Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

Biblical inerrancy – Fixed ideas and Occam’s razor

Posted on July 5, 2019

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Most evangelical Christians believe Biblical inerrancy forms the foundation of Christian faith.  Biblical inerrancy means that Scripture is:    (1) without error or fault in all its teaching.  (2) internally consistent and without contradiction, and (3) scientifically and historically accurate.

Biblical inerrancy can be a fixed idea

The dictionary defines a fixed idea as “an idea, esp one of an obsessional nature, that is persistently maintained and not subject to change.” At least for some Christians, their belief in inerrant Scripture is a fixed idea. For example, John Warwick Montgomery argues that Christians must have an utter trust in Scripture because interpreting biblical text to be erroneous or self-contradictory would “impugn the absolute truthfulness of God, who inspires all Holy Scripture for our salvation and learning.”[1] That fits the definition of fixed idea – persistently maintained and not subject to change.

People often associate fixed ideas with ignorant and narrow-minded people. However, evangelical ministers and scholars are not ignorant, and they espouse biblical inerrancy for theological reasons that I will not critique in this post. Nonetheless, fixed ideas should always be viewed with suspicion because they often cause intelligent and educated people to make mistakes.. Louis Pasteur wrote:

 Preconceived ideas are like searchlights which illumine the path of experimenter and serve him as a guide to interrogate nature. They become a danger only if he transforms them into fixed ideas – this is why I should like to see these profound words inscribed on the threshold of all the temples of science: “The greatest derangement of the mind is to believe in something because one wishes it to be so.”

Evangelical Christians believe in biblical inerrancy and fervently wish it to be so. In my opinion, this sincere wish motivates evangelical apologists to ignore Occam’s razor.

Occam’s razor

A razor is a principle or rule of thumb that cuts away unlikely explanations or unnecessary complications. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives several versions of Occam’s razor.

  • Most philosophers believe that, other things being equal, simpler theories are better.
  • Aristotle wrote , “We may assume the superiority ceteris paribus (other things being equal) of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.
  • Sir Isaac Newton believed that “Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.”
  • A common formulation – also called ontological parsimony – states, “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

Oakham’s razor is named after the English Franciscan friar, William of Ockham. William wrote things similar to Occam’s razor, such as “It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.” However, no one knows who coined the term “Occam’s razor,” so there is no original or authoritative version of the maxim.

All versions of Occam’s razor express the common sense ideas that the simplest explanation is usually the best and fewer hypotheses and/or entities make a simpler explanation. It is not an ironclad law, but it is a decent rule of thumb.

Biblical inerrancy and Occam’s razor

Bible contains hundreds of apparent contradictions and factual errors. Likewise, the biblical account of creation in Genesis contradicts history, archaeology and practically every scientific discipline from astronomy to zoology. One simple hypothesis explains all these errors and contradictions: fallible people wrote the books now found in the Bible – they made mistakes and they did not understand modern science.

The Bible includes at least sixty-six books or letters written by different people at different times and places. The belief that all 31,102 verses in the Bible contain no errors or contradictions transforms this disparate collection of literature into the most elaborate and detailed fixed idea in history.

Books such as the 481‑page Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer and the 624‑page Big Book of Bible Difficulties by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe propose hundreds of hypotheses to explain some of the Bible’s apparent mistakes.[2] The Evidence  Unseen website brags about answering over a thousand “Bible difficulties.” The Institute for Creation Research, the Creation Research Society, Answers in Genesis and other creationist organizations have developed hundreds of pseudoscientific hypotheses as alternatives to mainstream “secular science.”

Although Occam’s razor is merely a guideline, consider that Biblical inerrancy requires that all errors, contradictions and scientific inaccuracies in the Bible to be eliminated. A single error means the Bible is fallible. Proponents of biblical inerrancy must prove hundreds of hypotheses to explain every possible biblical error, and I do not know of any apologist who claims to have done so.

Instead, most Christian apologists recognize that biblical inerrancy confronts them with unsolvable problems. Gleason Archer explains, “When we are unable to understand God’s ways or are unable to comprehend His words, we must bow before Him in humility and patiently wait for Him to clear up the difficulty or to deliver us from our trials as He sees fit.”[3]

Or, we can use critical thinking.

 


[1] John Warwick Montgomery, Law & Gospel: A Study Integrating Faith and Practice 25 (Canadian Institute for Law, Theology & Public Policy 1994).

[2] Gleason C. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan 1982); Norman L. Geisler & Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties (Baker Books 2008).

[3] Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties at 15.


-rgmiller