Licona vs Geisler raises the question -- especially among critics of Christianity, but also within the church -- about the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture for matters of faith and practice. In a response to the debate in question, Dan Wallace went so far as to say it was an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture itself -- for how can Sola Scriptura be held true if final appeal must be made to extra-biblical interpretive authorities (meaning, in this context, not tools like contextualizing information, but persons formally recognized by an ecclesiastical body to act as interpreters)? And Wallace is not the only one to bringing up the question.
Most Christians, whether they realize it or not, believe as I do that even the authoritative Bible requires some extra-biblical source for interpretation. The sources can vary from traditional creeds and confessions to philosophical rationales; from personal claims to receive illumination from the Holy Spirit to some scholarly hermeneutical procedure; from personal research to some pastor who is a veritable cult leader and on whose every word we hang. We all have our personal "popes" and they have varying degrees of legitimacy. However, that by itself does not make the issue. To illustrate the matter better, let me draw from some personal experience.
Law seldom stands alone. In the State of Florida, we have the Florida Statutes, but below these are a much larger set of codes -- intended to explain exactly how each state agency is supposed to enforce laws applicable to it. Chapter 33, the codes for the Florida Department of Corrections -- the agency I once worked for -- by itself was larger than 2 volumes of Florida's Statutes. It was also constructed using loose leaf pages, the better to accommodate the fact that changes and tweakings came down for it virtually every month. Below the codes were what were called Policies and Procedures -- even more detailed instructions on how to apply the codes, and those too were updated on a regular basis. The paper used for all of this could have powered Pittsburgh for a week.
By the same token, ICBI produced an eight volume book set to explain their views, which included a 1000 page volume on hermeneutics. But no more so than with the eternally updated Florida codes did this tome solve every problem -- nor did it, of course, give an authorized commentary on every verse of Scripture!
So: If inerrancy requires a specific hermeneutic that can be tested by specific interpretations, then authoritative interpretation is indeed at issue. Even granting that the debate is not precisely a question over whether or not the ICBI is the standard of orthodoxy as such, authoritative (viz. allowable) interpretations are still at issue. It is often difficult to distinguish between the two, though - and in many cases they are at least treated as equivalent.
A looming problem remains, because even if the ICBI is only the standard for inerrancy, and hermeneutical method is included in its understanding, then does the ICBI also get to rule on "inerrant biblical interpretation"? If it does, then we are getting close to a problem of what to do about personal extra-biblical authorities.
Finally, even if ICBI is considered the standard for inerrancy, and even if a general hermeneutical model emerged and was understood and agreed upon by both parties in the current debate, the issue then becomes how to understand and apply it in particular cases. Once again, it seems that individual interpretations become the issue of debate - for Geisler and Licona disagree over the doctrine of inerrancy itself!
What both sides demonstrate in their continued quoting of the ICBI is that when it comes to the arguing over the meaning and application of inerrancy, a simple appeal to the ICBI's statements is proving insufficient. Arguably, this is because several of the ICBI's statements seem compatible with both Geisler's and Licona's view. In fact, statements in the book "Inerrancy" (which Geisler compiled in support of the ICBI) do as well:
• “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.” (294)
• “No doctrine of inerrancy can determine in advance the solution to individual or specific problem passages.” (295)
• “All that is claimed is that there is no final conflict with truth.” (295)
• “Though the Scriptures as given are completely true, no human interpretation of them is infallible.” (297)
• "Inerrancy does not exclude the use of either figures of speech or of a given literary genre. . . . Figures of speech are common to ordinary communication and cannot be said to express falsehoods simply because they are not literal. . . . Inerrancy does not demand historical or semantic precision." (298-9)
• “. . . the following set of guidelines for interpreting scriptural language that points to the facts outside the spiritual realm: (1) Determine the literary form [i.e., genre] to which the section under examination belongs. (2) Examine individual words and phrases to see if they have Near Eastern or classical backgrounds and then determine the type of similarity and the use made of them in Scripture." (144-5)
Both Licona and Geisler agree with these precepts as stated - but not as understood. While differences of interpretation are allowable within Evangelicalism in many cases, Geisler won't have it when it comes to this issue. It seems that the statements of the ICBI itself require an authoritative interpreter! Geisler, therefore, ends up arguing from the ICBI's intended meaning (and in the process, as we have noted, self-contradicts his own statements with respect to Gundry and authorial intent in 1983).
Geisler believes himself to be authoritative here, for he was one of the original members of the ICBI. But as has been noted by observers, some of the other original members of ICBI seem to hold positions that are also compatible with Licona's view as well. So Geisler ends up having to simply report on his own thinking about the ICBI - thus making himself the authority over its doctrine. Geisler the evangelical pope, did someone once say? Or is it better said...the Grand Evangelical Inquisitor?
(I say that, of course, as one who has debunked myths about the Inquisition as being as all get out bad as the atheists like to say it is. When I speak of Geisler as Grand Inquisitor, I have in mind the cartoon version of the Inquisition favored by the ill-informed [as should be the case, where I have animated Geisler as well]!)
However, this creates an odd situation. According to Geisler, a biblical interpreter requires only the correct hermeneutical method (Geisler's "hermeneutical essential") to correctly understand the Bible. But that hermeneutical method apparently requires an authoritative interpreter -- the ICBI and its 300 "scholars," and especially its framers, to explain it; and one specifically of that latter group -- Geisler himself -- to judge whether or not is has been applied correctly.
Err...isn't that, you know...a personal extra-biblical authority? Or did Norman Geisler fold himself into the canon when no one was looking?
Keith Mathison has offered a nutshell version of the problem: "Scripture alone is the only final standard, but . . . . If Scripture is not interpreted correctly within its proper context, it ceases to function properly as a standard." [The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 259.] Mathison suggests that church tradition can function as an authoritative guide in disputed matters, but this is not an option for Geisler. In Geisler's critcism of Mathison, he contends that “tradition (including early Fathers, Creeds, and Councils) can be held as having value without being held as authoritative."
But this raises a dilemma. If Sola Scriptura is understood as "having no other/higher authority than the Bible," and if the church cannot be trusted as authoritative over interpretation, why should the ICBI be trusted as authoritative -- or for that matter, even just one of its "original framers"? Even if we reduce the issue to whether or not the ICBI has authority over matters of inerrancy alone, that doctrine is being used to judge allowable interpretations. Recall: This entire kerfuffle was sparked by Licona's scriptural interpretation, not by a charge of scriptural error - and it continues as Licona's interpretation is judged as to its agreement with the ICBI's authoritative interpretive methodology. The debate cannot, therefore, be limited to Licona's agreement with the ICBI view on inerrancy apart from any discussion of interpretation.
In essence, this debate has come down to this: Geisler's Interpretation of the ICBI vs. Anyone Else's Interpretation of the ICBI. For Geisler to win the day, therefore, he must assert himself as being in personal authority over a community that he affirms should eschew personal extra-biblical authority…and that is where the Torquemada mantle comes into play, as we’ll discuss in historic and other details in Part 3.
Daniel Wallace’s comment on sufficiency
Another raising the issue