By Norman L. Geisler
November 8, 2011
I wish to commend the Baptist press for its recent attempt to be fair and balanced in presenting the Licona issue on inerrancy. The article by Erin Roach was largely on point and noted many of the problems with Licona’s view. It cites Blocher who rightly concluded that “the way Licona interprets the raised saints passage is incorrect.” Further, it correctly concludes that “I [Blocher] reject the suggestion that Matthew 27:52f should be read nonliterally, and I consider that it puts in jeopardy the affirmation of biblical inerrancy which I resolutely uphold.” What is more, Blocher put his hand on the pulse of the problem when he observed that the nonliteral interpretation "seems rather to be motivated by the difficulty of believing the thing told and by an unconscious desire to conform to the critical views of non-evangelical scholarship." We have elsewhere called this putting scholarship over Lordship. Since the other article was an attempt to defend Licona’s orthodoxy on inerrancy, I would like to address several factual misconceptions in it.
It is Much More than a One Verse Issue
First, there is the misconception that the debate here is over “one biblical verse”—really two verses (Mt 27:52-53)—on whether these saints were literally resurrected or not. As we have shown in our recent article “Mike Licona on Inerrancy: It’s Worse than We Originally Thought” (www.normangeisler.net), Licona not only (1) casts doubt on the literal resurrection of saints, but he also (2) casts doubt on the existence of the angels in all four Gospels (The Resurrection of Jesus, 185-185), and (3) the story of the mob falling backward when Jesus claimed “I am he” in John 18:4-6 (ibid, 306), and (4) generally obscures the lines between historicity and legend in the Gospels by his genre determination that it is “Greco-Roman” bios. For he admits that in such literature “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (ibid., 34, emphasis is added in this and following quotes). This is to say nothing of the point made by Dr. Mohler that (5) “Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon — the concession that some of the material reported by Matthew in the very chapter in which he reports the resurrection of Christ simply did not happen and should be understood as merely ‘poetic device’ and ‘special effects’….” In short, this is far more than a debate over “a single verse”—it is about whether the Gospel record is the unerring Word of God or not!
It is Not Simply a Matter of Hermeneutics
Second, another point that is made in defense of Licona is open to serious challenge. It is whether the issue is simply a matter of hermeneutics and not one of inerrancy (which Licona claims to hold). This is built on a serious misunderstanding about inerrancy, especially that of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), which Licona claims to support. We have treated this question elsewhere at length in an article on “Methodological Unorthodoxy” first published in JETS in 1983 and is now also on our web site. Two brief points will suffice here. (1) If Licona’s total separation of inerrancy and hermeneutic were true, then one could completely allegorize the Bible (say, like Mary Baker Eddy did)—denying the literal Virgin Birth, physical resurrection of Christ, and everything else—and still claim that it was inerrant. (2) Such a bifurcation of hermeneutics from inerrancy is empty, vacuous, and meaningless. It amounts to saying, “Whatever the Bible may be teaching—and inerrancy does not claim that it is teaching anything—is true. But neither the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) nor ICBI inerrantists would agree with this contention, as the next point demonstrates.
It is Incompatible with the ICBI View on Inerrancy
Third, Licona wrongly assumes his “dehistoricizing” of part of the Gospel record is compatible with what the ICBI framers meant by inerrancy. This is flatly false, as the following citations demonstrate. The “Chicago Statement” is clear on this issue. First of all, “We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture” (Article XIII). “We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write” (Article IX). “We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science” (Article XII). “We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture” (Article XIII). So, inerrancy is not an empty claim. It claims that every affirmation (or denial) in the Bible is completely true, whether it is about theological, scientific or historical matters.
Further, inerrancy affirms that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship” (Article XVIII). ICBI put out an official commentary on its inerrancy statements titled Explaining Inerrancy. It declares that “Though the Bible is indeed redemptive history, it is also redemptive history, and this means that the acts of salvation wrought by God actually occurred in the space-time world. When we say that the truthfulness of Scripture ought to be evaluated according to its own standards that means that … all the claims of the Bible must correspond with reality, whether that reality is historical, factual or spiritual.
What is more inerrancy implies a correspondence view of truth. The ICBI statements affirm clearly that “By biblical standards truth and error is meant the view used both in the Bible and in everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth. This part of the article is directed toward those who would redefine truth to relate merely to redemptive intent, the purely personal, or the like, rather than to mean that which corresponds with reality” (Article XII). Article XVIII adds: “When the quest for sources produces a dehistoricizing of the Bible, a rejection of its teaching or a rejection of the Bible’s own claims of authorship [then] it has trespassed beyond its proper limits. By biblical standards of truth and error is meant the view used both in the Bible and in everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth. This part of the article is directed toward those who would redefine truth to relate merely to redemptive intent, the purely personal, or the like, rather than to mean that which corresponds with reality.” Here too, we can see that inerrancy is not an empty claim but one that affirms whatever the Bible affirms is about something. And if it is a narrative (as Mt. 27 is), then it is a narrative about something that really happened.
What is more, ICBI produced an official statement and commentary on inerrancy and hermeneutics, titled Explaining Hermeneutics (hereafter, EH). EH Article VI states: “We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts.” The commentary adds, “The denial makes it evident that views which redefine error to mean what ‘misleads,’ rather than what is a mistake, must be rejected.” And speaking directly to the point of the Licona issue, EH Article XIII says: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. Some, for instance, take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person. Others take Jonah to be an allegory when he is presented as a historical person and [is] so referred to by Christ.” EH Article XIV proclaims: “We deny that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated”(emphasis is added in all citations).
As a member of the ICBI framing committee, I can say with certainty that it was views like Licona’s that we had in mind when we wrote these statements. I can also say, that is a misrepresentation of my colleague, J. I. Packer (who was a crucial member of the framing committee), to imply that he denied the historicity of Genesis. For he penned EH Article XXII which “affirms that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book.” He also wrote the Forward for our forthcoming book, Defending Inerrancy (Baker), on this topic, saying of my co-author and myself, “They are masterly gatekeepers [for inerrancy], and I count it an honor to commend this work to the Christian world.”
Licona’s friend and former teacher, Gary Habermas offered a misdirected attempt to defend him, saying, "In my opinion, Mike Licona doesn't at all deny inerrancy by his interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53. He adds, "Evangelicals regularly allow for all sorts of similar moves where particular texts are taken other than literally, whether it is the old earth/young earth discussions of the word 'day' in Genesis 1, …angles on Jesus' Olivet Discourse, or [whether] the signs in the sun, moon and so on were fulfilled literally on Pentecost.” First of all, no evangelical, using the historical-grammatical hermeneutic (demanded by ICBI) denies the historicity of Genesis, however long he considers the “days” to be or the time periods represented there. Second, both old-earth inerrantists, as well as young-earthers, affirm the historicity of Genesis, even though they disagree about the amount of literal time was involve. They don’t deny the historicity of the genesis record. Third, no orthodox theologians, let alone inerrantist, which Habermas claims to be, denies there will be a literal second coming of Christ. So, at best Habermas’s comments turn out to be irrelevant to the issue of the historicity of the Matthew 27 text and, at worst, a diversion of the issue. Fourth, Habermas informed me by letter that he voted to exclude Gundry from ETS (1983) for holding a similar view that dehistoricized parts of the Gospel record. Assuming he voted in good conscience, he should feel the same way about his friend, Mike Licona’s view. That is, unless he allows fraternity to trump orthodoxy. This leads to our next point.
Licona’s Denial of Inerrancy is of the Same Basic Kind as Gundry’s
Fourth, Licona wrongly denies the similarity between his view and that of Robert Gundry who was excluded from the ETS in 1883 because his views were deemed incompatible with their stand on inerrancy. However, Licona and friends are wrong for there is a clear and definite similarity. (1) Both Gundry and Licona “dehistoricized” sections of the Gospel. (2) Both appealed to extra-biblical literature as definite in determining whether a biblical passage was historical or not. (3) Both made up-front genre decisions about a biblical text based on extra-biblical sources. The only real difference is that Gundry used a Jewish Midrash determination and Licona another literary determination. The point still stands, namely, both views “dehistoricize” sections of the Gospel record based on extra-biblical sources which conclusion is condemned by clear statements of ICBI (see above). Hence, by the same reasoning that Gundry’s view was deemed contrary to ETS, in like manner, Licona’s view is equally unorthodox on the doctrine of inerrancy.
The Matthew 27 Text on the Resurrection of the Saints is not History-Neutral
Fifth, Licona and supporters assume wrongly that the narrative in Matthew 27 is history-neutral, until one can make a genre determination by using outside sources. The claim that we cannot know in advance of making a genre determination whether it is historical or not. However, what they fail to note is that we can only know the author’s “intentions” by his affirmations in the text. And we can only legitimate way we can know what these mean is by the historical-grammatical (i.e., literal) method of interpreting the text in its context. But if one does that, he discovers that it purports to be an historical narrative. Denying, the presumption of historicity for the Matthew 27 text on the resurrection of the saints, is as absurd as assuming that traffic signs, or most things in our experience, do not bear the presumption of literalness until one can demonstrate that they should be taken literally. Try telling a judge that! The Matthew 27 text is clearly not history-neutral for many reasons (see the article on our web site titled “Ten Reasons for the Historicity of Matthew 27…” In addition to the presumption that (1) a narrative in a historical setting (as Matthew 27: 52-53 is) has the presumption of literalness, there are many other reasons for doing so. (1) is part of a historical narrative record—the Gospel of Matthew; (2) Both the larger setting (the Gospel of Matthew) and the specific context (the crucifixion and resurrection narrative) demand the presumption of historicity, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary—which there is not; (3) This text manifests no literary signs of being poetic or legendary, such as those found in parables, poems, or symbolic presentations: (4) It has no indication of being a legendary embellishment, but it is a short, simple, straight-forward account in the exact style one expects in a brief historical narrative; (5) This event occurs in the context of other important historical events—the death and resurrection of Christ—and there is no indication that it is an insertion foreign to the text; (6) The resurrection of these saints is presented as the result of the physical historical resurrection of Christ. For these saints were resurrected only “after” Jesus was resurrected and as a result of it (Matt 27:53) since Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the dead (1Cor 15:20). It makes no sense to claim that a legend emerged as the immediate result of Jesus’ physical resurrection; (7) The record has the same pattern as the historical records of Jesus’ physical and historical resurrection: (a) there were dead bodies; (b) they were buried in a tomb; (c) they were raised to life again; (d) they came out of the tomb and left it empty; (e) they appeared to many witnesses. So, to undermine its historicity is also to do the same for the resurrection of Christ.
Indeed, modern objections to a straight-forward acceptance of this passage as a true historical narrative are based on a faulty hermeneutic, violating sound principles of interpretation. For example, they (a) make a presumptive identification of its genre, based on extra-biblical sources, rather than analyzing the text for its style, grammar, and content in its context; or, (b) they use events reported outside of the Bible to pass judgment on whether or not the biblical narrative is historical. This same faulty hermeneutical principle could be used, without any further justification, to deny other events in the gospels as historical. Since there is no hermeneutical criterion of “magnitude,” the same principles could also be used to relegate events such as the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Christ to the realm of legend.
In short, the Licona issue is important to the whole inerrancy debate. Placing approval on his undermining of the Gospel text would not only set back the inerrancy debate a whole generation, but it would be a fatal blow to orthodoxy. It cannot and must not be dismissed as unimportant. It strikes to the very heart of a watershed issue in evangelicalism. Licona has reopened the door to methodological unorthodoxy that logically destroys any divinely authoritative basis for many of the great fundamentals of the Christian Faith—including the physical resurrection of Christ which he desires to defend. Indeed, as Dr. Mohler keenly observed, “Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon.”