Monday, February 18, 2013

Gospel Differences and the Southern Baptist Convention

I'm actually on top of a current event for once. This is pretty cool, even if the topic is a bit bifurcated. I should come mostly clean and specify that I support Mike Licona on this one, and find the opposition to be more interested in fighting ant hills. But that's getting a tad ahead of myself. The article is worth your time and I will only be commenting on a little bit of it.

For the original source, enjoy it here.
"I believe in biblical inerrancy, but I also realize that biblical inerrancy is not one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The resurrection is," Licona told Esposito. "So if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is still true even if it turned out that some things in the Bible weren't. So it didn't really bother me a whole lot even if some contradictions existed. But it did bother a lot of Christians."
Mike Licona recalled a student in a class he was teaching at Southern Evangelical Seminary who, with tears forming in her eyes, wanted to know whether there were indeed contradictions. A majority of the class, he said, raised their hands to indicate they were troubled by apparent contradictions. Then he realized it was something he should address. As he studied the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Licona began keeping a document of the differences he noticed. The document grew to 50 pages. He then read ancient biographies written around the time of Jesus because New Testament scholars often regard the Gospels as ancient biographies, he said.
For me, this has been an issue for the past six months. As I began to truly study Scripture, I found prima facie contradictions and have found it necessary to expand my definition of inerrancy. What made it so infuriating was no one told me such things existed. I didn't know what a textual variant was until a few years ago.
"I can tell you that of the 50 pages of differences that I've found in the Gospels -- and I'm still finding new ones -- all of them are in the peripheral details," Licona said. "There isn't a single perceived contradiction or difference in the Gospels that are any major details, any major details regarding an account. For example, was there one or were there two angels at the tomb? No one says the tomb was not empty. Even if you couldn't account for the difference between one and two angels -- and I think you can -- but even if you couldn't, it's still a major thing that Jesus rose and the tomb was empty."
I've found it odd that many fundamentalists and liberals focus so much on peripheral details and miss the centrality of the Jesus narrative. If the tiny details are wrong, the entire story must be wrong, again bringing forth the "all-or-nothing" mentality that pervades what's left of modern fundamentalism.
"... You may lose some form of biblical inerrancy if there are contradictions in the Gospels, but you still have the truth of Christianity that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think that's the most important point we can make," Licona said. Also in a discussion of apparent contradictions, Licona said, it is important to distinguish between a contradiction and a difference.  "Most of the things we find in the Gospels are differences. There are only maybe a handful of things between the Gospels that are potential contradictions in my opinion and only one or two that I've found that are really stubborn for me at this point -- and they're all in the peripherals," Licona said.
I think this is a really important distinction that Dr. Licona makes. Licona is referring to what I call a "flexible" inerrancy versus an "inflexible" inerrancy. The former is able to account for potentially contradictory data and allows for tension within the text. It allows for a big picture mentality that is needed these days.
Mohler, in comments to Baptist Press Feb. 6, said, "It would be nonsense to affirm real contradictions in the Bible and then to affirm inerrancy."

"Even Dr. Licona concedes that we 'may lose some form of biblical inerrancy if there are contradictions in the Gospels.' What you lose is inerrancy itself," Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy clearly and rightly affirms 'the unity and internal consistency of Scripture' and denies that any argument for contradictions within the Bible is compatible with inerrancy. An actual contradiction is an error."
I think what Dr. Mohler means to say is that we lose his inflexible definition of inerrancy. He also misses Dr. Licona's distinction between differences and contradictions. Mike is smart enough to realize that openness is something most reasonable people value, and I commend him for exploring such things.
Mohler identified two other major problems regarding Licona's methodology.

"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," Mohler said.
I don't think Dr. Licona is doing this, and I would further add that the Gospels are inspired but also within the recorded time frame and follows some standard conventions. To assert that this is "reduction" is a straw man and is nothing of the kind.
"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."
Mohler is both correct and incorrect in what he says here. He is correct to say that the resurrection is central and all of that. He is incorrect to assert, yet again, that if the peripheral details are off then the resurrection is suspect. Not much of what Mohler says here would put Licona in serious disagreement. Of course, Dr. Mohler would make it very clear that inerrancy is big potatoes. I think so as well, but I don't think one not affirming inerrancy puts them in the dog house.

Just as I think one not being a Calvinist or Arminian would result in being boxed into the same location. I shall conclude this brief piece with a comment from Licona's University President:
In regard to the hiring of Licona as an associate theology professor at Houston Baptist, Sloan, the university's president, conveyed confidence. The full text of Sloan's statement to Baptist Press Feb. 7 follows:

"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.

I'm hopeful that Dr. Licona's teaching career won't be affected by this unnecessary maelstrom. He has done much for the Kingdom and I thank him for his work. We must be allowed to ask and answer difficult questions without wondering where the knife is headed. That is the awful consequence of living in a world full of complexity.



  1. I've attended a Southern Baptist church before, and while the people were devoted and loving, they were also ignorant. The SBC is a stronghold of passion... and stupidity. The fact that Licona's statement is even an issue shows how backwards they still are.

    1. As much as I would love to agree with you entirely, I think Licona is a Southern Baptist. I have several friends who are Southern Baptist and are working to change things within the organization, so I think the claim of ignorance -- while experientially true for you -- doesn't seem to reflect all Southern baptists.

      However, I will concede that Dr. Mohler has a very wide microphone and Southern Baptists should stand up and make sure that he doesn't speak for all of them.

      Thanks for the comment! :-)