Regarding the current inerrancy controversy, I submit the following comments and evaluations. The issue should become clearer as you read through my comments.
Orthodoxy: Michael Licona and his supporters all appear to be well within the camp of the orthodox, in that they hold essential Christian doctrines. The apocalyptic method, as Licona describes it, is not an issue that divides between Christian and non-Christian. Neither Licona nor those who have supported him are another Rudolph Bultmann, the radical higher critic who spent a lot of energy ‘dehistoricizing’ the Bible. However, the issue is extremely important, and is not trivial, in that it deals with the nature of the Bible.
Not Key Issues: The ultimate issues at stake are not whether Geisler is consistent with his attacks or defenses (he is not), nor whether Geisler has a right to speak out about such an issue (he does), nor whether he has been slow and circumspect (he has not), nor whether such issues should rightly be discussed in scholarly journals (they should). Nor is it an issue whether ad-hominem attacks are relevant–they are not, yet there has been much name-calling, especially from some apologetics bloggers. Nor is it ultimately relevant whether scholars have lost jobs or income due to this controversy. All these things are unfortunate, and perhaps should have been avoided, but they merely add to the emotion of the moment and do not shed any light on whether or not the apocalyptic method is true.
Further, it does not appear particularly relevant whether various inerrancy advocates are young earth or old earth, for even if there was an inconsistency in the application of inerrancy to Genesis, which I do not believe there has been, it would not determine whether the apocalyptic method is valid. And while it is somewhat relevant whether Licona or Geisler have an accurate application of ICBI, this still does not determine whether or not the apocalyptic view is true.
Still further, the issue has nothing to do with whether or not Licona and Geisler are nice guys. Yet all these, and more, have been batted back and forth in the debate.
Key Issues: The main controversy seems to surround two points: whether it is acceptable to use extra-biblical writings to determine literary style used in the Bible, and whether an author’s intent can be used to determine the factual basis of a Bible passage.
First, it is true that we can draw benefit from the use of literary structure and extra-biblical literature as a help in our study of the Bible. For example, the literary structure of Isaiah is one main key to holding to a single authorship of the book. So while the study of the literature of the time of the Bible writers can be relevant, we should be extremely cautious in viewing the Bible through the lens of non-Biblical writings, for the Bible is fundamentally different than human writings.
The question at hand is whether passages such as Matthew 27:52-53 and John 18:6 are factually correct or literary devices used to make a point. Licona has stated, upon reflection, that he does not know whether passages such as these are factually correct, and holds that they are very possibly literary devices used to draw attention to Jesus.
Second, the author’s intent is repeatedly discussed. The argument is that if Matthew’s or John’s intent was to present a gospel account similar to what was sometimes done in secular literature, they might not have intended everything to be factually correct. Licona and his supporters claim that if the author did not intend every fact to be correct, the gospel accounts can still be inerrant, and hold themselves to be inerrantists.
Evaluation: First, it is impossible to truly obtain an author’s intent. We do not have, nor will we ever have, Matthew’s intent. Even if we were to be able to email Matthew in heaven and get a response, all we would have is more text from the author; perhaps we would have further clarification, but we would not have intent. An author’s intent is an elusive, evasive concept that is unobtainable. All we have are an author’s words, and the meaning that the author placed into the words. For example, Duet. 14:21 tells us to not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. What was the author’s intent for this command? Any attempt to determine a purpose or reason why this command was given is pure speculation; all we have is God’s command: do not do it. Further, John 20:31 and 1 John 5:13 tell us John’s intent for writing. Does this mean that there is no other secondary purpose, or other meaning in his gospel, or that all passages are suddenly clear about what was intended? Certainly not. Therefore searching for an author’s intent to try to derive meaning or a tool for interpretation is folly, and can only lead to pure speculation. We do not have Matthew’s intent, nor will we ever, and speculating about what might have been his intent is a poor hermeneutical method, one that imposes the reader’s speculation onto the text of holy scripture. It is especially poor when it results in taking an otherwise factual style and reading it as if it has sudden non-factual embellishments. Rather, we should strive to derive meaning not from the author’s intent, but from the words and sentences themselves; that is where the author placed the meaning.
Second, there is a quite clear separation between most types of literary genre. One can easily distinguish between the poetry in the Psalms or the imagery in Joel compared to the matter-of-fact presentation of Acts. When Acts 2:20 quotes the imagery of Joel (sun turned dark, moon turned to blood), the overall matter-of-fact style of Acts is not impacted nor confused–no one confuses Luke’s or Peter’s historical account with the imagery of the Joel quote. To suggest otherwise is a mishandling of scripture. Yet the apocalyptic method does exactly the opposite in Matthew 27.** Further, the apocalyptic imagery in Revelation, for example, is not given for mere special effect or enhancement of the mood. The current debate has mentioned Rev. 12:4, where the dragon sweeps a third of the stars with his tail. This is given as apocalyptic, and no one is expected to believe it literally. While it is true this passage is symbolic, it is nevertheless representative of reality. In fact, the passage later tells us that the dragon is the devil (v.9). The apocalyptic method presents Matthew 27:52 as not intended to be factually true, but rather an intentional embellishment used to draw attention, while the apocalyptic passages in Revelation describe literal events, many of which we are told how to interpret.
Problems: There are several fundamental problems with the apocalyptic method. First, it provides us no tools for distinguishing between passages such as Matthew 27:52-53, the general resurrection, and Matthew 1, which describes the virgin birth. Both passages receive a rather few words, and both point to an aspect central to Jesus. What tools are in the apocalyptic method to distinguish the historical facts of the virgin birth? Or Jesus’ sign miracles? Or the tearing of the veil in the temple, which is an important passage showing that through Jesus we are no longer separated from God? Again, I am not accusing Michael Licona or his supporters of denying these views. What I am saying is that the apocalyptic method is insufficient to protect essential Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth.
Second, the historical track record for such methods is poor. Over and over in church history we find otherwise well-meaning scholars who tried to use the latest scholarship, only to find that a generation later their students have taken it to the next logical step. The 1870’s brought the Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis, and the seminaries began to incorporate radical higher criticism by about 1900. It was not the seminary professors of 1890 that gave us liberalism; rather it was their students a generation or two later. No one is accusing Licona or his supporters with being another Bultmann; that is not the fear. Rather, the fear is that 40 years from now the students who are taught the apocalyptic method will generate another Harry Emerson Fosdick, a full-blown liberal who denied biblical miracles.
Third, if the apocalyptic method grows in popularity, conservative theologians will be forced to come up with a new term that means factually correct. For the apocalyptic method is claiming inerrancy, and hold that the Bible texts are making statements that appear factually correct but are not. We must have some convenient way of distinguishing those of us who hold that the common meaning is factually true. The apocalypic method tells us that untrue statements are not in error because the author did not intend for them to be true. I find this more amazing than biblical miracles.
Conclusion: The apocalyptic method is a poor hermeneutic, born of a flawed approach. If we are fortunate, it will fade quickly into history and be forgotten. To date, many qualified scholars appear to have embraced it, perhaps due to their love for a dear brother, Dr. Licona. But it is a serious, grave separation from the historic view of the Bible, and provides no tools to prevent future heresy. If the apocalyptic method grows in popularity, then seminary leaders and pastors must approach this issue the same as if it were the beginning of another era similar to the growth of radical higher criticism. We should watch this closely, and be ready to separate from it wherever it crops up. I urge those who find this view appealing, or have been repulsed by the actions of those who oppose it, to approach the question in cold blood and a clear mind, and take a long view of church history.
**NOTE (added 12/14): The point here is that language in books such as Revelation are contextually symbolic, but representative of something literally true. By contrast, the apocalyptic method takes passages such as Matthew 27:52, which are presented not as symbolic but as if they are literal, and makes these passages mean nothing at all except exaggeration to make a literary point. Thus truly symbolic language in Revelation is symbolic of something literally true, and the apocalyptic method takes literal context and takes it as not true and not representative of anything.