A Response to Mike Licona’s Open Letter

A Response to Mike Licona’s Open Letter

Norman Geisler (Sept 8, 2011)

                On July 3, 2011 I wrote Mike Licona expressing my deep concern about his denial of the historicity of the saints in Matthew 27.  I waited in vain for a whole month for a response to my questions about this denial of the full inerrancy of Scripture.

On August 3, 2011, I wrote again, saying, “Mike: I wrote you a month ago.  I am very disappointed that I have not heard back from you yet—even a brief response.  This is a serious issue.  It is the same thing Gundry was asked to resign from  ETS over.  Please respond.  In all fairness, I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond.  I did not want to go public with my critique of this until I heard from you.  I hope you will change your view.  I like you and respect you, but you owe me a quicker response than this.  Sincerely, Norm. ”

On August 4, 2011 Lincona replied that he did not have time to respond, saying that when He “revisit[ed] the passage” he would consider my points.  And he indicated that it might still be a longer time before he responded, saying, “my investigation will be a lengthy process.”  I responded that in the meantime, since his view was in print, that it was open to scholarly critique, and he agreed in writing that this was so.  Only then did I release my “Open Letter to Mike Licona.”

Finally, two full months after my first letter (of July 3) on September 8, 2011 I received “An Open Response to Norman Geisler” (dated “August 31, 2011).  His response is disappointing for several reasons:

First, Licona has not recante his denial of the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27.  At best, he is no longer as certain of the view as he once was.  Further, whatever his final thoughts, he is convinced that this published view is compatible with inerrancy.  Yet this kind of “dehistoricizing” of the Gospels is the same reason that Robert Gundry was asked by an overwhelming majority to resign from the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), of which Licona is a member.

Second, even in his belated “Open Letter” to me Licona has not yet responded to any of the arguments I gave for the historicity of Matthew 27 resurrection saints. Nor has he responded to any of the reasons I gave as to why his view is incompatible with the ETS and ICBI view on inerrancy.  In short, after two months, I still have a mere reply but not a real response to the issues I raised.  And this reply is something that could easily have been written two months ago.  Apparently, the pressure from Southern Baptist sources that preceded his resignation from his position at their North American Mission Board helped convinced him to resign and reconsider writing a reply.

Third, Licona claims, “I still hold to biblical inerrancy,” yet his “dehistoricizing” this part of the Gospel of Matthew is exactly the issue that prompted ETS to ask Gundry to resign over, namely, because it was inconsistent with the ETS inerrancy statement.  But Licona is also a member of ETS. Why is his view any less inconsistent with the ETS view of inerrancy?  Just saying a view is consistent with the historic view on inerrancy does not make it so.

Fourth, in 2003 ETS adopted the ICBI (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy) view on inerrancy as their guide in understanding what inerrancy means for ETS.  Yet, as I showed in my “Open Letter,” the ICBI framers clearly denied that views like Licona’s are compatible with inerrancy.

Fifth, Licona has not yet recanted his published view denying the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 but, rather, he has attempted to restate it, saying, “one could have articulated a matter more appropriately.”  Furthermore, presenting other possible options, as he does in his “Open Letter,” is not a denial of what he said in his book, namely, the resurrection of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 is not historical.

Sixth, listing some scholars who agree with him misses the point.  First, as he admits, most of them do not agree with his unrecanted in-print view.  Further, the fact that they say they are “in firm agreement that it is compatible with biblical inerrancy” misses the point entirely.  For it does not answer the question of with whose view of inerrancy it is in agreement?  As we all know, the term “inerrancy” can be twisted to mean many things to many people.  In my “Open Letter” I affirmed only that Licona’s view was not in agreement with the ETS (of which Licona is a member) view of inerrancy as expressed in the Gundry case.  Of course, one can always find a number of people with whose views on inerrancy it is in agreement.  But that is not the point.

Nor is Licona’s view in accord with the ICBI view on inerrancy (which ETS has adopted as a guideline in understanding the topic), as I showed in my “Open Letter.”  In fact, as one of the framers of the ICBI statement, I can testify to the fact that it was Gundry’s view (and others like it) which we were specifically condemning when we spoke against “dehistoricizing” the Gospel record as Licona has done.

Seventh, this is not, as Licona asserts, merely a hermeneutical issue on which any one can take his own views.  As was pointed out in our debate with Gundry (in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society), one’s hermeneutics or methodology cannot be totally separated from his view on inerrancy.  If it were, then people like Karl Barth could be said to be consistent with inerrancy, even if they believed the Bible was not without error in certain facts of history or science.  Indeed, as Gundry was forced to admit, even Mary Baker Eddy could consistently sign an inerrancy statement (on Licona’s argument), while she was allegorizing away, not just the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 but also allegorizing away all the stories in the Bible, including the resurrection of Christ!

Indeed, contrary to Licona’s claim that this Matthew 27 issue “was outside the primary thesis of the book,” for the resurrection of these saints was directly connected to the resurrection of Christ and listed as a result of it (see Matthew 27:50-53).  So, the two events are interwoven.  Hence, to deny the literal historical nature of the saints who were resurrected as a result of Christ’s resurrection, is also to deny the literal historical nature of the cause of their resurrection, namely, Christ’s resurrection itself.

Eighth, Licona reveals the basis of his own problem when he admits that his view on Matthew 27 “is based upon my [his] analysis of the genre of the text” and that this was based on a comparison with “similar phenomena in the Greco-Roman literature in general.”  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.  By this same kind of fallacious hermeneutic one can also conclude that other biblical stories, like the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Christ, are just legends too, along with the creation record in Genesis 1-2.

So, it matters not how many scholars one can line up in support of the consistency of their personal view on inerrancy (and many more than this can be lined up on the other side).  What matters is whether Licona’s view is consistent with the view of full inerrancy held down though the ages (see John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church) and as expressed by the ETS and ICBI framers and as expressed and confirmed in the official ICBI commentaries on the matter.  For once we begin to neglect the “authorial intent” (to use a phrase from Licona’s “Open Letter”) of the ETS and ICBI statements, and replace it with what we think it should mean, then “inerrancy” is a wax nose that can be formed into almost anything we want it to mean.  Sadly, many names on Licona’s list of scholars are members of ETS (some of whom are on the faculties of evangelical seminaries that require their faculty to sign the ICBI view of inerrancy).  What is more, their approval of Licona’s view reveals they are not signing the doctrinal statement in good conscience according to intention expressed by the framers.  The ETS and ICBI framers have drawn a line in the sand, and Licona has clearly stepped over it.  Only a clear recantation will reverse the matter and, unfortunately, Licona has not done this. Let’s pray that he does. 

Sincerely disappointed,

Norman Geisler

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