One Small Step for Hermeneutics, One Giant Leap for Theology
Copyright © 2016 Dr. Norman L. Geisler. All rights reserved.
When the first astronaut, Neil Armstrong, stepped onto the moon, he is reported to have said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Something similar is happening in the contemporary inerrancy debate which can be reworded as follows: “One small step for hermeneutics, one giant leap for theology.”
One Small Hermeneutical Step
In the current climate there are many professed inerrantists, many of whom belong to the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), which affirms that “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” Since 2004 ETS adopted the International Society on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) statement which the ETS accepted as a guide in 2004 the ICBI statements as a guide of understanding what inerrancy means, namely, the Bible is inerrant on whatever it affirms, whether it is theological or historical, whether it is essential teaching or a peripheral one. In short, the historic view on inerrancy, adopted by ETS and ICBI, embraces total or unlimited inerrancy. This is opposed to limited inerrancy which holds that inerrancy is limited to essential or theological matters but not to every matter on which it speaks including history, science, and every so-called incidental, secondary and peripheral matters it affirms as well.
Many contemporary evangelicals, most of whom personally believe in unlimited inerrancy, are discarding it as a test for orthodoxy on Scripture and replacing it with a form of limited inerrancy which allows for some errors in the Bible. These include Gary Habermas and David Beck from Liberty University, Darrel Bock and Dan Wallace of Dallas Seminary, Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, James Chancellor of Southern Baptist Seminary, Douglas Moo of Wheaton, Craig Keener at Asbury Seminary, William Warren at New Orleans Seminary, J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig of Biola, and many others. All of them declared in writing of Mike Licona’s view that “We are in firm agreement that it is compatible with biblical inerrancy, despite objections to the contrary.”
Are These Men Undermining Our Convictions On Inerrancy?
In fact, as shown below, their views on the meaning of inerrancy are contradicting the ICBI statements on inerrancy. So, while most of them claim to accept the doctrine of total inerrancy themselves, they believe that their friends and colleagues who accept only limited inerrancy, like Mike Licona, should be considered orthodox on that doctrine. In effect, they have broadened the definition for evangelicals as a whole on this issue so as to include non-inerrantists. While most, if not all, of them personally do not believe there are minor errors in the Bible, nevertheless, they defend their colleagues who do. This is a short but dangerous step—one that will lead to a broader denial of inerrancy. It will allow for many of their friends and colleagues to be accepted as orthodox on this crucial doctrine. As a matter of fact, it will open the door for many others in ETS who are waiting in the wings.
For example, Mike Licona claims to hold to inerrancy, but he says that there are factual mistakes in the biblical text (see his book, The Resurrection of Jesus, 34, 553). Indeed, he asserts that there is a contradiction in the Gospels. In a debate with Bart Ehrman at Southern Evangelical Seminary (Spring, 2009), Licona said, “I think that John probably altered the day [of Jesus’s crucifixion] in order for a theological—to make a theological point there. But that does not mean that Jesus wasn’t crucified.” He claims that Mark said Jesus was crucified on Friday (Mark 14:12), but John is said to have affirmed that Jesus was crucified on Thursday (Jn. 19:14). So, there is a mistake in John and a contradiction with Mark. However, we are assured by Licona that this is no problem for inerrancy since the Greek biographical genre of the day, in which in he claimed John wrote, allowed for contradictions. Further, the day of the week on which Jesus died is not an essential matter; only the fact that Jesus was crucified really matters. This, then, may be true of other minor, incidental, or non-essential matters. But New Testament critic Bart Ehrman points out the serious nature of this admission, namely, that “If John was willing to do this in this one instance that Mike himself cites, in how many other instances was he willing to do it?”
Historically, this claim by Licona was considered a clear denial of inerrancy. IN fact, all living framers of the ICBI testify that Licona’s view is contrary to inerrancy:
J. I. Packer wrote: “As a framer of the ICBI statement on biblical inerrancy and once studied Greco-Roman literature at advanced level, I judge Mike Licona’s view that, because the Gospels are semi-biographical, details of their narratives may be regarded as legendary and factually erroneous, to be both academically and theologically unsound” (Letter May 8, 2014).
R. C. Sproul wrote: “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 Mr. Michael Licona’s views are not even remotely compatible with the unified Statement of ICBI” (Letter May 22, 2012).
Norman L. Geisler: As general editor of the ICBI books and a framer of its doctrinal statements, I can say unequivocally that Mike Licona’s Greco-Roman Genre views, like Robert Gundry’s Hebrew Midrash views (for which he was asked to resign from ETS) are clearly incompatible with ICBI statements on inerrancy (January 2, 2016).
Indeed, orthodox theologians from St. Augustine to John Calvin held that there were no contradictions in the Scriptures. To claim the contrary was a denial of inerrancy (see John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church, Moody, 1984). ICBI stated flatly that “Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word…is infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches” (“A Short Statement” in The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy [CSBI]). What is more, ICBI contends: “We deny that later revelation…ever corrects of contradicts it” (CSBI, Article V). For “We affirm the unity and internal consistency or Scripture” CSBI, Article, XIV). And “The Scripture in its entirely is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, and deceit” (CSBI, Article XII). Its statements are “…true and trustworthy utterances on all matters of which biblical writers were moved to write and speak” (CSBI, Article IX). It has “divine authority in all maters on which it touches” (“Introduction” to the CSBI).
This total inerrancy view including, the internal consistency and factual errorlessness, was taught by church Fathers down through the centuries. St. Augustine affirmed that the Bible is errorless since the Holy Scriptures were composed by writers who were used as the hands of God “without admitting the slightest suspicion that in them any mistake or any statement intended to mislead could find a place.” Thomas Aquinas added, “I firmly believe that none of their authors have erred in composing them.” John Calvin concurred, declaring, “We owe to Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it. . . ” (Urquhart, Inspiration, 179-180).
However, there are many members of ETS who claim to be inerrantists who have, nonetheless, taken “One short” hermeneutical step away from total inerrancy of ETS and ICBI. How so? They claim that while they do not personally believe there is any logical or factual error in the Bible, nevertheless, they do not think that it is unorthodox for someone to believe this. Most often they affirm that these errors are “minor,” not affecting any major doctrine. Others refer to them as “incidential” or in “non-redemptive” areas of Scripture. In this way, they claim, such mistakes do not affect the main redemptive message of the Bible.
The Apologetic Advantage: The Minimal Facts Argument
Some who hold this view see their position as having great apologetic value. They often hold to a “Minimal Facts” view, claiming that the Bible has only to be reliable on some essential facts in order to show the resurrection of Christ is true. From this they infer that Jesus’ claims to divinity are true, thus establishing the essential truth of Christianity.
The Minimal Facts proponents believe that their position has an apologetic advantage because it relieves them of demonstrating everything in the Gospels is true before they can begin their argument for the truth of Christianity. By beginning with just minimal facts that even most critical scholars accept, they believe they have a solid basis to argue for the resurrection of Christ and, from this, His claims for divinity.
The Hermeneutical Advantage
New Testament scholars also see this approach is valuable in establishing the authenticity of the New Testament. For example, when using critical procedures accepted by critical New Testament Scholars, they believe they can establish the authenticity of certain NT texts. Darrel Bock and Robert Webb argue for the authenticity of several disputed passages in this way (see Geisler and Roach, Defending Inerrancy, Chap. 11). Taking just one critical rule, the Principle of Embarrassment, one can argue for the authenticity of Peter’s denial of Christ in the Gospel of Mark which many believe Peter oversaw. That Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him (Jn. 7) is also an argument for its historicity on the Principle of Embarrassment. Another principle, Double Reference, is also used to establish the authenticity of a text. Events with no confirmation by repetition in other texts do not have their authenticity confirmed. This would include things like the visit of the Magi (in Matt. 2) and the resurrection of the saints (in Matt. 27).
In short, this small hermeneutical step seems to have several advantages for them, not the least of which is “one can have his cake and eat it too.” For they can believe in inerrancy and yet hold open the possibility (even the actuality) of errors in minor portions of Scripture. In response, it can be admitted that that a few small errors do not necessarily make a document unreliable. We can trust an accountant in general which has made a few errors in particular. However, this overlooks a very important fact, namely, that once a prophetic revelation like the Bible—a book claiming to come from God (2 tim 3:16)—has made a single mistake, we can no longer trust it as the Word of God. For God cannot error (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2)—even once.
One Giant Step in Theology
There are several serious problems with claiming that there are small errors in the Bible. Consider the following:
First of all, what is one small hermeneutical step in the wrong direction turns out to be one giant step toward the wrong theology. For wrong methodology leads to wrong theology. Admitting some small errors in the Bible leads to undermining the whole Bible as the Word of God. Since God cannot error, the claim that there are errors in the Bible—even small ones– undermines the whole Bible as the Word of God. And a divinely inspired Bible is the basis for any solid evangelical theology.
Contrary to the claim of some who hold the limited inerrancy view, this does not mean that one must thereby give up the Christian faith for it could be true even if inerrancy is not. Belief in inerrancy is not necessary for evangelical authenticity but for evangelical consistency. One can be saved without believing in inerrancy, but he cannot build a solid evangelical theology without it.
Second, it a serious theological mistake to use an apologetic strategy as a hermeneutical method. Even if the Minimal Facts strategy would work to show some key passages of Scripture pass muster, this does not mean it is an adequate method do determine the authenticity of the Gospels, to say nothing of their inspiration. For instance, the Double Reference may provide extra confirmation of some text, but it is not necessary for confirming a biblical text. There are many passages mentioned only once that would be eliminated if the event must be mentioned twice. This would include the miracle of turning water to wine (Jn. 2), the story of the woman at the well (Jn. 4), Zacchaeus (Lk. 19), Nicodemus (Jn. 3), the Magi (Matt. 4), the resurrection of Lazarus (Jn. 11), the healing of the blind man (in Jn. 9), even the actual birth of Christ (Lk. 2), and many other Gospel events.
Likewise, the Principle of Embarrassment is not necessary to confirm a text as authentic. Most things recorded in the Gospels are not an embarrassment to the author and yet they are authentic. The same is true of other ancient literature. Neither of these principles is necessary to confirm an event from the ancient world is authentic.
Third, the new hermeneutic of Neo-evangelicals is a slippery slope. Once one admits the existence of minor errors and the possibility of others in the Gospel, then it is one short step to undermine inerrancy altogether. For example, if one admits Matthew erred in claiming that the saints were resurrected (Mt. 27) after Jesus’ resurrection, then what hinders one in the same passage from claiming that Jesus did not rise either. Licona struggled to explain this (Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 553), but his explanation is not convincing, as New Testament critic Bart Ehrman (cited above) illustrates.
Indeed, the presidents of many seminaries do not agree with Licona, including those of his own Southern Baptist denomination. After reviewing Licona’s situation, one SBC president, Dr. Al Mohler, proclaimed that “Licona has not only violated the inerrancy of Scripture, but he has blown a massive hole into his own masterful defense of the resurrection” (“The Devil is in the Details,” Sept. 11, 2011). Another Southern Baptist seminary president claimed he would never hire Licona at his school.” One non-Southern Baptist school, which dropped Licona from their faculty, had a professor on Licona’s examining committee who reported: “He [Licona] even said that if someone interpreted the resurrection accounts as metaphor and therefore denied the historicity of the Gospel accounts, that would not contradict inerrancy. That was unbelievable” (Letter, Sept. 22, 2014).
Fourth, this small hermeneutical step in effect redefines inerrancy for evangelicals. As innocent as it may seem, this small step for hermeneutics is a giant step against inerrancy. In effect, if successful, it will redefine the importance of inerrancy and its role in determining an orthodox view of Scripture. It will replace the historic view of unlimited inerrancy. It will undo the history of the Christian Church on the doctrine of Scripture. This will undermine the inspiration of the Bible, implying the absurdity that there are inspired errors in Scripture. For inerrancy is a logical entailment of inspiration. Inspiration means breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16), and what is breathed out by the God who cannot error (Heb. 6:18).
Summary and Conclusion
One small step for a man on the moon had astronomical effects on mankind. Likewise, admitting that there are minor errors or contradictions in the Bible may seem innocent enough for a Bible interpreter or apologist, but it is a gigantic leap for theology. For it will reverse the history of theology and undermine the divine authority of Holy Scripture and with it the Christian Faith it wishes to defend.
- Later he claimed the recording was not clear but that he actually said, “One small step for a man….”↑
- Emphasis added. All these professors signed a statement in support of the orthodoxy of Licona’s view. See Credo House Ministries, “Michael Licona Response to Norm Geisler.” To my knowledge none of these have repudiated their claim. Two original signers, Heath Thomas and Jeremy Evans of Southeastern Baptist, withdrew their names later, apparently at the request of the administration of their school.↑
- This is unnecessary since many scholars (e.g., A.T. Robertson and DA Carson) believe that John affirms that Jesus was crucified on Friday, just as Mark said. See notes on Matt. 12:40 in The Big Book of Bible Difficulties (Baker, 2008).↑
- “Ehrman Responds to Licona on New Testament reliability,” Ehrman-Licona Dialogue on Historical Reliability of the New Testament. http://www.the best schools.org. Posted April 2016.↑
- Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels, 1.35.54↑
- Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a 1, 8.↑
- For further reading on inerrancy see our book with William Roach, Defending Inerrancy (Baker, 2011) and David Farnell et. al eds, Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate (Wipf & Stock, 2016).↑