Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 8)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Five - Continued

Historical Biblical Criticism

In case anyone still thinks this book is about theism and science, the remainder of Chapter Five is about the clash between (1) assuming the Christian Bible was authored by God, and (2) examining the Bible to see how it fares apart from that assumption. Plantinga gives no notice of the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, or the Jewish scriptures considered apart from Christian creeds.

And remember: this chapter is supposed to be about real-but-superficial conflicts between religion (or at least Plantinga's religion) and science. Just as he couldn't make up his mind whether evolutionary psychology is at odds with Christian belief, we'll see that his analysis of historical Biblical criticism is also needlessly inconsistent.

Traditional Biblical Commentary

The traditional (i.e. religious) approach to reading the Bible is to start from the assumption that God is the principal author of the whole thing. No book can ever contradict another. Each book is an authoritative lens through which to interpret the other books. "Commentary" to the exclusion of "criticism" is key, as Plantinga illustrates by comparing Biblical and Kantian studies:
"In Kant scholarship, for example, one tries to figure out what Kant means in a given passage [....] Having accomplished this task (at least to one’s own satisfaction), one quite properly goes on to ask whether Kant’s views are true or plausible, or whether he has made a good case for them. This last step is not appropriate in traditional Biblical commentary. Once you have established, as you think, what God is teaching in a given passage, what he is proposing for our belief, that settles the matter. You do not go on to ask whether it is true, or plausible, or whether a good case for it has been made."1
Plantinga then describes two "critical" approaches to the Bible.

Troeltschian Historical Biblical Criticism — On the assumption that there aren't really any miracles and God didn't really inspire the Bible, what can be salvaged, historically, from the Bible?

Duhemian Historical Biblical Criticism — Without assuming Christian beliefs are true (or false!), what can historians from a variety of religious backgrounds agree is historical in the Bible?

I expected Plantinga to endorse Duhemian HBC as a worthwhile project in the scientific spirit of doing what can be done with public evidence interpreted across differing worldviews. He could have used the same pattern from earlier in this book:

Genuine Science (Duhemian HBC) + Philosophical Naturalism -> Alleged Science (Troeltschian HBC)

Instead, he expresses disappointment at how "monumentally minimal" the results of Duhemian HBC are, compared to Christian belief. Historical Biblical Criticism as a whole gives "negative results" from a Christian perspective. "[T]here are no miracles; there is no resurrection, and certainly nothing to suggest that Jesus was the incarnate second person of the Trinity or even that he was son of God in any unique sense."2

Why count a failure to affirm Christianity as a negative rather than a neutral result? If his goal in the first half of this book is to emphasize compatibility, he's making the job needlessly hard on himself. Nor is it great advertising to play up unquestioning "commentary" as the only appropriate way to approach his holy book.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 154 
2. ibid. p. 160

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