Montreal Christian Thinker

Inerrancy debate review (Prof. Richard Howe vs Dr. Mike Licona)

Before I move into further reviewing Inspiration and Inerrancy and distilling my own viewpoint about it, I would like to review a debate on Inerrancy that took place on Friday, October 11, 2019 (7:00 PM – 9:00 PM). It was presented by the Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES) through the National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA), and it was entitled: “What Does It Mean to Say the Bible is Inerrant?” It apparently took place in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Facebook Debate Video Link can be found here. The official announcement was made here. The debate was uploaded by Dr. Mike Licona on his YouTube channel. I watched the whole debate around February, 2020, and I have recently watched it again twice while skipping some parts and returning to them back-and-forth to write this blog post.

I noticed that they seem to have wanted to avoid the word “debate” and occasionally used “dialog” instead. The moderator, Frank Turek, began this debate by saying that it was “a dialog between two brothers in Christ, so this is not really an adversarial debate…” Even here, then, debate/dialog were used interchangeably.

I here embed the YouTube video pointing to Mike Licona’s channel:

The moderators and the speakers were presented here.


Introductions by Licona and Howe (2:00—46:00 mins)


Dr. Mike Licona

The first speaker was Dr. Michael R. Licona, who, within the initial 10 minutes of his presentation, presented a few facts that I have already mentioned in my previous two blog posts: that errors, or inaccuracies, in the Bible do not overturn the Bible as a whole nor do they render Christianity untrue (nor do they prove it), and also that our present Bibles are not errorless, yet God did not preserve our multiple modern Bibles to be error-free. This is one reason why inerrantists argue that Inerrancy only applies to the autographs (i.e., original manuscripts). This is basic Biblical Studies 101, yet the way that traditional inerrantists get around these sorts of problems does not sit well with me nor with Mike Licona (and hundreds of other solid, evangelical scholars). He also presented an example of Gospel differences by comparing Matthew 8.5-13 and Luke 7.1-10, which both record the story about the Roman centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant. Licona said that Luke gives us the “girl” version of the story: he details more precisely what actually took place. Licona said that Matthew gives us the “guy” version of the story: he “streamlines” and “simplifies” the story. He also compared the story about Jesus cursing the fig tree by contrasting Mark 11.12-25 and Matthew 21.18-22. He said that Mark gives us the “girl” version and Matthew the “guy” version of the story, where the details are removed and the retelling of this story is simplified and compressed, or streamlined. All this to show that Matthew used literary compositional devices that streamlines the stories, and this produced differences in contrast to Mark and Luke, although the essence of the stories is the same and are not contradictory.

Roman centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant

Luke 7.1-10 & Matthew 8.5-13

Jesus curses the fig tree

Mark 11.12-25 & Matthew 21.18-22

Licona makes three points (I here repeat the first two using his list in the video debate):

  1. An error-free Bible is not required for Christianity to be true.
  2. Ancient biography did not aim for modern precision.
  3. The inerrancy tent is larger than some think.

The first point means that even there are errors, or inaccuracies [my own preferred articulation, instead of saying “errors”], Christianity is not necessarily false because it still uniquely rests on the historicity of Jesus’ life and death and—what Dr. Gary Habermas and Dr. Mike Licona have defended for decades now—resurrection. I know for myself, and I know that Habermas and Licona both know as well, that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be proved by using historical sources from the first century; but the actual argument is that we can reasonably make an historical inference that Jesus rose from the dead based on the historical sources that we have (and, secondarily, based on metaphysical phenomena in the scientific literature). This is the best explanation for the historical evidence that we possess, according to Licona and Habermas. Although I respect both Habermas and Licona on other matters, I find myself to be unpersuaded by their historical minimal facts (1:39 mins video) that supposedly suggests that we can historically infer that Jesus rose from the dead. I agree that we can infer that Jesus possibly, historically resurrected from the dead, but I would not use their minimal facts to try to persuade others. Anyhow, we all believe in Christ’s resurrection, but I just find the minimal facts rather weak to make a case out of it; and atheists like John W. Loftus and, more recently, Matt Dillahunty—who is a solid, respectful atheists with surprisingly good counter-arguments—have pointed out the flaws in this “minimal facts” approach. Regardless, errors in the Bible does not entail by necessity that the rest of the Bible’s content is in error; and of course, “error” must be defined. Licona and Howe argued about what an error is and what counts as an error in the Bible (esp. the Gospels, which is the focus of the debate due to Licona’s framing of it).

The second point means that the Gospels are very similar to ancient Greco-Roman biographies, and these ancient biographies used the conventional literary devices of their day to retell histories or stories. Licona calls them “compositional devices” and he published a scholarly monograph about it, entitled, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography (Oxford Press, 2016). Howe disagreed that the Gospels are like ancient biographies, but they did not get into the details as to why. I know Howe published Dr. F. David Farnell’s scholarly paper on this point supposedly refuting that viewpoint here (PDF here). Besides, this was not important for the questions that arose from the debate. What Licona stressed throughout the debate is that the Gospels use literary conventions (esp. Matthew) that diverge from each other and this produces some of the differences. However, Licona explained elsewhere in other debates and interviews that these differences are not necessarily errors, but they were deliberate differences produced by the original authors of the Gospels for each of their own original audiences using their own methods and emphases on the life or ministry of Jesus of Nazareth—or even for each of their own literary agendas. Traditional Protestants have in the past tried to reconcile some contradictions (or “apparent contradictions”, as some stress), or differences, by forcefully explaining some of them away with poor arguments such as: “one of the Gospel writers is leaving a detail out while the other puts it in”, or “Jesus said almost the same thing twice or thrice in multiple places and times about the same sermon.” Nevertheless, some differences cannot be reasonably defended with some of these oversimplifications and Licona’s book seeks to provide some background on ancient literary conventions that more adequately explain Gospel differences. Some of these differences are not always accurate, but Licona emphasized how we should not accuse Gospel writers of error if there is not sufficient historical evidence to do so. But, even if there are errors, they would not overturn the main Gospel message and the historical minimal facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The third point means that Inerrancy is defended and defined differently by many inerrantists. Not all inerrantists have ascribed to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. Norman Geisler, Richard Howe, Mal Couch, and others, have supposedly owned, so-to-speak, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and so they want to “own” how to define Inerrancy. If others do not abide to them, then it creates an adversarial and separatist atmosphere in Christian scholarly communities. In other words, one wants to hold that the Bible is inerrant, then you must abide by the Chicago Statement since it appears to be the prevailing standardized, elaborated definition Inerrancy. The problem, according to Licona, is that not all scholars who believe in some form of Inspiration and Inerrancy agree with the Chicago Statement, and not all define “error” in the same way. Additionally, Inerrancy is a modern concern and it is not an essential doctrine. Therefore, we should be more sensible to the fact that Inerrancy is not obviously correct, at least, not necessarily as defined by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). Licona pointed out that some past scholars originally signed in agreement with the Chicago Statement, but then later on demonstrated that they do not quite agree with it. One such scholar was James Innell Packer (known as J.I. Packer, PhD) from Oxford, who originally signed the Chicago Statement, but has accepted Licona’s thesis on compositional devices to explain Gospel differences many years ago. This is contrary to Norman Geisler who took Licona to task for not taking Matthew 27.51-53 as an historical event. I also note that J.I. Packer has, in the past decade, touched on the fact that Genesis might not be scientifically accurate and that Genesis does not necessarily contradict evolution or theistic evolution, in an audio entitled, “Creation, evolution & problems” (2008); yet this is contrary to the Chicago Statement. I mostly agree with J.I. Packer’s view on Genesis in that audio lecture/presentation. So, this confirms Licona’s understanding of the matter as well as my own understanding.



Dr. Richard Howe

The second speaker is Prof. Emeritus Richard G. Howe of Philosophy and Apologetics. Throughout his debates and presentations (here and elsewhere on YouTube), one can tell that he is very familiar with Philosophy, beginning with the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, and then moving into the Church Fathers like Augustine, and into the medieval theologians like Saint Thomas Aquinas. He has pointed out in this debate, and other debates in the past, that good philosophy must be used in order to determine what an error is and what truth is. He argues that very often, opponents do not define nor defend these words correctly and it all creates misunderstandings. We can all have various theories about truth (how truth is defined and defended), but we cannot variously defend how some statements cannot at all correspond to reality. For instance, Howe said that statements can correspond to truth: “literarily, allegorically, metaphorically, hyperbolically, phenomenologically, similarly, analogically, symbolically, informally, metonymically, synecdochally.” I would personally add: typologically. The Bible testifies about itself (OT and NT) and it is the Word of God, and this is the view of Jesus in the NT about Scripture. It is from God through the prophets and the apostles.

Howe made three premises:

  1. The Bible is inspired of God.
  2. Because of the nature of God, Inspiration entails Inerrancy.
  3. The Bible is inerrant.

The first point means that the Bible claims that it is inspired by God (various biblical passages already pointed out by Dr. Mal Couch and Dr. Norman Geisler in their articles and books; and similar lists can easily be found online). The biblical authors are not inspired, but the Scripture (the written result) is inspired. We cannot necessarily know the mechanisms of Inspiration, and it does not matter much since it is the resultant texts that are the object of Inspiration, not the process or mechanism of Inspiration through the authors. Jesus taught that the Scripture (presumably, the OT at the time) is inspired and authoritative.

The second point means that the Bible cannot be in error because it is Inspired by God who cannot be in error. Howe said [around 39:00 – 40:00 mins]: “The Bible is the Word of God; God cannot err; therefore, the Bible cannot err. If the Bible errs, then either there is some sense in which it is not the Word of God, or there is some sense in which God can err—that follows necessarily.” God cannot lie, err, and he is Omniscient. The Bible, according to Howe, does not have errors at all, not because the authors did not make mistakes (which might have been accidental that they did not make mistake, since they are imperfect humans), but because the end-product of Scripture comes from God who cannot err because of his divine characteristic or nature as God. “If the Bible is in error in earthly matters that we can verify, then how will we be able to believe the Bible on matters that we cannot verify?” asked Howe rhetorically after quoting John 3.12. Howe did admit that if there is an error in the Bible, then he agrees with Licona that it would not destroy Christianity nor the resurrection of Jesus. But, then, we cannot claim that one believes in Inerrancy in such a case. This is a major point of contention later in the debate, where Licona appears to want to redefine Inerrancy by redefining an error in terms of ancient literary conventions. Howe disagrees that an error must be redefined and that Inerrancy can be defended if there are in reality errors or inaccuracies. Howe pointed out that C.S. Lewis did not hold to Inerrancy, and yet many Christians use C.S. Lewis all the time (to teach or defend Christianity?).

The third point was not well distinguished from his second point above during his introduction in this debate. Nevertheless, it simply means that the Bible cannot have errors due to the first two premises.


Dialogue/Debate Exchange (46:40—1:53:00 mins)

Licona questioned Howe on how exactly is the Bible the Word of God. The Word of God is theopneustos (God-breathed, in the Greek of 2 Timothy 3.16), according to Howe and other inerrantists. How is the Bible fully the Word of Bible word-for-word if we have so many human elements in Scripture? What is the mechanism of Inspiration?

Howe responded that there are various mechanisms: God wrote the decalogue with his finger in Exodus, or when God says “Thus says the Lord…” in the Prophets, that this might be some kind of dictation, although he is not claiming that it is dictation. But, Howe continued that it does not really matter because what is inspired is not the writer (or authors), but the end result, or the resultant product.

Licona said that if we want to understand 2 Timothy 3.16 (God-breathed), we have to interpret it in light of what we have in the Bible, and we have human elements and it also incudes human imperfections…

…Howe asked Licona: “Errors?”

Licona answered that he did not say “errors,” but that there are clear human elements such as poor Greek grammar in Mark (compared to Matthew and Luke, and Paul and Hebrews) and editorial fatigue in Luke when Luke he used Mark as a literary source. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul has memory lapses because Paul could not remember if Paul baptized someone or not. We have to look not only at, “what Scripture claims about itself, but about the character of Scripture.”

Licona and Howe disputed what counts as an error. Based on their exchange, they agreed that they should not be disputing grammar or other peripheral textual issues, but the actual meaning and content in the biblical texts. Howe insisted that something must be true in the Gospels regardless of how it was said. The manner in which something was said is not an issue as long as it corresponds to reality. Howe insisted that if something is not true in the Bible, then it’s a lie. So, they disputed what counts as a lie in terms of Gospel differences.

1:00:00—1:15:15 mins

Howe kept insisting that if Matthew changed details found in Mark in the centurion story and the cursed fig tree story, and Matthew is saying something different than Mark that did not happen; therefore, Matthew’s version is not true and it is not inerrant. But Howe does not believe that this is actually the case. Howe said that we have to dispute what it means for something to be true and whether something in the Bible is actually not true. They both also disputed what is considered an error and a lie about Matthew’s stories if it says something that did not actually happen.

Licona argued that Matthew streamlines and simplifies the account of Mark.

Howe disputed that simplifying an account is not the same as retelling something that did not happen, but that in reality Matthew’s account is retelling details that did happen even though some other details are left out. Howe stressed that if Matthew says something that did not happen, then it is not true and Matthew would be in error (note that Howe very strongly stressed the words “not” and “did”).

Licona does not think that because Matthew says things that are not necessarily accurate, or that they did not happen as written, that therefore they must be considered errors. Nevertheless, Licona clarified later on in the debate that what Matthew records did happen, but not necessarily in the exact way that it happened in reality (if we could review the event in the past via camera footage). Licona, then, insisted a few times that Matthew does retell the story of the Centurion and that what Matthew retells in his Gospel account did happen, but not necessarily as detailed by Luke. Matthew is the “guy” version of the story and Luke the “girl” version. He responded to Howe that if we could review the event in the past through a camera, that we would probably have seen Luke’s version of the story. So, Licona argued that the essence of the story in Matthew still did happen, but Matthew is using compositional devices in his retelling of stories and those compositional devices cannot be regarded as errors just because they differ in some ways in contrast to Mark and Luke.

1:15:30—1:20:00 mins

Howe says that he doesn’t really like the idea that we must interpret these issues based on how ancient peoples wrote and communicated (as if we don’t communicate the same way today).

Licona defended the view that it is important to interpret these ancient texts based on how they wrote and communicated back in the first century, because we don’t write and communicate exactly in the same ways anymore (e.g. compositional devices and composite citations along with plagiarism).

Howe did not agree that the Gospels are like ancient Roman biographies (like Licona actually believes). Howe insisted that what is said in the Bible must correspond to reality for something to be true.

1:21:00—1:33:00 mins

Licona questioned Howe about composite citations by NT authors in the OT. Licona gives as an example Matthew 27.9-10 (Judas Iscariot’s suicide and the 30 pieces of silver) where Matthew cites Jeremiah, but the textual references actually point to Zechariah 11.12–13, and yet—even further—the context in Zechariah has nothing to do at all with anything that Judas did in the Gospels. Licona explained that today we do not practice these kinds of compositional devices (which involves plagiarism and so against University and scholarly practice).

Howe responded that parchment Scrolls in the first century might have had many prophets in one scroll and the heading of the scroll might have indicated Jeremiah but with Zechariah found later towards the end of the scroll; but the text is now identified as Zechariah. Howe stressed that if there is an error here (which he does not believe to be the case), he would call it an error, but then he would not continue to defend Inerrancy and he would not try to come up with a defense of Inerrancy, especially if something does not correspond to reality (which is apparently what Licona is doing in Howe’s understanding). Howe clarified that he does, in fact, accept metaphors and figures of speech to be present in the Bible, but having Matthew claiming something that did not happen is not a figure of speech.

Licona insisted that what Matthew recounts did happen in essence.

Howe ended up clarifying that the reason why he believes in Inerrancy (1:32:00) is not because he was not able to find an error anywhere in the Bible, but because the Bible says so and it has authority because it comes from God himself (Howe said “because it’s the nature of God”)! Howe said “I know it’s inerrant because it is the Word of God”; and that if he was able to find an error, he would need to rework his theology.


My Conclusion

My conclusion are the following. First, I mostly agree with Mike Licona. His understanding is extremely similar to my own view, although Licona focused on the Gospel differences and compositional devices. He did not focus on other inaccuracies in the rest of the NT, not to mention the fact that I am not aware that he has ever addressed inaccuracies in the OT in past debates, books or interviews. He is strictly an NT scholar who focuses on the NT. I do not agree with Richard Howe since I find his premises and arguments for Inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement superficial. Howe basically acknowledges similar problems as I have already mentioned in my previous blog posts, but he would explain them away in some other manner. Second, I realized recently that what Howe pointed out to Licona might actually be fair and true: if Licona considers that there truly are inaccuracies in the Bible, therefore he cannot hold to the view that the Bible is inerrant. Licona explained during the debate that he does not count compositional devices as errors, although Howe explains them differently (figures of speech, or metonymy, or not detailing all elements in a story). Howe said that if Licona is right about compositional devices and about how the Gospels work, then Howe would no longer hold that the Bible is inerrant.

Lastly, I conclude that Licona is more accurate in his view of Inspiration and Inerrancy and on what the Bible actually is and what it actually contains. I have to admit that, in light of the Chicago Statement and Richard Howe’s resources and debates, I am not an inerrantist in their sense of Inerrancy. In other words, in light of the Chicago Statement and Howe’s debate, I do not hold in the Inerrancy of the Bible. We all (including myself) hold to Inspiration, but not necessarily in Inerrancy as defined by ICBI. However, I must again emphasize that this is only true assuming that we must abide to the Chicago Statement and Howe’s insistence on what Inerrancy must be. Otherwise, I would have the tendency to redefine Inerrancy to fit human elements and human inaccuracies in the Bible. This is what Howe reproached Licona of doing during the debate. I believe that my past Professor, Dr. Michael S. Heiser, has also tried to define Inerrancy in terms of what we find in the Bible and not in terms of the Chicago Statement. Therefore, I would agree with Mike Heiser, Mike Licona, Larry Hurtado, Daniel Wallace and many other evangelical scholars on this matter. I do not agree, in this case, with the Chicago Statement, Richard Howe, Norman Geisler, Mal Couch, Albert Mohler and others.

Howe said, around 39:00 – 40:00 mins, something that I already quoted above, but that I will quote again here:

“The Bible is the Word of God; God cannot err; therefore, the Bible cannot err. If the Bible errs, then either there is some sense in which it is not the Word of God, or there is some sense in which God can err—that follows necessarily.”

Well, in such a case, I would have to hold that there is some sense, some parts, in which the Bible is not the Word of God. I will be unpacking and defending this point of view at a later time during 2020. The Bible does not teach, and it is not meant to teach, cosmology, geology, history, zoology, physiology, etc. But the Chicago Statement and all inerrantists, like Geisler and Howe, insist that the Bible must be true in all that it affirms, even in the life sciences. I do not see how this works. I have the exact same problem with creationists who basically hold to the same views on Inerrancy, and this errantly leads them to creationism.