Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is "Inerrancy" a Victimless Crime? Ask Michael Licona (Again)

Fred Clark, citing New Testament professors Daniel Kirk and James McGrath, claims it is not. In his words:
It’s a low-down dirty trick to play on the Bible and on anyone who tries to read it. Inerrancy is not a victimless crime. It chases some people away from the Bible and prevents others from reading it intelligently.
In this connection I might add that, in certain circles, running afoul of commonly understood definitions of the doctrine can damage one's reputation and amount to nothing less than professional suicide. It doesn't matter whether it is Bob Gundry being expelled from the Evangelical Theological Society in 1983 for his published views regarding Matthew's supposed unhistorical, midrashic redaction of Mark, or Pete Enns, Bruce Waltke, and Michael Pahl being dismissed from their positions at Westminster Seminary, Reformed Seminary, and Cedarville University because of their views of Genesis 1-2 as less-than-straightforwardly-historical Hebrew cosmogonies. Evangelical biblical scholars must operate with one eye over their shoulder, watching out for the gatekeepers—of course, they like to view themselves as "defenders" of the faith—who lie in wait, seemingly behind every bush along the path.

Yet another instance of this phenomenon has the blogosphere atwitter this month. This time it involves Houston Baptist University Professor Michael Licona, who less than two years before had lost his job at Southern Evangelical Seminary because of his suggestion that the "strange little text" in Matthew 27:52-54 about the opening of the tombs in Jerusalem after Jesus' death was an "apocalyptic symbol" not to be understood literally. Licona's offense this time? His suggestion that the divergences and apparent "contradictions" between the Gospels are literarily kindred to Greco-Roman biographical practices found, inter alia, in Plutarch's five diverging versions of Julius Caesar's assassination. Now, any New Testament scholar should be aware of the serious differences that often occur between the parallel accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, not to mention how the three Synoptic Gospels relate to John's Gospel. And most such scholars today would agree with Richard Burridge and David Aune that the Gospels are indeed variations of the bios/vita literary genre, and should be interpreted accordingly. Hence it would seem that Licona's proposal is an eminently sensible one ... but not to the usual suspects, including Southern Baptist Seminary President Al Mohler (whose response to the former controversy may be found here) and his former boss at Southern Evangelical Seminary, my former teacher Norm Geisler (who also, unfortunately, was the major catalyst behind the ETS's ouster of Gundry 30 years ago). Word of the latest controversy was divulged by none other than the Baptist Press. The relevant portion of the account includes the following:
Licona recalled a student in a class he was teaching at Southern Evangelical Seminary who, with tears forming in her eyes, wanted to know whether there were indeed contradictions. A majority of the class, he said, raised their hands to indicate they were troubled by apparent contradictions. Then he realized it was something he should address.

As he studied the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Licona began keeping a document of the differences he noticed. The document grew to 50 pages. He then read ancient biographies written around the time of Jesus because New Testament scholars often regard the Gospels as ancient biographies, he said.

Licona focused on Plutarch's biographies. The assassination of Julius Caesar, he noted, is told in five different biographies by Plutarch.

"So you have the same biographer telling the same story five different times. By noticing how Plutarch tells the story of Caesar's assassination differently, we can notice the kinds of biographical liberties that Plutarch took, and he's writing around the same time that some of the Gospels are being written and in the same language -- Greek -- to boot," Licona told Esposito.

"As I started to note some of these liberties that he took, I immediately started recognizing these are the same liberties that I noticed that the evangelists take -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John," Licona said. ...
"... If this is the case, then these most commonly cited differences in the Gospels ... aren't contradictions after all. They're just the standard biographical liberties that ancient biographers of that day took."
"I can tell you that of the 50 pages of differences that I've found in the Gospels -- and I'm still finding new ones -- all of them are in the peripheral details," Licona said. "There isn't a single perceived contradiction or difference in the Gospels that are any major details, any major details regarding an account.
"For example, was there one or were there two angels at the tomb? No one says the tomb was not empty. Even if you couldn't account for the difference between one and two angels -- and I think you can -- but even if you couldn't, it's still a major thing that Jesus rose and the tomb was empty.
"... You may lose some form of biblical inerrancy if there are contradictions in the Gospels, but you still have the truth of Christianity that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think that's the most important point we can make," Licona said.
Also in a discussion of apparent contradictions, Licona said, it is important to distinguish between a contradiction and a difference. 
"Most of the things we find in the Gospels are differences. There are only maybe a handful of things between the Gospels that are potential contradictions in my opinion and only one or two that I've found that are really stubborn for me at this point -- and they're all in the peripherals," Licona said.
Mohler, in comments to Baptist Press Feb. 6, said, "It would be nonsense to affirm real contradictions in the Bible and then to affirm inerrancy."
"Even Dr. Licona concedes that we 'may lose some form of biblical inerrancy if there are contradictions in the Gospels.' What you lose is inerrancy itself," Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy clearly and rightly affirms 'the unity and internal consistency of Scripture' and denies that any argument for contradictions within the Bible is compatible with inerrancy. An actual contradiction is an error."
Mohler identified two other major problems regarding Licona's methodology.
"First, we cannot reduce the Gospels to the status of nothing more than ancient biographies. The Bible claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit right down to the inspired words," Mohler said. 
"The second problem is isolating the resurrection of Christ from all of the other truth claims revealed in the Bible. The resurrection is central, essential and non-negotiable, but the Christian faith rests on a comprehensive set of truth claims and doctrines," Mohler said. "All of these are revealed in the Bible, and without the Bible we have no access to them."
[For Geisler's detailed response to Licona, see here].

In its simplest sense, the doctrine of biblical "inerrancy" affirms that the Bible is "without error." Articulated positively—as it should be— it means that the Bible is true in all it affirms. Thus, inerrancy applies in matters of faith, practice, and even in historical and scientific affirmations, but is not compromised when it reports, e.g., lies or untruths in the mouths of its characters, nor when it involves spelling mistakes or grammatical inconcinnities and irregularities. I began my theological education at a time when inerrancy was one of the chief battles being waged in evangelicalism. Indeed, it was during my undergraduate days that Harold Lindsell published his exposé, The Battle for the Bible (1976), and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) was formed (1977). The occasion was a perceived declension in the historic evangelical doctrine of Scripture by many in the broader Neo-Evangelical movement, who affirmed "infallibility" (i.e., the Bible is not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint) with respect to doctrine and practice, but not necessarily with regard to historical and scientific matters. Subsequently, I attended a seminary known for its inerrantist credentials and taught at a conservative evangelical college.

I also am a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, a broad-based society with only two affirmations in its doctrinal statement, one of which deals with inerrancy. The statement, to which I affix my (digital) John Hancock each year, reads as follows: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs." In 2006 the Society voted to align their understanding of inerrancy to that enunciated in the ICBI's Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (for the full text, see here), which my mentor Harold Hoehner had a hand in drafting. The point is, I am comfortable in affirming that the Bible is inerrant. But ... I am more than a little disconcerted ("upset" would better approximate how I feel) about how schoolyard bullies such as Mohler and Geisler are using inerrancy to silence voices with whom they are uncomfortable. To be sure, these critics are Christians, and so they state their opposition in terms of being "concerned" about the views they find problematic. Make no mistake about it, however. They are circling the wagons and self-consciously policing the boundaries of the movement. Theirs is no "concern" willing to listen to and dialogue with viewpoints different from their own. In their minds, they are right, they have logic and history (i.e., tradition) on their side, and dissenters need to repent of their error or else pay the (professional) consequences. And this is no way to proceed, particularly when dealing with scholars who, like they, profess to hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Calling for the metaphorical heads of such scholars is tantamount to calling them liars.

The doctrine of inerrancy is fraught with inherent ambiguities, even if one uses the Chicago Statement as a benchmark. Different scholars understand the entailments of the doctrine differently. Moreover, even agreement on the doctrine doesn't guarantee interpretive unanimity. How then should we proceed? I would like to propose the following interlocking principles that must be kept in mind if inerrancy is to remain a workable theologoumenon.

First, we must always keep in mind that inerrancy and hermeneutics are distinct issues. Inerrancy, properly understood, is an implicate of the Bible's inspiration. It entails that the Bible, as God's written Word, is true in all it affirms, and hence is the supreme authority for the Christian's faith and practice. Hermeneutics, on the other hand, relates to how the Bible is properly interpreted and contextualized.

To state what should be obvious, belief in the Bible's inerrancy does not necessarily privilege a certain hermeneutical understanding of a given passage of Scripture. Indeed, many of the recent kerfuffles in evangelicalism over inerrancy have resulted from the combination of a failure to observe this principle and a naive understanding of the Protestant doctrine of the "perspicuity" (clarity) of Scripture. To put it plainly, all too often present-day Christians, thinking a passage "obviously" should be understood in a certain way, disparage scholars who, for various reasons, may think otherwise. For example, Old Testament scholars who dispute "young earth creationism" do not necessarily "capitulate to modern science" and deny inerrancy when they understand the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2 literarily as Ancient Hebrew cosmogonies rather than as strictly historical narratives (Indeed, one might ask, could not science, like it has so often in the past, prod us to look at the text more carefully and find indications within it that should have pointed us all along to a more nuanced understanding of it?). Indeed, such is no different in principle from denying the universal applicability of the Proverbs or arguing that Jesus' parable of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16 does not provide a geographical portrait of the afterlife. It is a simple matter of literary genre.

Indeed, this is precisely what Licona has recognized when he used Plutarch's narratives of Caesar's assassination to illuminate the potential problems caused by apparent Gospel discrepancies. And both Mohler and Geisler understand what Licona is doing. Yet both take offense by it. Geisler—himself not a New Testament scholar or ancient historian—considers the bios/vita understanding of the Gospels' genre to be a "fad." Mohler thinks it irrelevant: "we cannot reduce the Gospels to the status of nothing more than ancient biographies. The Bible claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit right down to the inspired words." But that's putting the proverbial cart before the horse, is it not? Verbal plenary inspiration does not mean that God dictated the very words of Scripture (Mohler of course knows this). Nor does it mean that the human authors could not have written what they did with different words to produce the same meaning (indeed, Mohler—the would-be champion of the Chicago Statement—realizes that grammatical and spelling irregularities do not compromise inerrancy). It means that the Bible as we have it, in its entirety, is perfectly adequate to convey the message and produce the life-changing results God intended from it. What Mohler has done is a priori to use a modernistic, indeed positivist, view of "historical accuracy" as a Procrustean bed into which to stretch the biblical data into a shape with which he is comfortable. This leads to another principle.

Second, inerrancy must be gauged in accordance with both authorial intent and the literary and historiographical standards of the ancient world.  Even lay Bible readers implicitly operate on this principle when they don't argue for a geocentric universe based on the assertion that the sun "stood still" in Joshua 10. Nor do they charge Matthew and Mark of error—or Jesus himself!—when they report Jesus as saying that the mustard seed "is the smallest of all the seeds on earth" (Mark 4:31; Matt 13:32). Instinctively all realize the authors were not intending to write in terms of technical science.

Why, then, is it so hard for some to realize that the historical writings of the Bible were not intended to be exemplars of 21st century historiography? How indeed could they have been? Indeed, every New Testament scholar worth his or her salt knows this, and could list any number of examples in the Gospels which demonstrate, beyond any doubt, that the putative accuracy of the biblical narratives does not and cannot demand verbal or chronological precision. The classic example of this principle is the four-fold account of Peter's denials of Jesus the early morning of 3 April 33 CE. The four accounts are notoriously difficult to "harmonize" in the way Mohler or Geisler would seem to demand (for a convenient tabulation of the evidence, see Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah [New York: Doubleday, 1994] 418-19, 591-92). One who attempted to do this was Lindsell, in his aforementioned Battle for the Bible. His results: two servant girls, two men, one group of people, and six denials. Only thus could he harmonize the texts to his modernistic demands. However, while he may have fancied himself to be defending the trustworthiness of the Bible with such a fantastic example of "additive harmonization," he succeeded only in trivializing the force of Jesus' triple tradition prediction (Mark 14:27-31//Matt 26:31-35//Luke 22:31-34) that Peter would deny him three times. Lindsell, in other words, despite his good intentions, was simply not taking the Bible seriously. Nor, I might add, do Geisler and Mohler, despite their pompous denunciations of scholars like Licona who are actually doing the hard work of understanding and defending the Bible. It is the Bible God has actually given us with which we must deal, not the Bible of a positivist's fantasy.

I write this as one who, like Licona, believes in biblical inerrancy. But I would be dishonest if, because of philosophical presuppositions about what inerrancy must look like, I refused to take the text as we have been given it seriously. I remember Geisler teaching in class that all the defender of the Bible must do to refute accusations of error or contradiction is to provide a possible solution. I demur. What we must do is present a plausible solution. And there is a difference. Lindsell did not do so. Licona, I believe, may have.  And for that he should not be the target of rhetorical arrows from the bows of systematic theologians who don't like what he has to say.


  1. Hi James. I'm Nick Peters. Mike is my father-in-law. Thanks for writing this. I'm also a former student of Geisler's and have been greatly disappointed by his behavior. You can find my own thoughts at several places in my blog at

    1. Thank you, Nick. I will look your blog up!