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A Response to Michael Licona on Biblical Inerrancy

If you follow my blog, you know that I've been thinking a lot lately about the controversial doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I was therefore excited to learn that Michael Licona, one of my favorite biblical scholars, would be reading a paper on inerrancy at this year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). The paper was entitled, “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) Needs a Facelift: A Fresh Look at Biblical Inerrancy.” In this post, I offer a brief response.

1. Licona's Critique of CSBI

[Note: Be sure to see Licona's response at the end of this post!]

While Licona affirms inerrancy, he objects to the version of inerrancy articulated in CSBI. Licona argues that this version is flawed because it is rooted in the doctrine of verbal inspiration. (Verbal inspiration means that the very words of Scripture are inspired by God.) Licona argues that such a view of inspiration leads to many absurdities. For example, Luke (who used Mark as one of his sources) often smooths out Mark’s rough grammar. Licona suggests that the doctrine of verbal inspiration requires us to imagine that, while speaking through Luke, the Holy Spirit figured out a better way to say what he had said before while speaking through Mark.

As an alternative to the version of inerrancy articulated in CSBI, Licona cites William Lane Craig’s formulation of inerrancy: everything the Bible teaches is true. Note that Craig carefully distinguishes between what the Scriptures say and what the Scriptures teach. A classic example is Jesus' parable in Mark 4:30-32:

And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." (RSV)

Craig argues,

It is indisputable that the content of Jesus’ teaching is not botany but the inauspicious nature of the inbreaking Kingdom of God in his person. Hence, while it is false that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, no one in his right mind regards Jesus’ words as teaching a falsehood. (source)

Licona seems to view Craig's version of inerrancy as more flexible than the one articulated in CSBI. Licona even suggests that such a version of inerrancy allows us to attribute inerrancy to the copies and translations of Scripture. While CSBI explicitly limits inerrancy to the original autographs, which we do not possess, Licona claims that on his view of inerrancy, Christians can affirm that the Bible they read is inerrant.

2. A Response to Licona

I appreciate Licona’s thoughtful critique of CSBI. His paper raises many important issues and provokes us at ETS to think carefully about the doctrinal basis of our society. I also agree wholeheartedly with Craig’s formulation of inerrancy. Nevertheless, I still affirm CSBI. Consider the following four points.

A) Craig's formulation of inerrancy is compatible with verbal inspiration.

Licona argues that the version of inerrancy articulated in CSBI is faulty because it is rooted in the doctrine of verbal inspiration, which he finds problematic. As noted above, he presents Craig's version of inerrancy as an alterative to the one articulated in CSBI. However, Craig affirms verbal inspiration. Craig reasons as follows:

As God-breathed, Scripture must be verbally inspired, that is to say, the very words of Scripture are God-breathed. Although it is tempting to think that it is the propositional content of Scripture that is inspired, regardless of the language in which that content is expressed, a moment’s reflection reveals that as a linguistic deposit, as graphē (II Timothy 3.16), it must be the words of Scripture that are inspired. (source)

Craig thus evidently understands his formulation of inerrancy to be compatible with verbal inspiration.

B) Verbal inspiration does not necessarily imply the absurdities Licona describes.

If molinism is true, then one can affirm verbal inspiration without embracing the absurdities Licona describes. As Craig explains,

A commitment to verbal inspiration does not imply a dictation theory of inspiration. Rather given the middle knowledge perspective that I defend, God can sovereignly ensure that the authors of Scripture freely wrote what God wanted to communicate to us. That is consistent with saying that He would not have minded if they had chosen different words on occasion, just so long as what they did write communicates accurately to us His message. (source)

C) The restriction of inerrancy to the autographs goes back at least as far as Augustine.

The restriction of inerrancy to the autographs did not originate with CSBI. The same restriction was articulated in the fifth century by Augustine:

I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. (Letters 82.3)

D) Licona’s notion of inerrant copies and translations conflicts with Craig’s formulation of inerrancy.

While Licona cites Craig for support, Licona’s version of inerrancy seems to be incompatible with Craig’s. Licona’s extension of inerrancy to the copies and translations of Scripture is only compatible with Craig’s formulation of inerrancy if one assumes that scribes and translators never corrupted the teachings of Scripture. Such an assumption, however, is untenable. Consider 1 Cor 7:21. The NJB renders the verse as follows:

So, if when you were called, you were a slave, do not think it matters - even if you have a chance of freedom, you should prefer to make full use of your condition as a slave.

The RSV, on the other hand, gives this translation:

Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.

The RSV translators understand Paul to be saying that slaves should use freedom if available. The NJB translators understand Paul to be saying precisely the opposite: slaves should remain in slavery, even if they have the opportunity to attain freedom. In short, these translations present two different teachings that are plainly incompatible with one another. Thus, on Craig's formulation of inerrancy, both versions cannot be described as inerrant.

3. Conclusion

While I appreciate Licona's thought-provoking critique, I remain unpersuaded that we should abandon the doctrine of verbal inspiration. I also do not believe that we should extend our affirmation of inerrancy to the copies and translations of the Bible. Doing so would not only require us to abandon CSBI; it would also require us to abandon Craig's formulation of inerrancy.

Of course, if I have misunderstood either Licona or Craig, I hope they will correct me!


After my initial post, Licona graciously responded with a clarification of his view.

1) Licona clarified that he does affirm verbal inspiration “in a sense similar to how WLC [William Lane Craig] affirms it.” His objection is not to verbal inspiration, but only to the particular version of verbal inspiration articulated in CSBI. He believes that this version of verbal inspiration is incompatible with the version articulated by Craig.

I appreciate the correction, and I apologize for misrepresenting Licona as rejecting verbal inspiration. I do, however, remain unconvinced that Craig’s model of verbal inspiration is incompatible with CSBI. I assume that Licona finds the two incompatible because of statements such as the following:

We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities. (CSBI)

However, such statements are only incompatible with Craig’s view if one rejects molinism, which CSBI never rejects. If molinism is true, then we can speak of God “causing” and “choosing” without denying human freedom in composition.

Note that Craig himself seems to believe his model is compatible with CSBI. In his Defenders unit on the Doctrine of Revelation, Craig cites CSBI extensively. Consider the following excerpt, in which Craig claims that CSBI describes "exactly what the model of inspiration that I laid out affirms":

The claim of biblical inerrancy is that the Bible is truthful in all that it affirms or teaches. This understanding of biblical inerrancy comes to expression in the so-called Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. … Let me highlight a couple of points from the Chicago Statement. In their short statement, the second paragraph reads: "Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit [notice that is exactly what the model of inspiration that I laid out affirms – the Bible is God’s Word written by men who were prepared and superintended by God], is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms: obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises." (source)

Elsewhere, while quoting another passage from CSBI, Craig again pauses to emphasize that the Statement is expressing a view compatible with his model of inspiration.

"We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of His penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise." Remember we talked about a middle knowledge perspective on inspiration and how God would shape the whole cultural milieu and history of a writer like Paul so that he will freely compose the book of Romans. (source)

2) Licona affirmed that he does believe “our present critical texts of the OT and NT are inerrant in what they teach.” Nevertheless, in response to my argument concerning 1 Cor 7:21, Licona acknowledged that we cannot claim inerrancy for the Bible we read unless we add the caveat, "so long as our English translation is correct."

I remain unconvinced that our modern critical editions can be described as inerrant. Consider 1 Cor 14:34-35. As I have argued elsewhere, there is powerful internal evidence that these two verses are not authentic but are rather a later addition to the text that actually contradicts Paul’s teaching. On the other hand, there is powerful external evidence that these verses are authentic. (They are found in all of our manuscripts, though in some manuscripts they appear in a different location.) Scholars thus continue to disagree on the authenticity of these verses. Unless one judges that this complex debate has been settled, one cannot declare that our modern text is inerrant. In my view, such a judgment would be premature.


I appreciate Licona’s further clarification and engagement on this important topic. I do, however, remain unconvinced that CSBI is incompatible with Craig's model of verbal inspiration. I also remain unconvinced that we should extend the designation “inerrant” beyond the autographs.

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