By Dr. Norman L. Geisler
Some Background Information
A closer look at Mike Licona’s book on The Resurrection of Jesus reveals even more problems than at first thought. Our original focus was on his denial of the historicity and inerrancy of the resurrection account of the saints in Matthew 27. He called this “poetical,” a “legend,” an “embellishment,” and literary “special effects” (see 306, 548, 552, 553). Against Licona’s view, we set forth “Ten Reasons” for the historicity of this text. And, as evidence that it was a denial of the historic ICBI (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy) view on inerrancy, we provided “Six Reasons” (www.normangeisler.net). Thus, both the historicity and inerrancy of the text which are firmly established are tragically denied by Licona.
Strong Reaction to Licona’s View
Licona’s denial of the historicity and inerrancy of the Matthew 27 text led to a strong reaction among many evangelicals. Here are some of the more important ones:
First, Licona made a private attempt to convince one key Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader that his view was orthodox. When this failed, a source close to the situation revealed that once Licona realized that his view would not be widely accepted by the SBC pastors and churches, he decided that he had better resign his SBC position at NAMB (North America Mission Board).
Second, another noted SBC leader, Dr. Al Mohler, spoke out against Licona’s view on his web site, concluding, that in his treatment of the Matthew 27 text that “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’…. He needs to rethink the question he asked himself in his book — ‘If some or all of the phenomena reported at Jesus’ death are poetic devices, we may rightly ask whether Jesus’ resurrection is not more of the same?’…. He asked precisely the right question, but then he gave the wrong answer….” Mohler added, “It is not enough to affirm biblical inerrancy in principle. The devil, as they say, is in the details. That is what makes The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy so indispensable and this controversy over Licona’s book so urgent. It is not enough to affirm biblical inerrancy in general terms. The integrity of this affirmation depends upon the affirmation of inerrancy in every detailed sense” (www.AlbertMohler.com, emphasis added).
Third, Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES), where Licona was recently listed as a professor, abolished his position after discovering his view and decided not to have him teach there any longer. After the faculty examined Licona directly, one source close to the event wrote that “He definitely denies inerrancy. He even said that if someone interpreted the resurrection accounts as metaphor and therefore denied the historicity of the Gospel accounts, that would not contradict inerrancy. That was unbelievable.” As a result, “SES formulated a statement formally dismissing him from any faculty appointment or position at SES, and that we believe he denies inerrancy as we understand it” (emphasis added).
Fourth, ISCA (International Society of Christian Apologetics), a scholarly society to which Licona once belonged, has officially condemned his view. After a meeting of the ISCA leadership on October 6, 2011 they posted the following on their web site (ISCA–apologetics.org): “The ISCA executive Committee voted a motion to go on record saying ‘we believe denying historicity of Matthew 27:50-53 is in conflict with ISCA doctrinal statement.’" This would exclude Mike Licona and those who hold similar views from membership in ISCA.
Fifth, the Evangelical Philosophical Society scheduled Licona to offer a defense of his view at the EPS meeting on Thursday, November 17th in a paper titled: “When the Saints Go Marching In: History, Apocalyptic Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy.” But, by allowing him to defend this unorthodox position they are acting contrary to the membership requirements on their website which affirm, “To be a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS), one must agree to the following doctrinal affirmation: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the original manuscripts” (emphasis added). This is especially so in view of the fact that EPS borrowed its doctrinal statement from its originating organization, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), whose framers and members opposed Licona type views and which subsequently adopted an ICBI interpretation of its view on inerrancy which clearly opposes Licona’s view (see below). As the founder and first president of EPS, I can speak to this issue directly. How sad it is to see in one’s life-time an organization founded on a strong view of inerrancy deviate so far from it.
Eventually, Licona gathered a few names in support of his view and then almost immediately they were withdrawn. It is reported that at least one professor from a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) school found it necessary to withdraw his name in support of Licona when the president of his School objected that he did not speak for the institution. Nonetheless, some long-time Licona friends, like Dr. Gary Habermas and Dr. David Beck of Liberty University, continued to support him. Indeed, despite their strong fundamentalist background (Jerry Falwell being their founder), Liberty University has offered Licona a position on their faculty—thus placing its approval on a view denying the historic view on inerrancy!
It is Worse than First Thought
Up to the present, the focus has been primarily on Licona’s denial of the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27. However, there is more—much more. Three other views of Licona cry for attention:
First, Licona suggested that the appearance of angels at Jesus’ tomb after the resurrection is also legendary. He wrote: “It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly be mixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes. We may also be reading poetic language or legend at certain points, such as Matthew’s report of the raising of some dead saints at Jesus death (Mt 27:51-54) and the angel(s) at the tomb (Mk 15:5-7; Mt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7; Jn 20:11-13” (185-186, emphasis added). This extends the infiltration of legend beyond Matthew to all the other Gospels as well. What is more, Licona offers no clear hermeneutical way to determine from the text of Scripture what is legend and what is not. Calling a short unembellished Gospel account with witnesses “weird,” as Licona does (527), is certainly not a very clear test, especially when the passage is directly associated with the resurrection of Christ (as Matthew 27 is). Many New Testament scholars think the bodily resurrection of Christ is weird too. Rudolf Bultmann, the Dean of NT scholars, called it “incredible,” “senseless,” and even “impossible” to the modern mind (Kerygma and Myth, 2-4).
Second, Licona claims to believe in the general reliability of the Gospel records, “even if “some embellishments are present.” He adds, “A possible candidate for embellishment is John 18:4-6” (306, emphasis added) where, when Jesus claimed “I am he” (cf. John 8:58), his pursuers “drew back and fell on the ground.” Again, there is no indication in this or other New Testament texts that this account is not historical. It is but another example of Licona’s unbiblical “dehistoricizing” of the New Testament which ICBI explicitly condemned by name (see below).
Third, Licona’s basic problem is methodological. He adopts an unorthodox methodology. One’s theology is not the only thing that can be unorthodox. There can be methodological unorthodoxy as well. As noted in our “Ten Points” article, the method of determining genre adopted by Licona and his supporters is clearly unorthodox. It was pronounced such by the ICBI framers (The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy). Licona said clearly, “there is somewhat of a consensus among contemporary scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bios).” Then he goes on to say that “Bioi offered the ancient biographers great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches,…and they often included legend. Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (34, emphasis added). Little wonder Licona has gotten himself into trouble. A bad methodology leads to a bad bibliology and to bad theology. At root, then, Licona’s basic problem is methodological. Like Robert Gundry before him who was asked to resign by The Evangelical Theology Society (in 1983), Licona’s view is a form of methodological unorthodody. So, it is not just a matter of a passage or event here or there that is the problem. Rather, it is a radical unbiblical method that undermines the divine authority of the entire New Testament text. And as the faculty at SES where he taught discovered, it is “unbeleivable” to hold that such a method could even deny the resurrection and yet one’s belief in inerrancy would still be considered orthodox. Such a false claim to inerrancy is vacuous since the Gospel affirmations could be completely false—in that they did not correspond to any historic reality—and yet the Bible would still be considered completely true!
In brief, two main errors in Licona’s methodology stand out. First, his genre decisions are made “up-front” based on extra-biblical data. On the contrary, one should approach every text with the historical-grammatical method to determine within the text, its context, and by other Scriptures what it means. Then, and then alone, is he in a position to know its genre. Second, even then, categories of genre made up from extra-biblical sources (like Greco-Roman history) are not the way to determine the genre of a unique piece of literature like the Gospels. For it may be—as indeed we believe it is—that the Gospels are a unique genre of their own, namely, Gospel genre where redemptive history is still real history. What is certain is that whatever aid extra-biblical material may have in our understanding of the text, no extra-biblical data is hermeneutically determinative in interpreting any text of Scripture. It may help in understanding the meaning of words and customs, but it cannot be used to determine whether a text is historical or not historical.
The ICBI framers were explicit on this point. First, the ICBI view authorized only the “grammatical-historical” method of interpreting the Bible (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy [CSBI], Article XVIII), defining it as “interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense.” Second, it spoke against “dehistoricizing” the text of Scripture. Third, it says explicitly that “Scripture is to interpret Scripture,” not extra-biblical literature used to interpret biblical literature. Fourth, it denounces a quest for “sources lying behind it [Scripture] that lead to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching…” (emphasis added).
As for the later ICBI statement (“The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics”) that “we value genre criticism as one of many disciplines of biblical study” (CSBH, Article XIII), it goes on quickly to say that “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual.” And this is precisely what Licona does to Matthew 27 and other scriptures. Further, the next article adds, “We affirm that the biblical record of events, discourses and sayings, though presented in a variety of appropriate literary forms, corresponds to historical fact.” And “We deny that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated” (CSBH, Article XIV, emphasis added). As a member of both ICBI drafting committees, I can confirm that it was precisely views like Mike Licona’s that we had in mind when formulating these statements.
As Professor Al Mohler aptly concluded (above) of this misguided method, “Licona has not only violated the inerrancy of Scripture, but he has blown a massive hole into his own masterful defense of the resurrection” (emphasis added). For “If some or all of the phenomena reported at Jesus’ death are poetic devices, we may rightly ask whether Jesus’ resurrection is not more of the same…. He asked precisely the right question, but then he gave the wrong answer. We must all hope that he will ask himself that question again and answer in a way that affirms without reservation that all of Matthew’s report is historical” (emphasis added).