Monday, January 21, 2013

A Rabbit Chewing the Cud? Missing the Forest for the Trees

It's possible to be so focused on technical minutia that you lose sight of the larger picture, and most would agree that the larger picture is the more important one. We get our saying, "You've missed the forest for the trees" from such a pitiful display of micro-managing language.

Many have noted that Leviticus 11:3-6 is not accurate if taken as a piece of information the Bible is attempting to teach us.

Now, let me say that I don't think the Bible is teaching that rabbits chew cud. The point of the text is to identify animals that are not OK to eat by identifying them through the phenomenological, not identify what they are actually doing. Animals who look like they're chewing cud, but do not have a split hoof, are not OK to eat. This could be an instance where the author believed something false, but the inerrant message shines through anyway (i.e., you cannot eat rabbits).
The misinformation of the author (remember the human author is not omniscient, the Divine Author is), does not hinder the believer from receiving the inerrant message of God, precisely because the message is not "rabbits chew cud," but rather "don't eat rabbits."

But I wanted to point out something about even this widely attested phenomenon in using a cultural misunderstanding as a part of one's language he uses to communicate to that culture. This is the doctrine of accommodation that the Reformers refer to here and there. God is content to use technical errors as a part of the language He uses to communicate His inerrant message. This is also the view of the Princeton Theologians in their formation of the doctrine of inerrancy.

Now, you may think that this is just a rationalization, but this actually happens ALL THE TIME. In fact, if we believe God does not have a language (if God had a language, why does Paul stop his merism in 1 Cor 13 at the language of angels and not mention an language of God instead?), then we must believe that He accommodates our languages, including the concepts we have of the world that make up that language, to speak to us. We do it with children all the time--although we are becoming micro-managers of technical language now (unfortunately), so we do less of it than generations in the past.

But it dawned on me tonight that I have a great example with this very blog. It's in my subtitle. The subtitle of the blog is "Theology Served Raw." That's a play on the fact that the blog is called "Theological Sushi." What only few may know, however, is that "sushi" does not refer to raw fish, as most in our culture presume. Instead, it refers to the type of rice that is used in making the dish. Raw fish by itself is called "sashimi." Yet, knowing this for years, I decided to play off of the common misunderstanding in order to communicate a point, even just to play on the words used as a form of aesthetic.

I did not make an error in misidentifying what sushi really is. I purposely used the misinformation of the larger culture as a part of the communicative process. It's language. With it, I communicate the point I want to make in the way that I want to make it.

Now, whether the human authors are doing this with these things in Scripture cannot really be known, unless you have a time machine handy and would like to go back and ask them their personal beliefs on the matter. But my only point is that God uses this stuff in order to communicate what He wants to communicate to His people. To label it as "error" is erroneous. What's in error? What God purposed to communicate? No, that comes across loud and clear to the Israelites:  "Don't eat rabbit!" Is the human even in error? It's impossible to know beyond projecting Enlightenment views of primitives onto the author without knowing if he is truly guilty of such. Is the proposition that rabbits eat their cud in error? Well, that depends upon whether you think it's a separate proposition that the author (divine or human) intends to put forth as a truth to be believed rather than something that he merely wishes to use (i.e. a common cultural misidentifying of the phenomenon) in order to categorize the rabbit as off limits to the Israelites.

I don't believe it is a separate proposition, just like my misdefinition of "sushi" as raw fish is not a separate claim I'm making, but one in service of the communicative process. It cooperates with people, their understandings as well as their misunderstandings, in order to communicate what is intended by the speaker to be communicated. If this is best accomplished without having to technically correct every jot and tittle of information the recipients and authors may incorrectly hold, i.e., an attempt to say that God cannot communicate inerrant truth unless He gives omniscience to all those who would hear Him, then this is the best presentation of the message one can give. Hence, a technically more accurate presentation might actually fail in its goal to communicate properly to a non-omniscient audience, and as such, is a lesser presentation than the one that contains what might be labeled technical errors if dissected from the larger goal and one fails to see it as a use of language, insisting instead that it be treated as a separate teaching and claim made by Scripture.

Hence, inerrancy does not require omniscience in the human author or his readers, but only in God, in whom we place our trust that He has used all sorts of accommodations in language (not in the intended message itself) in order to communicate accurately to us, so that we might believe what is true and do what is right in His eyes.

We must never forget that Scripture is given that the man of God might be equipped for every good work, and that he may have a light in a dark place to know the real God from false ones, the real Jesus from false ones, the real gospel from false ones. That's the forest. If you're stuck on technicalities, I suggest you stop obsessing over a chip in one of its trees.


  1. Good stuff.

    One can take your example of rabbits chewing cud, and make a parallel rebuttal to the objection that mustard seeds are not the smallest seeds.

  2. Thanks Truth.

    Yep, that's another good example.