Pages 8-8: spring 1993
ANY LOOPHOLE WILL DO
The how-it-could-have-been scenario is a common tactic that fundamentalists use to
"explain" passages in the Bible that pose serious problems for the inerrancy doctrine.
They like to believe that as long as they can suggest an interpretation that removes the
spectre of contradiction or discrepancy from a problem passage, then they have preserved
the inerrancy doctrine, no matter how far-fetched or unlikely the interpretation may be.
They insist that just as long as the interpretation is not absolutely impossible, they are
justified in believing that it could have happened or could have been the way the inter-
pretation explains away the problem.
TSR readers have often encountered this tactic in the rebuttal articles of our funda-
mentalist contributors. The most recent examples of it occurred in Bill Lockwood's arti-
cles written in response to what I had said about the problem of Sarah's seminal emission
mentioned in Hebrews 11:11. A problem incidental to this passage was the claim that
Sarah "counted him [Yahweh] faithful who had promised [that she would have a son]." I
showed that the Old Testament record of Sarah's response to the promise had depicted
Sarah as anything but a believer that the promise would be fulfilled, because when
Yahweh made the promise, she laughed at the absurdity of her having a child in her old
age (Gen. 18:9-15). With no textual evidence at all to support him, Lockwood proposed,
as a how-it-could-have-been way out of the problem, that Sarah had simply "changed her
mind" ("Sarah's Power to Conceive: a Response, Summer 1992, pp. 14-15). On the actual
matter of Sarah's power to "make a deposit of semen," Lockwood argued that the Greek
expression katabole spermatos didn't have to be interpreted according to its literal or
face-value meaning. "(I)f you don't have a can't-possibly-be-anything-else case," he
said, "you don't have a case against the Bible" (second reply, Autumn 1992, p. 13).
The only thing a statement like this proves is that inerrantists cannot think logically.
I don't have to prove a can't-possibly-be-anything-else case in this or any other matter
that challenges the inerrancy doctrine, because I make no extraordinary claims about the
Bible when I question the inerrancy claim. To the contrary, the inerrantist is the one
who must establish can't-possibly-be-anything-else cases. The matter is as simple as
what William Lindley said in his letter specifically in response to Lockwood's attempt to
shift the burden of proof to those who question the inerrancy doctrine: "(T)he notion
that a written text is supernaturally free of error is so strange that the burden of proof
ought to be the other way" ("Reader Reaction," p. 12).
Lindley has merely recognized the principle that says that extraordinary claims re-
quire extraordinary proof. When I say that the face-value meaning of Text A contradicts
the face-value meaning of Text B, I am making no extraordinary claim, because contradic-
tions are commonplace in written documents. On the other hand, when inerrantists say
that a collection of 66 books containing thousands of words, written by different people,
in different languages, is totally and completely free of mistakes of any kind, that claim
is so extraordinary that it requires extraordinary proof. Since there is nothing at all
extraordinary about how-it-could-have-been explanations, such "proof" really amounts to
no proof. An apologist can't just say, "Well, Text A could have meant this, whereas
Text B could have meant that"; he must present a couldn't-possibly-mean-anything-else
case or his argument to preserve inerrancy fails.
When, for example, I point out that Matthew's genealogy of Jesus differs substantially
from Luke's, I am only stating an obvious conclusion that anyone can reach by reading
both genealogies. Inerrantists will say, of course, that Matthew traced the genealogy of
Jesus through Joseph, whereas Luke traced it through Mary, but there isn't a hint of
any kind in the entire book of Luke that he intended his genealogy to be so understood.
In the absence of evidence that this was what Luke intended, the inerrantist accomplishes
nothing by merely saying, "Well, it could have been this way, so to have a case, you
must prove that it couldn't possibly have been this way." No, a thousand times no! Such
a position as this is not at all compatible with the nature of evidence. A lot of things
could have been or could have happened, but just because something could have hap-
pened doesn't mean that it did happen. A copyist could have corrupted the text after
Luke wrote it. Joseph could have been orphaned at an early age and then adopted by
another family, and so Matthew traced the genealogy through the biological father and
Luke through the adoptive father. Either one of these would serve as well to "explain"
the inconsistencies as the traditional claim that Matthew traced the genealogy through
Joseph whereas Luke traced it through Mary, but none of the explanations would work
unless couldn't-possibly-mean-anything-else cases could be made for them.
When inerrantists use the how-it-could-have-been tactic, they are simply resorting to
desperation hermeneutics. The quest of those who engage in it is not to discover the
intended meaning of the Bible text but to preserve a cherished belief. In the final
analysis, the meaning of a problem passage isn't important. Importance lies in the abili-
ty of an interpretation to explain away a discrepancy or contradiction, and for that
reason, any interpretation will do that resolves the problem of discrepancy, no matter
how far-fetched or ridiculous it may be. The absurdities that Bible fundamentalists have
proposed in the name of this how-it-could-have-been tactic are too numerous to analyze in
one article, but one has only to read a book like Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible
Difficulties to see this desperation hermeneutics at work. I have had skeptics and free-
thinkers tell me that reading such works as this and seeing the absolute absurdity of the
how-it-could-have-been tactics used in them provided the final impetus that they needed
to cross the line separating their belief from skepticism.
In a booklet that examined discrepancies in the four gospel accounts of Peter's deni-
als, Dave Matson identified nine inconsistencies in the way the story was told. These
concerned such matters as the actual nature of the denials, their locations, their timing,
etc. On the matter of Peter's location when he made the denials, the gospel writers
seemed confused about where Peter was at the time, especially when his second and third
denials occurred. Matthew and Mark, for example, said that Peter left the campfire in
the courtyard after his first denial and went "out into the porch," where his other
denials were made (Mt. 26:71-73; Mk. 14:68-70), but Luke and John wrote the story as if
Peter's second and third denials were also made as Peter was standing by a fire (Lk.
22:55-60; Jn. 18:18-27). As a way out of the problem, inerrantists have suggested that
there were two campfires on the scene so that even though Peter moved about, he was
still in the proximity of a fire. In his analysis of this "explanation," Matson made some
excellent observations about basic fallacies inherent in any-loophole-will-do hermeneutics.
That section of his booklet has been reprinted in the following article.
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