Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Round and Round We Go

Matthew’s Gospel uniquely records a relatively well-known instance regarding resurrection of other persons at the time of Jesus’ resurrection:

Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. Matt. 27:51-53 (NKJV)

Dr. Licona, in his recent word, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach deals with these two verses on pp. 548 – 553. (Alas, only p. 553 is available on google books.)

Dr. Licona notes other contemporary authors (Cassius Dio, Josephus, etc.) included miraculous events at the times of great king’s deaths. That it was a common literary device of the time to denote significance. He then concludes Matthew is using a similar literary poetic device when referring to the resurrection of the saints.

The difficulty though, is how to determine what historicity the author(s) were assigning to these claims. If the Roman historians really did think earthquakes happened, stars aligned, swords appeared in the sky, miraculous births occurred—all as signs something important was happening—would Matthew likewise be claiming these signs really did occur?

If the Roman historians were, in essence, making this events up (or at the least doing very little confirmation regarding the claims), is Matthew likewise doing so?

Personally, I see this as a difficulty in consistent methodology when comparing contemporary Roman historians to the Gospel accounts; but what do I know?

This is not the reason I write. Other Christian authors have become disenchanted with Dr. Licona’s position; concerned he has committed apostasy by abandoning inerrancy when claiming these events did not actually, historically happen.

At the beginning of August, 2011 Dr. Geisler wrote an open letter to Dr. Licona concluding, “Indeed, if the principles of your historical approach (of using extra-biblical material as determinative of the meaning of a biblical text) were used consistently on the Bible, then it would undermine orthodoxy by dehistoricizing many crucial passages of the Bible.”

[This presents a huge problem for Dr. Geisler. The Protestant Bible does not include a Hebrew or Greek Lexicon. How does Dr. Geisler propose to determine the meaning of the Greek text, without knowledge as to what the Greek meant? The Bible does not include a history of the Roman world. How does Dr. Geisler propose to date a verse like Luke 3:1 referring to Emperor Tiberius’ reign without outside knowledge as to when Tiberius reigned? No--everyone utilizes extra-biblical material as a determinative of the meaning of a biblical text. We have to, as the Bible is not (nor does it claim to be) a complete authority on every item discussed.

Indeed, Dr. Geisler utilizes extra-biblical material. Here he just doesn’t like the fact the extra-biblical material is uncomfortable with his position.)

Dr. Licona failed to respond. So on August 21, 2011 Dr. Geisler wrote his second open letter to Dr. Licona. He expresses his adamant concern Mike Licona is no longer subscribing to the standards required by ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) and its “standard view of inerrancy” as proclaimed by ICBI (International Council of Biblical Inerrancy.)

Dr. Geisler reiterates, “There is something more important than having a seat at the table of contemporary scholarship; it is putting Lordship over scholarship when necessary.” (emphasis added.)

Dr. Geisler puts his methodology in plain sight: if scholarship disagrees with his interpretation of the Bible--no matter how solid the facts, evidence, argument and proof--he will ignore scholarship to maintain his belief.

On September 8, 2011 Dr. Licona responded with a note on his Facebook page. (As not every one is on Facebook, I linked to Wintery Knight’s blog.)

Of course, Dr. Geisler almost immediately countered with his third installment within this saga, all but calling for Dr. Licona’s removal from the ETS: “The ETS and ICBI framers have drawn a line in the sand, and Licona has clearly stepped over it. Only a clear recantation will reverse the matter and, unfortunately, Licona has not done this. Let's pray that he does.“ (emphasis in original)

JP Holding weighed in on the issue and (I think) accurately summarized the problem:

Geisler's view of Matthew 27: Matthew is reporting history as history.

Licona's view of Matthew 27: Matthew is reporting a poetic device as a poetic device.

Geisler's view of Licona's view of Matthew 27: Matthew is reporting a poetic device as history.

As we have noted, one cannot "dehistoricize" a text that was never intended to be taken as historical. Geisler continues to miss this point and thus continues to misapprehend Licona's views with respect to inerrancy.

“Dr” James White sides with Dr. Geisler (curiously indicating he hasn’t read Dr. Licona’s book) but then takes a pot shot at Dr. Geisler for not responding to one of James White’s problems.

Other Christians are taking one side or the other (in the particular comments within that blog, “Nick” (Dr. Licona’s son-in-law) engages with Christians adhering to Dr. Geisler.)

I found two (2) things interesting about these exchanges:

1) If like-minded Christians cannot agree over a few clauses, whether they are historical or not, whether they are inerrant or not, whether to trust scholarship, even what method to utilize to determine these questions—what chance do we non-Christians have of debating “true” Christianity?

We so often hear how skeptics debate straw people, or only take on the fringes, but never battle the core, correct Christianity. Yet here is a simple matter where Christians engage in tremendous battle, and no progress appears as to which (if any) is the “correct” interpretation.

2) I am bemused that Dr. Geisler is as concerned (if not more) Dr. Licona is included in a group—ETS (Evangelical Theological Society)—when Dr. Geisler feels Dr. Licona should be excluded. Geisler wants it clear to the world that Dr. Licona is a heretic.

And wants fellow ETS members to join him in dishonorably discharging Dr. Licona.

Christians are unhappy with atheists; they abhor apostates.

(Edited to Add:

Now Albert Mohler has also joined the fray, on the side of….drum roll, please…..Dr. Geisler.)


  1. "putting Lordship over scholarship when necessary"

    In a way, that's a statement of humility. It's an admission that scholars may not always know what's right or have all of the facts to accurately judge anything which appears contrary to the Scripture.

    But to the skeptic, that's a nail in the coffin of true scholarship, which should be highlighting any evidence to the contrary of a theory or written history to better arrive at the truth. I think you have well pointed out the amusing conflict and Dr. Geisler's personal beef. :-)

    I would go a step further and emphasizing that it appears Dr. Geisler's M.O. is more consistent with the protocol of the ETS writ large.

  2. At this point in my journey, I find the exchange sickening more than amusing. These fierce attacks on Christian by Christians is what prevents so many of us from engaging these issues in an open and honest way. It causes us to doubt ourselves and retreat lest we be denounced. I thought the reason for the hostility was clearly expressed by Albert Mohler in the article you linked to where he stated that Biblical inerrancy "is an essential safeguard for the Bible's authority as the Word of God in written form." This must be guarded even at the expense of fellow Christians and apologists like Licona. It's frightening and ugly to witness how rigid and callous we humans can be when threatened.

  3. DoOrDoNot,

    Alas, this is a common human tactic employed. Religions simply reflect it. Even as teenagers, we did not want to be marginalized—declared “out of the group” for one reason or another. It is a means society has developed to enforce majority rule.

    Here, it would seem Geisler is attempting to marginalize Licona by declaring him “outside” the ETS and therefore no longer relevant. Not that Licona is wrong (although he is, according to Geisler); far more important to eliminate credibility entirely.

    Why is it deconverts universally indicate they have difficulty expressing doubt during the initial stages of deconversion? Because we understand what happened to the last person who dared have doubts—the last poor soul who dared question authority. They were “O-U-T which spells ‘out you go!’”

    Of course the Christian church has long had a system in place to handle these matters. We can watch it in action here. The two (2) warring position will huddle together with like-minded individuals and “split” on their particular theological positions. They will hurl accusations at each other, and generate another faction within Christendom.

  4. Geisler is one of your leading dividers in the evangelical community. He had a huge fight with an elderly professor by the name of Murray Harris back in the late 80's. Fought to get him expelled from his teaching position. I think the end result was Harris retired and Geisler left because he was unsatisfied that others weren't similarly outraged as he was.

    I think he had other fights at other schools and this ultimately lead him to start his own seminary. Southern Evangelical Seminary. Guess what? He got into a huge fight with the faculty there and has since left in a huff. I have no idea what prompted this latest fight. I asked Frank Turek about it when I saw him in Ann Arbor and he just rolled his eyes and scoffed like it was all an absurdity. Now Geisler is at some place called "Vertitas Evangelical Seminary". Two permanent faculty members. Not sure how long they've been around. Maybe he started a new seminary because he can't get along with anyone else and they are all deviant.

    He did embrace Ergun Caner. Here's a guy that faked a Muslim background so he could pretend to be an ex-scary jihadist. This carries with it serious street cred in the evangelical world.

  5. Sorry, I meant to mention that Murray Harris believed that Jesus' resurrected body was in some sense not made of the same particulate matter that went down. What went down is not entirely the same as what came up. There may have been some sort of replacement/disappearance. This is the spiritual resurrection for Harris. This was a big problem for Geisler because the redemption of the very physical particulates was an essential component of the gospel.

    Seems an absurdity standing on the outside, but it used to make some sense to me I'm sad to say.

  6. Ugh! I'm with DoOrDoNot. This is what makes it so difficult to even ask what we think is a simple question. You know the moment you do you're somehow looked at differently. Suddenly you're on the outside.

    For instance, one of the last times I attended Sunday School we were discussing 1 Cor. 10:23-31. I knew I was stepping into dangerous territory because I was sitting in a Southern Baptist Church. But *gasp* I suggested that it might be okay to have a glass of wine with dinner.

    Nooooo! This passage was not saying that at all. If I wanted an excuse to drink I couldn't use this passage to do it. Drinking is explicitly against the Bible, even though Jesus and all of his disciples did it, and Paul did it. That was only because they had nothing else safe to drink. Doh!

    Needless to say by the time I'd been called down about it I felt like a whore on the front row of worship service. Funny thing is I've had a beer in a social setting with several of the people from that class. :D

  7. Who says Fundamentalists don’t have a Pope? Who says they do not live by tradition?

    I would have thought that the members of the ETS would state that in order to be a Christian, you simply “Accept Jesus as your Personal Lord and Savior”. Period.

    Apparently not. Once you have done that, and are secure in the Fold, more of the true requirements for Christian membership are then revealed. You find that living by Faith is not enough. Bible study, devotions, prayer, alms, witnessing, worship, etc, are all not sufficient evidence of your true Christian standing . Not even claiming a personal relationship with your Divine Savior will grant you acceptance as a Christian. You find out that you must also, among other things, subscribe to the standards required by ETS and its “standard view of inerrancy” as proclaimed by ICBI.

    It is classic Bait and Switch. It reminds me of the scary stories I heard from the pulpit regarding cults and secret societies. Masons, Mormons, Scientologists, whoever, lure the young, naive convert in with exaggerated claims and easy entrance requirements. Only when the convert is established in the Faith long enough are they held to stricter requirements, secret handshakes and bizarre initiation rites. Similarly, when the Evangelical convert prays the Sinner’s Prayer, they only later learn that they must also believe certain impossible things occurred historically, and align themselves with church governing boards like the ETS. Surprise!!

  8. D’Ma. I know exactly what you mean. I had a very similar experience, only it was within my family. As my father (and one brother) decried the evils of drinking—directed at me—all the other family member who just had a drink with me were very silent.

    I laughed. I tend to have pretty thick skin, and the irony was not lost on me. I would love to come visit a Sunday School class with you…he he he…I was more than such teachers could handle as a Christian. Let alone now.

    You all may not know the truly amusing part of this blog entry’s charade. I looked up Dr. Geisler (thanks to Jon’s tips)—turns out Dr. Geisler is not even a member of the ETS! He resigned in a huff over some other belief in 1993 (clearly expecting the rest of ETS to join him) and as far as I can tell, never rejoined.

    This is the person who tried to split the church. And when no one left with him, wants to point out errors in the old church.

  9. I think if I were not a Christian, I wouldn't worry about which version of Christianity was the authentic version. I would just say there are different varieties of Christianity, or different views within Christianity, and I disagree with each of them for different reasons. If I debunked one version of Christianity, and somebody said, "You haven't debunked true Christianity because that's not what I believe," I would say, "I have debunked this particular version of Christianity. I wasn't even attempting to debunk your version of it."

    By the way, I mostly side with Licona on this one. I don't know whether Matthew intended the resurrection of the saints to portray an historical even or if he just meant it as a literary device, but the issue is clearly over genre and interpretation, not over inerrancy. And I'm disgusted with how Geisler is handling the situation. I can't stand arrogant people, and Geisler's chiding Licona for not hurrying up with a response smacks of extreme arrogance, as if Licona even owes him a response, much less a speedy one.

  10. It has been fascinating to read through some of the debates. I have noticed some very contentious disputes in comment threads between people who have invariably supported one another in the past.