Category Archives: Critical Thinking

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.

.

Dorothy Sayers on the Lost Tools of Learning (and a happy birthday)

Today marks Dorothy Sayers‘ 118th birthday (June 13, 1893). Writer, theologian, poet, essayist, and playwright, Sayers did it all. And, she did it amazingly well.

To commemorate her birthday, here are some excerpts from her essay on The Lost Tools of Learning. Regardless of whether you agree with her argument that we need to return to medieval models of education (and the way this argument has been used by the classical and home schooling movements), her comments on the importance of learning to think are outstanding:

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

..

Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.” Why do I say, “as though”? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to “give himself the feel of the tool.”

..

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education—lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

A Place for Truth (a review)

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions edited by Dallas Willard  (IVP 2010).

★★★☆☆

A Place for Truth is an interesting collection of essays originally presented as a series of talks at various universities through the Veritas Forum. The goal of the series was to reintroduce the pursuit of the “big questions” into American universities so that they can again become “a place for truth.” Whether the forums themselves accomplished that broader purpose, the book certainly raises and explores a variety of interesting truth questions. Since the material was originally presented orally to a general, and largely undergraduate, audience, the chapters are relatively brief, introductory, and easy to follow. So, if you already have a background in any of the subjects covered by the various essays, you will likely find the material disappointing. But, if you’re looking for a readable introduction to a number of interesting questions, this would be an interesting place to start.

Summary

The book has been organized loosely around six main themes:

1. General questions related to truth itself (chapters 1-3)

2. The relationship between faith and science (chapters 4-6)

3. The adequacy of atheism (chapters 7-8)

4. The nature of humanity and the pursuit for meaning (9-11)

5. The Christian worldview (chapter 12)

6. Issues related to social justice (chapters 13-15)

This divisions, however, are fairly loose. It’s best to read each essay as a stand-alone piece on some aspect of “truth,” rather than as part of any intentional structure or organizing motif.

Strengths

Like any collection of essays, the strength of the book lies in its best essays. And, several essays really stand out. Without question, my favorite was Jeremie Begby’s piece on “The Sense of an Ending.” Begbie builds on the idea that the ending of a story is what “gives the whole story a unity, gathering the strands together, resolving the discord and dissonance into…a ‘grand temporal consonance'” (216). He then reflects on tension and resolution in music, before diving into postmodernism, metanarratives, and the importance of “living with a sense of God’s ending” (228). The essay serves as an argument for the power of an eschatological imagination for theology and life today.

Dallas Willards’ essay, “Nietzsche versus Jesus Christ” was also well worth reading. Willard begins by discussing Nietzsche in relation to constructionism, phenomenalism, modernism, and truth, showing how the Nietzschian vision has thoroughly shaped contemporary perspectives on these issues. He then argues that the heart of the debate between Jesus and Nietzsche is the issue of truth and “its relationship to human freedom, well-being, and fulfillment” (163). And, of course, he concludes by arguing that it is only in Jesus Christ that we find a valid and satisfying account of these issues.

Tim Keller’s essay on “Reason for God: The Exclusivity of Truth” offers a nice summary of strategies that people use to reject exclusivity and why those strategies don’t work. He also makes a helpful distinction between “propagandist” secularism (i.e. imposing a secular worldview on everyone) and “procedural secularism” (i.e. creating a neutral space for public discourse).

And, Paul Vitz gave a fascinating essay on “The Psychology of Atheism.” Basically, he uses the pscyhological arguments many people use to explain why people believe, and he turns them around to discuss the psychological reasons that have for not believing. I’m sure no atheist would find his arguments convincing, but believers don’t find pychologized accounts of their faith convincing either. Turnabout is fair play, as they say.

Weaknesses

Since the strength of the book rests in its best essays, it should come as no surprise that its weaknesses lie in the opposite direction. And, many of the essays in the book suffered from three general flaws that hindered their usefulness for me.

Os Guiness‘ lecture, “Time for Truth,” made the mistake of trying to cover too much ground in a relatively short essay. As a result, I felt that he just skimmed the surface, never touching down long enough to say anything really interesting or compelling.

Stemming from the originally oral nature of the presentations, several of the chapters involved a give-and-take between thinkers on opposite sides of an issue. While I like this approach in general, I didn’t think that the chapters afforded adequate space for either party to develop his/her ideas. Instead, the reader is left with some interesting thoughts that do little to advance her understanding of the issue. And, I was particularly disappointed by the essay on “Can robots become human?” That chapter title caught my eye right away, but the bulk of the chapter is devoted to a moderated dialog between the authors that I didn’t find terribly interesting.

Finally, two of the essays, Hugh Ros and Mary Poplin, took an entirely narratival approach to their argument. While some readers will probably find their personal stories compelling and engaging, I had a difficult time seeing that they contributed much to the issues at hand.

Having identified these three areas as weaknesses in the book, however, I’m sure that many others will find them to be strengths instead. There is a place for cursory overviews, give-and-take dialog, and personal narrative. For me, though, these chapters fell fairly flat.

Conclusion

Before concluding, I should comment on a few more of the essays. Several were difficult for me to classify as either strong or weak. That’s because these essays were just solid explanations of arguments that a particular author has been making for quite some time. In this category I’d put those essays by Richard Neuhaus, Francis Collins, N. T. Wright, Ron Snider, and John Montgomery. Since I was very familiar with these authors and their arguments, I found it difficult to get interested. But, if these are new ideas/authors for you, I’m sure you will see them differently.

In the end, A Place for Truth contains several outstanding essays that are definitely worth reading, several solid essays that provide excellent introductions to key arguments, and a few essays that I found less interesting/compelling, but that might impact a someone else quite differently. If you’re looking for good, short essays on contemporary truth issues, this one is worth considering.