THE ETS VOTE ON ROBERT GUNDRY AT THEIR ANNUAL MEETING IN DECEMBER 1983
The following document was composed by Norman L. Geisler and given to all the membership present at the December, 1983 meeting of the Evangelical theological Society in Dallas, Texas. It is retained it in its original form without editing so that the reader can get a feel for exactly what occurred at this historic meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.
WHY WE MUST VOTE NOW ON GUNDRY’S MEMBERSHIP
- The Robert Gundry issue has been pending now for three years since it was first brought to the attention of the ETS Executive Committee. It is due time for action by the members.
- Last year the president announced the Executive Committee’s approval of Gundry’s membership without allowing any discussion or a vote from the ETS membership. Yet the ETS Constitution requires that action can be taken on “the continued membership of an individual” only after a vote of the membership (Article IV, Section 4). This is the first opportunity subsequent-to the Committee’s pronouncement for the membership to act.
- A petition (Jan., 1983) from representative ETS members across the country was presented to the president of ETS. It included the signatures of several presidents and deans of schools, as well as those of numerous other members. The petition read, “We the undersigned, hereby protest the ETS executive council decision (December, 1982) regarding the views of Dr. Robert Gundry. We call upon the council to rescind its decision.” In view of the Executive Committee’s choice not to respond to this request and in view of the fact that the Constitution gives authority in such matters to the members, it is imperative that the membership as a whole act at this time.
- By the Executive Committee’s favorable decision on Gundry’s membership the impression was left of official approval by the Society as a whole, even though the action was taken without consulting the membership. For instance, The Presbyterian Journal (Jan. 12, 1983) headlines on the issue declared, “Evangelical Theological Society Retains Controversial Author.” The lead sentence said, “The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) has decided not to rescind the membership of a Westmont College Professor over a provocative new commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.” Even the secular media reported, “Society clears New Testament Professor” (Los Angeles Times, 12-25-82) (emphasis added in these quotes). So the impression left with the public is that the society as a whole, not just a few individuals, acted in approval of Gundry’s membership. Since this is not the case, it is now time for the members to express their will.
- Subsequent to the last annual meeting, an ETS letter entitled “The Executive Committee Report on Dr. Gundry’s Position” announced to the membership “that at any time at an annual meeting, there can be a call for a question and vote concerning the membership of any one in the society” (p. 2). This annual meeting is our only opportunity to express these constitutional rights.
- Gundry’s views have been plainly stated and thoroughly aired both at the last annual meeting and in eight articles and responses in the March ’83 issue of JETS. His views are clear, well known (see Notes [below]),–and there is no further need to discuss them.
In view of the ample time, thorough discussion, and apparent ETS approval of Gundry’s status without input, it is now time that the members exercise their constitutional obligation and become involved in this decision.
WHY WE MUST VOTE NO ON GUNDRY’S MEMBERSHIP
- ETS is not merely a theological debating society. By its very name it is the “Evangelical Theological Society.” Besides this unspoken consensus on evangelical theology, the Constitution spells out an explicit, undebatable “doctrinal basis” which confesses “the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in the autographs” (emphasis added). The official brochure of “The Evangelical Theological Society” (1978) calls this the “creedal statement” of “conservative scholars.” But in spite of this unequivocal creedal affirmation that the entire Bible is without error we find ourselves debating about whether someone can belong who has denied that some of the things reported in the Gospel actually occurred (see Notes [below]). There should be no debate about this issue. Our name and Constitution are unequivocal on this point.
- The ETS Ad Hoc Committee on critical methodology has recommended the adoption of the ICBI Statements on Inerrancy and Hermeneutics (reported to ETS members, October 20, 1983, p. 2). Gundry’s name was explicitly mentioned in plenary session by the drafters of the ICBI Statement on Hermeneutics as one who propounded a view which is excluded by this document (see Articles XIII & XIV quoted below). 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).
- It has been and remains a firm conviction of evangelicals that no “discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the tradition they incorporated” (as noted in ICBI Hermeneutics Statement, 1982, Art. XIV). The Statement adds, “We deny that genre categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual” (Art. XIII). But despite semantical maneuverings to the contrary, this is precisely what Gundry rejects. For Gundry holds that numerous sayings of Jesus and events recorded on the Gospel of Matthew were invented by the author and did not actually occur. Gundry states very clearly, “Hence ‘Jesus said’ or ‘Jesus did’ need not always mean that in history Jesus said or did what follows…” see Notes [below]). This is a de facto denial of inerrancy which excludes him from membership in ETS.
- Few ETS members agree with Gundry’s unorthodox views, and scarcely any New Testament scholar have embraced them. Indeed, most members of ETS flatly disagree with Gundry’s interpretation which claims that Matthew invented certain sayings and events in his Gospel. In fact, many are frankly shocked by it. Two of our long-standing, most reputed ETS members expressed their concern as follows: “The kind of interpretation provided by Dr. Robert Gundry appears scandalous!” (Roger Nicole, letter to President Goldberg, 12-22-82). “No more damaging approach to Biblical authority can be found than this. The pall of doubt cast over the recorded sayings of Christ will open the gate wide for all and sundry to apply for membership in the ETS if Gundry’s membership is going to be upheld in our Society (Gleason Archer, letter to President Goldberg, 1-11-83). If we do not act decisively on Gundry’s membership, it will have a dangerous, precedent-setting influence on ETS. [That was 1983. Clearly, there are many more today.]
- Many ETS members agree with what the president of one of our largest seminaries put bluntly in these words: “If Gundry stays in ETS, then I am leaving.” In point of fact many are already discussing the possible need to begin a new theological society which takes seriously its view on inerrancy. If we do not act now, then we are in danger of losing large numbers of our members who want to preserve the strong stand on inerrancy ETS was founded to perpetuate.
- Good hermeneutics demand that we exclude Gundry from our membership. For the issue boils down to how we are to interpret the ETS constitution and doctrinal basis. 1) Will we interpret them as the authors meant them? 2) Or, will we interpret them for what they mean to us? In short, if we approach the ETS statements the way “evangelical” and “conservative” scholars (which we claim to be) have historically approached the Scriptures, then we must reject Gundry’s view of Scripture as unorthodox. Certainly it is not in accord with the “evangelical” view of inerrancy (as envisioned by the ETS founding fathers) to deny the historicity of sayings or events reported in the Gospel record. And it clearly is not in accord with the ICBI statements which the ETS “Ad Hoc Committee” on critical methodologies recommends to clarify the ETS position.
- Gundry made it clear in his response in JETS (March ’83, p. 114) that he believed ETS membership should not exclude anyone who sincerely signs the ETS doctrinal statement, including people like Origen, Averroes, Karl Barth, and even May Baker Eddy! But if the ETS statement is made so all-inclusive, then ETS has lost its evangelical identity and its doctrinal integrity. There are other scholarly organizations which take no stand on inerrancy (e.g., SBL). Let those who cannot conscientiously sign the ETS statement in the historic sense identify with these groups which make no pretense to believe in inerrancy. But let ETS and its members make no pretense about their belief in inerrancy. Integrity is the issue.
- The present ETS Constitution provides that “in the event that the continued membership of an individual be deemed detrimental to the best interests of the Society, his name may be dropped from the membership roll at an annual meeting…” (Art. IV, Sect. 4). We believe that the membership of Dr. Robert Gundry fits clearly into this category. We thereby urge that the membership vote to preserve the integrity of ETS.
- Organizationally, the choice before us is this: Will ETS as an organization continue to carry the torch for inerrancy as envisioned by its founders, or will it be necessary to start a new organization to accomplish the original goal of ETS? Wisdom dictates that it would be better to reaffirm than to reorganize. But history is replete with examples of new organizations which have arisen to fulfill the original goals of once evangelical groups which have since drifted from their solid evangelical commitments. Let us pray that history does not repeat itself in the current crises of the Evangelical Theological Society.
In consultation with many concerned ETS members
Norman L. Geisler
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).
Editorial Comments on the ETS Gundry Decision in 1983
By Norman L. Geisler
First, it can be agreed that the process by which Gundry was removed from ETS was not a rush to judgment. Actually, it was a long and patient procedure covering some three years.
Second, the basic issue was the influence of genre criticism on New Testament studies which was centered on the views of Robert Gundry. The legitimacy of his views was apparently supported by many ETS members (since 30% of them voted to retain Gundry in ETS membership).
Third, the vast majority of the membership felt obliged to act since the leadership failed to consult them in the Gundry decision which was contrary to their views.
Fourth, the vote was not a bare majority or even two-third majority. It was a very significant 70% majority in favor of dismissing Gundry from ETS for his views.
Fifth, “the ETS Ad Hoc Committee on critical scholarship” recommended unanimously [10/20/83] the adoption of the ICBI Statements on Inerrancy  and Hermeneutics  and noted that Gundry’s view were inconsistent with these statements. ETS failed to do this.