Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Fig Tree that Withered Immediately & Scriptural Inerrancy - Part 1

I recently received an email from a student that went something like this:

Dear Sir,
I believe that the Scriptures are the divine inspired Word of God, but I also believe that because men were used to convey this Word, rather than God writing it Himself, it stands to reason that due to man's imperfect nature, there are some slight inconsistencies that however do not deter from the main themes and teachings and intents of the stories.
Specifically, Matthew and Mark's accounts of the triumphal entry don't agree. Matthew has Jesus curse the fig tree, which withers at once, and then go into the temple and cleanse it (Mat. 21). Mark has Jesus curse the fig tree, go cleanse the temple, and return the next day to find the tree withered (Mk 11). They can't both be right.
 Would you agree with me that this is a historical error?
My first thought was to show why the narratives are compatible and harmonious. My second thought was that I need to address the underlying assumptions this student is bringing to this discussion. I went with my second thought first.

Here's part of what I wrote:

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A Scripture-believer should bring the following assumptions to any discussion of apparent Scriptural discrepancies:

Theological Assumptions

If God says that Scripture represents what He intended to communicate (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16), then Scripture cannot contain errors, because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2) or err (Psa. 18:30).

God’s use of imperfect men would necessitate that Scripture be flawed if and only if humans are unable to communicate a message without error. Normal human experience demonstrates that humans are capable of communicating a message without error. Therefore, it is not a logical necessity or even a logical probability that a divine message communicated by humans will contain error. (For an excellent essay on the relationship of the human and divine in Scripture, see this piece by Kevin Bauder.)
 
The inerrancy of Scripture is not only a logical entailment of God’s nature, it is the implicit affirmation of God Himself in the person of the Son. Jesus states that we should believe “all” that the prophets wrote (Luke 24:25). Remember, Moses was a prophet (Deut. 34:10; Acts 7:37). Jesus also said that Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). Contextually, Jesus was speaking of the Hebrew Scriptures, yet it is in the OT, not the Synoptics, that some of the the most vexing issues of harmonization appear.

Epistemological Assumptions

We have undeniable evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection is the basis for our acceptance of His claims—to be the Christ, to be God, to be the Savior of the World. As One who spoke only the words that the Father taught Him, Jesus’ words have the authority of omniscience behind them. Once we accept Jesus’ authority as the Son of God, we have no legitimate basis for questioning the truthfulness of His claims.

In other words, our inability to see how certain details of Scripture can be harmonized internally or with external data cannot be a basis for rejecting them. To do so is to implicitly assert that we know enough to know that Jesus was wrong about the trustworthiness of Scripture. What our inability should teach us is that we are finite being with limited knowledge.

Ultimately, we have to ask, “Who is the ultimate arbiter of truth: our minds or God? Should finite, fallible, fallen men claim the right to pronounce as errant what God Himself has said ought to be believed?” This is, of course, precisely what we are doing if we assert that Scripture asserts something that should not be believed.

Hermeneutical Assumptions

As a rule of thumb for interpreting any author, we assume coherence until we encounter antimony (a necessary logical contradiction). When we have reason to believe that an author is trustworthy, but we have found what appears to be a contradiction, we should always explore possible ways in which the contradiction may be harmonized.

When God is the superintending agent in the production of what He calls "my word" (2 Pet. 1:19-21; Isa. 55:11, contradiction is not possible. Thus when I encounter an apparent contradiction in Scripture, I always assume that I am missing some key piece of data that, if I had it, would resolve the contradiction.
In the case you raised, a key problem is your assumption that both Matthew and Mark intended to present a chronological narrative. It is legitimate to assume an author is being chronological, but once there are deviations from chronology into topical or other sorts of arrangements, we must consider those options as well.

Implications for our Method of Understanding the Entailments of Inspiration

In summary, what I have just given are theological, epistemological, and hermeneutical reasons why I believe an inductive approach to understanding the entailments of inspiration is inadequate and should be rejected:
  1. We are limited in knowledge. This means that we can easily draw conclusions that appear to be valid but that are actually incorrect because we don't have all the data.
  2. Because we are limited in knowledge, our understanding of a doctrine which Scripture speaks to directly should be deductive not inductive. God cannot lie. God has spoken Scripture; therefore, Scripture cannot be false.
  3. We accept the necessarily implications of Scripture's claims on the basis of the authority of Jesus who told us to believe it (Luke 24:25).
  4. When we cannot reconcile those implications with our observations, we do not trust our minds, but God's Son who has authoritatively pronounced Scripture to be unbreakable (John 10:35). This does not mean that we do not do all we can to investigate empirically. But at the end of the day what should determine our beliefs is not our ability to explain everything, but our confidence that God's word is perfect because the omniscient, resurrected Son of God told us to believe it.
I believe D. A. Carson's comments on this issue are satisfactory:
“This story is found only here and in Mark, where it is split into two parts (11:12–14, 20–26), with the temple’s cleansing in between. Chronologically, Mark is more detailed. If the triumphal entry was on Sunday, then, according to Mark, the cursing of the fig tree was on Monday, and the disciples’ surprise at the tree’s quick withering, along with Jesus’ words about faith, were on Tuesday. Matthew has simply put the two parts together in a typical topical arrangement. He leaves indistinct (v. 20) the time when the disciples saw the withered fig tree, though he implies it was the same day. Compare the condensation in [Matthew] 9:18–25” (Carson, Matthew, EBC-rev).
A harmonization of Matthew's topical account and Mark's chronological account could look like this.

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My student wasn't convinced that Carson's comments were satisfactory ... finished in my next post.

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