The Future of Biblical Scholarship

What is in store for the future of biblical scholarship? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I do a lot of debating and the idea amongst atheists is that Christians don’t do real research. They want to defend their pet doctrines. They presuppose everything beforehand and never really examine the case. All that matters is “God said it” and then we’re done.

The controversy involving what happened with Mike Licona back in 2011 was a great example of this and a huge embarrassment to the Christian church and evangelicalism. Instead of going out and dealing with the interpretation of Licona, if it was found to be false, the bullets started firing immediately crying “Heretic!” with an Inquisition squad ready to come out.

So let’s get this straight. We have what has been the most in-depth defense of the resurrection of Jesus meant to silence skeptics and we’re going to go against it because it went against a secondary doctrine of Inerrancy supposedly? We are going to implicitly say that Inerrancy is more important than the resurrection? Are our priorities out of whack?

In fact, the book didn’t even call Inerrancy into question. By that standard, any time Licona said an event is “Highly probable” or something of that sort, we should have raised the alarm. After all, how could an event be “probable.”? It’s part of the “Word of God.”

What Licona did was he met the skeptics on their own turf and he fired a massive attack into their camp. What was the evangelical response? Ditch him. Leave him there. Of course, this isn’t true of all evangelicals. There were a number of scholars in the field who sided with Licona.

Friends. Let’s suppose a work came out like this that explicitly denied Inerrancy. I still say we should celebrate it. Why? Because this was a case of trying to prove the most important point of Christianity. As Michael Patton said, there should have been twenty letters of commendation before there was one of condemnation.

Historically, Gary Habermas has been the #1 name in the field of resurrection stories. Licona has been his main student. What are we to do now with him? Because he has not interpreted everything the way some people want it to be interpreted, do away with him. Licona does believe in Inerrancy, but keep in mind we are not trying to convert people to Inerrancy. We are trying to make them disciples of Jesus. I’m fine with someone coming to say “Jesus is risen!” if they’re not quite willing to sign the line on Inerrancy. If you’re not, you’ve got a serious problem.

Licona talks about teaching a seminary class in the article (Link below) and having a student with tears in her eyes crying about contradictions she thought existed. Let’s start with a simple question.

Let us suppose that beyond the shadow of a doubt a contradiction was proven in Scripture. This is purely hypothetical. I don’t think it has, but let’s suppose it was.

What would that do to your Christianity?

If you’re one of those Christians who says “My faith would be shattered immediately and Jesus would not have risen from the dead” you have a problem.

Many of us would say “Well I’d have to adjust my view of Scripture and of inspiration, but I’d still have the resurrection.”

You know why? Because we think the resurrection can be established historically if you treat the Bible just like any other ancient document. If you have to treat it with kid gloves, then you’re not really playing fair. You’re doing special pleading.

If you don’t think the resurrection can be shown to be a fact that way, then might I suggest that you could have a more fideistic approach?

It’s a shame this was happening in a Seminary class also.

Licona goes on in the article to describe how he went to the gospels and compared what he saw to Plutarch since the gospels are considered by NT scholars to be ancient biographies.

A lot of stink has been raised over this. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it’s wrong that the gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. I think they are, but let’s suppose it’s wrong.

Here’s the reply. So what?

So what? What are you talking about?

What I mean is, you can take what your opponents will likely accept from critical scholarship, say Bart Ehrman for instance, and have it be that you can assume they are Greco-Roman biographies and then still say “Here’s how Greco-Roman biographies work. The gospels do the exact same thing. Why is that a problem?”

This is exactly what I do as a non-scientist. I am not qualified to discuss evolution, so I will grant it for the sake of argument. Why? My opponents do accept it by and large. Therefore, I can meet them on their own grounds and ask “How does this show that Jesus did not rise from the dead?”

Why do I do this? I do it because I want to convince my opponents of one thing. I want to convince them Jesus rose from the dead. They might disagree with me on Inerrancy. That’s fine. They might have different views on creation. That’s fine. They might have different hermeneutics than I do. That’s fine.

Getting them to know Jesus is risen is central.

Instead, we’ve had this whole tirade against the gospels being Greco-Roman biographies.

Consider what someone like Al Mohler said according to the article.

“First, we cannot reduce the Gospels to the status of nothing more than ancient biographies. The Bible claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit right down to the inspired words,”

When did Licona say the gospels were just ancient biographies? Nowhere that I know of. He said they were biographies. That’d be like saying we can’t say the Epistles of Paul are epistles because they cannot be “just epistles.” To say they are Greco-Roman biographies is not to say necessarily that they are just that.

Second, down to the inspired words?

In Matthew 3:17, we read these words at the baptism of Jesus.

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:11 says this:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:22 also says this:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke and Mark disagree, but Matthew is different. Matthew has the voice speaking for the crowd. Mark and Luke have the voice speaking to Jesus? Which is it? Let’s suppose it was even the crazy idea of a work like the Jesus Crisis which has such ideas as the sermon on the mount being said twice with different tenses. Let’s suppose the voice said the first to the crowd and then the second to Jesus. (Because apparently, one voice was not enough for everyone to grasp.) You still have the problem of why would someone just leave out some of the words of God speaking?

If there is paraphrasing going on, then are we saying the very words of God were paraphrased? They might not have been quoted word for word?

Let’s consider another example. How about Peter’s confession of faith?

Matthew 16:16

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Mark 8:29

“You are the Messiah.”

Luke 9:20

“God’s Messiah.”

Again, there are differences. Mark and Luke are closer. Matthew agrees with the Messianic motif, but adds in that Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Isn’t that something important to include?

One more example. At the Transfiguration, what did God say?

Matthew 17:5

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Mark 9:7

“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Luke 9:35

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

Each of these are different, and these are the words of God!

Now someone might say “Nick. Look. Each of these is pretty similar to each other. The wording may not be the same, but the thrust of the message is the same.”

Exactly.

Mohler is putting on the text a modern category of exact wordage. The ancients would not have cared about that. For a modern look, I had a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness today. I called some family members saying “I said X, she said Y, I replied with Z, etc.” Chances are, when I told that story, I did not get the exact wording right. That’s okay. I did not tell it the same way every time. That’s okay. I don’t know anyone who would say I was lying about the story or misrepresenting it. Even today, we know that the gist is what matters.

This would also be true for the Sermon on the Mount. Why assume Jesus gave a great sermon like that only once? If you’re a speaker, like I am, you know that you give the same talk many times in different places. You can also vary it some depending on your audience. In fact, it’s quite likely a lot was left out of this sermon. Why? The whole thing can be read in about fifteen minutes! Most speakers in the past spoke a lot longer than that! Heck. If that’s all it takes, Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 that leads to 3,000 conversions can be read in about a minute or two. How many of you would like to speak for that long and get that response?

The Bible is only interested in the main gist of the message getting out. We today can do this. We can summarize a talk by talking about the main points without saying every word the speaker said.

Thus, Mohler in doing this is expecting the Bible to read like a modern document. It’s not going to. The Bible needs to be treated by the standards of its own time and not the standards of our time. This even includes the idea about interpreting it according to “plain” language. Plain to who? Why plain to a 21st century American? Maybe it’s different for a 16th century Chines man, or a 14th century Japanese man, or a 12th century Frenchman, or a 9th century Englishman, or a 1st century Jew.

Some might think it’s cultural prejudice to give the 1st century Jewish standard the main role in interpretation.

No. It’s not. It’s just smart thinking. It’s a 1st century Jewish document. Shouldn’t we expect it to read like one?

Mohler is not done. He goes on to say:

“The second problem is isolating the resurrection of Christ from all of the other truth claims revealed in the Bible. The resurrection is central, essential and non-negotiable, but the Christian faith rests on a comprehensive set of truth claims and doctrines,” Mohler said. “All of these are revealed in the Bible, and without the Bible we have no access to them.”

If the resurrection is central, essential, and non-negotiable, haven’t we already isolated it? It is in a category all itself. The reality is the resurrection is different from the other claims. Let’s demonstrate this.

We can have Mohler make a historical case for the turning of water into wine without just “The Bible says so.”

Then we can have him make one for Jesus rising from the dead the same way.

Which one will have more evidence. Which one will have more impact? Which one will change Christianity the most if it was found to be false?

It looks like Mohler is really afraid to put the Bible to historical investigation, but why should we think this? If someone is convinced Scripture is from God Himself, then one should say “Go ahead. Hit it with your best shot.” If we are not willing to do that, then we are not really treating it like a trustworthy text. It’s easy to say the Bible cannot be attacked if you remove it from all threats.

On top of this, Licona is doing his work to deal with supposed contradictions in the Bible and see if he can find some answers. How is it undermining the Bible if you seek to explain why the Bible is the way it is? If you’re going out to defend the idea that the Bible is without error, how can you be attacking it?

Next we have words from Jim Richards of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

“Although the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has enjoyed a ministry relationship with Houston Baptist University for nearly 10 years, that relationship is not one whereby the convention participates in the governance of the university. Our relationship with HBU is based on a mutual affirmation of a high view of Scripture,” Richards said.

“The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention was formed on a commitment to biblical inerrancy, that the Bible is true in all that it asserts. Certainly, our churches, board and convention messengers expect our ministry relationships to be compatible with this core value. We will be in conversation with President Sloan regarding HBU’s response to Mike Licona’s comments bearing on the reliability of Scriptures,” Richards said.”

Once again, Licona has a high view of Scripture. He only differs on an interpretation. Note that Licona has never once said “I think the Bible contains errors” or “I think the Bible is wrong” or anything like that. He has repeatedly denied it, but for his opponents, it is not enough. What matters is what they want to see. For them, if he is not interpreting it the same way, then cast him to the lions!

May God richly bless Robert Sloan, president of HBU, for the following:

“Dr. Michael Licona is a very fine Christian. We trust completely his commitment to Scripture. There are those who disagree with his comments on what is a very difficult passage (Matthew 27:45-53, especially verses 52-53), but Mike Licona’s devotion to the Lord Jesus, his magisterial defense of the resurrection, his publicly and solemnly declared affirmation of the complete trustworthiness of Scripture and his worldwide efforts to win others to Christ give us full confidence in his work as a teacher, colleague and faculty member of Houston Baptist University,” Sloan said.”

Sloan has it right. He is being a fine academic and looking at the character of Licona and the quality of his work. Would that other people would take the same approach!

What does this have to do with the future of scholarship?

It appears an impasse is here. What are we to do? I have a strange idea with this.

Let’s be people that say “We will follow the evidence where it leads!” When we meet a contrary idea to our own, let’s examine the evidence. By all means, we have our presuppositions. Let’s be aware of those. Let’s do our best to put them to aside and study. We want atheists who are studying the text to do the same. If our presuppositions were right, great! If they were not, great! Why is that great? It’s because we’ve learned something that we would not have known. We have gained truth, and that is always to be preferred.

If people like Al Mohler have the day, we can expect scholarship will decrease. Already, I have seen some people who will be our future scholars say they want no part of groups like ETS to avoid being criticized for their work. They want academic freedom. Already, I have seen people saying that they do not want to defend Inerrancy because it has become too much of a sacred cow. Already, this controversy has been used by atheists, Muslims, and others to demonstrate Christians cannot get along with themselves.

With Inerrancy, I have seen people have their faith fall apart when all is based on this doctrine. I’m not saying it’s unimportant. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying we don’t hang our hats on it. By all means, defend it. By all means, address contradictions. This is fine and good. Just remember the main point is Jesus is risen. There are times even I tell people that I don’t care if the gospels have some minor disagreements. Let’s deal with the central claim. We don’t get rid of other ancient sources because of minor disagreements. Why do so with Scripture?

It’s up to us to determine where we’ll go with scholarship in the future, but I hope we’ll hold to following the evidence where it leads realizing that if our beliefs are true, the evidence should show that.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

The Baptist Press article can be found here

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4 Responses to “The Future of Biblical Scholarship”

  1. Gary Cottrell Says:

    I absolutely agree. In some instances we have gotten to the point that the Bible has ceased to be a tool and has become the center of our faith. Consider for a moment that it was over 300 years before the New Testament could be considered closed. Actually, it still isn’t closed, because Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox have different canons that they consider authoritative. My faith is in the Christ revealed in the Bible. I do not worship the Bible.

  2. Darrell Pursiful Says:

    Well said, Nick.

  3. apologianick Says:

    Thanks to both of you!

  4. The Problem WIth Fundamentalism | Deeper Waters Says:

    [...] we talk about the exact words, what about something like this as I blogged about in the future of Biblical scholarship. Let’s just use one example, the baptism of [...]

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