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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Are these students the hope of Evangelicalism?

Although I did not see the "Tea Party Debate" on CNN I have heard about how the some in the crowd cheered when it was asked if those without insurance should be left to die.

Well some students at Liberty University were asked the same question and their response was decidedly NO. This significance of this, of course, is that Liberty was founded by Jerry Falwell who also was the founder of the Moral Majority. Watch the video and see what these young people have to say. It just might restore your faith in the future of the Evangelical movement in America.

Christianity as a Country Club

Last month I posted that Zondervan had sent me an advance copy of Scot McKnight's newest book The King Jesus Gospel. I have been working my way through the book and finished it last night. Today, I ran across a short article by Scot on the Huffington Post where he talks about the difference between a gospel culture and a salvation culture. The article reflects the message of Scot's book. Here is an excerpt.
Christianity sometimes presents itself as a country club. It presents itself this way even when it doesn't want to, and sometimes it doesn't even know it. I grew up loving to play golf but I played on the public course. I had friends who played at the local country club. When I visited the country club I felt like a visitor even though the members were wonderfully hospitable. Members felt like members and visitors felt like visitors, and knowing that you could "visit" only by invitation made the difference clear. Many experience the church this way. Members know they belong, and visitors know they don't. Well, after all, we might reason, the Christian faith is a religion of salvation, and Stephen Prothero's recent book, "God is Not One," depicted Christianity as a faith concerned with the "way of salvation." And if you are saved, you are a member; if you are not saved, you are not. You might visit, but until you get saved you will know you are not in the club. Christianity has been powerfully effective at creating what might be called a "salvation culture." Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Protestant mainliners, Protestant evangelicals and other families in the church like Pentecostals only offer slight variations on this salvation culture. This message of salvation is that God loves us but God is holy so sin must be dealt with; Jesus Christ died for us and through his death salvation can be found, but to find that salvation one must trust in Jesus Christ and his death. Those who do are both "in the club" and will spend eternity with the club members with God in heaven. In essence, this is Christianity's salvation culture. It is a good message, but it is not the whole message. I want to suggest that the country club image for the Christian faith, its salvation culture, no matter how historic and vital to the Christian church's identity, inadequately frames what might be called its true "gospel culture." If a salvation culture builds a country club, a gospel culture creates a story -- one with a beginning in God's shalom and one that aims at God's shalom. And a gospel culture is not identical to a salvation culture.

You can read the full article here. I hope to post a review of the book in the next week.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An Open Letter to New Testament Students

J.R. Daniel Kirk is assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow biblioblogger who regularly posts on his blog Storied Theology.

Yesterday he posted an open letter to his New Testament Students who are about to begin their biblical studies course. What he says to his students articulates the very things that I want to say to my current and future students.

Please do visit Daniel's blog, read his letter and let him know what you think.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mel Gibson to make a movie about Judas Maccabee

You read the heading correctly folks, the man who brought us the story of Jesus with more beatings and blood than a Wrestle Mania event now wants to bring to the screen the story of Judas Maccabee, hero of the Jewish people.

Judas, along with his father and four brothers, began a rebellion against the Syro-Greek rulers of Palestine when said rulers tried to destroy the Jewish religion. Then ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV sacrificed a pig on the altar in Jerusalem, forbid circumcision and attempted to force all Jews to eat pork. The Maccabees rebelled against Antiochus and eventually prevailed. Their success in the war and the restoration of the temple is remembered to this day in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

Gibson apparently finds this an inspiring story that needs to be told on the big screen. Here is what one report had to say:

He has long wanted to make this film about heroic Jews, and it was discussed even when he was under fire after his drunken anti-Semitic rant during a 2006 Malibu arrest. Maccabee’s triumph and struggle against tyranny and oppression where people gave their lives so that others would be free to worship is celebrated by Jews all over the world through Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. This subject matter is a decided departure for the filmmaker famous for directing The Passion of the Christ.

Gibson is the man, of course, whose film the Passion of the Christ caused him to respond to charges that the movie was anti-Semitic. And then, in 2006, Gibson was arrested for drunk driving and at that time made some apparently anti-Semitic remarks which forced him to apologize for his rant. And that is what makes this all so ironic. Maccabee is not only an important hero of the Jewish people, it is also the name of a popular beer in Israel (see pic). One wonders, then, where Gibson got his inspiration for this film? Since the meaning of Maccabee in Hebrew is "hammer" one wonders what condition Gibson was in when he decided on the subject of his next film.

In any case, it promises to be an exciting film. I imagine the hero will resemble William Wallace (Brave Heart) and Benjamin Martin (The Patriot) with a yarmulke and circumcision. Of course he will have to work hard here to outdo the blood letting and violence he brought us in the Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto.