Thursday, September 15, 2011

Father Church

The controversy over Licona’s interpretation of Mt 27:52-53 continues to widen with Mohler jumping into the fray. I don’t know if this controversy will get bigger before it gets smaller, so I’ll have another go at it.

Because infidels like cite this passage to ridicule the Bible, I’ve often defended the historicity of this passage. (So has Jason Engwer.) However, I’ve always taken the position that it’s not enough to be right. You need to be right for the right reasons. To be right for the wrong reasons leaves you with a very unstable faith.

Unfortunately, Mohler and Geisler are using bad arguments to support their position. Now, I don’t even like it when bad arguments are used to defend bad positions. That’s because bad arguments sometimes have a specious plausibility which makes a bad position seem more convincing.  We see that all the time in the political realm.

But there’s a sense in which a bad argument for a good position is even worse. A bad argument for a good position will ultimately betray a good position. Truth is ill-served by falsehood.

Bad arguments have a low melting point. For instance, the wings and fuselage of an airplane are generally made of aluminum because that’s a light, strong, weldable metal. But it wouldn’t be very smart to make the jet engine out of aluminum. That’s because aluminum has a low melting point. If you ride a jet with aluminum engines, you’re in for a real letdown (pun intended). Let’s not put Christians on a passenger plane with aluminum engines.

Moving along:

Professional airhead Peter Lumpkins entitles a new post “Al Mohler vindicates Norm Geisler.”

Well that’s inept. How does the phenomenon of two men merely agreeing with each other “vindicate” either one? It’s not as if Mohler brings any new facts to the table. He hasn’t really done anything to advance Geisler’s original argument.

If Christopher Hitchens wrote an article on which he agreed with Richard Dawkins on Christianity, would Lumpkins do a post entitled “Christopher Hitchens vindicates Richard Dawkins”? Is that the quality of reasoning we’re going to be treated to in this debate?

And what about Mohler? Take this exclamation:

What could one possibly find in the Greco-Roman literature that would either validate or invalidate the status of this report as historical fact?

I’m sorry, but that’s just obtuse. Licona explains in his book why he thinks that’s germane. For instance, Licona says:

Given the presence of phenomenological language used in a symbolic manner in both Jewish and Roman literature related to a major event such as the death of an emperor or the end of a reigning king or even a kingdom…it seems to me that an understanding of the language of Matthew 27:52-53 as “special effects” with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible (552).

For Mohler to ask how that’s relevant when, in fact, Licona does just that is intellectually lazy. I don’t agree with Licona’s interpretation. But that’s something which needs to be argued down. Licona gave an argument, which demands a counterargument. Not just acting aghast.

Moreover, Licona doesn’t limit himself to Greco-Roman literature. He also bolsters his argument by citing OT literature.

I realize Mohler is a busy guy, and he dashes off these reaction pieces in a hurry. Mohler’s a popularizer, and that’s useful. But don’t wade into the issue at all unless you’re prepared to invest the time necessary to do it right.

Mohler also accuses Licona of “dehistoricizing” the pericope, thereby violating the Chicago Statement on inerrancy. But the problem with that accusation is that it begs the question. If Matthew intended that pericope to describe a real event, then denying the historicity of the pericope simultaneously denies the inerrancy of Matthew. And I happen to agree with Mohler on the historicity of Mt 27:52-53.

Problem is: since Licona has argued that Matthew never meant this pericope to describe a real event, Licona isn’t contradicting the terms of the Chicago statement. You can only “dehistoricize” the pericope of it was meant to be historical in the first place.

So just quoting the Chicago Statement doesn’t get Mohler where he needs to go. Like Geisler, he’s taking too many intellectual shortcuts.

Let’s go back to Geisler. There are several problems with Geisler’s latest response to Licona.

1. Logical fallacies

Both Mohler and Geisler try to infer a particular interpretation from the ETS/ICBI definition of inerrancy. But an abstract definition of inerrancy doesn’t predict for a particular interpretation. The conclusion is more specific than the premise. So it’s logically invalid to draw that conclusion.

2. Argument from authority

Geisler makes statements like:

The ETS and ICBI framers have drawn a line in the sand, and Licona has clearly stepped over it.

Notice the strategic shift. Instead of debating the authority of Scripture, Geisler is debating the authority of the ETS and ICBI framers. Is that what we should be debating? Should we be exegeting the ICBI documents, or should we be exegeting Mt 27:52-53?

Geisler sounds like an old man who’s trying to secure his legacy. Like a father who wants to pass on the family business to his son. Only his son doesn’t want to relive his father’s life.

So his dad uses sentimental appeals: “Make your old man proud!” When that doesn’t work, his dad tries to guilt-trip the son: “Are you ashamed of me?” When that doesn’t work, his dad resorts to threats. “I’ll cut you out of the will!”

Why should the younger generation care where the older generation drew a line in the sand? You have to give the younger generation a reason to care.


Geisler keeps appealing to the “ICBI view on inerrancy.” But, frankly, there is no monolithic ICBI “view” on inerrancy. The ICBI isn’t reducible to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The ICBI consisted of three summits, to which numerous participants contributed numerous essays. And their essays reflect a variety of viewpoints.

For instance, take:

Hermeneutics, inerrancy, and the Bible
[papers from ICBI Summit II]
edited by Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus.

That alone is 921 pp. long.

Within that volume, take chapter 2:

Historical Grammatical Problems
Bruce K. Waltke
Response  Kenneth L. Barker
Response  Allan A. MacRae

This represents three different viewpoints on the implications of inerrancy. Read Waltke’s essay, then ask yourself if Licona has departed from Waltke’s view on inerrancy.

And that’s not all. Consider the diversity of views represented in other chapters, such as:

3. Genre Criticism-Sensus Literalis
Grant R. Osborne
Response  Ronald B. Allen
Response  David P. Scaer

4. Problems of Normativeness in Scripture: Cultural Versus Permanent

J. Robertson McQuilkin
Response  George W. Knight
Response  Alan F. Johnson

5. The Trustworthiness of Scripture in Areas Relating to Natural Science 
Walter L. Bradley, Roger Olsen
Response  Gleason L. Archer
Response 0 Henry M. Morris

7. Author’s Intention and Biblical Interpretation
Elliott E. Johnson
Response Earl D. Radmacher
Response Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

Moving along:

4. The grammatico-historical method

In his response to Licona, Geisler says:

But this is clearly not the way to interpret a biblical text which should be understood by the “historical-grammatical” method (as ICBI held) of (a) looking at a text in its context and (b) by comparing other biblical texts, affirming that  “Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (as ICBI mandated). The proper meaning is certainly not found by superimposing some external pagan idea on the text in order to determine what the text means.

But according to “The Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics,” which is one of the ICBI documents:

We further affirm that in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations (Article XX).

So Geisler invokes ICBI only to contradict ICBI.

5. Geisler denies inerrancy!

Let’s compare two different statements by Geisler:

But this is clearly not the way to interpret a biblical text which should be understood by the “historical-grammatical” method (as ICBI held) of (a) looking at a text in its context and (b) by comparing other biblical texts, affirming that  “Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (as ICBI mandated). The proper meaning is certainly not found by superimposing some external pagan idea on the text in order to determine what the text means.

Of course, there are many Creationists who argue for an old earth. Biblically, this position that the word for day is used for more than twenty-four hours even in Genesis 2:4, the events of the sixth day surely took more than twenty-four hours, and Hebrews 4:4-5 implies that God is still in His seventh-day rest. If the seventh day can be long, then the others could too. Scientifically, this view does not require any novel theories to explain the evidence. One of the biggest problems for the young earth view is in astronomy. We can see light from stars that took 15 billion years to get here. To say that God created them with the appearance of age does not satisfy the question of how their light reached us. We have watched star explosions that happened billions of years ago, but if the universe is not billions of years old, then we are seeing light from stars that never existed because they would have died before Creation. Why would God deceive us with the evidence? The old earth view seems to fit the evidence better and causes no problem with the Bible. When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences (Baker Books 1990), 230.

But the proper meaning of Gen 1 is certainly not found by superimposing some external scientific idea on the text in order to determine what the text means.

In fact, this is worse for Geisler. Licona justifies his interpretation based on comparative literature from the same general period (i.e. Josephus as well as Greco-Roman biographies). He also justifies his interpretation based on OT prophecy (i.e. the use of stock apocalyptic imagery). That’s standard grammatico-historical methodology. One may disagree with the conclusions he draws (I, for one, disagree), but his basic methodology is perfectly respectable.

By contrast, Geisler is allowing distinctively modern beliefs (i.e. modern astronomy) to influence his interpretation. That’s the polar opposite of grammatico-historical methodology. That’s obviously anachronistic. Using background information which wasn’t available to the original writer or his target audience.

So when we measure Geisler by his own yardstick, Geisler comes up short. The ICBI framers have drawn a line in the sand, and Geisler has clearly stepped over it.  Geisler’s interpretation reveals that he is not signing the doctrinal statement in good conscience according to intention expressed by the framers. Only a clear recantation will reverse the matter and, unfortunately, Geisler has not done this.

6. The future of evangelicalism

One of my underlying concerns with this reaction is the way it fosters an anti-intellectual climate in seminaries. Bad arguments have a way of driving out good arguments.

What if a non-tenured seminary prof. wanted to defend the historicity of this pericope, but in the course of which he also took issue with the sloppy arguments of Mohler and Geisler. Suppose he said Geisler is using the wrong method to derive the right conclusion while Licona is using the right method to derive the wrong conclusion. Can you still disagree with Mohler or Geisler without raising suspicions about your own orthodoxy?

Even if you disagreed with them in order to offer stronger, better arguments for the historicity of this pericope, the way that Mohler/Geisler are framing the debate makes that hazardous to your career.

I hope evangelicalism isn’t going to replace Mother Church with Father Church. 


  1. Thanks Steve for writing down your cogent thoughts in a meta-analysis of the debate over Inerrancy and Licona's statements about Matthew 27.

    In your opinion, who (besides yourself) does the best job of providing a counter-argument to Licona using the "right" methods since Geisler and Mohler have fallen short in your estimation of providing good arguments to support their accurate conclusions?

  2. I'd wait for the forthcoming roundtable discussion in the Southeastern Theological Review (STR):

    followed by full journal devoted to his book in the Summer 2012 edition of STR.