Inerrancy, Interpretation, and Orthodoxy: Is the Geisler-Licona Debate Really That Important?

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Introduction

Norman Geisler’s ongoing battles over biblical inerrancy have generated thousands of pages of writing, animosity, division, and even a sarcastic cartoon made in response to his attacks on Mike Licona. I have avoided posting any direct responses for two reasons: (1) I doubted it would accomplish much (a concern that has since been empirically verified), and  because (2) I don’t really find the “controversy” all that interesting. Geisler’s “battle for inerrancy” is mostly a collection of endlessly-circular disputes over personal interpretations (and alliances, but that’s another story) – not biblical inerrancy per se. So, like I said, not interested.

I do, however, care about the background issue that this “inerrancy battle” is based on. So I will weigh in on this point alone.

Behind the scenes of the debate, there is an assumed equation of biblical inerrancy / literal interpretation with the grounds of orthodoxy. It is this equation that forms the justification for Geisler’s unceasing attacks on those with whom he disagrees. For example, on the website devoted to defending Geisler’s notion of biblical inerrancy, the reason given for why this issue is so important is not simply because it is a matter of Christian truth – it is because it is thought that without biblical inerrancy, Christianity would crumble:

“The doctrine of the divine authority and inerrancy of Scripture is the fundamental of all the fundamentals . . . while one can be saved without believing in inerrancy, the doctrine of salvation has no divine authority apart from the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture.”

As will be shown below, this rather startling (and false) idea that salvation has no divine authority apart from the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture is no mere slip of the pen. Indeed, Geisler demonstrates a range of similar positions that all bank on equating inerrancy and orthodoxy (both of which, in the end, are equated to Geisler’s interpretations).

Interpretation = Inerrancy = Orthodoxy?

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Claims like the one above are nothing new for Geisler, and examples are easily multiplied.

I remember once being told that the reason SES required specific affirmation of premillennialism but not pretribulationism was that the former was a reliable indicator of orthodox biblical interpretation, and so while one might get away with denying pretribulationism, any position opposed to premillennialism revealed an unorthodox method of biblical interpretation that could lead to denial of orthodoxy. This ideas was reflected in Geisler’s The Importance of Premillennialism, where he equated denial of premillennialism with undermining salvation fundamentals:

Further, if the non-literal (spiritualized) interpretations of amills and postmills were applied to other sections of Scripture it would undermine the fundamentals of the Christian Faith.  . . . This too is a test of evangelical consistency. So, to deny the foundation of premillennialism, is logically to undermine salvation fundamentals as well.

In his An Open Letter to Mike Licona on his View of the Resurrected Saints in Matthew 27:52-53, Geisler makes several similar claims:

“Using extra-biblical sources in this way is similar to the false analogies used to deny the Virgin Birth of Christ . . .”

“. . . a hermeneutic that can undermine orthodox Christianity . . .”

“The ‘old’ historical-grammatical [hermeneutic] approach is sufficient, as it has been down through the centuries.  Indeed, if the principles of your historical approach (of using extra-biblical material as determinative of the meaning of a biblical text) were used consistently on the Bible, then it would undermine orthodoxy . . .”

Later, in The Early Fathers and the Resurrection of the Saints in Matthew 27, Geisler went after Craig Blomberg and William Lane Craig as well (lumping them in with Robert Gundry who was removed from ETS in the early 80’s thanks in large part to Geisler’s efforts):

“Craig Blomberg . . . denied the miracle of the coin and the fish story in Matthew (Matt. 17:27) . . .  Blomberg also said, “All kinds of historical questions remain unanswered about both events [the splitting of the temple curtain and the resurrection of the saints].”

“W. L. Craig . . . concluded that there are “probably only a few [contemporary] conservative scholars who would treat the story as historical.”

“The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy speaks against this kind of “dehistoricizing” of the Gospels, saying, “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” (Article XVIII). . . . Robert Gundry’s similar view of dehistoricizing Matthew were [sic] an object of these ICBI statements.”

Several years earlier, in A Response to Steve Gregg’s Defense of Hank Hanegraaff’s Partial Preterism, Geisler had warned,

“Gregg becomes ‘dislodged from reality’ by denying that ‘orthodoxy is dependant on a proper literal…interpretation of the Bible.’ How one can consistently hold orthodox theology on any other basis [sic].”

“Take for example the unquestioned orthodox belief in the literal death and literal resurrection of Christ. How can one derive this from Scripture with anything but a proper literal interpretation of Scripture? And yet by the same non-literal method of interpreting prophecy used by preterist [sic], one would have to deny the orthodox teaching of the literal death and resurrection of Christ.”

“In point of fact, full preterism is doctrinally unorthodox and partial preterism is methodologically unorthodox.”

Going after Hank Hanegraaff in A Review of Hank Hanegraff’s Book, The Apocalypse Code, Geisler again made the claim that,

“While minor points of end times events are not essential salvation doctrines, nonetheless, the hermeneutic by which we derive teachings about end times and other doctrines is a fundamental–it is a hermeneutical fundamental. In short, we must defend the literal historical-grammatical interpretation of the Bible since it is the means by which we understand the salvation fundamentals.”

As can be seen by just these examples, it is not at all unusual for Geisler to attach biblical inerrancy or literal interpretation to one of his personal interpretations, and then warn that a denial of the latter leads to a denial of the former.

Counter Examples All

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Geisler’s inerrancy criticism typically follows this basic form:

  1. Without literal interpretation, someone could deny anything the Bible teaches – including orthodox doctrine.
  2. Scholar X does not interpret passage Y literally.
  3. Therefore, scholar X could deny anything the Bible teaches – including orthodox doctrine.

It is Geisler’s not-so-subtle equation of biblical inerrancy and literal interpretation with the grounds of orthodoxy that many of his fans seem to accept (or miss). But this hand-wringing over hermeneutic method seems to be without warrant.

First, Geisler himself takes some doctrinally important biblical texts non-literally. For example, he spiritualizes Jesus’ statements in John 6 concerning his flesh and blood, yet Geisler affirms Jesus’ virgin birth and bodily resurrection. If Geisler can spiritualize some biblical texts (and deny their corresponding orthodox doctrines) without giving up other orthodox doctrines, why couldn’t others? (Note that any response relying on the legitimacy of a non-literal interpretation here is also available to his opponents elsewhere.)

Second, while a heretic would necessarily have to either deny the truth of the Bible or get its interpretation wrong,  even a “good” hermeneutic is not guarantee of orthodoxy, and “bad” hermeneutics do not always lead to heresy. For example Finis Dake’s literal hermeneutic led him to teach that God had a body and lived on planet heaven. St. Augustine, on the other hand, while often blamed for spiritualizing the Bible, literally wrote the book on the Trinity.

Third, none of those Geisler attacked above ended up denying the elements of Christian orthodoxy he warned about.* Mike Licona may deny a literal raising of the saints in Mt. 27, but he defends Jesus’ literal resurrection. Craig Blomberg may deny a literal coin miracle took place, but he does not deny Jesus’ literal resurrection. Steve Gregg may deny a literal “first resurrection” in Rev. 20, but he also does not deny Jesus’ literal resurrection. Hank Hanegraaff may deny a literal future temple for Israel, but he does not deny Jesus’ literal resurrection either.

Geisler himself provides an excellent counter-example to his own theory. In his defense of a literal take on Mt. 27, Geisler cites Origen as being in agreement with him. This is an interesting ally for Geisler, given that Origen is a famous heretic (in fact, I once heard Geisler joke that Origen was the origin of all heresy)! However, even though Origen believed in pre-incarnate souls and other weird stuff . . . he never denied Jesus’ literal resurrection.

Finally, the vast majority of the Christian Church denies premillennialism (Geisler’s test case for orthodox methodology) yet retains belief in orthodox doctrines like Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection.

Thus, both theoretically and empirically, Geisler seems to be arguing from an illegitimate slippery slope.

Scripture Alone

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Since it is not the case that these (or practically any) theologians end up denying orthodox doctrines like the virgin birth or Jesus’ resurrection simply because they accept a non-literal reading of Mt. 27 or Rev. 20, why does Geisler constantly play this card? I think the answer is simple: he has no other choice.

In Biblical Inerrancy: Inductive Or Deductive Basis?, Norman Geisler makes his position clear when he states that,

“Epistemologically, inerrancy is at the very foundation of every other Christian doctrine, since if the Bible is not the divinely authoritative basis for our beliefs, then we have no divine authority for any Christian doctrine. For all Christian doctrines are derived from the Bible.”

Because Geisler rejects extra-biblical authority, he can only ground his orthodoxy in biblical interpretation (his, of course).  It is easy, then, to understand why Geisler feels the need to equate them. However, if an extra-biblical authority existed to ground orthodoxy prior to one’s interpretation of the Bible, then they would no longer be equatable, and the “serious danger” of non-literal biblical interpretation (and even biblical “errancy“) would cease to be much of a threat.

Conclusion

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When he ascended into Heaven, Jesus did not leave behind any writings – much less a hermeneutics textbook. Rather, he founded an authoritative Church (Mt. 18:18; Lk. 10:16; Jn. 20:23; etc.) charged with making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that he had commanded them (Mt. 28:19-20). Jesus promised the founding members of this Church that they would be led into all truth (Jn. 16:13). St. Paul called the resulting Church the “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and Jesus said it could never be overcome (Mt. 16:18). This Church wrote and collected the Bible according to Jesus’ teachings – not “orthodox hermeneutics.” Therefore, orthodoxy is not grounded in biblical hermeneutics. This is why Christians can disagree on hermeneutic methodology (or its particular applications) without necessarily threatening Christian orthodoxy.

Without an authoritative Church to draw the orthodox lines, however, Geisler can do no other than try to take its place.

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*Interestingly, even when William Lane Craig admitted to taking up unorthodox doctrinal positions, Geisler never called him out for doing so. It was only after the "Licona lines" were drawn that he seemed to take notice of Craig's "errors" (and then only the ones Geisler disagreed with).
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12 thoughts on “Inerrancy, Interpretation, and Orthodoxy: Is the Geisler-Licona Debate Really That Important?

  1. I like your blog dedicated to nothing more than critiquing the only version of evangelicalism you know, which is geislers. In fact, it would be interesting to see if and how you could or would engage someone other than geisler.

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  3. James,

    I don’t see how 8 posts out of over 300 makes my blog “dedicated to nothing more than critiquing” Geisler or anyone else. There are two or three posts directed to John MacArthur (that a reader asked me to write), one that deals with William Lane Craig, probably a Steve Furtick post in there somewhere. That leaves about 97% of the blog, right? Further, it is not my purpose to comment on all things Evangelical, and I have little desire to spend much more of my life on their opinions than I already have. Geisler, however, has attacked my friends and has misled a lot of people I care about – so that might explain my dedicating those whopping 8 articles to exposing some of his errors. If you have some version of evangelicalism that you think deserves my attention,feel free to make suggestions.

  4. Hey Doug,

    Good job. I agree Jesus left us with an authoritive church. I would add to your list of scriptures concerning the church Eph 2:20; which expresses the foundation of the churches authority as the teachings of the apostles, prophets, and Jesus. It is the scriptures which give the church a foundation to build on. As believers in Christ we all have acess to the Father reguardless of our church affilliations (Eph. 2:18). I am not sure why you think Norman G. does not attend an authoritive church or is trying to replace one. But I never thought it was about finding the right church as much as it is about finding the right savior.

    Dominic

  5. Hey Dom!

    The foundation of the churches authority is the teachings of the apostles, prophets, and Jesus. The issue, then, is finding which of the 20,000 competing “teachings of the apostles, prophets, and Jesus” are actually the teachings of the apostles, prophets, and Jesus. 🙂 Geisler is actually a perfect example of the problem. he claims to defend “the historic Christian faith” yet it is an objective fact that many of his main beliefs are late innovations. He reconciles this paradox by saying that his interpretation of the Bible is more accurate than the majority of the church and so it equals the teachings of the apostles, prophets, and Jesus.

    In the end, everyone has their interpretation – and not all of them are clearly in error. Very good, faithful scholars disagree on many important points – yet they all claim that they are just following the teachings of the apostles, prophets, and Jesus as revealed in the Bible. The tie-breaker, then, won’t be found by doing even more exegesis. Jesus did not leave us an apparently confusing collection of books to guide us, he left a Church with authoritative teachings that delimit the exegetical options. I believe that Church can be objectively identified via historic apostolic succession. That is also why Norman G. does not attend an authoritive church – because it’s not the aforementioned church.

    Does that make sense? Miss seeing you guys!

  6. I agree that God left us with an authoritive church but also an authoritive book. They should agree. The real question is does an authoritative church still exist after a church split(Chalcedon or in 1054a.d.), or did the authoritive church give us the canon, the early creeds and then cease.

  7. Jacob,

    The Church cannot cease or else Jesus was wrong in Mt. 16:18, so it’s somewhere! There is far less of an issue between RC/EO than RC/Prot doctrinally as well as ecclesiastically. If someone joins either the RC or the EO, they are in “the authoritive church that gave us the canon, the early creeds ” – but EO has its own authority issues that I mentioned above. If they had an equivalent to the RC magesterium, they’d have more going for them – but they don’t, and never will. However, they retain apostoilc succession and the graces that brings – they just lack universal binding authority (per their own admission). I think that severley weakens any claim to having a corner on being the One . . . Catholic . . . church.

  8. As far as Mt. 16:18, I wasn’t using cease in that way. I know it’s somewhere. I just meant in its canon and creed creating sense.

  9. I understand, but I think we cannot say that the Church exists yet lacks the ability to do what Jesus said it could (e.g., the very next verse – Mt. 16:19!). If the Church is the “pillar and ground of truth,” can define dogma, forgive sin, etc., then to lose those abilities would be for it to “cease” in the relevent sense.

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