Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Geisler-Licona Controversy

These are my few thoughts about the controversy surrounding Mike Licona and Norm Geisler, two very competent Christian scholars. A dispute has arisen over whether or not Licona’s view of Matthew 27 amounts to a denial of inerrancy. I’m not convinced it does, even if he is dead wrong about his interpretation. Consider the following:
Inerrancy is true if and only if for any proposition, fact, truth, or event P that the Bible affirms, P is true and not false.
Inerrancy is false in the case that for any P that the Bible affirms, P is false and not true.
Any agent X believes in inerrancy in general just in the case X believes for any P that the Bible affirms, P is true and not false.
Any X believes in inerrancy specifically just in the case X believes the Bible has affirmed P, and X believes P is true and not false.
X’s belief about P entails inerrancy’s falsehood in the case the Bible affirms P and X believes not-P.
First, we should note that one can affirm inerrancy even in the case that he believes something contrary to what the text actually teaches. For the text means what it means independently of our understanding of it, so that if P is actually true, but we teach not-P, we may nonetheless affirm inerrancy if we believe the Bible teaches not-P in the first place. This means Licona may be well within the bounds of orthodoxy in terms of whether or not he is an inerrantist.
Next, notice the final proposition means that, if X’s belief about P is true and it opposes what the Bible actually teaches, then inerrancy is false. Note what it does not teach: that X believes the Bible is not inerrant. Further, we should see that this would make anyone who held an interpretation of a text that we found to be incorrect one who denies inerrancy (that is, if the final proposition means one is not an inerrantist [which I submit it does not]).
Third, I believe we may formulate a brief argument against the final proposition’s conclusion. The Bible is inerrant. If the Bible affirms X, and A teaches not-X, then A is incorrect. The Bible affirms X and A teaches not-X. Therefore, A is incorrect. Or keep the first two premises and add in: A is correct. Therefore, it is not the case that the Bible affirms X and A teaches not-X. One of the two is false. Inerrancy is thus safe from human error.
Finally, I realize that the above may be constituted by some as a “safe haven” to question the Bible everywhere. But in relation to inerrancy, this is just not so. For if they actually believe the Bible teaches one thing, but they say another, they are guilty of denying inerrancy. Now what of those people we think are wrong about major interpretive issues? We take it up with them on those grounds. Those grounds that are biblical truth are sufficient to correct an error. People can be inerrantists and have poor interpretations. Some people have taken just this track to Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27, which can be made independently of the charge of denying inerrancy.
As it so happens, I think Licona is incorrect regarding his original assessment of Matthew 27 (which he may end up revising, anyway). I dealt with the issue briefly in a Q & A on this blog. Atheists and skeptics often get quite the laugh at our expense in these issues, and the people on the sidelines shake their heads. Let’s get charitable. Argue, debate, and correct: but there’s no need to try to drag someone through the mud.
All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.


  1. It occurs to me that the statement, "Any X believes in inerrancy specifically just in the case X believes the Bible has affirmed P, and X believes P is true and not false," should be clarified. It must include the prior statement about believing inerrancy in general, for otherwise anyone who believes the Bible teaches a certain truth and also thinks that truth is true is an inerrantist, even if he denies inerrancy! So that is the caveat I introduce.

  2. Some have also criticized this line of thinking by posing as analogous the Mormons. They sincerely believe their doctrine of the Trinity is true and orthodox, but it logically entails that which is not orthodox. Since we reject them on these grounds, we can reject Licona on the same.

    The major problem with such reasoning is, at the least, that's it's not true Mormons affirm the same statements on the Trinity. If allowed, they will often explain about other deities, how Jesus is a type of sub-God and not equal with the Father in the same sense. These are all explicit statements, not mere entailments. Analogously, then, we would need Licona to be saying things like, "I believe the Bible is nearly-error free," or "the Bible is inerrant except for the things that it got wrong" or something similar.

    To me, the more analogous situation is that of a Calvinist or a dichotomist/trichotomist, or a dispensationalist vs. covenant theologian, etc. They all have logical entailments, some of which may be undesirable. Suppose a logical entailment of all dispensationalim was differing ways of salvation. The vast majority of dispensationalists will deny this charge. Should it follow in that case we charge the individuals with violating "sola fide"? Should we suppose they deny the Bible?

    Before I jump on boad with any of this, I should be shown that we should reject him in a non-arbitrary way. I don't think that's forthcoming.

  3. The real question is: what motivates one to select a portion of scripture and consider it to be a non-factual statement of what did or did not actually happen.

    Licona's reasoning for excising a portion of scripture in the midst of what he is defending as an otherwise historical narrative of the resurrection of Christ and events which accompanied it is suspect. He needs to outline exactly how, in his thinking, he (or anyone else) should be able to discern apocalyptic biblical passages from historical ones. By failing to do this decisively, he has unwittingly opened the door to a potent rebuttal to the very work he has labored admirably to produce.

    Mohler has it right. Where does the apocalyptic end the and the historical begin? If there is no definitive way to discern the boundary, then there is no way to refute the idea that the entire narrative INCLUDING the ressurection of Christ himself may be apoclyptic (non-historical) as well.

    And if this is the case, then Licona has succeeded in building a seaworthy case and then subsequently sinking it with a troublesome hole of his very own making.

    Geisler's objection is not a criticism of Licona, but rather a plea to Licona to acknowledge the hole and take immediate action to plug it.

  4. Thanks for your comment. Just for informative purposes, I do not normally allow anonymous comments, and so I cannot allow another one after this. :)

    Why is that the real question? In light of Geisler's and Mohler's accusations of inerrancy-denying, it seems what constitutes a denial of inerrancy is the major question (without it, how can the accusation be made?).

    Also, the argument that if one part of Matthew's account is not intended as historial, then Licona's whole argument is undermined is a non-sequitur. Why would it follow that the myriad other evidence compiled in the other 700 pages of the book be false? Only in the case that Licona relies on the same method, or discounts every other reference, or discounts every extra-biblical philosophical approach would this apply (which they do not). At worst, Licona can be accused of being inconsistent and holding a faulty hermeneutic, which you seem to critique (and I don't necessarily disagree with that critique).

    Finally, Geisler and Mohler want, as far as their articles state, for Licona to "recant" and stop "denying inerrancy." I don't doubt their motives are pure, but the effects are so damaging, not to mention anti-intellectual.

    In any case, none of my proposed axioms concerning various parts of inerrancy have been challenged. Since that is the case, and since Licona would qualify as affirming inerrancy under those conditions, I feel safe in saying Licona in an inerrantist. I don't know if it's politics, a zeal, taking crazy pills, or what, but the message has been sent: don't believe what I say, and you'll pay. Signed, the SBC.

  5. I'm sorry, but this statement is non-sensical to me:

    "First, we should note that one can affirm inerrancy even in the case that he believes something contrary to what the text actually teaches."

    Only by pouring an alien meaning into the word "inerrancy" can this statement have any logic at all. If you want to use the word to mean something different from what it has historically been used to mean, then so be it, but then the statement doesn't really mean what it might appear to mean on the surface, and, therefore, it is worthless in the overall discussion of whether anyone believes in "inerrancy" or not.

  6. Hi Joe, thanks for your comment. So if what you say is true, that statement is false. But if it is false, then anything that the text actually teaches that one does not affirm is denying inerrancy. If that is the case, then consider this scenario: I believe the text teaches X in a particular passage. Suppose I am also correct. You do not believe the text teaches X. You believe the Bible is inerrant in whatever it affirms.

    But according to your statement, we should regard that latter person as denying inerrancy. Note what follows if what you say is true: anyone who disagrees with any interpretation in the Bible is denying inerrancy. I've got to see some non-arbitrary reasoning here from someone!

  7. This really has nothing to do with what one "believes" the text teaches. It has everything to do with how one actually handles the text.

    One can indeed believe a particular biblical text actually is intended to convey meaning beyond the actual normal and plain meaning of the words and grammar used (such as they would be taken in normal every-day conversation between two people with no theological backdrop), but one must have a valid reason for taking the text in a non-literal sense. This is glaringly suspect when one is in fact arguing for the literal historicity of a passage in the midst of which appears the text that is taken in a non-literal sense.

    I have no problem admitting that there is some poetic language in scripture and that various literary devices are used to convey fuller meaning (i.e. Jesus is not a literal door or a literal loaf of bread, etc.), but the text itself and its context dictate/signal when the non-literal view is preferable. However, when someone simply decides to put a non-literal slant on a passage with little more reason than that they don't like it, then one is in effect playing fast and loose with the idea of innerrancy (even if they don't consciously realize it) by tacily ratifying the concept that whenever one does not agree with something contained in scripture, one can simply excise it as mere poetic or apocalyptic glossing by its author or a subsequent copyist. One who walks this path in effect denies inerrancy in practice while attempting to uphold it in principle.

    Picture a meat-eating vegan or a Jesus-only trinitarian, and the contradiction becomes evident.

  8. Randy,

    To further address the scenario you have posed when you said:

    "I believe the text teaches X in a particular passage. Suppose I am also correct. You do not believe the text teaches X. You believe the Bible is inerrant in whatever it affirms."

    It should be obvious that neither Mohler nor Geisler are saying that the concept of inerrancy eliminates that possibility that there may be disagreement among inerrantists on the meaning of what they believe a particular passage teaches (I am quite sure that the two of them would have differing views of the meaning of more than one passage of scripture).

    The concern that they are conveying re the issue in Licona's book is "Why and by what hermeneutical principle did you (Licona) arrive at your belief about the meaning of the passage?"

    What they are sensitive to is that it appears that Licona has arrived at his belief of the text in Matthew 27 for no good textual reason and that he has done so at the expense of the concept of inerrancy. No one is at liberty to chuck the rules of vocabulary and grammar in the course of normal conversation at a whim in order to avoid having to deal with ideas with which they might disagree. The biblical text requires no less.

  9. Hi Joe, thanks for your comments! The problem just is that it seems to smuggle in what it seeks to prove. For instance, you have said, "when someone simply decides to put a non-literal slant on a passage...[because] they don't like it, then one is in effect...tacily [sic] ratifying the concept that whenever one does not agree with something contained in scripture, one can simply excise it as mere poetic or apocalyptic glossing by its author or a subsequent copyist." If the normal usage of these statements are taken, then one is simply begging the question, as Licona has never said he did not agree nor has he said he didn't like it.

    If, on the other hand, we are more charitable and link the meaning to your original statement about it being a lack of belief, then what is really being said is that one denies inerrancy in the case where the text teaches one thing and the person believes another, even if that person does not believe the text actually teaches that thing. If that is correct, then the fact that Geisler and Mohler don't consider each other inerrancy deniers is inconsistency. What we need is some non-arbitrary definition that doesn't result in us all calling each other inerrancy deniers. So far, nothing's been offered.

  10. While I can appreciate people questioning Licona's hermeneutic, I am going to have to restrict all comments to the following questions (that is, any comment must deal with at least one [or more] of these questions).

    1. What is wrong, if anything, with the statements on inerrancy within the article?

    2. If nothing is wrong, can it be said that Licona fulfills the conditional for believing inerrancy? Why or why not?

    3. If not, can it be said he fulfills the condition for denying inerrancy? Why or why not?

    4. If one thinks there is something wrong with my statements on inerrancy and one thinks Licona does not qualify as an inerrantist, can you produce a non-arbitrary standard proposition (similar to those above) for accepting and denying inerrancy (one statement would do so long as it is mentioned a denial of the statement constitutes denying inerrancy) that doesn't logically entail calling everyone inerrancy deniers?

    If even one of these questions are answered, this conversation will begin to take the appropriate focus.

  11. It seems Norm Geisler has brought a little more to the table than he had previously. He sought to explain his view in his most recent post on the matter. In it, Geisler explains that the statement on inerrancy intends for no genre to be "determinative" of a text's meaning. But they are unhelpfully ambiguous as to what this means.

    Do they mean this cannot be a filter through which they interpret? Probably not, if by filter one means a consideration to the text's meaning. Geisler actually seems to take this idea to mean that everything within the Gospels must be taken as historical, or as that which happens in space time. But then, what about parables? Is he maintaining that every parable actually corresponded to reality? That is, every parable concerned a real person that Christ was referring to, rather than a point?

    Perhaps Geisler would say that was Jesus' words, not Matthew's writing. But it nonetheless follows that Matthew didn't think it was real; what he thought was real was Jesus' saying those words. In the same way, only in the case that Matthew records the event, supposing it to be history, and the event does not actually correspond to history is inerrancy false. In that case, it seems the necessary and sufficient condition for denying inerrancy in this particular case is to assert that the above proposition is true, which Licona does not do.

    In fact, it is whether or not apolcalyptic imagery of the time period, commonly used, was in Matthew's mind that is the exact issue! Now Geisler gives reasons to think the text is historical, but those are reasons he thinks the text is historical, not reasons Licona thinks the text is historical. At best, he thinks Licona ought to believe his particular interpretation. This is perfectly legitimate. What's not legitimate is somehow pretending the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy is itself identical with inerrancy, or is itself inerrant!

  12. I left this on Peter Lumpkins' blog:
    "To be helpful, Licona thinks the entire argument made by Geisler and Mohler is unhelpful and unpersuasive, at least that's how most readers of his FB page/note took it to mean, based on the overall context.

    Further, it is indisputable that Licona has, since his book, moved to a closer-to-agnostic view of the two possible options, as he has said. So to suggest that Licona doesn't think Geisler's position on the interpretation of the particular text alone is viable seems a bit out of place. The bottom line is, no one has offered a non-arbitrary, non-question-begging account of a denial of inerrancy that doesn't result in us all calling each other inerrancy deniers against Licona specifically.

    Why don't we demand Kostenberger retract his view that the rich man and Lazarus is a parable (or, if one believes it is a parable, demand that one who believes it is literal retract such a view, as it is a style foreign to authorial intent of the text in such a case)? Why doesn't Geisler acknowledge at least some genre-types to be a ruling out of "events that correspond to reality" (like parabolic events)? Assuming he does, why then is Licona's view tantamount to denying inerrancy while one who believes parables do not contain events that happened in space time do not deny inerrancy?

    We're in need of some clear thinking on the matter, and it doesn't seem to be coming from Geisler in this case."

    This can be found at:


Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!