Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization

Vern Sheridan Poythress Crossway, Wheaton, IL October 31, 2012
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The Gospel narratives fascinate most Christians. Yet when they find conflicting accounts within the Gospels, they may wonder about inerrancy. Most evangelicals approach this problem through harmonization. The concept of representation, or what Poythress calls a “mental-picture theory,” forms the basis for this approach. Each Evangelist wrote from a different perspective and emphasized different elements for the purpose of his own story. The reader must approach these differences with a degree of flexibility or variability. However, if a reader views the Gospels with a level of rigidity, a difference between the accounts will appear as an error. Poythress points to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which allows for variations in reported speeches that are assumed to be indirect reporting, or are not said to be exact quotations. He examines this position with Jesus’ temptation, in which the devil quoted the Old Testament verbatim but gave the verse a different meaning (pp. 178–79).

Poythress’s approach to harmonization is not new, but the value of the book is his discussion of harmonizing of the Gospels as inerrant documents. Many modern-day biblical critics approach the text with a level of neutrality and autonomy, thereby hoping to avoid any prejudice and to read the text objectively. However, the assumption that one can read the Bible from a neutral perspective is itself a prejudice. Critics argue that the logic of inerrancy is circular; it presupposes divine authorship and therefore should be read with the assumption that it is without error. But Poythress points out that modern-day critics make a similar argument by appealing “to autonomy to establish autonomy” (p. 86).

Poythress’s view recognizes that revelation is limited and that some of the difficulties in the Gospels may never be resolved, partly because readers today do not have access to all the data. When a piece of evidence is left out, the reader has to maintain faith that God is good and the Scriptures are inerrant. Even though there may not be a good solution to a particular issue in the Gospels, the inerrantist can rely on the fact that though one’s perspective is limited, the Bible is without error.

This discussion of harmonization is fascinating, but the scope of the book is somewhat limited, focusing mostly on evangelical works. Poythress rarely refers to critics who do not hold to inerrancy. This allows him to maintain a positive presentation of his material and not get bogged down in debate. Also the nine Gospel accounts Poythress chose to discuss are not necessarily the narratives that are most often debated. If readers are looking for a particular example, they may need to rely on other works, but they should also refer to Poythress’s principles, and his discussion of approaching the Gospels from the position of inerrancy is worth the price of the book.

—Benjamin I. Simpson

April 1, 2013
 

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Academic reviews come from DTS's academic journal, Bibliotheca Sacra, and popular reviews are from DTS's magazine, Kindred Spirit.