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What do you do with zombies in Matthew? A call for help

I can just imagine it. I’m hanging out at home, trying to relax, when someone knocks on my front door. Normally I would just sit quietly and hope they go away. But, for some reason, this time I actually get up.

Hello….Um….Zechariah?

Yup.

Aren’t you dead?

Yup. Now be quiet and pay attention. I have something important to tell you.

Okey dokey. Dead guy tells me to pay attention. I’m paying attention. Of course, I’m also reaching behind the door for my pitchfork, or whatever zombie killing devices they used in ye old Israel.

The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Mt. 27:52-53)

There’s been a lot of discussion about this passage in the last few days. And, I have to admit, that I’ve never been terribly comfortable with it. What exactly are we supposed to make of a bunch of dead people who suddenly walk out of their tombs and go sight-seeing in Jerusalem?

Some years back I got into a discussion about this passage with a friend. And, I argued at the time that I thought maybe this should be interpreted non-historically. I hadn’t really studied the passage, so it was just speculation, but I pressed on it a bit and tried to argue that Matthew was using this as a symbol of a deeper theological truth. Many friend kept pushing back, though, and after a while I realized that I was only doing that because this passage seemed too weird to be true. Zombie sightseers? Really? That’s just too weird.

But, here’s the problem. “Too weird to be true” just isn’t a very good argument.

Of course, the story raises some interesting questions. Why don’t the dead come out right away? Why do they wait until after the resurrection? What happens after they go into Jerusalem? Do they just hang out for a while, or do they turn to dust at midnight? And, why doesn’t anyone else talk about this stuff? Shouldn’t more people be commenting on such an amazing event? Why is it only in Matthew?

But, although those are interesting questions, none of them really say anything about whether this actually happened. They just re-emphasize how weird this story is. And, I believe lots of things that seem pretty weird to many people: the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection being rather high on that list. Those are weird, but I still believe them. Why is this any different?

Too-weird-to-be-true isn’t going to cut it.

But, quite a few people think there are reasons for reading this text non-historically. And, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their arguments go beyond my feeble too-weird-to-be-true “argument.” As we’ve seen over the last few days, Michael Licona holds this position, and both Mike Bird and John Byron have stated that they agree.

So, my question is: Why? Can anyone provide a good reason for reading Mt. 27:52-53 non-historically? I’m not even all that concerned with whether you agree with the argument, as long as it’s a good (or at least interesting) one. What are the best reasons for reading this passage as anything other than historical narrative? And, just to be clear, it has to be better than too-weird-to-be-true.

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When is an inerrancy debate not really about inerrancy?

Most of the time.

I hadn’t intended to write more about the Licona controversy and the inerrancy debate (here’s my first post), but I’ve gotten enough questions that I think I need to say a bit more. If you’d like to read more about the discussion, I’ve included some of the more important links at the bottom of this post.

The Basic Issues

  • Michael Licona understands the dead rising in Mt. 27:52-53 as a non-historical literary device rather than an actual historical event.
  • Many have argued that this is incompatible with inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) because it’s an example of “dehistoricizing” (see Article XVIII).
  • Licona claims that he believes in inerrancy and that his position on Mt. 27 is not incompatible with inerrancy. (I do not know whether Licona affirms inerrancy as defined by CSBI. But, for the sake of this post, I’ll assume that he does.)
  • Somebody is wrong.

According to CSBI, to affirm that the Bible is “inerrant” means you affirm that because God only speaks truth, and because the Bible is fully and wholly inspired by this truth-speaking God, the Bible speaks with “infallible divine authority” and is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” And, this infallible inerrancy extends to everything that it touches on, including “the events of world history.” So, for example, if the Bible makes a historical claim like “David was the king of Israel,” then it either must be the case that David was in fact an actual and historical king of Israel or inerrancy is false.

And CSBI is very clear in rejecting any attempt to “dehistoricize” scripture by turning historical events into non-historical events. In other words, you don’t get to dodge the Virgin Birth by turning it into a mere symbol of Christ’s unique significance. If the Bible presents it as an historical event, then it was one. You can reject the CSBI definition of inerrancy, but you can’t slip around it quite that easily.

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Like most things, it’s a bit more complicated in practice.

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The Real Crux of the Problem: Hermeneutics

All of this hinges on whether the Bible does in fact present some event as an actual historical event. Take, for instance, the six days of creation. Although many hold that Genesis 1 is historical and must be read that way, many other evangelicals disagree. Instead, they contend that Genesis 1 is doing something else (e.g. giving theological truths about the origin of the universe, offering a poetic account of creation, etc.). But, and this is key, when evangelicals read Genesis 1 in these ways, they are not rejecting inerrancy. They can still hold that Genesis 1 is infallible and inerrant in every way. They are simply arguing that the biblical authors never intended anyone to read Genesis 1 as describing literal, historical events. So, to read them that way is to misread the text.

In other words, it’s not that they think Genesis 1 tries to describe history and fails. They don’t think it is even trying to describe history, or it’s describing history with highly poetic language. It’s not wrong; it’s just doing something different. And, whatever it’s doing, it’s doing it inerrantly.

Now, is this an example of dehistoricizing a text? Are these people simply taking an obviously historical text and turning it into non-history so that they can avoid its clear implications? If so, then even though these people might still use the word “inerrancy,” it would not be the CSBI kind of inerrancy.

I don’t think so. I think we should reserve “dehistoricizing” for situations where a story that gives no indication of being anything other than historical is suddenly re-read as being non-historical. So, for example, to read the story of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and conclude that this never really happened, and that the story actually refers to the spiritual gathering of believers in heaven, that would be an example of dehistoricizing. (I don’t know anyone who actually does that with this story.) There’s nothing in the text to suggest that this is anything other than an historical account of a real event (though described, of course, from a particular perspective). But, regardless of how you read Genesis 1, I think we should all recognize that there are reasonable arguments for reading it as something other than six literal days of creation. You can disagree with those arguments, of course. That’s where the fun is. But, let’s at least acknowledge that these people can point to many elements in Genesis 1 as indicating that this text was never intended to be read as literal history. So, they’re not simply dehistoricizing; they’re trying to read the text the way the authors intended.

In other words, this isn’t a debate about inerrancy. It’s about hermeneutics. What is the proper way to understand Genesis 1, and are there indications in Genesis 1 that it is anything other than straightforward history? What is the genre of Genesis 1, and how did the original authors intend for it to be read? These are all hermeneutical issues. And, they’re all worth discussing. But, none of them necessarily undermines inerrancy.

Now, CSBI does deal with issues of hermeneutics, but not very thoroughly. All it says is that Scripture is “to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis.” And this doesn’t really solve our problem. As CSBI recognizes, grammatical-historical exegesis takes into account things like genre and literary devices. So, a grammatical-historical method could still read Genesis 1 as poetry (or whatever) if there are indications that this is how the text should be read.

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Hermeneutics & the Licona Debate

What does any of this have to do with the Licona debate? Quite simply, this is not a debate about inerrancy either. Everyone involved in the discussion affirms inerrancy. And, I haven’t heard anyone say that they’re defining inerrancy in any way other than that affirmed by CSBI. So, let’s take them at their word and assume that they do in fact believe what they say they do.

As with Genesis 1, this is a debate about hermeneutics. Licona claims that Matthew intended for us to read 27:52-53 as an “apocalyptic” device that highlights the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. According to him, this was a common literary device in Greco-Roman culture and that Matthew would have expected his readers to know this and read the text accordingly. In other words, he’s not saying that Matthew claimed that people rose from the dead and that Matthew was in fact wrong about this. He’s saying that Matthew never intended us to think that people actually rose from their graves.

So, the question is not whether Licona rejects inerrancy, but whether he is correct in his interpretation of Mt. 27:52-53. Does he in fact have good evidence for maintaining that this is how Matthew and his readers would have understood this text? In other words, can he demonstrate that “rising from the grave” was a literary device and would have been understood as such in Matthew’s day? That’s a hermeneutical question.

Now, I’ll have to be honest here, I’m not convinced by Licona’s argument. Mt. 27:52-53 sure looks and feels like a seamless part of the historical narrative in which it’s contained. So, I’m having a hard time seeing the basis for saying that these verses are a non-historical literary device, while the surrounding verses are historical. But, I haven’t studied the text myself. So, maybe there’s more to the argument than I recognize.

The point is, this is a debate about hermeneutics. It is not a debate about inerrancy. It could end up having implications for inerrancy if the hermeneutical issues are resolved and it’s concluded that this was not an accepted literary device in Matthew’s day. To continue reading the text as poetic then would be to dehistoricize the text and reject inerrancy. But, that is not where we are in the discussion at this point.

So, let me say it again. This is not a debate about inerrancy. At least, it shouldn’t be. And, escalating it into a debate about inerrancy at this juncture is neither wise nor helpful. It distracts from the real issues and prevents people from taking an honest look at what may be a legitimate interpretive possibility.

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For More Information:

I’m sure there are many others, but this should be more than enough.

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Flotsam and jetsam (1/24)

Arminians affirm everything necessary for a fully evangelical soteriology; Calvinists require more.  Why?

I simply want to introduce you to a side of him that you may not know, and hopefully to persuade you that he does, after all, belong to the human race. And I want to do that by focusing on two of his close friendships.

I have been taught the historical-grammatical approach to biblical hermeneutics both as an undergraduate student and as a graduate student. It has been useful, but it always left me wondering how this approach allows for the Scriptures to be the book of the church rather than merely an open source. It was not until this last semester when I encountered the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer that my paradigm was shaken.

  • Denny Burk offers a lengthy discussion of the textual problem in Luke 23:34 and why think thinks many experts are wrong when they conclude that Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them…” was not original.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/5)

  • Adam Copeland offers a discussion between a Twitter lover and a Twitter skeptic on Twitter Theology.

    I’m saying the Twitter community is one way—and a very helpful and cool way—of experiencing, showing, and living out those connections of our Church-connected theology.

    Somehow, however, as we have left allegory behind, perhaps killing it off precisely because of its religious origins, we have ended up leaving viewers and readers with oddly literalistic interpretive skills.

    So yeah, the coffee tastes a little burnt, it’s often hard to find a table, and occasionally they play Willie Nelson. But I’m sticking with it, because for all the prayers I’ve prayed, the conversations I’ve had where I felt the Holy Spirit move, for all the significant moments on my journey that I’ve had and am yet to have at St. Arbucks, I’m grateful.

    • Bill Mounce discusses “church nice” – our tendency to ignore sin for the sake of “peace.”

    Isn’t it interesting how explicit Scripture is? If you have something against someone, it is your responsibility to go to them (Matt 18:15). If you know your brother or sister has something against you, it is your responsibility to go to them (Matt 5:23-24). It is always yourresponsibility.

    Incorporating Lyotard’s Narratives: How Does the Gospel Stand Out?

    [This is a guest post by Andy Peloquin and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

    James K. A. Smith in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? outlines the implications of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of postmodern as the “incredulity toward metanarratives” on Christianity.  Smith states that Lyotard’s definition has been “bumper stickered” into a misconception of his critique of modernity, especially by Christians who see a threat to the Christian narrative of God’s overreaching purpose found in scripture.  He states that this misconception is to be found in misunderstanding what Lyotard means by metanarrative.  It is often thought to regard a story great in scope, but Smith indicates that this was not Lyotard’s concern.  Rather it was the nature of the narrative’s claims: “metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason.” (65)  Thus there exist grand stories in non-modern periods but the distinguishing fact in modernism is legitimization to a universal.  This concept of legitimacy is what Smith indicates is the focal point for Lyotard to demark between modern and postmodern.  For modernity, it is science (universal reason) that legitimates its claim. Science is in opposition to narrative which does not attempt to legitimize its claims but only declare them in a story (65).  This point is important for Smith to draw out in order to claim that Lyotard’s denunciation of metanarratives is good for the church.  In brief summary, Smith indicates the Church has co-opted the modern methodology and so attempts to rationalize scripture through the use of reason.  Instead the church should simply proclaim the narrative of scripture on its own terms without worrying about legitimization.  Thus the church can legitimately speak of the grand story of scripture on its own grounds without compromising that story.  The problem that Smith notes, however, is that you then have a plurality of these narratives which are in themselves all legitimate, with none able to appeal to a higher judge of legitimacy.

    How does this then affect our proclamation and defense of the gospel?  Smith critiques what he calls the classic view of apologetics as being modern in its use of reasoning.  He advocates for a ‘presuppositional’ style in which all presuppositions are laid out and then the gospel is proclaimed in its narrative through the power of the Holy Spirit.  I think this is the greatest difficulty to overcome and I was a little disappointed in the lack of explanation/exposition of this.

    If the Christian story is one of many other equally legitimate stories and there cannot be an appeal to a higher judge to show one better than the other, than how can we speak clearly the message of the gospel among so many voices?  I like Smith’s appeal to the Holy Spirit but I would have liked a more robust defense and explanation here of what this looks like in the everyday.  What do we do with a culture (such as in Portland) that evaluates all these stories as equally legitimate (‘what works for you’) and/or thinks they are just the same story leading to the same end (religious pluralism)?  What is more, what do we do with this apologetic in the context of a culture (such as Chinese) that already easily syncretizes various religious systems and so would have no problem with accepting the gospel or just parts, into their narrative – especially if they see them as equally legitimate?  How do you adequately address the uniqueness of the Christian faith story as we see given in it (i.e. Jn. 14:6) in this system?

    The Literal Grammatical Historical Hermeneutic and Modernity’s Voice

    A guest post by Jerome Wernow.

    I wonder if the literal-grammatical-cultural-historical hermeneutic used in current Evangelical exegesis is but a modernist construct arising from the fundamentalist-theological liberalism debates of the late 19th century like that of Charles Hodge’s common sense realism and Baconian inductivism. It seems to have gained traction and solidified in the early 20 century by particularly as advocated by J. Gresham Machen in the Princeton Theological Seminary debates. Here the philosophy wherein the method is structured is predicated upon a logical positivism similar to the early Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy. It is taken up by Bernard Ramm and later by Carl Henry’s propositional revelation notions.

    My notion has been better clarified by my good friend R.T. Michener where he suggests that “fundamentalism and theological modernism are simply different sides of the same radical modernist coin. Both embrace the paradigms of Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism too seriously. The way I see it ( Hauerwas affirms this and I agree) is that theological liberalism tries to keep the faith by cutting out all the things that don’t fit into the empirical and/or rational modes, whereas fundamentalism tries to defend them using the tools of empiricism and rationalism to the nth degree. Both end up embracing rationalism and empiricism as the first order bases or “metaphysic” as such, upon which to build a worldview. This is what led the fundamentalist strain in evangelicalism, according to Hauerwas, to make “Sola Scriptura” equal to “Sola Text.” After pondering his clarification, I find myself in accord with his musings.

    Further, I suggest mining the philosophical constructs of those who wrote grammar and hermeneutical textbooks used in Evangelical seminaries using ‘the method,’ as well as, the content of the books themselves. My counter to those who appeal to antiquity to demonstrate a golden braid free from modernity’s web is this. Could it be that the principles of the ‘the method’ found in antiquity are mere voicings of a Greco-philosophical rationalists’ strand of modernity that is critiqued by Heidegger and more properly Westphal, voicings that ‘became’ the univocity of modernity?

    Now, one should not take my concord with the voices of Heidegger, Westphal, and R.T. ( he does not demean) as ultimately demeaning the method. For me, it is “one way of saying being” amidst many ways (William Desmond-Philosophy and Its Others). The method is useful and ready-in-hand as a tool to unlock one of the bolts in order to enter the ‘Doors of the Sacred ’ (to mine Moriah in Tolkien speak). It is not the only voicing needed to open that door, however. Exegesis emerges from a dynamic plurivocity where the Triune God conducts the voices from the middle (the metaxu to use William Desmond speak). He as Conductor leads to conscious emergence of exegetical significance and meaning.

    Picture the plurivocity of voices in the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, Acts 8:25-39). Whatever hermeneutic was involved in the Eunuch’s ordinary language understanding would be but univocal in had he sat in his chariot alone with his text-in-hand. Other voices that are ‘saying being’ co-participated in exegetical emergence when he sought dis-closure-of-truth-in-text. It included the current community narrative of Philip, the Eunuch’s emotional emergence of spiritual consciousness in community worship, the salvation history of church universal in process, spiritual illumination by the Holy Spirit’s voicing, the voice of the angel, and perhaps others as well i.e. Candace.

    Well enough, I must return to my exegetical tasks of the day – constructing the sermon…take a look and uncover my hypocrisy http://www.gracepointfellowship.org/
    ;-)

    Flotsam and jetsam (9/13)

    Is the Web dead?

    In a recent Wired magazine article, Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff argued that the Web is dead, but the Internet is alive and well. To support their argument, they pointed to the growing popularity of self-contained “apps” as opposed to the more free-form web browser. Although these apps still access the internet, they do so in a more focused way. And, these authors argue that the rise of the apps is having a dramatic impact on our overall internet usage, supporting their point with the following graph.

    Based on this graph, one would definitely get the impression that web traffic has decreased significantly over the last few years. However, Rob Beschizza points out (“Is the Web Really Dead?“) that since the graph focuses on the relative proportions of various kinds of traffic, it really doesn’t say anything about whether web browsing is on the decline. It only indicates that its “market share” is declining. If you like at actually usage, you get a very different graph.

    To me, this was an excellent example of looking closely at the data to see what it’s really telling you. Graphs, pictures, statistics, and other kinds of data are great, but only when they’re interpreted carefully. I also thought the first graph was very interesting once I realized what it was saying. I knew internet video was growing rapidly, but I hadn’t realized what a large slice of the pie it had become.

    Reading the Bible like classical literature…kind of

    Justin Taylor posted a summary of Leland Ryken’s “Eight Easy Ways to Misread the Classics.” According to Ryken, each of the following is a fallacy that we often commit when reading the classics.

    1. Be sure the read the classics for their ideas.
    2. Assume without question that the classics tell the truth.
    3. Look upon the classics as “improving literature.”
    4. Regard the classics as beyond criticism.
    5. Assume that moral considerations are irrelevant to the classics.
    6. Be sure that you do not see anything in the classics that the author and original audience did not see it in it.
    7. Assume that all that matters is what a work says to you.
    8. View the classics as relics in the museum of the past.

    These are all great points to consider when reading the classics. I know when I first started reading classical literature on my own, the first point was really all I had in mind. I didn’t read the classics because I enjoyed them as works of art. Instead, I mined them for ideas. Of course, their ideas are worth engaging, but reducing a classic work of art to its cognitive dimension is tragic. So, by the way, is forcing teenagers to read the classics because “it’s good for you” (fallacy #3).

    As I was reading the list, though, I began to reflect on whether these same fallacies applied to the Bible. At first glance, the last four seem to hold true when discussing the Bible.  Moral considerations (#5) are never irrelevant to a holy God who judges sin and a loving God who wants the best for his people. And, we should say that the Bible is the kind of “classic” that has the ability to transcend the particular concerns of its author and to speak in new contexts and in new ways (#6). We don’t want to lose sight of the authorial context, but we can and should be open to the possibility that texts (particularly when brought into canonical relationship with other texts) might be able to speak in new and unexpected ways. And, the last two seem pretty straightforward. What the Bible says to me is important, but always secondary to what God is saying in the text. And, obviously, we can’t view the Bible as just a relic of the past.

    But, what about the first four? While I agreed with each of these when I was thinking about classical literature, I realized that each needs to be nuanced in important ways when discussing Scripture.

    1. Although I would never reduce the Bible to its “ideas,” we should read the Bible to understand what it is saying about God, us, and our world.
    2. We absolutely should assume that the Bible tells the truth. There’s plenty of room for us to discuss what it means to say that the Bible is “true” and what level of confidence any of us can have that we have actually understood its truth. But none of that changes the fact that we should read the Bible as true.
    3. I’ll fudge a little here because I think it would be horrible to see the Bible as “improving literature.” The Bible does not primarily provide a message about how we can living better loves. Nonetheless, the Bible is God’s transformative message to humanity that radically shapes and continually reshapes his people.
    4. This one needs to be nuanced depending on what you mean by “criticism.” On the one hand, of course we want to engage the text critically, bringing to bear all of our intellectual resources as we wrestle with the text to understand its meaning. On the other hand, if “criticism” means (even implicitly) an attempt to avoid the Bible’s authority, placing oneself in judgment over the text, and refusing to be humbled before God’s word, then we’ve got a problem.

    So, I think we read the Bible differently from other classical works, and I’m okay with that. Indeed, I think it’s essential for reading the Bible the way that it asks to be read – the way God asks us to read it.

    What do you think? Would you nuance these eight fallacies differently than I have when it comes to reading Scripture? I’d be particularly interested to hear what you have to say about #2 and #4. But, feel free to comment on any/all of them.

    The tyranny of individualism in interpretation

    Kent Eilers posted a nice quote from D.H. Williams, warning about the Protestant tendency to emphasize individual Bible reading so much that we end up with individual “popes,” each with their own authoritative interpretation. The quote ends like this:

     It is a Pyrrhic victory for Free church Protestantism when the net effect of its teaching results in the replacing of the tyranny of the magisterium with the tyranny of individualism [Retrieving the Tradition, Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 201]

    You can read the full post and comments over at Theology Forum.