Tuesday, August 14, 2007

What price William Lane Craig?

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays)

William Lane Craig has a website with a q/a segment. Among other things, he’s been fielding questions about inerrancy.[1]

Craig says a number of helpful things along the way. However, he also makes a number of dubious statements along the way.
Inerrantists freely admit that no one reading through the Bible and keeping list of difficulties encountered along the way, whether inconsistencies or mistakes, would come to the conclusion at the end of his reading that the Bible is inerrant. He would likely conclude that the Bible, like almost every other book, has some errors in it.
Well, I guess this says a lot about the impression that Scripture makes on Craig. But although this autobiographical confession may be true of his own experience, it is rather presumptuous of him to testify on behalf of every other inerrantist. Certainly he doesn’t speak for me.

i) For me, the list of difficulties diminishes rather than accumulates. For starters, there’s a difference between reading the Bible from front to back (Genesis to Revelation), and reading the Bible from back to front.

I don’t mean that we literally read the Bible in reverse chronological order, although that would be a useful exercise. What I mean, rather, is that Scripture ought to read very differently in retrospect, when you see how the story ends, than when you begin in Genesis and move forward—one chapter at a time.

Many pieces of the puzzle which were initially puzzling eventually fall into place as you see the overall pattern gradually emerge.

ii) In addition, most-all of the difficulties are, indeed, generated when a modern reader treats the Bible like almost every other book. One needs to make reasonable allowances for the fact that our contemporary cultural paradigm will often be a very inadequate standard of reference for understanding a book (or anthology of books) set in a very different cultural milieu.
As Friedrich Schleiermacher once put it, “We do not believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ.”
Do we? Once again, Craig is free to speak for himself, but he doesn’t speak for me. Surely Scheiermacher’s logic is far too facile.

Is believing in Christ separable from what the Bible says about Christ? Is believing in Christ separable from the words attributed to Christ in Scripture?
Now the question raised by your letter is what our reaction should be if we become convinced that there really is an error in the Bible. Won’t such a conclusion have a kind of reverse effect along our chain of deductive reasoning, leading us to deny Jesus’ resurrection and deity? This was apparently the conclusion of Bart Ehrman, who says he lost his faith in Christ because he discovered one minor error in the Gospels.
Such a conclusion is unnecessary for two reasons. First, we may need instead to revise our understanding of what constitutes an error.
This is excellent advice. Craig would do well to stick to this point.
Nobody thinks that when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4.31) this is an error, even though there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds.
That is simply untrue. There are critics of inerrancy who cite precisely this example, among others.

I agree with Craig that it’s a lousy example, but that doesn’t prevent critics of inerrancy from using lousy examples, of which this is one.
Why? Because Jesus is not teaching botany; he is trying to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of God, and the illustration is incidental to this lesson.
It’s hard to parse this statement. It could either be true or false depending on how you develop it.

There are other, simpler, sounder ways of dealing with this example:

i) Jesus was using a conventional or proverbial illustration.

ii) Jesus was using hyperbole.

Either (i) or (ii) is consistent with inerrancy.
Defenders of inerrancy claim that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant in all that it teaches or all that it means to affirm. This raises the huge question as to what the authors of Scripture intend to affirm or teach.

We can extend the point by considering the proposal that the Gospels should be understood as different performances, as it were, of orally transmitted tradition. The prominent New Testament scholar Jimmy Dunn, prompted by the work of Ken Bailey on the transmission of oral tradition in Middle Eastern cultures, has sharply criticized what he calls the “stratigraphic model” of the Gospels, which views them as composed of different layers laid one upon another on top of a primitive tradition. (See James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered [Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2003].) On the stratigraphic model each tiny deviation from the previous layer occasions speculations about the reasons for the change, sometimes leading to quite fanciful hypotheses about the theology of some redactor. But Dunn insists that oral tradition works quite differently. What matters is that the central idea is conveyed, often in some key words and climaxing in some saying which is repeated verbatim; but the surrounding details are fluid and incidental to the story.

So the stories in the Gospels should not be understood as evolutions of some prior primitive tradition but as different performances of the same oral story.

Now if Dunn is right, this has enormous implications for one’s doctrine of biblical inerrancy, for it means that the Evangelists had no intention that their stories should be taken like police reports, accurate in every detail. What we in a non-oral culture might regard as an error would not be taken by them to be erroneous at all.
A couple of problems:

i) It disregards the evidence for literacy among 1C Palestinian Jews.[2]

In addition, Maurice Casey, by means of retroversion (from Greek into Aramaic), thinks that at least portions of the Jesus tradition in the synoptic gospels are based on primitive written sources—even direct transcriptions from the original speeches of Jesus.[3]

ii) Craig is apparently conceding that the Gospels may contain any number of incidental, detailed inaccuracies.
By contrast, the case for Jesus’ belief that the Old Testament Scriptures are inerrant is much weaker.
I’m baffled by why Craig would say that. Many writers, like B. B. Warfield and Roger Nicole have argued otherwise.
At the center of our web of beliefs ought to be some core belief like the belief that God exists, with the deity and resurrection of Christ somewhere near the center. The doctrine of inspiration of Scripture will be somewhere further out and inerrancy even farther toward the periphery as a corollary of inspiration. If inerrancy goes, the web will feel the reverberations of that loss, as we adjust our doctrine of inspiration accordingly, but the web will not collapse because belief in God and Christ and his resurrection and so on don’t depend upon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
This admission tells us a lot about his own theological priorities. But, once again, it’s far too facile. What God does he believe in? The God of the Bible or some other Deity?

Can we draw such a cut-and-dried distinction between our belief in God, and our belief in the word of God? Once you lose your doctrine of revelation, you thereby lose your doctrine of a revelatory God.

Does he believe in a God who is a doer, but not a speaker? A mute God? In Scripture there’s a tight knit correlation between divine words and divine deeds—between what God says and what he does.
As I explain in my Question of the Week on “What Price Biblical Errancy?” Ehrman, when he was a Christian, had a flawed theological system in which inerrancy lay at the very center of his web of beliefs, so that once he became convinced of a single error in Scripture the whole web collapsed.
The problem with Ehrman is not that “he had a flawed theological system in which inerrancy lay at the very center of his web of beliefs,” but rather, that he had a flawed conception of inerrancy, along with an unscriptural expectation regarding the inerrancy of the MSS. That’s why his faith fell like a house of cards.
As a result, the doctrine of inerrancy looms abnormally large in his thinking. But the case for Jesus’ resurrection which I presented doesn’t in any way presuppose the inerrancy of the documents, so that the doctrine becomes irrelevant so far as belief in the resurrection goes.
It’s true that you can sometimes bracket inerrancy when doing apologetics. But what is (temporarily) expendable in apologetics—as a matter of one’s apologetic strategy—may not be expendable in theology.
You say those who go to a university committed to biblical inerrancy should be able to explain these discrepancies. That’s silly, Grant. Why think that Coach Holmquist should be able to explain these discrepancies? Why think that even someone in the New Testament department should be able to explain these? Maybe there just isn’t the historical information available to resolve every discrepancy.
That’s sound advice. Well-worth repeating and emphasizing.
Now that puts the issue in quite a different perspective! The question of biblical inerrancy is an important one, but it’s not like the existence of God or the deity of Christ! If we Christians can’t find a good answer to the question before us and are, moreover, persuaded that such a command is inconsistent with God’s nature, then we’ll have to give up biblical inerrancy. But we shouldn’t let the unbeliever raising this question get away with thinking that it implies more than it does.
Several problems:

i) It’s true that attacking inerrancy doesn’t removed the onus on the unbeliever to deal with the historical evidence.

ii) As far as the execution of the Canaanites is concerned, this involves both OT legal injunctions as well as OT historical narratives that record the implementation, or failure thereof, of the legal injunctions.

To surrender inerrancy on this one point alone is to surrender quite a swath of OT material. And if we’re prepared to take a pair of scissors to these injunctions and narratives, then why not cut away other offensive injunctions and narratives? And why stop with the OT?

You end up with the Jefferson Bible. It seems to me that Craig’s position ranges along the same continuum as Spong. Spong is at the far end of the continuum, but what, in principle, is the difference between them?

iii) Why should we ever be persuaded that such a command is inconsistent with God’s nature?

iv) Craig acts as if doing theology is like writing a screenplay. Sometimes studio executives order the director to shoot alternative endings, then preview the alternative endings to a focus group at a prescreening to see which ending is more marketable. Their favorite ending makes the final cut, while the alternative endings remain on the cutting room floor.

That works in cinematography, where every ending is equally fictitious. But it’s no way to do theology. Somewhere along the line, Craig apparently forgot that Christianity is a revealed religion. That makes it a package deal. A Christian is not at liberty to delete the scenes that rub him the wrong way.

To some extent, Craig represents the triumph of apologetics over theology. Craig does a lot of useful things that you’ll never get from Van Til, but because Van Til was a systematic theologian as well as an apologist, Van Til would never succumb to Craig’s compartmentalized piety.


[2]A. Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (NYU 2000).
[3]M. Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (Cambridge 1998); An Aramaic Approach to Q (Cambridge 2005).


  1. I've been reading the posts over at the Parchment and Pen blog on why inerrancy isn't important. It's irritating!!!

    You guys at Triablogue are such a relief from all this other garbage.

  2. I like Craig, but he's not without his share of unconventional views.

  3. You've highlighted two examples of the problem I have with Craig and those who adopt his, what I term, "minimalist" apologetic strategy:

    1. As a result, the doctrine of inerrancy looms abnormally large in his thinking. But the case for Jesus’ resurrection which I presented doesn’t in any way presuppose the inerrancy of the documents, so that the doctrine becomes irrelevant so far as belief in the resurrection goes.

    2. If we Christians can’t find a good answer to the question before us and are, moreover, persuaded that such a command is inconsistent with God’s nature, then we’ll have to give up biblical inerrancy. But we shouldn’t let the unbeliever raising this question get away with thinking that it implies more than it does.

    In other words, he's willing to adopt a strategy that he knows does not comport with reality in order to argue with the unbeliever. But how does this honor the truth of God's Word? In my estimation, it panders to the unbeliever.

    Behind the second proposition is the subtle assumption that love is God's overriding attribute. His Arminianism is showing here. As a Calvinist, I don't argue that way. I will argue that, since the time of Christ, God has, in mercy for the sake of the elect He is calling, drawn nearer to the world than in the time beforehand, but I won't argue that something in any era, particularly the ANE era, is out of step with God's nature, for the Bible tells me that love is not His only attribute.

    I'm reminded of a debate I attended earlier this year in which questions arose about free will. The Christian was a libertarian, so he couldn't, indeed, would not answer questions regarding the freedom of the will, because, I suspect, he knew that he could not sustain the argument. As I told one of the students who asked me my opinion on the debate, from my perspective, I could have and would have unapologeically answered the objection without appealing to libertarianism, since, for me, those objections were not at all a problem. Libertarianism does not, of course, comport with reality, and this same apologist was using Craig's minimalist approach, which, in my estimation lessened the force of his argumentation.

  4. (From the quotes you gave,) noticably absent from Craig's presentation is any reckoning with what it means to call documents "inspired". He's very clear about the nature of oral tradition, it's impact on the nature of scripture, etc., but not much thought on what it means to say the scriptures are divine.

    I think your last comment hit the nail on the head:

    "To some extent, Craig represents the triumph of apologetics over theology."

    For Craig, appearing to have the best explanation at every point (trying to outreason the unbeliever at every turn) is the most important thing. This betrays a different basic presupposition from the one scripture urges upon us (of course, as I believe he is a wonderful servant of Christ, I believe this is an inconsistency of his).

  5. Yes, this is the danger of putting apologetics before theology.

  6. I respect Craig very much, he has done battle with the very best and brghtest the enemy can throw at us and mostly Craig has defeated them soundly. I have read almost everything spoken or written by Craig, my take on his position,fwiw, is that he beleives the Bible is materially inerrant. There is no material error in it. That is my position also. Minor variations in ancient trip itinerarys,minor time,place,manner eyweitness focus variants, etc. do not change fundamental theological directives.

    Quite frankly, I think these variants make the Bible more authentic as opposed to less so.Read lawyers's briefs with supporting affidavits in a multi million dollar case where Cravath,Swain partners are pyramid billing at about 400 dollars an hour and you will see a level of perfection unmatched in western civilization.Those witnesses look like they are the marine corp silent drill team-perfect, choreographed and in lockstep! And coached within an inch of ethical perfection!

    And cutting to the chase, this supposedly "errant" Bible seems to have accomplished God's holy purpose.Moreover,It rules western civilization, and western civ currently rules the world. For such a supposedly flawed treatise, one wonders why the atheists are fixated on this book 24/7! Yes, the Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.

    (lol)We name our sons matthew, mark, luke and john and our dogs Caesar, Nero, and Titus.

  7. can anyone point me to good recources on innerrancy? I have heard some NT lectures by Dan Wallace and and folks like him on the Varioations in the manuscripts. I do belive Mr. Wallace is an innerrantist in light of this. I am just trying to understand what innerrancy actually means.

    Thanks so much,

  8. I'd add a 3rd possibility to the mustard seed thing.

    I have heard Wayne Grudem say that by 'seed' Jesus was not referring to all seeds but only to the common agricultural seeds that were used for growing food crops at that time. As such, the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds.

    It's like walking into a farmer's seed-store and asking 'Which is the smallest seed'? The question is predicated on the fact that only a subset of all types of seeds are in mind.