Inerrancy and Interpretation: The Licona Controversy

It is unfortunate indeed when members of the same team set their sights on one another. It is all the more tragic when the team on which they all play is evangelical Christianity. You have heard it said that, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and misguided potshots certainly undermine the coherence of the larger whole. These reflections refer to the recent and volatile criticisms aimed at Michael Licona by Albert Mohler and Norman Geisler with regard to Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53 in his magisterial defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.
The details of the controversy are available in other places; so I’ll simply sum up the core issue. In his massive book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona devoted a few paragraphs to Matthew 27:52-53, which says that at the time of Jesus’ death, “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Licona suggests that this passage is apocalyptic “special effects” rather than historical detail (552). In response to Licona’s interpretation of the passage, Norman Geisler, a prominent evangelical apologist, sent two open letters to Licona (1, 2) charging him with dehistoricizing the text, thus violating biblical inerrancy, and called upon him to recant his interpretation of the passage in question. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, followed Geisler calling Licona’s argument “shocking and disastrous.” Licona responded to these criticisms by affirming his commitment to inerrancy and stating his willingness to revise that portion of his argument in a future edition of the book, though he did not satisfy his critics by recanting.
One disturbing aspect of Mohler’s and Geisler’s criticisms is that they are not acknowledging that Licona understands his interpretation to comport with the truthfulness of scripture. The issue here is not one of inerrancy. The issue is about how we interpret and understand what the Bible is actually saying. Everyone involved in this debate knows that meaning depends on genre and authorial intent. So, the question is not whether Matthew was telling the truth. The question is whether he was intending to communicate apocalyptic symbolism or historical detail. If Licona is right, and Matthew is exhibiting a bit of apocalyptic flair in order to make a certain point, then Mohler and Geisler are guilty of not taking the text on its own terms. Instead, they are reading their presuppositions into the text, which subverts the truthfulness and authority of the text. Inerrancy is not incompatible with symbolism. Licona is not rejecting the literal truth of the text. Indeed, if Matthew is intending to communicate in apocalyptic poeticism, then the text is literally symbolic, and Mohler and Geisler have themselves missed the literal meaning of the text. Is it true and literal history or true and literal symbolism? That is the question on which this debate should turn.
Further, the charge that Licona is dehistoricizing the text is unfounded. Before a text can be dehistoricized, it must be shown that the author intended the text to be read as history. Licona is suggesting that Matthew did not intend the text to be taken as historical fact. Thus, he is not technically dehistoricizing this passage. Instead, he is suggesting that the genre of the text is something other than history, namely apocalyptic, and is interpreting it through the lens of what he takes to be the author’s intent. This does not conflict with grammatico-historical exegesis, as Mohler suggests; it is grammatico-historical exegesis, which takes into account genre, literary form, various textual devices, and the use of similar concepts and ideas in other relevant primary source literature.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that Mohler and Geisler are not arguing for the inerrancy of the text but for the inerrancy of their own particular interpretation of the text. They have mistakenly granted to their understanding of scripture a quality held only by scripture itself, namely authoritative truthfulness. Their interpretation may be right; but it could just as well be wrong. And the same is true for Licona.
At the end of the day, the issue here is not inerrancy but interpretation, not history but hermeneutics. The truly sad thing is that Licona’s contribution to evangelical theology is being overshadowed by this silly and misguided controversy. More so, Licona has had negative professional repercussions as a result of all this. I hope that Mohler and Geisler will withdraw their mistaken attacks, apologize for their ill-founded criticisms, and respectfully agree to disagree with Licona with regard to the interpretation of this text.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to Licona’s response to Geisler entiteld “When the Saints Go Marching In (Matthew 27:52-53): Historicity, Apocalyptic, Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy.” This paper was given at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

N.B. This is not to say that all criticism is out of line within the larger evangelical tent (or any tent, for that matter). It is simply to say that such criticism should be fair and charitable. One can be fair, charitable, and level strong criticism all at the same time. I’ve attempted to hold all of these qualities in balance in this post (and others), even as I’m arguing that the criticisms of Mohler and Geisler are unfair and ill-founded.

UPDATE: Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

8 thoughts on “Inerrancy and Interpretation: The Licona Controversy

  1. Mike Licona has written a somewhat quick, but academic defence of his position here (article: When The Saints Go Marching In)

    His quoting of Geisler bidding James White to expend his considerable talent and zeal defending the gospel from those who deny the fundamentals of the faith, not those who affirm them, is not only ironic but amusing.


  2. Hi Shamby, thanks for your comment and question. I always appreciate the insight you bring to this forum.

    With regard to the alleged 'switcheroo, I think the way I'm using inerrancy is consistent with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Mohler cites Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement which says,

    “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. 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.”

    Mohler thinks Licona has transgressed this article. I don't. Licona is not relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting the text. He is simply making an alternate proposal for what the precise literary form of this text is and he is doing that based on features of the text.

    I think that the Chicago statement moved inerrancy beyond its roots in Fundamentalist backlash, because that statement takes into account things like symbolism, metaphor, genre, authorial intent, etc.

    Mohler also points out that the Chicago statement says that history should be interpreted as history. But Licona is not breaking this principle either. He doesn't think Matt. 27:52-53 is history. Thus, he is not bound to interpret it as history. Mohler presupposes the text is history. The difference is a different view of the literary form, not a rejection of the truthfulness. Somehow, Mohler fails to recognize this. Perhaps it is because he is bringing along something more akin to what you call the Fundamentalist backlash. But if this is what he is doing, I think he is creating more narrow interpretive boundaries than the Chicago Statement does.

    All that to say, I'm not using the term the way the Fundamentalists did, but I am using it in a way that I think is current today as defined by the Chicago Statement, which is pretty much the standard definition. Someone may want to show me where I've erred, though.

    With regard to your question about the usefulness of the term 'inerrancy', if by 'inerrancy' you mean the concept that scripture is truthful, then no it has not outlived its usefulness and it never will. If you are talking about the term we use to get at that idea, then maybe. I tend to use the language of 'trustworthiness' as opposed to 'inerrancy' simply because it is generally more positive and sounds more affirmative of what is in scripture rather than negative and restrictive. I'm not quite sure in which sense you meant the question or whether you meant it in another sense that I missed altogether. Feel free to correct me, if I've misunderstood.

    Again, thanks for reading and commenting.


  3. Shamby, when you ask if “Hasn't inerrancy outlived its categorical and intellectual usefulness?” (whether or not 'inerrancy' is the correct word), do you mean it as a useful theological doctrine?

    Semantics aside, there is use in trying to understand (theologically) how a perfect God (by way of the Holy Spirit) could “ex-spire” (as in “breath out”) a reliable script (by way of imperfect humans) such that we both appreciate its authority and understand its message.


  4. BTW, I did not fully edit a change in sentence structure where I mean to say, “the nuance that YOU ARE” not “I AM” as you deserve the credit for making this distinction.


  5. Thanks Matt for informing me about this conversation. Always nice to get a summary of what I cannot follow in detail.

    You claimed that inerrancy is not incompatible with symbolism and to this I would heartily agree. However, this is a “definitional switcheroo” since the nuance that I am giving “inerrancy” is not one that is true to the term's historical development.

    You well know that inerrancy was Fundamentalism's backlash against liberal historical-criticism. Inerrancy became a shibboleth for any denomination or person who was called upon to justify their being “not liberal”. This is how my own denomination (regretfully, in my opinion) adopted the word. It sounds like Geisler and Mohler are being only too true to inerrancy's historical definition (no pun intended).

    Geisler and Mohler are accepting as legitimate the liberal terms to any discussion about hermeneutics, namely that Scripture must survive the scrutiny of a rigorously historical-critical investigation. Historical fundamentalism claims that it can, historical liberalism claims it cannot.

    The truth is, I think, that we cannot retrieve the contiguity within the Gospels' genre because we cannot escape the categories we have made for ourselves…especially the “historical category” as we condition it empirically. In short, our minds are too furrowed. And so I am very sympathetic to how Licona is trying to escape this hermeneutical prison by making such subtle distinctions, as you have so cogently summarized.

    I say all of this simply to ask a question somewhat tangential to this post…but it is the bigger question in my opinion: Hasn't inerrancy outlived its categorical and intellectual usefulness? Doesn't a responsible defense of the historical accuracy of Scripture require a better word than “inerrant”? Just asking…


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