The Disputatio–A Response to Norman Geisler in Defense of Mike Licona

by Max Andrews

In a previous post I expressed my public support and endorsement of Dr. Mike Licona.  This week Dr. Norman Geisler released another letter in response to Christianity Today’s article on Licona and an article comparing Licona to Robert Gundry.  Dr. Geisler presents eleven main points of contention.  This is my response to Dr. Geisler.

Preface.  I understand that I stand before giants of the faith and I exercise my criticism with sincere humility.  The following is intended to be a respectful and constructive criticism of Dr. Geisler’s arguments.  I respect Dr. Geisler and appreciate the contributions he has made to the Christian Church.  It is my belief that we should all encourage constructive criticism and that it should be received well.  These comments do not purport to express the opinions or beliefs of Mike Licona or any associated entities.  These comments are my own.

1. Methodology and Gundry. Geisler’s first contention was the transitivity of methodology, bibliology, and theology.  He asserts that Licona’s methodology is unorthodox.  But what makes it unorthodox?  Recall that “Bioi offered the ancient biographers great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches… and they often included legend.  Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins.”  Where is the line of demarcation? That is the task Licona is attempting to solve. Why should we reject the evidence for Licona’s methodology?  It seems to be mere assertion on Geisler’s part.  There’s nothing prima facie to suggest that this historiographical approach is unorthodox nor has any nuanced aspects been successfully demonstrated to be unorthodox.

Licona’s methodology is completely acceptable and orthodox. Recall Ned Stonehouse’s first presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society.[1] He stressed the evangelical progress.  He expressed concern about those who too readily rejected the two-document theory of Gospel origins, who make Matthean authorship of the Gospel an article of the faith and who conceive of biblical inerrancy in an a priori abstract manner.  He continued by addressing the centrality of the hermeneutical question and the useful role of conservative biblical criticism in relation to the doctrine of inspiration.  Intense scrutiny was encouraged.  Licona does not appear to have any philosophical, theological, or historical a priori agendas.  I would argue that Licona, at this point in his research, holds to inerrancy a priori in his historiographical method. By all appearances, Licona seems to be treating the text in a textual positivist manner (as an object of scientific study [methodologically speaking] with no room for hermeneutical free-invention).  His historiographical method rendered a conclusion that certain events may not have literally happened.  Given Licona’s commitment to inerrancy he may have reconsidered the genre of the text in question.  In this case, historical evidence of such an event is scarce and our knowledge of Greco-Roman bios (the categorically broad genre of the text) permits the text to be rendered in a non-literal sense then we have warrant for considering/accepting such an explanation and/or conclusion.  We do this all the time in our hermeneutical method.  When Jesus claims that the mustard seed is the smallest of the seeds and our knowledge of botany shores little evidence, or even contradictory evidence, we reconsider the genre.  Jesus isn’t speaking literally he speaking parabolically.  We do this with scientific knowledge in identifying miracles.  We are able to identify miracles against our background knowledge of the natural world and our science.  This inductive/abductive process may also be considered to be the inference to the best explanation, which is a commonly accepted methodology within the broader framework.

As literary tools related specifically and only to the human, historical, literary processes whereby the varied books comprising Scripture came into being, do these tools as such negate Scripture as being also the written Word of God?  Or, given Scripture as the written Word of God, is the careful application of such critical methods to the biblical text therefore wrong?  No to both.[2]

Additionally, Geisler’s transitivity argument from methodology to bibliology to theology isn’t as strong as he thinks it is.  It may certainly be the case that a nuance of one’s methodology does not retain its potency and affect when it comes to the theological task.  I’m not going to deny there is a relationship but the relationship of these tasks is not as potent as Geisler makes it out to be.

Finally, is this Gospel dehistorization?  No, because the authorial intent and audience understanding of the text may have been rendered as apocalyptic imagery.  Perhaps it’s the case that the audience knew that such an event did not literally happen and made the same consequent inductions Licona made.  Should we dehistoricize the entire document if one aspect of the document varies in literary construction?  No, this argument from dehistorization is a sweeping generalization and compositionally fallacious.

See TGA below for my thoughts on Geisler’s Gundry argument.

2.  War of the War of the Words.  Licona has not denied the fundamental centrality of Scripture de jure or de facto, nor has he redefined inerrancy.  His affirmation of inerrancy is completely consistent with the ICBI and the ETS’s statement.  This assertion also relies on the validity of Geisler’s first contention, which is arguably weak.

3.  Fired or Resigned?  I’m not going to argue as to what actually happened here, but my concern is that it happened and that it’s an unfortunate dilemma.  If Licona was “let go” or “fired,” it’s quite sad that the SES faculty dismissed him for such an issue.  If, on the other hand, Licona resigned, then I imagine SES made contributing and compelling factors towards his decision.  Either way, it’s sad and unfortunate.

4.  Apparently, Licona Doesn’t Mean What He Really Means.  I simply don’t get this point.  Licona offers clarifying remarks but Geisler rejects his clarifications.  Why?  This is a clear attempt by Licona to advance the discussion and clarify himself but Geisler simply pins Licona’s words back to previously misunderstood and criticized positions.  How does Geisler know the motivation for Licona’s clarifying comments?  How can he demonstrate that the reason behind the clarification was because things didn’t seem to be going his way?  Do I detect a genetic fallacy?  Maybe Licona made these clarifying comments because, oh, maybe he needed to simply clarify them?  By way of note, so what if Christianity Today didn’t want to publish Geisler’s thoughts?  Just because there’s an avenue that doesn’t wish to include Geisler’s clarifying comments doesn’t mean it’s unfair.  Maybe it’s because Geisler noticed something going against him and may be losing ground? Well, I can’t make that argument lest I be genetically fallacious.

5.  The Strange Little Text and the Real Situation.  Here Geisler is upset about how Christianity Today presented the situation.  Okay.  If anything was left out it’s now been clarified.  However, I would argue that we do need to use extra-biblical stories and sources to assist us in our hermeneutic.  Background knowledge plays a crucial role in exegesis.  I really don’t get this argument and I believe it’s just patently false.

6.  Theological Bullies.  Why is Geisler trying to explain away the quotes and sources in the article?  Of course there are professors and scholars who are not expressing public support.  They will target themselves and Geisler will have more people to accuse of being deniers of inerrancy.  That’s typically not a sought after situation (which is what I hesitated publishing this response).  He claims that these comments shift the discussion from scholarly debate to theological bullying.  Surely, Geisler doesn’t think he is engaged in scholarly debate amidst all of this.  There’s no way.  (See my concluding remarks).

7.  Witch Hunts and Dialogues.  It’s interesting that Geisler complains of a lack of contribution to dialogue.  Let’s recall point four above.  Licona attempted to progress the discussion by clarifying himself but that was clearly forbidden by Geisler.  Anyways, I think Geisler has an excellent point here.  I do believe Christianity Today can print whatever they want to print; however, I do believe their article could be more insightful if both sides were equally presented.  It just depends on what the intent and goal of the article was.  (For more on this point see my concluding remarks).

8.  An Equivocation and False Consequent.  Christianity Today suggested that Licona be given slack in this situation whereas Geisler says no slack should be given at all.  It’s interesting how one controversial belief or methodology affects the whole of a person’s system.  So, if there’s one controversial belief the whole person should be written off?  I’m thankful we didn’t do that with Martin Luther.  He was certainly no friend of Jews but he still had great contributions to the faith.  What I find inappropriate on Geisler’s part is his equivocation of Licona to Arius.  Really?  I honestly cannot believe that he is comparing Licona’s methodology with Arius.  Arius wasn’t simply unorthodox he was a heretic! I don’t believe Licona is unorthodox but for Geisler to draw the comparison together Licona would have to be a heretic (otherwise Geisler’s example is meaningless).  Is Geisler willing to label Licona as a heretic?  I certainly hope not.  We should glean and practice discretion when it comes to considering a scholar’s belief about things.  Pass over the bad and embrace what’s good.  If we wrote everyone off because of a controversial belief then we will be left with very few, if any at all.  This is simply a bad principle to follow.

Geisler then appeals to Dr. Al Mohler’s response to Licona suggesting that Licona’s methodology gives ammunition to skeptics and enemies of the resurrection.  This is a non sequitur on two accounts.  Consider the antecedent (X) and let X be Licona’s conclusion on the resurrection of the saints or the angels at the tomb.  First, there’s a failure in recognizing the nuanced differences in the Scriptural genre.  Licona is suggesting an apocalyptic imagery for the event in question and a literal historical event for the resurrection.  For Mohler and Geisler to construct an entailment relationship commits a category error, a failure to make the distinction in genre categories.  Secondly, even if we only consider the broader category of literal historical circumstance for every event in question and we antecedently deny X it does not follow that we must deny the resurrection.  This is a classic slippery slope argument at best.

9. Criticizing the Scarecrows.  Geisler has dubbed one scholar’s claim, “If we view our own interpretation to be just as inerrant as the Scriptures, this could ironically elevate tradition and erode biblical authority” to be a straw man argument. Geisler claims that he has never made such a claim.  Sure, I don’t think anyone is going to actually explicitly claim that.  However, I find it quite difficult for Geisler to be able to distance himself from the claim.  I’ll leave this point where it is but this is certainly a principle we all need to consider.

10.  The Great Bifurcation. (See point one).

11.  More Media Bias.  This point by Geisler is intended more towards Christianity Today.  Again, I believe the article would have been more substantive and informing had both sides been presented but Christianity Today can publish whatever they want.  Maybe it’s the case that Christianity Today wanted to actually devote an article to defend Licona.  Are they wrong for doing that?  I don’t think so.  I think the obvious question is whether Geisler would be this concerned about it had they written an article that completely sided with him on the issue.  If there’s ever an article released by any news organization or society siding with Geisler and doesn’t give Licona a fair platform I hope Geisler criticizes them for being bias.

TGA.  The Gundry Argument.  Geisler constantly refers to this situation with Licona as being equivalent to Robert Gundry and is expulsion from the ETS in 1983.  There is certainly an argument to be made that Gundry may not have been warranted expulsion from the ETS, which would certainly have to be substantiated first.[3]  Then, Geisler must demonstrate that Gundry depicts an appropriate historical precedent on Licona’s situation.  Geisler’s Averroes argument isn’t appropriate in this context either.  It’s true that Licona affirms inerrancy but it isn’t only in the sense of faith, his affirmation is also from the standpoint of reason and Scriptures relationship with reality (recall the above section on methodology).  The Gundry Argument is a weak precedent to consider and is an equivocation at best.  There are too many variables in methodology between the two situations for Grundry to have any compelling precedence on the Licona situation.  The Gundry Argument should be abandoned and let’s focus on the present case at hand.

What’s more is that I wonder why Licona is being singled out here.  He’s not the first nor is he the only one to advocate or question the literal interpretation of Matthew 27.  For example,  William Lane Craig has publicly questioned Matthew 27 in his debate with Hector Avalos (within the first two minutes of the linked audio).  Craig maintains an agnostic position suggesting that he does not know whether it literally happened or whether it is apocalyptic imagery.  Is Geisler going to lead a crusade against Craig now?  Should we write Craig off (as in reference to point eight)?  Should we consider Craig or anyone else who is agnostic or holds to a non-literal interpretation to be a denier of inerrancy?  I hardly think so.

Closing Remarks: The Neglect and Abuse of Scholarship.  The English poet John Milton did well when he said “Truth will rise to the top through a free and open exchange in the marketplace of ideas.”  I am so encouraged when I have and see a substantive dialogue with someone concerning an issue.  I assist in managing and teaching an Intro. to Philosophy course and I always encourage my students to make us work hard to convince them of what we believe to be true.  Do not simply sit there and take what I say and teach prima facie–challenge me and challenge their thinking.

This marketplace is critically important in scholarship.  I appreciate scholarly societies and journals that published papers by both Christians and non-Christians.  Peer-review is critically important.  I appreciate the role of referees and reviewers in this process by offering their criticisms.

My concern is the upsetting trend of rejecting this free exchange in the marketplace. We need to put our views in empirical harms way.  It is virtuous to be intellectually open-minded and, I believe, we have an obligation to follow the evidence.  We should encourage dialogues.  We should allow scholarship run its course in researching opposing views and in keeping our own views accountable.  We need to have a reasonable allowance for dissenting views.  There is a way to respectfully disagree and argue against another position.  We need to have substantive dialogue and allow reasonable room for dissent.  We need to have a desire for the truth and not be so dogmatic that what we currently believe is all there is.

The real debate surrounding this debacle should not be around the issue of inerrancy, the debate should be the historiographical approach, interpretation, and genre of the passage.  Inerrancy is not in danger here.  Let’s allow the historians, biblical scholars, and the theologians to research and review this issue.  Let’s publish this research in peer-reviewed settings.  Let’s embrace scholarship and lovingly permit a variety of views.  Yes, there is one intended meaning behind each word in Scripture but we obviously don’t all agree on what they are.  Let’s take these views and use them as factors to consider as we search for the truth.

Personally, I don’t know how to interpret Matthew 27. I remain agnostic.  Licona has presented compelling arguments and critics have offered good arguments as well.  This is where I hope dialogue and scholarship functions, as it should. I hope for more research to be done so I can use their information in my personal research.

I hope that my criticisms are received well as they are intended to be constructive.


[1] Ned Stonehouse, “The Infallibility of Scripture and Evangelical Progress” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society (1958), 9.  For more on Stonehouse’s address see John D. Morrison, Has God Said? (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 83.

[2] When referring to a variety of forms of textual criticisms.  Morrison,104.

[3] I am not necessarily saying Gundry was right or wrong.  I am making no comment on that. I am merely saying that the truth of Geisler’s referent must be firmly substantiated prior to applying it to this situation.

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24 Responses to “The Disputatio–A Response to Norman Geisler in Defense of Mike Licona”

  1. Very well said Max. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Great work Max. Very thorough. I wrote on this back when it first came out. I mean this with all respect (seriously), but it seems like everyone took crazy pills on this one! Otherwise rational people constructed a littany of poorly-thought out arguments against Licona, and they weren’t against his position on the text as much as they were against his (phantom) unorthodox position on inerrancy. It’s sad, and I had thought this was blowing over. I’m just hoping Geisler doesn’t push this at the next ISCA conference, and divide that group by this controversy!

  3. This is excellent, Max! Will continue to pray for this situation.

  4. Upon receiving and considering a short presentation by first president, Dr. Norman Geisler on “Ten Reasons for the Historicity of the Resurrection of the Saints Passage in Matthew 27 and Six Reasons Why Denying the Historicity of this Text is Contrary to the ISCA Doctrinal Statement” (see http://www.normangeisler.com), the ISCA executive Committee voted a motion to go on record saying “we believe denying historicity of Matthew 27:50-53 is in conflict with ISCA doctrinal statement.”

    • I was thinking more along the lines of having ISCA take some kind of referendum on Licona, with those who think he is not unorthodox on one side and those who think he is unorthodox on the other. While I happen to think Matthew 27 is literal, I don’t think Licona is denying inerrancy by his interpretation. But I suppose I would be “safe” in virtue of not denying its historicity, even if I support Mike.

      • I should clarify my last comment: I meant that I was hoping Geisler did not convince them to do this. It doesn’t seem as though he has, so that is good.

      • Randy, I think they already did take a referendum on the issue, and it resulted in Mike Licona being officially “fired” (according to Geisler). Also, I think Dr. Geisler had a lot more to do with this then you might think. His letters are very probably what brought the attention of the SES to this matter, more so than Dr. Mohler’s report. And I can’t help think that Dr. Geisler likely went out of his way to make his views known to the NAMB/SES

      • I know they didn’t take a referendum of the membership, at least not completely (I never got anything). Maybe it was just the leadership. Who knows? 🙂

      • Are you a voting member?

      • Hmmm…I thought I was, but apparently I only signed up as a student member. Well there ya go. 😉

  5. Max. You should put an addendum that this was put on Geisler’s Facebook wall and that it was deleted.

  6. Geisler and Licona I’ve heard of, but frankly, who are you? People need to learn that if only Geisler and Licona gave their comments this would not have escaladed to the level that it is. Instead, every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks they have a dog in this fight; when instead, they have none. So a lot of individuals have offered replies, open letters to each other, etc. making personal attacks and the like, all while hiding it under the mask of “truth”. If this whole ordeal has demonstrated anything, it has shown that the internet bloggers are incredibly immature, and that they need to do us all a service and just stop writing until they have earned the right to be heard, and to speak the truth in love.

    In fact, I know from many leaders of seminaries in the country that they said the reason Licona was punished so severely by NAMB and other seminaries, was first and foremost his position distorts the traditional evangelical view of inerrancy for which these organizations have fought for so many years. And because of all of the negative media these organizations of his employment have received online. For instance, a simple Google search reveals dozens of individuals that call everyone’s academic credibility into question, when they themselves openly profess to have no formal education on the topic at all. Namely, the “internet bloggers” who have as much or less credibility then Wikipedia, are the one’s that really just need to stop. And then they get so ugly with other commentators that individual’s grow sick of responding, hence they stop and the others think they are winning battles for Christ. Not really, they are just just showing how immature they are.

      • Hah, Max. Did you just get rebuked for being a ‘nobody’ posting thoughts on a blog post by ‘nobody’ posting thoughts in a combox? Classic.

        Hi pot, meet kettle.

    • Bryan: Geisler and Licona I’ve heard of, but frankly, who are you?

      Reply: That’s a good question. Who are you? Since I do not know, by your admission, you do not have a dog in this fight and since I don’t know you, I really could stop listening now.

      Bryan: People need to learn that if only Geisler and Licona gave their comments this would not have escaladed to the level that it is.

      Reply: Exactly what color is the sky in your world? Geisler has not responded to his critics one bit. He’s still going on disregarding anything Mike says.

      Bryan: Instead, every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks they have a dog in this fight; when instead, they have none.

      Reply: First off, if we’re Christians, we do, because this is the body of Christ.

      Second, if we’re apologists, we do, because this effects our ministries and our academic and intellectual freedom.

      Third, I think Max could certainly inform you that I definitely do have a dog in this fight and in fact, more of one than he does. I won’t say why yet seeing as you just did a hasty generalization fallacy anyway.

      Bryan: So a lot of individuals have offered replies, open letters to each other, etc. making personal attacks and the like, all while hiding it under the mask of “truth”.

      Reply: And a lot of people complain about so-called bloggers and use personal attacks and the like, hiding it under the mask of “truth.”

      Bryan:If this whole ordeal has demonstrated anything, it has shown that the internet bloggers are incredibly immature, and that they need to do us all a service and just stop writing until they have earned the right to be heard, and to speak the truth in love.

      Reply: Sorry. Everyone can freely speak. No one is forced to listen. You don’t want to hear it? You don’t have to listen. Everyone can say something and the discerning reader can pick out who is and isn’t an authority.

      Bryan: In fact, I know from many leaders of seminaries in the country that they said the reason Licona was punished so severely by NAMB and other seminaries,

      Reply: Mike hasn’t been punished. Also, what seminaries are you talking about?

      Bryan: was first and foremost his position distorts the traditional evangelical view of inerrancy for which these organizations have fought for so many years.

      Reply: Mike does not damage Inerrancy in any way. No one had a problem with his book until Geisler said something.

      Bryan: And because of all of the negative media these organizations of his employment have received online. For instance, a simple Google search reveals dozens of individuals that call everyone’s academic credibility into question, when they themselves openly profess to have no formal education on the topic at all.

      Reply: I’ve been keeping up with this before you knew about it I’m sure. I’ve heard arguments called into question more than anything else.

      Bryan: Namely, the “internet bloggers” who have as much or less credibility then Wikipedia, are the one’s that really just need to stop.

      Reply: Remembering something here about personal attacks hiding under the mask of truth. Hasty Generalization again? Poisoning the Well? Ad Hominem? How many fallacies can you have in one sentence?

      Bryan: And then they get so ugly with other commentators that individual’s grow sick of responding, hence they stop and the others think they are winning battles for Christ. Not really, they are just just showing how immature they are.

      Reply: Sorry, but I’ve been blogging on this for awhile and I haven’t seen these ugly debates going on. It seems the majority opinion favors Mike.

  7. @Bryan:

    Why *of course* we all have a dog in this fight. If you’re a Christian, why wouldn’t you?

  8. @Bryan: classic ad hominem.

  9. I think Norman Geisler doesn’t get enough criticism from other Christians.

    I’ve got a book by him which details reasons he thinks atheism is unreasonable. A good portion of the text deals with evolution, Charles Darwin etc, but it was impenetrable due to the number of simple but important scientific errors that even a grade-school biology student could spot. It surprises me that someone could publish such a book without proofing the text past a biologist first.

    However, the passage that struck me as particularly egregious is where Geisler crows that when debating atheists it is the ones of a Jewish background that he most enjoys engaging with, because then he gets to taunt them about the holocaust. Something along the lines of “If you don’t believe in God, you can’t even say that murdering Jews is actually wrong!”.

    Now, you may think he has a point – I don’t, and could argue at length about why.

    But leaving that aside, even if I thought I could win a debate with such a tactic, I’d rather lose the argument than stoop so low as to use the murder of millions of people as a tool to score points, especially against someone who very likely lost relatives to the gas chambers. And I’d say the same to an atheist who would bait a bereaved Christian with taunts of “Where’s your God now?”.

    To me, this shows a man who is so in love with his arguments that he has lost track of his own humanity.

  10. “I think Norman Geisler doesn’t get enough criticism from other Christians.”

    Amen.

    “I’ve got a book by him which details reasons he thinks atheism is unreasonable. A good portion of the text deals with evolution, Charles Darwin etc, but it was impenetrable due to the number of simple but important scientific errors that even a grade-school biology student could spot. It surprises me that someone could publish such a book without proofing the text past a biologist first.”

    But you see, Norman Geisler knows all things, even topics that fall outside his field of expertise. 🙂

    “However, the passage that struck me as particularly egregious is where Geisler crows that when debating atheists it is the ones of a Jewish background that he most enjoys engaging with, because then he gets to taunt them about the holocaust. Something along the lines of ‘If you don’t believe in God, you can’t even say that murdering Jews is actually wrong!'”

    Yes, I remember that passage. There is no excuse for this kind of theological bullying. Geisler may protest this, but when you taunt someone over the Holocaust like this in a theological debate, then that IS theological bullying.

    “Now, you may think he has a point – I don’t, and could argue at length about why.”

    No need. I already totally agree that Geisler has no point with that argument.

    “But leaving that aside, even if I thought I could win a debate with such a tactic, I’d rather lose the argument than stoop so low as to use the murder of millions of people as a tool to score points, especially against someone who very likely lost relatives to the gas chambers. And I’d say the same to an atheist who would bait a bereaved Christian with taunts of ‘Where’s your God now?’.

    To me, this shows a man who is so in love with his arguments that he has lost track of his own humanity.”

    I lost a lot of respect for Geisler when he supported Ergun Caner recently in spite of all clear evidence that Ergun Caner had been dishonest about his own background.

  11. Hi Bryan, when you say, “…it has shown that the internet bloggers are incredibly immature, and that they need to do us all a service and just stop writing until they have earned the right to be heard…when they themselves openly profess to have no formal education on the topic at all. Namely, the “internet bloggers” who have as much or less credibility then Wikipedia…” you evince a particular misunderstanding about the blogging culture. While there are undoubtedly many that are such as you describe, many professionals and experts in their field also offer blog articles and posts. Specfically, Max Andrews is an experienced writer, published in an academic journal and has nearly completed a graduate degree in philosophy (a very relevant field). So, even if we granted all of your concerns, they simply don’t apply to Max here, in which case yours isn’t even a criticism of anything he has said. Also, the closest you come to an argument is actually the conclusion: that Licona is denying or distorting inerrancy. But we’d need some argument other than “some people said so” in order for us to believe it.

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