Here at StandardSacredText.com we encourage defenders of the Bible to think outside the tired old box of competing evidential interpretive schemes and look to other disciplines to make our case. I mean it is the Bible after all, the epistemic source of all life and godliness. Surely the means and modes for defending the certainty and authority of Scripture are manifold.
On several occasions my Ph.D. colleagues and I discussed the notion of asymptotic certainty particularly in the field of moral apologetics. Asymptotic certainty is a concept often used in computer programming to denote the relative proximity of X [i.e., program/behavioral efficiency] to some assigned value. In moral apologetics we considered asymptotic certainty in light of one’s ability to perfectly know whether a thing was truly right or wrong, good or evil.
In short, asymptotic certainty approaches perfect certainty when given a long enough line of effort whether that be programming or ethical introspection. But as one computer programmer put it, “even in theory with unlimited time, we will always be working on an asymptotic curve, and thus provably correct results and absolute certainty will always be out of reach.” That is, in seeking perfect certainty about the reliability of a given program the best one can do, even with unlimited time to tweak, refine, adjust etc., is get close to perfect but never reach it. Thus the best a programmer can have is asymptotic certainty regarding his/her program even if they could live and program forever.
So, as in the graph above the blue line is perfect certainty that X is the case where the yellow line is asymptotic certainty which is very close to the blue line and may get closer to the blue line the longer we extend the two lines in time. But even if we carry the blue line and the yellow line infinitely to the right, it is argued that the yellow line will grow closer to the blue line but never actually equal it.
Let me try to make this concept more relatable before applying it to Scriptural purity. For simplicities sake consider the following example,
5+5 = ?
What is the perfect sum of our chosen values in standard Western arithmetical terms?
Assume now that whatever process we are trying to perfectly complete, whatever conclusions we are trying to perfectly draw, whatever truth we are trying to perfectly ascertain equals “10”. If through our efforts we reach “10”, then we have reached the perfect/ideal program or ethical conclusion or theological truth. Say through our effort we reach
“9” is very close to “10”. Certainly closer than “2”. Asymptotically “9” [the yellow line in our graph above] is approaching “10” [the blue line in our graph above]. But what if we were conclude that
We are now much closer than simply “9”. And so we would be even closer if we were able to reach 5+5=9.999. At this point we are only one one-thousandth away from perfect certainty regarding a perfect program or a perfect ethical conclusion. Unfortunately, when we get this close to perfect certainty, particularly in computer programing, the “perfect is the enemy of the good (value).”
And this is where we are in the Bible defense debate. Our opponents have taken up a position of asymptotic certainty rather than perfect certainty. They argue implicitly and explicitly that perfect certainty in the words of one’s Bible is an impossibility for anyone, including Christians. As such the modern evangelical machine compels us to believe that 5+5=9.9 while we ardently proclaim that 5+5 must equal “10” or the answer is incorrect even if your answer is 9.9999999999999 it is still does not reach “10”.
Put in terms of the text and translation debate, if “10” is the perfectly correct Bible then all the words originally given to the OT penmen + all the words originally given to the NT penmen = 10. We are told from the pulpit and from the seminary lectern that the Bible we currently possess in the Hebrew OT  + Greek NT  = 9.9 and to not let perfect  be the enemy of good [9.9]. And those who claim that the Hebrew OT  + the TR  = 10 are chided and ostracized for believing 5+5=10.
Because just like in computer programing “perfect is the enemy of the good.” Because we argue for a perfect text rather than for a merely good text we are said to trade truth for certainty. [Which of course is another cheeky line for a bumper sticker but we can only be certain about the things we believe to be true and no man truly chooses his beliefs. As such “truth for certainty” belongs on the same rubbish heap as “edification requires intelligibility.”]
******We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming******
The question now is, Did God reveal His words to us in terms of asymptotic certainty? Does the Bible teach asymptotic certainty? Does the Bible teach that we ought to be only asymptotically certain of our salvation? Does the Bible, the epistemic source of the Gospel, declare itself to be merely asymptotically certain? If “yes”, then modern evangelicals have a place upon which to stand. If “no”, then modern evangelicals are tossed about by every wind of doctrine. If the State of Theology 2022 survey is any indication, the modern evangelical church is indeed being tossed about.
One thought on “Asymptotic Certainty and the Purity of Scripture”
perfect article and great reply to the “trading truth for certainty” refuse. Kudos.
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