The Geisler/Licona Debate

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the ocean of truth. Tonight, I’d like to take a look at a reason for writing on inerrancy, and that is the Geisler/Licona exchange going on right now. Let me state a reason at the start people might think I have a possible bias. I do happen to be Licona’s son-in-law as I am blessed to have his daughter as my wife. However, I do try to be objective in all that I do, even in this case. Licona does know the areas of interpretation where I do disagree with him on. (Keep that in mind fellow apologists. You are allowed to disagree with those you do not doubt know far more than you in the field. No one is infallible in their interpretations) I ask people to look at the reasons for my belief rather than a possible motive.

To begin with, the charge is that Licona is denying the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27. What are we to make of this?

To begin with, before we ask if it is denying inerrancy, we must ask a question. Did Matthew intend for the writing to be taken as historical? Did he intend for us to think that a mass resurrection had literally taken place or did he intend for us to see this as an apocalyptic image of what the effects of Jesus dying on the cross were?

In fact, that seems to be the question that no one is really asking. Now someone might say that we can never get to authorial intent. Perhaps we cannot do so perfectly, but at the same time, we know it influences a message. I can say something sarcastic to a friend and rather than their being insulted, they will smile and laugh often because they know that that is my personality type and I do not really mean to say something negative about them to tear them down.

With my own wife, I can say an area to her that I think she lacks in. Knowing me, she realizes that what I say I say out of love. I do not mean to imply that because she needs to improve in this area, she is a failure or less of a person, although someone else saying the exact same thing could be meaning just that. Intent certainly does matter.

Now let’s consider what is going on in this debate and how Licona is interpreting the text. Let’s put the view up this way.

Matthew intended the event in Matthew 27 to be seen as apocalyptic and not a historical description.
Licona sees the event as apocalyptic and not a historical description.
Licona takes the text as the author intended.

Question. Can you take the text as the author intended really and be denying inerrancy? It would seem odd to say that a text is not meant to be taken as historical but the only way to affirm inerrancy is to take it as historical.

But let us change the message above.

Matthew intended the event in Matthew 27 to be seen as historical and not an apocalyptic description.
Licona sees the event as apocalyptic and not a historical description.
Licona does not take the text as the author intended.

Is Licona denying inerrancy on this one? Not necessarily. Let’s consider a text like Matthew 24.

Let’s suppose Preterists are right and Jesus intended the events he spoke about to be seen as apocalyptic descriptions and not literal descriptions. Does that mean that if someone is a Dispensationalist, then they are denying Inerrancy? No. It means that they are misinterpreting the text.

Let’s suppose Dispensationalists are right and Jesus intended the events he spoke about to be seen as literal descriptions and not apocalyptic ones. Does that mean that Preterists are denying Inerrancy? Again, no. It just means that the text is being misinterpreted. If simply not taking the text as the author intended meant denying Inerrancy, all of us would be denying Inerrancy since none of us have perfect interpretations. Inerrancy refers to the context of the text and not our interpretations.

Now let’s change the scenario of Licona above to see how it could deny inerrancy.

Matthew intended for the event in Matthew 27 to be seen as historical.
Licona realizes this, but believes that it is not historical.
Licona is knowingly denying the intent of the author.

In that case, then Licona would certainly be going against Inerrancy and I would be siding with Geisler on this case. However, Licona has examined the evidence and honestly believes what he believes right now.

But we cannot know the intent of the author!

Okay. Suppose we can’t. What’s the best method to do? Be as charitable as we can. To charge someone with believing something unorthodox is quite a serious charge. Before we do such, let’s make sure we have examined every possible option exhaustively. If we cannot know for sure, then let us say “Well that might be his intent and if that was his intent, then we will accept it until further data shows otherwise.”

Meanwhile, consider what an avenue we have open for NT research. We could study this kind of writing and see if it shows up elsewhere in the gospels and if that could illuminate our understanding of the text. In no way does this mean we deny the actual death, burial, and miraculous resurrection of Jesus. As an evangelical, I think we should study the text and try to see where our modern views could be going against the way people in the past wrote.

If we are people of truth, then we should be seeking it. This means examining all options. It also means we can look at scholarship without fear. If we believe in the Bible, we can say to its critics “Bring your charges and accusations. We will face them all!” If we believe Jesus rose from the dead, we believe that will hold out in the face of the strongest opposition.

Let’s remember that is what we agree on. Jesus did rise. That is the message that needs to be given to the world. Let us unite together rather than tearing one another apart. I have no doubt that despite what one might think about how Licona has handled this text, he has done a valuable work for the church by publishing his book “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.” If you think he’s absolutely right, or even if you think he’s unorthodox, you owe it to yourself if you’re interested in resurrection studies to interact with what he says still and that should not be overlooked.

If someone can show that Licona is denying Inerrancy, then we will have a problem, but thus far, I have not seen it shown.

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5 Responses to “The Geisler/Licona Debate”

  1. Nick Says:

    I would like to add an addendum to this post. There is a certain pastor who has linked to this saying that inerrancy is now described as the message from Scripture.

    I personally have no idea what that means.

    I do not believe the message of the Bible is “Believe in Inerrancy and you shall be saved” or something of that sort. I would not say I believe in Inerrancy because the Bible teaches it. That would beg the question. I believe the Bible is inerrant due to my believing it comes from God written by men guided by the Holy Spirit to avoid error and that I believe supposed contradictions have been dealt with.

    However, for those who are being linked to this, for the time being, I wish to put up a post that was NOT put up by the pastor on his blog.

    And here is the post:

    Let’s take a look at some facts on this case as I posted on my own blog of Deeper Waters:

    https://deeperwaters.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/the-geislerlicona-debate/

    Now let’s consider what is going on in this debate and how Licona is interpreting the text. Let’s put the view up this way.

    Matthew intended the event in Matthew 27 to be seen as apocalyptic and not a historical description.
    Licona sees the event as apocalyptic and not a historical description.
    Licona takes the text as the author intended.

    Question. Can you take the text as the author intended really and be denying inerrancy? It would seem odd to say that a text is not meant to be taken as historical but the only way to affirm inerrancy is to take it as historical.

    But let us change the message above.

    Matthew intended the event in Matthew 27 to be seen as historical and not an apocalyptic description.
    Licona sees the event as apocalyptic and not a historical description.
    Licona does not take the text as the author intended.

    Is Licona denying inerrancy on this one? Not necessarily. Let’s consider a text like Matthew 24.

    Let’s suppose Preterists are right and Jesus intended the events he spoke about to be seen as apocalyptic descriptions and not literal descriptions. Does that mean that if someone is a Dispensationalist, then they are denying Inerrancy? No. It means that they are misinterpreting the text.

    Let’s suppose Dispensationalists are right and Jesus intended the events he spoke about to be seen as literal descriptions and not apocalyptic ones. Does that mean that Preterists are denying Inerrancy? Again, no. It just means that the text is being misinterpreted. If simply not taking the text as the author intended meant denying Inerrancy, all of us would be denying Inerrancy since none of us have perfect interpretations. Inerrancy refers to the context of the text and not our interpretations.

    Now let’s change the scenario of Licona above to see how it could deny inerrancy.

    Matthew intended for the event in Matthew 27 to be seen as historical.
    Licona realizes this, but believes that it is not historical.
    Licona is knowingly denying the intent of the author.

    In that case, then Licona would certainly be going against Inerrancy and I would be siding with Geisler on this case. However, Licona has examined the evidence and honestly believes what he believes right now.

    The point is that in order for Licona to be denying inerrancy, Geisler HAS to know authorial intent, but how is this known with such certainty and has this intent been clearly communicated with Licona? It can be believed that the author intended this, but it is not enough to believe. One must show. Otherwise, we simply have a new Pope if Geisler always knows authorial intent.

    Geisler’s specialty is not NT scholarship. It is instead philosophy and theology. Knowing inerrancy does not even qualify one as a NT scholar. Licona, for instance, knows NT Greek very well, but that does not mean he is automatically a NT scholar and/or historian. It can aid him in his understanding of the text certainly, but it cannot give him that authority. He has authority on what the text says certainly and whether a translation is accurate or not, but knowing it is accurate is not the same as knowing if the message is true. Licona does not doubt that it is true in the case of the Bible, but there are atheistic scholars who know NT Greek and can tell if a text is translated accurately without believing the truth of said text.

    What needs to be shown is not only that Licona is wrong but Licona is wrong and knows that his belief goes against what Matthew intended. Until that is done, then there is no proof of inerrancy and if there is no proof, is it not better to give the benefit of the doubt? (By the way, if Licona is denying it, so is William Lane Craig seeing as in his debate with Hector Avalos, Craig says that as a historian, he is not certain if the event is historical or not. When will the charge come out against Craig now?)

    Proverbs 18:17 tells us that one man’s case seems right until another makes a judgment. I ask Pastor that you do honestly examine both sides. There are plenty of people who disagree with Licona’s interpretation, but defend 100% his orthodoxy. There will need to be more said than just “Geisler says otherwise.”

    To help, I will go through Geisler’s arguments.

    Geisler: “First of all, in this very text the resurrection of these saints occurs in direct connection with two other historical events—the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv. 50, 53)”

    Reply: Correct, but does that mean it is necessarily historical? A joke or anything else can be added in such a context even today. Does Geisler really think Licona is unaware of this basic fact? Cannot historical events be colored with apocalyptic language? Did not Josephus also do that?

    Geisler: “Second, there is a direct connection between the resurrection of these saints and Jesus’ resurrection.

    Reply: But the truth of Jesus’s resurrection is not dependent on the resurrection of these saints. If this is an apocalyptic imagery, the power of the message is still there and Jesus’s resurrection can still be defended historically. The resurrection of Jesus does not depend on the resurrection of these saints. Furthermore, while such events were commonly described in the deaths of pagan kings, it could be the case that God really did resurrect the saints here in a kind of “one-upmanship” on the pagan kings. Like I’ve said, I’m highly open to that possibility.

    Geisler: Third, this text lists the same kind of evidence for the resurrection of these saints as is listed elsewhere for Jesus’ resurrection: [1] the tombs were opened; [2] the tombs were empty; [3] the dead were raised; [4] there were physical appearances; [5] many people saw these resurrected saints (cf. Mt.27; 1 Cor. 15).”

    Reply: 1 Corinthians 15 says nothing about these saints. However, this would not matter if the sayings were apocalyptic. One can interpret Revelation in an apocalyptic sense, and it is entirely orthodox to do so, and it’s loaded with physical detail.

    Geisler: “Fourth, as Ellicott’s Commentary puts it, “the brevity, and in some sense, simplicity, of the statement differences [sic] it very widely from such legends, more or less analogous in character… and so far excludes the mythical elements which, as a rule, delights to shows itself in luxuriant expansion” (vol. VI, p. 178). In brief, the typical characteristics of a myth as found in apocryphal and other literature of that time is not found in this text.

    Reply: Ellicott’s commentary is from the 1800’s. This is NOT keeping up to date with NT scholarship. Furthermore, because something is brief and simple does not mean it is automatically historical. Would any NT scholar agree with such a statement today?

    Geisler: Fifth, some of the elements of this story are confirmed by two other Gospels.”

    Reply: And none mention a resurrection of the saints except Matthew.

    Geisler: “Sixth, …The story is interwoven with the historic evidence surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ in such as manner that the denial of the resurrection of the saints undermines the historicity of the resurrection of Christ in the same text.”

    Reply: Asserted but not shown. The validity of the resurrection of Christ does not depend on that of the saints. Licona knows this well as he’s written a whole book defending the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus stands on its own. Suppose for the sake of argument that the resurrection of Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, and the son of the widow of Nain were all false stories. Licona does not hold this. I do not hold this. It is a hypothetical for the sake of argument. Does that undermine the case for the resurrection of Jesus? Not at all, especially since that case largely depends on 1 Corinthians and Galatians where the resurrection of the saints is irrelevant.

    Remember Pastor that Nicodemus wanted the Sanhedrin to hear Jesus out before passing judgment on him. Do you want to hear Licona out? You can go to a Seminary library and get his book and read through the relevant passages. If you want to dialogue, dialogue with those who do agree that the passage is historical, but disagree with Geisler on his charge. Why do they think that way knowing Geisler thinks otherwise?

    The choice is yours Pastor, but remember you are making a serious accusation against a Christian and affecting his livelihood and ministry. These are not charges to be taken lightly and I urge you to not do so. The choice is up to you. At the end of the day, you can still think you’re right on these matters, but you will at least be able to say you’ve dialogued with the other side.

    Again, the choice is yours.

  2. On inerrancy, violating it, sanity, and is Jesus a cloud surfer? | crankycontrarianchristiancommentary Says:

    […] new friend Nick Peters posted something of help here regarding the Licona/Geisler thing. I’ll quote the relevant portions. Now let’s consider […]

  3. The Geisler-Licona Controversy:Part 1: What Is This All About? | SBC Today Says:

    […] with inerrancy. Some such defenders included (among many others) Licona’s son-in-law Rick Peters (here and here), Steve Hays (here and here), Jason Engwer, Max Andrews, Jacob Allee (here and here),  […]

  4. On the “Fuzzification” of Inerrancy | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" Says:

    […] definition of inerrancy has been hotly disputed as of late. The infamous Geisler-Licona controversy, which continues to boil over at points, serves as a poignant example of this (see here […]

  5. Chavoux Luyt Says:

    I don’t know either Geisler or Licona. However, I really do think that if Matthew was mistaken about the daughter of Jaïrus or John about the resurrection of Lazarus, I could not trust them as trustworthy about the resurrection of Jesus either. Yes, I can still believe that Jesus was resurrected on the ground of other passages like 1 Cor.15 etc., but no longer on the grounds of Matthew, especially not if he cloaked his “apocalyptic” non-historical narratives in exactly the same language and genre as his supposedly historical narratives. To me as a simple reader of the Bible, there seems to be no reason at all to see the resurrection of many saints as being any less historical than the resurrection of Jesus (at least from Matthew’s description), except for being an unlikely event from a human point of view.

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