An Opportunity Lost: Why Geisler’s Critique Missed the Mark

[I originally posted this as a guest post over at Near Emmaus. So, if you’d like to discuss it, please head over there and offer your comments.]

In the beginning there was discussion. Then we fell. Now, as far as the ear can hear, there is only debate.

Okay, maybe that was a little hyperbolic, possibly even a tad melodramatic. But it sounded good when I wrote it. And, it does reflect a bit of the frustration I feel as I follow many “discussions” today. Words flow across my screen in never-ending sequence, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find the conversation. In my most jaded hours, I wonder if anyone is really listening. Or, are we all just trying to “win” one more argument so we can go to bed at night satisfied that we have vanquished another dragon, unmindful of the dragon’s anguish.

Most recently, I’ve been trying to follow Norm Geisler’s critique of Michael Licona. Geisler has argued in two, separate “open letters” (see Brian’s summary) that Licona’s understanding of Matthew 27:50-53 is wrong, unbiblical, and pagan, ultimately undermining our confidence in the resurrection, the authority of the Bible, the veracity of God, and, quite possibly, the very integrity of the space-time continuum itself. (Okay, I may have added that last one myself.)

Now, I don’t want to go into the specifics of Licona’s position. Indeed, I can’t, since I haven’t read the book. (Will they be making a movie version soon?) As I understand it, Licona’s basic argument is that Matthew used a variety of apocalyptic devices at the end of his Gospel to emphasize the cosmic significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. And, he views the resurrection of the righteous dead in 27:50-53 as a “poetic” (i.e. apocalyptic) image that serves that purpose. In other words, Matthew isn’t trying to say that the tombs actually opened and that dead people actually came out. Instead, he’s using a poetic image that people in his day would have understood to indicate an event of great significance.

So, that’s Licona’s position. But, it’s really Geisler’s critique that I’d like to comment on. Because in many ways, it’s a great example of what happens when debate triumphs over discussion.

This was a perfect opportunity for discussion. Geisler clearly thinks that Licona has erred in seeing this is an example of a poetic genre used inside of a largely historical narrative (which, by the way, people do all the time). And, he obviously thinks that Licona made a mistake by looking to the surrounding cultural context for explanations of how a genre-device like this would have been understood (which, by the way, is something good exegetes do all the time). These are two important points worth discussing further. I can picture a situation where two scholars could sit down and have a very lively conversation about these issues and how they impact our understanding of Matthew 27.

And, Geisler rightly raises the question of inerrancy here. I say “rightly” for two reasons. First, Geisler is committed to inerrancy, so it makes sense for him to wonder how this might impact that doctrine. And, more importantly, Licona himself holds to inerrancy. So, once again I can imagine a meaningful discussion between them on how matters of genre, hermeneutics, culture, text, and history all come together in the context of a theological reflection on the nature of Scripture as the Word of God. (I have a very good imagination.)

Sadly, none of this happened.

Here’s what we got instead:

  • The Logical Extension Argument: I put this one first, even though it’s not the first one Geisler uses, because it bugs me the most. I run into this one all the time. It goes something like this: (a) you claim to believe X; (b) you also believe Y; (c) I think X and Y are incompatible; therefore (d) you don’t really believe X (even though you continue to insist quite firmly that you do). In this case, it goes: (a) Licona claims to believe in inerrancy; (b) he has a “poetic” view of Mt. 27; (c) I think these two are incompatible; therefore (d) Licona doesn’t really believe in inerrancy. Can we please stop using this argument? It’s really annoying. At the very least, it suggests one of two things: (1) you’re an idiot and can’t tell that these two are contradictory, or (2) you’re dishonest since you know full well that you don’t really believe both. Implying that someone is either an idiot or dishonest is not conducive to good conversation. So, we really need to stop doing that.
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #1: Geisler leads out by connecting Licona’s argument with those who would deny the resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth because of their parallels with other Greco-Roman stories. And, that’s a fair question. But, unfortunately, Geisler seems to pose it more as a way of associating Licona with these as a way of proving that Licona is just another dehistoricizer. In other words, (a) they’re bad, (b) you look a lot like them, therefore (c) you must be bad too. (It’s the same logic that makes people cross the street at night to avoid people who dress a certain way.) 
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #2: Not satisfied with that, Geisler quickly moves to connect Licona to Robert Gundry and his resignation from ETS over similar issues. Having connected the two, Geisler seems to think that his work is basically done: (a) Gundry was guilty; (b) Licona is Gundry-resurrected; therefore, (c) Licona is guilty. It’s fascinating to me that he never considers the possibility that (a) the situations are actually different, or (b) the earlier decision was wrong. I’m not saying either of those is correct. But, they’re both worth exploring before throwing somebody under the bus. Aren’t they? 
  • The Implied Threat: Though Gundry doesn’t say so in the first letter, he clearly means to imply that Licona’s status in ETS is in jeopardy if he doesn’t change. After all, that’s what happened to Gundry. And, by the second letter, the implied threat has become much clearer. But, what’s interesting here is that Geisler is not a member of ETS. He resigned several years ago because the rest of ETS does not agree with him. Oddly, he doesn’t bring that up in either letter.  
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #3 (he really likes this kind of argument)Geisler paints Licona with the “pagan” brush. Apparently he thinks that if he can associate a position with the pagans, it must be wrong. (By the way, am I the only one who thinks of the movie Dragnet when people start talking about pagans?) Unfortunately, he never gets around to dealing with the reality that the biblical authors lived in Greco-Roman (i.e. “pagan”) context. One would think that this might have some significance for interpreting what they wrote. Just a thought. 
  • The Personal Affront: Geisler opens his second letter by making it sound like Licona has been dodging him. But, the simple fact is that Licona doesn’t owe Geisler any kind of response. To the extent that Licona chooses to engage, great. But, that’s his choice. (By the way, have you ever met someone at a party who insisted on carrying on a discussion/argument with you even though you clearly weren’t interested in talking? They bugged you, didn’t they?)

I may have missed a few, but those are the ones that stood out.

This isn’t discussion; it isn’t conversation; it isn’t helpful. This is debate. Pure and simple. It’s about winning and losing.

I should say, before concluding, that Geisler does ask some good questions. He wants to know whether we can really call these resurrections a poetic device without having to say the same about the resurrection of Jesus. And, he wants to know what methodology we’ll use to differentiate a “poetic device” from some problem text that we just don’t happen to like. And, finally, he wants to know what all of this entails for how we understanding the nature of Scripture. If we hold to Licona’s interpretation, and those like his, can we still meaningfully say that the Bible is inerrant? And, if so, what does that even mean?

These are good questions. And, they called for a good discussion. They deserved a good discussion. They didn’t get one.

They got a debate.

That’s sad.

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you can effectively silence each other by your superior debating skills.

I bet they could make a song out of that.

.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 13, 2011, in Apologetics, Critical Thinking, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. In the end, this issue does manifest both hermeneutics and theology. And sadly, there is often little consensus now even in so-called Evangelical theology.

  2. Marc: As we further see now what has taken place towards Mike Licona, and his simply Pharisaic treatment, and even loss of positions.. no doubt pressed by Giesler and Co., we can only say shame, oh shame indeed!

    Btw, I would simply not agree that this is even near the whole inerrancy issues! I am somewhat surprised that you saw it that way, since you no doubt know the Barth positions? But soon you will have Giesler’s new book, and Inerrancy will again be clear and saved! 😉

  1. Pingback: More on Geisler, Licona, and the Issues Involved | Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

  2. Pingback: When is an inerrancy debate not really about inerrancy? « scientia et sapientia

  3. Pingback: When is an inerrancy debate not really about inerrancy? | Everyday Theology

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