Apologists debate what to do when Bible passages appear to contradict each other

Dialogue and debate over the nature of biblical inerrancy at the Southern Evangelical Seminary's 26th annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics, held Oct. 11-12 at Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. From left to right: Mike Licona, associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and president of Risen Jesus, Inc.; Frank Turek writer and radio host; and Richard G. Howe, professor emeritus of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary. | Facebook/Southern Evangelical Seminary

Two academics who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible held a debate over how to respond to claims of contradiction in scriptural passages.

Mike Licona, associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and president of Risen Jesus, and Richard G. Howe, Professor Emeritus of philosophy and apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary, held a dialogue last week at the SES’s 26th annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics.

Each gave a presentation followed by a debate moderated by writer and radio host Frank Turek before answering questions from the audience.

Licona went first, arguing that Christians should understand inerrancy “flexibly,” noting that certain passages in the Bible showcase literary devices of their time rather than being strictly literal.

“If you were a biographer in the first century, writing for readers living in the first century, about a person who had lived in the first century, would you use the literary conventions in play in the first century or those that did not come into play until more than fifteen hundred years later?” Licona posited

Licona gave examples, namely two passages from the Gospel of Matthew that appear to contradict other Gospel passages: the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13) and the cursing of the fig tree (Matthew 21:19).

Licona noted that other Gospels indicate that Matthew’s account mistakenly has the centurion coming to Jesus in person rather than sending servants and that the cursed fig tree withered later on rather than at once, as implied in Matthew.

“In these two stories, Matthew has simplified, he’s streamlined by altering some minor details,” continued Licona. “He conflates two events into one. He compresses events to have occurred over a shorter period of time. And he narrates words spoken by one person as those spoken by another.”

“But Matthew is using compositional devices that were commonly used in ancient biography in that day. In fact, many of those we use today even in our present conversations.”

During the dialogue between the two scholars, Howe later responded that passages like those in Matthew can be explained by better understanding the context of the passages.

For example, with the question of whether the centurion specifically approached Jesus, Howe argued that it could be explained by a figure of speech known as a “metonymy,” or replacing the name of one thing with the name of something else closely associated with it.

An example of this, noted Howe, would be the statement “the Sun hit Job on the head,” explaining that “well, the Sun didn’t hit Job on the head. Its 93 million miles away. The sunlight hit job on the head. But nobody says that’s an error.”

Howe also took issue with a claim made by Licona that Matthew conflated two events into one when describing the fig tree and it being cursed and withered, pointing to a modern example of what it could be.

Howe explained that when he calls up family after the conference and explains what happened, he will likely describe various notable things, but not give specific chronological order for them.  

“If one verse says ‘Jesus walked to Bethany,” and another verse said ‘He walked to Bethany, and another verse said ‘the Lord walked to Bethany,’ they all mean the same thing, even if the words are different,” Howe noted during the dialogue segment.

“It’s the meaning that I am trying to argue,” he continued, adding that “the Bible can’t affirm something that’s actually false.”

The dialogue between Licona and Howe was part of the conference held Oct. 11-12 at Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. The theme for this year’s conference was “Why Truth Still Matters” and had around 1,800 attendees.

Other speakers at the conference included radio host and author Michael Brown, Liberty University professor Gary Habermas, astronomer and Reasons to Believe President Hugh Ross, and Chip Ingram, apologist and president of Living on the Edge.

The conference also included a tribute to the late Norman Geisler, a theology professor and prolific apologist who died earlier this year at age 86.

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