More on Geisler, Licona, and the Issues Involved

Brian LePort has delved a bit deeper into the controversy du jour concerning Norman Geisler and Mike Licona, explaining why he has a problem with the way things have been going. Basically Brian is saying that he thinks Geisler has been nasty throughout the whole thing. I disagree but first I want to enumerate the issues involved as I see them. The major issues are what I’ll call:

The Hermeneutical Issue – Geisler has a problem with Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53’s genre as “apocalyptic” or “poetic” and more significantly his interpretive approach to the passage, which Geisler understands as allowing extra-biblical material to determine the meaning of biblical material, which in this case has resulted in the “de-historicizing” of the text. Some people who have commented on this debate have seemed genuinely shocked that Geisler would question Licona’s hermeneutic here. Others have seemingly demonized Licona for suggesting that an alternative interpretation is even possible. This is a debate/discussion worth having. Personally, I’m sympathetic to Geisler’s point that extra-biblical material shouldn’t determine our understanding of biblical material, but this is quite different than saying it shouldn’t inform it, which seems to be how some people understand Geisler.

The Trajectory Issue – Geisler worries that Licona’s hermeneutical approach could lead to a denial of the resurrection wholesale since this is precisely the approach used by liberal scholars to deny the Resurrection as well as the Virgin Birth. This is a real concern, and a possible outcome, but some have perceived Geisler to be attributing guilt by association in taking this stance (see Marc Cortez’s critique). I think the issue is a bit more complicated than that since Geisler has a legitimate gripe – if Licona can say that Matthew 27:52-53 is apocalyptic or poetic then what’s to stop him from saying that other things aren’t? I personally think Geisler’s a little too fearful on this issue, but it’s possible, even if improbable.

The Compatibility/Inerrancy Issue – Geisler thinks that Licona’s hermeneutic is incompatible with the doctrine of inerrancy as understood in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a statement adopted by the Evangelical Theological Society, of which Licona is a member. Geisler, as a framer of this statement, is in a better position to comment on this than most. If the question is narrowly approached according to CSBI standards then perhaps the problem is as bad as Geisler suggests. But there are other understandings of inerrancy in currency, as Geisler’s critics are wont to point out, and Licona can still claim to believe in inerrancy while maintaining the position he took in his book. But when the ETS issue is raised then it becomes somewhat different. Geisler has a legitimate claim that Licona’s published view is incompatible with the particular definition of inerrancy adopted by the ETS.

The Gundry/ETS Issue – Geisler has repeatedly drawn an analogy between Licona and Robert Gundry, who was removed from the ETS a few decades ago for something very similar. Geisler wants to make it known that if Licona is going to maintain his position he cannot do so in good standing with the ETS’s statement of faith. This is where a lot of the reaction to Geisler from his critics has come from. They think Geisler is playing dirty pool by bringing up the past and insinuating that similar actions should be taken in the present. Keep in mind that Geisler has not once said this, but many feel it has been tacitly implied throughout. Ultimately, this isn’t Geisler’s call since he hasn’t been a member of the ETS in quite a while.

Now back to Brian’s post in which he has said that he has no issue with Geisler raising objections concerning interpretation. He has no problem with Geisler’s view of inerrancy. What he does have a problem with is Geisler’s tone and conduct. He’s not happy that Geisler has basically taken a “recant or suffer the consequences” stance. I get it, it seems extreme, but at the same time I can see where Geisler is coming from. I don’t share Brian’s problem with the way Geisler has conducted himself. I don’t perceive this as quite the “heresy hunt” that Brian does.

Here’s how I see the whole situation — Geisler initially wrote what seemed to me to be a genuine letter of concern. I saw an older scholar trying to correct a younger scholar whom he genuinely believed to have been in error (and the conclusion to his second open letter has confirmed this reading). This is commendable, and biblical at that, so I didn’t see the things in Geisler’s “tone” there that others did. I think the shift in “tone” came in when Geisler didn’t receive a prompt reply. Licona responded with an open letter of his own and when Geisler replied he admitted that he felt entitled to a response, saying to Licona, “I like you and respect you, but you owe me a quicker response than this.” So Geisler’s response sticks to the same issues but now seems a bit more defensive and exhibits a bit of posturing, or so it would seem.

But all psychoanalysis aside, let’s look at the issues and motives (so far as we can discern them). What did Geisler hope to accomplish with his letters? He was looking for Licona to recant his published position. Why? Because he felt that it was erroneous, incompatible with the CSBI, and ultimately dangerous (Geisler connects the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:52-53 with the resurrection of Jesus so to deny the historicity of one is to deny the historicity of the other). I get it. What’s more is that I think Geisler’s beef is legitimate. I know it’s popular to bash fundies, and God forbid one doesn’t come to Licona’s aid against the evil Geisler, but what I haven’t actually seen is anyone show that Geisler is fundamentally wrong in calling for a recantation.

Ask yourselves what we’ve seen in the commentary on this controversy? We’ve seen plenty of name calling. That’s never helpful. We’ve seen Geisler vilified and treated as a big ol’ meanie. We’ve seen plenty of defenses of Licona’s published view (e.g., Mike Bird’s recent entry). That’s more to the point, but the issue isn’t really the possibility of the correctness of Licona’s view, it’s the compatibility of his view with the CSBI, which is the ETS’s chosen litmus test of biblical inerrancy. We’ve seen the CSBI criticized but that’s irrelevant. It doesn’t much matter whether or not one prefers some other standard for inerrancy; the ETS prefers this one and Licona is a member of the ETS, as are many of the people who signed Licona’s open letter. When Geisler says that “their approval of Licona’s view reveals they are not signing the doctrinal statement in good conscience according to intention expressed by the framers,” he’s saying something serious and something worthy of consideration. And he’s in a very good position to be saying it since he’s one of the framers of the CSBI (so far I’ve only seen Steve Hays address this issue and he makes an interesting point).

Geisler’s second open letter focuses overwhelmingly on the issue of Licona’s published view as it relates to the CSBI. So while it may be less than desirable for Geisler to talk about the “line in the sand” drawn by the ETS and ICBI framers (sorry Chris), it’s still a legitimate beef. We don’t have to like Geisler or his politics, but we can’t just write him off because we don’t like how he approached the issue. Sift through the rhetoric and look at the objections.

It seems to me that most of the people commenting on the situation don’t want to meet Geisler on his own field of battle; they want to shift locations. Is Geisler wrong about the incompatibility of Licona’s published position with the CSBI? If so then argue for that and not about how the CSBI isn’t the only standard out there. Is Geisler wrong about Licona having to recant in order to stay in good standing with the ETS’s doctrinal commitments? If so then argue for that and not about other ETS members are okay with Licona’s published view (whether they personally agree or not).

It also won’t do to simply argue that Licona’s interpretation is right. It could very well be that he’s correct and that the CSBI is incorrect; if that’s the case then we still haven’t made a case for consistency, have we? Geisler may very well be a closed-minded fundamentalist, but that doesn’t de facto make him wrong. We can’t just shout “Fundy! Bad!” and think the work is done. We can’t address peripheral issues and act as if the debate is settled. We need to deal with Geisler’s objections according to the terms of those objections. So I can see why he was disappointed with Licona’s open letter since it didn’t do that. I can imagine that he’d be equally as disappointed with the discussion among bloggers on these issues as well.



8 thoughts on “More on Geisler, Licona, and the Issues Involved

  1. Well said. I haven’t been following this debate but this post seemed very reasonable.

    At this point I find the most interesting question to be whether Geisler can decide who is and isn’t in violation of the ETS position on inerrancy even if he was ONE of the framers the CSBI. Are we going to allow extra-CSBI material (Geisler’s modern day opinion) to DETERMINE what the CSBI means? ; )

  2. Sadly, this shows again, the great problem with authority and the ETS and CSBI, etc. One of the grave ongoing problems of postmodern Evangelicalism also. I have seen what has happened to the Anglican Communion here, it took many years. Now, the slide and even apostasy will be much quicker…the Emergents, etc. This is also one of the reasons that some Anglican conservative types go to Rome and the EO, or Orthodoxy. Authority, Holy Scripture and the historic Church are always connected!

  3. Bryan: That’s essentially what Steve Hays has been arguing. He raises some interesting points. And Geisler is only one voice among many. He might not represent all of the framers; it’s possible he’s in the minority on this one.

    Fr. Robert: Apparently the ETS’s authority is immaterial for Licona since he’s not a member.

    SLIMJIM: I’m glad I could be of service.

  4. Btw Nick, I quoted somewhat from G.C. Berkouwer purposely, as he like Barth had/has a different view and position on the Word of God. Sadly it seems many “Evangelicals” don’t know this? Even those who write and make authoritative & absolute like statements! Myself I know this, but I am just not sure I agree with this depth, in both Barth & Berkouwer? This is not so much hermeneutics here, as the ontological of the Text itself.

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