A PK’s Review of “Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to Harmonization”

inerrancy-and-the-gospels-a-god-centered-approach-to-the-challenges-of-harmonizationI recently read the book, Inerrancy and the Gospels:A God-Centered Approach to Harmonization by Vern Poythress and found the book very insightful. Has anyone ever asked you why there are “discrepancies” in the Bible? Why two gospels record the same event with different details? Truth is, these difficult discrepancies exist and I wanted to know why. Harmonization is he process or method for formulating theories to explain the differences. Vern Sheridan Poythress, a professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, has written a refreshing book outlining theological frameworks for approaching harmonization within the gospels. I particularly enjoyed this book because while examples modeling harmonization with gospel examples lace the text, this book is not simply another book of mere harmonization attempts, but a work calling readers to “revise how we analyze virtually all modern ideas, including ideas about meaning and interpretation” (16).


Poythress divides the book into seven parts, each with sub-chapters providing either further explanation of the harmonization principle presented, or examples of harmonization efforts using the discussed principle. Part One: The Challenge of Harmonization acknowledges difficulties in the gospels do exist while affirming biblical inspiration and authority. It is important to note, Poythress requires a presupposed “personalistic worldview” in his dealings with the Gospels (15). Part Two: Principles for Harmonization provides the necessary principles for harmonization. Assuming acceptance of inspiration and authority, Poythress reminds his readers the Gospels are not merely historical accounts and warns against “demanding an artificial precision” (62) in texts where “divine meaning actually precedes the events themselves” (36). Part Three: Attitudes in Harmonization philosophically presents the limitations of human knowledge juxtaposed to the mystery contained in God’s infinity (91). Resting in affirmations of authority and inspiration result in acceptance of the ultimacy and truthfulness of each Gospel account as they were written. The Synoptic Problem, or literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is addressed in Part Four: Special Issues in Harmonization. Part Five: Individual Cases uses the principles discussed up to this point and attempts to handle events such as the cleansing of the temple, the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth, the cursing of the fig tree, and the commissioning of the twelve disciples. Part Six: Reporting Speeches highlights the meaning and intention of the Gospel writers in how they included or excluded detailed material. In establishing the framework for harmonization attempts of the speeches contained in the Gospels, Poythress claims, “Our primary principle is that God is reliable. So all three accounts faithfully represent the events, including what Jesus and his disciples said” (180). Finally, Part Seven: More Cases deals with two specific cases, that of Jairus’s daughter and blind Bartimaeus, using the principles and framework Poythress encourages.


If the reader presently affirms inerrancy of Scripture, then this book is a great choice for encouragement. While many books covering harmonization principles first validate the inerrancy of Scripture, Poythress begins from a presupposition of inerrancy and therein lays its distinctiveness in its field. “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” (13).  This approach to Scripture, presupposing the New Testament’s own claims to authority and inerrancy can be somewhat limited in scope and influence. Those whom the Holy Spirit has already provided internal witness for authority and truth can benefit from this approach to harmonization: a process Poythress explains (46). However, convincing the skeptic of logical harmonization possibilities without first arguing for the historical accuracy of the Gospels, might not prove as valuable. Poythress’ presupposition is not to be regarded as an exclusive approach to harmonization as he regularly points to other works dealing with the processes and apologetics involved in affirmation of inerrancy and authority of the Bible (13, 15, 27-30).

Another significant critique concerns the larger influence of presuppositional approaches to apologetics. Attempts at harmonization are an apologetic endeavor and often, those seeking the answers to difficult passages are not working under a biblically authoritative worldview. Poythress does mention the goal of apologetics in harmonization, but only briefly in the broader context of the book. He states,

“Harmonization work in past centuries, including the work of Augustine and Calvin, frequently had an apologetic focus. It aimed to defend the Bible against charges of inconsistency and error. This goal is legitimate since being faithful to God includes trusting what he says. Harmonization efforts could influence both Christian believers and those who do not yet believe. These efforts may help believers overcome doubts, and they may help non-Christians consider seriously the claims of the Christian faith”(47).


The impact of Poythress’ approach is limited to only those who share a presuppositional affirmation of inerrancy and authority resulting in limited influence. Even so, those limitations do not decrease the book’s value. Approaching the Scriptures as authoritative allows the reader to interpret conflicts in the Gospels with flexibility. The Gospels are foundationally essential for both new believers and veteran Christians. Followers of Christ are called to, “Always be ready to answer everyone who asks you to explain about the hope you have” (1 Pet. 3:15).[1] In order to give an appropriate defense, we as believers need to study the principles of harmonization because like Poythress rightly claims, scripture is ontologically, epistemologically, and ethically definitive (45, 46).

[1] Unless otherwise noted, the English Standard Version will be used.


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