05 / 06
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Bart Goes to a Bible Conference

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we talked about Bart Ehrman. We have another article from him.[1] He attended an apologetics biblical conference. He mentions Mike Licona and Rob Bowman and Craig Keener. He listened to them speak. He talks about how well that he was received. He’s good friends. He says,

I heartily disagree with all three, of course, on fundamental issues.  But it’s on very friendly terms.   The issue at the conference were the “Contradictions” in the New Testament.  How does one deal with apparent or real contradictions and still remain committed to an evangelical view of Scripture as inspired by God and in some sense “inerrant”?  I stress “in some sense” because, as it turns out, it is not at all clear what “inerrant” means, and the three of them actually have different nuanced understandings of it.

DR. CRAIG: So in a sense this blog is mistitled. This is not really about evangelical Christian apologetics. There's nothing here about natural theology, nothing about the problem of evil, nothing about the coherence of theism or the resurrection of Jesus. This is a blog about New Testament scholarship and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and how contemporary New Testament theologians are revising and defending the doctrine of inerrancy.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says of course they are going to have some internal disputes among themselves about what this looks like. But it gets down to what they mean by “inerrancy.” He says,

Roughly speaking I was hearing two positions, neither of them ones we were taught and advanced in the day (in my circles).

DR. CRAIG: He’s talking about when he was at Moody Bible Institute before he walked away from the faith.


Our old position, back then, was that any contradiction in the New Testament Gospels (or the Bible, for that matter; but yesterday we were talking only about the Gospels) can in fact be reconciled if you look closely and deeply enough at the matter.  ANY contradiction.  To be sure, there may be places where you aren’t sure HOW to reconcile them, but in principle they are all reconcilable in one way or another.

And, as a corollary, everything the Bible says is literally true.  There are no mistakes, of any kind, whatsoever, in the Bible.

That was our view, and that’s what we called inerrancy.  It still strikes me as, well, the “common sense” understanding of what the term means:  “no errors.”  Any error of any kind is an error.  And so if there are any errors, the book is not inerrant.

DR. CRAIG: What struck me about this is that I think it's a caricature of even the old view with which I'm familiar. No traditional inerrantist has said that everything the Bible says is literally true. Everyone recognizes the use of metaphor and hyperbole and symbol and so forth. Just look at the Psalms or the book of Revelation. Much of the Bible is poetic. So inerrantists have always recognized that you have to interpret the literature according to the literary genre that it belongs to, and that some literary genres are not to be interpreted in a literal way.

KEVIN HARRIS: He admits, he says,

None of the three speakers yesterday has that view, even though they call the Bible inerrant and affirm that it is completely reliable.   Their views strike me as odd – that they can admit there are, technically speaking, incorrect statements in the Bible but that it is still without error.  But they consider my old view (no mistakes of any kind whatsoever) as a dated kind of fundamentalism that is simply not held by thinking Christians any more, and, even more interesting, that my objections to their views are rooted in fundamentalist views that I myself don’t accept but that I’m assuming in order to attack their alternative views.  In other words, they think I’m kicking a dead horse.

DR. CRAIG: It’s not in other words they think he’s kicking a dead horse. It's that in other words he's presupposing a wooden, literalistic doctrine of inerrancy which is not incumbent upon the Christian to hold to. It is that his attacks upon their views of inspiration and inerrancy are rooted in fundamentalist understandings that he apparently absorbed earlier in his career.



They do know that fundamentalist Christians do continue to hold to these views.  But they are heartily opposed to them and do not think they advance the Christian cause.  At least as I understand what they’re saying.

Roughly speaking – at least as I’m getting this as an outsider to their internal discussions, disagreements – as I said, there appear to be two approaches to texts that appear to be contradictions:

One is indeed to “reconcile” them as best as possible; or, the term they appear to prefer, “harmonize” them: that is take the two texts that appear to contradict each other and show how they actually fit together, possibly in a complicated way, into a harmonized whole so that they round out and complement each other, rather than stand at odds with one another.

DR. CRAIG: This is a traditional device of inerrantists that Ehrman was schooled in. Harmonization is a long-standing technique of inerrantists. An example of this would be the resurrection appearance stories in the Gospels. Mark refers to a resurrection appearance in Galilee, but in Luke and John you have resurrection appearances in Jerusalem. How do you put these together? Well, you can harmonize the accounts by saying that Jesus appeared first to the disciples in Jerusalem and then, after the Feast of Unleavened Bread was over, they went back to Galilee and then there were further resurrection appearances there. That would be an example of harmonization at work.

KEVIN HARRIS: I’ve felt the pressure to do this when I was younger in my 20s and 30s. When the Internet came about and we were all debating, this was the top thing that skeptics would throw at us. They kept us on this issue all the time – what about this verse, what about that verse? How do you reconcile that contradiction? I have to tell you, it was a lot of fun, number one, to do that. And number two, it was a great learning tool. So many of these – much of it is so reconcilable. You go, yeah, there are good reconciliations. But it also taught me it is a good Bible study tool. I learned about things like literary device, metaphor, the original intent of the author, and things like that. But, boy, it seemed to be all or nothing with Bart Ehrman and some others. This is one of the things that really threw him for a loop when he began to do textual criticism.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. This strikes me as odd that he seems to think that harmonization was something that represents a new point of view and wasn't part of his original point of view.

KEVIN HARRIS: As far as harmonization, he says,

OK, we used to do that.  But the current view seems to be much more open to the possibility that there are places that we simply can’t figure it out, places that do appear to be contradictory.  And here is the KICKER.   When they (the evangelicals who take this view) admit there are apparent contradictions, then they say that the details are not important.  What matters is the major message.  The ultimate point.  The big picture.  The gist.   The gist of what a passage is trying to teach is what is inspired and inerrant.  Not the picayune details.

DR. CRAIG: Here I think Bart is conflating two different things. The first is the willingness to admit that one does not have a plausible harmonization of the passage in question. In many cases one will say, “I just don't know how to harmonize them, but I believe that if we had all the facts they would be reconcilable.” Again, that's not any different than the old inerrantist view that Ehrman once championed. He says of his old view, “To be sure, there may be places where you aren’t sure how to reconcile them, but in principle they are all reconcilable in one way or another.” That's a description of the old view now. So the old view also admitted that there were places where you were at a loss to find a harmonization. There's nothing new here. What Ehrman is saying is, Ah, what’s new is: ignore the details and just go for the gist of the passage. That's a category mistake. What he's thinking of here now are questions of historical reliability, not biblical inerrancy. And it is correct to say that contemporary evangelical New Testament scholars will say that even if a narrative has conflicts in the secondary details, nevertheless the historical core of the story is well-established and therefore historically reliable. You do not have to have harmony in all of the secondary circumstantial details in order to have the gist of the story be true. But that's not about the doctrine of inerrancy. That's about the question of the historical reliability of the Gospels. So, to give an example, there are contradictory accounts by eyewitnesses concerning the sinking of the Titanic. Did the Titanic crack in two before it sank? Well, the eyewitnesses differ on how that happened. But what is undeniable is that the Titanic sank and that hundreds maybe thousands of lives were lost in the North Sea. So there the gist of the story is established even if there are discrepancies in the secondary details. So, turn, for example, to the narratives of the empty tomb of Jesus. There are discrepancies in the secondary details concerning the names of the women who visited the tomb, the order of the appearances and the sightings of the angel, and so forth. But the core of the story is multiply attested that there was a group of women followers who, on the first day of the week after Jesus’ crucifixion, came to visit the site of the tomb, found the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. So most New Testament scholars, even those who hold to no doctrine of inerrancy at all, recognize the historicity of the empty tomb story.


That is to say – a phrase you hear a lot in these circles – “the Bible is inerrant in what it affirms.”  That is, it makes no mistakes in what it is trying to teach.

So you might have a story in which Jesus heals someone, found, say, in both Matthew and Luke.  There may be small contradictory details: in one he heals the person before he does this other thing, in the other he heals the person after he does the other thing.  Small discrepancy.  But the story is not trying to teach *when* Jesus did the miracle.  It’s trying to teach that he did the miracle.  And it is inerrant about that.  He *did* do the miracle.

DR. CRAIG: Here, again, Bart is conflating still another issue. We've seen that he conflates the doctrine of inerrancy with the question of the fundamental historical reliability of the Gospels. Now this is yet a third issue that goes back to how we understand inerrancy. The claim of contemporary evangelicals, such as you have in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, is that the Bible is inerrant in everything that it means to affirm or everything that it means to teach. But obviously there are things in the Bible that are not part of its teaching or part of its affirmation, and those things are not intended to be inerrant. A good example would be the speeches of Job’s comforters where they give all sorts of bad advice to Job and make many false statements. So the doctrine of inerrancy, properly formulated, says that the Bible is inerrant in everything that it means to teach or to affirm. I think this can be extremely important. I think a great example of this would be the imprecatory Psalms where the psalmist asks God to exact vengeance upon his enemies and to dash the heads of their babies against the rocks. It's an ugly, bloody, vengeful sort of thing. Just the opposite of Jesus’ teaching that you should love your enemies. So what is the imprecatory Psalm intending to teach? That we should pray like this for the vengeance of God upon the children of our enemies and so forth? No, I don't think so. I think what the Psalm is teaching is that we can be honest with God in our prayer when we come to him. We can express to him all of the ugly and angry emotions that are within us and not try to cover them up or to stifle them. We can come to God in prayer honestly and forthrightly, and he will listen to us. I think that's what the imprecatory Psalm is really trying to teach.

KEVIN HARRIS: People write poems and songs in moments of pain, in moments of anger, in moments of joy.


KEVIN HARRIS: That will come out in the expression of the song or poem.

DR. CRAIG: Right. And so, in dealing with Scripture, we want to always ask: What is this passage intending to teach or to affirm? This is the standard view of biblical inerrancy today, Bart notwithstanding.


We never ever would have allowed that back in my days at Moody Bible Institute.  But it’s becoming a thinking-person’s view among evangelicals who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, apparently.

DR. CRAIG: Honestly, if this is true, I think that Bart Ehrman must have received a substandard education in theology at Moody Bible back in those days. Because this is not anything new. You look at people like B. B. Warfield and other 19th century figures, they recognized that it's what the Bible means to affirm or teach that is authoritative and inerrant, not something that isn't intended to be affirmed.


But the other change – the second position – strikes me as even more significant, a real step toward traditional scholarship, which tries to explain WHY there are contradictions, and then goes on to say that since we know why they are there, they are not really contradictions.

It will take a bit to explain this view.  It’s the one really catching on.  I think it is completely right that we can explain why there are contradictions.  My problem is that just because you know why you have a problem does not mean you don’t have a problem.

DR. CRAIG: What Ehrman here is alluding to is the conviction of New Testament scholars today that the genre of literature most closely resembled by the Gospels is the genre of the ancient biography – The Lives of famous Greeks and Romans. The claim on the part of some Gospel scholars is that, as ancient biographies, the Gospels do not intend to have the same sort of rigor that modern biographies do. They will often relate things out of chronological order, or they will use free paraphrase to express a speech. Therefore these are not errors as such because these are accepted literary conventions of the day. So it's not just that there's an explanation for why there's an apparent contradiction, rather the explanation is why it is merely apparent. It's merely apparent because you shouldn't hold this literature to the same sort of biographical standards that you would modern biography. That is the position defended by people like Licona and Keener that he alludes to that Ehrman finds plausible. It would only be because he is still imposing the standards of his old fundamentalism that he would find this unacceptable.

KEVIN HARRIS: If Dr. Ehrman is hanging out with Rob Bowman, Mike Licona, and Craig Keener, he is in good company, and I say, Bart, keep it up.[2]


[2]           Total Running Time: 19:36 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)