Friday, February 4, 2011

Inerrancy and Interpretation, Part 5

Our series on inerrancy closes today with an evaluation of the finale exchange between Geisler and Gundry in a 1983 issue of JETS. My main concern is with how each side defends the proposition that genre artifacts like midrash can (or cannot) fit in with a doctrine of inerrancy.

Unfortunately, Geisler spends very little time actually addressing this question, and spends far too much time accusing Gundry of trying to manipulate his readers by sounding intelligent. To his credit, he does at least engage as Moo did by trying to argue that Matthew is not offering midrash. But in terms of our issue of concern, this is what he offers.

First, Geisler offers a slippery-slope fallacy in which he says, “if Matthew can create myths about Jesus’ life that are not true, then he can also create sayings of Jesus that Jesus never said. If this were the case, then we would be left with no assurance as to the truth of what Jesus actually did or said.”

It is hard to worry much about this since Matthew (and the other Gospels) are just as readily accused of making up things Jesus said (or did) by those who place the Gospels fully in the genre of ancient biography. In other words, intention isn’t any sort of safeguard. However, there are more than sufficient ways to know what Jesus actually did or said even if Gundry is right. For one thing, we have the parallels in Mark, Luke and John, which Gundry would class as reporting straight narrative history. For another, as Gundry observes in reply, midrash “means historical tradition plus unhistorical adaptation” and “not sheer nonhistory”.

In the end, the only way to get the assurance Geisler asks for hasn’t changed and is the same as it would be for any document – we have to figure out the intention of the author, and sift and then weigh evidence for historicity. Geisler’s implied threat of chaos is merely an overdramatized episode of pressing a panic button. Additionally, Geisler still fails to understand midrash properly, as it being a case where Gundry simply “denies that events reported in the Bible actually occurred.” Rather, Gundry’s case would be, as he puts it (but with which, note, I disagree in application) that for example, “the Magi were not created out of thin air, but as Matthew’s midrashic adaptation of the shepherds, truly historical figures.” Geisler seems to be unable here to get past a black and white “did it happen or not” classification scheme.

Second, Geisler offers what can only be described as an astonishing analysis in which he argues that the purpose and intention of an author shouldn’t be part of our interpretive exercise. Gundry is accused of confusing the “what” of a passage with the “why” of a passage and it is argued that one does not need to know a “why” in order to understand a “what”.

This is misguided for a couple of reasons. One is that the Biblical text was written in a high context society, in which the audience is frequently assumed to be in on the “why” Therefore, the lack of a “why” in a text is not sufficient argument to say that there was not one that was understood. Geisler offers the example of Ex. 23:19 (“you are not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk”) and notes that commentators have offered multiple speculations as to the “why” of this verse. But, Geisler says, “the children of Israel did not need to know why; all they needed to know was what it meant, and that is clear without knowing the purpose.”

Really? The false step here is that simply because we do not know the purpose, this means that they did not know it. When evaluating a high context text, that sort of hypothesis is without basis. But even if it were not, it would remain that the law did have some purpose, even if it were not revealed to Israel at any point in its history by whatever means.

Geisler’s most disturbing comment in this regard is, “No method is legitimate if it goes behind or beyond the text to find the meaning.” This sounds more like an obscurantist KJV Onlyist attitude than something that would be said by a serious disciple. In essence, it forbids us to seek defining contexts of all sorts – whether they involve insights from anthropology, from linguistics, or even from genre study. It goes further than that: To read our Bibles, we have to be literate in a language, and we learned that language from somewhere “beyond” the text.

Gundry rightly replies: “I refuse to separate the text from the author’s mind, as Geisler does. To make such a separation is to empty the text of any meaning except what we read into it…” (There is only limited justification for this sort of thing, as applied to incidental factors in the text; see link at end.)

In all of this, I cannot help but think that Geisler was in a mode of panic and could not see the deficiency in his reasoning and the inevitable results of his statement. In no place did he provide a serious, legitimate answer to why midrash is not compatible with inerrancy (as Moo allowed that it was!); indeed he did not even rightly grasp what midrash was. His stance has even broader implications beyond the Bible: It undercuts arguments about the “intent” of the authors of the Constitution, for example. But the critical issue here is one of classification and intent, and Geisler’s professions about intent amount to a scorched earth policy with respect to exegesis.

Gundry summarizes it well when he says, “Midrashic adaptations and embellishments are not reports. What is not intended to be taken as a report of an event is not a historiographical falsehood.” Geisler’s reaction to this is like that of the fundamentalist atheist (such as C. Dennis McKinsey) who takes all proverbs as absolute and refuses the counsel that proverbs were never meant to be taken as absolutes. Suggesting that proverbs are not absolutes is no more radical in principle than suggesting that Matthew was performing midrash. The only difference here appears to be Geisler’s level of comfort with the concept.

In close for this series: In this exchange we see a struggle between those who are wedded to a low context, Western understanding of the text as a product and those who seek to contextualize the text according to its original purpose. The reader knows well that I have always stood firmly on the side of the latter, first because it is true, and second because it offers the best explanation for many textual phenomena. The struggle here is one that I believe will decide in part whether we are able to rescue many of the faithful from the inevitable cognitive dissonance that the former view will cause (and has caused), or whether we will watch many more slide into apostasy because they recognize the sort of answers Geisler offers as unsatisfactory. I am sure this debate has had many later manifestations (I've been involved in some myself!) so we'll surely revisit this topic again.

Link: The one place where we can viably overlook author “intention “ is when something is presented incidentally. The sort of example I have in mind is what I write about here.


  1. When it comes to the current slide of evangelical scholarship, the key issue often ends up being hermeneutics, it seems. Gundry and Geisler are both perfect examples, however, that bad presuppositions make the slope ever more slippery. Because Geisler's presupposition about literal hermeneutic is inconsistent (as you point out about Proverbs, etc.), his interpretations of texts become dangerously "reader centered." The reader determines the meaning ("literal" being what is "literal" to a late 20th or early 21st century white middle class American) rather than submitting himself to careful research uncovering the thought world of the original biblical writers. Gundry is subject to the same danger, however, because he submits himself to the influence of biblical critics today. The presuppositions of these critics leads Gundry to make certain conclusions based upon redaction criticism (the idea of redaction criticism would be great if we knew for certain which gospel was first and who much the others actually depended on it). I agree with you that Gundry's thesis would be fine if he based it on the text more clearly and based it upon the actual data for the first century.
    In the end, however, there is not much difference between Geisler and Gundry, is there? Are both of them turning Matthew into midrash by forcing their 20th century American presuppositions into a 1st century thoughtworld?

    Thanks for a great and thought provoking submission.

  2. I have to admit I have not looked at Gundry's case that closely; I did find his commentary on Matthew to be overdone at times trying to explain why Matthew allegedly changed Mark on even the minutest points of grammar (I find the variability of oral transmission a much better explanation, along with Matthean priority), and of course I think his estimation of the magi story and other accounts as ahistorical in in error. If that's what you mean -- yes, I think he's probably bringing too many modern assumptions to the text.

    Thank you for the kind words!