Evangelical Scholars Remove Robert Gundry for His Views on Matthew
This article originally ran in the February 3, 1984, issue of Christianity Today
"As one of the five founders of the Evangelical Theological Society, with a heavy heart I officially request that Dr. Robert Gundry submit his resignation, unless he retracts his position on the historical trustworthiness of Matthew's Gospel."
Thus Roger Nicole, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, brought to a decisive climax a controversy that has been brewing for several years in the 35-year-old society of evangelical scholars.
Standing at a microphone in the packed dining room on the ninth floor of the Spurgeon Harris Building on the campus of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas, Nicole was asking for the resignation of the bald, bespectacled, erudite professor of New Testament and Greek at Santa Barbara's Westmont College.
Robert Gundry is the author of Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Eerdmans,1982), a mammoth 652-page study of the first Gospel that has stirred the opposition of conservatives everywhere because of the enthusiastic use it makes of the scholarly technique in biblical studies known as "redaction criticism." This discipline presupposes that the four Evangelists, especially Matthew and Luke, have adapted the deeds and words of Jesus to fit the life and experiences of their readers. For example, redaction critics would argue that Matthew adapted his prose to the rocky topography of Palestine and quoted Jesus as saying the wise man "built his house upon the rock" (Matt. 7:24). Luke, writing perhaps for readers in Greece, with its thick soil, felt it necessary to have Jesus specify that the man "dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock" (Luke 6;48).
Even more controversial has been Gundry's suggestion that in the "infancy narratives" (Matt. 1, 2) and elsewhere Matthew uses a Jewish literary genre called midrash. Like many preachers today, the writer of a midrash embroidered historical events with nonhistorical additions. When, for example, a preacher in a sermon quotes the conversation between Adam and Eve in the garden, he is embroidering a biblical text to help his hearers understand a point, but his hearers do not reject what he says simply because the conversation is not historical.
Similarly, Gundry argues, Matthew has freely changed stories that are related more historically in Luke. Gundry says, for example, Matthew changed the shepherds in the fields into the wise men from the East because he wants to foreshadow and emphasize the mission of Jesus to the Gentiles. Gundry does not believe wise men visited Jesus.
Writing in the current issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Norman Geisler, professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary and the chief organizer of the effort to expel Gundry from ETS membership, rejects midrash in the Bible. "Any hermeneutical or theological method the logically necessary consequences of which are contrary to or undermine confidence in the complete truthfulness of all of Scripture is unorthodox," Geisler argues.
In a rejoinder, Gundry writes, "I deny in some texts what would be the literal, normal meaning for a reader who assumes a modern standard of history, but not what I believe to be the literal, normal meaning for the original audience, or even for a modern audience that is homiletically oriented."
At the very hub of the controversy is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. All 1,698 members of the from ETS, who must have at least a master's degree in theology for full membership, annually sign a creedal statement that distinguishes them from members of such more inclusive scholarly bodies as the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, both of which met in Dallas the following week. That statement says, "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and is therefore inerrant in the autographs."