Good for You Norman Geisler

God knows I’m not the fan of Norman Geisler that I once was. I’ve detailed my Geislerian odyssey here for those interested. There’s plenty I disagree with Geisler about, and I’ve written reviews of some of his books, pulling no punches in any of them, but I have to respect that he’s a man who sticks to his guns and holds his principles firmly.

I’ve seen quite a few people comment on Norman Geisler’s open letters to Mike Licona and I can’t help but think that some of the commentary is an overreaction (while some of it is quite measured and substantive). Some folks have called Geisler names (as if that addresses any of the issues at hand) and have acted as if Geisler doesn’t have a right to disagree with Licona and openly proclaim it. I find this approach troubling.

Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of Geisler’s position, he handled things in a responsible manner as far as I can tell. First, he actually read Licona’s book (or so I’d assume). Second, he wrote directly to Licona in order to voice his reservations about Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53. After not receiving a response he published his concerns in an open letter on his website. This drew a response from Licona. Well and good.

And it seems that Licona has slightly revised the position he took in his book. I don’t know how much, if anything, Geisler had to do with that but we can see that Licona clearly doesn’t see himself as being above reproach. He’s willing to change as he continues to learn. This is an earmark of responsible scholarship. Geisler isn’t satisfied with Licona’s revision, but that says nothing of Licona’s willingness to revise prior beliefs in light of new evidence or argumentation.

But here’s the point I want to make: Stop acting as if Geisler did anything wrong. He disagreed and he did so publicly, only after attempting to do so privately. He really went the extra mile in my opinion. I certainly didn’t write Geisler privately before I publicly criticized his Chosen But Free in a review. The fact of the matter is that Licona wrote a book and in doing so he invited criticism. Geisler took up the challenge and criticized him. It happens all the time and I don’t see people getting bent out of shape about it.

If it was anyone other than Geisler raising the issue then I wonder if they’d catch as much flack. If Geisler published his comments in a journal or a book rather than in an open letter on his website then I wonder if he’d get the same reaction. There’s generally no consistency in this kind of thing. For example, where was the outcry when Licona summarized Bart Ehrman in §2.5 of his book and then said, “In my opinion, Ehrman is misguided on all five counts.” (174) How is this substantially different from Geisler saying that he finds Licona’s published position “unconvincing” or “problematic”? It isn’t.

So let’s chill out and get back to the merits of the arguments on all sides of the debate. Geisler has as much a right to disagree with Licona as anyone else. He has the right to publish his disagreement in any format he sees fit. He has a right to question the trajectory of Licona’s position. And you, my dear readers, have the right to do the same with Geisler. But let’s not act as if he’s somehow out of bounds while the reaction he drew was somehow appropriate. What’s good for the goose and whatnot…



27 thoughts on “Good for You Norman Geisler

  1. Nick: As I wrote on another blog, this issue is both hermeneutical and theological, but certainly real Evangelical Christians should stand with Geisler. For we cannot place the resurrection of Christ in any apocalyptic (apocryphal?) like place!

  2. Let me be honest,
    I think Licona’s entire apologetic method is based in fear. Not in the sense of “Believe or burn in hell,” but in the sense of “you can be relatively certain of this (the resurrection), so it’s safe for you to believe, but be wary of some doctrines because you can’t be as certain of them and if you lose faith in them (at which point he makes a quip about how he isn’t very sure of them), I don’t want you to lose faith in the resurrection.” I am sure he is simply trying to keep people from making an idol out of doctrines and trying to break down barriers that might keeping from believing, but I think the very notion betrays a limited view of the power of the Spirit in salvation and the confidence that the Spirit gives in the revelation of God in His word. There is a fear that people might be reluctant to believe because of His stance concerning the truthfulness of God in His word. Our confidence should not be in the ability of the authors to adequately recount history, but in the power of God in preserving His truth.

    As an SBC trained and ordained minister and a representative of the SBC serving in churches and seminaries around the world, I can’t help but be greatly dismayed by his recent actions.

  3. As one who has written one of the critical posts, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between whether a response was appropriate and how that response was given. I have no problem with Geisler responding critically and publicly. (I argued the same for those criticizing Rob Bell.) And, I think many of Geisler’s arguments/concerns are valid and worth pursuing. But, I did take issue with the nature/tone of quite a few of Geisler’s comments. Had a responded in a more constructive manner, I wouldn’t have taken issue at all.

  4. Fr. Robert: I think there’s room for disagreement amongst evangelicals on this issue, hence the disagreement amongst evangelicals! Licona is no less evangelical than Geisler, he’s just come to a different conclusion. But you’re right, the issue is hermeneutical and theological, so the arguments should proceed on those grounds. So far as I can tell, those are exactly the grounds that Geisler proceeded on, and a lot of the overreaction seems strange to me.

    Ranger: That’s a good observation. I hadn’t thought to look at it from that angle.

    Marc: Yours was one of the substantive posts I had in mind (I don’t agree with a lot of your points but I consider them substantive nonetheless). I think it’s difficult to discern one’s “tone” when reading what they’ve written (e.g., were you being sarcastic in your post? Humorous? Serious? All of the above? None of them?). I didn’t see anything offensive in anything that Geisler said or the way that he said it (and I’m inclined to be bothered by most of what Geisler says, however he says it!). I actually found his initial letter to be very constructive and congenial. It focused on a key problem that he had with the book and it raised questions of where such a position could lead. Now I happen to think that Geisler is a bit too fearful of the possible consequences, but I’ll admit that they are possible even if improbable.

    And for the record, I don’t have an issue with people taking issue with Geisler; just like I don’t have an issue with Geisler taking issue with Licona. This is all quite common and rather benign from my viewpoint. I simply take issue with folks blowing things out of proportion and overreacting.

  5. I see that I now need to write an open letter to Nick’s open letter to Geisler’s open letter to Licona’s open letter to Geisler’s open letter to Frank Turk’s open letter to Sam Harris’s open letter to M.L. King’s open letter to Luther’s open letter to St. Paul’s open letter to St. John’s open letter.

  6. Hey, I am the real cranky old man around here! ;) But it is just a short ride from the symbolical to the idea of real myth, just start reading some of the 19th and 20th century German theology! When we are talking about the Resurrection of Christ, we simply must be careful and biblical! I think this is Geisler’s concern. And a sound Biblical Theology, is never “benign”! My thoughts at least, but I am never afraid to claim being a conservative. I would stand with the Reformer’s simply, ad fontes! Today “theology” has become often disconnected from the life of the Church, and Holy Scripture itself was written within the community of faith, itself!

  7. Fair enough. I’ll admit that Geisler pushed a few of my buttons, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I may have responded more strongly than necessary. And, although I did comment on a few things he did that I liked, I could have done more. But, I still think the specific arguments I pointed out are unhelpful and that are more constructive ways to engage someone on issues like this.

    Thanks for the pushback.

  8. I think it would be worth reading the comments of Licona’s son-in-law on some of the post on my blog. Geisler’s actions have already led to Licona having invited to events rejected and his allusion to Gundry has been received as a subtle warning. It isn’t the disagreeing part that is problematic. There is more to it.

  9. Btw, just to make a point, I don’t think being a liberal theologically negates one’s Christianity, if the Incarnate Christ, as Lord, Savior and Redeemer is the reality and substance of one’s life! I expect to see people like Bultmann in the glory, etc. But today, the so-called Visible Church is becoming certainly aspostate, I don’t see how we can doubt this! And I am personally not with Geisler theologically on everything, but it is his attitude and approach to the Scripture that I would stand near and close to. :)

  10. Bryan: Naturally! They don’t come more crotchety than Geisler.

    Steve: Don’t forgot to address my open letter to Dunkin’ Donuts.

    Fr. Robert: I think we need to be careful not to conflate Licona’s position in the book on Matthew 27:52-53 with the Resurrection of Christ. The whole book is arguing in favor of the Resurrection. He simply raises a question about the genre of this passage. If Licona’s understanding of the genre was correct then Geisler’s entire critique would be moot.

    Marc: Hindsight is always 20/20, or so they say. There will always be better ways to do things, and Geisler could have been more detailed in his argument and left certain things out of it, but when I think of the format (a letter) and the tone (conversational & concerned) then I see how and why things came out the way they did. I think for the most part you raised some good points. I think at other parts you read a bit more into what Geisler was saying/doing than was actually going on. But this is the stuff of dialogue.

    Brian: I’ve read them but I’m gonna call shenanigans here. You wrote your initial post before Licona’s son-in-law commented on your blog and you accused Geisler of “heresy hunting” (even though he never used the word heresy, never raised the issue of heresy, and closed his first letter with “your brother in Christ” — a strange designation to use if he thought Licona was a heretic) and making “veiled threats,” which is an example of the overreaction I had in mind when composing my post.

    And I could be wrong, but you seemed genuinely miffed (I think the “Gag me!” gave it away) that Geisler would disagree so strongly with Licona and suggest that he was in danger of violating inerrancy and seek some kind of change in position. I welcome correction on that point. So maybe now you can bring in some of the personal issues that Licona’s son-in-law brought to light, but unless you were in touch with him before composing your post (again, I welcome correction on this point) then it seems that the initial issue was over the disagreement itself.

  11. Personally, I think it is important to…as we say, to “press” someones theological statements, especially within the so-called “Evangelical” community! When Licona makes an exegetical statement that runs counter to the “catholic” understanding of the faith, especially on the subject of the Resurrection of Christ, it should be called out! This is all that Geisler appears to have done. But the dialogue should be contained over the issue and the Scripture text itself!

  12. Nick: “Genre” has become an issue we could float a battleship thru! Indeed, we must be careful, again, note the German theology! That the Resurrection of Christ itself would be classed in “genre” alone, would be a serious error I believe! Again, note both the context of verses 51, and 54. Are we to “demythologize” here? Indeed, “genre” here opens up new doors! What type of “genre”, just “apocalypyic”? Why not apocryphal? which could really be a new situation here! Oh those ‘can of worms’ just get bigger!

  13. @Nick – “conversational and concerned” – I think that sums up the differences in how we’re responding to this, since I definitely would not describe his letters in this way. Indeed, that’s exactly what I would have liked to see in a response.

    @Fr Robert – I think you’re right that hermeneutics is the real issue here. The debate isn’t so much about inerrancy in itself, but about issues of genre, culture, and interpretation.

  14. Fr. Robert: The Resurrection itself isn’t “genre,” it’s an event, but when it is written about those writings fall into particular genres. Which genre Matthew 27:52-53 falls into is a discussion worth having, for sure.

    Marc: I’d classify his first open letter as “conversational and concerned.” The second one was more defensive and posturing.

  15. The first one didn’t strike me that way either. But, since I came to the debate a bit late and read both letters at the same time, it’s possible that the second colored my impression of the first. I’ll have to go back and read the first one fresh sometime.

  16. @Nick: Licona’s son-in-law only confirmed what Geisler made evident in his letters by citing the removal of Gundry from ETS. Mohler’s recent article sheds light on my reading of Geisler as well. Call it whatever you want, but as someone who runs in evangelical circles it wasn’t rocket science to see Geisler had it out for Licona in a way that was far beyond a theological debate.

    Furthermore, Licona’s list of supports was also a clear sign that there was something political to Geisler’s attack. I was very clear that my problem was (and I quote myself) “[Geisler] wants some recanting done or else.” I don’t care if Geisler personally affirms one must believe Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to work. What concerns me is the heresy hunt.

  17. Marc: I’m willing to bet that some of the overreactions you probably encountered before reading the initial letter colored your reading as well. These things happen.

    Brian: Far be it for me to tell you what you meant, but I don’t think you were “very clear” that your problem was [only] that Geisler wanting some recanting done. That’s but one sentence among many. You also said:

    Yet within evangelicalism itself there are those who want total conformity to their views or they begin a heresy hunt. […] Geisler doesn’t care who supports Licona. In his estimation Licona doesn’t affirm inerrancy as Geisler understands it. It’s time for a good ol’ heresy hunt!

    That suggested to me that you had an issue with the disagreement, which you labeled a “heresy hunt.” But like I said, far be it for me to tell you what you meant; I will tell you that you didn’t communicate it as clearly as you may think. Likewise, I don’t think Geisler’s intentions are quite as clear or evident as you suggest. I certainly didn’t read him that way.

  18. Nick: I always try to really look at the theological position, rather than the individual. Though we all have our bias. Since I am older however, I can tell you we live in a much less theologically inclined age. I can remember when the term for modernism, was close to the idea of liberalism. And I can also remember the Death of God theology, now that was a real radical idea! And Bonhoeffer and discipleship were all the rage at that time, at least for the British. And the Roman Catholics had Rahner, Longeran and Kung, closer to their prime. Now that was a much more theological generation, even with all of the existentialism! :)

  19. Nick: Sorry to break the stride, I was just thinking really how diverse theology is! Even the so-called mid and late 20th century. Note that is Gerrit Cornelis on Berhouwer, 1903-96. He was at the (VU) Free University of Amsterdam. Just a great Reformed theologian!

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