Distributed Mind

"Proof-texting" and Infinite Series

It has been frequently said that you can prove anything with the Bible, by merely pulling the proper quotations out. We sometimes agree to this intellectually while not fulling considering the force of this fact, I think, or at least I have been guilty of that.

One classic example is the argument about "eternal security." For every passage someone who believes in eternal security can quote (say, "...no one will snatch them out of my hand" in John 10:28) someone who does not can quote one as well (say, Hebrews 6:4-6, or some such). That one doesn't really worry me much (frankly, I am not one who believes that a firm opinion one way or the other on eternal security is anywhere near to affecting my salvation). Sometimes, however, the issue may be more practical, such as women's role in the church. Of course, in both of these examples, both sides will have reasons why the other's interpretation is not the correct one. But that is not relevant to my point, since the way most persons (myself usually included) read Scripture, we might never think twice about these passages if we could not find somewhere else (often in a book by the same author or even in the same book) another passage "contradicting" them. (This problem - lack of awareness, absent apparent contradiction, of interpretice difficulty - should make us think about how we read Scripture, indeed. I do not mean that we merely fail to consider it in the larger textual context, which is what I am mainly getting at, but also that we assume too much straightforwardness in Scripture and read it too recklessly, forgetting the situational context, the genre, and so on. But this is a topic for another time.) While it may be true that one side is consistently misinterpreting the text, the fact of the matter is that in most cases it is not obvious which side is doing so. Or even if it is, it is often not grossly negligent misinterpretation by our present, inadequate, standards. What I am really trying to say is that we must always be careful when using Scripture to support an argument, even if we do not see such contradictions. Which, I emphasize, is not to say anything about the authority or correctness of Scripture, but rather, as usual, about how we must read it, which is to say, on its own terms. (I probably do not need to point out that often, for many Christians, the interpretation and Scripture itself have become so entangled that persons will accuse others of holding "un-Biblical positions" even when the other position is itself argued entirely from Scripture. Which is not to say that no position is ever un-Biblical, merely that not all that are accused of being such are.)

All of this has made me think of something I learned in real analysis (stay with me, here) about infinite series. An infinite series is what most of us would think of as sum of an infinite amount of terms . While that explanation has some mathematical inadequacies, it will do for our present purposes. Anyway, an infinite series may either diverge (that is, continue to grow to infinitely to infinity or shrink to negative infinity) or converge to some finite value. Among series that converge, some converge because their terms become small enough that eventually the series stops growing. Others, the ones we are interested in, converge because some terms are negative and offset the positive terms (if the absolute values of the terms was being added together instead, the series would diverge). Such series are called conditionally convergent. Conditionally convergent series are interesting because the terms must be added together in the proper order. The conditionally convergent series can be rearranged such that it will converge to any value we choose, or to diverge (this is Weierstrass' Theorem). The terms must be added in the correct order to converge to the actual value to which the series converges. Now, a conditionally convergent series by definition converges. What has gone wrong if we add its terms out of order is that we have made a mistake! This says nothing about the series itself, and everything about our treatment of it. A conditionally convergent series is not meant to be added however we feel like.

I find this a wonderful analogy for the danger of assembling an argument out of Scriptural quotations. Just as adding terms out of order can give us any value with an infinite series, assembling passages incorrectly (not in order, but in some other way, like context) can give us any argument, or just about any argument. Which is to say again, we must approach Sripture on its terms, not ours. How we do that is something I think we should continue to worry about, and I suspect I will spend much of my life addressing that very issue.

(I have used the word contradiction above, in quotes, so let me expound a little on it. I do not think that in many cases we have any reason to see a true contradiction in the text. Some of these might be legitimate possibilities for contradiction if we had different theology or none, but some are clearly artifacts of the limitations of language and logic - difficult concepts sometimes require long, shaded expositions, which can be misread. Sometimes, the author is intentionally asserting a paradox. Admittedly, there are some cases that are harder to resolve. Solutions to the apparent conflict between the two geneaologies presented for Jesus, are, for example, as far as I know, "non-trivial." I think such conflicts say less about the robustness of divine truth than they do about how God has chosen to reveal that truth, and I think that they should give us pause. Indeed, that may be entirely the point in some cases.)

posted at 02:51:49 on 03/21/06 by ben - Category: Religion

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