Geisler’s Denial of Inerrancy–The “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”

by Max Andrews

Norman Geisler has recently released a new addition to his “Licona Letters” condemning Mike Licona.  Geisler is very emphatic that there be a differentiation between inerrancy and interpretation.  Under this Geislerian understanding of inerrancy, interpretation and inerrancy simply have a formal distinction but are essentially conflated.

[Such] a disjunction of interpretation from inerrancy as Licona makes is contrary to the nature of truth itself…. So, a formal distinction between interpretation and inerrancy does not mean there is an actual separation of the two.[1]

Additionally, Geisler argues contra Licona[2] that the grammatico-historical hermeneutic is neutral.  Geisler argues:

[The grammatico-historical] method does not approach the Bible with a historically neutral stance.  After all, it is not called the “literal” method for nothing.  It assumes there is a sensus literalis (literal sense) to Scripture.   In short, it assumes that a text should be taken literally unless there are good grounds in the text and/or in the context to take it otherwise.  As a matter of fact, we cannot even know a non-literal (e.g., allegorical or poetic) sense unless we know what is literally true.  So, when Jesus said, “I am the vine” this should not be taken literally because we know what a literal vine is, and we know that Jesus is not one.  Further, the literal [grammatico-historical] method does not reject the use of figures of speech or even symbolic language.  It only insists that the symbols have a literal referent.  For example, John speaks of literal angels as “stars” (Rev. 1:20) and a literal Satan as a “red dragon” (Rev. 12:3).  However, the literal [grammatico-historical] method does not allow one to take a literal historical persons (like Adam) or events (like a resurrection) as not literal history.

There are two problems.  The first is Geisler’s need for a referent in non-literal cases.[3]  Licona’s interpretation of Matthew’s raised saints being [possibly] non-literal, poetic, or apocalyptic would have a referent, which would make Licona’s interpretation completely consistent with Geisler’s requirement.  The referent would be the death of Christ, namely that an important person had died making an incredibly important historical event.  Secondly, as we’ll see shortly, Geisler violates his own requirement by changing his “interpretation” of two important texts concerning abortion.  See footnote 19.

In Geisler’s 1971 book, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, Geisler argued that abortion was justifiable for four circumstantial reasons: 1) Abortion of Therapeutic Reasons, 2) Abortion of Eugenic Reasons, 3) Abortion in Conception Without Consent, and 4) Abortion in Conception by Incest.[4] Geisler goes on to argue that certain abortions are not as serious as murder and not necessarily murder because an unborn baby is nor fully human and is a potential human.  Geisler gives biblical arguments from Scriptures as to why abortion may be justifiable in certain circumstances.  He goes on to state that such matters are subject to the rule of Scripture.

The Scriptural passages of interest here are Exodus 21.22[5] and Psalm 139.13-15.[6]  Geisler makes the distinction between the killing of an unborn baby and a born baby or child.  He then uses Exodus 21.12 to show that a murderer was to be executed for the taking of the life.[7]  With regards to the psalm, Geisler argues that we shouldn’t put too much into this poetical description of an embryo.  His goal here is to demonstrate that the embryo is not sub-human but is only potentially human and different from any other appendage in the female body.[8]

Now, let’s consider Geisler’s revised 1989 edition.[9] Concerning Exodus 21 Geisler completely contradicts himself in his first edition.  He argues that this passage

does not teach that a fetus is a potential human.  Neither can this be legitimately inferred from the passage.  The Hebrew word for “come forth” is yahtzah, which means “to give birth.” It is the Hebrew word regularly used for live birth in the Old Testament. Hence, in this passage it refers to a live premature birth, not a miscarriage.  The separate Hebrew word for miscarriage, shakol, is not used here.  The word used for the mother’s offspring here is yeled, which means “child.” … If any harm came to either the mother or the child the same punishment was given, “life for life” (v. 23).  This reveals that the unborn was considered of equal value with the mother.[10]

Considering Psalm 139 Geisler argues against his previous position stating that this psalm argues in strong favor of the unborn life being fully human.

 “Unformed (v. 16) does not mean unhuman any more than deformed does.  The baby in the womb is referred to as “created” (bara), the word used of mankind in Genesis 1.27 to denote their being made in the “image of God.’  The unborn is referred to by personal pronouns (Jer. 1.5), and the unborn is “known” by God in the womb, a term implying personal relationship.  Each unborn child in the womb is also written down in God’s book in heaven.

Geisler provides other conflicting accounts for why abortion is permitted in some cases and why it would be wrong in others.[11]  My biggest concern is Geisler’s use of Scripture.  For the sake of organization and reference I’ve provided a simple list below for ease in comparison.

Ethics 1971

Exodus 21.22.

  • “An unborn baby is not fully human.”[12]
  • “In the case of killing a [born] baby, child, or adult there was more than a fine exacted—the life of the murderer.”[13]

Psalm 139.13-15.

  • “A human embryo is a potentially [sic] human being.”[14]

Ethics 1989

Exodus 21.22.

  • “Exodus 21 does not teach that a fetus is a potential human being.  Neither can this be legitimately inferred from the passage.”[15]
  • “If any harm came to either the mother or the child, the same punishment was given, ‘life for life.’”[16]
  • “[This] reveals that the unborn was considered equal value with the mother.”[17]

Psalm 139.13-15.

  • “Psalm 139 is strong support of the view that the unborn are fully human, not potentially human.”[18]

Geisler uses the exact same texts to argue for anti-abortion as he did for pro-abortion. In other words, he uses texts A and B to support abortion in the original and the same texts to support anti-abortion in the revised edition.[19]  Geisler has also pronounced a strong anti-abortion view in his  “Conservative Agenda.” When speaking of abortion he argues that the anti-abortion is wrong and the right to life is a “God-given moral absolute” and that “there should be absolutely no doubt about the wrongness of giving capital punishment to innocent babies by abortion!”[20]

There are two important questions that Geisler must answer:

1.  Did you believe in inerrancy when you wrote the first edition of Ethics: Alternatives and Issues?

2. Since you have changed your mind regarding the interpretation of the biblical texts, were you unconsciously denying inerrancy when you wrote the first edition? (Since you used the same biblical texts to condone abortion in one and condemn it in another).

If interpretation and inerrancy are one in the same then it seems Geisler was unconsciously denying inerrancy in 1971.  Also, if Geisler was unconsciously denying inerrancy then he was denying inerrancy when he framed and signed the ICBI!  In fact, he may be denying inerrancy now because he had a certain authorial intent when writing ICBI and that intent condoned abortion.  You can’t change authorial intent when your opinions change.  Remember, Geisler can’t say his interpretation changed because interpretation and inerrancy cannot be separated.  (Please note, this is simply using the Geislerian view of inerrancy, which is largely incapable of make a line of demarcation between inerrancy and hermeneutics.)  At one time or another Geisler has denied inerrancy by his own requirements and definition:  Either in 1971 or today.  Whichever one it is it’s very problematic.  If it’s the first disjunct then it may affect his understanding and intent of ICBI.  If it is the second disjunct then Geisler has no right to be attacking Licona.  The best explanation seems to be that Geisler has shot himself in the foot on Licona and inerrancy.  For Evangelicals, this is the “shot heard ’round the world.”

[1] Geisler, “Licona’s Denial of Inerrancy:  The List Grows” (accessed December 29, 2011).

[2] In Geisler’s “The List Grows” he further states,

“Thus, Licona’s point is invalidated when he wrote: “I hope that it has become clear in this paper that my intent was not to dehistoricize a text Matthew intended as historical. If I had, that would be to deny the inerrancy of the text. Instead, what I have done is to question whether Matthew intended for the raised saints to be understood historically” (emphasis added).  But this presumption is contrary to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic and begs the question in favor of Licona’s “new historiographical approach.”  For presuming a historical narrative is non-historical until proven historical is a radical presupposition that is contrary to everyday life and to the literal historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture which an ICBI view of inerrancy demands.”

Geisler commits a profound category error.  Geisler assumes that a historical narrative cannot contain any other non-literal elements. If Matthew intended the raising of the saints to be poetic or non-literal then to suggest that this makes Matthew’s entire narrative non-historical is the error.  Matthew meta-narrative is categorically historical but may contain sub-categories of other literary elements.  This is also granting Geisler’ categorization of Matthew as a historical narrative instead of a Greco-Roman biography.  Even more problems are raised for Geisler when the genre of Matthew is merely a historical narrative.  If the synoptics change the order of events to be achronological then these cannot be purely historical narratives (unless historical narrative has an ad hoc definition of allowing varying accounts and different events to take place allowing for every event to literally change from account to account).  It’s generally agreed upon that the synoptics (and John) have a theological agenda and include/exclude details and altering details to depict theological aspects of the life of Christ. But, again, if Geisler accepts these theological differentials in the gospels as well then what allows him to do so without having conflicting requirements and without violating a category error?  Geisler has simply created a quagmire of hermeneutical problems here; he fills one hole by digging two more holes.

[3] This completely ignores authorial intent for the author could have had the referent in mind but may be completely ignorant to us.

[4] Norm Geisler, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 218-23.

[5] “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined…” According to the Law of Moses, the killing of an unborn baby was not considered a capital offense. Ibid., 218.

[6] “For thou dist form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb… Thou knowest me right well; my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.”

[7] Ibid., 218-19.

[8] Ibid., 219.

[9] Geisler, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989).

[10] Geisler, 1989. 145. Emphasis mine.

[11] In Geisler’s later edition he makes no references or footnotes indicating a reason for his different use of Scripture or explanation as to why he changed it.

[12] Geisler, 1971, 218.

[13] Ibid., 218-19.

[14] Ibid., Emphasis his.

[15] Geisler, 1989, 145.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[19] It seems Geisler violates his own requirements for literal and non-literal language. Also, note his use of genre.  Why is it that Geisler is allowed to change his interpretation of these passages without violating ICBI’s grammatico-historical method of exegesis and inerrancy?

[20] Geisler, (accessed December 23, 2011).

10 Responses to “Geisler’s Denial of Inerrancy–The “Shot Heard ‘Round the World””

  1. What a frustrating situation. I hate it when I have high respect for an individual, then they seem to go off the deep-end on something. I hope Dr. Geisler just forgets about it and goes on to more productive things, but that’s just wishful thinking.

  2. Very interesting. I would not have known Dr. Geisler once held a view that supports abortion. The good news is that he has shot himself in the foot as far as I can see. The better news is that Dr. Geisler repented of his stance from the 70s. The bad news is he will find a way out of this in order to save face; inhibit variant viewpoints of Scripture; and not admit he is wrong. Virtually 100% of us disagree with Dr. Licona on this strange passage, and Norm knows this. We can appreciate his concern over skeptics finding any ammunition, but all the evidence needs to be presented for truth to be discovered. Norm should lay off his tweets concerning A Christmas Carol parody which just drives home the final point of the viral video; follow @RichardLuciano1 (shameless plug) and do some do some deep, prayerful, soul searching. We should wrestle over Scripture, but not divide the Church over an unorthodox interpretation of a non-fundamental. This debate is a hair’s breadth from calling Michael Licona a heretic, to the shame of Norman Geisler.

  3. My understand is Geisler’s first edition of Ethics: Alternatives and Issues also advanced some sort of “premarital sex equals marriage” position, which he also no longer holds to.

  4. Thanks for this Max. I think right now Geisler is really having to go into damage control mode. I love the letters he’s putting up lately. Anonymous person says X, therefore we should believe X.

    Just look at Geisler’s homepage. You’d think Mike Licona is the biggest threat to evangelical Christianity there is.

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