This book can be purchased here.
A Brief Recap of the Debate
The book Defining Inerrancy (Tekton E-Bricks, 2014) was recently released in response to Geisler’s book Defending Inerrancy (Baker, 2012), and a book of essays edited by Norman Geisler and F. David Farnell called The Jesus Quest: The Danger From Within (Xulon, 2014). The debate surrounding Biblical Inerrancy has been heating up once again in Evangelical circles. Unlike past debates regarding this issue, both sides of this new debate affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. Central to the debate here is in how do we as Evangelicals understand that doctrine, and what methodologies regarding the interpretation of Scripture fall within the bounds of being able to affirm inerrancy.
Much of the heat of the debate began when Norman Geisler publicly criticized a couple of sentences from Michael Licona’s groundbreaking work The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Histiographical Approach, in which he presents a stunning defence the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. The criticism from Geisler regarding some of the contents of Licona’s book were a prelude to the release of Defending Inerrancy, in which Geisler takes to task several prominent conservative Evangelical scholars for their methods of interpretation. Whether in publication, or online, Geisler, enlisting help from other prominent Evangelicals, have made much about this issue since. Defining Inerrancy is one fine response to this controversy.
The foreword from Craig Blomberg is an eye-opener into some of the history of Norman Geisler’s dealings with Evangelical scholars in the past. It is also enlightening that he, presumably like other scholars, will no longer remain on the sidelines in this debate. Holding and Peters go on offense with Defining Inerrancy. They primarily survey the contents of the The Jesus Quest and Defending Inerrancy books, and respond to criticisms directly related to the issues of genre criticism, extra-Biblical sources, literary conventions contemporary with the times of Scripture, and so forth. While both sides care about the preservation of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, the scholars attacked by Geisler and company hold that their methodology is the only viable means of a) understanding the kind of text God has given us in His Word, and b) understanding how and why the Bible is inerrant in the sense of understanding it in its own terms. Contrary to the assertions of Geisler and company, they are largely correct in these claims. This book effectively demonstrates this to be the case.
Defining Inerrancy responds point by point to the criticisms of a number of critics who contributed to Geisler’s cause. For expedient purposes, Holding and Peters offer the label “traditionalists” to Geisler and others who hold to one method of interpretation, and “contextualizers” to scholars like Bock, Licona, Blomberg, and others who are under assault by Geisler. Two things are immediately noticed. First, these labels are far more charitable than the labels given by Geisler and company to those conservative Evangelicals they oppose. Second, it is realized very quickly that Geisler and company do not have very sound arguments, as they are easily countered by Holding and Peters. This is disconcerting, because the salient points relevant to the issue discussed in this book are typically cited in full by Holding and Peters, and they expose the bad reasoning, the misrepresentation, hypocrisy, and the irrelevant and overstated alarmist rhetoric employed by Geisler and company. After the first 24 pages of this book, this pattern becomes so repetitious as to be somewhat frightening at how seriously flawed these arguments against the contextualizers are. One will have to read the book and come to their own conclusions about this, but it was striking to me that these normally cogent and thoughtful scholars like Geisler and company offer very little by way of meaningful substance. Holding and Peters make it obvious that they need much better arguments if they are to be taken seriously, need to catch up and follow conservative Biblical scholarship better, and need to do some more homework before they come back to the table to respond. If nothing else, the authors of Defining Inerrancy make it clear to spectators on all sides of this issue that all the grandstanding and posturing in place of coherent argumentation and having a firm grasp on the issues will no longer do for Geisler and company.
Furthermore, Holding and Peters effectively demonstrate that the very fears of Geisler and company over methodology of interpretation would be brought about more and worse by their own traditionalist view than the contextualizer’s view. Holding and Peters point to examples like Bart Ehrman, and many people in the pew who perhaps do not have a sophisticated view of Scripture and inerrancy, and the kind of literary texts that are in Scripture. They argue that a hyper-wooden view of interpretative boundaries and conclusions by Geisler and company are likely to produce more liberals, apostates, and skeptics than the methodology used by the “contextualizers” who are, and largely remain, conservative Evangelicals. Those Apologists on the streets who have quite often encountered these sorts of apostates, skeptics, and others with questions about the Bible can verify as much as well.
They also demonstrate that if one ignores the scholarship over the last couple of decades, one finds himself in the position of having to shut one’s mind off and start ignoring reality. Apologists have long recognized these factors in discussing with both apostates and Christians struggling to deal with issues regarding the Bible. Holding and Peters rightly point out that contextualization of Biblical texts helps sort these kinds of issues out, and is arguably a more faithful hermeneutic to the text anyway.
This, of course, points us to a major issue in the debate. This really is not a debate about inerrancy at all, but rather, one of hermeneutics. If one really wants to ignore much of what genre criticism, effective use of extra-Biblical sources, literary conventions, social science data, etc. offers to aid us in understanding Scripture, then that amounts to ignoring Scripture itself. Both sides want to affirm inerrancy, and both sides also want to affirm that the Bible was not written in a vacuum. Essentially though, one side wants to limit the scope of tools we can use to understand the text, and the other side wants to broaden the scope. Though, as Holding and Peters also point out, their opponents only want to limit that scope selectively and arbitrarily as it suits their own interpretive conclusions.
Holding and Peters rightly point out that there can be dangers on both extreme ends of this spectrum, but evaluating interpretative conclusions on the basis of arguments made for them is a far cry from affirming or rejecting inerrancy itself. This is a very important point, and Geisler and company have completely failed to grasp it, and have offered no meaningful counterargument in response to this vitally important point. Sadly, only one side, the contextualizers, understand all this, and the other side does not want to engage in the necessary hard work, but would rather engage in bombastic, alarmist rhetoric and bad arguments why other conservative Evangelicals should not try to understand God’s Word more fully. In any case, interpretations of particular passages by some conservative scholars that other conservative scholars may find questionable need to be decided at that level. What does not need to happen, but has happened, is the circus on the internet that has resulted from these disagreements (albeit from both sides). Questions regarding some conservative Evangelical scholars’ orthodoxy, Evangelical or Biblical commitment, or affirmation of inerrancy because they come to some interpretive conclusion about this or that passage that others reject goes too far out of bounds. Indeed, they go outside the relevant bounds of the matters under discussion.
All this simply will not do. As Holding and Peters demonstrate, one has to ignore too much scholarship demonstrating that these tools are both appropriate and necessary to have a robust understanding of Scripture. The authors also demonstrate that when one takes away the alarmist rhetoric, double-standards, hypocrisy, misrepresentations, and question begging, Geisler and company simply have no case. Moreover, when it all shakes out, Holding and Peters also show that this is largely about splitting hairs with regards to both the Chicago Statement/ICBI position and the “contextualizers” in how much extra-Biblical data one can use to help understand Scripture. One side wants more, but only insofar as it is useful (the contextualizers), the other side (the traditionalists) wants, well, more or less of it, depending on what their particular views are on this or that issue in this or that book of the Bible.
For example, take Geisler and his Old Earth Creationist views. He, along with Packer, still have yet to adequately address how their position and methodology is any different with respect to Genesis’ creation account to the contextualizers methodology with the Gospels, Epistles, and the rest of Scripture. At least, they have not adequately done so to the satisfaction of the contextualizers, to say nothing of Young Earth Creationists. Young Earth Creationists charge Geisler and others with much of the same labels and supposed harm to Scripture as Geisler and his company accuse the contextualizers. Holding and Peters rightly point out the blatant inconsistency of their opponents in this matter.
Stumbles a Bit Though
While I largely think that this book succeeds in its intent and argumentation, especially for a fast, accessible read for curious onlookers, it is not without a few problems of its own. One major problem is lacking citation when information is given regarding methodological approaches, or sourcing explanations of literary conventions, and things like this. Anyone who has surveyed either Holding’s or Peters’ respective websites know that they certainly have the book and article collection to provide citations to their explanation of what, for example, a high context society is, or how ancient rhetorical conventions would work regarding speeches, and things of this nature. This sort of thing would have been most helpful for curious onlookers who are unfamiliar with all the terminology.
Another problem is that while demonstrating the bad arguments of Geisler and company, they offer some bad arguments themselves. There is a myth that if one is a Systematic Theologian, or pastor, or philosopher, perhaps an apologist, then one is therefore not a “scholar” of Scripture, a competent exegete, and lack the right set of disciplinary credentials to discuss matters of Scripture and what are or are not appropriate methods of interpretation. Clearly, this is false.
Furthermore, it is irrelevant. Claims must be answered, as they have been in Defining Inerrancy, even apparently baseless ones such as is on offer by Geisler and company. However, the credentials of Geisler, Farnell, Holden, MacArthur, Mohler, Patterson, Land, and others are certainly respectable, and more than qualify them well enough to discuss these matters. This is especially pertinent since, were we to apply this standard to the authors of Defining Inerrancy themselves, both Holding and Peters lack any credentials whatsoever to offer back comment relevant to the field of this discussion to their chosen opponents, much less take up arms with those whom they agree and definitively speak for them. Should anyone therefore discount this book and the arguments they offered in it, most of which I am in agreement, because the authors here do not have terminal degrees in New Testament studies? Of course not. This line of argument was unnecessary, unconvincing, and the book would have been better served without it. While the arguments given by Geisler and company are certainly wanting, at least in my opinion, their credentials are certainly not.
Finally, there are some occasions of blanket statements that the authors assume are unchallenged by other contextualizers and other non-traditionalist scholars alike. For instance, statements like all the Gospels being ancient Greco-Roman biographies. This is not necessarily the case. Some of them are, but as Witherington convincingly demonstrates in his Acts commentary (The Acts of The Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary), Luke’s Gospel is best concluded to be ancient historiography and not ancient biography. Witherington concluded this by using the very kind of methodology defended here (see Witherington’s introduction in his Acts commentary). This is simply being pointed out to demonstrate that occasional blanket statements found here and there in Defining Inerrancy may be a bit misleading, but also to show that the methodology defended in Defining Inerrancy yields further insight when pressed fully into service, as with the Witherington and Acts example, not less insight.
The few minor quibbles aside, I highly recommend this book to those interested in the back and forth regarding inerrancy. Unfortunately, inerrancy is the subject heading under which this conversation is taking place, but this is more about interpretative methodology than it is about inerrancy. Both sides affirm inerrancy. Sadly, only one side, the contextualizers, want to take the Bible seriously enough to understand it on its own terms, while the other side wants to seriously derail and distract from that goal. Holding and Peters, and the class of conservative, Evangelical Biblical scholars they represent in this work, are surely right in what they affirm and argue here. This is definitely the case when trying to understand literary genre and literary conventions, in which more understanding here serves to demonstrate why the Bible does not have the supposed “problems” it is perceived to have, from the perspective of modern readers, critics or otherwise. It is also the most sound way forward in demonstrating how we are to best understand (or “resolve”) these perceived problems. Finally, it also helps give us insight into determining how the Bible can be inerrant while appearing to have what modern readers perceive as “problematic” passages. We should favor any solution that concludes that these are, in fact, not problems at all. We should also favor the solutions that do not require a suspension of disbelief, as is often the case with some of the unconvincing harmonizations proposed for some of the problem passages or alleged contradictions in Scripture.
I especially recommend Defining Inerrancy to people who are tending to side with Geisler and company on this issue. Holding and Peters have done Geisler and company a favor by taking their arguments seriously, reading their material, and offering a response. Unfortunately for Geisler, those responses are devestating to his position. Obviously though, Geisler and company do not return the favor, and have demonstrated an avoidance to the real arguments offered back to them, rather than taking them straight on. I hope Geisler’s rank and file do not behave like Geisler and neglect to seriously contend with the arguments and responses like the ones offered in this book.
I know I personally have benefited and have been enriched in my own study of Scripture because of conservative Evangelical scholars like Licona, Blomberg, Bird, Keener, Witherington, de Silva, Bock, etc. who have introduced us to the highlights and insights gleaned from genre criticism, effective use of extra-Biblical sources, literary and rhetorical conventions, social science data, and so forth. As People of the Book, we should always grasp for more tools to better understand what God has given us, not less. Holding and Peters have served that end well with Defining Inerrancy, and have exposed some fatal flaws in the argumentation, approach, and unnecessary alarmist rhetoric of Geisler and company. While I also admire Geisler and his cohorts in many ways, and have benefited from their works on other issues, they are not only on the losing side of this issue, but on the wrong side as well.
Vice President of Adminstration
Trinity Theological Seminary