Moreland’s Defense of Inerrancy

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 06/12/2007

The conversation in the comments section for “Gospel Contradictions” reminded me of Moreland’s dense yet brief article, “The Rationality of Belief in Inerrancy” wherein he argues that it’s rational to believe in inerrancy even in the face of some unexplained counterexamples.

Moreland begins with a summary of the arguments against inerrancy (e.g., you’re not justified in believing in inerrancy unless you can explain away all proposed counterexamples). His response centers on an illustration from science: When forming hypotheses, scientists treat anomalies as alleged counter instances when the background context and the overall class of instances support the hypothesis. Rather than focusing on a single anomaly, allowing it to refute the theory, they take into account the evidence as a whole and suspend judgment on the single anomaly.

He describes three principles used when developing scientific theories:

1. In forming a theory, you start with the clear cases, not the borderline ones.

2. The presence of as yet unexplained anomalies does not necessarily disprove the theory.

3. No one instance (or even a few) of a class has the power to prove or disprove a theory about that class (even if, taken alone, it would seem to); it’s studied as a member of its larger class, in light of the evidence of the other examples of its kind.

Moreland then gives an example that illustrates these principles:

A standard organic chemistry test by Morrison and Boyd discusses a certain kind of chemical reaction known as halohydrogenation. This kind of reaction was supposed always to happen in a certain way based on scientific theories explaining halohydrogenation. However, a clear, refuting counterexample was found which, if judged simply by the evidence for that case in isolation from the evidence for the hypothesis, provided a refutation of the hypothesis. But scientists suspended judgment on this case and engaged in ad hoc harmonization attempts from 1869-1933. At that time they discovered a new, hitherto unknown factor which severed the counterexample from its class.

Why were they rational in doing this? Because the evidence for treating the counterexample as a real refutation had to be sufficiently strong to overturn the combined evidence from a variety of sources that the hypothesis was true. If the counterexample was judged on its own terms, various interpretations that harmonized it with the hypothesis would have been ruled out. But this is not the correct epistemic situation. The counterexample was a member of a class, and the evidence supporting the hypothesis from the rest of the class was relevant to the situation [Emphasis mine].

Moreland argues that the same is true with Scripture. One could possibly point to specific instances that, if they were all we had to consider, would render inerrancy a less rational position than the alternative. However, if we take all of the instances of Bible texts into consideration and view the class as a whole in light of the available background information (God’s existence and character, the resurrection, etc.), we are justified in treating the alleged contradictions as any scientist would treat anomalies by harmonizing them or by concluding that we don’t yet have all the necessary information to explain them.