Blog Archives

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.

.

The Blandness of Theological Small Talk – reflections on the Borg/Blomberg interaction at NW ETS

I hate small talk. Prattling inanely with someone you barely know about things you find only marginally interesting, just doesn’t rank very high on my list of things to do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a good conversation. On the contrary, give me a meaningful conversation, some significant dialog, or even a lively debate anytime. But, stick me in a room thick with the stench of small-talkiness, and I’m looking for the nearest exit.

Unfortunately, there’s a theological equivalent of small talk, and I think I saw it on full display just yesterday.

Let me explain. A really meaningful conversation requires at least four things.

  1. Unique identities. For a meaningful conversation to take place, you and I need to be different enough to create a “space” for the conversation. I don’t really need to dialog with someone who agrees with me. I already know what I think. At the same time, those involved in the conversation need to recognize the uniqueness of everyone else. In a good conversation, I’m not simply try to replicate myself by turning you into a (less adequate) clone of me. Instead, in a good conversation, everyone sees the other as valuable and as contributing something meaningful to the process.
  2. Owned perspectives. At the same time, everyone needs to have a perspective on the issue(s) and to “own” that perspective sufficiently to want to retain it. Have you ever tried to have a good conversation with someone who doesn’t care about what you’re discussing? It doesn’t work.
  3. Respectful pushback. The first two combine to form the third. If I respect you as a unique and valuable individual and if I respect the importance of the issue were discussing, then I need to push back if I think you’re wrong or misdirected on some point. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I have to be rude. But, it does mean that I’m not just going to let differences slide. I might do that with someone I have no interest in – the person in line behind me at the coffee shop, for example – but not someone whose unique value I claim to respect.
  4. Teachability. Finally, in a real conversation, all parties are looking to learn something. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re willing to jettison our own perspectives – we “own” those, remember – but it does mean that we see everyone else in the conversation as having something beneficial to contribute, to which we should all pay close attention.

If you think about the most dynamic and engaged conversations you’ve ever had, I’m guessing that you’ll see most (hopefully all) of these elements represented. At least, I hope you’ve had conversations like this. They’re fabulous experiences that should be repeated as often as possible.

Unfortunately, when Craig Blomgerg and Marcus Borg met at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was hoping for some real dialog. Instead, I think all we got was small talk.

Borg and Blomberg clearly have their own perspectives. No problem there. Indeed, they went out of their way to affirm the “other” in the conversation, and they were remarkably polite throughout. Unsurprisingly, they each “own” their perspective. They’re professional scholars who have written and debated these issues extensively. So, they clearly know what they think and hold to it with conviction.

The problem came with the lack of respectful pushback. Indeed, the problem is that there really wasn’t any. With two high-powered scholars like this, you’d expect to see a pretty dynamic give-and-take, as each takes a stand on issues that they feel strongly about. Instead, it felt more like the kind of get-to-know-you small talk that typically happens in the lobby before the session starts. They both explained what they think on a wide range of issues, and sought to clarify the positions of the other person. Indeed, Borg even said at one point that “understanding” was their real objective. Neither really stepped out and said what we all know they were both thinking, “You’re wrong.” Apparently we’re not allowed to say that anymore. And, sadly, without it, you can’t have real dialog. Understanding the “other” is fine, but by itself it is insufficient and unsatisfying.

The closest that we got to this was Blomberg making it clear that he thinks a future physical resurrection is fundamental to adequate Christian theology. Amen! For a moment I had a glimmer of hope that we’d see a real dialog take shape. Instead, he let it stand as a clarification of his own perspective. And, we lapsed back into “understanding.”

Let me be clear. I think good conversations need to be polite, but they also need to be respectful. And, those are not the same thing. Politeness says that I will not be rude and offensive in our conversation. (Yes, I realize that many historical theologians broke this rule regularly. I think they were wrong. See, I said it.) And, Brian LePort is right that everyone at the meeting was remarkably polite.

Respect is different. Respect says that I value you and this issue enough to take a stand and wrestle toward greater truth and clarity. Respect demands more than just understanding. Respect requires us to take a stand and say “no” when necessary, while still seeking to grow and learn through the interaction. If I truly see you as “other,” I respect you enough to tell you that you’re wrong.

I’d have liked to see more respect yesterday.

Indeed, I’d like to see more respect in theological dialog as a whole. What I think we often see today is politeness without respect, which is the perfect recipe for theological small talk.

At which point, I’m looking for the nearest exit.

The role of empathy in theological studies

Meaningful theological and historical dialog requires empathy – the ability to identify with the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of another person. Without it, you are only talking to yourself.

Mike Koke helpfully provided the following quote, which sums up the importance of empathy very nicely.

The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practicioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers.” (Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity is not Neutrality, 148-149)

As Mike goes on to point out, this doesn’t mean that we have to abandon our own commitments in the vain pursuit of the unicorn we know as “objectivity.” But, it does mean that we temporarily bracket our opinions long enough to view the other side as they see themselves.

Of course, we’ll never do this perfectly. But, you know what they say, anything worth doing is worth butchering so badly that you make everyone mad and end up sleeping on the couch.

(HT Scotteriology)