Archive | Inerrancy

Six Factors that Do Not Affect Inerrancy

1. Use of Hyperbole and Exaggeration

Just because one believes in inerrancy does not mean that he or she believe in a “technically precise” view of truth. The Bible can and does contain exaggerations and hyperbole while not effecting inerrancy. Take John 4:39 as an example. In this passage, a Samaritan woman spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (emp. added). Did Jesus really tell her everything she has ever done? That would take quite a bit of time! As well, Paul says of false teachers that they “understand nothing” (1 Tim. 6:4). Do these false teachers really understand nothing? Nothing at all? Or is Paul speaking hyperbolically concerning their ignorance of truth? The latter is most definitely the case.

2. Speaking According to Cultural Convenience

Sometimes the Bible speaks in accordance with cultural understanding without any attempt to correct that understanding. For example, in Mark 4:31, Christ claims that the mustard seed is the smallest seed in all the earth. This does not necessarily mean that if agricultural science ever found a seed that was smaller (and they have), Christ was wrong. Christ could have just been making a statement that was in concert with the cultural understanding of the day without making a objective universal claim about this seed. The mustard seed was the smallest seed that these Palestinian farmers knew of.

While I don’t have any strong convictions about the age of the earth or how literal we should take the early chapters of Genesis, it is quite possible that much of what is being said is one of cultural convenience. This does not affect inerrancy, but is a matter of one’s hermeneutics (rules of interpretation). Continue Reading →

A Bibliology Grounded in Christology

The center of all theology, of the entirety of the Christian faith, is Christ himself. The Christ-event—in particular his death and resurrection—is the center of time: everything before it leads up to it; everything after it is shaped by it. If Christ were not God in the flesh, he would not have been raised from the dead. And if he were not raised from the dead, none of us would have any hope. My theology grows out from Christ, is based on Christ, and focuses on Christ.

Years ago, I would have naïvely believed that all Christians could give their hearty amens to the previous paragraph. This is no longer the case; perhaps it never was. There are many whose starting point and foundation for Christian theology is bibliology. They begin with the assumption that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I can understand that. Starting one’s doctrinal statement with the Bible gives one assurances that the primary source of theology, the scriptures, is both true and trustworthy. I don’t start there, however. I have come to believe that the incarnation is both more central than inspiration and provides a methodological imperative for historical investigation of the claims of the Bible.

Sometimes the reason why doctrinal statements begin with scripture is because the framers believe that without an inerrant Bible we can’t know anything about Jesus Christ. They often ask the question, “How can we be sure that anything in the Bible is true? How can we be sure that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, or even that he existed, if the Bible is not inerrant?”

Inductive vs. Deductive Approaches to Inerrancy

My response to the above question is twofold. First, before the New Testament was written, how did people come to faith in Christ? To assume that having a complete Bible is necessary before we can know anything about Christ is both anachronistic and counterproductive. Our epistemology has to wrestle with the spread of the gospel before the Gospels were penned. The very fact that it spread so fast—even though the apostles were not always regarded highly—is strong testimony both to the work of the Spirit and to the historical evidence that the eyewitnesses affirmed.

Second, we can know about Christ because the Bible is a historical document. (Even if one has a very low regard for the Bible’s historicity, he or she has to admit that quite a bit of it is historically accurate.) If we demand inerrancy of the Bible before we can believe that any of it is true, what are we to say about other ancient historical documents? We don’t demand that they be inerrant, yet no evangelical would be totally skeptical about all of ancient history. Why put the Bible in a different category before we can believe it at all? As one scholar wisely articulated many years ago, we treat the Bible like any other book to show that it is not like any other book. Continue Reading →

The Father, Son, and the Holy Bible

The problem with many Evangelicals is that we can come dangerously close to worshiping the Bible. As Evangelical theologian James Sawyer once said in jest, we worship the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Bible.

Now, by this I do not mean we actually set the Bible up in a shrine in our house, throw it away if it ever touches the floor, or put our hand on it when swearing an oath. Of course we are above that, right? What I think people like James Sawyer are talking about is that we put our Bibliology (study of the Bible) ahead of Christology (study of Christ), Pneumentology (study of the Holy Spirit), and Paterology (study of the Father). We hold the Bible in such high esteem that firm adherence to an Evangelical Bibliology (verbal plenary inspiration, inerrancy, and authorial intent hermeneutics) becomes the unashamed anchor to the Gospel. But, eventually, it can (and often does) become the Gospel itself. One may be perfectly orthodox in every area about which the Bible speaks (deeply believing in the deity and Lordship of Christ, the sinfulness of man, and Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection), but if they are not perfectly orthodox about the Bible, to many of us evangelicals, they are not orthodox at all.

Now, let me cease with the self-deprecation for a moment. When straw men are not being built against us (and when we are acting our age!), a high view of Scripture is easy to justify. For example, for many years the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) had only one point in their doctrinal statement that members had to sign every year—inerrancy. And, in my estimation, this was not a bad thing. After all, where do we get our high Christology? The Bible. Where do we get our high view of God? The Bible. Where do we get the Gospel? The Bible. So, in our best moments, we will condemn anything that smells of idolatry concerning the Scriptures. We know that the Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity. The Bible is not actually alive, but it does accurately reflect the movements of a living God.

How does this translate into our witness? When we are sharing Christ with someone, I have never heard anyone require that they invite the Bible into their heart (although, to be fair, asking Jesus into their heart might cause some problems too!). At baptismal confessions in the early church, there was a renouncing of Satan, but no renouncing of those who deny inerrancy. There was a confession of Christ as Lord, but no confession of Paul as the author of the Pastorals. There was a symbolic burial of our old life but no burial of old books you used to read besides the Bible. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the early church had a low view of Scripture. Far from it. I even believe that they held to a seed form of inerrancy. What I am saying is that one’s bibliology was not an essential component of the Gospel. Continue Reading →

Quarles Reviews Licona on the Resurrection

Charles L. Quarles of Louisiana College has a lengthy review of Michael R. Licona’s book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010) in the newest issue, which I just received in yesterday’s mail, of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, 4 (Dec. 2011): 839-44. Although the book represents a major advance in evangelical scholarship on the historicity of the Resurrection, discussions about the book have focused largely on Licona’s controversial  suggestion that the pericope of the saints raised from the dead (Matt. 27:52-53) may be viewed as apocalyptic imagery rather than as a literal historical occurrence. In 2011 evangelical philosopher Norman Geisler publicly denounced Licona’s interpretation as a denial of biblical inerrancy, leading to Licona’s departure from the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board (NAMB) at the end of the year and to his being ostracized at several other evangelical institutions. (Full disclosure: Licona and I worked together in the same department at NAMB for two years, 2006-2008, and we are good friends.)

Not surprisingly, Quarles devotes about half of his review to a discussion of Licona’s handling of this one passage. Quarles offers what appears to me to be a very thoughtful and well considered critique of the apocalyptic interpretation of the pericope, which I will only summarize briefly here. He objects that the text of Matthew gives no clear indication of a shift in genre from historical narrative to apocalyptic. He posits that Licona’s arguments for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection would also support the historicity of Matthew 27:52-53 (a point Quarles unfortunately does not develop, no doubt due to space constraints). He critiques the claim that the pericope is non-historical because it may be poetic. Quarles emphasizes that it is especially difficult to exclude historical and even evidential intent from Matthew’s statement “they appeared to many.” Finally, Quarles takes exception to Licona’s appeals to pagan parallels. His arguments here are worthy of reading and careful reflection.

Quarles mentions the controversy itself only very briefly at the end of the review:

“Recently, Licona’s position on these two verses has stirred considerable controversy, necessitating a more extensive treatment of his discussion of Matt 27:52-53 than a typical review would warrant. My hope, however, is that a treatment of two verses that amounts to only 6 pages out of the 641 pages of text in the book will not prevent conservative evangelicals from carefully reading and digesting the author’s many fine arguments for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection” (843-44).

Amen to that.

Quarles offers no further comment on the Licona controversy, not even mentioning Norman Geisler, and says nothing about the claim that Licona’s view of the Matthean pericope is a denial of biblical inerrancy. This is rather ironic, given that JETS is the journal of a society founded on the issue of biblical inerrancy. To his credit, though, and as is appropriate in a book review, Quarles keeps the attention focused where it should be, on the relevant exegetical and hermeneutical issues and not on personalities or red-flag accusations.

Is Inerrancy the Linchpin of Evangelicalism?

I believe in inerrancy. This means I believe that there are no errors in the Bible. Of course, this comes with the usual disclaimers which say that we must be talking about the original manuscripts and we must be assuming that the Bible is being interpreted correctly. In other words, none of our Bible translations are inerrant and we are not inerrant in our understanding of the text. To solve the translation problem, you could become a KJV Only advocate and believe that the King James is inerrant (but there is no warrant at all to make such a move). To solve the problem of interpretation, you could head to Rome and believe that the Pope is the infallible interpreter (but, again, no warrant – besides that, who would interpret the Pope?!). Therefore, I am left with the type of inerrancy I have. I am good with it.

However, while I believe that the Bible is inerrant, I do not believe this is the linchpin of Evangelicalism, much less Christianity. While I agree with most of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, I think I disagree with it when it says that one cannot deny inerrancy without incurring “grave consequences” on his or herself (XIX). “Grave” is a very strong word. Too strong, in my opinion. Nevertheless, inerrancy is important because it speaks to the nature of Scripture being in harmony with the nature of God. I have looked enough into this issue to believe that I probably won’t ever change my stance here. It is one of those issues that is pretty well settled in my theology.

However, if I were to find something that I believed was a legitimate error in the Scripture, I don’t think my faith would be affected too much. Why? Because the central truths of the Christian faith are not affected by inerrancy. I come across so many people who think that if they expose one error in the Bible, the entire Christian worldview will fall apart like the proverbial house of cards. This is simply not true.

Consider this illustration that Mike Licona gives: There were 712 survivors when the Titanic sank. These survivors were divided as to how the ship went down. Some said it broke in half, then went down. Others said it went down intact. There is a contradiction in testimony, right? So what do we do with this contradiction? Of all the options, there is no sane person out there who would say, “Well, since we don’t have consistent testimony as to what condition the Titanic was in when it sank, we have to give up our belief that it sunk altogether.” Yet that is exactly what some skeptics propose we do with the story of Christ and his resurrection. Every testimony that we have in the Gospels says that Christ died on a cross and rose from the grave. Just because we may have some conflicting accounts as to the details does not mean we abandon the consistent testimony about the main event.

Now, I believe that what most people see as conflicting accounts in the Gospels only strengthen their testimony, since the accounts show that they are looking at the same event, from different perspectives, without collaboration among the authors. However, even if they do conflict here and there, there is no rational reason to deny the resurrection of Christ any more than we would deny the sinking of the Titanic due to conflicting accounts.

I think this is a fundamental principle that inerrantists such as myself need to be more vocal in conceding in today’s world. I find many people who wear inerrancy on their sleeve just as prominently as historicity. This can get us into trouble as we tie inerrancy too closely with the Gospel. Historicity is the issue. Did the central events actually occur? If they did, Christianity is true, no matter how many angels John says were at the tomb, not matter whether Abiathar was high priest at the time of David, no matter what Pilate wrote on the sign above the cross, and no matter how Judas died. I believe in inerrancy because I believe in the historicity of the central Gospel message. I don’t believe in historicity because I believe in inerrancy. Christianity is true if Christ historically rose from the dead, period. It is false if he historically did not rise from the dead, period.

Think about this for a moment. I have argued that the central truths of Christianity are not dependent on inerrancy. But I would also say Christianity is not dependent on the inspiration of the Bible either. In other words, the Bible does not even have to be inspired for Christianity to be true. We could just think of the eyewitness accounts in what we call the New Testament as twenty-seven ancient historical documents. Being such, we could simply evaluate their truthfulness like we would any other historical document. If the document passes the tests of history, then that which it records (the resurrection of Jesus) is true. Hence, Christianity is true. No inspiration needed.

In fact (to take this one step further), we don’t even necessarily need the Scripture at all for Christianity to be true. Think about it. What if God had not given us the twenty-seven New Testament books? Would that mean that historically, Christ did not rise from the dead? Of course not. Why? Because Christ’s advent and resurrection did not happen because the Bible says they did, the Bible says they did because historically, they happened. But what if we did not have the New Testament? Well, we would be in good company, as there have been innumerable Christians throughout the history of the church who did not have access to the New Testament. How did the earliest church receive the Gospel? Through preaching, unwritten tradition, and generally reliable hearsay. God could have used any number of means to communicate the advent, death, and resurrection of his Son other than pen and paper. Direct prophecy, dreams, angelic encounters, or even the mouths of donkeys are all possible means by which the central truths of the Christian faith could have been preserved. The point is that Christianity is not dependent upon an inerrant text.

Again, having said all of this, I do believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. I love the Scripture because I love God. But I worship Christ, not the Bible. I thank God that he gave us an inerrant Bible. I believe that having an inerrant text can make us more confident in not only the central truths, but also the details of God’s will. I do believe that inerrancy is important and that we should continue to argue with some energy that the text is true in everything it teaches. However, this energy needs to be residual energy. Our primary energy needs to focus on the primary issue: did Jesus rise from the dead historically. All dominoes fall from there.

Inerrancy is important, but not cardinal. And while it may be a defining characteristic of Evangelicalism, it is not the defining characteristic of Evangelicalism.

(However, I must admit something: I probably would never hire someone to be a fellow at Credo House who did not believe that the Bible was true in everything it teaches. Maybe this is an inconsistency. I don’t know.)

Getting Inerrancy Wrong

One of the greatest attacks on Scripture comes from those who misunderstand the doctrine of inerrancy. A couple of years ago this chart was brought to my attention. I did not think it was serious, but it really is. It is supposed to represent the thousands of contradictions in the Bible. However, all it really represents is that the person who created it has no idea what inspiriation and inerrancy mean, nor how to do basic interpretation of literature (ancient or modern).

Sadly, though, it is becoming increasingly clear (again) that even some of those who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture have different interpretations of what inerrancy means. I believe in inerrancy. But maybe not how others define it. I am not trying to redefine anything, but the fact is that when it comes to this issue, there is a spectrum of belief among those who confess the doctrine. I am sure there would be some out there who would see my view of inerrancy as a liberal compromise.

Inerrancy: the Biblical doctrine which says that Scripture, in the autographs (originals), when interpreted correctly, is true in all that it teaches and upon which it touches.

I remember when I was young and I first began to read the Gospels. I was rather confused about the repetition of the story of Christ. I was further confused that there seemed to be many places where the same event was told in different ways, using different words, and sometimes with different people involved. Whether it was Christ’s encounter with the demoniacs (Luke 18:27ff; Matthew 8:28ff) or the words written above the cross (Mark 15:26; John 19:19), there were differences. I noticed that differences of this type were a primary criticism to which skeptics would refer when attacking the reliability of Scripture and the truth of Christianity. This disturbed me. If the Bible was inspired, these differences should not be there. Isn’t the Bible inerrant? If it is, it cannot have discrepancies. How could God have gotten it wrong? As I sought answers, I found initial comfort in those who would explain these “discrepancies” in some very creative ways. Most would say that the parallel accounts that I was having problems with were not really parallel at all. They were different encounters altogether!

These explanations satisfied me at the time. I thus unknowingly adopted a strict view that I call “technically precise inerrancy.” This means that all the writers of Scripture, by virtue of their ultimate source of information (God), recorded everything precisely as it occurred. It also means that we attempt to take the Bible with an absolute literalism until forced to opt for another approach.

I later came to realize that this methodology was not only unnecessary but was actually birthed, I believe, out of a very gnostic view of Scripture. I was so emphasizing God’s role in the writing of Scripture that the role of man could not be found. Yet if God used man in writing Scripture, and Scripture was intended for man, then would God not have used a common means of communication that did not require technical precision in describing events?

To make a long story short, I moved toward a view I call “reasoned inerrancy.” “Reasoned inerrancy” is a definition which recognizes that the Scriptures must be understood according to the rules of interpretation governed by genre, historical accommodations, context, argument, and purpose. In other words, the modernistic need for things to be technically precise with regard to Scripture, ironically held by both ultra-conservatives and skeptics who seek to pick apart the Bible, is just that – a modern need that produces a warped apologetic and a faulty hermeneutic.

Let me further define the faulty presupposition of the “technically precise” view of inerrancy. The presupposition is this: All writers of Scripture, by virtue of divine inspiration and inerrancy, must have recorded everything in a technically precise way. I take issue with this presupposition. I do not believe that inspiration and inerrancy require technical precision. Why would it be so difficult to believe that the authors of Scripture would take liberties in their recording of the Gospel narrative? Does “taking liberties” in the way someone recounts an event mean that they are producing fabrications or lies? Can’t people tell the same story different ways and even nuance that story according to their purposes and still be accurate? Continue Reading →

Press Release: Michael Licona Response to Norm Geisler

Norman Geisler has taken issue with a portion of my recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, in which I proposed that the story of the raised saints in Matthew 27:52-53 should probably be interpreted as apocalyptic imagery rather than literal history. In response, Dr. Geisler has offered strong criticisms in two Open Letters to me on the Internet. Until now I have been unable to comment because I have multiple writing deadlines, two September debates in South Africa for which to prepare, and, consequently, no time to be drawn into what would probably turn into an endless debate. I shared these first two reasons with Dr. Geisler in an email several weeks ago. Yet he insisted that I “give careful and immediate attention” to the matter. I simply could not do this and fulfill the pressing obligations of my ministry, which is my higher priority before the Lord.

Dr. Geisler questions whether I still hold to biblical inerrancy. I want to be clear that I continue to affirm this evangelical distinctive. My conclusion in reference to the raised saints in Matthew 27 was based upon my analysis of the genre of the text. This was not an attempt to wiggle out from under the burden of an inerrant text; it was an attempt to respect the text by seeking to learn what Matthew was trying to communicate. This is responsible hermeneutical practice. Any reasonable doctrine of biblical inerrancy must respect authorial intent rather than predetermine it.

When writing a sizable book, there will always be portions in which one could have articulated a matter more appropriately. And those portions, I suppose, will often be located outside the primary thesis of the book, such as the one on which Dr. Geisler has chosen to focus. When writing my book, I always regarded the entirety of Matthew 27 as historical narrative containing apocalyptic allusions. I selected the term “poetic” in order to allude to similar phenomena in the Greco-Roman literature in general and Virgil in particular. However, since Matthew is a Jew writing to Jews, “apocalyptic” may be the most appropriate technical term, while “special effects” communicates the gist on a popular level. Continue Reading →

The Problem of Abiathar in Mark 2.26

Bultmann was not right about everything, but he was certainly right when he recognized that presuppositionless exegesis was not possible. There are few texts where an exegete’s presuppositions can cloud his interpretation more than Mark 2.26. The issue here is not simply a conservative vs. liberal debate. Of course, battle lines are drawn by one’s bibliological convictions, but the tapestry of this passage is richer than that. Source criticism (specifically, whether one holds to Markan priority or Matthean priority), tradition criticism, textual criticism, and christological constructs are also lurking in the background here, to name a few. We will have a chance to explore these issues only briefly in the time allotted.

In Mark 2.26, as found in Nestle-Aland27, Jesus is reported as saying: πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ οὖσιν; Or, in English, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread that is not lawful for anyone but priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?” (Mark 2.25-26). The fundamental problem with the phrase “when Abiathar was high priest” is that this incident in David’s life is recorded in but one passage in the OT, 1 Sam 21.1-7. But there, Ahimelech is mentioned as the priest; Abiathar, his son, would later become high priest, but he is not introduced into the narrative for another chapter (22.20).

On the one hand, the prepositional phrase, ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως, has caused some angst for evangelicals because it ostensibly is a historical error. And if so, whose error is it? Did some early scribe corrupt his copy of Mark, which then influenced other witnesses and became the predominant text? Or did Mark add this as an editorial comment on his own? Or did he copy down accurately what his source said (which, according to patristic writers at least, would have been the apostle Peter)—a source that created the historical discrepancy? Or is it possible that Mark’s source repeated Jesus’ words accurately, but that Jesus made a mistake? Or did Jesus summarize the OT text accurately, but the OT was in error? Assigning error to someone is one route that is taken today in dealing with this problem. What I wish to contend, however, is that several presuppositions are at work in assigning blame; the matter cannot simply be isolated to a bibliological problem. Yet even here, there are rather different approaches to the problem by evangelicals.

In addition to the bibliological issue is the question of which Gospel came first. Those who embrace Markan priority tend to argue for an error on Mark’s part that would have been detected and eliminated by Matthew and Luke. Those who embrace Matthean priority tend to downplay any error on Mark’s part by various, although rather brief, explanations.

Then there is the christological issue. Very few scholars even entertain the notion that Jesus could have had a mental lapse. Here is where both liberal and conservative scholars are usually in agreement, but for different reasons: the more conservative scholars, because of their high christology and high bibliology, almost never raise the possibility that Jesus could have erred for that would apparently impugn the character of both the Lord and the Bible. Less conservative scholars (moderate as well as liberal) often see only part of the pericope going back to Jesus, and v 26 is sometimes relegated to a later source. But Jewish scholars have no problem seeing this pericope going back to Jesus and attributing error to him.

Textual criticism also plays a role in this passage. There are variants that either alter the prepositional phrase and its subsequent translation or eradicate it altogether. But one’s text-critical theories inform his decision here—or at least they should!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, the interpretations of this text are so vast and our time so short that we will have to park ourselves on that part of the iceberg that is above water. Perhaps that is the safest place to be though after all.

The fundamental problem in this text is that Abiathar was not the high priest when David went into the sanctuary and ate the showbread. This raises several questions; in the least, someone or something seems to be wrong. Here are the facts: (1) 1 Sam 21.1-7 mentions Ahimelech as the priest when David entered the sanctuary; (2) Abiathar was Ahimelech’s son; although he was a priest when this incident occurred, he was not the high priest but would become so later (after Saul murdered his father and eighty-four other priests); (3) Ahimelech’s ministry was in Nob, while Abiathar’s would especially be in Jerusalem; (4) except for the possibility of text-critical solutions, Mark’s Gospel has the words ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως, normally translated “when Abiathar was high priest.” In addition, there are several other, less significant differences between the dominical version of this story and that found in 1 Sam 21.1-7 (Gundry lists seven). Continue Reading →