An Inconsistent Argument Against Inerrancy

John Byron at The Biblical World has weighed in on the Geisler-Licona controversy, using it as a foil to talk about how “unhelpful” the doctrine of inerrancy is. I found his post to be rather unhelpful when thinking about inerrancy because of its inconsistency. On the one hand he says:

First is the belief in inerrancy, that the Bible is free from error or mistakes. As I have said before, this is a very unhelpful category by which to define the Bible since it tells us what the Bible is not. That is, it uses negatives to describe the Bible rather than positives.

But then he concludes his post saying:

And this is why inerrancy, especially the way it is defined by Geisler, Mohelr and some others, is unhelpful. It predetermines what the Bible “is” and therefore what the authors of the Bible “must do” to fit within that definition.

So which is it? Does the doctrine of inerrancy tell us what the Bible “is not,” or does it tell us what the Bible “is”? He begins by complaining about negatives and ends by complaining about positives. It doesn’t seem that inerrancy has any shot with Byron.

Byron also suggests that:

The problem with this approach is that it wants the Bible to lineup with 21st century expectations. It fails to take into account the fact that the Bible was not written with us in mind and that authors were writing and working within their own historical and cultural context. This means that sometimes they did some very creative things with history that would simply not wash in our time.

But that’s exactly what believers in inerrancy argue! Look at the denial in Article XIII of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (page numbers in parentheses refer to the linked PDF file for ease of reference):

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations. (8)

This is exactly the opposite of what Byron has suggested! They argue that it’s wrong to charge the Bible with errors according to modern standards. We need to understand the text as it was intended by its authors and as it would have been understood by it original audience. In the Exposition section of the CSBI under the subheading “Infallibility, Inerrancy, and Interpretation,” we read:

We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of his penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.

So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: Since, for instance, nonchronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed. (12, emphasis mine)

The “creative things” that allegedly “wouldn’t wash in our time” would only be erroneous if we judged the Bible according to our standards and not its own. Ironically Byron seems to be doing just that in his argument against inerrancy. Surely I’m not the only one who can spot the inconsistency in that, am I?

Two asides:

First, Byron makes the claim that:

The more one studies the Bible the more you realize just how unsupportable of a claim it is. When we hold to inerrancy we end up making the Bible fit into our perceptions of what we think the Bible should be rather than standing back and discovering what it really is.

Really? So then what are we to make of all the Biblical scholars who keep on studying the Bible and keep on affirming inerrancy? Before making this statement–which comes off as a bit pretentious–he makes reference to Licona’s book, which he understands to contain “an impressive set of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus” and also to Licona’s “affirming his belief in inerrancy.” So that causes me to wonder whether or not Licona has studied the Bible enough. Apparently, the “more one studies the Bible the more you realize just how unsupportable of a claim [inerrancy] is.” Apparently Licona doesn’t think that the claim of inerrancy is unsupportable and he thinks that the doctrine remains safe in light of his understanding of the passage in question.

Second, Byron says that he’s in basic agreement with Licona’s published view on Matthew 27:52-53. He suggests that it’s “probably a combination of historical, theological, and scriptural elements that Matthew used to create a rich symbolic picture.” He goes on to say that the Gospel authors “regularly mix historical and theological material together.” I think it’s a mistake to bifurcate theology and history in such a way. The Biblical authors recount all sorts of historical events and they are all theological. All history tells us something about God so there’s no “mixing” going on according to the Biblical authors. Licona is not arguing history vs. theology but historical narrative vs. apocalyptic symbolism. For Matthew and his readers it’s theological no matter what!

Back to the inconsistency I find in Byron’s post. He uses John 2:18-22 as an example of the blending of history and theology in order to show that it wouldn’t be unusual for Matthew to do something similar in Matthew 27:52-53. But here’s where things get hairy; Byron says:

In his gospel John places Jesus’ clearing of the temple at the beginning of his ministry while the synoptics all place it at the end. John also interprets the temple event as symbolic of Jesus’ own death and resurrection (2:18-22). Now we can approach this in one of two ways. We can suggest that Jesus actually cleared the temple twice, once in the beginning and once at the end. But then we might want to ask why the synoptics only record a clearing at the end of Jesus’ ministry and John only records a clearing at the beginning. While we can sometimes harmonize the gospels to make sense of an event this does not seem to be possible here. On the other hand, the more likely explanation is that John has purposefully moved the event to make a theological point. That is, he has used history, theology and creativity to make a point about Jesus.

Now in essence I agree with Byron in that I think we’re talking about a single event and that John places it in a specific place in his narrative to make a point. No real argument there. But I have a few issues with his understanding of this passage and how he’s employing it in the service of his argument.

The first issue is that he understands it to be analogous of what’s going on creatively in Matthew 27:52-53. I don’t see that he’s actually argued for how this is so. Merely claiming that a mixture of history, theology, and creativity is in place seems like a weak connection. Cannot this very claim be made for literally every statement in every passage of Scripture that reports history of any kind? Again, I maintain that when a Biblical writer records history they do not do so devoid of theology—they do so in service of theology.

Second, is there not an inconsistency between the two examples (Matt. 27:52-53 & John 2:18-22) in claiming that they have “used history, theology and creativity to make a point about Jesus”? This seems to work against Byron’s understanding of Matthew 27:52-53 as theological rather than historical since on his reading Matthew would have to have only used theology and creativity rather than history in this small section. Remember, Byron doesn’t find Matthew to be recording history in 27:52-53. If he’s using history as well then how does that affect our understanding of the dead saints rising at Jesus’ death (or resurrection depending on how one punctuates the passage)?

Third, there’s more inconsistency in the analogy. Yes, I know, no analogy is perfect (if the analogy was perfect it wouldn’t be an analogy, it would be the very thing), but isn’t Byron saying that John simply moved a historical incident from one point in Jesus’ ministry to another in his narrative? In other words, Byron doesn’t seem to be suggesting that the temple clearing never happened, only that John references it at a specific point to make a specific point. That’s not what he thinks Matthew is doing. So I’m a bit confused on how they’re doing similar things with their use of history, theology, and creativity.

Fourth, I think there’s a problem with the claim that it “does not seem to be possible” that two clearings happened. Why not? If it didn’t seem at least possible then one wonders how such an interpretation ever came to be held by anyone. The fact of the matter is that it seems very possible even if improbable. This is actually one of the easier things to harmonize if one wanted to harmonize Gospel accounts. I personally find even the best arguments for this unconvincing but they’re not out of the realm of possibility.

Fifth, Byron admits that the Gospels can be harmonized at times in order to “make sense of an event” so in principle he’s not opposed to something the doctrine of inerrancy relies heavily on to maintain an error-free Bible. I’m now even more convinced that Marc Cortez’s recent post is right in suggesting that many (most?) discussions of inerrancy are less about inerrancy and more about hermeneutics. Byron doesn’t think that harmony is possible in every text; inerrantists do even they admit that the solution might not be readily available (see CSBI, 12). So now this becomes a debate about the interpretation of any given text and not about inerrancy per se.



8 thoughts on “An Inconsistent Argument Against Inerrancy

  1. Thanks for your thorough treatment of my post today. I appreciate you taking serious what I have to say. You are right, inerrancy does not have a shot with me. And while I can see why you might think that my arguments might be inconsistent, I suppose we would disagree since we are coming at the topic from different directions. For instance, I don’t consider Matthew to by history in the same way that we consider it today. Thus while Matthew certainly contains history, I think he uses it creatively and even altars it at times to fit his theological agenda. A good example is the very creative way he presents Jesus’ genealogy so that the three sets of “14” symbolically refer to Jesus as the son of David.
    You are correct that I do see the temple clearing as an historical event in John. But I still do not think Jesus did it twice. In the synpotics the clearing is what gets Jesus killed, in John it is raising Lazarus. I think John moved the event.

    As far as Matt 27, I do note in post that I linked to today that it is possible that there was an earthquake around the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection that opened some tombs and that Matthew incorporated this event along with Ezk 37 to make a theological statement about Jesus being the first fruits of the resurrection. I am indebted to Hagner for that interpretation.

  2. But of course one who denies that scripture is not inerrant would insist that we treat what they say or write as, well, inerrant. One would defend any error as not being understood or so on. If all agree scripture is God breathed and God is perfect, must not the assumption start with, not finish with, it is perfect?

    While searching for whether an earthquake really could or did happen, one at the same time, without the same weight of evidence supposes that Matthew was “creative”. I see much “I think” here, but no evidence, by the author’s own standards, within his own reasoning.

    And so it must be when the standard begins with an infallible God not being able to protect and preserve what he has breathed, but fallible man can do better and somehow figure out all the “moves” and “creatively” made “alterations”. The evidence gets in the way of the pre supposition.

  3. “And so it must be when the standard begins with an infallible God not being able to protect and preserve what he has breathed” And there is why I have a problem with inerrancy. I don’t think God needs to protect the Bible. It does not need protecting.

  4. Nick: Indeed with such men and Barth and Berkouwer, who would not be inerrantists (so-called), by today’s standards, we must walk very carefully in this subject. Indeed Spurgeon said, he would as soon defend a lion, as the Word of God! And of course he believed in inerrancy. As I do myself, though I would be hard pressed to define it I think? Here, I like to turn to God’s own mystery itself!

  5. John: Thanks for the clarification on your view of Matthew’s passage containing history.

    Michael: I think that one’s presuppositions about a number of things will determine where they come down on this issue. You’re beginning with the presupposition that a perfect and unerring God spoke in Scripture. There’s no standard or authority higher than God so you take him at his word. That’s commendable. And some would argue that’s the only legitimate option for the Christian. Others approach the text with the presupposition that Scripture is a human product, even if given by divine inspiration, and therefore it is subject to standards and authorities beyond itself (i.e., beyond God speaking in it). More times than not these folks reject inerrancy (at least in my experience).

    Fr. Robert: I don’t have a problem with defending the Word of God (whether we’re talking about Jesus or Scripture) since we’re called to give a reason for the hope that is in us.

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