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

“AHA” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (3): Daniel Kirk June 30, 2014

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.

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