By Norman L. Geisler
Recently Mike Licona recorded an interview for theBestSchools.org(5/2/2012). There are many things in this interview which have serious implications for the ongoing inerrancy debate among evangelicals to which we have spoke more fully in our recent book, Defending Inerrancy (Baker, 2012; link). Being familiar with the circumstances and issues involved here, I feel obligated to comment on this interview. The issue is simply too important to neglect.
- Among other passages (listed below in # 4), in his book on The Resurrection of Jesus [hereafter RJ], Licona denied the historicity of the raising of the saints in Matthew 27:51-53. Even after subsequently rethinking the matter, he still retains serious doubts about it. This is important for inerrantists since, as we shall see, to deny the historicity of this text is to deny its inerrancy (see # 3 below).
Contrary to Licona, there are many lines of evidence for the historicity of this text. Considered cumulatively, they place it beyond reasonable doubt that this passage is historical and not legendary, as Licona affirmed. Here is a brief summary of the arguments for the historicity of this text:
|(1) This passage is part of a historical record—the Gospel of Matthew. Hence, as such, it too should be taken historically;
(2) Both the larger setting (the Gospel of Matthew) and the specific context (the crucifixion and resurrection narrative) demand the presumption of historicity for this narrative, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary in the text, its context, or in other Scripture—which there is not;
(3) This story manifests no literary signs of being poetic, apocalyptic, or legendary, such as those found in parables, poems, or other symbolic presentations;
(4) It has no indication of being a legendary embellishment, but it is a short, simple, straight-forward account in the exact style one expects in a brief historical narrative;
(5) The resurrection of these saints is presented as the result of the physical historical resurrection of Christ. Contrary to Licona’s view, the passage states that these saints were resurrected only “after” Jesus was resurrected and as a result of it (Matt 27:53) since Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the dead (1Cor 15:20). The tomb was initially opened as a result of the earthquake at the time of the crucifixion, but the saints were not raised until after Jesus’ resurrection (Mt. 27:53). It makes no sense to claim that a legend emerged as the immediate result of Jesus’ physical resurrection;
(6) The record has the same pattern as the historical records of Jesus’ physical and historical resurrection: (a) there were dead bodies; (b) they were buried in a tomb; (c) they were raised to life again; (d) they came out of the tomb and left it empty; (e) they appeared to many witnesses;
(7) This text is connected to the preceding historical events surrounding the death of Christ by a repeated series of “and…and…and” etc;
(8) The preceding events are literal events, one of which is confirmed in two other Gospels, namely, the temple veil being torn in two (Mt. 27:51 cf. Mk. 15:38; Lk.23:45). (90) As will be shown in the next point, from the earliest times—even during apostolic times—this text was taken literally and historically by the great Fathers of the Christian Church.
- 2. Strangely, Licona claims that “Matthew’s story of some saints raised at Jesus’ death has left people scratching their heads, from the early Church through modern scholarship.” However, this is totally misleading since one is hard pressed to find any orthodox scholar in early or later pre-modern church history who denied the historicity of this passage. Indeed, from the earliest times it was considered historical. Ignatius of Antioch from the first century (c. A. D. 35-107), a contemporary of the apostle John, referred to the resurrection of these saints as a historical event (Epistles to the Trallians, chap. 8 cf. Epistle to the Magnesians, chap. 9). Irenaeus (2nd) who knew Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John (Fragment 28) and even Origenin the third century (Against Celsus, Book II, chap 33), who had a strong propensity to allegorize, considered Matthew 27 to be a literal raising of these saints from the graves. St. Jerome (4th cent.), and Thomas Aquinas(13th cent.) also held to its historicity (see Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea [Commentary According to St. Matthew], vol. 1, 963-964). So did the reformer John Calvin (see John Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, vol. 3, 211-212), and many others. So, there is a virtual unbroken line from apostolic times through the early and medieval fathers to modern times for the historicity of the Matthew 27:51-52 resurrection of the saints. So, the relatively few and late contemporary scholars who deny the historicity of this text must buck the full weight of the great Fathers of the Christian Church on this issue.
- Licona claims that his view is consistent with inerrancy—even with the ICBI (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy) view of inerrancy.However, this is clearly not the case for inerrancy involves the historicity of the Gospel narrative. Consider the following ICBI citations: Article 12: “We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science.” Article 9:“We affirm that inspiration… guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write. Article 18: “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices [like figures of speech], and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.” In addition, selections from the official ICBI commentary titled Explaining Inerrancyconfirm it. Article 12: “Though the Bible is indeed redemptive history, it is also redemptive history, and this means that the acts of salvation wrought by God actually occurred in the space-time world.… All the claims of the Bible must correspond with reality, whether that reality is historical, factual or spiritual. By biblical standards truth and error is meant the view used both in the Bible and in everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth.” Article 18: “When the quest for sources produces adehistoricizing of the Bible…it has trespassed beyond its proper limits.” Another official ICBI commentary on Explaining Hermeneutics declares (in EH Article 13): “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. Some, for instance, take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person. Others take Jonah to be an allegory when he is presented as a historical person and [is] so referred to by Christ.” This makes it unmistakably clear that myths, legends, and embellishments, such as Licona allows in the Gospels, are not part of the ICBI view of an inerrant (wholly truthful) book such as the Bible.
- Also, Licona does not challenge the interviewer who said, “Norman Geisler accused you of denying biblical inerrancy for your interpretation of a few verses in Matthew 27. As a result, you resigned your appointment with the North American Mission Board and left Southern Evangelical Seminary.” First of all, if the Bible errs on even one verse, it is a denial of inerrancy. For if it is the inerrant Word of God, then it cannot err even once—for God cannot err (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18; Jn. 17:17). Furthermore, it was not just a few verses in Matthew but Licona’s denying the historicity of many places in the Gospels that warrants the charge of denying the ICBI view on inerrancy. Consider the following denials or doubts about the historicity of events in the Gospels stated by Licona: (1) A denial of the physical resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:51-54 (RJ, 548-553); (2) Doubting the historicity of the mob falling backward at Jesus’ claim “I am he” in John 18:4-6 (RJ, 306, note 114); (3) A denial of the historicity of the angels at the tomb recorded in all four Gospels (Mt. 28:2-7; Mk. 16:5-7; Lk. 24:4-7; Jn. 20:11-14) (RJ, 185-186); (4) The claim that the Gospel genre is Greco-Roman biography which he says is a “flexible genre” in which “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (RJ, 34);
(5) In a debate with Bart Erhman at Southern Evangelical Seminary in the Spring of 2009 that Licona asserted concerning the day Jesus was crucified that: “I think that John probably altered the day in order for a theological—to make a theological point there. But that does not mean that Jesus wasn’t crucified.” However, it does mean that Licona believes that text is in error! This is a flat denial of the inerrancy of Scripture!
Further, it is misleading to leave the interviewer’s statement stand uncorrected that Licona simply “left Southern Evangelical Seminary.” The truth of the matter is that after the faculty examined his views personally, they voted to no longer have him listed as a faculty member and to dissolve his position. Thereupon, Licona picture and position were removed from the SES faculty on their web site. After they examined Licona, one faculty member who questioned him declared, “His view is worse than I thought.”
- Licona also casts doubt on the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 by asking: “Why is Matthew the only one to report it?” But we may ask in response: How many times does something have to be mentioned in a historical Gospel record for it to be historically true? And since Licona claims to believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture, then we may ask how many times does God have to say it for it to be true? Many events are mentioned only once in the Gospels, such as Jesus’ sermon to Nicodemus (Jn. 3); His encounter with the woman at the well (Jn. 4); the story of Zacchaeus (Lk. 19), the visit of the wise men (Mt. 2), the healing of the invalid (Jn. 5), the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn. 11), the coin in the mouth of the fish (Mt. 17:27), and may other events. Shall we reject all of these too?
- Licona claims that “If these saints [of Mt. 27] were raised with resurrection bodies, then Matthew contradicts Paul who wrote that Jesus was the first to have been raised with a resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:20).” However, this is a misinterpretation of Matthew 27 which says that the saints were not resurrected until after Jesus was. The doors of these tombs were “opened” when Jesus died (Mt. 27:52), but the bodies only came “out of the tombs after his [Jesus’] resurrection” (Mt. 27:53, emphasis added). See the excellent article on this point by John Wenham titled “When Were the Saints Raised” (JTS 32 (1981: 150-152). Furthermore, even if these saints were raised prior to Jesus’ resurrection it is still a historical event since Jesus raised Lazarus before His resurrection (Jn. 11). In this case these saints would have received their same mortal bodies as Lazarus did and, hence, would not have been part of “the firstfruits” of the resurrection in an immortal resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:20) but would have eventually died again.
- Lacking biblical (see #1) and historic Christian support (see # 2) for denying the historicity of the account in Matthew 27 of the resurrection of the saints, Licona identifies his source as a noted contemporary New Testament scholar, Richard Burridge. From him he acquired the belief that the Gospels are a Greco-Roman genre which allows legends in the text [RJ, 34, 202-203]. This influence in manifested in the denial or doubting of the historicity of many Gospel events (see # 3). Licona wrote, “As I had been reading through the Greco-Roman and Jewish literature of the period, I found numerous examples of similar reports of phenomena that were connected to historical events having a huge amount of significance. In one case, Virgil lists 16 phenomena related to the death of Julius Caesar in what is certainly a poetic genre.” But since when do extra-biblical legendary accounts become hermeneutically definitive in determining the historicity of a Gospel narrative?
The ICBI framers (with which Licona claims to agree) spoke to this very point in Explaining Hermeneutics, declaring (in EH Article 13): “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual.” And Article 18:“We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.” Nowhere is it stated that part of the historical-grammatical method of interpreting the Bible is that extra-scriptural texts are to be used to interpret scripture. So, again, Licona’s view is contrary to the ICBI understanding of inerrancy. As a matter of fact, as a framer of these statements I can assure the readers that one person we had in mind was Robert Gundry who, like Licona, had denied the historicity of sections of Matthew by appeal to extra-biblical stories to do so.
- Licona claims, “I immersed myself in literature written by philosophers of history and professional historians on the nature of historical knowledge…” and admits being “obsessed with my [his] research.” Yet he does not seem to be aware of the degree to which he was poisoned by his baptism into Greco-Roman literature which penetrated his mind by unbiblical presuppositions which are manifest in the skeptical conclusions he came to about many Gospel events (see # 4). He claims, “I subjected a variety of hypotheses to strictly controlled historical method in a more comprehensive manner than has been previously offered.” However, he does not seem to realize that this “new historiographical approach” (as he calls it in the subtitle of his book onThe Resurrection of Jesus) actually undermines evangelical beliefs about the complete historicity of the Gospels.
- Licona also mentions the strong influence Gary Habermas was on him and that they became close friends. Indeed, he refers here and elsewhere to the advice given to him by a close friend not to engage in dialog with me on this matter. However, Habermas’s view on inerrancy straddles both sides of the fence. It is for this that he was let go from the Faculty of Veritas Evangelical Seminary, namely, “It was “…because of your own view of inerrancy that was contrary to the Veritas Seminary doctrinal statement on inerrancy. That is, your view accepts: the belief that inerrancy is consistent with the view that rejects Gospel narratives as completely historical (angels at the tomb, falling down of those seizing Jesus, and resurrection of saints)….” (VES Letter from the president, 11/21/11).
On the one hand, Habermas does not agree with Licona’s view that the Matthew 27 raising of the saints is unhistorical. On the other hand, Habermas defends Licona’s view as orthodox. Habermas wrote, “In my opinion, Mike Licona doesn’t at all deny inerrancy by his interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53,” saying, “Evangelicals regularly allow for all sorts of similar moves where particular texts are taken other than literally, whether it is the old earth/young earth discussions of the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1, …angels on Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, or [whether] the signs in the sun, moon and so on were fulfilled literally on Pentecost.” In response, it should be pointed out that first of all that no evangelical, using the historical-grammatical hermeneutic denies the historicity of Genesis, however long he considers the “days” of Genesis chapter one to be. Second, both old-earth inerrantists, as well as young-earthers, affirm the historicity of Genesis. Third, no orthodox theologians, let alone an inerrantist, that Habermas claims to be, denies there will be a literal second coming of Christ. So, at best Habermas’s comments turn out to be irrelevant to the issue of the historicity of the Matthew 27 text and, at worst, a diversion of the issue. Fourth, Habermas informed me that he voted to exclude Gundry from ETS (1983) for holding a similar view that dehistoricized parts of the Gospel record. Assuming he voted in good conscience, shouldn’t he feel the same way about his friend, Mike Licona’s view? Or is he is allowing fraternity to trump orthodoxy?
- Licona refers to leaving a position he loved with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) at their North American Mission Board (NAMB). But he fails to mention that before he resigned he flew across the country and tried to convince a key SBC leader that his views were orthodox. After failing to convince him by arguments similar to those given by Habermas (in #9 above), he knew that his days were numbered in the SBC and resigned. As one SBC leader told me, “this is the very thing we fought against in the Southern Baptist convention, and so many suffered so greatly in the process.” Thus, he hoped that Licona would “no longer continue to bring that kind of trouble into Southern Baptist life.” (Letter of August, 2011).
- Licona insists that dehistoricizing a Gospel narrative is not really different from using figures of speech. He wrote, “It’s much like we might say that the events of [September] 9-11 were ‘earth shaking’ or that ‘it rained cats and dogs.’” However, this is a false analogy. For figures of speech can be, and often are, used of literal events. The Bible speaks of putting “chains” on Satan to bind him (Rev. 20), but this should not be used to deny the real literal existence of Satan. It also speaks of God having arms and even eyes (Heb. 4:13), but yet He is pure Spirit (Jn. 4:24). Yet behind these figures of speech there is a literal reality.
- Licona unfairly stereotypes those who oppose his denial of the historicity of certain Gospel events. He caricaturizes them as “ultraconservatives who have what I regard as an overly wooden view of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy accused me of dehistoricizing the biblical text because I didn’t believe it because of its supernatural nature.” But this is clearly not the case. If it were, then virtually all the great orthodox commentators in the history of the Christian Church up to and through the Reformation were “ultraconservatives” with an “overly wooden view of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy” have been guilty! (see John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church). Further, the nearly 300 contemporary ICBI scholars would also guilty of the same. It does not seem to occur to Licona that perhaps it is the few contemporary scholars (in comparison to the whole history of Christianity) that follow Greco-Roman legends who are wrong.
- Licona relies on a misuse of the hermeneutical principle of looking for the “intention” of the author to determine the true meaning of a text. He affirmed, “The matter for me was whether Matthew had intended for his readers to think that some saints had actually been raised” (emphasis added). This ambiguous term “intention” can mean unexpressed intention orexpressed intention. But there is no way to determine the New Testament author’s unexpressed intention. And his expressed intention in the text of Matthew 27 clearly indicates that Matthew intended it to be taken literally and historically for many reasons (given in #1). In short, the meaning of a text is discovered by examining the text in its context. But both the immediate and more remote contexts indicated this text should be taken literally (see #1 above). For it is written in the same historical fashion as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. One thing is certain: the intention of a biblical author is not found in Greco-Roman authors, but in the Bible itself. The Bible is still the best interpreter of the Bible.
- Licona uses a false analogy to justify his position, claiming that “Many early Christian males castrated themselves after misinterpreting Jesus’ teaching about some making themselves eunuchs for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:12).” First of all, the issue at hand is whether the passage in Matthew 27 is historical, not whether it has figures of speech in another passage should be taken literally. Second, the context in Matthew 19 and the rest of Scripture would indicate that Jesus was using a figure of speech when he spoke of making oneself a “eunuch” for the kingdom. The immediate context is about whether or not someone should marry (Mt. 19:10), not whether they should mutilate their bodies so that they could not marry. Further, the rest of Scripture indicates that we should not mutilate our bodies which embody the image of God (Gen. 1:27; Jas. 3:9), but should respect and care for them (Eph. 5:29).
- Licona passes over one of the most crucial objections to his view with only brief comments, namely, the objection that “one might attempt—as many already have—to make the same move with Jesus’ resurrection.” But the brief treatment in his book does not exonerate his view from the charge.For if the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 which was a result of Jesus resurrection is taken as legendary, then does this not undermine confidence that Jesus’ resurrection is historical. As noted Southern Baptist scholar Dr. Al Mohler put it on his web site: “Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon — the concession that some of the material reported by Matthew in the very chapter in which he reports the resurrection of Christ simply did not happen and should be understood as merely ‘poetic device’ and ‘special effects’… (emphasis added).”
- Licona engages in a case of special pleading when he claims that “Most of the highly respected evangelical scholars sided with me in the controversy.” First of all, opponents of his view could easily say the same thing. It all depends on who is choosing the test group and on what grounds. Second, a survey of thousands of Christian leaders and laypersons which I took shows that some 76 percent did not agree with Licona’s view. Further many scholars who disagree with Licona are presented on my web site (http://normangeisler.net/). Third, Licona himself acknowledged that even of those who believed his view was not unorthodox, nevertheless, “Many did not agree with the interpretation of Matthew’s raised saints I proposed.” Fourth, as shown above, denying the historicity of this text is contrary to the vast majority of the great teachers of the Christian church up to modern times (see #2 above).
- Licona boasts of his successful debates with many noted unbelieversusing his “new historiographical approach.” Yet I was told by some persons friendly to Licona view who were present at the Bart Ehrman debate that they believed that Licona had lost the debate. After the event, one father told me that he was informed by his son who heard the debate that he did not want to go to church any more! Indeed, as we have seen, Licona’s views actually opens the doors to skepticism about the Gospel records by claiming the Gospels are Greco-Roman genre which he affirms is a “flexible genre” in which “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (RJ, 34).
- Licona downplays the Southern Baptist reaction to his deviant view, saying, “I remain persona non grata with some SBC entities and that’s unfortunate…. I’ve never regarded Southern Baptists as the only true evangelical Christians.” However, the truth of the matter is that both inside and outside the SBC there are hundreds, even thousands, who believe Licona’s view is contrary to the ICBI understanding of inerrancy which was also adopted by the ETS (the largest group of scholars in the world confessing inerrancy). The truth is that the leaders of most SBC seminaries do not believe his view on this matter is orthodox. Many, like Paige Patterson and Al Moher have spoken out against it in print. Another SBC president wrote me, saying, he would never hire Licona. Still another SBC president agreed with the International Society of Christian Apologetics (seewww.ISCA–Apologetics.org) that his view was not consistent with the ICBI view on inerrancy. The board of the largest SBC linked School, Liberty University, decided not to give Licona a faculty position, even though some long-time Licona friends on staff were pushing for it. The faculty of a non-SBC school, Southern Evangelical Seminary, voted to exclude Licona from their staff, and his picture and position were dropped from their catalog. The list goes on.
- Strangely, Licona complained about critics of his view: “I’ve been very disappointed to see the ungodly behavior of a few of my detractors. The theological bullying, the termination and internal intimidation put on a few professors in SBC…all this revealed the underbelly of fundamentalism.” The truth is that name-calling, such as this, has no place in a scholarly dialog. All of those I know (many of whom are identified above) who disagree with Licona’s view are sincere, dedicated scholars who desire to preserve the orthodoxy of the Christian church against deviant view such as Licona’s. Calling their defense of the Faith an act of “bullying” diminishes their critic, not them. Indeed, calling ones opponent a “tar baby” (which Licona does) and labeling their actions as “ungodly behavior” is a classic example of how not to defend one’s view against its critics. What is more, while Licona condemned the use of the internet to present scholarly critiques of his view as a “circus,” he refused to condemn an offensive YouTube cartoon produced by his son-in-law and a friend who falsely caricatured a scholarly critique of his view. The video wrongly claims that we said Licona had “sinned.” No such statement was ever made. Further, producing cartoon caricatures portraying a critic of his view as a “Scrooge” may reflect creativity, but it is no substitute for orthodoxy. Even Southern Evangelical Seminary, where Licona was once a faculty member before his dismissal, condemned this approach in a letter from “the office of the president,” saying, “We believe this video was totally unnecessary and is in extremely poor taste” (12/9/2011). One influential alumnus wrote the school, saying, “It was immature, inappropriate and distasteful” and recommended that “whoever made this video needs to pull it down and apologize for doing it” (12/21/2011). The former president of the SES student body declared: “I’ll be honest that video was outright slander and worthy of punishment. I was quite angry after watching it” (Letter 12/17/2011). Further, when asked to apologize for claiming on the internet that this kind of slam was appropriate, Licona refused to do so.
- One is shocked to hear Licona claim that the inerrancy of Scripture debate here described is only “splitting hairs” and is not really an “essential” doctrine. He wrote, “So, I also didn’t want to spend my time splitting hairs over an interpretation that, in my opinion, doesn’t have any bearing on the essentials. He wrote, “I do not regard the doctrine of biblical inerrancy to be foundational to the Christian faith”! (emphasis added). If he means by this that a person could be saved without believing in inerrancy, then there is no problem. There are saved people who do not believe in inerrancy. However, without an inerrant Bible we would have no divinely authoritative basis for our salvation. The doctrine of inerrancy (the total truthfulness of the Bible) is foundational to every other doctrine of the Christian Faith. For every other foundational doctrine (like the deity of Christ, His death and resurrection) are based on the Scriptures. And if the Bible is not divinely authoritative (and thereby, inerrant), then we would have no divinely authoritative basis for believing any other fundamental doctrine of Scripture based on it. In this sense, the inerrancy of Scripture is the fundamental of the fundamentals. And if the fundamental of the fundamental is not fundamental, then what is fundamental? The answer is fundamentally nothing. Of course, Jesus’ death and resurrection could be true without there being an inerrant Bible. However, with the Bible we don’t have a divinely authoritative basis for believing that these other doctrines are true. So, contrary to Licona’s claim, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is epistemologically foundational to the Christian Faith (see Geisler and Rhodes,Conviction without Compromise, chap. 16).
- Licona demeans most SBC inerrantists as “an ultraconservative wing that would like to pull the denomination back into fundamentalism where people are told, we know the answers. ‘Don’t question me. Just get back in line and follow me. I’m protecting the Church’.” However, I don’t think that’s where the majority of SBC church members or even SBC professors are.” Besides being false about both the number and nature of Southern Baptists, this is a demeaning way to characterize those who are sincerely and earnestly trying to preserve the orthodoxy and vitality of one of the largest Protestant denominations in the world! As a non SBC scholar, I have the greatest respect for the Sothern Baptist leaders who championed the inerrancy cause. It was historic. It reversed the course of history on a major doctrinal declension. They all deserve bronze plaques in Nashville and some (like Paige Patterson) deserve a statue. Ironically, some of the names whom Licona drops as SBC leaders whom he respects actually disagree with his view on inerrancy and one of them told me in a letter that he would never hire Licona at his school.
- Speaking of “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy [which] defines it most exhaustively,” Licona claims, “But even those who helped compose it aren’t in complete agreement about its meaning. I continue to be a biblical inerrantist and subscribe to both the Lausanne Covenant and the Chicago Statement.” However, this claim by Licona is flatly false. There are only three living framers of the ICBI statements (J. I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and myself), and we all agree that Licona’s views are not compatible with the ICBI statements (see # 3). What Licona does to the ICBI statements is typical of what many of his peers do with the New Testament, namely, they read their meaning into it (eisegesis) rather than reading the framer’s view out of it (exegesis). Indeed, Licona is so bold as to affirm that those of us who are living ICBI framers do not properly understand the statements we framed! No wonder they misinterpret the New Testament. If Washington, Madison, and Jefferson were here today, by this same logic they would no doubt say to them that they did not properly understand The Declaration of Independence!
- Licona also misunderstands and mischaracterizes the historical-grammatical interpretation of the Bible as the belief that “everything in the Bible should be interpreted literally. For example, I don’t think that Jesus’ teaching on lust meant that guys should actually gouge out their eyes if they struggle with it (Matthew 5:28-29).” However, no sophisticated proponent of the historical-grammatical interpretation of the Bible (which ICBI affirms) denies there are symbols and figures of speech in the Bible, and gouging out one’s eyes is certainly one. The ICBI statement affirms clearly that “Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices” (Article XVIII cf. Article XIII). But even symbols and figures of speech have literal referents, as indicated above (in #12).But allowing for figures of speech within a text (like “asleep” for dead in Matthew 27) does not mean it was not referring to a literal dead body that was subsequently literally raised from the dead as a result of Jesus’ literal death and resurrection.
- Licona still refuses to retract his aberrant view on the Matthew 27 saints and other passages (see #4). He said, “The controversy forced me to dig deeper and I have since modified my position to one of uncertainty pertaining to how Matthew intended the saints raised at Jesus’ death to be interpreted.” However, there are several problems with this response. First, it falls short of a retraction. Second, Licona has not rejected the theological method (the use of Greco-Roman biography which allows for legends in the NT text) which led him to his unorthodox conclusion on Matthew 27. Finally, this was only one of many texts which Licona’s method led him to doubt the historicity of many Gospel events (see # 4). He has not retracted his views on any of these issues to date.
- Licona contends that his view is just a matter of interpretation, not a matter of inerrancy. Thus, he believes that one can hold different interpretations of this Matthew 27 text (and others) without denying its inerrancy. However, this is a false disjunction of interpretation from inerrancy for several reasons.
First, there is only a formal distinction between interpretation and inerrancy, not a total disjunction. Otherwise, biblical inerrancy is an empty vacuous claim that the whole Bible is truth without making a claim that anything in it is actually true.
Second, Licona’s bifurcation of interpretation and inerrancy would mean that even a totally allegorical method which spiritualizes away every literal truth of the Bible (including the death and resurrection of Christ) could be held without denying inerrancy. This means that if Mary Baker Eddy or her Christian Science followers claimed to hold the complete inerrancy of whatever the Bible teaches and yet, as they do, deny the literal truth of the death and resurrection of Christ, the existence of matter, evil, and hell, nevertheless, they could not be thereby be rightly charged with denying the inerrancy of the Bible!
Third, such a disjunction of interpretation from inerrancy as Licona makes is contrary to the nature of truth itself. For truth is what corresponds to reality. ICBI clearly defines truth as “what corresponds to reality,” affirming that “all the claims of the Bible must correspond with reality, whether that reality is historical, factual or spiritual” (R. C. Sproul, Explaining Inerrancy, 41). But, if Licona’s claim is valid, then there is no reality to which the claim that “the Bible is completely true” actually corresponds.
Fourth, even granting the obvious claim that the Bible must be interpreted in order to understand its meaning, this does not imply, as Licona claims, that hermeneutical methods are inerrancy-neutral. For there are hermeneutical presuppositions that are contrary to an evangelical view of inerrancy. For example, a total allegorical method like that of Christian Science is not compatible with an evangelical view of what is meant when one claims the Bible is completely true. This is why the famous ICBI “Chicago Statement” on biblical inerrancy includes Article XVIII says “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatical-historical exegesis….” In short, any method of interpreting Scripture that does not use the literal, historical-grammatical method is inconsistent with inerrancy. This means that any other method, like an allegorical method, is incompatible with an evangelical view of inerrancy.
Fifth, the historical-grammatical method does not approach the Bible with a historically neutral stance. After all, it is not called the “literal” method for nothing. It assumes there is a sensus literalis (literal sense) to Scripture. In short, it assumes that a text should be taken literally unless there are good grounds in the text and/or in the context to take it otherwise. As a matter of fact, we cannot even know a non-literal (e.g., allegorical or poetic) sense unless we know what is literally true. So, when Jesus said, “I am the vine” this should not be taken literally because we know what a literal vine is, and we know that Jesus is not one.
Sixth, the ICBI inerrancy statement against “dehistoricizing” a biblical narrative presupposes its historicity. Contrary to Licona, biblical inerrantists do not approach a biblical narrative with a history-neutral presupposition (Article XVIII). Indeed, neither do common persons reading road signs or newspapers approach them in a literal-free manner. We approach almost everything in life with the presumption that it is literally true, unless there is good reason in the text or context to do otherwise.
Seventh, what is more, Licona’s “new” approach rejects another venerable hermeneutical principle expressed by ICBI when it insists that “Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (Article XVIII, emphasis added). For Licona insists that extra-biblical data (e.g., Greco-Roman legends) can be used to interpret Scripture. He wrote, “There is somewhat of a consensus among contemporary scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography” which, he adds, “often included legend” that is a “flexible genre” in which “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (Licona, RJ, 34). But the Greco-Roman use of legend mixed with history is not a suitable model for interpreting a biblical narrative.
One ICBI framer summarized the issue well: “Inspiration without inerrancy is an empty term. Inerrancy without inspiration is unthinkable. The two are inseparably related. They may be distinguished but not separated. So it is with hermeneutics. We can easily distinguish between the inspiration and interpretation of the Bible, but we cannot separate them. Anyone can confess a high view of the nature of Scripture but the ultimate test of one’s view of Scripture is found in his method of interpreting it. A person’s hermeneutic reveals his view of Scripture more clearly than does an exposition of his view” (R. C. Sproul, “Biblical Interpretation and The Analogy of Faith” in Inerrancy and Common Sense, ed. by Roger R. Nicole, 134, emphasis added). Indeed, ICBI insisted that the historical-grammatical method of interpreting Scripture was part of its understanding of biblical inerrancy.
Some Important Concluding Comments
First, inerrancy remains a watershed issue among evangelicals. It is foundational to all that we believe. A Bible with an error in it of any kind cannot be a divinely authoritative book. Hence, undermining the inerrancy of the Bible by allowing for legends in the Gospels (as Licona does) is a serious doctrinal deviation.
Second, the ICBI statement on inerrancy is still the most significant one in the last century for many reasons: (1) It was produced by the largest number of scholars cutting across national and denominational lines; (2) It has been accepted by the largest group of evangelical scholars, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) as a guide in interpreting the meaning of inerrancy; (3) The ETS society, by an overwhelming vote of 70%, asked Robert Gundry to resign because he had (like Licona) rejected the historicity of parts of the Gospel record.
Third, as shown above, Licona’s views are contrary to those of the ICBI. This means that they stand contrary to those adopted by the largest group of evangelical scholars in the world. Further, to approve of Licona’s denial of sections of the Gospel record would in effect reverse the Gundry decision and open the flood gates of evangelicals to more liberal New Testament scholars who do not really believe in unlimited inerrancy in the tradition of the great early fathers and teachers of the Christian church, B. B. Warfield, the framers of the ETS, and the framers of ICBI, and of the Southern Baptist resurgence, all of which in turn stand in continuity with the orthodox view of Scripture down through the centuries. In effect, approving of Licona’s deviant views on Scripture would reverse the course of evangelical history down through the centuries. This we cannot allow. Here we must stand. We can do no other.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics:http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_2.pdf
For an official ICBI commentary by Dr. R. C. Sproul on CSBI and a commentary by Dr. N. L. Geisler on CSBH, see Explaining Biblical Inerrancy at http://bastionbooks.com.