What was Piper trying to say?

This is not limited to the question of what Piper meant to say or should have said. Instead I am beginning with what Piper actually said and using it to illustrate a problem for interpretation. One should also note that this problem is not exclusive to the Bible. Piper’s complaint is that extra-biblical evidence is being used to overturn what he believes is the plain reading of the text. What I am interested in is the general form of this complaint. I maintain that there are four ways to read the general form of this complaint and that exactly one reading of it makes the complaint legitimate.

The general form of this complaint is that one is using information outside the text to determine the meaning inside the text while one believes that the text clearly says something contrary to that determined meaning. Outside the text could refer to a different text (ie, using NT passages to alter OT ones), it could refer to linguistic evidence or any other relevant piece of information. I am assuming that the objection is a different objection than claiming that the information is not relevant. By determine the meaning, there are two different ways that one could understand this. In one way, a rational investigator takes some information to be relevant to the meaning of a text and then uses it to understand the meaning of that text. In the other way, a rational investigator takes the information as truth, the text as truth (or false) and determines what meaning of the text is most likely given these constraints. Let’s refer to the first way as extended determination and the second way as rigid determination. The plain meaning of the text also can be understood in two different ways. In one, it refers to the most likely meaning of the text given our knowledge of it prior to this new information. In the other sense it refers to the meaning of the text given only the grammatical information. Let’s call the first way the prior sense of the text and the second way the basic sense of the text. So there are four different ways to understand a general version of Piper’s complaint.

If we examine each of these in turn, we can determine if any one of them are legitimate complaints. First, let’s examine someone who complains that extended determination gives a texts a contrary meaning to the basic sense of that text. This would only be a legitimate complaint if the basic sense of the text were identical to the meaning of the text in every single case. This is not true. Consider encrypted messages made using ordinary language. A spy may take the message “The canary is singing” to mean “You have been compromised” even though the basic sense of the one message is completely different from what he believes that the message mean. Yet he is correct in what he takes it to mean. Therefore, that particular complaint is not legitimate in all cases.

Now lets examine someone who complains that rigid determination gives a contrary meaning than the basic sense of the text. This describes popular level debates about the meaning of Genesis in the context of evolution perfectly. It also may describe Piper’s complaint. We already know that the basic sense of the passage may not match its meaning. Therefore this response also fails. Regardless of whether or not rigid determination allows one to find the true meaning of a text, one cannot object to the meaning found on the basis that the basic sense of the text is contrary to it. Therefore, any objections to a text that depend on the basic sense of a text are illegitimate.

The next case is someone who complains that rigid determination of a text gives a contrary meaning than the prior sense of it. This is the complaint used by educated creationists about Genesis. Rigid determination leaves out two options. It assumes that the new information is true and that the text is true. By arriving at a contrary meaning than the prior sense of the text, one is justified in believing that one of these assumptions is false. Apart from an examination of both the new information and of one’s justification in believing the text to be true, one is not justified in believing that a particular assumption is false. Therefore, one is justified in believing that one of the two assumptions is false, but is not justified in believing of a particular assumption that it is false. Therefore, the complaint is legitimate.

The final case concerns someone who complains that the extended determination of a text gives a contrary meaning than the prior sense of it. In this case, there are no hidden assumptions. So this is only an objection if it is never the case that new information can completely change the meaning of sentence. But sometimes new information can completely change the meaning of a text. Consider the spy again. If we were familiar with the codes that this spy used, we would understand the message the way he did. If we were not familiar, we would think that it was a completely different piece of information. Therefore, this complaint is not legitimate.

Given these four ways of reading any complaint of the same kind as Piper’s, only one of them turns out to be legitimate. If one can show that rigid determination is being used to give a meaning contrary to the prior sense of the passage, then that is a reason not to accept the rigid determination of the text. If Piper wished to do this then there are two things that he has to do. First, he must show that Instone-Brewer is using rigid determination. He does not do this, and I doubt that it is occurring. Second, he must show that the prior sense of the passage is contrary to the interpretation of Instone-Brewer. He does show this. Therefore, regardless of what Piper meant he did not prove his accusations. One should note that this is relevant to all uses of extra-biblical material and all cases in which one Biblical text is used to elucidate another text. If one believes in inerrancy, then this is especially relevant.