that the Bible is false but that falsity’s not really important.  He does not engage with the position of those liberals who say that the Bible incorporates false factual assertions about non-spiritual matters, but the spiritual vision of the Bible is correct.  This latter view, while I still believe it to be false, is much more defensible.

His fourth essay, by far the most difficult to accomplish, argues that everyone should approach the Bible as every other text making philosophical assertions, charitably.  But I feel his contrast between assuming historical authors know what they’re talking about and assuming that those authors believe things for non-rational reasons is too neatly dichotomized.  We all believe most of what we believe for non-rational reasons.  And its not clear to me how one might apply the charitable hermeneutic he advocates to philosophical or religious texts in multiple traditions simultaneously: how could one approach the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects of Confucius, the Tao te Ching, and the Qur’an simultaneously, simultaneously presuming that where we think they are wrong that there is a good counter-argument?  I think the issue here is that we all believe things based on where we presently are, which shapes the plausibility structures which we use to evaluate philosophical arguments as sound or not.  These plausibility structures are not incorrigible, as converts indicate, but they are very powerful even for determining whether an argument is “rational.”  I am not sure what the author’s response to this objection would be.

These essays are provocative and insightful, and are certainly worth the time to read.  And while visiting his site, you might also check out other essays he has written.  This is a new site and being updated frequently, so check back for additional material.

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