February 23, 2009
Reppert and MN, part 2
Victor Reppert responds to my argument that the atheist historian’s application of methodological naturalism is not morally equivalent to the Christian apologist who’s a Biblical inerrantist. I think he correctly points out an overstatement on my part, but I think the bulk of my argument still stands. Then, there’s an interesting digression on evolution that I’ll tackle in another post.
First, the mea culpa:
I wrote that William Lane Craig’s statement of belief is “…an absolute precondition that cannot be shaken by the evidence.” Reppert responds, essentially, with three arguments that I’ll format for convenience:
 The fact that abandonment of a belief might result in one’s being expelled from one’s institution of education doesn’t mean that the position is indefeasible. …  Further, people in places like Talbot got positions at places like Talbot because their thinking led them to think that inerrancy was true to begin with. … [1, again] There have been people who have left their Christian academic institutions because they had doubts about the doctrinal commitments of the institution.  And sometimes these institutional statements are given fairly liberal interpretations.
Those arguments do indeed refute my overstatement, quoted above. But I don’t think they refute the larger argument I was making; namely, that the atheist historian’s use of methodological naturalism is NOT morally equivalent to the apologist historian’s prior affirmation of Biblical inerrancy, and thus people like Robert Price and Richard Carrier (and others) are right to call out inerrantists who hold themselves out as historians. Now, on the arguments themselves:
1. Reppert’s main argument — which does fairly respond to my claim — is that the fact that someone like Craig must affirm a statement of belief is not inarguable proof that he is close-minded when evaluating the evidence. I’m forced to agree with this — even the inerrantist may have a road to Damascus moment where he can no longer in good conscience shoehorn the evidence to fit his theory; Bart Ehrman is a good example of this. (Incidentally, I suspect this explains why Ehrman, in his debate with Craig, made a deliberate point of Craig’s belief in inerrancy.) Fair enough.
But my larger point is that Craig’s prior commitment to inerrancy is not like the atheist’s utilization of methodological naturalism, because MN only prescribes rules of the road — it does not specify the destination. That’s why we can set up double-blind studies on the efficacy of prayer or the existence of ESP. The atheist might be privately convinced in advance that the tests will fail, but (unless he’s a charlatan) the results will speak for themselves.
But now suppose that a private museum, in an effort to buttress their exhibit on the Pharoahs, decided to pay an archaeologist $1,000 for every artifact he could discover and certify as belonging to Pharoah Thutmose II. Even if the archaeologist were not a deliberate fraud, I suggest that the average person would be justified in at least a little skepticism of the artifacts he identified as Egyptian in a way that we would not be skeptical of an archaeologist without financial skin in the game.
Or, to pick an example from my profession — I’m a lawyer, by the way — judges and juries sometimes credit the testimony of expert witnesses, but sometimes dismiss them as “hired guns” because they are paid by the side who introduces their testimony. Juries intuitively recognize that the financial component may compromise the objectivity and integrity of the witness.
In other words: the doctrine of biblical inerrancy specifies an outcome, even if the inerrantist himself may not always jump to that conclusion. The hypothetical inerrantist archaeologist who discovers evidence contradicting the Exodus, for example, must either “explain away” that piece of evidence or give up his theological career. (This explains why there aren’t any inerrantist archaeologists, with the exception of the work of Mormon archaeologists, whom I assume Reppert would not generally defend.) Reppert correctly points out that the inerrantist is free to give up his theology career, but my point is that the doctrine itself imposes an additional cost that the secular archaeologist simply doesn’t have.
I conclude that Biblical inerrancy puts a thumb on the scale that methodological naturalism does not, and thus they are not morally equivalent. That’s why I think it’s reasonable for Price, Carrier, Ehrman and the like to call out inerrantists who hold themselves out as historians. N.T. Wright may be a legitimate scholar, but he’s a scholar with his thumb on the scale, and readers ought to know that.
2. Victor’s second argument is that “people in places like Talbot got positions at places like Talbot because their thinking led them to think that inerrancy was true to begin with.” I agree: I was not suggesting that Craig had whored himself out intellectually just to secure a position at Biola; I think he’s at Biola because he agrees with those sorts of people. My point is just that his beliefs and chums and job all specify a particular outcome and that makes him objectively weaker as a historian than someone who does not share his job, friends, and worldview.
3. Finally, Reppert points out that doctrinal statements such as the one signed by Craig may be given “liberal interpretations”; i.e., that they do not go so far as the Chicago Statement, and even the Chicago Statement is not what some atheists caricature it to be.
I confess that I do not know if Biola’s statement is given a liberal interpretation or not — my impression is that Biola is a fairly conservative place, but I would defer to Victor if he tells me that the statement gives wide latitude for intellectual and academic freedom. I would say that anyone who affirms the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy has his or her thumb on the scale, even if there are various out mechanisms (e.g., transmission from the autographa).