Inerrancy Debate



(The FreeThinking Theist)


December 6, 2016

One of the best professors I have ever had is Dr. Michael R. Licona. The two of us have become good friends since my time in his classroom and he continues to sharpen my thinking today. Recently I shared his written debate with skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman on social media. The debate was regarding the reliability of the Gospels (I recommend reading it). This discussion led to another debate regarding Biblical inerrancy with a Christian.

The Body of Christ can learn much from this relatively short exchange between Mike Licona and J Manley. First, the information content is fantastic — we should all benefit from this scholarly dialogue. Second, I hope “The Church” can learn from the example both Licona and Manley set in how they disagree as brothers in Christ.

J Manley: Did you hear Licona on Jonathan Mclatchie’s show? He said that Mark was “confused” about the details surrounding Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. (i.e. Mark was wrong). That is more than concerning.

Tim Stratton: I did not hear that interview, J Manley, but Michael Licona is a good friend and I have a decent understanding of his hermeneutical discoveries based on his studies of Greco Roman Biographies (the genre of the Gospels).

Here is Licona’s essay on the feeding of the 5,000:

Was Mark Confused Pertaining to the Location of the Feeding of the 5,000?

J Manley: Thanks for sharing this. I was aware of this response, but I am concerned that Dr. Licona has a view of scripture that does not comport with traditional orthodox Christian beliefs about inerrancy. For instance, I wonder if he subscribes to the Chicago statement of inerrancy. Rather than start with the view that Scripture is inerrant, and we can be mistaken in how we interpret it, he seems to begin with the idea that 2,000 years after the event, we are in a better position to evaluate local geography than the authors of the text.

I am interested to know if Licona believes that such errors could (at least theoretically) occur anywhere in the Bible, or if he believes that part of scripture being “God-breathed” means that it is free from error. Anyway, compromise on the issue of inerrancy has proven to be the gateway to the downfall of many in recent years. I hope I am misinterpreting Dr. Licona.

Michael Licona: J Manley, Those of us who speak from the stage or in interviews — like Tim Stratton — know that we sometimes make statements that do not necessarily reflect our thinking precisely and that, given more time to think about our wording carefully, we’d say things differently. That is what you heard in that McLatchie interview with my comments related to Mark being confused. So, please go with what I wrote in the article as a more precise articulation of my view.

I subscribe to biblical inerrancy. I like the way it’s defined in the Lausanne Covenant. I haven’t read the Chicago Statement for a while. I know I liked it when I read it years ago. Here’s the crux for me, however. I will not use the Chicago Statement or any definition of inerrancy as a guide when interpreting Scripture. Rather, I will do what F F Bruce counseled: Allow the Scripture to guide my theology. So, in answer to your question, yes, I think, in theory, there could be errors in the Bible. And that’s simply because, although I think the Bible is inerrant, I do not begin with the presupposition that it is.

Now here’s something you may wish to address. Virtually all evangelical scholars who hold to Inerrancy agree that it applies only to the autographs. Even Dr. Geisler acknowledges in his book with Thomas Howe (When Critics Ask) that our current biblical text, specifically the Old Testament, has been corrupted due to some scribal errors. So, wouldn’t that mean that the Bible you have in your hand cannot be said to be “inerrant”? And if you acknowledge that’s the case, have you done what you’re accusing others of doing: going through “the gateway to the downfall of many in recent years”?

J Manley: Michael Licona, thank you for the reply, and for spelling out your views more clearly. For what it’s worth, my family and I live in Savannah, so if you are over this way and would like to converse in person, lunch is on me.

There is no doubt that nuances surround the definition of the word “inerrancy.” I fully agree that Scripture ought to guide our theology. Since Scripture claims such lofty things about itself (Psalm 18:30, 2 Tim 3:16-17, 2 Pet. 1:19-21, etc.), and since Jesus himself had a very high view of Scripture, ought that not be our presupposition for understanding the rest of Scripture?

To answer your main point, yes, the Bible is perfect in the original manuscripts. Scribes could have made errors, but as you know, the textual purity of the Bible is ridiculously good, so possible errors seem to be trivial at best. If I am understanding you correctly, are you saying that Mark was fully inspired by God, is correct in everything that he wrote, but that we are just not sure what he meant in the account in chapter 6?

Michael Licona: J Manley, Jesus certainly had a high view of Scripture. Divinely inspired? Yes. But I don’t know that we get inerrancy from that.

Yes, the textual purity is exceptionally good for our NT and, to a lesser extent, our OT. But that does not answer my question to you about inerrancy in our present text. If inerrancy is so very important to you and God has not preserved an inerrant text, is it possible that you and some others are placing more importance on inerrancy than God placed on it?

J Manley: Michael Licona, We are in exceptionally close agreement on this issue, and I appreciate your willingness to help parse the nuances here. Jesus’s view of Scripture, combined with numerous OT passages, and other texts from the epistles build a cumulative case for inerrancy. We both know that there are difficult texts related to Hebrew numbers in the OT, but I argue that we are justified in believing that God’s promises of the perfection of his word allow us to believe the best texts that we have, in every detail, even if they leave some questions unanswered for us. To put it bluntly, I much prefer trusting Scripture to be accurate in every detail (as the Bible certainly seems to imply) as opposed to opening the door to the slippery slope that an errant text gives us.

Yes, I do think our present text is inerrant. How do I reconcile competing numbers in the OT? I do not have a great answer for that, and I can live with that difficulty. Here is the Chicago statement on inerrancy, which I hope that we both fully support:…

Michael Licona: J Manley, I hope you can see that you are presupposing an inerrant text rather than arguing for one. It is, as you have said, because you prefer to view Scripture in that manner. I found the last portion of your answer to be quite interesting. You think, contra Geisler, that our present text is inerrant and have no answer for the competing numbers in the OT. In other words, “I believe our present text is inerrant. There are discrepancies for which I have no answer. But if I acknowledge there could be an error in the present text, I will open wide the gateway through which many have walked to their downfall.”

Now you are very welcome to take that view. But some of us are not satisfied with that approach. For me at least, I’m committed to loving and submitting to the Scriptures as God has given them to us rather than forcing them into a mold of how I think He should have. If I fail to do this, I may think I have a high view of Scripture when in reality I have a high view of MY VIEW of Scripture.

I hope that you can at least recognize that those of us who wrestle with these matters are not taking what you may regard as a lower view of Scripture. Indeed, from where I sit it appears to be a higher view of Scripture than you are taking because we are willing to go with the text God has given us, rather than allowing a manmade text, i.e., The Chicago Statement, to act as an umpire in how it is to be rightly interpreted.

J Manley: Michael Licona I know that you have taken a lot of heat from various parties on this issue, and I want to make clear that I am not trying to attack you on this, but I simply want to understand you better. I do not presuppose the inerrancy of Scripture in the sense that it is “wishful thinking” on my part; I take texts of Scripture that speak of the perfection of God’s word, and God’s work in giving us the word, and I root my view of inerrancy in those texts. I argue from Scripture that Scripture is inerrant. (Yes, there is a circularity issue here, but that’s not necessarily detrimental to the argument.) I fully submit to Scripture as authoritative, and I have no preconceptions about how God should choose to reveal his word to us, save those revealed in Scripture.

I see that the hair-splitting has no foreseeable end in this case, but I do have two questions for you: how do you avoid the seemingly inevitable slide into “everything being up for grabs” if you allow for an errant text? How do you know what is true and what is false in Scripture?

Michael Licona: J Manley, thanks for your comments. Please know that I’m not at all interpreting your comments as attacks. Please also know that my replies are friendly in nature and that I fully realize that communicating in this manner often leaves us susceptible to being misinterpreted. In order to avoid that as much as possible, we would have to devote far more time to the wording in our comments and would get little else done.

I’d ask you for the Scripture texts you use to conclude there are no errors whatsoever in the autographs AND in our present text. But that would commit both of us to more time in this thread and I don’t want to commit to more time. But I suspect that I’d have a pretty good chance of guessing the texts you have in mind. If they are what I suspect, I would ask probing questions pertaining to the actual meaning of those texts, since it is not clear that the manner in which they are typically interpreted to support inerrancy is the only or even the best option.

My answer to your two related questions is that I’m able, you’re able, others are able to assess certain texts for their historical reliability. When I investigate the question pertaining to whether Jesus was actually raised and see that the data strongly suggests He was and can do the same for numerous other items about Jesus, and can present what I regard as a pretty strong argument for the historical reliability of the Gospels (see my recent written dialogue with Bart Ehrman), I can have relatively good confidence that a substantial amount of what I’m reading in the Gospels at least is true. So, I begin with historical reliability.

My next step is to see what Jesus taught. He appears to have a very high view of Scripture in all four Gospels. Now since the risen Jesus had a high view of Scripture, I have reason to have a high view of Scripture. This approach may not always allow me to determine what is true and what is false in Scripture. But it assists me in some very important matters pertaining to the essentials of the Christian faith. I try not to get hung up on the non-essentials. Now, let’s say that I found a few places in the Bible where there are unquestionable errors. The few candidates that I see in the Gospels are all in the peripheral details. So, that would not at all shake my faith or slide me into an “everything being up for grabs” as you put it.

There are statements in the biblical texts that tell us the Scriptures are “God-breathed” and that “men carried by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” But what that process or perhaps even processes actually looks like, the method by which it was done, is never described. And I prefer not to be dogmatic about matters God has not made clear in Scripture.

J Manley: Michael Licona, thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions. I really appreciate that. We can agree to disagree on the trustworthiness, even in the details, of our Bibles. I look forward to enrolling in theology 1001 someday in heaven, and getting clarity on topics like this! (The lunch offer in Savannah still stands, of course.)

Michael Licona: Thanks, J. I’d love to come to Savannah some day. I’ve lived in the Atlanta are for 12 years and have never been there.


TimandLiconaOne is free to presuppose that the Bible is inerrant. However, presupposing a view (even if it is correct) is not effective in demonstrating what one presupposes. If one has doubts regarding the inerrancy of the Bible, we should not think this approach will be convincing.

I do affirm that the Bible is inerrant in all that it teaches; however, I also think it is quite acceptable to not start with the assumption — that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God — but rather, to reason towards it as a conclusion. This reasonable approach also grants permission to the skeptic to consider the reliability of the Bible. After all, Paul tells us to “walk in wisdom towards outsiders” (Colossians 4:5-6); if we reason in circles by arguing for what we presuppose, that seems like the farthest thing from Paul’s command. Here is an argument I crafted (with Mike’s help) making the case to trust the Bible (click here to read the entire article):

(1) Jesus’ resurrection validates the teachings of Christ and His hand-picked apostles.

(2) The New Testament was written by Jesus’ hand-picked apostles or those who knew them.

(3) The text of the Bible is pure enough.

(4) In the New Testament, Jesus gave His stamp of approval on the Old Testament.

(5) Given 1-3, we have good reason to regard the New Testament as trustworthy and authoritative and, given 4, we have a good reason for regarding the Old Testament as trustworthy and authoritative.

Although this argument concludes reliability as opposed to inerrancy, it does reason toward inerrancy. With that said, based on this argument we can rationally infer something quite important: Go read your Bible!

Tim Stratton


Mike Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography, will be released on December 19th of 2016. Click on the title and pre-order now!

Thank you to both Mike Licona and J Manley for permission to publish their conversation.

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About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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