The Misuse of J. I. Packer to Defend Mike Licona’s Denial of Inerrancy

by Norman L. Geisler

Mike Licona believes there are errors in the Bible, including the day of Jesus’ crucifixion which allegedly is listed on two different days in the Gospels (cf. Jn. 19:14 and Mark 14:12).  Strangely, Mike Licona and those who support his view have  appealed to J. I. Packer to support their view, but Packer has strongly repudiated this view and condemns Licona’s position (see below).

However, recently Packer wrote a blurb commending Licona’s new book (Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, Oxford, 2017) which defends, among other errors, there being contradictions in the Gospels. This has occasioned some Licona supporters to claim that Packer has changed his view on the topic. In it Packer wrote a commendation of the book, declaring,

“Professor Licona’s new book is a monograph exploring some compositional techniques which the synoptic evangelists appear to have used. Clarificatory and thorough, it is an accomplished piece of work, which it is a pleasure to commend.”

However, this falls far short of an approval of Licona’s denial of inerrancy.  Indeed, it claims only that Licona’s book clearly and thoroughly (718 pages!) treats certain “compositional techniques” in the Gospels—and that it does.  However, it does not place approval on Licona’s denial of inerrancy. Further, Packer has written dozens of blurbs over the years—even for books containing views with which he disagrees.

It was my privilege to work closely with J. I. Packer, not just for a few hours, but for some ten years (1979-1989) in defining and defending the inerrancy of the Bible in the documents of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). More recently, (Jan 2017), I updated my conversation with Packer on this topic, and he assured me he had not changed his views. “As for my specific question as to whether or not he still supported the ICBI statement on inerrancy, he said that rumors to the contrary were “categorically and absolutely false.”  He gave the same answer to my second question as to whether he had changed his view about Mike Licona’s view expressed in Packer’s letter (of  5/8/2014) which declared that Licona’s position was contrary to the  ICBI statement on inerrancy.  The statement reads:

As a framer of the ICBI statement on biblical inerrancy and once studied Greco-Roman literature at advanced level, I judge Mike Licona’s view that, because the Gospels are semi-biographical, details of their narratives may be regarded as legendary and factually erroneous, to be both academically and theologically unsound (Letter, 5/8/14).

Packer insisted that he strongly stands by both his affirmation of the ICBI statements on inerrancy and that Licona’s views were categorically contrary to it.  He described Mike’s view as “muddled” and illogical, but wished to keep up the conversation with him open in hope that his view would change his position.

Upon careful examination, Packer’s more recent book “blurb” on Licona’s book says nothing to the contrary. It is, as stated, a commendation of the comprehensive and clear treat of “certain techniques used by Gospel authors,” not an approval of everything in the book.

Even so, it is well known by scholars that these blurbs, often say some positive things about a book without going into an extensive negative critique.  Dr. Al Mohler was more careful when he noted that Licona has admirably defended the resurrection of Christ but in a way that left the door open to skepticism. Thus, “Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon” by denying or undermining the historicity of sections of the Gospels. Indeed, Bart Erhman used this very opening to deny the resurrection of Christ.  He asked how someone could not deny the resurrection of Jesus by the same logic he rejected the resurrection of Jerusalem saints (Mat. 27:52-53) in the same passage (Ehrman-Licona Dialogue on the Historicity of the New Testament, Feb. 9-May 6, 2017)?

There are only three living framers of the ICBI (J. I. Packer,  R. C, Sproul, and myself), and there is unanimous agreement among us that Licona’s view is contrary to the ICBI stand on Inerrancy.  The original framer of the ICBI statements on inerrancy, R.C. Sproul, wrote,

“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 Dr. Michael Licona’s views are not even remotely compatible with the unified Statement of ICBI” (Letter, May 22, 2012, emphasis added).