Inerrancy as nonsense

How's this for a syllogism: 1. For a sentence to make sense, its negation must also make sense.

2. To claim 'the Bible is errant' is nonsense.

3. Therefore to claim 'the Bible is inerrant' is also nonsense.

Rather, the Bible is authoritative in a very different way - and not at all less so for it.

Briefly, the first statement is a mainstay of Wittgenstein's that basically says that it is meaningless to negate something that is meaningless. A nonsensical sentence is not worth disagreeing with, because in so doing one actually joins in with that sentence's nonsense. The second statement is what I hold to be an authentically Christian statement - to say 'the Bible is errant' is not wrong but in fact meaningless nonsense. It betrays a very fundamental misunderstanding about the kind of thing the Bible is and how it functions truthfully in the life of the community of faith. And the third statement brings the two together: to argue that the Bible is inerrant is to validate and participate in the nonsense of Biblical errancy. In answering that foolishness according to its folly in this way we are made just like it (Proverbs 26:4). We need answer it, lest they be wise in their own eyes (26:5), but it seems a naming of the folly for the nonsense it is would suffice.

Kenny's Wittgenstein

Anthony Kenny's book Wittgenstein is, as one might easily guess from the title, a book about the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Kenny approaches his subject developmentally, attempting on the one hand to faithfully present Wittgenstein's thought at various different stages from beginning to end, and on the other hand making a case that there is much more continuity than many of Wittgenstein's readers suppose. Kenny's book moves from a brief philosophical-biographical overview of Wittgenstein's life and work to a discussion of Wittgenstein's main jumping off point - the systematic logical works of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell - and then from there jumps straight into Wittgenstein's early notebooks. Kenny explains lucidly how Wittgenstein moved from the tutelage of Frege and Russell to the material of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, and from there how Wittgenstein began to see that work's metaphysics of 'logical atomism' (Russell's term) begin to unravel leading eventually to the work of his later years.

And in narrating this development, Kenny presents a convincing case that the later Wittgenstein is not as drastic a departure from the Tractatus as is often claimed. The work's final chapter, "The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Philosophy", sums up this argument and brings the book's exposition of the essential contributions of this great 20th century philosopher beautifully to a close.

According to Kenny, the alleged drammatic differences between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations are typically articulated along three lines:

(1) In the Tractatus Wittgenstein put forward a metaphysical atomism: the ultimate elements of language are names that designate simple objects; elementary propositions are concatenations of these names, each such proposition being independent of every other such proposition. In the Investigations it is argued that the words 'simple' and 'complex' have no absolute meaning, and the search for the ultimate independent elementary propositions is regarded as a delusion. (2) In the Tractatus Wittgenstein is interested in the formal structures of symbolic logic as a key to the ideal essence of the proposition and of language; in the Investigations he has abandoned the idea that language has an essence and devotes himself to the study of the idioms of ordinary language. (3) Whereas the Tractatus held that sentences had meaning or sense because they were pictures, the Investigations says that the meaning of a sentence is its use or employment or application; the conception that a significant sentence is a picture is replaced in the later thought by the view that the sense of a sentence is determined by the circumstances in which it is uttered and the language-game to which it belongs. (pp. 173-4)

The first point Kenny rightly concedes. The basic thrust of Wittgenstein's later work is based on a critique of this aspect of his early work, as he began to see that the atomism of that work - e.g. the indepencdence of elementary propositions - was untenable.

The second point, according to Kenny, is both right and wrong. The truth of point (1) certainly requires a reworking of the way Wittgenstein understands what is required in the analysis of ordinary language, but the Tractatus is already concerned with ordinary language - it only misfires because of the assumptions of logical atomism. And so point (2) overstates the point.

The third point, however, Kenny thinks is almost entirely misguided. Wittgenstein doesn't so much move from the picture theory of the proposition to the notion language-games. Rather, the latter extends the former and fills it out. Kenny's account of Wittgenstein's development goes to great pains to ensure we see that even after the rejection of atomism he still returns to the notion of a picture. While pictures don't get a lot of mention in the Investigations itself, they do show up in basically all of the intervening works from the 1930's, and it continues to be a powerful concept for Wittgenstein's understanding of language even after his full 'maturation.' As such it is unfair to say that there are two Wittgensteins as it has been common to argue.

After responding to these three points in kind, Kenny lists again 8 theses that he had used earlier to explain the picture theory and how it was modified (though not abandoned!) by the later Wittgenstein. From there he posts a long quote from the Introduction to the 1913 (pre- Tractatus) "Notes on Logic", and then lists 6 ways that the later Wittgenstein largely maintained the same philosophical vision: 1) Philosophy is purely descriptive. 2) Philosophy is not a natural science. 3) Philosophy and pictures. 4) Philosophy consists of logic and metaphysics. 5) Philosophy is the doctrine of logical form. 6) Logical propositions are unique.

Overall, Kenny's book was an enjoyable read, and one that was accessible even to a novice like myself. And importantly his exposition succeeded in making me eager (and, I hope, more able) to dive into my next self-appointed philosophical task: to tackle the Philosophical Investigations itself.

Disclosure: I did not receive a free review copy of this book, probably because Wiley-Blackwell Publishing has no idea who I am. I think my sister bought it for me for Christmas last year. Which was very nice of her, because Blackwell books are really expensive (list price for this 183 page paperback book is $38.95).

Make good use of it / everyday life

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to a recent recipient of a doctorate of philosophy: "May you make good use of it! By that I mean: may you not cheat either yourself or your students. Because, unless I'm very much mistaken, that's what will be expected from you." Seems to me that with only slight changes in terminology this exhortation would apply quite nicely to a recent recipient of a masters in divinity. He also wrote, in a letter to a friend, "What is the use of studying philosophy, if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc. and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?" Once again this could easily apply, mutatis mutandis, to the study of theology in many quarters. On this point I always appreciated my New Testament professor, Jo-Ann Badley, as she tried to push us to ask the question, "How does it preach?"

Both quotes are from Anthony Kenny's Wittgenstein, pp. 10.

People Currently Residing in My Head

Abigail wanted me to make a list of the thinkers I reference in class, and write a few words about each of them and what kinds of questions they are dealing with. This is a start. These are people whose thoughts have influenced my own, with a particular emphasis on things I've read or interacted with recently and therefore might be more likely to reference. I included pictures, because Abigail seems to think that might get me an extra bathroom in my mansion in heaven, and Jesus said to store up treasures in heaven (by which I'm sure he would have included bathrooms had there been indoor plumbing in the first century). So here it is:

Karl Barth

Swiss theologian/really neat guy. When I got my copy of his Church Dogmatics in the mail, a certain classmate of mine responded, "Retire your Bible!" I look forward to reading him after I'm all done with school.

YoderJohnH1 John Howard Yoder

Awesome facial hair. Mennonite theologian, studied in Switzerland where he had the chance to take a number of classes with Karl Barth. His The Politics of Jesus was widely read and very influential. The cross, not the sword, controls the meaning of history. The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not one of cause and effect but of cross and resurrection. The church is an alternative polis and engages politically on its own terms. Turn ons: Luke's gospel. Turn offs: Constantinianism.

mcclendon James Wm. McClendon, Jr.

Grew up Baptist in Louisiana, went to the University of Texas (my alma mater - Hook 'em Horns!) and Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Was fired from a teaching post at a Southern Baptist seminary in California for sending students to march with Martin Luther King Jr., and he was also fired from a teaching post at a Catholic school in California for being against the Vietnam War. Other than a year as visiting professor of theology at Notre Dame in the 70's (where Yoder, MacIntyre and Hauerwas were all teaching at the time), he pretty much stuck to the West coast. He wrote a non-foundationalist systematic theology from a "baptist" (intentionally small 'b') perspective, by which he intended to include Baptists, Mennonites, Campbellites, Brethren, and many others. His 'baptist vision' is this is that and then is now, by which he means that the church today is the church at the resurrection and the church on the last days. His systematic starts with Ethics (how must the church live to be the church? - Way, Watch-care, Witness), moves on to Doctrine (what must the church teach to be the church? - starts with eschatology, examines the Identity of Jesus Christ and finally the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit), and finishes with Witness (what must the church's stance vis a vis the world be in order to be the church? - theology and culture, theology and philosophy, theology of mission). Wittgenstein, MacIntyre, Yoder, the Radical Reformation.

murphy-nanceyNancey Murphy

Church of the Brethren, Fuller Seminary. Studied Philosophy of Science with Paul Feyerband and Theology with James McClendon. Holism in epistemology. Thinks of theology in terms of Imre Lakatos' concept of scientific research programs. She's a nonreductive physicalist: is there a soul? Sure, but it's embodied. Modern neuroscience, Anglo-American Postmodernism (Wittgenstein, MacIntyre, philosophers of science after Kuhn).

Hauerwas Stanley Hauerwas

Methodist, grew up in Texas as the son of a bricklayer. Studied at Yale, I think before George and Hans were around. Took Old Testament courses from Brevard Childs, who made him think that Ezekiel was Karl Barth. Influenced by many, influencer of many. Time magazine called him "America's Best Theologian", and he thinks that's hilarious: "Best is not a theological category." He doesn't like liberalism. At all. He does like thinking of Methodist identity in terms of being high church Mennonites or  free church Catholics. He thinks Christians should tell the truth. Virtue, narrative, church. Yoder, MacIntyre, Wittgenstein. Teaches at Duke.

lindbeck George Lindbeck

Yale School. Invented the world "postliberal". Cognitive and propositional ways of understanding religion are dumb. And he seems to think experiental and expressivist ways of understanding religions are dumber. Religions are more like cultures or languages. If you proclaim "Jesus is Lord" while striking down the infidel, you're a liar. Kuhn and Wittgenstein. Karl Barth is also a major influence of the Yale School.

frei Hans Frei

Yale School Postliberal. He's bringing narrative back. Narrative got the boot in 18th and 19th century hermeneutics. He seems to want to give historical criticism similar treatment. For a Christian, disbelief in the resurrection is rationally impossible. Karl Barth is a type 4 theologian, and you should be too.

richard-hays Richard Hays

Methodist New Testament scholar, New Perspective on Paul. Subjective genitive, Paul as interpreter of Israel's scriptures. New Testament ethics is about community, cross and new creation. Teaches at Duke.

Michael J. Gorman

New Testament, New Perspective on Paul. Studied with Bruce Metzger. Paul is the apostle of the crucified Lord. MJG, Paul and Jesus are all about cruciformity: the way of discipleship is the way of the cross, ethics is about the cross, Jesus is exercising his divinity in the cross - pretty much everything has to do with the cross. And he's right; everything does have to do with the cross. What did you have for lunch? Oh, wow, that really reminds me of the cross! He also apparently has taught adjunct at MHGS, probably before we got Badley.

Willard Swartley

Mennonite New Testament scholar. Narrative and Sabbath. Synoptic Gospels. Peace and peacemaking are major New Testament themes, and are quite a bit bigger (theologically and ethically) than merely "nonviolence".

Nicholas Lash

British Catholic theologian. Some texts, like Shakespeare's King Lear, are not to be merely read, but instead must be performed. The Bible is such a text, and the church is the group of "performers", most explicitly in the Eucharist but also in her life together. Hope is the Christian alternative to the optimism and despair (both of which claim to know too much about the future) we find in the world.

Herbert McCabe, OP

Dominican. Thomist. Wittgensteinian Marxist. But God still matters. Wanna understand the Trinity? Be filled with the Holy Spirit and look at the cross.

Most importantly, there's a chance that he may be somehow (very) distantly related to me, through my ancestor John McCabe who fled his homeland during the potato famine as a stowaway on a cattle boat, ending up in South Carolina and (several generations later) giving me reason to call myself "Cabe".

macintyre Alasdair MacIntyre

Scottish Catholic moral philosopher influenced by McCabe. Thomas Aquinas' moral philosophy brought to bear upon the moral discourse of our (post)modern world, which he argues is in grave disorder. Liberal modern individualism is the problem; a community shaped by particular narratives and practices and with a particular account of the virtues, the unity of a human life and the concept of a tradition is the answer. Taught at Notre Dame, where Hauerwas and Yoder and McClendon all found themselves in the late 1970s.

terryeagleton460 Terry Eagleton

Influenced by McCabe. Marxism for the (post-)postmodern world (This is not your father's Marxism). Sympathetic to Christianity. Likes to rip on (the new) atheists and the post-structuralists.

Thomas Kuhn

Philosopher/Historian of Science. Nancy Murphy describes him as the first to think about science in terms of holism rather than foundationalism. The Structure of Scientific Revoloutions is a widely read and influential text. Scientists assume their paradigm rather than constantly submitting it to scrutiny, and this is a good thing because it allows for normal science to do its proper work. Major changes happen through paradigm shifts or revolutions. Just read the book, it's really interesting.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosopher of language and other things. Hung out with the Logical Positivists in Vienna, but they didn't get along too well. Spent much of his career in England with Bertrand Russell. His Tractatus Logico Philosophicus is an exemplary text of modern philosophy. The rest of his work was published posthumously, and could be thought of as being the first philosophy to move beyond modernity. Language games. The foundation is carried by the whole house. Pictures. Lots of other things. McClendon claims he was a Christian, albeit a peculiar one.

That was kind of fun. Did that help? Who have you been influenced by?