Monday, June 01, 2020

Review of Michael Licona's Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?

Lydia McGrew recommends the free version of her "Review of Michael Licona's Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?" (pdf).

It's also available on Amazon, but Lydia has mentioned "I do not receive a single penny and never have" from the Amazon version. I believe the content is identical.


  1. Hi Hawk, just curious, I've asked this question, or something like it before on T-blogue but I don't recall seeing any responses.

    I've seen Lydia's work posted here favorably for a long time (I'm a long time reader, probably more than a decade), but I've also seen a lot of content through the years that seems to uphold and affirm a strong inerrantist view of Scripture.

    I'm wondering why material from someone like Lydia who is openly not an inerrantist is favorably hosted here and her ideas are given a platform whereas material from someone like Licona, who is often a foil of Lydia's, is not favorably posted when it seems to me that the two of them hold the same basic position on inerrancy?

    Sure Lydia may be "to the right" of Licona within the non-inerrantist camp, but the point is, to me at least, that *they are both in the same camp*.

    In other words they both hold that errors exist in Scripture, they just draw the lines in different places based on their personal views.

    I'm not trying to create a controversy. The situation regarding Lydia's views of Scripture and how they align, or don't align, with T-blogue's contributors' views of Scripture is genuinely confusing to me and I'm wondering how to reconcile them.

    There may be more than one answer as I realize the blog is a collective effort and not a hive mind, despite conspiracy theories through the years that "steve" is actually a sentient AI and not a human being at all.

    1. Lol, in fact, I think some Triablogue members may likewise suspect Steve is at a minimum a sentient AI as well! ;)

      But seriously that's a good question. I can't speak for other Triablogue members, but speaking for myself you're right I would disagree with Lydia on inerrancy, and I would "uphold and affirm a strong inerrantist view of Scripture" too, but I think Lydia does a lot of valuable work in general. (Not to mention I would also probably disagree with a few other positions she holds.) Regardless, like Tim McGrew, she's a highly sophisticated, intelligent, and independent thinker, and I appreciate that. So I guess the idea is I wouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were.

      As for Licona, I think we have plugged Licona's stuff in the past, but maybe not as much as Lydia's stuff? I don't really pay attention, to be honest. But I would agree with a lot of what Licona says too. I guess I could try to consciously plug more of his stuff.

    2. Inerrancy is something that really doesn't even matter in practice to me. I'm not an "inerrantist" either but I don't see any cases where I treat a biblical text any different than "inerrantists" would. I also roll my eyes at inane skeptical/atheists attempt to manufacture "contradictions" in the texts.

      As I age, the issue is less and less important to me. The same problems and purported solutions exist regardless of what position I claim to be in.

    3. Oh, btw: The Global Journal of Classic Theology is self-consciously inerrantist, and Dr. J. W. Montgomery and I discussed explicitly the fact that nothing in my long review of Licona's book (which he invited me to write) should contradict inerrancy if it was to be published in that journal.

      Hawk, if you're thinking of "plugging Licona's stuff" in the sense of positively advertising material that advocates his compositional device theories, I would strongly suggest that you reconsider, *not* on the grounds that I want you just to take my word for it or to do me a favor, but on the grounds that it's a very misguided theory. I suppose you could "plug" it in the sense of suggesting that people read it (in addition to countervailing views) and make up their own minds. I've often done that. But hopefully, after investigation, not in the sense of endorsing it.

      Unfortunately I should add here that there were significant problems even with his 2010 book. In fact, in that book he used the word "legend" for specific parts of the Gospels that the evangelists might have made up. After he got so much pushback for that he ditched the word "legend" and consistently used the phrase "compositional device" instead, but it was just a cosmetic change.

    4. And nowadays in interviews even about the resurrection, Licona very often brings up his compositional device views. I think there are people out there who think that there are "safe" topics that they can have Licona and me interviewed about, sort of "good cop" topics, where these controversial issues won't come up. But that very often is not the case. I have seen him interviewed recently about the resurrection and spontaneously bring up fact-changing literary devices, because he genuinely believes that they are in the Gospels and because he genuinely believes that they are a solution to alleged discrepancies. And Gospel discrepancies are a pretty relevant topic when it comes to the resurrection accounts. So this is all very much of a piece. Similarly, there are people who want me to talk about undesigned coincidences but never say anything about the problems with literary device theories. But the reportage model that looks for real-world explanations for differences in the Gospels and thus gives rise to undesigned coincidences is at odds with the model that says that it was "part and parcel of the genre" to invent details. This is why Licona himself has never really gotten much into undesigned coincidences and has more recently said negative things about them. Once again, these topics are very intertwined, and I'm afraid we really are dealing with two quite different models of the Gospels, so a kind of "little bit of this and little bit of that" approach where one tries to take the alleged best of McGrew and alleged best of Licona and have a coherent view at the end of it all is probably not going to work.

    5. Thanks, Lydia. I'm definitely far more on your side when it comes to everything you've said here. (And honestly in general.) I'd agree with nearly all your criticisms of Licona, and I only say "nearly all" because I haven't read everything, but I think I've read a not insignificant amount, and again I'd agree with you.

      Oh yeah, you're right, I'd plug Licona in the sense of "investigation" as you put it, not necessarily "endorsement". The kinds of things I'd positively plug about Licona would probably be more broad or generic to apologetics. I'm thinking of things like his debate with atheists in general (that is, I'm not at all suggesting I'd agree with everything he says in the debates), some of his arguments for the resurrection, some of his personal testimonies about miracles and the paranormal. However, at the least I'd likely have to make significant qualifiers if I plugged him, as you've more than demonstrated, given how "intertwined" his less than sanguine views are with many of his arguments.

      On a side note, I consider you a friend (not that we've ever met one another but at least a friend online if that kind of friendship counts), whereas I don't know Licona on a personal level at all. Moreover, I completely side with you in terms of credentialism. His credentialism is another thing that's been fairly offputting to me.

  2. Licona is already starting to respond to Lydia's critiques at his youtube channel.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. The production style of the first video that has the "UH OH!" thumbnail seemed... odd. Maybe that's just the way his videos are normally produced.

    2. It will be interesting to see if Licona responds with substance to McGrew or if he instead talks about credentials, accolades, pieces of paper, etc.

      From what I've seen, if Licona is an "inerrantist" then I definitely am not one.

    3. He's now removed the "uh-oh" thumbnail from the trailer. Perhaps someone convinced him that it did not fit well with the claim of being "irenic" and a "peacemaker." It will be more difficult to scrub all of the extremely unprofessional comments he has made over a period of *years* about my not being worthy of an answer due to my credentials being the "wrong" ones.

      Eric, I expect that over eight videos there will be some semblance of content, but I emphasize "semblance." What I have found in the few things Licona has said here or there that are apparently intended to be responses to me (or explicitly so) is that they are a kind of guided tour of popular fallacies and misdirection. Here are several: Ad hominem, red herring, complex (loaded) question, petitio principii (begging the question), false dilemma, bandwagon, strawman, and equivocation. And sometimes he just flat-out states falsehoods, such as that the devices that I object to are "the way everybody talks in ordinary conversation nowadays." Sometimes one has one's pick as to which fallacy to call something. For example, in his introduction video, he asked whether we should think that the evangelists used the literary conventions of their day or conventions that would not be invented for hundreds of years. This intended as some sort of summary of or introduction to a response to me is pretty much a textbook example of the loaded question. Obviously nobody is going to say that they were using "devices" that would not be invented for hundreds of years. But anybody who knows anything at all about my work knows that a) I deny that just *telling the truth without changing it* was a "device" that wasn't going to be invented for hundreds of years afterwards. And indeed, who would think that this is a device or literary convention? b) I argue with great care that the compositional devices Licona alleges were not, in fact, real conventions that would have been known both to the Gospel authors and to their audiences. So if one chooses, one can regard this loaded question as a form of begging the question.

      This does not bode well for the series. As I say, I'm sure we'll get some semblance of content. He's said some things in scattered other places that I'm sure will make it into the series. But as "content" goes, what I've seen is pretty dreadful.

  3. Coram Deo, I apologize if you've asked this question before and if I have posted this answer before. I have a feeling of deja vu. But let me try again, if it is "again." Traditional inerrantists have *repeatedly* endorsed my work and disagreed with Licona's work for several reasons. (I will also include links to a two-part video series in which your types of questions are discussed.)

    1) I'm more honest than he is concerning my relationship with inerrancy. Instead of trying to "work from within" to undermine inerrantist institutions by trying to claim the label while radically redefining the concept, I admit that I'm not an inerrantist from the beginning. This creates far less confusion.
    2) Related: Mike tries quite literally to say that his "literary devices" are *not errors*, even while saying that the Gospel authors deliberately changed the facts. This is a kind of very strange use of language and has created tremendous confusion in the evangelical world. He's tried to say that his fact-changing "compositional devices" are compatible with inerrancy, when they manifestly aren't. That frustrates the traditional inerrantist. I share and understand their frustration. Therefore they and I have that in common.
    3) It's just a fact that reliability of a witness, even a fallible witness, is far more undermined by his subjectively deciding invisibly to change the facts than by his being reliably connected to the events, trying to get it right, and occasionally making a good-faith error. We can trust his testimony far better in the latter case. We understand this instinctively in real-world contexts where we trust the testimony of fallible but well-informed and honest witnesses all the time but wouldn't trust the testimony of those same witnesses if we knew that they invisibly changed and made up "facts."
    4) Nothing in Licona's method rules out there *also* being ordinary errors, so his views merely introduce the fact-changing literary devices as an *additional* and far less predictable source of potential error.
    5) I harmonize again and again. I consider ordinary, old-fashioned harmonization to be good historical practice. Therefore old-fashioned inerrantists and I have much in common on a lot of concrete, specific passages. Licona, in contrast, is constantly saying negative things about perfectly reasonable harmonizations. This comes up over and over again. There was just a new instance recently when he was interviewing Craig Keener and Licona was scoffing about the perfectly reasonable idea that Mary of Bethany anointed both Jesus' feet and his head. (I couldn't tell what Keener thought for sure, but he may have disagreed with Licona on that one.) But Licona just sneers when he comes to many totally reasonable additive harmonizations that are the bread and butter of old-fashioned inerrantists' approach to Gospel apparent discrepancies. While I occasionally disagree with them, I don't sneer, and I most of the time agree with them. This is no small practical matter. It ends up having extremely widespread methodological consequences.

    That'll do for starters for an answer. Please see my interview in two parts with Phil Fernandes of the ISCA. Btw, Norman Geisler on his deathbed was very, very likely to endorse my book despite having been told again and again that I was not an inerrantist. He just died before he could have it read to him (he was having trouble with reading toward the end of his life) and compose an endorsement.

    1. Hi Lydia, thanks for taking the time to personally reply. Your deja vu is warranted. But in the present case I was actually wondering why T-blogue often plugged your work - no slight intended - due to your position on Scripture being at odds, I thought, with that of the T-blogue authors generally.

      You've been pretty open and clear about your views on inerrancy, and that's refreshing, but nevertheless I personally find your views distressing and, well, potentially hazardous. But I'm a nobody so what I think doesn't matter.

      Regardless, because of my personal concerns I was quizzing Hawk about plugging your work, but not Licona's, even though the two of you apparently hold to the same basic position on Scripture, to wit:

      You believe and teach the Bible is a mixture of truth and error.

      Mike Licona believes and teaches the Bible is a mixture of truth and error.

      It's only a matter of degrees that separate you. Apparently you believe the mixture of truth and error is strongly tilted in the favor of truth. Let's say it's 98%.

      On the other hand Licona is somewhat less convinced about the general truthfulness of Scripture, let's be crass and say he's a 50-percenter.

      There are 783,137 words in the Bible. So using my overly simplistic analogy the Lydia approach yields only 15,663 untruthful or unreliable words in the Bible whereas the Licona approach yields a whopping 391,593 untruthful or unreliable words.

      Again I know this isn't the way it really works out in practice, but my point is why plug the work of *anyone* who believes and teaches the Bible is a mixture of truth and error?

      And of course inerrancy doesn't just sort of freely float in space, it's directly tied to infallibility and inspiration. As goes one, so go the others.

      I think you're probably a well-meaning person, you're obviously very smart and well read, and you no doubt have reasons that seem good and right to you to hold the positions you hold because you write about, and defend and argue for them in a scholarly manner, but from where I sit I can't see how you can possibly avoid a lowered view of God and of scripture by thinking the Bible is a mixture of truth and error.

      For example I've noticed in our few brief exchanges you've made references to the general reliability of otherwise trustworthy witnesses, and you've referred to your personal trust in the word of your husband, but again this strikes me as either a bait-and-switch, or else as a category error because God and His Word aren't like humans and their words, or else it's a tacit although unintended admission of your lowered view of scripture, treating it as one would any other merely human source of information.

      I may be mistaken, and I hope I am because if I'm on target then I think this is a profoundly sad and impoverished view of the Bible, and one that's sub-optimal to say the least for a Christian to hold.

    2. You raise an interesting question: Suppose that someone holds robustly and totally to old-fashioned inerrancy. Not the redefined, Licona-style kind but the Norman Geisler, et. al. kind. In that case, why would such a person ever make any analogy to trusting a person, to witness reliability, and so forth, when that would be an analogy to a fallible person rather than to the infallible Word of God? Should an old-fashioned inerrantist treat the Gospel authors as in a sense sui generis reporters, not analogous to ordinary reporters as in a court of law?

      I would say that an old-fashioned inerrantist *can* consistently use such analogies because of the important notion of epistemic routing. And this sort of epistemic routing is something that old-fashioned inerrantists can accept, and I believe that some explicitly do accept. (I believe that this sort of routing is something that some people at SES do, for example.) First (in epistemological order) you have to argue that Christianity is true and that Jesus is God. Then you take certain verses such as his promise to bring all things to their remembrance or Paul's statement that all Scripture is God-breathed to mean that the Gospels are inerrant. Obviously, I'm summarizing briefly, but I'm just trying to show a broad structure.

      Now, in that "order of knowing," when one doesn't start out by assuming without argument that the Gospels themselves are God-breathed, it's perfectly legitimate to talk about the Gospel authors as human witnesses, about their human ways of knowing what they wrote, etc. After all, God providentially ordained that the Gospels would be written by either eyewitnesses or the companions of eyewitnesses, and this was important to the early church. This sort of eyewitness testimony is emphasized repeatedly even in the Bible itself, in both the Gospels and Acts. John 19:35 and Acts 1:22 are both examples. In neither of these places do the people involved (John and Peter) say that people should just listen to them regardless of who they are because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Instead, they emphasize that they *saw* certain things and are testifying of them. In other words, for purposes of convincing people who don't just start off by assuming that what they are doing is issuing God-breathed writings or teachings, they emphasize human transmission and truthful human testimony.

      It is not only epistemologically legitimate but also wise for an old-fashioned inerrantist to do the same and to defend the Gospels and Acts on the level of human testimony, so that *even if* they were not inerrant (as he believes they are), they stand up to rigorous scrutiny as foundational historical documents of Christianity that can be used to convince someone who doesn't *assume from the outset and without argument* that they are God-breathed.

      This means that alluding to trusting a human witness and to the evangelists' connection to witness testimony is neither a betrayal of inerrancy (in itself) nor a bait and switch. Of course, if an inerrantist is worried about a bait and switch with a given audience or worried about giving that appearance, he is welcome to say something like, "Now, I would argue that these are even more than just highly reliable, that they are inspired documents and hence completely inerrant. But I'm not *assuming* that here as a premise." It's pretty important in epistemology to distinguish what one is assuming as a premise from what one is drawing ultimately as a conclusion. I could give other examples, but you can probably think of examples for yourself.