Wither the Fig Tree, Whither the Wandering Saints? (RJS)

Wither the Fig Tree, Whither the Wandering Saints? (RJS) August 16, 2012
Byzantine icon of the cursing of the fig tree. Image from Wikipedia.

One of the most significant questions for Protestants, and perhaps for other Christians as well, is the view of scripture as inspired by God. A significant class of problems involved in the discussion of science and the Christian faith hinge on the interpretation of scripture. In fact those of us who accept both the empirical conclusions of mainstream science, if not the metaphysical ones, are often accused of throwing the bible under the bus. The issues of creation, age of the earth, origin of death, extent of the flood, and identity of Adam are frequently at the fore.

But the problems raised by a view of scripture as “inerrant” in all it claims extend far beyond the relationship with science. It is not enough to say about any passage that it sounds like history – therefore it is historical and take that declaration of history to require a reporter like account. Nor is it enough to declare that a passage “reads like” history or has been interpreted in the past as history. Consider for example the story of the fig tree.

In Matthew 21 we read that Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, cleanses the Temple, and then Leaves the city to spend the night in Bethany. Then in verses 18-22

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

This certainly reads like history, and in fact I see no reason to doubt that it recounts a historical event. But what does this mean?

The same series of events in Mark 11 are chronologically different.  Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, looks around the temple and leaves to spend the night in Bethany. Then in verses 12-14

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

Jesus enters Jerusalem, cleanses the temple and leaves the city for the night. We pick up the story in verses 20-25:

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

This is not a minor difference. Either the fig tree withered before their very eyes or it did not. It did not do both. I have not suddenly discovered a new issue, the problem of the fig tree is well known. The problem of the fig-tree is discussed at length, for example, in this article on Inerrancy and New Testament Exegesis by R.T. France. Did the fig tree wither immediately as the disciples watched or did they find it withered the next day? Does it matter?

If the chronology matters we are left with several possibilities, either Matthew erred, Mark erred, the text of one or the other has been corrupted (preserving inerrancy in the original manuscripts), or the entire set of incidents happened more than once. The last explanation is a bit far-fetched.

France comments following the description of this and other problems:

No doubt many refinements ought to be made to these very bald summaries of a few problem areas, but I hope enough has been said to illustrate the point that a study of the Gospel texts themselves indicates that chronology was not always the governing factor in the arrangement of the material. … If that is so, then our understanding of inerrancy in this connection must surely be governed by the intention with which the Gospels were written. A non-chronological arrangement is only an ‘error’ where the aim was to present a strictly chronological account. We should not put to the biblical text questions it was not designed to answer, and then chide it for getting them wrong.

A high view of scripture requires that we take the text as it is. We approach the text not as judges or as critics but as students. As students we are not asking if a text is true or false, but questions about the genre, intent, form, and message of the text. The authors of scripture, both the old and the new testament, felt free to embellish stories, rearrange details, and structure the data to convey a meaning appropriate to a given context and to make a theological point. A non-chronological embellished account of an incident is not an error in scripture, but a piece of data that informs our understanding of what it means for scripture to be inspired of God and perhaps a clue to the intended message.

Whither the Wandering Saints? Another text that has led to some controversy of late is Matthew 27:52-53, here in context of 50-54:

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

Michael Licona in his book The Resurrection of Jesus suggested that the language about the raised saints was apocalyptic symbolism with no corresponding literal events.  This isn’t a matter of error in the text. It is a matter of reading the text accurately according to its genre and the conventions under which the author wrote to communicate to his immediate audience. This suggestion incited no little controversy and cost Dr. Licona his job and a number of speaking engagements. A perfect example of evangelical lunacy (my personal opinion).

In a recent roundtable discussion of this controversy, which I happened upon through a post by Michael Bird, the question is posed to Dr. Licona:

Dr. Licona, is it not better to understand the description in Matt. 27:52-53 simply as a historical description of what happened at the moment of Jesus’ death?

Dr. Licona responded:

Not necessarily. The “better” way to understand Matthew’s description of the raised saints is the way Matthew intended for them to be understood. If they are an apocalyptic symbol or poetic device, interpreting them in a literal-historical sense, that is, to “historicize” them, could lead one to misinterpret what Matthew was actually saying.

Since there are decent reasons for interpreting the raised saints as apocalyptic symbols, we ought to be slow to demand that one interpret them in a particular sense. The key question here pertains to how Matthew intended his readers to understand the raised saints. This must be thoroughly addressed prior to any charge that I have, or anyone holding a similar position has, “dehistoricized” them. For that charge presupposes that Matthew intended for them to be understood in a literal-historical sense.

Mike Bird, in an earlier post on the controversy noted:

In my chapter about the resurrection in How Did Christianity Begin: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence, co-authored with James Crossley (London: SPCK, 2008/ Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), I said in a footnote about Matt. 27.51-53: “My understanding of this text is that it is not historical and it blends the present and the future together so that Matthew provides a cameo of the future resurrection at the point of Jesus’ death to underscore its living-giving power” (p. 69, n. 30). That was my off-the-cuff thought, but I stand by it, since Matt. 27.51-53 is a strange story that is reported nowhere else in Christian or non-Christian literature.

Again, we approach the text not as judges or as critics but as students. As students we are not asking if a text is true or false, but questions about the genre, intent, form, and message of the text. As Dr. Licona points out, if Matthew used apocalyptic symbolism to make a point, we err, although perhaps not seriously, if we interpret the text too literally.

I would like to use these two examples, the cursing of the fig tree and the raising of the saints, along with other examples anyone cares to raise, to consider the issues of inspiration and authority of scripture. Authorial intent is not the only concern, but it is a major concern.

To what extent should authorial intent inform our understanding of scripture?

How do we determine the intent of the authors and the message they intend to convey?

What would constitute an error that undermines the authority of scripture?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    Great issues and questions:

    1. Theological emphasis over chronological.
    2. Historical context and particularilty over universals or absolutes.
    3. Genre driven over modern methodologies.
    4. Authorial intent over our intentionality.
    5. ANE context over our western scientific context.
    6. Allow for diversity withn unity over rigid harmonizations.
    7. Allow for multi-layers and multiple fulfillments of the biblical texts over a flattened reading of Scripture (and the “only the literal-historical really counts” approach).
    8. A life of discipleship over modern techniques and modern philosophy.

    In regards to errors, I really don’t care. One problem is forcing our modern concepts of “errors” onto the Bible and the other is thinking that if there is any kind of limited, fallen, human perspective to the Scriptures that somehow dethrones it (when it actually humanizes it).

    Whether Michael Licona is right or not, his view are certainly within the realm of his claim for innerancy (which seems to be the “you get to play with us card” among Evangelicals in the academy). Innerancy is so problematic on so many levels and so many Christian university profs have to sign on that they believe in innerancy with two fingers crossed behind their backs (It seems the academy and church can not deal with this modernist contruct of innerancy any better than they can with modern science).

    One other issue I greatly struggled with that led me away from innerancy was having to solve the problem of the Centurian servant who was healed. Looking at those two accounts gave me headaches and emotional turmoil for some time until I had to let go that the Scriptures were not like I wanted them to be, they were something else (something more human and more divine than I could ever conceive of myself).


  • RJS,

    I must take issue with your reasoning. You claim,

    • It is not enough to say about any passage that it sounds like history – therefore it is historical and take that declaration of history…

    Your reasoning goes like this:

    1. Some Gospel accounts are difficult to reconcile (granted!)
    2. They therefore shouldn’t be regarded as historical even though they appear to be historical.
    3. Therefore, much of what we regard as historical in the Bible shouldn’t be regarded as such.

    Premise #2 is a non sequitor. It doesn’t follow from #1. Even though some Gospel accounts are difficult to reconcile, it represents a tremendous leap to conclude that they therefore aren’t historical. There are instead many other possible ways to reconcile the dissonant texts.

    Premise #3 is also problematic. Even if the texts you cited aren’t historical, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is up for grabs about “The issues of creation, age of the earth, origin of death, extent of the flood, and identity of Adam.”

    Your reasoning leaves us with irreconcilable uncertainty about the interpretation of the entire Bible and consequently the Christian faith. Fortunately, the NT provides us with authoritative interpretations regarding the OT text.

    For instance, the OT genealogies of Adam are reproduced elsewhere, leading us to conclude that if Adam isn’t intended as an historical person, then the historicity of rest of the persons in his lineage becomes historically questionable – namely Abraham, David, and even Jesus.

  • Michael Teston

    Intrigued with the great discussion especially around the “raised dead” at the death of Jesus. Its funny how many folk want to claim a “historical” approach to such a text at the same time deny any historicity to the anticipated response in real life and living of Matthew’s claims in such places as the sermon on the mount, anticipated obedience claims are unrealistic because Jesus is just trying to show how evil people are in their hearts as opposed to an, dare I use this, apocalyptic shift from the inside out because a new Kingdom and therefore a new allegiance is possible with the advent of the King, . . . Jesus. A similar duplicity around the issues of “building our houses on sand” is all about those who “do” the will of God not those who think, talk, and jabber about it. The raising of the dead has to happen at a level that penetrates the death so intrenched around us. Great discussion, that assaults so much of what prevents the Word from having the last word.

  • Fish

    If my faith in Jesus were tied to Adam being a real person or a young earth or a worldwide flood, I’d have no faith in Jesus.

    Too many children have been raised with the idea that an inerrant Bible is inextricably tied to Christ and Christianity itself, and as a result when they are confronted with the truth of science they lose their faith.

  • Doug Hendricks

    @ CGC Well said. I might add something about “trajectory” when it comes to ethical issues or getting a grasp on scripture as a whole. Looking forward to the disscussion.

  • Andy

    I think the resurrected saints is an interesting one…
    I think it is so controversial because it is similar and logically linked in theme to the resurrection of christ….i.e. it isn’t too much of a slippery slope before the resurrection of Christ is understood as a metaphysical depiction of a spiritual event….and once we lose a physical resurrection we should just pack up shop…

    I am open to the possiblity of the resurrected saints being literal or non-literal but once we acknowledge it is non-literal, we immediately need to ramp up our ‘apologetics’ of why the biblical depiction of Christ’s resurrection is clearly different.

  • Rick

    C. Michael Patton had some interesting thoughts regarding this (specifically the Licona situation):
    “Concerning the historicity of the resurrection, one cannot write a book like Mike Licona has written and use his presupposed inerrant theology to dictate his method or conclusions. Ironically, from the standpoint of the evidentialist, this would dishonor God more than anything, as it is not Truth you are really in search of, but truth as you have presupposed it…
    As an evidentialist, Mike must use the language of contingency to make his points stronger. If there is stronger evidence for one historical event than for another, then he must present it as such. If one event, from this bottom-up approach, has less historic credibility than another, then his conclusions will follow suit. When we are trying to build our case for Christianity inductively, from the ground up, there are going to be some things that are more historically credible than others. This does not mean we are denying the things that are less credible from a historic standpoint, it just means that they don’t form the bedrock of our case and will be spoken of more contingently….When you read Mike Licona’s statements in his book, please take into account who he is writing to and the method he necessarily must take in order to honor God and reach people’s minds with the truth of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.
    Pop quiz: As Christians we are to . . .
    a) follow the evidence no matter where it leads (evidentialist)
    b) follow the Bible no matter where it leads (presuppositionalist)
    c) follow rationality no matter where it leads (classicalist)
    d) follow our faith no matter where it leads (fideist)
    All have their place. But not all have their place in the type of work Mike Licona produced. Mike Licona is teaching us about the resurrection of Jesus so that our preaching can have more true conviction.”

  • “If the chronology matters we are left with several possibilities, either Matthew erred, Mark erred, the text of one or the other has been corrupted (preserving inerrancy in the original manuscripts), or the entire set of incidents happened more than once. The last explanation is a bit far-fetched.”

    Not far-fetched at all. Jesus did several things more than once. Opened blind eyes. Healed the lame. Raised the dead. Fed several thousand people miraculously. Why is it far-fetched that he might have cursed more than one fig tree?

    But see Mat 19:26 (“But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”) and Mark 9:23 (“Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”) and Mark 10:27 (“And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.”)

    The only problem is whether one chooses to believe or not to believe.

  • T

    I realize that any post that RJS makes is thereby in a context of the Genesis debates, but I’d rather just make a comment on this post alone. What the fig tree passage tells me (along with the accounts of Peter’s denials, along with a few others) is that the theory of innerrancy that I was given both in (conservative evangelical) church and (conservative evangelical) school is wrong.

    Further, given the time I spent in both, and the time that my school actually discussed theories of inerrancy, what conclusions can be drawn from the fact that this story was never brought up? Ignorance? Fear? Agenda? Some of all? No explanation is favorable.

    Contrary to what I was taught, it appears that the gospels are what they purport to be: reliable accounts of the life of Jesus. They are not perfect in every detail. They are reliable. They contain the typical human errors of detail.

    Now, what is interesting is what that admission does to our overall views of scripture and what God intends for it to be and do and how. I don’t want to jump the gun in any direction, but I do think we need to admit that this story makes the popular, grassroots level definition of inerrancy pretty hard to swallow, and then talk about appropriate alternatives.

  • RJS

    Daniel Mann,

    That isn”t my reasoning at all. I think that the story of the fig tree has a historical basis – but it has been told in the gospels to make a point – one where the precise details didn’t matter, and this has to be consistent with our view of scripture as inspired by God.

    #3 is only sort of my point. My point is that we have to take the text on its own terms, not on our terms. Your comment about the genealogies is ridiculous. The historicity of David, Abraham, and Jesus isn’t called into question by genealogies as literary form.

    I found Wright’s books, and especially The Resurrection of the Son of God, significant (even life changing) because it gives the strength of the evidence for resurrection independent of the evangelical definition of inerrancy (not independent of scripture). I have not read Licona’s book, but I would like to read it.

  • Rick

    What was the error?

  • T

    Bob Brague,

    Really? Is this how we’re going to explain every difference of word and action that differs in the gospel accounts? That they reported repeated but very similar events? Please think, not in terms of preserving a theory of scripture at all costs, but of just plain common sense. We’re not just talking about the fig tree, but Peter’s denials, and so many other specific words spoken at specific locations.

  • T


    Did the fig tree wither immediately or later? Or, see the discussions around Peter’s denials. The (unimportant) details differ. Or look at how various teachings are phrased that supposedly happened in the same context.

  • RJS


    Thanks – I am not sure here in the story of the fig tree that the issue is typical human errors of detail, although I may be wrong. I think there is an intentional, true message that is the intent of the authors, and the precise details didn’t matter in the genre and convention of the day in which it was written. A bigger issue, and France brings this up, is the different timing of the cleansing of the temple in John and the Synoptics, not to mention the day of Jesus’s crucifixion (was he crucified as the lambs were slaughtered (John) or the day after (synoptics)).

    I do think that the details of the denials of Peter may reflect typical human error of detail, but even here the convention of the day didn’t require perfect details. We worry about it, the first century authors and audiences didn’t.

    I am convinced that when we call these features of scripture “error” it actually reflects a problem in our expectation of scripture as inspired, not problems with scripture. I think you are saying essentially the same thing.

  • John Inglis

    Re D. Mann concerning RJS’ reasoning

    What Mann sets forth as RJS reasoning is not what one would derive from a charitable reading of her post. It is not her argument that because there are difficulties in the text that “[t]hey therefore shouldn’t be regarded as historical even though they appear to be historical.”

    RJS does not argue that we should default to a nonhistorical assumption if there is a difficulty, and then put the onus of persuasion on those who believe the event to be historical.

    Rather, RJS argues that a problem should alert us to the necessity of approaching and listening to the text on its own terms. The text is God speaking to us, and we must not predetermine how it is that God should speak to us. In this vein, RJS writes,

    “A high view of scripture requires that we take the text as it is. We approach the text not as judges or as critics but as students. As students we are not asking if a text is true or false, but questions about the genre, intent, form, and message of the text. . . . A non-chronological embellished account of an incident is not an error in scripture, but a piece of data that informs our understanding of what it means for scripture to be inspired of God and perhaps a clue to the intended message. . . . Again, we approach the text not as judges or as critics but as students. As students we are not asking if a text is true or false, but questions about the genre, intent, form, and message of the text.”

    Since Mann’s premise #2 is incorrect, it follows that #3 is not proved. Moreover, RJS nowhere states or suggests that “much” of what seems to be historical in the Bible is not.

    If we are to interact appropriately with both the Word of God, and with what people post here, we need to approach both writings on their own terms, and not insert our own concerns into the statements we make about them or derive from them. Both the Bible and human writings need to be understood, interpreted and addressed charitably.

    It is a legitimate concern that an approach that does not immediately default to a standard of “it must be historical” could be used to undercut those passages that are indeed historical. And of course our faith, as Paul asserts, is based upon the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection. RJS clearly does not want to assert that we can believe nothing historical from Scripture, so a charitable and sympathetic reading is to understand RJS as searching for ways forward that will assist us in determining how God used his apostles to write his Words and how he wants us to understand his Words as written, and to understand what parts correspond to history as we now do it.

    Those concerned that such approaches and searches for approaches might undermine necessary history (i.e., history that must be true if our faith is true), need to present passages of concern, passages of scripture that might be–but should not be–undermined. Or, they could demonstrate that such an approach overreaches itself and does not have discernable limits.

    It is not sufficient, however, to cry that the sky is falling, or that RJS or Licona have caused the sky to fall, or that RJS and Licona believe that the sky has fallen.


  • Although I have a feeling I would not agree with RJS on the Adam being a real person debate, or his view of the age of the earth, etc, I have to say I agree with his statement…

    “I think there is an intentional, true message that is the intent of the authors, and the precise details didn’t matter in the genre and convention of the day in which it was written.”

    This really MUST, in my humble opinion, be the driving factor we look at when we read Scripture. What was God saying? As we look at all four Gospels and put them together, I do believe we get a better picture of what did occur historically, however.

    The Scriptures are, indeed, inerrant. To say otherwise would be to go against Scripture itself and to undermine your view of Scripture’s authority. BUT, we must, as RJS rightly points out, have a good understanding about what exactly that inerrancy looks like up against our Western philosophical point of view. In other words, how WE critique a piece of literature isn’t necessarily how the original authors would have written them.

    It’s also needful to point out two very important things that I believe are true:

    1. God used, not usurped, each author’s personality, point of view, and style of writing when He breathed the Scriptures. The Bible says they were “carried along by the Holt Spirit,” but that doesn’t mean He dictated to them word for word what to say.
    2. The presence of these “problematic inconsistencies” isn’t a problem with God, and actually serve to verify the authenticity of the writings. I think this was intentional on God’s part. If we had four Gospels that matched word for word, we first of all wouldn’t need four Gospels, just one. But second of all, I would think it would call into suspect whether or not they were a product of some people getting together and collaborating on a made up story.

  • Matthew D

    The literal is just a dead metaphor.

    The difficulty of the “evidentialist” position is that it can be just another critical position, like the “classicalist” position. That position may or may not be wearing fundamentalist clothing.

    Live long enough and you will find yourself struggling with what you intend to say or even that you intentionally build into your writings an amount of ambiguity. (I lost count at how many times I edited sentences in this post, added this sentence, deleted it, and then decided to add it back and, and I’m not even sure if that’s the right decision.) Further, what do we do with unconscious meanings? What do we do when people mistake the whole purpose to the letter that was not part of the conscious meaning of the author? Or when we do not realize the consequences of what we write? Clarity is not always simple.

    The main thing that continues to both challenge and encourage me is the following: to whom do the scriptures belong? Is there not some ownership, some embrace, some sponsorship, some life-giving quality that the texts have that are received as canon? When these texts are then put together, what does that change? How does that change how you view them individually and collectively?

    I appreciate taking part in conversations like this but I also have to remind myself that this, more than anything, a debate between the modern critical position and the fundamentalist about knowledge and what it means to understand. (I mean, the fact that we call it a “text” introduces a number of presuppositions.) My difficulties with authorial intention, as it is typically defined, is that if you draw it SO tightly, you will bind yourself because you will not be able to read the scriptures well or as the church has read them. Though we are always asking ourselves “how to read the text,” leaving this to be the only matter leaves the church out of the picture! And in that case, to whom do the scriptures now belong?

  • Matthew D

    Rob Ely (#16), I have a feeling you would enjoy Aquinas on this topic.

  • Perhaps we should let the scriptures with all their contradictions form us. With a little humility I can see that I was not at the writers side when they wrote the scriptures. A fig tree withered whether immediately or the next day may be the kind of disputing over words that Paul calls unprofitable. Did some saints emerge from the grave at Jesus’ death. I wasn’t there to see it but I can let scripture mold my mind so that I can read it and be drawn into deeper faith. May God give us both eyes to see and hearts that are warm to the good news. Amen

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Can I make two arguments about the concern about whether the resurrection of the dead following Christ’s resurrection is literal or non-literal? I understand the concern for people to think that if one ressurection, did not really historically take place, then maybe Christ’s resurrection did not either. But there are at least two major differences between these resurrections:

    1. One is a minor incident that is never mentioned again in Scripture. Christ’s resurrection is the whole climax and large section surrounding Jesus earthly life. To compare these two as equals seems problematic from my view despite the close promixity scripturally. I am not neccesarily convinced of Lincona’s intepretation but I think people have to look at the evidence closely like Lincona, whether they agree with him or not. I think we must at least be open to the possibility that if the evidence leads in Lincona’s direction, that is a possible or credible interpretation.

    2. Scripture makes a strong point about the historical nature of Christ’s bodily resurrection (especially in a world that thought the body was evil or should be discarded). No where does Scripture make the same point about the quick reference to those raised up at Christ’s resurrection. Licona I believe is right that one historically does not neccesarily make it so for the other. I hope people keep in mind that Lincona’s book is a defence for the historical bodily resurreciton of Jesus. Every story or description in the Bible does not have to be taken literally (the irony in this is how hard core atheists love to mock the Bible by taking it in a kind of crude literalism to make the Bible look absurd!).

    Lastly, I don’t understand why Lincona got into trouble for this? (except for people like Norman Geisler, etc.). There are other Evangelical scholars who have made similar moves like Licona has done and were not called onto the carpet for it. I’m even thinking of Craig Blomberg for example, Mr. conservative Evangelical scholar, who has written that the story of the coin in the fish’s mouth is probably a legend. When it comes to stuff like this, I am with RJS, I wish we would quit this Evangelical lunacy over some of these issues.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Kudos to Matthew about the church comment in interpretation (I would add tradition and the early church fathers can help resource the church’s faith); and John #19, may God give us spiritual eyes to read the Scriptures and not get so caught up in foolish controversies that Paul rightly warns about!

  • EricW

    9. T wrote:

    What the fig tree passage tells me (along with the accounts of Peter’s denials, along with a few others) is that the theory of inerrancy that I was given both in (conservative evangelical) church and (conservative evangelical) school is wrong…. I do think we need to admit that this story makes the popular, grassroots level definition of inerrancy pretty hard to swallow, and then talk about appropriate alternatives.

    True dat.

  • Jon G

    I have not read the comments yet, so please forgive me if this was addressed, but I feel the word “Inerrant” has often been to quickly overlooked in this discussion.

    RJS, while I feel I am on the exact same page with you on this post, I don’t make the claim that the Bible (or in the fig example above – Matthew or Mark) are in “err”. The reason I do not is because there is an implied, yet rarely stated, part of that phrase that I object to – namely that it is in err according to the standards of modern historical methodology. I agree, it is in err according to such methodology, but that is not really important since, as you have agreed in the post, it is not trying to fit into such methodology.

    In case I sound like I’m nitpicking, let me explain my motivation. I affirm Inerrancy in that I believe the Bible tells us what it wants to tell us…in that sense, it doesn’t err. But the current debate uses Inerrancy as “(Modern Historical) Inerrancy” and its obvious that the Bible does not meet those standards. However, it does leave many with an unnecessary sense of doubt, or lack of trustworthiness in Scripture because it frames the issue in the negative – as the Bible failing to do something it should be doing (reporting historically) rather than as a non-issue from the start.

    I’m having trouble getting these thoughts out right now, but does this make sense? I would rather state the issue as “The Bible is inerrant in the way it is trying to communicate truths, but if we are asking it to communicate according to our modern historical methodology, we will surely be left wanting (we will find errors).”

  • Rick

    RJS #14-

    Well said.

  • Jon G

    oops! I think you covered my concern in your last paragraph of #14, RJS:

    “I am convinced that when we call these features of scripture “error” it actually reflects a problem in our expectation of scripture as inspired, not problems with scripture. I think you are saying essentially the same thing.”

  • John Inglis

    Re R. Ely and “The Scriptures are, indeed, inerrant.”

    Maybe yes, maybe no, for whether the Scriptures are or not depends on what one means by “inerrant” because the Scriptures never use that term in reference to itself. It is our term, a term that addresses our needs and concerns, not one that addresses Scriptures’ concerns.

    Hence one has to first unpack what “inerrant” might mean before one can use it in relation to Scripture. To which concepts do we want to apply the label “inerrant”? There is no one universally accepted set of concepts that are the only set that can be labelled “inerrant”. Moreover, even if a group of Chrsitians agree on a set of concepts that they will label “inerrant” and then use in respect of Scripture, there is no guarantee that Scripture fits it.

    If, on the other hand, we start with Scripture and what it states or implies about itself and then derive concepts that reflect Scripture’s self-understanding, do we just label that “inerrancy”? How stupid and tautological is that? It just becomes a stretch to preserve something that was possibly not there in the first place.

    Conservative Evangelical as well as Fundamentalist understandings of “inerrancy” are concepts that are brought to Scripture and being used like a Procrustean bed (Procrustes, a Greek demigod who put travellers into a bed and either stretched them or chopped them to fit the bed, thereby killing them). Yes, ’tis true that E’s and F’s believe that their concept of “inerrancy” was and is derived from Scripture, but having done so they resist further re-examiniations of their concept and its derivation.

    We do stand on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before and who have thought deeply about these matters and recorded their thoughts for us. But we must not only stand on these shoulders, but shake them and re-examine their stability as we continually shine God’s revealling light on all our doctrines. We cannot do, as fundamentalists do, and as neo-fundamentalist evangelicals do, and hide below the shoulders in the comforting arms of traditional doctrine. Our God is too big to be given such a weak faith.

    God can address truth in every age, as it is understood and handled in that age. God’s Scripture reveals how he handled truth in previous ages and dealt with those who understood the establishment of truth differently than we do. God’s Word also critiques the understandings of truth in every age and challenges them. God’s Word both provides and responds to the “truth concepts” in every age.

    Our age is one of historiography, a very different age than that of the apostles. Christ himself can meet the criteria of historiography both through the Scriptures and through other historiographical means (as demonstrated by Licona, Habermas, Allison, Wright and others).


  • Jon G

    John Inglis in #26…AMEN!

  • EricW

    If, when it comes to the Bible:

    – you have to redefine or qualify “inerrant”/”inerrancy” so the term means something different than simply “without error” of any kind


    – what you mean by “(an) error” is different than when you are talking about something other than the Bible

    then I think you are no longer talking about inerrancy and should not use that term.

  • Rob

    John Inglis #26 –

    All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) – If God-breathed, and God is inerrant, then whatever He produces is inerrant.

    “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” – 2 Peter 1:20-21

    Enough said.

  • EricW

    God produced people, many of whom seem pretty errant to me.

  • Rick


    So even if God is carrying them (the writers) “along by the Holy Spirit”, God is unable to overcome their faults?

  • Norman

    Well we have the testimony of some of those who came up out of their Graves at Christ Ressurection recorded in the Gospel of Nicodemus. 😉

    I (XVII) 1 And Joseph arose and said unto Annas and Caiaphas: Truly and of right do ye marvel because ye have heard that Jesus hath been seen alive after death, and that he hath ascended into heaven. Nevertheless it is more marvelous that he rose not alone from the dead, but did raise up alive many other dead out of their sepulchres, and they have been seen of many in Jerusalem. … And this Simeon had two sons, brothers in blood and we all were at their falling asleep and at their burial. Go therefore and look upon their sepulchres: for they are open, because they have risen, and behold they are in the city of Arimathaea dwelling together in prayer. And indeed men hear them crying out, yet they speak with no man, but are silent as dead men.

    This is a fascinating account of Christ descending into Hell and releasing the captives as Paul might say. It’s obviously a takeoff story line of the Hadean realm that we see in the apocalyptic Enoch literature and so these images of the Hadean realm are utilized to describe vividly in Technicolor Christ rescue of the faithful dead beginning with Adam, Seth and so forth. This story uses these risen dead faithful Jews as emissaries from the Dead to tell what Christ had accomplished through His resurrection of the faithful Dead.

    This Gospel of Nicodemus ties many of the story lines of the Gospels into an exotic narrative account that although imaginative if taken literally also reinforces the concepts of ultimate resurrected life. If the Gospel accounts of those raised dead are similar in scope then it might very well illustrate an apocalyptic approach that the Jews utilized regarding messiah. After all Christ used the parable example of the rich man and the beggar to demonstrate that the Jews would not even listen to someone who is raised from the dead if they would not listen to Moses and the prophets.

    The early Christian Jews were quite versed in this type of literature and were much more comfortable with it than we are. In fact Revelation almost didn’t make it into the cannon because of the loss of the Jewish literature mindset that had occurred by the 4th century AD.

  • Rob

    I’d like to point out something that CGC said back in reply #1 that I thought was pretty profound.

    ” I had to let go that the Scriptures were not like I wanted them to be, they were something else (something more human and more divine than I could ever conceive of myself).”

    Although I might be coming from the other side of the argument from him (I don’t think many declare inerrancy with two fingers crossed behind their backs), I nonetheless, think this sentence is very well put. God is bigger than our comprehension of how and why He does things, and that includes how we got our Scriptures. It may be very hard for us to comprehend how imperfect people could be used to produce something perfect, without errors in their original manuscript. But does that mean it didn’t happen? Does that just close the case right there? What about miracles? The definition of a miracle is something that is done that defies natural possibility and comprehension. Does that mean they’re not possible? If we deny these things, we end up denying the whole basis for our faith. If we say the Bible can’t be inerrant, then we deny its (and God’s) authority over our lives. And if we do that, we can hardly call ourselves true followers of Christ, for following Christ means to make Him King and Lord. How can we obey our King if we don’t believe how He spoke to us is inerrant. We only fool ourselves. In the end, if we deny inerrancy, we are the ones who end up fools. Let God be true and every man a liar.

  • Jim


    From where in scripture do you conclude that God is “inerrant”? My point is that this is not something God is claiming about himself. You could use the word “purple” and your logic and conclude that scripture is red. Here it is: “All scripture is God breathed. God is purple. Therefore anything God produces is purple so scripture is purple.”

    The point is that scripture doesn’t teach God is purple and neither does it teach that God is inerrant. The phrase “inerrancy” is a reflection of modernism, not biblical revelation.


  • Rob

    With all due respect, your argument about purple goes nowhere. And if we have a basic disagreement about whether or not God is inerrant, then we indeed have a problem and a whole new conversation from the one that is going on here needs to be undertaken. We are no longer talking on the same plane of thought.

  • RJS


    Scripture may teach that God is inerrant (in fact I think it does), but it doesn’t teach that scripture conforms to the evangelical definition of inerrancy. I think the troublesome leap is from “God doesn’t lie” to “scripture is inerrant” and the even more troublesome leap is to the conclusion of what “inerrant” entails.

    I think we probably agree – but thought this worth a little clarification. The common evangelical “proof” for inerrancy makes no more sense than your purple example.

  • Rob

    And Scripture does teach that God (and the Scriptures themselves) are inerrant. And just because we tag something as being from “modernism” doesn’t make it all of a sudden null and void. And just because the Bible never says the word “inerrant” doesn’t mean that idea is not in the Bible. Neither is the phrase “Bible study” or “Trinity” but it doesn’t mean those ideas aren’t in the Bible. But alas, I may have opened up a whole new can of worms.

  • EricW

    @Rick 31:

    Rob in 29 claimed that whatever God produces is inerrant. Though he said it in the context of a syllogism related to the inerrancy of Scripture, he didn’t qualify it to say that he was only referring to Scripture. He wrote “then whatever He produces is inerrant.” Hence my reply.

    It would take more time than I have to explain what’s wrong with his syllogism, so I didn’t do that.

  • Rob

    O.K. RJS, I’ve been defending you thus far, but just what is “the evangelical definition of inerrancy” (if there is indeed only one) and how does it differ from the “Biblical” definition of inerrancy?

  • Rob

    I admit, humbly, that there is, if followed back to it’s logical beginning, the element of presupposition in my argument. Thus is the nature of faith. So much could be said about this. Not the least is the fact that we ALL presuppose some things, and even atheists base their beliefs, at their core, on faith. So syllogism or not, I don’t think that necessarily discounts my argument.

  • RJS


    I expect “the evangelical definition of inerrancy” means somewhat different things to different people. But the common evangelical definition of inerrancy is troubled by things like the example of the Fig Tree – not to mention the timing of the crucifixion or the cleansing of the temple. Harold Lindsell had to resort to six denials by Peter to preserve the inerrancy of scripture. The harmonization of Chronicles with Samuel and Kings provides another example.

    I don’t think God errs, and I do think that prophecy is from the Spirit not of Human construction. But all scripture is not prophecy, so the 1 Peter reference only applies to a portion of what we call scripture. The 2 Timothy reference tells us scripture is God-breathed for a purpose, the implication isn’t evangelical inerrancy but God’s purpose … so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

    We’d do a whole lot better if we concentrated on the thoroughly equipped for every good work part.

  • Rob

    I understand what you’re saying, and I think we’re mostly of the same mind here. I don’t fully agree with your assessment of 1 Peter and 2 Timothy, but I suppose that just furthers your point that it is our understanding, not God, that is errant. Agree to disagree on the details.

  • RJS


    I think the “Biblical definition” of inerrancy is largely this:

    But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

    The kind of details that consume the evangelical debate on inerrancy have little to nothing to do with making us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, and somewhat less with equipping us for every good work.

    In part this is what I mean when I say we have to come to the scripture as students, not critics or judges. We can’t impose some definition of inerrancy and force scripture into that mold. We come to scripture to be made wise for salvation through Christ Jesus and to be equipped for every good work.

  • Rob

    Again, I think we’re mostly of the same mind. The evangelical definition probably came about because of attacks against and a low view of Scripture, much like the Reformation came about in response to and due to a perceived problem in the church. I think it is necessary to admit that there are probably many “evangelical” perspectives, all which are probably derived from different sources and issues. But the bigger issue is, we must ask ourselves what we think of Scripture, where it came from, and yes, whether it is reliable for us to stake our lives on. Even taking into account all the elements of Scripture (history, parable, hyperbole, poetry, etc) which I agree is necessary. Our answer will probably say a lot about our faith.

  • RJS

    Rob (#42),

    I was composing #43 while you commented – so it was meant to be a response to #39.

    By the way – because the “scripture” refered to in 2 Timothy was the Old Testament, I also think we would do well to put a good bit more emphasis on the OT. It is hard to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ … that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures… without understanding the scriptures in the OT.

  • EricW

    2 Peter, not 1 Peter. FWIW, some Catholics and Orthodox wrongly, IMO, use this verse as a proof-text to say that individuals can’t interpret the Bible or its verses; rather, the church/Magisterium and its spokespersons are the ones that have that ability/authority. I think the argument could be made that this verse is more talking about the fact that prophetic Scripture is supernatural/spiritual in origin – i.e., it was not “thought up” by the speaker/writer – than it is saying that individuals aren’t able to properly interpret the Bible. FYI, English translations often obscure the repetition of pherô and its irregular aorist form in verses 1:17, 18, 21(2x).

  • Rob

    I would love to have that discussion with you concerning OT vs. NT. I partially agree with you. But not fully. Maybe another post?

  • Andy W.

    The Scriptures claim that the “pillar and foundation of the truth” is not itself, but rather the Church (1 Timothy 3:15). This makes sense, since the Church formed the very cannon we call the NT scriptures. I would say that the Holy Scriptures are truthful, authoritative, full of God’s grace, light and life. But the term inerrant is not a helpful term in any meaningful way and truly a stumbling block to many.

  • Rob F.

    This discussion reminds me that it is hard to talk about inerrancy without talking about perpiscuity. In my mind they are two-sides of the same coin. A high view of one reinforces a high view of the other. As an example, it appears that a few in this thread are appealing to a “plain reading” of of a text(s) to support their view of inerrancy.

    So what comes first? “Plain/easily understandable reading” of Bible leads to conviction of inerrancy. Or belief that the Bible is inerrant leads to view that the Bible is clear and easy to understand. In my experience and tribe I believe it is a strong conviction/sense of perpiscuity is primary and then leads to inerrancy. The reasoning being if all the Bible is accessible and easy to understand for anyone who reads it then it can’t have errors because it would no longer be easy to understand.

  • EricW

    Andy W – The Greek lacks the definite article before “pillar and foundation,” and Irenaeus refers to the Gospel as being such:

    Against Heresies 3.1
    1. We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.

  • John Inglis

    Re Rob #29 & #31 and Rick #31, “Enough said.”, ‘God can do a miracle and overcome errant people’, etc.

    As pointed out by RJS (#36) and EricW (#38), the conclusion that scripture is historically inerrant according to the standards of modern historiography (which is the typical conservative Evangelical assumption of inerrancy as evidence by Mohler’s statements, etc.) does not follow from the premise that God is without error. Nor does that conclusion logically follow from the verses cited by Rob. The texts cited by Rob are not inconsistent with his conclusion, but they do not necessitate his conclusion. They are also consistent with the conclusion that propositions about events derived from the text of the Bible may not correspond to the truth of space-time (to the chronological movement of entities through space).

    What must be addressed before we get to the evangelical issue of inerrancy is the issue of intent and ends. What did/does God intend to do? Towards what ends are his words directed? If God did not intend all his Word to be set upon the Procrustean bed of the evangelical understanding of history, then the supposed issue of “inerrancy” is rather moot.

    Rather, the issue becomes one of rightly dividing the word of God which includes rightly determining the relationship of the text to historiography. Indeed, it was correctly pointed out in the roundtable with Licona that the Chicago Statement can be understood as including his position as being within its definition of inerrancy.

    It seems remarkable to me that evangelicals continue to get this issue wrong given that over 30 years ago RT France was able to state without controversy:

    “. . . we should not regard the difference in wording as an ‘error’, nor need the evangelical be embarrassed by it. As Leon Morris has written, ‘We must not impose an inerrancy of our own making on the Bible, but rather accept the kind of inerrancy that it teaches. And this is an inerrancy which is compatible with variant reports of the words used on a given occasion. The evangelical’s belief in the inspiration of the writings will assure him that the different wording is not a mistake, but is intended to bring out a different facet of the message of Jesus.”

    Personally, I think that this redefinition of “inerrancy” evacuates it of any useful meaning, but I do agree with his point.


  • scotmcknight

    RJS, those who define “inerrancy” via 2 Tim usually use “infallibility” instead of “inerrancy,” while those who like “inerrancy” tend to move toward deductive logic: God is true, all he says is true, therefore the Bible is “inerrant.” I would contend 2 Tim tells us what we need to know, and I spell this out in Blue Parakeet, that Scripture is inspired and accomplishes in us what God wants it to accomplish. Inerrancy tends to get lost in proving the Bible to be historical, scientific, etc..

  • EricW

    The NT authors’ near-exclusive use of the so-called LXX, as well as the LXX itself, raise questions about the text and doctrines of inerrancy that IMO many don’t appreciate or consider.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Rob (49),

    Good point re perspicuity, the first mention I think. 

    The OED offers the following for “perspicuity”

    transparency, translucent, clearness of statement or expression, lucidity, conspicuousness, distinctness to the sight, mental penetration, insight

    Scripture passages can be all of these, but not all of them all of the time. And some passages just aren’t.

    To me it’s helpful to see Scripture as both simple and complex, and then to try hard not to make it simplistic and convoluted.


    In reading admittedly quickly through the comments there seemed to be very few references to how Scripture interprets Scripture – or less cryptically, how writers of Scripture interpret other parts of Scripture. On my shelf is a really big book entitled “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. There may be a similar book on intra-OT interpretations, but I don’t know it.

    We find interpretations by Paul, for example, that leave us shaking our head if we restrict ourselves to our own cultural view of the matter. Clearly Paul had help. 🙂  There are messages far deeper than the literal words that we are meant to get from Scripture. Often that message does not rely on the story being historical. In numerous cases the only demand that a particular story be historical comes from a demand for strict literalness or strict perspicuity (try saying that sentence fast after a couple of glasses of almost anything)

    I always think of Aesop’s fables in discussions like this. Not in the sense that I consider Scripture full of fables (as Aesop’s work is) but that it is full of very important messages, as Aesop also is. The NT’s stories, dialogues, prayers, poems, references to the OT, descriptions illustrate very well what our relationship to God, through Christ in the Holy Spirit should be. We can get a good number things wrong with respect to what is literal or not, did it really happen or not, but we should try very hard to put our major effort into understanding and applying the important messages that often are so transparent they practically shout.

  • John C. Gardner

    I checked the Tom Wright book on the saints rising passage in Matthew. He states that it is impossible to tell historically what happened. But, it is such an odd narrative that it is possible. Licona has now stated(after dialogue with other evangelicals) that the account may be historical or simply an apocalyptic theological account(i.e. he is not sure). I also think the way Licona has been treated is not fair.

  • Jesus said, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12, ESV). He clearly expected us to discount any purported source of divine revelation that could not get its facts straight regarding information readily available at the human level.

    I have a problem with characterizing what R.T. France calls a “non-chronological arrangement” of material as a “non-chronological embellished account,” as it seems to be characterized in this article. An embellishment is an addition, and frequently an exaggeration. France was not endorsing that concept as being consistent with inerrancy.

    The rearrangement of material, insofar as it does not introduce bona fide inaccuracies, serves to emphasize something the author wishes to bring to the forefront of his account. As France wrote in his commentary, “Matthew has disentangled Mark’s interwoven narrative, giving the impression that each event took place all at once, and by doing so has produced a more striking miracle story” (IVP, 1985; 1997, p. 303). As for the word “withered” in verse 19: it is in the aorist, and it can easily be interpreted as an ingressive aorist (“began to wither”), which is far from unknown in Matthew.

    I have recently summarized the doctrine of biblical inspiration in a video on my web site, which you can also access at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHZ0YYC5k_E. I hope you find it helpful.

  • CGC

    Hi Ron,
    Nice video . . . As far as RJS use of embellish, I would be interested in her reply but I did not take it to mean “exxagerate” as you did. This is a rearranging, creative engagement, Personality emphasis of the material. Exxagerate probalby has negative connotations for you but two things (1) RJS never used this word, that was how you took it; and (2) exxagerate does not neccesarily mean false (which is probably how you take the use of the term).

    When it comes to inspiration Ron, I hope your understanding can take things in like when Paul says in 1 Cor.1:14, “I did not baptize anyone except Crispus and Gaius” and then says in v.16, a kind of “now that I think of it” moment, “I also baptized the household of Stephanas, after that I can’t really remember anyone else.” It is all God’s Word but it also takes in the human side as well.

  • EricW

    Ron Henzel wrote:

    As for the word “withered” in verse 19: it is in the aorist, and it can easily be interpreted as an ingressive aorist (“began to wither”), which is far from unknown in Matthew.

    But when coupled with parachrêma (Matthew 21:19 and 20), and the disciples’ apparent immediate and astonished response, is an ingressive action what Matthew intended to convey? Mark records no reaction at the time by the disciples; he simply notes that they heard what Jesus said to the tree. They had no response, or reason to respond, until the next day (?) when, remembering what had happened, they now saw that the tree had totally (from its roots) dried up.

  • Lance

    We Christians have turned the apostolic writings into scripture. There is no place in SCRIPTURE ( torah, writings or prophets) or the known teachings of Jesus that would indicate that there was another set of or additional scriptures coming.

    Deut 18:15 creates a command for the people of Israel to fulfill at a later time. “The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken;”

    I believe this person to be Jesus not jut a prophet but the messiah spoken of by the other prophets.

    However i believe when have made the apostolic writings to be to the christian church what the Talmud is to the Jews. We treat them as holy and authoritative and rightly so. They are records of the fulfillment of prophecy in a limited scope there is yet more prophecy to be fulfilled and i expect that sometime in the near future there will be more records created of what will be fulfilled. will this become “scripture”?
    There is no denying that the records that have bee kept have authority because they are records of what Jesus said and the apostles taught. They are a further revelation of what scripture had already deposited with us but if they are used in exclusion of the first and original scriptures then they become merely religious texts similar in scope to the Talmud.

    This should be an rejoinder upon us to return back to the eternal gospel described in Revelation 14. That Gospel is , apparently, so effaced by the time the Day of the Lord comes that God himself must dispatch messenger angels on earth to re-proclaim the original and eternal gospel.

    what we call NT scriptures are authoritative and do reveal more of the unfolding of previous SCRIPTURE and are inspired insofar as they buttress and agree with what was already know to be inspired according to Jesus and all the apostles.