Is Genre Criticism of the Gospels
Contrary to the Inerrancy of Scripture?
By Norman L. Geisler
Since many evangelical scholars are involved in genre criticism, even some who claim to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, it behooves us to examine the connection between genre criticism and inerrancy. In order to do so, we must first define what we mean by the terms inerrancy and genre criticism. Once we define the terms, then we will examine whether genre criticism is compatible with inerrancy.
The Meaning of Inerrancy
By “inerrancy” we mean unlimited inerrancy which holds that everything the Bible affirms is true, including historical and scientific matters. In short, it is the view that the Bible is without error as defined by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). There are many reasons for accepting this definition of inerrancy.
First, it was composed by the largest group of evangelical scholars in the world to write systematically on this topic. It resulted from the work of nearly 300 evangelical scholars from around the country and several other countries that came from diverse denominational backgrounds and ecclesiastical traditions. Virtually all of them were recognized scholars in their biblical and theological fields. Some of them were pastor-scholars, a concept very compatible with the Reformation. The earlier Lausanne Covenant statement (1974) was good and widely represented, but it was not systematic or comprehensive. The relevant part reads simply: “We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” While this statement is good in general, it is not specific enough to deal with the issue at hand in genre criticism and the Bible.
Second, the ICBI view on inerrancy was comprehensive and complete, consisting of two major statements with affirmations and denials in each one, including official commentaries on each set of propositions so that later individuals could not interpret the statements any way they wished. The four major ICBI documents on the meaning of inerrancy are:
1) The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978)
2) The Official ICBI Commentary on the Chicago Statement
3) The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982)
4) The official ICBI commentary titled Explaining Hermeneutics: A Commentary on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics
The last document is listed as “Appendix B” in the official ICBI book on Summit II. It contains the papers from that conference, the officialStatements on Biblical Hermeneutics with Affirmations and Denials, and the official Commentary on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics by the “General Editor, ICBI” (p. viii) of the series of ICBI books on inerrancy. For convenience, all four of these crucial documents have been placed in one volume: Explaining Biblical Inerrancy: Official Commentary on the ICBI Statements (available at http://bastionbooks.com/shop/explainingicbi/).
It is important to note that the commentaries were officially ICBI endorsed commentaries. The particular editors of these statements were framers of the documents and were chosen by the ICBI and represented the official ICBI view on the topic. They were all published as part of the official ICBI literature.
Third, the ICBI work took place over a period of ten years (1978-1988), including three major Summits. However, the third and final Summit which dealt with applying inerrancy (1988) did not deal with the meaning of inerrancy (as the first two summits did) but with its application to the life of the church. It produced a document titled Applying the Scriptures (Kenneth Kantzer ed., Academie Books, 1987).
Fourth, in addition to these documents, ICBI produced a series of books containing chapters on the various aspects of inerrancy. These books form the biblical and theological background for the four crucial documents defining and explaining inerrancy listed above. These background books are mentioned in the ICBI book on Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, p. ix as follows:
“General Editor’s Introduction
This book is part of a series of scholarly works sponsored by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). They include the following areas:
General—Inerrancy (Zondervan, 1979), Norman L. Geisler, ed.
Philosophical—Biblical Errancy: Its Philosophical Roots (Zondervan, 1981), Norman L. Geisler, ed.
Theological—Challenges to Inerrancy (Moody, 1984), Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, eds.
Historical—Inerrancy and the Church (Moody, 1984), John Hanna, ed.
Hermeneutics—Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (Zondervan, 1984), Earl Radamacher and Robert Preus, eds.
The ICBI does not endorse every point made by the authors of these books, although all the writers are in agreement with the ICBI stand on inerrancy. Freedom of expression of this commitment was exercised throughout the various books. All wrote with the hope that believers in Christ will become increasingly assured of the firm foundation for our faith in God’s inerrant Word.
Norman L. Geisler
General Editor, ICBI” ______________________________________________________________________________
Although there was freedom of expression in other written expressions by ICBI authors, there was complete unanimity on both ICBI statements and in the two commentaries on them. Those who did not agree with every point were free not to signs the statements, but very few did not sign them.
Fifth, the ICBI understanding of inerrancy was accepted by the largest group of evangelical scholars in the world (over 3,000), the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). ETS began in 1949 based on the single doctrine of inerrancy: “The Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in the autographs.” This served the society well for many years until, after a couple major controversies involving the meaning of inerrancy, ETS adopted the ICBI definition of inerrancy (in 2003) which affirms: “For the purpose of advising members regarding the intent and meaning of the reference to biblical inerrancy in the ETS Doctrinal Basis, the Society refers members to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy(1978).”
Sixth, the first ICBI document on the topic, known as the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” (1978), is crystallized in 19 basic statements of Affirmation and Denial. Several of them touch on topics related to genre criticism, but one relates to it directly. Article 19 reads: “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by the grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claim to authorship.” The official ICBI commentary on Article XIII adds: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. Some for instance, take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person. Others take Jonah to be an allegory when he is presented as a historical person and [is] so referred to by Christ.”
In brief, the ICBI view is that of unlimited inerrancy which asserts that whatever the Bible affirms on any topic is true, that is, it corresponds with reality. Inspiration is not limited to redemptive matters, but it includes historical and scientific matters as well. Further, the Bible is to be interpreted by the historical grammatical method of interpretation. Hence, when it makes affirmations about the space-time world, they correspond to the facts. Any attempt to reduce biblical narratives to myth, legends, or allegory is unacceptable and inconsistent with the inerrancy of Scripture.
Several ICBI citations will suffice to support these points: “We affirm that Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God” (Inspiration, Article I). Also, “We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write” (Inspiration Article IX). “We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science” (Inspiration Article XII). Furthermore, “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis…. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text…that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching…” (Inspiration, Article XVIII, emphasis added in all citations).
The Meaning of Genre Criticism
Biblical Genre Categories are Acceptable
Now that we have defined what is meant by “inerrancy,” we need to explain what we mean by “genre criticism.” The word “genre” simply means kind or type. As applied to Scripture, it refers to classifying sections into certain categories such as, history, poetry, parables, allegory, etc. Two kinds of genre criticism must be distinguished.
First, there is an acceptable use of “genre categories” such as allowed for in the following ICBI statements: “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (emphasis added). Also, we affirm that “Scripture communicates God’s truth to us verbally through a wide variety of literary forms” (Hermeneutics, Article X). And “We affirm that awareness of the literary categories…is essential for proper exegesis, and hence we value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study (Article XIII).
In this sense, genre studies are an entirely proper endeavor by which a study of different types of literature presented in Scripture one can discern the difference between narratives, poetry, parables, allegory, and the like. This enables the interpreter to know how “Scripture is [properly used] to interpret Scripture.” This helps, for example, to avoid the confusion of interpreting poetry literally and history allegorically.
Extra-Biblical Genre Criticism is Unacceptable
However, second, there is an unacceptable form of “genre criticism” which is spoken against by ICBI. It is when extra-biblical genre categories are used to determine what is meant by certain statements or events in Scripture. ICBI condemns this practice, declaring, “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claim to authorship.” The official ICBI commentary on Inerrancy Article 18 adds: “It is never legitimate, however, to run counter to express biblical affirmations.” Inspiration Article XIII declares emphatically: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual.” Hermeneutics Article XIV adds, “We deny that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated (emphasis added).
Further, “We deny that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it” (Hermeneutics, Article XX). Inspiration Article 13 also relates to the topic. It declares: “We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage and purpose.” The official ICBI commentary on Article 13 clarifies: “’By biblical standards of truth and error’ is meant the view used both in the Bible and everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth. This part of the article is directed toward those who would redefine truth to relate merely to redemptive intent, the purely personal, or the like, rather than to mean that which corresponds with reality.” It adds: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual.”
The ICBI statements oppose “dehistoricizing” sections of the Gospels by genre criticism. Article XVIII of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy(1978) declares: “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.” Further, “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (emphasis added).
When Inspiraton Article XIII affirms that we “value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study,” it clearly does not mean the kind of genre criticism that denies the historicity of the text since it explicitly condemns “dehistoricizing” the text in the same article. It means, as it says,“that in some cases extrabiblical data have a value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulting interpretations” (Hermeneutics Article XX, emphasis). However, it rejects making anything outside the Bible hermeneutically determinative of affirmations or events inside the Bible.
We deny that extra-biblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it” (Inspiration Article XX). Thus, “We deny that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings, inconsistent with itself, such as naturalism, evolutionism, scientism, secular humanism, and relativism” (Hermeneutics, Article XIX).
Further, “We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal sense…. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text” (Hermeneutics, Article XV emphasis added). Thus, ICBI approves only of genre studies that come from studying and comparing individual texts of the Bible by means of the “grammatico-historical” method of interpretation which the ICBI framers were committed to from the beginning (see Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy). But if externally determined genre is used to govern the meaning of the biblical text, then it is rejected. For in this kind of genre criticism the interpreter must know the genre before he can properly interpret the text. But this is tantamount to imposing genre expectations upon the text. In hermeneutics, this is labeled eisegesis(reading meaning into the text), rather an exegesis (reading meaning out of the text)! So, this widely used method of genre determination is contrary to the ICBI understanding of inerrancy.
In fact, ICBI declared: “We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write” (Inspiration Article IX). “We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science” (Inspiration Article XII). Also, “We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture” (Inspiration Article XIII).
The ICBI commentary adds, “Though the Bible is indeed redemptive history, it is also redemptive history, and this means that the acts of salvation wrought by God actually occurred in the space-time world” (Article XII). With regard to the historicity of the Bible, Article XIII in the official commentary points out that we should not “take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person.” Likewise, it affirms that we should not “take Jonah to be an allegory when he is presented as a historical person and [is] so referred to by Christ.” It adds, “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and he flood” (Article XII of the “Chicago Statement”).
It is evident from these statements that the ICBI framers rejected any form of biblical criticism, genre or otherwise, which takes priority over biblical teaching, whether it is naturalism, relativism, or evolutionism. Likewise they oppose using extra-biblical data to “dehistoricize” biblical narratives, whether in the Gospels or elsewhere. Indeed, the name of Professor Robert Gundry came up in the ICBI proceedings. It was explicitly mentioned in a plenary session by the drafters of the ICBI Statement on Hermeneutics as one who propounded a view which is excluded by this document (see Hermeneutics, Articles XIII and XIV). The official ICBI commentary on this point (Summit II: Hermeneutics, 1983) also has Gundry’s position in view (p. 11), and the ICBI “Executive Council” voted unanimously to inform ETS that “Robert Gundry is inconsistent with the ICBI Summit II statement” (ICBI Council “Minutes,” October 21, 1983, p. 3). From this it is clear that the ICBI statements on Inerrancy (also adopted by ETS for understanding inerrancy), including the one used by Robert Gundry to deny the historicity of sections of Matthew’s Gospel, was deemed incompatible with the ICBI view on inerrancy. So, the difference between acceptable and unacceptable use of genre in interpreting the Bible can be contrasted as follows:
The Use of Genre in Biblical Studies
|Acceptable Use of Genre||Unacceptable Use of Genre|
|To Classify Genre inside the Bible||To Critique Bible from Genre Outside the Text|
|To Use Extra-biblical Genre to Clarify the Meaning of a Text||Use Extra-biblical Genre to Determine the Meaning of a Text|
|Use Biblical Genre to Confirm the Historicity of a Text||Use of Extra-biblical Genre to Deny Historicity of a Text|
|Used as Part of the Historical-Grammatical Method||Use of Extra-biblical Genre contrary to the Historical-Grammatical Method|
So, using Hebrew or Greco-Roman genre to negate the historicity of sections of the Gospels is clearly contrary to what the ICBI framers meant by inerrancy. Those who make claims to the contrary are creating their own view of inerrancy, but they clearly do not reflect the view of the ICBI framers.
Robert Gundry’s View’s on Genre Criticism was Rejected by ETS
As already noted, ICBI rejected the use of extra-biblical genre categories to deny truth affirmed in the Bible. The genre views of Robert Gundry are an important case in point.
The Views of Gundry
A summary of the objectionable views of Robert Gundry which were rejected by an overwhelming majority of the ETS members are summarized in the following “Notes” given to the membership before they voted on the issue:
Quotations from R. Gundry’s Matthew Commentary (Eerdmans, 1982).
- “Clearly, Matthew treats us to history mixed with elements that cannot be called historical in a modern sense. All history writing entails more or less editing of materials. But Matthew’s editing often goes beyond the bounds we nowadays want a historian to respect. Matthew’s subtractions, additions, and revisions of order and phraseology often show changes in substance; i.e., they represent developments of the dominical tradition that result in different meanings and departures from the actuality of events” (p. 623).
- “Comparison with the other gospels, especially with Mark and Luke, and examination of Matthew’s style and theology show that he materially altered and embellished historical traditions and that he did so deliberately and often” (p. 639).
- “We have also seen that at numerous points these features exhibit such a high degree of editorial liberty that the adjectives ‘midrashic’ and ‘haggadic’ become appropriate” (p. 628).
- “We are not dealing with a few scattered difficulties. We are dealing with a vast network of tendentious changes” (p. 625).
- “Hence, ‘Jesus said’ or ‘Jesus did’ need not always mean that in history Jesus said or did what follows, but sometimes may mean that in the account at least partly constructed by Matthew himself Jesus said or did what follows” (p. 630).
- “Semantics aside, it is enough to note that the liberty Matthew takes with his sources is often comparable with the liberty taken with the OT in Jubilees, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Targums, and the Midrashim and Haggadoth in rabbinic literature” (p. 628).
- “These patterns attain greatest visibility in, but are by no means limited to, a number of outright discrepancies with the other synoptics. At least they are discrepancies so long as we presume biblical writers were always intending to write history when they used the narrative mode” (p. 624).
- “Matthew selects them [the Magi] as his substitute for the shepherds in order to lead up to the star, which replaces the angel and heavenly host in the tradition” (p. 27).
- “That Herod’s statement consists almost entirely of Mattheanisms supports our understanding Matthew himself to be forming this episode out of the shepherd’s visit, with use of collateral materials. The description of the star derives from v. 2. The shepherds’ coming at night lies behind the starry journey of the magi” (p. 31).
- “He [Matthew] changes the sacrificial slaying of ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,’ which took place at the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:24; cf. Lev 12:6-8), into Herod’s slaughtering the babies in Bethlehem (cf. As. Mos. 6:2-6” (pp. 34, 35). [see N.L. Geisler, The ETS Vote on Robert Gundry at their Annual Meeting in December 1983.]
The views of Gundry were described by the Christianity Today article on the matter as follows:
Even more controversial [than redaction criticism] has been Gundry’s suggestion that in the ‘infancy narratives’ (Mat. 1, 2) and elsewhere Matthew uses a Jewish literary genre called midrash. Like many preachers today, the writer of a midrash embroidered historical events with nonhistorical additions…. Gundry says, for example, Matthew changed the shepherds in the fields into the wise men from the East because he wants to foreshadow and emphasize the mission of Jesus to Gentiles. Gundry does not believe wise men visited Jesus” (Christianity Today, “Evangelical Scholars Remove Robert Gundry for His views on Matthew,” Feb 3, 1984).
This, of course, is the point of contention with genre criticism, namely, it denies the historicity of a number of biblical narratives. In the words of the ICBI, it “dehistoricizes” sections of the Gospels. Thus, contrary to the claim of some that there is no presumption of a biblical narrative being historical, the evidence is to the contrary. First, ICBI declared clearly: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual” (Hermeneutics Article XIII). Second, the “grammatico-historical” method affirmed by ICBI (Hermeneutics XVIII) entails, as the name implies, a commitment to the “historical” nature of the text. Third, the “standards of truth and error” view of truth embraced by ICBI (in Inerrancy Article XIII) implied a presumption of historicity, stating emphatically, “By biblical standards of truth and error is meant the view used both in the Bible and in everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth” (Official ICBI commentary on Article XIII). But a correspondence view of truth affirms that statements must correspond with the facts. Thus, when speaking of historical persons and events, the presumption is that the biblical narratives correspond with the actual historical facts.
The ETS Vote on Gundry’s Views
After three years of papers, publications, and discussion of the issue, and the rejection by ETS leaders of a petitions from 59 scholars (including several deans and seminary presidents), the membership of ETS called for a vote on the Gundry issue. Roger Nicole made the motion: “As one of the five founders of the Evangelical theological Society, with a heavy heart I officially request that Dr. Robert Gundry submit his resignation, unless he retracts his position on the historical trustworthiness of Matthew’s Gospel.” The vote was 116 to 41 (nearly 74% in favor) to ask Gundry to resign. After a short speech in which Gundry urged his followers to stay in ETS, Gundry resigned, and the issue calmed down. However, it did not die out. According to theChristianity Today article (ibid.), at Gundry’s suggestion, the strategy was “to stay in the organization” and “to recruit evangelical scholars who are more likely to support their viewpoint.” Since ETS allowed members to interpret the doctrinal statement as they wished, it is understandable that the organization gradually moved to the left. ”
A result of this strategy was evident at the November, 2013 annual ETS meeting when one member of the panel discussion on inerrancy (Michael Bird) spontaneously called for an informal vote on how many members present wished to see Gundry return to the Society. Two independent eyewitnesses reported that about one-third of the audience responded positively. There has been a rumbling of other voices in favor of overturning the Gundry decision in recent days. Early on some members have expressed their view in print. Dr. Craig Blomberg wrote:
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? If this sounds like the identical reasoning that enabled Robert Gundry to adopt his midrashic interpretation of Matthew while still affirming inerrancy, that is because it is the same. The problem will not disappear simply because one author [Gundry] is dealt with ad hominem. . . . How should evangelicals react? Dismissing the sociological view on the grounds that the NT miracles present themselves as historical gets us nowhere. So do almost all the other miracle stories of antiquity. Are we to believe them all?” (Blomberg, “New Testament Miracles and Higher Criticism: Climbing Up the Slippery Slope,”JETS 27/4 [December 1984] 436, emphasis added).
In view of all this, it is evident that if the ETS Gundry decision were ever reversed, it would open the flood gates to the rejection of the ICBI understanding of inerrancy.
This would do two undesirable things: First of all, it would solve a serious problem for some current ETS members who have not signed the ETS statement in good conscience. We know they exist based on how they voted on certain issues (like the Gundry and Pinnock cases) and by their own confession. For the report of the Executive Committee, confirmed by the membership vote, knowingly allowed in its membership persons who do not hold the same view on inerrancy as that of the framers of the doctrinal statement. This they have knowingly done since 1976 when the Executive Committee confessed that “Some of the members of the Society have expressed the feeling that a measure of intellectual dishonesty prevails among members who do not take the signing of the doctrinal statement seriously.” Other “members of the Society have come to the realization that they are not in agreement with the creedal statement and have voluntarily withdrawn. That is, in good conscience they could not sign the statement” (1976 Minutes, emphasis added). Further, an ETS Ad Hoc Committee recognized this problem when it posed the proper question in 1983: “Is it acceptable for a member of the society to hold a view of biblical author’s intent which disagrees with the Founding Fathers and even the majority of the society, and still remain a member in good standing?”(emphasis added). The Society never said No. The restoration of Gundry to the ETS would certainly calm the consciences of the more “liberal” members who are now signing the ETS statement with mental reservations.
Waiting in the Wings
Second, a reversal of the Gundry decision would mean a reversal of the historic position of ETS (and ICBI) to a more open-ended position in which every member could do hermeneutically what is right in his own eyes! In short, it would mean the death of the historic view on inerrancy held by ETS and ICBI (see John Hanna, Inerrancy and the Church, 1984). If the truth be known, there are many non-inerrantists (and those with a moral liberal view on the issue) “waiting in the wings” to join an organization like ETS. However, honesty demands that they should join other organizations that do not believe in the historic traditional view of inerrancy as held by the ETS and ICBI framers.
One clear example of those hoping for a broader understanding of inerrancy that would be inclusive of genre criticism that “dehistoricizes” sections of the Gospels is Mike Licona. He has expressed the belief that there is a disagreement among the living framers of ICBI statements as to the meaningof the ICBI statements with regard to this genre issue. However, that this is not the case is evident from several facts:
(a) Even in its formal statement on inerrancy (“the Chicago Statement” of 1974) there is a reference to the “grammatio-historical” (i.e., literal) method of interpreting the Bible (Article XVIII) which demands that the Gospel narratives be taken in the literal historical manner.
(b) In the same article it condemns “dehistoricizing” the text of Scripture which is what Licona does in several New Testament passages, including the raising of the saints in Matthew 27, the angels at the tomb in all four Gospels, and the mob falling backward at Jesus’ claim (in Jn. 18).
(c) In actuality, all the living ICBI framers (R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, and Norman Geisler) all agree that it is contrary to inerrancy (in the material sense) to “dehistoricize” the Gospel record and not take it as literal space-time history.
(d) As noted above, the ICBI framers affirmed a “correspondence” view of truth which demands that the affirmations in the Gospel record must have a literal referent in the real world (i.e., must be historical). As the ICBI commentary put it, “Though the Bible is indeed redemptive history, it is also redemptive history, and this means that the acts of salvation wrought by God actually occurred in the space-time world” (“Chicago Statement” Article XIII and Sproul, Explaining Inerrancy, 37).
The genre views of Mike Licona are basically the same as those of Robert Gundry who earned his dismissal from ETS by the use of the Hebrew Midrash genre in Matthew. The only difference is that the extra-biblical genre by which the biblical record is “dehistoricized” is Greco-Roman for Licona and Hebrew embellishment and legend for Gundry. Otherwise, both views fall into the category of unacceptable use of extra-biblical genre by which the biblical text is interpreted. The result is the same: both views are incompatible with the ETS (and ICBI) view on inerrancy.
Genre Criticism: A Comparison between Gundry and Licona
Source of Genre Extra-biblical Extra-biblical
Function of Genre To Determining Meaning To Determine Meaning
Relation to Historicity To Determine Historicity To Determine Historicity
Type of Genre Used Hebrew Midrash Greco-Roman
Relation to Inerrancy Incompatible Incompatible
As is clear from the comparison, the only real difference between Gundry’s and Licona’s use of Genre is the type of Genre used: Gundry used Hebrew midrash genre and Licona used Greco-Roman type genre. The function and result are the same: both denied the historicity of certain Gospel texts, and both are incompatible with the ICBI view of inerrancy.
Stepping Way Over the Line
To understand the serious inherent dangers in the genre view, in the Spring of 2009 in a debate with Bart Erhman at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Mike Licona claimed that the Gospel writers stated contradictory days on which Christ was crucified. Licona said, “I think that John probably altered the day [of Jesus’ crucifixion] in order for a theological—to make a theological point there. But that does not mean that Jesus wasn’t crucified.” In short, John contradicts the other Gospels on which day Jesus was crucified. Clearly this is a denial of the inerrancy of the Gospel record.
Licona attempts to justify this use of genre by contending that the Gospels, being written in Greco-Roman genre (as R. Burridge taught in What are the Gosples?), allow for contradictions. Licona wrote: “There is somewhat of a consensus among contemporary scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bios).” Thus, “Bioi offered the ancient biographers great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches,…and they often included legend. Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (The Resurrection of Jesus, 34, emphasis added). Licona points to similar phenomena in Plutarch where contradictions in his biographies are found. However, as we have seen, a contradiction anywhere in the Bible is opposed to the doctrine of inerrancy as held by the ICBI. In fact, it is also opposed to the Bible and to ICBI statements. (a) The Bible says emphatically, “Avoid…contradictions” (Gk. antitheseis). (b) The Law of Non-contradictions forbids that opposites can both be true, and this Law is undeniable since it cannot be denied without using it in the denial. (c) The ICBI statements demand that the contradictory statements cannot both be true, as is clear from the following ICBI declarations: “We affirm the internal consistency of Scripture. We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible” (Innerancy Article XIV). “We affirm the unity, harmony, and consistency of Scripture.” “We deny that Scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that one passage corrects or militates against another” (Hermeneutics Article XVII). “We deny that later revelation, which any fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects of contradicts it” (Inerrancy Article V). “We affirm that any preunderstandings which the interpreter brings to Scripture should be inharmony with scriptural teaching and subject to correction by it” “We deny that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings, in consistent with itself….” (Hermeneutics Article XIX). “We affirm that since God is the author of all truth, all truth, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere….” Further, “We deny that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it” (Hermeneutics XX). “We affirm the harmony of special with general revelation and therefore biblical teaching with the fact of nature. We deny that any genuine scientific facts areinconsistent with the true meaning of any passage of Scripture” (Hermeneutics Article XXI).
The emphasized words make it clear that there is a non-contradictory “unity,” harmony, “coherence,” and “consistency” of the Bible within itself and with all other facts. Any contradictions or errors must be merely “alleged” but not real. The Bible never “contradicts” itself or any other truth. This is all possible only because of the Law of Non-Contradiction which is part of God’s general revelation in nature—the undeniable nature of man as a rational being. For one cannot deny the law of non-contradiction without using it in the very denial. Therefore, a real contradiction in the Bible would be a denial of inerrancy.
ICBI Framers on Licona’s Use of Genre Criticism
Of course, the ICBI framers were before Licona wrote and, so, did not speak directly to his view. However, the ICBI principles clearly apply to Licona’s position. Indeed, Licona supporters often claim that his view is not contrary to the ICBI principles. Some point to a letter [2/12/2012] posted on the internet by a Mike Licona supporter which claims that “the framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) don’t always agree on how to interpret ICBI.” He claims to have received a letter from J. I. Packer that this matter of genre criticism and how to view Matthew 27 “is not an inerrancy question.” However, the above ICBI texts which Packer helped to frame and which he signed is sufficient to respond to this misinterpretation. And a phone call to my ICBI colleague J. I. Packer and co-framer of the inerrancy statements removed all doubt. He expressed very clearly to me what I knew to be true from years of working with him on ICBI that:
(a) He was speaking of inerrancy in the formal sense, not the materialsense. For, being a framer of the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (CSBI) Packer held that while hermeneutics and inerrancy are formally distinct, there is a material overlaps between them.
(b) Indeed, he helped to pen the whole article (Inerrancy, Article 18) which is dedicated to hermeneutics and inerrancy. It reads: “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by the grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of the literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.”
(c) Further, Packer added, “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing,dehistoricising, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship” (emphasis added). Having been part of the discussion and drafting committee, I can testify to the fact that the objection to “dehistoricizing” was aimed at views like Gundry’s which denied the historicity of whole sections in Matthew (like the visit of the Magi). This became even more explicit in the next ICBI Statement, the one on Hermeneutics and Inerrancy.
(d) What Packer said in the letter posted on the internet (2/12/2012) was that he rejected Licona’s view as not being “plausible.” This is understandable since it is in fact an example of “dehistoricizing” of the text forbidden by the ICBI settlement (Inerrancy Article XVIII).
While some ICBI proponents may differ on how much symbolism or figures of speech (which are allowed by ICBI Inerrancy Article XVIII and Hermeneutics Article X) are involved in the Genesis story, nevertheless, all agree that Adam an Eve were historical persons and that Genesis 1-11 is a historical record. Hermeneutics Article XXII says explicitly, “We affirm that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book. We deny that the teachings of Genesis 1-11 are mythical….”
As for the New Testament, the original framer of the ICBI “Chicago Statement,” R.C. Sproul, has spoken explicitly and emphatically to this issue. He wrote Dr. William Roach:
May 22, 2012
Thank you for your letter.
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.
You can use this comment by me however you wish.
- C. Sproul (emphasis added).
This letter should put the issue of the alleged compatibility of the unacceptable genre views and the ICBI Statements to rest for all but diehards who disregard the meaning of the framers of the Inerrancy Statement in a reckless post-modern manner. By the same logic, they would reject the views of Washington, Adams, and Madison on the meaning of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, if it conflicted with their more liberal views of the subject.
As for other scholars who approve of Licona’s views as being compatible inerrancy, they either: (a) have their own private (non-ICBI) view of inerrancy, or else (b) they do not understand the ICBI view on inerrancy, or (c) they are putting fraternity over orthodoxy because of friendship with him. Furthermore, the fact that others may hold views (or approve of views) that are similar to Licona’s does not thereby justify his views. It simply makes more people guilty of approving the same doctrinal aberrations. The fact is that Licona (ibid.), like Gundry, has written a major work using genre criticism (and has given scholarly presentations defending this view) which call into question the historicity of certain sections of the Gospels. As such, this view is open to criticism.
Scholars like Robert Gundry and Mike Licona who hold to a form of genre criticism which denies the historicity of certain biblical text are not consistent with the meaning of the ICBI framers. In this sense, the answer to the question with which we began is clearly negative. Genre criticism used to deny the historicity of a Gospel narrative is not compatible with the ICBI view on inerrancy. When it is remembered that ETS (2003) accepted the ICBI interpretation on inerrancy, this draws a large circle of evangelicals who reject the Gundry-Licona use of genre criticism to cast doubt on or deny the historicity of certain narrative sections of the Gospels.
In short, scholars who adopt the “New Historiographical Approach” using Greco-Roman Genre have every right to hold whatever view they wish on genre and inerrancy. Thus, they have every right to reject the ICBI interpretation of inerrancy. But they have no right to claim that their view—which includes holding that contradictions in the Gospels are compatible with inerrancy—is in accord with the view of inerrancy upheld by the nearly 300 scholars of the ICBI Summit (1978) which was subsequently adopted by the ETS (in 2003) as a guide to understanding inerrancy in their doctrinal statement. The two are simply and emphatically incompatible. To repeat, as the originally ICBI framer R. C. Sproul put it, “I can say categorically that Mr. Michael Licona’s views are not even remotely compatible with the unified Statement of ICBI” (cited above, emphasis added).