Monday, January 9, 2012

Defending Inerrancy: Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

In our next two entries, we will be having a closer look at select portions of Geisler and Roach's Defending Inerrancy (DI) -- particularly Chapter 11 on Darrell Bock and Robert Webb (serious evangelical scholars) and Chapter 5 on Bart Ehrman. We are choosing to evaluate these because they have the most bearing on the practice of apologetics as we believe it should be done. We also consider other chapters of less relevance, and in any event, directed to much easier targets (like Brian McLaren). Today we will look at Chapter 11.

Initially it must be stated that DI’s evaluation of the work of Bock and Webb (BW) fails to account for the nature of their work. The scholars who participated in the project are not all inerrantists, and although DI uses a small amount of qualifying language to indicate that BW are not necessarily behind every point criticized, Geisler and Roach nevertheless fail to give sufficient notice to the depth of variety among contributors to BW’s project.
Beyond this, the method of BW’s work is to purposely not take inerrancy for granted, and so demonstrate that, even under the standard rules of historiography – apart from any considerations such as potential supernatural influence – it is possible to make a case for such things as the reliability of the Gospel tradition. Thus to make an issue of how such an approach allegedly undercuts inerrancy is to miss the point. (Licona’s own approach in his book was similar.)

In summary, however, DI's chapter on BW provides what is truly an embarrassing and obscurantist evaluation in which what Geisler calls "lordship" is set against scholarship. It is here that DI is at its worst, tucking its head deeply between its knees to preserve an anachronistic understanding of inerrancy as though it were a product of modern precision literalism. I can certainly agree that BW provide "difficulties and dangers" for the misguided concept of inerrancy DI promotes; but for more educated and sophisticated Christians, BW are just the opposite -- a help and support. DI's methodology and criticisms are an attempt to protect and preserve a far less mature variation of inerrancy which seeks to insulate the Christian from fact and evidence rather than deal with it head on.

I should point out that I agree with certain conclusions in DI Chapter 11 concerning things like the early dates of the Gospels and their order of composition. But these are matters unique to neither myself, nor DI, and my agreement with these conclusions doesn't mean that DI offers a quality presentation in terms of validating these conclusions. In any event, we will focus on matters of specific concern and disagreement.

Initially, among the professed "dangers" offered by BW are simply that they profess lack of certainty in scholarly findings. In this, they are simply being good academics, as we have noted above; but they are also being bad fundamentalists. For such as Geisler and Roach, to assert such things as that we can't know past events, only narrative accounts, is not a case of admitting genuine epistemic difficulties, but of surrendering blindly confident certainty of the sort that is necessary to preserve an insulated faith hedged about with contrivances and obscurities. As will be seen shortly, the tactic of Geisler and Roach to protect faith is to avoid looking too deeply, rather than confronting honestly.

Particular distrust is expressed in four stages in Gospel composition described by BW:

1) eyewitness observation – a much more critical point for BW, it should be noted, than DI indicates

2) oral transmission, which can involve changes as the story is retold (with a critical point being, what kind of changes, and it what settings – see more below)

3) collection and categorization of oral material

4) Literary composition of Gospels using written and oral material

While I may not agree with BW on every particular, their general outline of stages is both sound and fully in accord with the social, literary, and cultural evidence, as I have confirmed during my studies for the composition of Trusting the New Testament. However, once past 1 above, DI will have little to none of it. Their arguments in this regard, however, are obscurantist to the point of embarrassment.

Luke 1:1-4 does not reflect the four stages noted
. This is a patently misguided argument for more than one reason. The first is that Luke is but one of the four gospels, so Luke 1:1-4 doesn't say anything about how Matthew, Mark and John were compiled. The second is that Luke's prologue does, despite DI, offer a description inclusive of oral material when it speaks of Luke consulting eyewitnesses. The credible historian of Luke's caliber knew that interviewing witnesses was one of their essential tasks, and since nearly all witnesses to Jesus' ministry would be illiterate, it is inevitable that Luke was in some way reliant on oral material for his history. To say otherwise would require inevitable contrivances, such as: Unknown written sources for narrative material unique to Luke; a decision by Luke to forego the normal historical process of interviewing witnesses and sources and choosing solely to rely on written sources; and a further decision by all Gospel authors to completely ignore oral sources -- in complete contradiction to normal practice for their day, and at the expense of 90% of potential sources (e.g., illiterate persons who were eyewitnesses). To simply brashly deny the occurrence of BW's four steps in the composition of the Gospels is an absurdity and a contrivance, and at worst the product of DI's graphocentric prejudices.

Third, as we have noted frequently, the world of the NT was a high context society; it is absurd to suppose that Luke would lay out compositional steps that were essentially the sort taken for granted in a pre-literate society. DI's observation that Luke "does not mention" the four stages is simply irrelevant.

Because NT books claim to be based on eyewitness testimony, there was "not enough time for the oral tradition and changes to occur" that BW argue for.
Again, having studied oral tradition and transmission in depth, and reported the sum of these results in Trusting the New Testament, I can only say that this argument, too, is horribly misguided. Even a few weeks is more than sufficient for such changes to take place in oral communication; indeed, such change could even occur, under specific circumstances, quite quickly and intentionally, as material was structured and modified for memory (as would be necessary in a society where, again, illiteracy was above 90%). Such changes, I must note, would be primarily to format, as opposed to content, so that there can be little to no concern from Geisler and Roach that there is some threat of history being lost or falsified because of artificialities in oral structure. To suggest such a thing, as they do, is merely panic-button polemic designed to frighten the insecure Christian reader -- the spiritual version of political attempts to "frighten Granny" with threats of Medicare being slashed.

Indeed, it should be noted that the inspired Gospel texts themselves clearly evidence such changes accommodating oral/aural sensitivities, in the way they report parallel accounts, sometimes with different ordering of events (e.g., the withering of the fig tree) or differing details (e.g., one blind man or two; one demoniac or two). Of course, as we have noted, those of DI’s persuasion have contrived their own rationalizations for this sort of phenomenon, as we noted years ago in a review of The Jesus Crisis:


You might wonder, of course, how Thomas suggests that we resolve the differences in the Sermon [on the Mount, between Matthew and Luke], and his answer is: By harmonization -- of an extreme, unnecessary sort. Put it this way: Did Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor" or "Blessed are the poor in spirit"? Thomas replies: He said both, and on the same occasion. Matt and Luke just chose to report one or the other: "Most probably Jesus repeated this beatitude in at least two different forms when he preached His Sermon on the Mount/Plain, using the third person once and the second person another time and referring to the Kingdom of God by different titles." Odd here how omission is not a sin; but commission is. I thought it was Matthew's intent to show he was citing a continuous discourse? If that is the case, isn't he "misleading" his readers by not giving a full report and leaving things out?


Natural variations in oral (or literary) expression are a far more valid contextual explanation for phenomena like this than some contrived notion of Jesus mindlessly repeating himself within the same sermon as described by Thomas.

Relatedly, even an eyewitness like John (21:24) would be fully sensitive to the needs of his audience, and particularly the requirements of memory. The original composer of a Gospel -- especially a teacher like Matthew, or even Jesus -- would be among the first to design suitable oral structures, and to make such changes and collections as specified in BW's steps 2 and 3. DI creates an automatic and unjustified tension between reliable eyewitness reporting and oral transmission that simply does not exist, especially when the setting is a didactic one. Oral tradition can be a rather varied process in some settings (e.g., Lord’s singers) but in other cases it can remained closely controlled whole permitting a minimal amount of variation that closely preserves the message (e.g., the rabbinic models offered by Gerhardsson). As I discovered in my own studies, the NT model is closest to the latter.

Paul reports certain isolated aspects of the Gospel story (e.g., titles of deity, Jesus' death on the cross) as though by some association, this means that ALL such details were subject to precision transmission. Geisler and Roach essentially argue that because Paul reports less than 2% of what we find correspondingly in the Gospels, we may assume that the same will hold true for 100%! But the variations in details in the Gospels by itself belies this – contrived explanations like Thomas’ above notwithstanding.

DI disdains any quest to get back to the original words of Jesus (in Aramaic, his native language while on earth) because we have the inspired Bible; therefore, any such search is unnecessary! In other words, we have the inspired words of Jesus in (translated) Greek, so why would we bother to try to figure out what Jesus may have said in Aramaic? Such naivete goes beyond disdain for scholarship and into the realm of willful ignorance and fear. Geisler and Roach disdain what they see as a quest for something "more ultimate" in trying to reach back to the Aramaic. But it is, as they admit, a fact that Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic, so what possible reason could they have for rejecting such a quest? What do they fear will be found by it? Such an attitude reflects an implicit lack of confidence in the inspired Greek text -- an assumption that if we dig too deeply, we might find some problem because of it. But if indeed such problems did exist, what service would we do if we simply ignored them? Do Geisler and Roach think they are doing the frightened Christian reader a service by protecting them from Jesus' original words in Aramaic? Or do they think that serious scholars cannot be trusted to pursue this matter (even though they themselves are by no means competent to make such judgments)? On the other hand, there is a very good reason to seek more about the original words of Jesus, and it is a matter for which inspiration can be of no use to the seeker: Inspired or not, Greek is a human language, as is Aramaic, and there can always be more to learn concerning ancient languages; were it not so, scholars would not still be writing papers about linguistic developments. Thus we can also have more to learn based on what words were chosen under inspiration, and what words were used to translate from Jesus' original words.

And, there is this as well: If Geisler and Roach agree that Matthew wrote an Aramaic (or Hebrew) original, as Papias reports, will they argue that it was any less inspired than his Greek version?
In this, it is clear that Geisler and Roach are not motivated by a quest for truth, but by a quest to preserve a perception of the Bible as a "fax from heaven" (as Geisler reputedly once said). Their goal, again, is to insulate and protect the reader and preserve them in a state of childlike belief -- not educate them, or deepen their faith, or help them understand what they believe better.

It is declared that the seeking after of oral sources in some way "neglects the role of the Holy Spirit..." In this Geisler and Roach simply err in the same way the former fundamentalist preacher Farrell Till does, assuming that the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiration was thoroughly mechanistic -- the "fax from heaven" view. But even so, the approach is too black and white: For DI, either it was a "fax from heaven," or else, the apostles had to "depend on their fallible memories" or those of others. Luke says in his prologue that he consulted eyewitnesses – did he maybe forget to ask the Spirit instead?

This is, first of all, an assessment that vastly underestimates the ability of persons in an oral/aural society to memorize material, especially in a didactic (teaching) setting. (On this, again, I performed extensive research for Trusting the New Testament, including with respect to the methods and forms used to preserve memory.) DI suggests that after 40-50 years, memory would be insufficient to preserve the teachings of Jesus, but this is simply false -- perhaps more a reflection on the fallible (rather, untrained) memory of a modern than a reflection of serious study of oral transmission practices. (Oddly, DI contrarily does admit that ancient memories were indeed better than ours -- which undermines their own argument against BW's arguments!) Beyond this, formal memory studies indicate that something remembered well after only 3-5 years, which is also a significant event, can be retained in memory for decades. My own favorite example of this in my life is my memorization of the Greek alphabet in 7th grade , which I did to get an easy “A”. I still retain that memory decades later.

(I have also been referred to a new book -- Robert McIver’s Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospel – just released in August, which I have ordered and will review further here, that further validates these conclusions.)

Second, it implies that memories must verge on, or even be, perfect in order to satisfy the demands of inspiration. But this is a modern idea as well, as Jocelyn Small notes in Wax Tablets of the Mind:

Exact wording is rarely crucial in oral societies, but often of great importance in literate ones, though this aspect took centuries to develop…Most oral societies are not only uninterested in the detail of the words per se, but even unaware of the unit of the word…for oral cultures it is not the words but the story or the gist that count.

We may suspect that Geisler would no doubt come up with some contrived and quite pious response such as, “the Holy Spirit affected the apostles so that they became concerned with exact wording, unlike everyone else.” To such deus ex machina contrivances, there can be no reply – nor is one really necessary. Again, explanations like the one by Thomas above speak for themselves in terms of their lack of viability. However, a more coherent explanation for this, one in line with what Small reports, has been in apologetics literature for decades (e.g., the essay, “Live, Jive, or Memorex?” in Jesus Under Fire

Third, DI does rightly note that some, like Matthew, might take notes. However, this does not offer a complete picture without the understanding that the oral and the written would continue to interact and shape each other, even after something had been committed to writing. As I noted in TNT:


Henaut and Kelber presuppose a hard distinction between the two mediums in their objections, but, as Halverson observes, “the relationships between literate and non-literate discourse are far too complex to be reduced to a simple dichotomy.” While it is true, for example, that documents can reflect the biases of a literate minority, who would be less tolerant of change, and writing can also be less informative within the context of a primarily oral society, to the extent that no questions can be asked of a text, the characterization presented by Henaut and Kelber is an extreme one, and neglects two important factors.

First, oral tradition continued even after textuality was established. It is doubtful that either Henuat or Kelber would deny this, but they have clearly not appreciated its importance. The oral tradition, even after the advent of the text, would continue to be by far the predominant tradition, and would indeed have to be: With literacy rates of no more than 10% in the NT world, most of the people alive would still receive their information in an oral format. The broad oral environment “guaranteed that the sheer act of committing traditions to writing did not eliminate their continued transmission in non-written form”.

In addition, there simply never was a strict dichotomy between the oral and the written word at this time. As Achtemeier puts it, “[N]o writing occurred that was not vocalized.”Any written document was first dictated – whether to yourself or to someone else. There was also almost never such a thing as a “silent reader” – even persons who were by themselves read aloud. There were certain practical reasons for this: As yet, there were no such things as punctuation or paragraph breaks in written documents. Authors depended on aural cues to alert readers when there was a break in thought. For example, a writer might “use a repeated introductory formula to indicate the beginning of new developments in a series of explanations.”…

Second, textuality and orality actually interacted with one another so that each reinforced the strengths of the other... People of the NT era clearly preferred to receive information via an oral medium, and considered writing to be a supplement. The early church father Papias, for example, said that he preferred the “living and abiding voice” of a personal witness to that of a textual one. Achtemeier notes similar sentiments by the Roman sage Seneca, who said, “The living voice...will help you more than the written word.” The pagan physician Galen similarly commented: “There may well be truth in the saying current among most craftspeople that learning out of a book is not the same thing as nor comparable to learning from the living voice.” And Thomas notes that in the ancient world, there was “considerable debate about the value of books” for teaching purposes: The text might be regarded rather as an aid to memorization of what teachers had already passed on orally.

Gamble sums up the matter nicely:

While many theorists have proposed that there is a great divide between literacy and orality, and that the social, cognitive, linguistic and hermeneutical dynamics of oral and literate cultures are so distinct as to make them mutually exclusive, what we know about the societies of the ancient Mediterranean points in a different direction. There the oral and written modes were certainly not incompatible or mutually exclusive, but co-existed in a complex synergy. This synergy was at work both in the production and in the use of texts.


In support of their mechanistic understanding of inspiration, DI offers the expected candidate, John 14:26: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” But this is a highly abusive and misleading appeal. First, nothing about this indicates a remembrance in exact words. Indeed, based on the comment by Small above, the remembrance would be expected to be one of content, not exact words. Second, even if it did indicate exact words, this does not require any expectation that the exact words ought to be preserved as they were, as opposed to being crafted, redacted, or edited for various purposes.

Indeed, if we are to admit (as Geisler and Roach must) that the NT was inspired in Greek, then if they are right about John 14:26 referring to a mechanistic remembrance of Jesus' words, these words will have been in Aramaic -- not Greek! And that means DI absolutely cannot argue that John 14:26 has anything to do with the transmission and composition of the NT text.

Third and finally, the disciples are made this promise only of what Jesus said – not what he did. Thus at most, if Geisler and Roach wish to take this with the far-fetched literalism upon which they insist, the Spirit has offered no guarantees to help the apostles remember things like miraculous healings, or events at the time of the crucifixion. Moreover, not even a literalist as staunch as Geisler would dare to read “all things” without a defining context, as though the Spirit were indeed intended to teach the disciples of ALL things – ranging from Mexican cooking to snail migration habits! And thus as well, “everything” takes on less of an appearance of universality – especially (again) when we consider the Spirit-inspired variation within the Gospel texts showing that the writers (no less the Spirit!) were quite comfortable with such variation. Citing John 14:26 as an easy bypass to such questions will not do the job.

But again, we ask: Even if DI is correct, what exactly are they afraid of? If they are correct, then study of redaction and composition will bear out their observations and prove that the Spirit mechanistically brought remembrances to the Apostles when they composed the NT. And if that does not bear out, then are they saying we should obscure any evidence in this regard, or ignore it? What Geisler and Roach are suggesting is that we either stick our heads in the ground or else rationalize away the evidence.

Further fearmongering is expressed in the notion that if the Gospel material was subject to change during the transmission process, then this could include false information. But aside from the fact that this is merely fearmongering, not rational consideration, it would be held that the control of this process was in the hands of the apostles and their agents -- which makes it much more likely, even apart from any considerations of inspiration, that true and accurate information would be all that would be added or that any summarization would be accurate.

Thus, the fears expressed by Geisler and Roach here are unfounded at best. Moreover, the implication of their warning is that if indeed the evidence shows that some falsehood were imported into the text, we should pretend that this is not so and continue to believe as before! If this is what he believes, it is little wonder Geisler has sought so often in his career to suppress serious scholarship.

In close, DI quotes off portions of ICBI that they feel are contrary to the work of WB. But generally, as with Gundry and Licona, this is simply not the case; it is, rather, only their misinformed understanding of what WB are doing that is at odds with ICBI. The reader would do well to read and juxtapose Articles 13 and 18 in the Statement – frequently quoted in DI –which clearly allow for the kind of study performed by these scholars. Article 13’s denial in particular needs to be read alongside Article 18’s affirmation in the short statement in order to get the full range of what ICBI’s statements are teaching. Geisler's reading of the ICBI statements can be interpreted to under-develop what the statements permit here. If that is so, his critiques based on the statement can be seriously and legitimately challenged, despite his claim to know what the statement means.
I leave aside the rest of the chapter as beyond my interest and scope.

We will return next entry for a look at more of DI's contents.

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