Houston Baptist University Defends Licona’s Denial of Inerrancy
By Norman L. Geisler, Ph.D.
Despite the fact that Mike Licona lost his positions at the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, at Southern Evangelical Seminary, and at Liberty University subsequent to the public criticism of his views on inerrancy by Southern Baptist leaders like Al Mohler and Page Patterson and others, Houston Baptist hired Licona and placed its blessing on his views. President Robert Sloan, Jr. said:
Dr. Michael Licona is a very fine Christian. We trust completely his commitment to Scripture. There are those who disagree with his comments on what is a very difficult passage (Matthew 27:45-53, especially verses 52-53), but Mike Licona’s devotion to the Lord Jesus, his magisterial defense of the resurrection, his publicly and solemnly declared affirmation of the complete trustworthiness of Scripture and his worldwide efforts to win others to Christ give us full confidence in his work as a teacher, colleague and faculty member of Houston Baptist University (reported in the Baptist Press [BP] 2/6/2013).”
Besides the fact that Sloan notably makes no claim that Licona believes in inerrancy, there are several serious problems with this approval of Licona’s aberrant views on Scripture:
First, Licona has not repudiated his claim that there is a contradiction in the Gospels about which day Jesus was crucified on. In a debate with Bart Ehrman at Southern Evangelical Seminary (Spring, 2009) Licona declared, “I think that John probably altered the day [of Jesus’ crucifixion] in order for a theological—to make a theological point there. But that does not mean that Jesus wasn’t crucified” (emphasis added). In short, John contradicts the other Gospels on which day Jesus was crucified. This is a flat denial of inerrancy for at least one of them has to be an error. But if the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, then how can it err on this matter?
Second, believing there are contradictions in the Bible is emphatically rejected by the Statements of International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). Licona has claimed to agree with the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) which accepted the ICBI statements as a guide to understanding its view on inerrancy (in 2003). But the ICBI Statements contradict his claim, saying: “We affirm the unity and internal consistency of scripture” (Article XIV). And “We deny that later revelations…ever correct or contradict” other revelations (Article V). As for the alleged compatibility of Licona’s view with the ICBI statements, the co-founder of ICBI and the original framer of its inerrancy Statements, R. C. Sproul said flatly, “As the former and only president of ICBI during its tenure and as the original framer of the Affirmations and Denials of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, I can say categorically that Mr. Michael Licona’s views are not even remotely compatible with the united Statements of ICBI” (Letter May 22, 2012, emphasis added).
President Al Mohler of Southern Seminary adds correctly, “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy clearly and rightly affirms ‘the unity and internal consistency of Scripture’ and denies that any argument for contradictions within the Bible is compatible with inerrancy. An actual contradiction is an error” (BP article 2/6/2013, emphasis added).
Third, Licona still embraces the view that it is compatible with inerrancy to accept the Greco-Roman view that there are legends in the Gospels. Licona claims this Greco-Roman view is a “flexible genre,” and “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (TheResurrection of Jesus, 34). Indeed, he adds, “Bios offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches…and they often included legends” (ibid., emphasis added).
In a YouTube video (11/23/2012) taken at the 2012 Evangelical Theological Society meeting (http://youtu.be/TJ8rZukh_Bc), Licona affirmed the following: “So um this didn’t really bother me in terms of if there were contradictions in the Gospels…. So um it didn’t really bother me a whole lot even if some contradictions existed. But it did bother a lot of Christians.” However, Licona consoles himself, saying, “I mean there are only maybe a handful of things between Gospels that are potential contradictions and only one or two that I found that are really stubborn for me at this point and they are all in the peripherals again.” However, this is no consolation for an inerrantist since even one error in the Bible would mean it is not the Word of God because God cannot error in even one thing that He affirms. After all, how many mistakes can an omniscient Being make? Zip , zero, zilch! None!
Fourth, Licona believes the Greco-Roman Genre used by the Gospels allows for errors. He claims this is a “flexible genre,” and “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (TheResurrection of Jesus [RJ], 34). So, “as I started to note some of these liberties that he took I immediately started to recognize that these are the same liberties that I noticed the Evangelists did, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” (ibid., emphasis added). So, “these most commonly cited differences in the Gospels that skeptics like Ehrman like to refer to as contractions aren’t contradictions after all. They are just the standard biographical liberties that ancient biographers of that day took.”
However, the ICBI statements clearly reject this conclusion, insisting that: “WE DENY that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it” (ICBI Hermeneutics Article XX). The Bible does use different genres of literature (history, poetry, parable, etc.). But these are known from inside the Bible by use of the traditional “grammatico-historical exegesis” which the ICBI framers embraced (Inerrancy Article XVIII). Indeed, the framers said emphatically, “WE DENY that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. WE AFFIRM that the biblical record of events, discourses and sayings, though presented in a variety of appropriate literary forms, corresponds to historical fact. WE DENY that any such event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated” (Hermeneutics Article XIII).
Unlike Licona, the genre categories into which the Bible is said to fit are not determined by data outside the Bible. The Gospels, for example, may be their own unique genre, as many biblical scholars believe. As the ICBI statement puts it, “Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (Chicago Statement, Article XVIII). Indeed, the ICBI Commentary on Hermeneutics Article XVIII declares: “The second principle of the affirmation is that we are to take account of the literary forms and devices that are found within the Scriptures themselves” (emphasis added). The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible, not Greek legends.
Fifth, in direct contradiction to the ICBI statements on inerrancy, Licona dehistoricizes part of the Gospels. Licona and even some reviewers tend to focus on only one issue in Licona’s writings, namely, the non-historical status of the resurrected saints in Matthew 27. But the ICBI statements on inerrancy condemn “dihistoricizing” the Gospel record. Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement on inerrancy reads: “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship” (emphasis added). The ICBI commentary on this reads: “To turn narrative history into poetry, or poetry into narrative history would be to violate the intended meaning of the text” (Commentary on Inerrancy Article XVIII). Again, “WE AFFIRM that the biblical record of events, discourses and sayings, though presented in a variety of appropriate literary forms, corresponds to historical fact. WE DENY that any such event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated” (Hermeneutics Article XIV). The official commentary adds, “While acknowledging the legitimacy of literary forms, this article insists that any record of events presented in Scripture must correspond to historical fact. That is, no reported event, discourse, or saying should be considered imaginary.”
Licona’s claim that he is not “dehistoricizing” is bogus since it is based on the false assumption that the Gospels are not making a claim to be historical (cf. Lk. 1:1-4). But the ICBI fathers clearly reject this, insisting that: “WE DENY that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual” (Hermeneutics Article VIII).
This is particularly true of the Matthew 27 text about the resurrection of the saints which presents itself as historical in many ways, including the following: (1) It occurs in a book that present itself as historical (cf. Mt. 1:1,18); (2) Numerous events in this book have been confirmed as historical (e.g., the birth, life, deeds, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ); (3) It is presented in the immediate context of other historical events, namely, the death and resurrection of Christ; (4) The resurrection of these saints is also presented as an event occurring as a result of the literal death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Mt. 27:52-53); (5) Its lineage with the preceding historical events is indicated by a series of conjunctions (and…and…and, etc.); (6) It is introduced by the attention getting “Behold” (v. 51) which focuses on its reality; (7) It has all the same essential earmarks of the literal resurrection of Christ, including: (a) empty tombs, (b) dead bodies coming to life, and (c) these resurrected bodies appearing to many witnesses; (8) It lacks any literary embellishment common to myths, being a short, simple, and straightforward account; (9) It contains elements that are confirmed as historical by other Gospels, such as (a) the veil of the temple being split (Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45), and (b) the reaction of the Centurion (Mk. 15:39; Lk. 23:47). If these events are historical, then there is no reason to reject the other events, such as, the earthquake and the resurrection of the saints.
Licona’s Deviation from Orthodox Involves Many Passages
Further, Both Licona and even some reviewers make the mistake of assuming that Matthew 27 is the only problem that Licona has on the inerrancy issue. In fact, there are numerous places where Licona deviates from the traditional ICBI view on inerrancy which even ETS adopted as a guide for understanding inerrancy. Consider the following:
(1) Licona denied the historicity of the resurrected saints in Matthew 27. He wrote in his book on The Resurrection of Jesus (RJ) that the resurrection of the saints narrative was “a weird residual fragment” (RJ, 527) and a“strange report” (RJ, 530, 548, 556, emphasis added in these citations). He called it “poetical,” a “legend,” an “embellishment,” and literary“special effects” (see RJ, 306, 548, 552, 553, emphasis added in all these citations). He adds, “It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly bemixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes (see RJ, 185-186, emphasis added in all these citations). While Licona later moderated his certainty of this denial, he never retracted it, nor has he retracted his belief that it is compatible with inerrancy, even the ICBI view, to hold that this section is a legend.
(2) Licona also affirmed that one of the Gospels claims that Jesus was crucified on the wrong day. This he said in a debate with Bart Ehrman at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Spring, 2009 (which is cited above). This is a serious breach of inerrancy.
(3, 4, 5, 6) Licona also casts doubt on the existence of the angels at the tomb after the resurrection in all four Gospels). He declared: “We may also be reading poetic language of legend at certain points, such as …the angels at the tomb (Mk 16:5-7; Mt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7; Jn 20:11-13)” (RJ, 185-186).
(7) He also suggested that the mob falling backward at Jesus claim in John 18:4-6 may not be historical but could be a legendary embellishment. He called it: “A possible candidate for embellishment is Jn 18:4-6” (RJ, 306, n. 114).
(8) Licona affirms that the Gospels sometimes embellished Jesus’ words. He wrote, “For this reason, we get a sense that the canonical Gospels are reading authentic reports of Jesus’ arrest and death…even ifsome embellishments are present” (RJ, 306). This is contrary to Luke 1:1-4 which affirms that the Gospels are based on the accounts of “eyewitness.”
(9, 10, 11, 12, etc.) Licona also admits that there are an unnumbered “handful” of possible errors in the Gospels. He wrote: “I mean there are only maybe a handful of things between Gospels that are potential contradictions and only one or two that I found that are really stubborn for me at this point and they are all in the peripherals again.” However, he takes comfort that they are all in “peripheral” areas. But here again, how many errors can an omniscient Mind make in so-called peripheral areas? None! Further, some of the errors are not so “peripheral,” such as the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 after Jesus’ resurrection. After all, their resurrection was seen as a result of Jesus resurrection and was even taken to be a proof of it by the context and by many early Fathers of the Church (see “The Early Fathers and the Resurrection of the Saints in Matthew 27,” http://tinyurl.com/bdu23gg), including an apostolic Father (Ignatius) who was a contemporary of the apostle John and Irenaeus who knew Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John.
Even Licona admits that “… You may lose some form of biblical inerrancy if there are contradictions in the Gospels, but you still have the truth of Christianity that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think that’s the most important point we can make” (BP, Feb 6, 2013, emphasis added). Indeed, one would lose some form of inerrancy, if Licona is right—the form that has been held by Christians down though the centuries (see John Hannah,Inerrancy and the Church, 1984) including Southern Baptist (see Russ Bush and Tom Nettles, Baptist and the Bible, 1980), was confessed by the framers of the ETS, and was codified by the ICBI framers. In view of this, it is incredible to hear Licona say, as he did (BP Feb. 5, 2012), that “he has not claimed there are contradictions in the Gospels.” He clearly did say there was a contradiction in the Gospels in his debate with Bart Ehrman at Southern Evangelical Seminary (cited above). He also admitted in his YouTube interview (cited above) there were or could be contradictions in the Bible. In fact, if words still have meaning, one wonders what form of inerrancy can there be that admits the Bible is errant? As President Al Mohler said, “It would be nonsense to affirm real contradictions in the Bible and then to affirm inerrancy” (BP 2/6/2013).
Licona’s good friend Gary Habermas of Liberty University offers a lame excuse for his former pupil’s aberrant views when he claimed that people should remember that Licona’s approach is an apologetic strategy. “Thus, it is not a prescription for how a given text should be approached in the original languages and translated, or how a systematic theology is developed…. So it should never be concluded that the use of such methods in an apologetic context indicate a lack of trust in Scripture as a whole, or, say, the Gospels in particular” (cited in BP 2/13/2013). If this is taken to mean that Licona does not agree with his own words in his own book (RJ) and lectures when he denies the inerrancy of the Gospels, then it is ludicrous. For, as any reasonably intelligent reader can tell, Licona is making and defending the statements of his book as his own and not simply as an “apologetic strategy.” Nowhere in the 718 pages of his book (RJ) does he claim that it is merely an “apologetic strategy.” The only apologetic strategy is the one employed by Habermas to defend his wayward student.
Licona told the Baptist Press, “I suppose that if one were to claim that it’s unorthodox to read the Gospels and attempt to understand them according to the genre in which they were written rather than impose Dr. Geisler’s modern idea of precision upon them, then I’m guilty as charged” (emphasis added). However, this begs the whole question for it assumes, contrary to fact, that they are written in a Greco-Roman genre which Licona claims is a “flexible genre,” and “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins. He added, “Bios offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material andinventing speeches…and they often included legends” (RJ, 34, emphasis added). The truth of the matter is that ICBI framers are not imposing a “modern idea” of precision on the Bible, certainly not in claiming Gospel record of the resurrection of the saints is historical. This is purely a “straw man” fallacy. The ICBI frames clearly said, “We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as lack of modern technical precision, … the use of hyperbole and round numbers” (Article XII, emphasis added). What is more, it is not inerrantists but Licona who is imposing a foreign, extra-biblical Greco-Roman genre on the Bible which leads to “dehistoricizing” the Scripture and undermining the doctrine of inerrancy.
Furthermore, it is not a question of “precision” that inerrantists insist upon when they disallow Licona’s allegations of contradictions in the Bible. As Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southwest Baptist theological Seminary, aptly put it: “Let’s be clear. A story, an affirmation, is either true or false, but not both true and false in the same way at the same time. That is a long accepted law of logic, and no amount of fudging can make it change. While I have no reason to question the sincerity of the author and while only God can judge his heart, Southern Baptists paid far too great a price to insist on the truthfulness of God’s Word to now be lured by a fresh emergence of the priesthood of the philosopher, especially when a philosopher raises a question about the truthfulness of Scripture” (1/9/2012).
 Carl Henry noted that “Calling attention to the new and unexpected, the introductory Greekide—See! Behold!—stands out of sentence construction to rivet attention upon God’s awesome intervention” (Henry, God Revelation and Authority.Texas: Word Books, 1976) 2:17-18.
 Licona has subsequent questions about the certitude of his view on Matthew 27 but has not retracted the view nor his view that such a position is compatible with inerrancy.
Correction: Point 9 of this article was corrected in March 2013 after being informed (indirectly) that Licona believes Matthew wrote the Gospel by his name. Hopefully, Licona will now address the main point and explain how his belief that a contradiction in the Gospels about the day on which Jesus was crucified is consistent with the doctrine of inerrancy he confesses to believe. Inerrancy means the Bible is without error in everything it affirms, and a contradiction means that at least one of the things affirmed was in error. An inspired error is an oxymoron. Further, appealing, as Licona does, to pagan writers who believed such errors were acceptable in their writings does not exonerate biblical authors, who uttered only truth in Scripture, from a violation of the Law of Non-contradiction. —-Norm Geisler