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Responding to William Lane Craig’s Attack on Biblical Inerrancy

A reader asks about Peter’s three denials of Christ

Published: 16 January 2021 (GMT+10)

Daniel C. writes in response to William Lane Craig on creation and anthropology:


I am disappointed with the article. The secular world is taking up more and more ground and Christians need to stick together despite our differences. You may disagree with sindonologists, with Christian philosophers such as Craig and Zacharias, with preachers such as Billy Graham, with folks whose interpretation of the Word of God differs from yours on some point, and with many others who are defending the Christian faith. For crying outloud, none of us are perfect, but in many ways these folks are called to preach Christ! Stop attacking our brothers in Christ and move your guns towards the secular world instead.

Paul Price, CMI–US, responds:

Dear Daniel,

Thanks for reading our article and taking the time to write in. I must admit I find your response confusing. It seems like it would have been much better for you to address this concern to Dr Craig, and not to us. You say the secular world is taking more and more ground. We agree! The evolutionary worldview is what has enabled that takeover. You say we need to stick together as Christians. We agree! Compromisers like Drs Craig and Swamidass are the ones guilty of caving in to the secular claims and introducing new false doctrines into the church. You say we need to move our guns toward the secular world, but how can we actually do that if we, the church, are not united in standing against secularism? The Bible is not compatible with evolution. Those who seek to force a compromise are the ones guilty of being divisive.

Ryan S. asks:

I got this is my email and decided to read it [see link in footnotes]1.

I don’t agree with this. If scripture is wrong on the small things, then there is no reason to think it’s right on the big things. I have read your article on the smallest seed so that is not a problem, but Peter’s denials seem to be a big problem and the only article I could find was this one [see footnotes]2 and it basically says it’s not reconcilable which I don’t believe.

Please help, thank you.

Paul Price responds:

Ryan, you are right not to accept what Dr Craig is saying in that article. His decline into a denial of the traditional doctrine of biblical inerrancy (by redefining it in terms of what the Bible allegedly intends to ‘teach’, as opposed to what it actually says) has been documented for many years now.3

It is very interesting that Dr Craig has chosen to highlight only the most seemingly absurd4 of the possible resolutions of this apparent conflict (i.e. the “six denials” approach). Someone of his intellectual caliber is certainly capable of a more honest appraisal, but it appears he was only interested in making his own rhetorical point, not in getting to the truth of the matter!

The article by Chong was very helpful (it did a lot of my work for me, since he catalogued all the alleged inconsistencies to which Craig was referring). I did not, however, find that his conclusions were in any way supported by his data. He incorrectly stated that the Chicago Statements were a “relaxed” form of inerrancy … relaxed compared to what? He didn’t seem to understand the intent of his quotation from the Chicago Statements, which said “seeming discrepancies”, not actual ones!

This is a very good case-in-point to demonstrate one of the features of reliable independent eyewitness testimony that I wrote about previously: oftentimes, owing to differences in personality, vantage point, etc., independent eyewitnesses to the same events will give accounts that contain apparent contradictions. These can usually be resolved by examining the unique vantage point and circumstances of each eyewitness. To prove an actual contradiction, one must prove that there exists no way in which all the accounts could be accurate at the same time. Critics like Craig never manage to shoulder this burden of proof, however. They merely sling mud at the text by declaring that the differing versions of the story cannot be reconciled.

The Rooster Crows

First, let’s deal with the issue of the rooster. The alleged contradiction is that the gospel of Mark records that Jesus said Peter would deny Him before the rooster crows twice, whereas the other gospels record only that he said, “before the rooster crows” (no indication of “twice”).

This is not a contradiction, even on the face of it. There are couple of possible reconciliations here. One gospel (Mark) gives more detail than the other two, while the other two don’t specify a number of times. Since Mark is believed to be Peter’s gospel (Mark was acting as a scribe for Peter), it would make sense that Mark’s gospel would have the greater detail. Having one version that gives a specific number of times while the others are more vague, simply saying that the rooster would crow, is simply not a contradiction. This is a common pattern in many of the alleged contradictions in the Gospels. They boil down to differing amounts of detail, or different details.

Another way to look at this is that the phrase “before the rooster crows” could be understood as an idiom meaning “before daybreak”.5 But then why does Mark say “twice”? It could be that this word is an early scribal error, and there is some evidence for this in that the word “twice” is missing from some manuscripts of Mark, and appears in different places in others.6

“I do not know the man.”

The apparent difference in accounts between the identity of Peter’s accusers seems at first more daunting to reconcile. But again, we find that these accounts can make sense together when we do a little bit of detective-style critical thinking.

As Chong documented (Ref 2), we do see some differences in exactly whom Peter was addressing, exactly what Peter said, and exactly what his accuser said. When you look at the whole picture, though, what we have is a great piece of evidence that these really are independent eyewitness testimonies of real events! They display a phenomenon my brother J.W. Price—whose advice has been useful in the preparation of this response—has termed ‘Incidental Coherence’, meaning they are like pieces of a puzzle that give a coherent picture when put together.7

For the differences in these accounts to amount to contradictions, what we would need is for these three denials to be isolated incidents where one, and only one, person came and said one specific thing to Peter (and for these details not to match). But that’s not what we find. In fact, we find the opposite: Peter was not alone with only one person at any point in the three denials. All gospels agree the first accuser was a servant girl, but Matthew 26:70 says that Peter denied Jesus “before them all,” implying that there were multiple people present besides just the servant girl.

With the second denial, the picture is a bit fuzzier, depending upon the account. Luke implies Peter spoke to a man, because Peter says, “Man” in his response to the person. John doesn’t specify, but implies there is a group of people present who confronted Peter. Mark mentions that the same servant girl came again to Peter the second time. Matthew says that another servant girl approached Peter for the second denial.

In the third denial, Matthew and Mark both agree that Peter denied Jesus to a group of people standing around. Luke mentions “another man”, while John specifies it was the servant of the High Priest.

A total picture emerges from the pieces

When taken together, all four gospels present a coherent picture of what happened. Peter was waiting outside the door while John went in with Jesus to the courtyard of the High Priest, where there was a group of people standing and warming themselves by a fire.

John then went out and had a servant girl (who was keeping watch) let Peter into the courtyard. Once inside, probably after peering at him as he warmed himself by the fire, this girl accused Peter of being one of Jesus’ followers. Peter denied it before them all, and he moved away from the fire and into the entryway of the courtyard.

After some time, the crowd, which included both the original servant girl and another girl, approached him there, and he denied it before all of them, which entailed responding to both girls and another unnamed man.

Then, after about an hour, a crowd again approached Peter, this time including the High Priest’s servant. Mark and Luke tell us that the crowd accused Peter on account of Peter’s being a Galilean, but we don’t know how they knew that. This leaves an open question. Thankfully, Matthew comes to the rescue with Matt 20:73. He doesn’t mention the word “Galilean”, but he tells us that the crowd noticed Peter’s accent (which must have betrayed the fact that he was from Galilee). This is ‘incidental coherence’—one or more accounts give info that leaves a question in the mind of the reader, but another independent account just so happens to supply the answer we needed. We would not expect this kind of thing if these accounts were 1) fabricated as part of a conspiracy or 2) legendary. And lastly, we know from John 18:26 that the High Priest’s servant also recognized Peter from having seen him with Jesus earlier in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So after all this, I ask, what is the contradiction here? All of our Gospels interlock to give us a complete picture of three separate “denials” (not defined as individual utterances by Peter, but rather three separate incidents where Peter was approached and accused by multiple people at once). After the third incident, we know from all accounts that a rooster did literally crow, which brought to Peter’s mind what Jesus had foretold. Whether or not a rooster crowed after the second denial, as we find in (some) manuscripts of Mark, is an open question, which makes basically no difference to the story either way.

As you can see, some critical thinking was able to resolve this apparent conflict without much trouble. Why, then, do educated critics like Dr Craig miss this? Why are they so ready to abandon one of the most essential doctrines of the Christian faith—inerrancy—when they haven’t even done a proper evaluation to begin with? Craig seizes on this as an opportunity to declare,

Thus, the phenomena of Scripture require us, quite reasonably, to construe scriptural inerrancy in terms of Scripture’s truthfulness in all that it teaches, and we learn inductively what Scripture teaches by an examination of Scripture itself. Such an examination reveals that various facts of science, history, and so forth may not belong to the teaching of Scripture, as do doctrinal truths.1

But this “phenomenon of Scripture” teaches us the opposite: when carefully analyzed, the Gospel accounts turn out to be truthful and independent eyewitness testimonies, which give a coherent picture of the events that transpired. If various “facts of science, history, and so forth” don’t belong to the teaching of Scripture, then who decides? Apparently, men like Dr Craig feel qualified to decide for us what Scripture teaches. I’m going to let the Bible speak for itself.

Thanks for writing in!

References and notes

  1. Craig, W, #709 Is Biblical Inerrancy Defensible?, reasonablefaith.org, 22 November 2020. Return to text.
  2. Chong, E., On the Gospel Accounts of Peter’s Denials of Christ, engr.colostate.edu, 25 July 2003. Return to text.
  3. Farnell, F. (General editor) et al, Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate, Wipf & Stock, 2016. Return to text.
  4. I say “seemingly absurd” because I have not actually read the book that propounds this theory. Return to text.
  5. What is the significance of the rooster crowing in regards to Peter denying Jesus three times?, gotquestions.org, accessed 9 December 2020. Return to text.
  6. Geisler, N., and Howe, T., The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2008, pp. 359-360. Return to text.
  7. For a very good video explanation of incidental coherence, see: youtube.com/watch?v=vHz6Tadvk1s Return to text.

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