The following article is reproduced from the Global Journal of Classical Theology 2/1 (Dec. 1999)

Evangelicals and Biblical Criticism: the Continuing Saga

by John Warwick Montgomery

In the latest issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 1999) to reach me here in England, Grant Osborne of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School continues to advocate an evangelical variety of "historical", i.e., higher, criticism and to dismiss, directly or indirectly, those such as myself who regard such methodology as inherently faulty and entirely inconsistent with the profession of biblical inerrancy.

During the height of the Robert Gundry problem, in 1978 (ultimately resolved by Gundry's voluntary resignation from Evangelical Theological Society), Professor Osborne declared his own support for an evangelical higher criticism of a more chastened sort. I then exchanged letters with my former Dean at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Kenneth Kantzer, who defended Osborne's approach. What follows is a portion of my (until now unpublished) communication to Dean Kantzer. Its relevance to Osborne's latest article should make it of more than routine interest to evangelical readers. The fact that its publication was rejected by the new editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Dr Andreas Köstenberger of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) makes its dissemination particularly important.

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Communication in Regards to Evangelical Use of Redaction Criticism

You [Kantzer] write: "You [Montgomery] fail to distinguish between those who seek to avail themselves of certain aspects of redaction criticism and yet safeguard the full inerrancy of Scripture (e.g., Grant Osborne) and those who do so without such unequivocal and careful commitment to inerrancy." But there is simply no way to employ such critical techniques and "yet safeguard the full inerrancy of Scripture." All that Osborne (or Gundry, for that matter) does is to assert fideistically that the final product of the redaction process is inerrant regardless of what his form critical technique has come up with. Inerrancy becomes a totally plastic concept at the mercy of the critical hermeneutic. (See the final chapter of my Faith Founded on Fact for an analysis of what this does to the very concept of inerrancy; in brief, it renders it technically meaningless.) The evangelical committed to the inerrancy of Scripture must do just the reverse of what Osborne does: he must allow the overall biblical concept of truth (truth as correspondence) to give him his concept of inerrancy; that concept of inerrancy will create the hermeneutic limits for his handling of particular scriptural problems. 1 Hermeneutics is not an open area for the evangelical committed to inerrancy. 2 Some evangelicals are still naïve enough to think that, by getting Seminary faculty to subscribe to the word "inerrancy", they cover the problem. But just as the word "inspiration" hermeneutically lost its original meaning, so the term "infallibility" has pretty well gone down the drain (cf. Hans Küng and company) and we are now seeing "inerrancy" losing its meaningfulness.

I do not hold, as you claim, that "the recognition of influences upon the biblical record from the interests and concerns of the early church [is] illegitimate." But I do hold that such influence cannot, consistent with an inerrant view of Scripture, modify the substantive, factual character of biblical assertions. For example, the early church's interests and concerns may indeed have influenced the biblical writers' selection of what to include among all the things Jesus said and did—but this does not mean that their Sitz im Leben could result in the introduction of untruth into their narrative, such as attributing to Jesus what he did not in fact say or stating that events of his career occurred on day X or in place Y when in fact they didn't. Osborne and Gundry simply fudge the factual question by confusing selection with accuracy (or better, inaccuracy).

It is precisely here that the discussion of the ipsissima verba becomes confused. For example, the Aramaic problem you raise is totally irrelevant. By ipsissima verba is meant an accurate record of what Jesus in fact said. There is a world of difference between the straw man you seem to attribute to those holding my position (Jesus supposedly having to be quoted in the very language he spoke) and Osborne's position that what the Gospel writers attribute to Jesus he did not necessarily say in the precise terms indicated.

Take Osborne's example of the Great Commission. He declares that "it seems most likely that at some point the tradition or Matthew expanded an original monodic formula." Jesus, in other words, did not make an explicitly Trinitarian statement as Matthew's text says he did: the early church or Matthew expanded Jesus' monodic statement to become a Trinitarian statement. Nonetheless, since God is a Trinity, the Holy Spirit was at work bringing about an inerrant result anyway!

Now surely it ought to be obvious that the exegetical issue is not whether Trinitarian theology is inerrantly true but whether the biblical writers can be trusted when they affirm that Jesus said something. Any meaningful doctrine of inerrancy requires that whether Jesus spoke in Aramaic or Swahili he in fact made explicit reference to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit on the occasion recorded in Matthew 18:19.

Otherwise, it would be obvious that the underlying question of what Jesus in fact said and did ends up totally severed from the question of the "inerrancy" of the edited text. "Non-verbatim" accounts, as you use the term, can be inerrant only if they accurately reflect what was actually said on the given occasion: they could not genuinely remain inerrant statements concerning the particular occasion just because they happen to state infallible general truths.

Example: Prophet A declares in the year 1900: "My people, all is relative." His believing community, in the wake of Einstein, records that he said: "My people, all is relative—and E=mc2." The redacted statement might indeed be infallible (assuming that E=mc2 is ultimately true), but that is not in fact what the prophet said originally—and it makes no difference whatever whether he originally spoke in Aramaic, Chinese, etc.

Maybe this will help to clarify why Osborne's use of the Spirit is indeed deus ex machina, indistinguishable from what many liberals are doing. According to Osborne, regardless of the disparity between the original events and words of Jesus' ministry on the one hand and the resultant text of Scripture on the other, the Holy Spirit has in any event produced a genuine revelation! By this logic, an inerrancy claim could be made for the Bible no matter what its final text said. The Holy Spirit becomes a subjective justification for accepting a book that continually makes statements about what Jesus said and did that do not necessarily reflect accurately the details of the ministry that he in fact had. This is pure Schwärmerei.

What I have already said should make irrelevant your argument that "John tells us of the vast amount of material relating to what Christ did and what he said." I nowhere maintain (nor does anyone else I know) that Jesus never said anything beyond what the Gospels contain. The issue is, rather, whether what is recorded as to what he said represents historical fact rather than truths which may be "inerrant" in a general sense but are not an accurate representation of Jesus' life and ministry.

I majored in Greek and Latin classics as well as philosophy at Cornell (a classical education which would not have hurt some of our evangelical biblical scholars, I might add). I discovered that the very techniques they use were weighed in the balance and found wanting in classical scholarship. My professors never tired of demonstrating the foolishness of 19th century attempts at "finding the true and original meaning" of classical texts through redaction and tradition criticism. With tremendous difficulty, classical scholarship pulled itself out of the "conjectural" morass of 19th century scholarship. Now responsible classicists go back to the principles of harmonization set forth in Aristotle's Poetics to deal with discrepancies, stylistic variations, etc. The entire history of Western law works on the same basis of harmonization in the "construction of legal documents" (wills, probate, executed deeds, etc.). It is simply appalling that people like Osborne and Gundry continue to work with conjectural methodology that no-one today gives two whoops for outside of the Biblical field. C.S. Lewis was precisely correct from the standpoint of English literary scholarship when he argued 3 that tradition—and redaction—criticism are irredeemable—and his position on the inerrancy of Scripture was considerably weaker than ETS is supposed to maintain.

You say: "Your faulty assumption, as I see it, is to equate such a conscious editing process of selecting and shaping the content of the Gospels with a falsifying of the Gospel accounts." By now, I should hope that it would be evident that Osborne, Gundry, and company do in fact "falsify the Gospel accounts", for their "inerrant" resultant text can and does often present a false picture of what Jesus actually said and did. Whether one attaches the word "inerrant" to the end product is really of little consequence. It is meaningless to use the word inerrancy for a situation in which the "inerrant" record says that Jesus did things and said things temporally, geographically, and substantively which he did not in fact do or say. At very best, Osborne's approach dehistoricizes Christian belief—leaving it with a Bible that is "inerrant" in the sense that everything it says reflects ultimate truth, but need not historically represent what actually happened or what was actually said by the biblical personages themselves. (See, in this connection, the pregnant quotation from Jean Guitton in the Preface to my Where Is History Going?) But, at very worst, Osborne's approach concedes what rationalists and religious liberals have always said—that biblical statements are little more than the inaccurate, imprecise product of human reporting.

1. Cf. Robert D. Preus, in my Crisis in Lutheran Theology, Vol. 2, p. 24: "Without the correspondence theory of truth there can be no such thing as informative language or factual meaning. The eighth commandment entirely breaks down unless predicated upon the correspondence theory of truth. . . . As a matter of fact Scripture is replete with evidence that it operates throughout with the correspondence idea of truth (cf. Eph. 4:25; John 8:44-46; I Ki. 8:26; Gen. 42:16, 20; Zech. 8:16; Deut. l8:22; John 5:31 ff.; Ps. 119:163; I Ki. 22:16, 22 ff.; Dan. 2:9; Prov. 14:25; I Tim. 1:15; Acts 24:8, 11)."

2. See my Crisis in Lutheran Theology, Vol. I, especially pp. 100-105.

3. C.S. Lewis, "Biblical Criticism," in his Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper.