I’d like to give a brief history of the inerrancy debates, at least from one perspective. There are many out there who know the details better than I, so if anyone has better information, I will gladly step aside and stand corrected. But it seems an overview is in order, for each generation must learn these things for themselves.
We pick up this story with scholars that have been called “liberal” which arose in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After such men as held to the Graf-Welhausen theory, which became a widespread questioning of the authorship and text of the Bible, a series of liberal professors began to teach that the Bible had many errors (for info on how Graf-Welhausen has failed, see here), Seminary professors began to question the miracles in the scriptures, mainly based on not much more than an ‘It seems to me….’ type of argument. One example is A Fresh Approach To The New Testament and Early Christian Literature by Martin Dibelius, (1936). In this book Dibelius presents a ‘new’ approach to the Bible by comparing it to extra-biblical sources and drawing conclusions about the Bible based on apocryphal literature, which was rejected by the early church fathers. (for more info, see here). Dibelius gives a typical approach. Speaking of Luke 14, he says:
The whole narrative is an expansion of a much simpler story (Mark vi). If the cursing of the fig tree (Mark xi, 12-14 and 20-3) is really a parable transformed into a story, as seems probable (cf. Luke xiii, 6-9), there would only remain the narrative of the coin found in the fish’s mouth (Matt. xvii, 24-7) as a parallel corresponding to some extent to the extra-canonical stories.
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In the whole of the narrative material with which we are dealing we may recognize, with special clarity, at what points primitive Christian literature developed in the direction of the world. The stories last mentioned, with the motif of self-deliverance, are specially significant of this, since here not only the form but also the material derives from the non-Christian world : those “divine childish” tricks have a parallel in the Indian narratives of Krishna, which at least shows from what motives such stories arise ; and the gospel narrative of the coin in the fish’s mouth reminds one of certain well-known fabulous tales of which the least known example, also found in Rabbinic literature, is the saga of Polycrates’ Ring. But it is precisely when we view the secularization of style and content in the narratives of Jesus in the is way that we see that this process occupied only a small place within the canonical Gospels, and was developed for the most part outside of those Gospels. . . Thus it proved, in this case also, that the earliest stratum we can reach in the gospel tradition stands on firm ground and is really old. (p.45-46)
Setting aside that such theories are presented without evidence and are shot through with opinion, not fact, we can nevertheless set here a marker of liberal Bible criticism. Dibelius’ view results with Jesus and the fig tree being a parable and the coin and the fish being from extra-biblical sources, but yet the author holds the Bible as true. By the mid-1930’s, we have such men as this German theologian saying that the Bible is at bottom true, at least in “the earliest stratum,” but has stories in it that have originated outside the scriptures in secular literature.
The result of such men produced American pastors such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was a prominent preacher at a prominent church in New York. Men like Fosdick had the ear of mainline denominations, and widely preached liberal theology. The following is a sample from A Great Time To Be Alive, a collection of his sermons, published in 1944 during WWII:
Take a single example from the Bible to illustrate what we are driving at — the release of those enslaved Hebrews from Egypt and their launching on an utterly unimaginable career as one of the world’s great peoples. The miraculous legend is that at the command of Moses a strong east wind drove back the sea and that the children of Israel walked across dry-shod, with the waters banked on either side. That is where the modern mind has its difficulty — it cannot believe the legend. But behind the legend is the fact — the northern extensions of the Red Sea are sometimes driven dry by a strong east wind, and only a few years ago Major-General Tulloch saw the Lake Menzala, a short distance north of the spot where the Hebrews are supposed to have crossed, driven back seven miles by the wind, leaving the lake bottom dry. So, we say, that is probably what occurred! (p.127)
Again a nice opinion, but such explanations do not even fit the text of the Biblical account, which had a wall of water on each side, which the Hebrews walked through the midst and the whole of Pharoah’s army drowning.
So with Dibelius and Fosdick as examples, we have the pulpits of mainline denominations in the middle of the 1900’s denying miracles, bringing in stories that in the authors’ opinions are difficult to believe, and claiming the text of the Bible is factually incorrect, at least in parts that they find to be incredible, yet they claim to hold the Bible with high esteem.
The important thing for us to note here is that both men explained the scriptures by drawing parallels from extra-biblical sources, yet at the same time claimed the Bible to be inspired, valuable for study, and at bottom, true.
In response to such views of the Bible, a conservative resurgence arose. Beginning in the late 1970’s, conservative scholars began defending the inerrancy of the scriptures. This was a lengthy process, which not only resulted in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, but also resulted in the following works that go to considerable lengths to define the positions of inerrancy:
- Boice, James Montgomery, ed. The Foundation of Biblical Authority. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.
- Radmacher, Earl D., ed. Can We Trust the Bible? Leading Theologians Speak Out on Biblical Inerrancy. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1979.
- Geisler, Norman L., ed. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979.
- Geisler, Norman L., ed. Biblical Errancy: An Analysis of Its Philosophical Roots. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.
- Lewis, Gordon and Bruce Demarest, eds. Challenges to Inerrancy: A Theological Response. Chicago: Moody, 1984.
- Hanna, John, ed. Inerrancy and the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.
- Radmacher, Earl D. and Robert D. Preus, eds. Hermeneutics, Inerrancy & the Bible: Papers from ICBI Summit II. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, Academie, 1984.
- Kantzer, Kenneth, ed. Applying the Scripture: Papers from ICBI Summit III. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, Academie, 1987.
With these publications, conservatives had defined their position, liberals continued to deny inerrancy, and both sides knew where the lines were drawn. In conservative circles, inerrancy became a position that could be depended on as a gauge of a person’s conservative approach the Bible.
A generation went by, and those who fought the inerrancy battles of the ’70s and ’80s had mostly passed away.
Onto the scene comes Michael Licona’s book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (2010). In it, Licona challenges a few passages in the Bible that, so he claims, are literary devices used by the authors to make a point. Licona claims that it is possible that the Gospel writers never intended certain miracle passages to be taken literally, therefore the passages did not happen but the Bible is still inerrant. Licona’s position was that since the author’s original intent was not to be literally true, then the text is still without error. (for info on the problems with original intent, see here.)
Norman Geisler, one of the last living framers of the Chicago statement, took exception. Geisler is no stranger to controversy, having been in the midst of not only the inerrancy debate but also a large controversy about upholding the physical resurrection of Jesus and the rest of humanity. At one point Geisler resigned from a seminary position over the school’s denial of physical human resurrection.
Geisler took considerable action to consolidate conservative leaders against Licona, which resulted in Licona being released from Southern Evangelical Seminary and conservative seminaries shying away from him.
An emotional discussion ensued, with many people involved and both Licona and Geisler lobbying support for their view. The low point arguably appeared when Licona’s son-in-law’s ministry partner, J. P. Holding, spoke of Geisler as “Norman the Neanderthal” and spoke of him as “a pig rooting around for truffles.” (see here). Licona, to my knowledge, never publically urged his supporters to tone down the rhetoric. Geisler approached the Licona issue with tenacity, one which no doubt frustrated Licona and his followers.
Much of the debate seemed to not have a good historical perspective, especially from Licona and his supporters. The historical damage created by liberal theology seemed to not be a major concern, with much of the focus being put on Geisler’s methods rather than the historical context of the inerrancy debate.
Indeed, the importance of the issue is with Licona’s method, and not Licona himself. The method gives no tools to distinguish between historical liberal approach to the scriptures and the method Licona uses in his book. Licona’s historiographical method could give a heretic the tools needed to deny the virgin birth, and provides no tools to avoid the viewpoint of men like Fosdick. Further, Licona’s “new” approach is no more new than the one Dibelius gave us in 1936, for the methods and conclusions are very similar.
Licona’s position also denies us the ability to uphold the definition of inerrancy that has been used for the last 30 years. If Licona can be an inerrantist, we have no clear distinction between him and those seminary professors who deny inerrancy outright. The danger is in Licona calling himself an inerrantist; if he had merely denied inerrancy outright, as many Christians do, he would not have created such controversy.
It is unfortunate that Michael Licona, who is personally a very nice man, has undergone such personal sacrifice since his book was published. The issue is not how nice of a guy Licona is, nor is it Geisler’s motivations or degree of tact. Nor is the issue whether Licona’s other apologetic work is accurate. Ad hominem attacks such as those of Holding should be avoided, for they cloud the issue.
The conservative seminaries are correct in not providing Licona a position. His views are not that of an inerrantist, and he should be plain in admitting he is not.