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

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

by Vern S. Poythress


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All those who affirm the authority of Scripture will find in this volume great encouragement and insight as Poythress provides an arresting case for biblical inerrancy and stems the tide of skepticism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433528606
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 10/31/2012
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, University of Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books and articles on biblical interpretation, language, and science.

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Difficulties in the Gospels

In the centuries after the Bible was written, the church recognized that it was the word of God and treated its contents as trustworthy. But in modern times some people have come to question that conviction. Moreover, there are difficulties in some of the details in the Bible. For example, comparisons between accounts in the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, turn up a large number of differences, some of which are easy to appreciate positively, but others more difficult. In this book we are going to look at a sampling of these difficulties, with the goal of treating them in harmony with the conviction that the Bible is God's word.

We are looking at this topic partly because we can often learn more from the Bible if we consider difficulties carefully and do not merely skirt around them. But we will also try to lay out some principles for dealing with difficulties. Other books have considered the broad question of the historical reliability of the Gospels. Still other books have discussed the general issue of the authority of the Bible, and some of these books have done a very good job indeed.

The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible

Without re-covering the ground of these books, we may briefly summarize the teaching of the Bible on the subject of inspiration. The Bible is the word of God, God's speech in written form. What the Bible says, God says. Two classic texts summarize the meaning of inspiration.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16–17)

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet. 1:21)

In addition, Jesus testifies to the authority of the Old Testament in his explicit statements, in the ways that he quotes from and uses it, and in the way that he understands his own life as the fulfillment of it.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt. 5:17–18)

Scripture cannot be broken. (John 10:35)

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so? (Matt. 26:53)

If we claim to be followers of Christ, we should submit to his teaching.

Many aspects of Scripture testify to its divine origin. But it is through the Holy Spirit working inwardly in the heart that people become fully convinced that it is the word of God.

Dealing with Difficulties

When we have become convinced that the Bible is God's word, we can consider the implications. We can ask, How should we proceed in particular cases of difficulty when we come to the Bible with the conviction that it is God's speech to us?

My primary challenge in accomplishing this task is myself. I am a finite, fallible human being. I am also affected by remaining sin. And sin affects biblical interpretation. So I cannot be an ideal example. Of course, neither can anyone else subsequent to the apostles. God designed the church, the people of God, to work together. We strive together, "with all the saints," to comprehend "what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph. 3:18). We help one another. In particular, any contribution I may make builds on the insights of others before me. And if I do a good job, my contribution becomes in turn a source of help for others after me. So you must understand that this book represents part of a path toward a future fullness of knowledge, when we will know God "even as [we] have been fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12).


Because I am building on what others have done, I will not repeat the work of other people who have argued for the authority of the Bible as the word of God. Nor will we revisit the issues covered in my earlier book Inerrancy and Worldview. There I indicate ways in which an understanding and acceptance of the biblical worldview contributes to understanding the Bible positively and honoring its authority.

If we reckon with the fact that God is personal and that he rules the world personally, we have a personalistic worldview that has notable contrasts with the impersonalism that characterizes a lot of modern thinking. The robust personalism of the Bible helps to dissolve some difficulties that trouble modern people if they read the Bible against the background of modern impersonalism. This contrast between personalism and impersonalism is important when we deal with the Gospels. I will draw on the contrast when necessary, but will not repeat in detail the reasoning in the earlier book.

In addition, both this book and Inerrancy and Worldview rely on a broader understanding of God, science, language, history, and society, an understanding informed by the Bible and at odds with modern thinking. When we take biblical teaching seriously, it certainly leads to a revised approach to how we understand the Bible. But it also leads us to revise how we analyze virtually all modern ideas, including ideas about meaning and interpretation. We will draw on this understanding when needed, without reviewing the entire territory.


An Example: The Centurion's Servant

We begin with an example. Matthew 8:5–13 and Luke 7:1–10 contain accounts about Jesus's healing a centurion's servant. How do we deal with the differences? Here are the two accounts, side by side:


The most notable difference between the two accounts lies in the role of the "elders of the Jews" and the centurion's "friends" in Luke 7. There the elders and the friends serve as intermediaries; Luke does not indicate that the centurion meets Jesus face to face. By contrast, in Matthew 8 there is no mention of intermediaries. What do we say about this difference?

The Possibility of Multiple Events

In any case that deals with parallel passages we have to ask whether they recount the same incident or two different incidents. In this case there are many similarities between the two accounts. The centurion's speech given in Matthew 8:9 is almost identical to Luke 7:8. We can safely conclude that we are dealing with two accounts of one event. So there is a genuine difficulty.

A Solution by Several Stages of Events

We can profit from the insights of previous generations. Consider one solution that has been offered. Norval Geldenhuys and others have put forward the idea that there were several stages in the encounter between Jesus and the centurion. The centurion first sent elders of the Jews (Luke 7:3–5), then sent friends (Luke 7:6–8), then came in person and repeated some of what had been said earlier (Matt. 8:5–9). Geldenhuys gives this explanation:

When we bear in mind the parallel account in Matthew viii. 5–13, we must picture to ourselves that after the centurion had sent his friends to Jesus he also went to Him himself. Owing to the seriousness of the circumstances and his inner urge to go to Jesus himself, notwithstanding his feeling of unworthiness, he overcame his initial hesitation. Luke emphasises the fact that the centurion sent friends, while Matthew only states that the centurion went to Jesus. And so the two Gospels supplement each other.

This possibility results in a clean explanation in which Matthew and Luke each mention a complementary portion of the total interaction. Such an explanation is customarily called a harmonization, because it attempts to show that the two passages are in harmony.

Geldenhuys recognizes that there is still a minor difficulty. In Luke, the centurion states explicitly that he is unworthy (7:6), and that is why he has sent others instead: "Therefore I did not presume to come to you" (7:7). Yet, according to Geldenhuys, the centurion nevertheless changed his mind and did come in the end for a face-to-face meeting. On the surface, his coming in person appears to be in tension with his expressed plan not to come. But Geldenhuys supplies possible motivations by reminding us of the "seriousness of the circumstances," by postulating an "inner urge" to come to Jesus, and by labeling his original attitude "initial hesitation" rather than a firm resolve not to come because of his unworthiness. Is all this possible? It is. Human motivations and decision making are complex and often include some wavering or change of mind.

Geldenhuys's picture of the events also results in a certain notable repetition. In Luke 7:6–8 the friends give a speech expressing the centurion's request and his reasoning about authority. The same speech occurs in Matthew 8:8–9, using almost identical words. Geldenhuys's reconstruction interprets these accounts as records of two distinct speeches, one by the friends and one by the centurion in person. This too is possible since the friends were sent by the centurion, and the centurion told them what to say. In Geldenhuys's picture of the event, the centurion repeated in person what he had said to his friends earlier. We may ask why the centurion thought he had to repeat his speech, since his friends had already delivered it. But human motivations are complex. Particularly in a situation of distress, such as the emotional turmoil the centurion experienced, he might in spite of himself repeat what he knew had already been said.

So Geldenhuys's reconstruction of the events is possible. Is it the only possibility? Augustine and Calvin have offered another explanation.

Representatives Acting on Behalf of the Centurion

Saint Augustine in about AD 400 wrote The Harmony of the Gospels, in which he discussed a large number of difficulties. He believed that the Gospels have divine authority, and he consistently tried to show that the differences between the Gospels were not due to error but exhibited harmony. His work has formed the background for many later attempts. When comparing Matthew 8:5–13 and Luke 7:1–10, Augustine explains:

How can Matthew's statement that there "came to Him a certain centurion," be correct, seeing that the man did not come in person, but sent his friends? The apparent discrepancy, however, will disappear if we look carefully into the matter, and observe that Matthew has simply held by a very familiar mode of expression. ... This [the practice of using a representative or intermediary], indeed, is a custom which has so thoroughly established itself, that even in the language of every-day life ... [we call men] Perventores who ... get at the inaccessible ears, as one may say, of any of the men of influence, by the intervention of suitable personages. If, therefore access [to another person's presence] itself is thus familiarly [in everyday speech] said to be gained by the means of other parties, how much more may an approach be said to take place, although it be by means of others.

John Calvin offers a similar explanation:

Those who think that Matthew and Luke give different narratives, are led into a mistake by a mere trifle. The only difference in the words is, that Matthew says that the centurion came to him, while Luke says that he sent some of the Jews to plead in his name. But there is no impropriety in Matthew saying, that the centurion did what was done in his name and at his request. There is such a perfect agreement between the two Evangelists in all the circumstances, that it is absurd to make two miracles instead of one.

A more recent scholar, R. T. France, writes as follows:

His [Matthew's] omission of the means of the centurion's approach to Jesus is a valid literary device to highlight the message of the incident as he sees it (on the principle, common in biblical and contemporary literature, that a messenger or servant represents the one who sent him to the point of virtual identity).

As a further illustration of the principle, Craig Blomberg points to Matthew 27:26 and Mark 15:15.10 Both verses report that Pilate scourged Jesus; but, given the social and military protocol of the Roman world, Pilate would not have taken up the scourge in his own hands. The verses mean that Roman soldiers would have physically handled the scourge, acting on Pilate's orders. That is to say, the Roman soldiers represented Pilate because they acted under his authority. Pilate did scourge Jesus, though he did not do it "in person" but through representatives acting on his behalf. Likewise, the centurion really did address Jesus, but he did it by means of persons acting under his authority and on his behalf — the elders and friends represented him.

Is such a reconstruction of the events possible? According to Augustine and Calvin, it is. In fact, they obviously prefer it to a more elaborate reconstruction such as Geldenhuys offered. They regard their simpler reconstruction as more likely. Both Augustine and Calvin are vigorous defenders of the divine authority of the Bible. They express no doubts about the accounts being truthful and correct. Rather, they show that they assume each account to be true when they undertake to give an explanation that harmonizes the two. The main difference they have in comparison with Geldenhuys is that they consider the possibility that the centurion acted through representatives.

Though Augustine and Calvin think that their reconstruction is likely, it is still tentative. So is the reconstruction by Geldenhuys. We have the accounts in Matthew and Luke, which are inspired by God. They are what God says and are therefore trustworthy. That is the conviction we have and the basis on which we work. But we do not have a third account, also inspired, to tell us exactly how the original two accounts fit together. We make our own reasoned guesses, but they are fallible. We do not have complete information. Our reconstruction, though it may be plausible, is subordinate to the Gospel accounts as we have them.

Positive Role of Differences

We can also ask what positive contribution each Gospel record makes in its distinctiveness. The Gospel of Matthew offers a simpler account in some ways. It does not require the additional linguistic complexity that arises when an account makes explicit the roles of the elders of the Jews and the friends that the centurion sends. For example, the material in Luke 7:3–5 about the Jewish elders does not need to be present in Matthew's version, and Luke 7:6, which mentions the friends, finds a simpler analogue in Matthew 8:7. The statement in Luke 7:7, "Therefore I did not presume to come to you," is also not in Matthew. By omitting some details, Matthew puts greater concentration on the main point: Jesus has power to heal at a distance, merely by speaking a word.

Though Matthew's account is shorter, it does contain one significant piece that does not occur in Luke, namely Matthew 8:11–12: "I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." A similar saying occurs in Luke 13:28–30, in the context of a different episode.

In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.

In both passages Jesus warns hearers about religious presumption. In Matthew 8:5–13 the centurion's faith contrasts with the lack of faith within Israel (8:10). This contrast makes it appropriate for Jesus to warn Israelites not to presume on enjoying messianic salvation merely because they are Israelites, apart from faith on their part. Similarly, Luke 13:22–30 warns Israelites not to depend on the mere fact that Jesus ministered among them (13:26) or that they see themselves as heirs of the patriarchs (13:28).

Matthew shows repeated concern for the unique role of the Jews and the issue of Jewish rejection of Jesus. Matthew alone has the expression "sons of the kingdom": "the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness" (Matt. 8:12). These "sons of the kingdom" are Jews who are resisting his ministry. They have the privilege of having a certain nearness to "the kingdom," that is the kingdom of God, and yet, tragically, they "will be thrown into the outer darkness." Matthew alone includes the pointed threat, "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits" (Matt. 21:43). Matthew, more than the other Gospels, emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus (Matt. 1:1–17). Twice Jesus emphasizes his ministry "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10:6; 15:24). But Jews who presume on their heritage are in danger of being left out.


Excerpted from "Inerrancy and the Gospels"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Vern Sheridan Poythress.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part 1 The Challenge of Harmonization

1 Difficulties in the Gospels 13

2 An Example: The Centurion's Servant 17

Part 2 Principles for Harmonization

3 Initial Principles for Harmonization 27

4 History, Theology, and Artistry 33

5 The Historical Claims of the Gospels 40

6 The Authority of the Gospels 45

7 A Mental-Picture Theory 48

8 Truth in a Biblical Worldview 53

9 Truthfulness versus Artificial Precision 62

10 Variations in Writing History 66

Part 3 Attitudes in Harmonization

11 Confidence and Doubt 77

12 Seeking God 87

13 Limitations in Human Knowledge 90

14 Intellectual Suffering 96

15 Positive Purposes for Difficulties 106

Part 4 Special Issues in Harmonization

16 The Synoptic Problem 117

17 Temporal Order of Events 124

Part 5 Individual Cases

18 Cleansing the Temple 133

19 The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth 138

20 Cursing the Fig Tree 144

21 Commissioning the Twelve 149

Part 6 Reporting Speeches

22 Stilling the Storm 157

23 Variations in Citations 163

24 Meaning and Intention 174

25 Speech When Jesus Stills the Storm 180

26 Augustine on Reporting Speeches 189

27 The Rich Young Ruler 193

Part 7 More Cases

28 Raising Jairus's Daughter 203

29 Blind Bartimaeus 212

Conclusion 217

Bibliography 219

General Index 226

Scripture Index 232

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“I can think of no one in the world better qualified to write a defense of biblical inerrancy than my lifelong friend Vern Poythress. Serious Bible readers all recognize that there are differences between accounts of the same events in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and no responsible reader can simply sweep these differences under the rug. But can all of the accounts still be reconciled with a belief in biblical inerrancy? In this book, Poythress provides an outstanding resource that carefully analyzes every important Gospel passage where an inconsistency or a contradiction has been alleged. He draws on the rich resources of centuries of church history and his own remarkable wisdom in analyzing human linguistic communication to provide a sure-footed, thoughtful, humble, and even spiritually challenging guide to these key passages. This is the best book I know of for dealing with Gospel difficulties. It is profoundly wise, insightful, and clearly written, and it will surely strengthen every reader’s confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible as the very words of God.”
Wayne Grudem, Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies, Phoenix Seminary

“Shall we defend biblical inerrancy with arguments that are naïve and unconvincing? Or shall we assume that discrepancies among the Gospels cannot be resolved? Vern Poythress shows us that we need not make such a choice. Clear, convincing, accessible, practical, Inerrancy and the Gospels is everything we need in a book on this topic. While sharpening readers’ skill at harmonization, Poythress also develops a thoughtful, God-honoring foundation for addressing Gospel difficulties and the spiritual challenges that accompany them. I want every student, every pastor, and every skeptic I know to read this book—and recommend it to their friends.”
C. D. "Jimmy" Agan III, Associate Professor of New Testament, Director of Homiletics, Covenant Theological Seminary

“When Vern Poythress has chosen to write on a particular subject, the resulting book has always been (in my memory) the best book on that subject. This one is about the inerrancy of Scripture, dealing particularly with problems in the Gospel narratives, and I know of nothing better in the field. It is fully cogent, very helpful, linguistically sophisticated, and, above all, faithful to the Scriptures as the word of God.”
John M. Frame, J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

“It is all too common today to bemoan harmonization, but there is value in pursuing the real possibility that differences in the Gospels can and should be seen as complementing one another in their presentation of truth. Vern Poythress’s Inerrancy and the Gospels uses a self-authenticating approach to Scripture to argue that harmonization does give insight in how the Gospels work. This is a study well worth reading and considering regardless of whether one accepts the self-authenticating model or not.”
Darrell L. Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement, Howard G. Hendricks Center, and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

“Vern Poythress has the unique ability to make a complex subject understandable to anyone. In this book he tackles head-on the age-old issue of how to harmonize the four Gospels. In so doing, he helps us understand how they should be not only harmonized, but also appreciated for their unique and vital witness to the truths of the person and work of our incarnate Savior. This is an excellent introduction to the study of the Gospels.”
S. M. Baugh, Professor of New Testament, Westminster Seminary California

“Vern Poythress’s Inerrancy and the Gospels is of perennial value, but is especially timely given both the popularization of critical theories about the Gospels and the migration of some scholars from evangelical to critical approaches. He exemplifies his forebear Ned Stonehouse’s engagement with critical scholarship by not only playing defense, but also gleaning positive insights from synoptic comparisons. The hermeneutical principles that he articulates are in keeping with Scripture’s self-authenticating character and demonstrate a knowledge of contemporary developments in hermeneutics. The examples he uses to illustrate those principles are varied while including the typically most challenging harmonizations. Scholars and pastors alike who wish to understand and proclaim the unity and variety of the Evangelists’ witness will want to thoroughly digest what Dr. Poythress provides here.”
Michael J. Glodo, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Reformed Theological Seminary

“Let’s be honest. Bible-believing Christians sometimes struggle to understand apparent discrepancies in the Gospels. Poythress’s book Inerrancy and the Gospels is now on the top of my list to recommend to students who are seeking a biblically faithful resource on this issue. It is up-to-date, balanced, and historically informed. I plan to adopt Inerrancy and the Gospels as a required textbook for my New Testament survey course.”
Robert L. Plummer, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“In this work, Vern Poythress, one of evangelicalism’s leading proponents and defenders of inerrancy, traverses the difficult terrain of Gospel harmonization. With theological acumen and exegetical sensitivity, Poythress equips the reader with the categories, distinctions, and reading strategies needed to study the Gospels in the way that God has intended. The result is magnificent—Poythress shows us how a proper understanding of harmonization enhances our appreciation of the rich unity and diversity of the Gospels. I warmly commend this work to students, pastors, and scholars alike.”
Guy Prentiss Waters, James M. Baird Jr. Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary

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