Thursday, May 17, 2012

Geisler Packs It In

This week the Geisler debacle is moving at a fast pace, and the latest news – which happened so fast I wasn’t able to comment within “real time” – is that J. I. Packer has stuck his foot in Geisler’s mouth and Geisler is now trying to extract it. You can see more on this at the link below, where Nick Peters has blogged on it; my own humble contribution this time will be to address something Geisler says in his damage control manifesto, reporting a phone conversation he had with Packer:

[Packer]  affirmed that his statement was only referring to inerrancy in a formal sense, not in a material sense.  He said both Robert Gundry and Mike Licona have denied inerrancy in a material (factual) sense.

Oh really? 

Only problem is, when we look at Packer’s quote:

What biblical inerrancy means is that Scripture, rightly interpreted, is true and trustworthy. I don't think Licona's guess about Matthew's meaning is plausible, but it is not an inerrancy question.

…he not only seems to have forgotten to make that distinction, he also rendered it immaterial by saying it is “not an inerrancy question.” 

The main problem, though, is that Geisler handily didn’t explain what he meant by those distinctions (wouldn’t want anyone to know so they could think critically about it, right?), so it’s kind of hard to evaluate this. Since he was being so coy, I had to try to figure out what he and Packer meant by these distinctions, but there was some difficulty with that. So what I say below will be entirely provisional, and I will correct it later as needed, if needed.

I have found two different definitions of “formal” inerrancy – one that says, it means the Bible is right in every detail; the other that says, that the Bible as a self-enclosed entity, does not contradict itself. 

In contrast, I can find only one definition of “material” inerrancy, which is that Scripture does not lie or deceive.

If we’re charitable here, we’ll have to assume Geisler had in mind – if any of this! – the second version of “formal” inerrancy, since the first version is essentially synonymous with “material” inerrancy as defined. But if that is what he meant, “formal inerrancy” is worth exactly two cents. It means in essence that if they Bible says that tomatoes can talk, then there is no violation of inerrancy as long as it doesn’t say somewhere else that tomatoes do not talk. 

So if Packer was indeed talking about formal inerrancy in this sense only, he was saying nothing informative – that Licona was not saying that the Matthew 27 saints, according to Scripture, did and also did not rise. But he couldn’t have meant that, since Packer was clearly aware, as he says, “What Dr. Licona offers is an interpretive hypothesis as to Matthew's meaning.” He clearly knows it has nothing to do with a “formal inerrancy” question as we have seen by these definitions.

So what then of denying it in a “material” sense? Packer’s own comment just noted also is out of bounds in that case. Packer said it was an “interpretive” question – not one where the Bible was being accused of lying or deceiving. (Of course, we have seen that Geisler does have problems understanding that the genre of apocalyptic is not a “lie” or “deception” in the first place – in other words, as we have said so many times now, he can’t see that you can’t “dehistoricize” a text not meant to be taken as history in the first place.)

So in the end, what for this? It’s hard to say, since Geisler doesn’t say exactly what he means by “material” and “formal” inerrancy. If he manages to define this out further, maybe we can say more, and we'll try this analysis again. As it is, it’s fairly clear that this rousting out of Packer is little more than major league damage control.


  1. How come the time stamps on the comments at Nick Peters' blog all say May 2007? (or is it Dec, 30, 2007?) The relevance here is I was trying to figure out if the exchange in the comments section of his blog post took place before or after your post here.

    (I notice the time stamp problem on his blog before, and at first I thought it really was a dead blog that hadn't been updated since 2007).

  2. @Jared: Truly, I haven't the slightest idea. :P But that all happened just in the last day or so.

  3. I found a distinction on page 148 of "God's Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture" edited by John Warwick Montgomery, copyright 1974. Clark Pinnock writes, "Figures of speech are good examples of material error." He uses the example of saying it is "raining cats and dogs." He writes, "Materially, the falsity of such statements is obvious, and yet we would hardly accuse a person of error who chooses to talk in this way." He further notes that the author in such cases is not intending to speak "literally or precisely but rather figuratively to convey a vivid meaning" and that "Such 'errors' do not concern us." A formal error on the other hand "represents a false judgment, and a lack of conformity with reality. It is the intention of the individual author which is the crucial thing." Hope that is helpful.

  4. @Scott: Yes, thank you. Though since Licona essentially says that Matt 27 is a type of "figure of speech," by this reckoning, Geisler is admitting Licona (and Gundry) didn't deny the more important aspect (formal).