Harmonizing the Gospels 101 - Part I


Click Here for Parts I, II and III - Harmonizing the Gospels 101

In our study of John thus far, we have encountered a number of narratives that also appear in the synoptic Gospels.
• We have found that differences between John’s account and the synoptic Gospels are quite common.
• Our lesson last week, the triumphant entry, was one such example.

In light of these differences, it is time to have a primer on the discipline of Gospel Harmonization.
• Doing so will strengthen our view of the reliability of Scripture and provide for us an apologetic against those who mischaracterize the differences.
• And it will provide for us a foundation from which to approach apparent errors and contradictions in Scripture.

Inerrancy and Harmonization:
Before we get into definitions and methods, a fundamental relationship needs to be addressed.
• There is a direct relationship between one’s view of inerrancy and one’s view of harmonization.
• In other words, the extent of harmonization one thinks is necessary is related to one’s view of inerrancy.
• The more demanding one’s view of inerrancy the more crucial harmonization becomes.
• Conversely, the lower one’s view of inerrancy the more irrelevant harmonization becomes.

An illustration will help tease this relationship out.
• My brother has a very demanding view of the reliability of computers.
• He seems to think that they should never have glitches, crashes, hiccups, etc.
• This view is based on wishful thinking, ignorance or a caricature; it is not based on actual computers.
• His view persists because he has invested very little time in learning the “ins” and “outs” of computers.
• Therefore he has virtually no ability to trouble shoot and solve problems.
• As a result of his expectations, when the smallest problem arises he has a fit, and concludes that computers are useless and should be thrown out.

By contrast, I have a more realistic view of computers.
• I know how they work, know their strengths and weaknesses and know how to trouble shoot.
• My expectation of computers is based on knowing computers, not on wishful thinking or some caricature of what someone thinks a computer should be.
• As a result of my view, when problems occur I am not put off; I simply look for a solution or work-around.
• I recognize the value and importance of computers and never suffer any disillusionment with them.

We will see that contained in the two orthodox views of inerrancy and harmonization are implications very similar to the above two views just illustrated.

The most important takeaway I hope to give you in the course of this discussion is this:
• Our view of harmonization needs to reflect what the Gospel writers would expect, not what we would expect in the 21st century.
• In other words, we need to let the Gospel writers themselves and their methods of teaching and transmitting God’s Word inform our view of harmonization not modern, outside influences.

What is needed:
The information needed to arrive at a properly informed view of Harmonization is extensive.
• With respect to the Gospels, for example, considerations have to be given to how knowledge was learned and transmitted.
• This would involve such things as individual and collective memorization, the role of eyewitness testimony, oral history, oral tradition and literary styles such as historiographies and biographies.
• And it would involve not only seeing these things in a Jewish context but also in a Greek context.
• And, of course, there are the theological and supernatural considerations.

Fortunately, scholars have done all the leg work for us.
• All we will do here is synthesize and summarize their insights.
• But first, we will begin with definitions.


Some terms relevant to our discussion are inspiration, inerrancy and harmonization.
• Because each flows from the other, we need to know what they all mean.

“By inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers which rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or which resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God” – Millard Erickson.

Inspiration is directly taught in Scripture:
• 2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV) — 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
• 2 Peter 1:19–21 (ESV) — 19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 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.

And that what the Apostles taught was considered God’s Word (and thus inspired) is also taught in Scripture:
• 2 Peter 3:2 (ESV) — 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles,
    o The apostles transmission was both oral and written.
• 2 Peter 3:15–16 (ESV) — 15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
• 1 Thessalonians 2:13 (ESV) — 13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
• 1 Corinthians 14:37 (ESV) — 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.

The Doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture is straight forward.
• The concern is simply, if “it should be shown that the Bible is not fully truthful, our view of inspiration would also be in jeopardy” – Millard Erickson.
Understanding that Scripture is the “fully truthful” inspired Word of God, the question arises what does it mean to be “fully truthful”?
• This is the question inerrancy.

Unlike the Doctrine of Inspiration, “the doctrine of biblical inerrancy [is not] explicitly affirmed or taught in the Bible” – Erickson.
• It is a logical implication of the Inspiration of Scripture and the attributes of God.
• And to simplfy the discussion, we will narrow down the orthodox views to just two.

Two Orthodox Views on Inerrancy (Erickson):
• (1) Absolute Inerrancy – This view holds that when the Bible writers spoke of something, whether it was science, history, or anything else, they intended to make “fully true” statements.
    o Under this view, “apparent discrepancies can and must be explained”.
    o This is the literal or wooden view.
    o That the Bible speaks of the “sun rising” is problematic for this view.
    o There are those who currently argue that the earth is at the center of the universe.
• (2) Full Inerrancy – This view also holds that the Bible makes “fully true” statements.
    o But it qualifies this position.
    o References to science, history, etc. “are reported the way they appear to the human eye. They are not necessarily exact; rather, they are popular descriptions, often involving general references or approximations. Yet they are correct. What they teach is essentially correct in the way they teach it” – Millard Erickson.
    o From a human perspective, the sun rises.
    o This view understands Scripture to be without error in its original manuscripts and from the perspective of the writers, not necessarily with 21st century precision – context is king.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy expands on Full Inerrancy this way:

We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of his penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise. 
So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: Since, for instance, nonchronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed
The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of irregularities of grammar or
spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (for example, the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. It is not right to set the so-called “phenomena” of Scripture against the teaching of Scripture about itself. Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.
So it is in light of these CSBI comments Millard Erickson can state:
• “The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms. This definition reflects the position earlier termed full inerrancy” – Millard Erickson.

Unorthodox views of Inerrancy:
• Though not relevant to our discussion on harmonization, there are a number of unorthodox views.
• Some examples include views that hold that the Bible is without error only as it concerns salvation; the Bible is not a revelation from God and so Inerrancy is not an issue; the Bible is not a collection of propositional truths it simply “points us to a person-to-person encounter” with the faith community; etc.
• Under these views harmonization is not a concern or an issue.

Inerrancy Summary:
It is seems obvious that trying to Harmonize Scripture holding to the Absolute Inerrancy view could prove to be problematic.
• This view is similar to my brother’s view of computers.
• This view could easily lead to frustration and disillusionment with God or Scripture.
• The Full Inerrancy view, by contrast, taking into account all that it does, might provide a more realistic view of Scripture.
• As such, it might allow for a less stressful relationship between Inerrancy and Harmonization.
• We will explore this soon enough.

Now we can move on to Harmonization.

Harmonization is simply the method by which we account for apparent errors or contradictions in Scripture.
• Millard Erickson gives us two primary orthodox views of Harmonization.
• Both hold that Harmonization is a direct corollary of Inerrancy which is a direct corollary of the Doctrine of Biblical Inspiration, as previously discussed.

Two Orthodox Views on Harmonization:
• (1) Harmonistic Approach – This view acknowledges the problem texts and holds that all can be resolved using “currently available information”.
    o And not only can they be harmonized, they must be harmonized.
    o If they aren’t harmonized, damage is done up the line – lack of Harmonization leads to holes in Inerrancy which causes problems with Inspiration.
• (2) Moderate Harmonistic Approach – This view acknowledges the problem texts and holds that most can be solved “as far as reasonably possible with the data currently available”.
    o It understands that additional relevant information may come to light to help harmonize those texts for which no current reasonable solution is found.
    o But it also acknowledges that some of the data needed to harmonize may be lost.
    o Therefore, given the data we currently have, it might be that not everything can be harmonized.
    o And the fact that Harmonization might have limits in no way damages Inerrancy and Inspiration.

It should be fairly obvious that the Harmonistic Approach is wedded to the Absolute Inerrancy view.
• Likewise, the Moderate Harmonistic Approach is wedded to the Full Inerrancy view.

It should also be obvious that the Harmonistic Approach is under the most pressure to Harmonize.
• As a result of this pressure, Millard Erickson says, “The harmonistic school has in many cases done a real favor to the cause of biblical scholarship by finding creative solutions to problems. To insist on reconciling all of the problems by utilizing the currently available data, however, appears to me to lead to forced handling of the material.”
• Richard Bauckham says that attempts to force harmonization, “denies each Gospel the integrity of its own distinctive portrayal of Jesus. It creates harmony too soon, before the diversity has even been noticed.”
• Moreover, we have to wonder if the text itself is asking us to harmonize it on such a grandiose scale.

Consider the following:
• We know that Matthew and Luke shared Mark as a source.
• And Matthew and Luke also shared another source, “Q”.
• It is also suggested that Peter, who served as Mark’s primary source, also had influence in at least one other Gospel (John – according to Richard Bauckham).
• Yet, in spite of all this commonality and familiarity the Gospels have substantial differences.
• The Gospel writers certainly knew about them; they were the ones that made them.
• So, apparently the differences were not a problem for them.   
• In fact, “By presenting us with four portrayals that are not harmonized already for us, the texts keep us seeking the Jesus to whom all four portrayals are reliable but not exhaustive witnesses” – Bauckham.

Couldn’t they see they were hurting their cause and damaging their claims that Scripture is Inspired?
• They weren’t idiots; they could have simply decided, “I need to fix my story of the Rich Young Ruler, it doesn’t quite match up with Mark’s version”.
• Or, “If we are going to make up something about this Jesus fellow, it would be more credible if all of us were in agreement about the details”.
But they didn’t; Why not?

The answer to this question is found in the answer to the following question:
Are there good reasons to go with the Full Inerrancy/Moderate Harmonistic Approach over the Absolute Inerrancy/Harmonistic Approach?
• And the answer to this question relates directly to the options available to us in our harmonization efforts.

We will attempt to answer this question by getting a handle on how God’s Word was transmitted.
• As we stated in the introduction, there are a great many variables relevant to this issue.
• So once we delve into these variables, we will then examine the options available to us in the harmonization process.
• And then finally, we will see how these options help us harmonize specific examples.