Friday, September 16, 2011

Another example of why inerrancy is an unhelpful doctrine: The Licona Controversy

The internet has been ablaze with controversy over Michael Licona's recent book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historical Approach (IVP, 2010). I have not read the book yet, but my understanding is that he lays out an impressive set of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I have just ordered my own copy in-between writing sentences here.

Licona's book has become a lightening rod for criticism from the very people that should be happy with his work. Michael Licona certainly has the kind of credentials that should make him loved by many in evangelical circles.

But he made a fatal error in his new book when looking at the odd and problematic passage in Matthew 27:52-53. Here is what the passage says.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Licona has apparently suggested that the passage is not intended to be read as historical, but as poetic device using apocalyptic language to describe the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection. His statements have caused such evangelical luminaries as Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler to not only object to Licona's interpretation, but to question his adherence to inerrancy. Geisler, for instance, has written three "open letters" asking Licona to "recant" in much the same way the question was placed before Luther at the Diet of Worms (Letter 1; Letter 2; Letter 3). Licona responded to Geisler on September 8th by restating his interpretation and affirming his belief in inerrancy. A week later Albert Mohler joined the discussion by also attacking Licona's interpretation and his stance on inerrancy. Mohler points out parallels between Licona's interpretation of Matthew and that of Robert Gundry who was drummed out of the Evangelical Theological society because he suggested that Matthew's Gospel used a midrashic interpretation of history. Mohler's letter makes it sound as if Licona will soon be out of the ETS as well. However, Brian LePort notes that neither Geisler nor Licona are members of ETS.

Before I comment further I need to disclose that I am in agreement with Licona's interpretation of Matthew 27:51-53. In fact, one of my very first posts here on the Biblical World looked at this passage and suggested that it was probably a combination of historical, theological, and scriptural elements that Matthew used to create a rich symbolic picture. This is also similar to the position taken by Michael Bird in a recent post about the Licona crisis. So Licona is not alone.

So what is at stake here for those who are attacking Licona?

Two things.

First is the belief in inerrancy, that the Bible is free from error or mistakes. As I have said before, this is a very unhelpful category by which to define the Bible since it tells us what the Bible is not. That is, it uses negatives to describe the Bible rather than positives. The problem with this approach is that it wants the Bible to lineup with 21st century expectations. It fails to take into account the fact that the Bible was not written with us in mind and that authors were writing and working within their own historical and cultural context. This means that sometimes they did some very creative things with history that would simply not wash in our time. I will not start listing examples or reasons why I don't hold to inerrancy since this is a well worn argument. The more one studies the Bible the more you realize just how unsupportable of a claim it is. When we hold to inerrancy we end up making the Bible fit into our perceptions of what we think the Bible should be rather than standing back and discovering what it really is.

The second problem here is the "house of cards" theory or the so-called "slippery slope." Geisler and Mohler are both asking: "if Matthew did not really mean for us to take the story of the resurrected saints literally in Matthew 27 then how can we take the story of Jesus' resurrection seriously in the very same chapter?" At first look this sounds like a reasonable question. But anyone who has studied the gospels long enough know that the authors regularly mix historical and theological material together. A number of good examples are found in the Gospel of John, but I will focus on just one.

In his gospel John places Jesus' clearing of the temple at the beginning of his ministry while the synoptics all place it at the end. John also interprets the temple event as symbolic of Jesus' own death and resurrection (2:18-22). Now we can approach this in one of two ways. We can suggest that Jesus actually cleared the temple twice, once in the beginning and once at the end. But then we might want to ask why the synoptics only record a clearing at the end of Jesus' ministry and John only records a clearing at the beginning. While we can sometimes harmonize the gospels to make sense of an event this does not seem to be possible here. On the other hand, the more likely explanation is that John has purposefully moved the event to make a theological point. That is, he has used history, theology and creativity to make a point about Jesus.

So the question then is why not in Matthew? Could not Matthew have used both history and symbolism to weave together his message about Jesus? I think he did. And this is why inerrancy, especially the way it is defined by Geisler, Mohelr and some others, is unhelpful. It predetermines what the Bible "is" and therefore what the authors of the Bible "must do" to fit within that definition.

I wonder if the biblical authors would be allowed to join ETS or if they too would be threatened with expulsion because their understanding of scripture does not fall within the parameters of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. This whole matter is turning into a heresy hunt and those who ask questions or suggest different interpretations are the ones being tortured by their fellow Christians.


  1. Many eons ago, when I was being taught systematic theology, the inerrancy of Scripture was closely tied to the inspiration of Scripture. The line of thinking was, since the Scriptures are "God-breathed," they could not contain error. If they did, God would be less than perfect. Does inspiration call for inerrancy?

  2. Arden, just a thought: we humans are God-breathed, too. Although flawed in many ways we can at the same time perfectly manifest the nature of God and submit to and carry out the will of God. I'm not saying I think scripture is flawed, in fact I know it is not, but being God-breathed is not enough to qualify for perfection.

    I'm comfortable with a human element in scripture and with the fact that it is at the same time perfect.

  3. I don't think that inspiration requires inerrancy. What if the author is inspired to do something creative, like John does with the temple and so much of Jesus' life? The problem is when we think that inspiration requires historical accuracy, at least in the way we would define accuracy. The ancients simply did not think in these categories.

  4. I don't have a problem with an author using literary devices. The only thing that bothers me about Geisler's critism is that if those verses in Matthew are poetic, then how do we argue that the resurrection isn't just poetic as well?

  5. Nate, I think your question is a valid one, which is why we need to do good historical work. My understanding is that Licona did that work and concluded that the evidence for Jesus' resurrection was strong, but not for the 27:51-53. We have to learn to be comfortable with the way that ancient authors mixed history and symbolism and did not see any problems with do that. We, on the other hand, want "pure history," which also does not exist.

  6. Meaninglessness and very dangerous argument, as well, the quote from Matthew is cut short.

    The reason for many saints who were asleep who arise and went to Jerusalem, among the other events is to serve as Witnesses beyond Jesus’ apostles as with the Roman Soldiers who immediately understood Jesus is the Son of God upon their witness of events.

    2Timothy 3:16
    16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

    2 Peter 1:20–21
    20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God las they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

    Matthew 12:31-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
    31 Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.