Contemporary Evangelical NT Genre Criticism: Opening Pandora’s Box?

From on Apr 30, 2014

Contemporary Evangelical NT Genre Criticism: Opening Pandora’s Box?

By Joseph M. Holden
President of Veritas Evangelical Seminary

Perhaps I should have titled my first article (“ICBI is Not for the Birds”) addressing Michael Bird et al critical approach to Scripture – “ICBI is not for the Mocking Birds.” After reading Bird’s response, one wonders what article he actually read and whether neo-evangelical critics take seriously challenges to their views (also see Blomberg’s satirical and mocking rant below). Whatever the case may be, those within the critically-trained evangelical NT scholarly guild, I would assume, consider their ability to handle, teach, write, research, and discuss Scripture, a blessing given to them by God. Most, if not all, would agree they are also responsible to God and to those they interact with to imitate the character of Christ in love, especially to our own Christian brothers and sisters no matter what disagreements they have.  One does not have to be a scholar to be aware of the susceptibility within the academy to be puffed up with pride and forget that the Word of God must guide our reason and interactions with others. To fall short of these standards is both unscholarly, unnecessary, and reveals little respect for the crucial issues pertaining to God’s Word. There is no place for a lack of respect, mockery, or the cavalier handling of various topics discussed within inerrancy despite what we think about views we deem as unpersuasive.[1] The Scriptures deserve our best. But what should we expect from critical evangelicals that deny historical affirmations presented in Scripture and/or view historical narrative in the Gospels as candidates for fiction? Perhaps I should adjust my expectations and not expect critics to handle issues pertaining to the Scriptures in a manner likened to those who actually believe the biblical author’s expressed intentions.  Though this adjustment may be necessary when dealing with unbelieving critics, it should not dominate the landscape in this case since believers are involved.  There is no reason that critical NT interpreters cannot be cordial in fostering an atmosphere of discovery rather than elevating fraternity above orthodoxy.

Yet despite identifying with evangelical traditions, stereotypes, impugning motives, demeaning comments, and personal attacks are offered without hesitation. For example, see Blomberg’s descriptions of ICBI Inerrantists as “Nazism,” “Communism,” “far right,” “extreme,” “avoid them like the plague,” “hindered genuine scholarship among evangelicals,” “overly,” “hyper,” “ultra,” and do “disservice” to the gospel in CWSBB, 7-8, 11, 120, 125, 141-45, 214, 217, which may be an attempt to standardize his own views as “mainstream” by polarizing the opposition.  In addition, Blomberg makes a bizarre comment, asserting Geisler, a former ICBI framer and staunch defender of inerrancy, “Denies…ICBI Inerrancy!”[2]  This is like saying the Pope has denied Catholicism. Bird is not exempt from these personal attacks either, he says Geisler is the “villain,” and his views are “extreme” and “to the right of Atilla the Hun,” “not a…pleasant chap,” and remarks Geisler “has never found an institution worthy of him.”[3] Bird’s latest response was also filled with inaccuracies and mockery such as “Joseph Holden, the president of something called Veritas Evangelical Seminary” which is “a subsidiary of Geisler industries.” Bird claims, without explanation, that the post was a “really weird ultra conservative critique….” Licona has his share of doozies as well (e.g., Geisler and company are theological bullies, satirical mockeries of Geisler in cartoon form, etc). Though ad hominem can be an effective way to make an orthodox view look “radical,” it is actually Bird, Blomberg, and Licona’s view of Scripture that are alien to the church’s view of Scripture from its beginning and to the ICBI definition.[4] By contrast, Geisler’s view (an my view) of inerrancy spelled out in CSBI is substantially the same as the Christian church’s historic position that the Scriptures are without error in all they affirm (see John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church and John Woodbridge, Biblical Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal). By contrast, there is no example of the orthodox Christian church adopting a view that dismisses historical narrative as fiction, error, or legend based on genre criticism.
Despite deep disagreements between ICBI inerrantists and the conclusions and methodology offered by critically-trained evangelical NT interpreters, we are hopeful there can be cordial interaction on inerrancy.  Otherwise, critical evangelical interpreters not only risk loosing its Christian witness in the eyes of those it seeks to serve, but also its credibility among already critic-wary pastors and laity who may question whether the critics have the ability to communicate objective research that is not blindly tied to the scholarly fraternity or self-preservation. It would seem easy enough for Blomberg and Licona, and those interpreters who approve of their brand of using extra-biblical genre sources to determine the unexpressed intentions of biblical authors and turn their expressed historical affirmations to fiction, to simply identify themselves with some other brand of “inerrancy.” The distinction between views is explained in unambiguous terms in the ICBI documents. Though ICBI allows for responsible genre criticism to ensure proper exegesis of the various genres found in Scripture, ICBI explicitly rejects this dehistoricizing approach in Article XIII which states, “We denythat generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual.” What is more, Article XVIII rejects “the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching…” Genres do not change facts or the expressed authorial intent (i.e., affirmations in the text). If the Bible affirms an event, and it really didn’t happen then the Bible is in error.  That is to say, the biblical affirmation either corresponds to reality or it does not. Any attempt to arrive at the biblical author’s unexpressed intentions to dehistoricize his expressed intentions through extra-biblical literature is guess work. The biblical author’s unexpressed intentions are lost to us at his death, so nothing short of a séance will suffice in securing unexpressed intent! Similarity in genre does not secure our knowledge of unexpressed authorial intent no matter how “similar” it is to the Gospels, since we would still be left without knowing whether the biblical author’s intent was the same as the pagan author’s intent.  Anything else is pure speculation. This method elevates what the author intended to say over and above what he did actually say. Truth-value is contained in propositions/affirmations, not hidden intentions. Not recognizing this opens a Pandora’s box of speculation as to which historical narratives are historical and which are fiction and can only lead to unorthodox conclusions (see Blomberg, “NT Miracles and Higher Criticism,” JETS 27/4 Dec 1984, 433, 436, where he says Jesus’s statement to Peter about the coin in its mouth is most likely a “metaphor” (Mt 17:27). This leads him to question the historical nature of all biblical miracles since extra-biblical miracle stories from antiquity are also presented as historical. Therefore, he asks, “Are we to believe all of them [are historical]?”) Evidently, for Blomberg, claiming miracle representations in Scripture are historical in form get us nowhere, which unfortunately leads one to reverse the traditional burden of proof. That is, it mistakenly assumes the Gospel narratives could be fiction unless proven historical (cf. Lk. 1:1-4; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 Jn. 1:1). Here again we see the narrative affirmations in the biblical text bowing to extra-biblical sources for their confirmation.

The consequences of this flaw is further reinforced by Blomberg and Licona when they remind us that history and fiction can be identical in form, and that it becomes difficult for the interpreter to determine where history ends and legend begins (see B, CWSBB, 11; Licona, Resurrection of Jesus, 34). According to Blomberg, Gerd Theissen’s sociological view of NT miracles and H.C. Kee’s analysis of extra-biblical miracle stories should lead us to ask the question, “Is it possible, even inherently probable, that the NT writers at least in part never intended to have their miracle stories taken as historical or factual and that their original audiences probably recognized this?” (B, JETS, 436). This he says is the identical reasoning that led Robert Gundry to his unorthodox Midrashic interpretation of Matthew (Ibid.), and who was later asked to resign from the Evangelical Theological Society by a 74% vote. Three living framer’s of ICBI (N.L. Geisler, R.C. Sproul, and J.I. Packer) have attested to the fact that ICBI documents were drafted with Gundry’s Midrashic approach in mind, and was endorsed by nearly 300 evangelical scholars from various backgrounds (Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc). When asked to comment on Licona’s genre-critical approach to the Gospels, R.C. Sproul responded, “As the former and only President of ICBI during its tenure and as the original framer of the Affirmations and Denials of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, I can say categorically that Dr. Michael Licona’s views are not even remotely compatible with the unified Statement of ICBI” (Letter, May 22nd, 2012).

Copyright © 2014 Dr. Joseph M. Holden – All rights reserved.

[1] See


[3] See Bird’s review of Craig Blomberg – Can We Still Believe the Bible? at

[4] Gospel texts presented as historical narrative in the Gospels may be fiction/legend. The view is considered consistent with ICBI inerrancy by critical evangelical interpreters such as Blomberg and Licona, et al; see Bird’s Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, 145-173, and Albert Mohler’s response, 174-179. Also see Geisler’s response to Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy on this website.)