“AHA” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (3): Daniel Kirk

Today’s “aha” moment is brought you by Daniel Kirk, associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 2008. When he’s not watching a Coen Brothers movie, Kirk blogs at Storied Theology (“telling the story of a story-bound God”). His has written Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity and Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God. His current project is a volume on early Christology in a Jewish matrix to be published by Eerdmans.

Kirk’s aha moment concerns the resurrection accounts of Christ.


Each summer during college, I worked at Christian summer camp. No, it wasn’t pretty. The other counselors called me “the enforcer” because I was so hung up on everyone keeping the camp rules.

But I digress.

One year they let me teach sailing. Since I was not the true sailing instructor, this mostly meant that I sat on the shore and shouted encouraging words at anyone who hadn’t managed to get their Sunfish out of the cove.

In other words, I sat there on the shore for about three hours a day with nothing to do.

So one day I decided that the logical way to spend my time would be to create a chart of what each Gospel says about the last week of Jesus’ life.

Have you ever tried it? Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I told one of my fellow counselors about my project. He knew just what I’d find: “Wasn’t it beautiful how it all lined up?”

Um… No, actually. They don’t line up at all.

O.k., so “not at all” is an overstatement. But there are interesting differences.

One example: does Jesus go into the temple to cast out the moneychangers as the climactic moment of his “triumphal entry” (Matthew)? Or does he wait until the next day (Mark)?

Another: Does the fig tree whither immediately upon being cursed (Matthew)? Or does the withering happen overnight (Mark)? For that matter, does Jesus curse it before going to the temple for the clearing incident (Mark)? Or after (Matthew)?

Details, details, right?

But then there are potentially more troubling questions: did Jesus have his last meal with the disciples on Passover (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)? Or was Jesus killed on the day when the Passover Lamb was slaughtered, such that the religious leaders were scrupulous to keep themselves pure for the feast that would take place that night (John)?

Though I had not been raised in a fundamentalist church, I was attending one during my first two years of college. Somehow the idea of “inerrancy” had lodged itself in my mind. And here I was, reading the Bible, and discovering that the Bible we actually have doesn’t seem to line up with the Bible I was told to believe in.

As I prepared to go to Westminster Theological Seminary a couple years later, I got introduced to the idea of “hermeneutics.” Guided by the biblical studies department, a way forward began to open up, in which I might be able to affirm inerrancy with respect to the Bible we actually have: maybe we need to think about reading and interpreting differently, bringing a different set of expectations to the text with us.

This, frankly, carried me very far through my studies.

At Westminster (at the time) I was given ways of affirming inerrancy by attributing historical inconcinnities to authorial purposes that lay beyond the bounds of historical accuracy. Historical problems were due to differing expectations of the ancients, or they were due to the fact that the Bible’s history is “preached” history rather than “objective” fact.

Moises Silva, formerly a New Testament professor at Westminster, even wrote an article in which he stated the possibility that pseudepigraphy might be part of an inerrant New Testament.

Learning all of this at Westminster, and spending my first 4.5 years at Duke while I was at the same time pursuing ordination in an inerrantist denomination, I actually found that the view of the Bible I had been given had a lot of staying power.

See, what I had learned by the side of the lake at Camp Willow Run was that the idea I had of an inerrant Bible couldn’t contain the Bible we actually had. What I learned in the classroom at Westminster was that we can put the horse before the cart and allow the phenomena of scripture to define what we mean by “inerrant.”

When I left my conservative denomination for a mainline church shortly after graduating from my doctoral program, I did not change my doctrine of scripture. I simply realized that what I had been given as “inerrancy” in seminary is not how most people understood and used the term.

“Inerrancy” offers itself as a term to both predict and determine beforehand the results of historical and scientific and theological investigation. What I discovered early on is that it fails as a theory precisely because its predictions are wrong.

My co-counselor was right, in this sense: if the doctrine of scripture he was learning at his Bible college were correct, the last week of Jesus’ life would line up in a glorious harmony (the likes of which is nowhere to be found in any of our canonical gospels).

That’s not how they function, because that’s not what the authors wanted (Matthew, after all, was intentionally changing Mark, for instance), and because inerrancy aims to describe a Bible that, in the end, we don’t have.

One of the most compelling things about landing at Fuller Seminary six years ago was finding myself in a Bible Division practically devoid of inerrantists, and yet brimming with Evangelical colleagues who affirm that the Bible is the word of God, who seek it for divine guidance, and who seek God as a direct and active participant in the lives of God’s people.

In the manner somewhat analogous to my time in a conservative denomination, I discover afresh that communities have tremendous power.

Formerly, my communities helped me hang onto something (inerrancy) that I had been willing to let go of for years. Now, my community of godly colleagues affirms for me what folks from my past would claim to be impossible: those who reject inerrancy handle the scriptures with reverent humility, and live fruit-bearing Christian lives, demonstrating that here is a place where not only the word of God but the very Word of God is living and active.

open letter to the apostle Paul from a concerned reader
another article on inerrantist biblical scholars and "protective strategies"
do inerrantist biblical scholars employ "protective strategies" and "privilege insider claims"? -- a new article you'll want to read.
on being a mouthpiece of satan
  • Brian P.

    Fascinating story. And testimony. A common theme of these stories seems to concern exposure.

    One way of structuring testimonials, and other similar narratives, is with this outline: 1 – Situation, 2 – Complexity, 3 – Question, and 4 – Answer.

    1 – Situation: Taught/thought/caught inerrant views
    2 – Complexity: Exposed to textual and higher criticism, analyzed the texts for myself
    3 – Question: How can I hang on to this label?
    4 – Answer: Redefinition and resituation of the label

    For these out out-of-fundamentalism type stories, it seems that the Complexity of the story is thematically that of exposure. In contrast, stereotypically–at least based upon the anecdotal testimonies I’ve heard over the years–for stories *into* inerrancy-based cultures the Complexity is in uncertainty in God’s plan for one’s life or in hitting bottom and having a plan at all.

    Pete, as you go through these stories, I’d be interested in theologians’ journeys into a more fundamentalistic faith too and especially ones that have a Complexity of the story in the realm of exposure. I’d also be interested in stories out of fundamentalistic faith where the pivot of the story is less on exposure (to man and text) but in exposure of an epiphanic nature itself.

    People get converted from and to various things. Some are life changers. Others, mere ah-hahs. I think people resonate with stories of similar Situation to their own, especially at the point of apex of a similar Complexity.

    • James

      Are you saying exposure to epiphany might lead one to an answer that includes inerrancy? I suppose, but wouldn’t one tend to get a fresh vision of God himself in all his glorious complexity, rather than a settled redefinition?

      • http://prochaskas.wordpress.com/ Marcy

        One could just as well argue that fundamental –> liberal is the same kind of settled redefinition ho-hum different-like-everyone-else story… and it does seem that some people move in the other direction, and I would like to hear more of their stories, and I wonder why there is movement in both directions.

    • Lars

      The problem with epiphanies, as Mr. Incredible likes to say, is that they won’t stayed saved. Each one seems to beget another, often contradictory, epiphany. My own ‘out of fundamentalist faith’ story is a journey from hard-core inerrancy through college in the south to ‘just enough congruency to suggest plausible veracity’ as I migrated west to ‘what does it really matter as long as you’re not hurting anyone?’ here in Upper Midwest (I may be an outlier in these parts).

      As I have gained more temporal and spatial distance from my Pentecostal childhood beliefs I have come to see religion as a product of Darwin-like cultural selection. Our’s is but one story of God but it just so happens to be the one most prevalent in the U.S.. Grow up in the south, you’re probably a Baptist. Grow up in Utah, you’re probably a Mormon. Still, I can’t help but think similar conversations about God and religion are happening on other continents and perhaps it’s we who are being pitied for our ignorance of Truth. Except for the Scandinavians, who are just too damn happy to be bothered by such intro- and extrospections. Not me though, I am scarred for life and proud of it!

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    I think the idea of inerrancy dies the death of thousands of qualifications. It is an idea that was an over-reaction to “nothing sticks on the wall” to claim “everything sticks on the wall”. However, I also realize I can learn from those that believe in it in some form. It is a good exercise to try to write a harmony of the gospels, but I also know I would never try to do this by myself without lots of help.

    • John

      Yes, I think your first sentence is spot on. I would add that these qualifications are generally post-hoc.

  • toddh

    Similar to Kirk, my epiphany involved the lack of congruency in the gospel stories. I was teaching a confirmation class, and the video we were using pointed out the inconsistencies in the stories. I said, “naw,” but went on to look for myself and make a big chart. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Stuff I had read a million times before, but never put together to notice the differences. My world was rocked, and thank God for this blog and others to help me figure out what to make of it.

  • James

    The problem of letting go inerrancy or finding an institution devoid of inerrantists, as Daniel Kirk describes his journey, is the need (as I see it) to drop the derivatives of to err and error from our vocabulary–unless Daniel now embraces them and ascribes to errancy in the company of errantists. No doubt he does, to some degree, but what new root could he use that is more positive–like life in pro-life??

    • http://prochaskas.wordpress.com/ Marcy

      I think I understand you — that non-inerrantists are not simply the opposite of inerrantists — not celebrating error, not using error to reject God or the whole of Scripture — but are looking at the Bible from a very different perspective, asking different questions, looking for different things. How do we describe this in a word or at least a nutshell?

  • Mark K

    Regarding the idea of the bible as “preached” history, can anyone refer me to papers that might expand on this? Thanks.

  • Eric Weiss

    Some thoughts on how to treat or regard the varying crucifixion accounts: http://theoblogoumena.blogspot.com/2012/02/to-add-or-not-to-add-that-is-question.html