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A Response to Mike Licona’s EPS Paper


By Norman L. Geisler



Unscholarly Statements at a Scholarly Society


            Mike Licona asked the Evangelical  Philosophical Society (EPS) for an opportunity to provide a defense of his views (expressed in The Resurrection of Jesus) in which he denied the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27.  His presentation was given at the EPS on November 18, 2011 and was posted on his web site.  

Licona objected to internet presentations of matters like this and insisted that these discussions should take place in a “scholarly” context.  However, this premise is seriously flawed for several reasons.  First of all, Licona posted his paper and other discussion on this topic on his web site.  He also posted a YouTube video defending his views. Second, he has not restrained his family and friends from carrying on a defense of his view on the internet.  Third, Licona preferred an academic context which he knew would contain more persons who shared his view.  Fourth, public review is appropriate for any published view such as Licona’s, but he feared this would be more negative.  Fifth, the scholarly context of the EPS was not very scholarly in its format since no opposing paper was permitted on this controversial issue.  Sixth, giving a presentation by a scholar at a scholarly meeting in no way guarantees it will be done in a completely scholarly way.  

Unfortunately, this is what happened when Licona presented his paper at EPS.  For much of the presentation was anything but scholarly in its language and tone.  He speaks of his critics saying “Bizzare” things, of “bullying” people around, of having “a cow” over his view, and of engaging in a “circus” on the internet. 

Further, rather than taking the normal objective approach, Licona personalized the issue by claiming that scholarly critics of his views by claiming they were “targeting” him and “taking actions against me [Licona].” He speaks about those who have made scholarly criticisms of his view as “going on a rampage against a brother or sister in Christ.” And he compares it to the statement of Ammianus Marcellinus who wrote: “no wild beasts are such dangerous enemies to man as Christians are to one another.”  This is unfortunate language in a scholarly context and, as anyone can verify by looking at the scholarly critiques of Licona’s view posted on our web site ( Licona’s charges are contrary to the facts.  For example, we expressed our personal affection for him as a person in our “Second Open Letter,” saying, “I like Mike as a person and love him as a brother in Christ, and it would be a shame to see him fall permanently from the ranks of consistent biblical inerrantists.”  However, one should not put fraternity over orthodoxy when it comes to matters like the historicity and inerrancy of the Gospels.


False Statements about Alleged Punitive Measures


            Further, charging that critics against one’s views have taken punitive measures may elicit pity, but it does not exemplify scholarship. Licona said to the EPS group: “Many of you have witnessed some of the actions taken against me on the internet since August and some of you are aware of the behind the scenes efforts to have me ostracized from all future ministry. But punitive measures havn’t been limited to me. Gary Habermas and Paul Copan have both been uninvited from previously established speaking engagements.”

However, President Joseph Holden of Veritas Evangelical Seminary who was involved in this matter responded in a letter to Gary Habermas, saying, “It would be difficult for me to believe you are not aware of this uninformed statement about the ‘uninvite,’ and failure to correct Licona on this.”  Rather, it was “…because of your own view of inerrancy that was contrary to the Veritas Seminary doctrinal statement on inerrancy. That is, your view accepts: the belief that inerrancy is consistent with the view that rejects Gospel narratives as completely historical (angels at the tomb, falling down of those seizing Jesus, and resurrection of saints)…. It is difficult for me to believe that you were not aware of Licona’s EPS paper, and did nothing to correct this falsehood that insinuates VES is punishing those who voice opinions…. I am disappointed that you would allow such an uninformed statement be left uncorrected, since it portrays VES as the one wielding unjustified ‘punitive measures.’ I would hope that you would clarify this fact with Licona who is clearly uniformed on the matter” (Letter, 11/21/11).


          False Claims about the Alleged Dogmatism of His Critic’s Views


Contrary to the actual words of those who criticized Licona’s views, he claims they become so committed to a particular interpretation of a text” that they “unconsciously canonize the interpretation, so that those who disagree with it are now disagreeing with Scripture.”  In fact, his critics do no such thing, as an examination of the record will show.  Further, Licona’s sword cuts both ways. One can be dogmatic about another’s dogmatism.  Hence, with equal justification one could argue that he is doing the same thing.  However, in fact and in fairness Licona and critics are doing no more or less than making truth claims and presenting evidence to support them.  The reader will have to weigh the arguments pro and con and decide which view corresponds to the facts.  But it is simply untrue and unfair to defame one’s critics by making an over statement that they unconsciously speak with canonical authority.


The False Allegation about Bullying Diminishing Good Scholarship


Licona claims that “There is also a cost to scholarship. For when evangelical scholars see this happening, some of them will go back to their office, save their recent research on a jump drive and, rather than publishing it, they will tuck it away in their home office for fear of becoming the next target. Thus, good scholarship is lost when theological bullying is unanswered.”  However, this statement has some serious shortcomings.  First, Licona implication  that casting doubt on Gospel narratives is “good scholarship” is highly questionable.  It certainly is not good evangelical scholarship. 

Second, he offers no real evidence that he or anyone was actually bullied.  As was shown above, the statements about Copan and Habermas are false.  And no evidence has been given that anyone else was bullied. 

Third, if Licona’s logic is carried through consistently, then it would be impossible to demonstrate that anyone is inconsistent with orthodoxy at any point.  The true is that if orthodoxy is to be preserved, then (a) there must be a standard, and (b) it must be possible to determine someone has fallen short of it, and (c) there must be consequences for falling short of it, and (d) these consequences should be feared (respected) by those desiring to be considered orthodox.  To call this “bullying” is destroying the very basis for preserving orthodoxy.  In brief, there are doctrinal limits for preserving orthodoxy.  When one reaches those limits, he should put Lordship over “scholarship.”  The desire for a seat at the table of contemporary scholarship has been the downfall of many sincere and aspiring young evangelical scholars.  Let us pray that the body of Christ as a whole (not just scholar) has the courage to resist it, lest orthodoxy on this crucial doctrine of inerrancy be destroyed.


Downplaying the Extent and Seriousness of the Problem


Professor Licona minimizes the seriousness of his deviation from inerrancy by focusing on only one text (Matt 27:51-53).  Even though his similar treatment that casts doubt on other Gospel narratives has been brought to his attention, he has not addressed them.  In addition, Licona has not yet responded to the charge that his “methodological unorthodoxy” has also led him to cast doubt in principle on the historicity of many more sections of the Gospels.  Consider the following texts:

First, Licona suggested that the appearance of angels at Jesus’ tomb after the resurrection is also legendary.  He wrote: “It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly be mixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes.  We may also be reading poetic language or legend at certain points, such as Matthew’s report of the raising of some dead saints at Jesus death (Mt 27:51-54) and the angel(s) at the tomb (Mk 15:5-7; Mt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7; Jn 20:11-13” (185-186, emphasis added).  This extends the infiltration of legend beyond Matthew to all the other Gospels as well.

What is more, Licona offers no clear hermeneutical way to determine from the text of Scripture what is legend and what is not.  Calling a short unembellished Gospel account with witnesses “weird,” as Licona does (ibid., 527), is certainly not a very clear test, especially when the passage is directly associated with the resurrection of Christ (as the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 is).  Many New Testament scholars think the bodily resurrection of Christ is weird too.  Indeed, Rudolf Bultmann, the Dean of NT scholars, called it “incredible,” “senseless,” and even “impossible” to the modern mind (Kerygma and Myth, 2-4).

 Second, although Licona claims to believe in the general reliability of the Gospel records, yet he adds, it is possible that “some embellishments are present.”  Then he presents “A possible candidate for embellishment is John 18:4-6” (ibid., 306, emphasis added) where, when Jesus claimed “I am he” (cf. John 8:58), his pursuers “drew back and fell on the ground.” Again, there is no indication in this or other New Testament texts that this account is not historical.  It is but another example of Licona’s unbiblical “dehistoricizing” of the New Testament which The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) explicitly condemned by name (see below).

Third, Licona’s basic problem is methodological.  He adopts an unorthodox methodology and system that is used on the whole Gospel narration.  One’s theology is not the only thing that can be unorthodox.  There can be methodological unorthodoxy as well.  As noted in our “Ten Points” article on our web site, the method of determining genre adopted by Licona and his supporters is clearly unorthodox.  This was pronounced unorthodox by ICBI, as shown below.  Licona said clearly, “there is somewhat of a consensus among contemporary scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bios).”  Then he goes on to say that “Bioi offered the ancient biographers great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches,…and they often included legend.  Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (ibid., 34, emphasis added in these citations).  Little wonder Licona has gotten himself into trouble.  A bad methodology leads to a bad bibliology and to bad theology. Like Robert Gundry before him, who was asked to resign by The Evangelical Theology Society (in 1983), Licona’s view is a form of methodological unorthodoxy.  There is no significant difference in kind between the two cases.   Both denied the historicity of sections of the Gospel record based on the use of genre determination by extra-biblical data they deemed similar enough to deny the historicity of part of the biblical record.  And in Licona’s case as well, it is not just a matter of a passage or event here or there that is the problem.  Rather, it is a radical unbiblical method that undermines the divine authority of the entire Gospel record.  Indeed, after the faculty at Southern Evangelical Seminary (where he once taught) examined Licona’s views, they considered them (to borrow the words of one faculty member) to be “unbelievable” since he claimed that even a method that denied the resurrection would not be considered contrary to the belief in inerrancy.  Upon hearing this, they voted not to invite him back as a teacher and removed his position from the catalog.  

So, Licona does more than cast doubt on the historicity of one small text—something he still refuses to recant.  He claims that it is possible to hold to inerrancy and deny the historicity of many things in the Gospel narrative. As we have seen, he cast doubt on the story about the angels at the tomb (in all four Gospels) and doubts the historicity of  the mob falling backward at Jesus’ claim and adopts a general method which casts doubt on much more of the Gospel record.


Minimizing the Importance of Inerrancy


            Unfortunately, in his attempt to minimize the seriousness of his deviant views, Licona claims this issue is not one of the “fundamentals of the faith.”  He rightly points out that “we should ask ourselves whether the matter under dispute involves one of the fundamentals of the faith. Not whether the issue can somehow be tied to a fundamental, because one can quite easily make a tie between a cherished position and a fundamental. Does the matter concern a fundamental?” Unfortunately, his answer is “No.”  As we have noted elsewhere (in our book, Conviction without Compromise), it is true that inerrancy is not one of the salvific (salvation) fundamentals, but it is nonetheless an epistemological (knowledge) fundamental.  For every authoritative thing we know about of the salvation fundamentals comes from the inspired and inerrant Word of God.  In this sense, inerrancy is the fundamental of the fundamentals.  And if the fundamental of the fundamentals is not fundamental, then fundamentally nothing is.  One can be saved without believing in inerrancy, but our authoritative knowledge of that salvation is not possible without the errorless Word of God.  Thus, as Francis Schaeffer and others have correctly pointed out, the inerrancy of Scripture is a “watershed” issue.  And denying the historic truth of the Gospel narrative at any point, as Licona does, is a denial of the inerrancy of that text.


It is Not Purely a Matter of Hermeneutics


Licona attempts to avoid the crucial nature of his denial of inerrancy by reducing the issue to a purely hermeneutical problem.  He claims that “In its most basic form, biblical inerrancy states there are no errors in Scripture. It says something about the character of the literature. It doesn’t interpret the literature.”  However, this bifurcation of inerrancy and hermeneutics fails for several reasons.  First, it is built on a serious misunderstanding about what inerrancy means, especially that of the ICBI, which Licona claims to support. The ICBI statements insist that the Bible does make true statements that “correspond to reality” and that the Bible is completely true (corresponds to reality) in everything it teaches and “touches,” including all statements “about history and science.”  So, inerrancy does not simply apply to contentless statements (which we can only know the meaning of by adopting a modern form of biblical criticism).  Rather, inerrancy as a doctrine covers the truthfulness of all of Scripture.  Such a false claim to inerrancy is vacuous since according to Licona the Gospel affirmations could be completely false—in that they did not correspond to any historic reality—and yet the Bible would still be considered completely true! 

The ICBI statements are very clear on this matter. They emphatically declare that:“ holy scripture, being god’s own word, written by men prepared and superintended by his spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches (“A Short Statement, “no. 2) We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture” (Article XIII). “We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write” (Article IX).  “We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.  We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science” (Article XII).  “We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture” (Article XIII).  So, inerrancy is not an empty claim.  It claims that every affirmation (or denial) in the Bible is completely true, whether it is about theological, scientific or historical matters (emphasis added in above quotations). 

Further, this complete disjunction between hermeneutics and inerrancy is an example of “Methodological Unorthodoxy” which we first exposed in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) in 1983 and which article is now also on our web site. (1) If Licona’s total separation of inerrancy and hermeneutic is true, then one could completely allegorize the Bible (say, like Mary Baker Eddy did)—denying the literal Virgin Birth, physical resurrection of Christ, and everything else—and still claim that it was inerrant.  (2) Such a bifurcation of hermeneutics from inerrancy is empty, vacuous, and meaningless.  It amounts to saying that  “Whatever the Bible may be teaching is true, but inerrancy as such does not claim that it is teaching that anything is actually true.” But neither the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), nor ICBI, whose view of inerrancy was adopted as guidelines of understanding inerrancy, would agree with this contention, as the next point demonstrates.

Support for this conclusion comes from retired Wheaton Professor and ICBI signer Henri Blocher who speaks against totally separating interpretation from the inerrancy issue because "The precise meaning of dogmatic terms and statements, being somewhat flexible, is partly defined by the actual treatment of Scripture that follows and accompanies them."  He adds, "It is thus possible to talk of Scripture's supreme authority, perfect trustworthiness, infallibility and inerrancy and to empty such talk of the full and exact meaning it should retain by the way one handles the text."   He adds, "I reject the suggestion that Matthew 27:52f should be read nonliterally, and I consider that it puts in jeopardy the affirmation of biblical inerrancy which I resolutely uphold."  Blocher advocates a literal interpretation of the passage because the last words of verse 53 "sound as an emphatic claim of historical, factual, truthfulness with an intention akin to that of 1 Corinthians 15:6."  So, a nonliteral interpretation "seems rather to be motivated by the difficulty of believing the thing told and by an unconscious desire to conform to the critical views of non-evangelical scholarship."  He correctly notes that the pressure of non-evangelical scholarship weighs heavily on the work of evangelical scholars.  Thus, the non-literal interpretation is not only an exegetical mistake, but "In effect, it modifies the way in which biblical inerrancy is affirmed. Contrary to the intention of those propounding it, it undermines the meaning of 'inerrancy' which we should, with utmost vigilance, preserve" (Baptist Press, Nov. 9, 2011).


The False Presumption against the Literalness of Biblical Narratives


Licona insists that he does not “deshistoricize” any biblical text because he contends that we must approach the Bible without any presumption as to whether a narrative is historical or not.  But this itself is a radical presupposition.  It is equivalent to saying we approach the Bible without the historical-grammatical hermeneutic.  But this is impossible for we must have a correct way of interpreting the Bible before we can interpret it correctly.  Likewise, it is absurd to say we can approach road signs (or any narrative) without the presumption that it is offering the literal truth of the matter, unless proven otherwise by the words or context.  Contrary to this common and necessary presumption, Licona claims, we can only know whether something narrated in the Gospels is historical after we have made a genre determination based on comparisons with extra-biblical literature of the time. He wrote, “I hope that it has become clear in this paper that my intent was not to dehistoricize a text Matthew intended as historical. If I had, that would be to deny the inerrancy of the text. Instead, what I have done is to question whether Matthew intended for the raised saints to be understood historically” (emphasis added).  But this presumption is contrary to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic and begs the question in favor of Licona’s “new historiographical approach.”  For presuming a historical narrative is non-historical until proven historical is a radical presupposition that is contrary to life and the literal historical-grammatical interpretation.

 According the historical-grammatical method which ICBI adopts—and which is the common presumption in life—a narrative such as the Gospels should be presumed historical, unless otherwise proven by the context or by other Scripture.  But the evidence from the biblical text and context (which is the way the Bible should be interpreted) clearly indicates that Matthew meant for it to be taken literally (see below).  But, instead, Licona takes extra-biblical data (Roman and Jewish legends) as hermeneutically determinative of what the text should mean.  He says, “we observe that historical details are comingled with the poetic. And apparitions, phantoms, and spirits appear in several of these accounts. All of these reports weigh in favor of interpreting Matthew’s raised saints as an apocalyptic or poetic device.”          

Further, the claim that a biblical narrative is historically neutral is clearly contrary to the ICBI view on inerrancy which Licona claims to hold. The “Chicago Statement” on inerrancy is clear on this issue for it affirms that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by a literal “grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.” This means that the presumption is in favor of taking a narrative historically, unless there are other indications in the text of context to the contrary.  Further, ICBI affirmed, 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” (Article XVIII). 

ICBI also published an official commentary on its inerrancy statements titled Explaining Inerrancy.  It declares thatThough the Bible is indeed redemptive history, it is also redemptive history, and this means that the acts of salvation wrought by God actually occurred in the space-time world. When we say that the truthfulness of Scripture ought to be evaluated according to its own standards that means that … all the claims of the Bible must correspond with reality, whether that reality is historical, factual or spiritual” (EH, 37, emphasis added in above citations).

What is more, inerrancy implies a correspondence view of truth which many non-inerrantists deny in favor of an intentionalist view (see our new book, Defending Inerrancy [Baker], chap. 13).  The ICBI statements affirm clearly that “By biblical standards truth and error is meant the view used both in the Bible and in everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth.  This part of the article is directed toward those who would redefine truth to relate merely to redemptive intent, the purely personal, or the like, rather than to mean that which corresponds with reality” (Article XII). Article XVIII adds: When the quest for sources produces a dehistoricizing of the Bible, a rejection of its teaching or a rejection of the Bible’s own claims of authorship it has trespassed beyond its proper limits. By biblical standards of truth and error is meant the view used both in the Bible and in everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth.  This part of the article is directed toward those who would redefine truth to relate merely to redemptive intent, the purely personal, or the like, rather than to mean that which corresponds with reality.”

So, we can see that inerrancy is not an empty claim of the alleged “intention” of the author (as Licona seems to embrace).  Rather, truth rests in what the author expressed (affirms or denies) about something. Pure intentions of an author cannot be understood apart from his affirmations.  And these affirmations must be understood in their biblical context, not by applying extra-biblical texts to them.  And if the author has expressed himself in a narrative (as Matthew 27 does), then it is a narrative about something that really happened.

            What is more, ICBI produced an official statement and commentary on inerrancy and hermeneutics, titled Explaining Hermeneutics (hereafter, EH).  EH Article VI states: “We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts.”  The commentary adds, “The denial makes it evident that views which redefine error to mean what ‘misleads,’ rather than what is a mistake, must be rejected.”  And speaking directly to the point of the Licona issue, EH Article XIII says: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual.  Some, for instance, take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person.  Others take Jonah to be an allegory when he is presented as a historical person and [is] so referred to by Christ.” EH Article XIV proclaims: “We deny that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated” (emphasis is added in above citations).   As a member of the ICBI framing committee, I can say with certainty that it was views like Licona’s that we had in mind when we wrote these statements.


The Misuse of J. I. Packer


            Licona attempts to defend his view against the charge that it denies inerrancy by naming others who hold similar views and yet who are considered inerrantists.   However, this is the logical fallacy of diverting the issue.  At best, this would only prove that these other scholars (a) are subject to the same criticism as Licona’s view is or that (b) they hold positions that are inconsistent with their view on inerrancy.  It would not prove that Licona’s view is true.  Virtually every finite author makes inconsistent statement at one time or another, but this is not the point.  It is one thing to hold that the biblical or Gospel narrative is historical and yet make some statements that are inconsistent with this.  But it is quite another to deny the historicity of parts of the biblical narrative, as Licona does.

            An important case in point is Licona’s use of J. I. Packer to support his view.  He includes a small selection of a recording without identification (and without documentation) in which Licona claims that Packer says that “Genesis 1:1—2:4 is a ‘prose poem’ and a ‘quasi-liturgical celebration of the fact of creation . . . and certainly not a kind of naïve observational account of what we would have seen if we could have traveled back in time and hovered above the chaos.’  This scholar [Packer] goes on to assert that stories such as Eve’s being created from Adam’s side, of her encounter with the serpent, and of the tree of life are symbols.”  However, the use of Packer is misleading since it is contrary to the implications Licona draws, this is not a parallel to what Licona did in his book.  For Packer did not, as Licona does, deny the historicity of the Genesis text and some Gospel narratives.  There are several good reasons to reject Licona’s conclusion here.

            First, these private citations from Packer are beside the point of whether Licona’s view is orthodox.  At best, this would only prove that Packer was inconsistent with his view own inerrancy.  Furthermore, it is not scholarly to use these statements without any citation or validation of them.

Second, the question is not whether the Bible uses symbols or to what degree; it is whether parts of the Gospel narrative are historical or not. The book of Revelation uses symbols, but it makes clear they refer to literal events (cf. Rev. 1;20). One may disagree with the degree the alleged statements about symbolic representations on Genesis (as I do), but Licona fails to note that Packer does not deny the historicity of the literal events which these figures of speech describe.  

Third, as a member of ICBI framing committee, J. I. Packer clearly affirmed the historicity of Genesis 1-11.  He also agreed with Article XXII (in Explaining Hermeneutics) clearly which “affirms that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book” (emphasis added).  It adds, “Some, for instance, take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person”(EH Article XIV).  Packer was co-author of these statements.  

Fourth, in a recent extended conversation of Packer (11/21/11) he assured me that: (a) he believes Genesis 1-11 is historical; (b) he holds to a literal Adam and Eve; (c) he is not a theistic evolutionists; (d) He believes that denying the literal, historical nature of Adam and Eve would seriously undermine several Christian doctrines the New Testament bases on a literal understanding; (e) Whatever statements he had made about figures of speech, symbols, or pictorial language in Genesis should not be taken to deny his firm belief in the facticity and historicity of Genesis 1-11in general and of Adam and Eve in particular.  (f) Packer also affirmed that the ICBI statements are directly contrary to a denial of the historicity of Genesis 1-11 and beliefs like Licona’s denial of the historicity of Matthew 27. 

In brief, Licona’s use (misuse) of this tape is not only unsubstantiated but is misleading and false.  Indeed, Packer wrote the Foreward for our new book, Defending Inerrancy (Baker), on this topic, saying,“In the following pages Norman Geisler, who contributed as much as anyone to ICBI original legacy, and William roach interact with evangelical hypotheses that have the effect of confusing that legacy. They are masterly gatekeepers [for inerrancy], and I count it an honor to commend this work to the Christian world.” 

In view of this, Licona’s conclusion is unfounded when he claims that “Dr. Geisler says that the Chicago Statement requires interpreting Genesis 1 as “space-time events which actually happened.  But it’s obvious Packer would disagree. So, Geisler’s being an ICBI framer does not guarantee he has a correct understanding of it.”  First all, this is not my private statement on the matter; it is quotation from the stated ICBI view on the topic which is confirmed by the above citations from official ICBI literature.  Further, Packer and I as co-framers of the ICBI statements have the same understanding of them. So, it is not a matter of my interpretation of the ICBI statements about “space-time” events since that is what the official ICBI statements actually says: “Though the Bible is indeed redemptive history, it is also redemptive history, and this means that the acts of salvation wrought by God actually occurred in the space-time world” (Sproul, EI, 37, emphasis added).

Further, it is presumptuous for anyone to assume that he knows more about an ICBI statement than the framers do. This same kind of reconstruction of a text is what a liberal (broad constructionists) interpretation of the US Constitution does.  I suppose that if Washington and Madison were here, these reconstructionists would be bold enough to insist that they knew more about the Constitution means than the framers themselves did!  Likewise, one needs a good bit of hubris to tell framers of the ICBI statement that he knows better about what they framed than they do!


Failing to Consider Crucial Evidence


In defending his current agnosticism about the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27, Licona admittedly leaves out many of the arguments in favor of its historicity.  Indeed, he even admits about one of the arguments in favor of the historicity of the text, “But the bottom line is that at least 2 and possibly 3 of the 4 early Church fathers regarded Matthew’s raised saints as historical.”  In fact, Licona even admits the strength of this argument that “I also find it noteworthy that none of the Church fathers interpreted Matthew’s raised saints as apocalyptic symbols or poetic devices.” 

Why then reject its historicity, especially since there are nine other good reasons for accepting it as historical that Licona chooses not to address.  Together they are in brief: (1) This passage is part of a historical narrative in a historical record—the Gospel of Matthew which in its immediate and larger setting demand the presumption of historicity. (2) This text manifests no literary signs of being poetic or legendary, such as those found in parables, poems, or symbolic presentations. (3) It gives no indication of being a legendary embellishment, but it is a short, simple, straight-forward account in the exact style one expects in a brief historical narrative. (4) This event occurs in the context of other important historical events which, by the repeated use of “and,” shows its integral connection to the other historical events surrounding the report. (5)  The resurrection of these saints is presented as the result of the physical historical resurrection of Christ, and it makes no sense to claim that a legend emerged as the immediate result of Jesus’ physical resurrection. (6) Early Fathers of the Christian Church, who were closer to this event, took it as historical, sometimes even including it as an apologetic argument for the resurrection of Christ.  (7) The record has the same pattern as the historical records of Jesus’ physical and historical resurrection: (a) there were dead bodies; (b) they were buried in a tomb; (c) they were raised to life again; (d) they came out of the tomb and left it empty; (e) they appeared to many witnesses.  (8) An overwhelming consensus of the great orthodox teachers of the Church for nearly the past nearly two thousand years supports the view that this account should be read as a historical record. (9) Modern objections to a straight-forward acceptance of this passage as a historical narrative are based on a faulty hermeneutic which violates sound principles of interpretation. For example, they (a) make a presumptive identification of its genre, based on extra-biblical sources, rather than analyzing the text for its style, grammar, and content in its context; or, (b) they use events reported outside of the Bible to pass judgment on whether or not the biblical event is historical. (10) The faulty hermeneutic principles used in point 9 could be used, without any further justification, to deny other events in the gospels as historical.  It is simply special pleading to neglect this overwhelming evidence in favor of the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27.


The Questionable Use of Other Biblical Texts to Support His View


Licona cites the Mt. Olivet discourse (Matt. 24-25) of Jesus as containing apocalyptic elements that are not literal along with some that are.  But this begs the question in favor of one particular interpretation of this text.  It is possible that all the statements refer to literal events, including those about the sun and the moon being darkened.  Likewise, Licona assumes that all of Joel’s predictions cited in Acts 2 were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost but the sun and moon were not literally darkened.  But he passes over the view that these too are literal and refer to Christ’s Second Coming which are still part of the “last days” which began with Christ’s First coming (see Heb. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 4:1) and extend to his Second Coming and beyond (2 Pet. 3:3-10).  In any event, unless Licona is going to deny the literal Second Coming of Christ, the use of symbolic language about a literal event does not negate the literalness of the event. I know of no sophisticated proponent of the literal historical-grammatical hermeneutic who denies that the Bible sometimes uses figures of speech and even symbolic language about literal events.

However, what Licona is doing in the Gospels is doubting or denying the very historicity of the events in question themselves. This is a far more serious matter.  It is in fact the very kind of “dehistoricizing” of the Gospel narrative which ICBI inerrancy statements speak against by that very name. 

The Old Earth view is sometimes used to argue that their view is also inconsistent with the ICBI view of inerrancy.  So, why not exclude them too?  However, this does not follow since many of the ICBI framers were Old Earthers.  Further, it was never made a test for orthodoxy on inerrancy by ICBI and for good reason, namely, the age of the earth was never included in an Creed or Council of the Church. Good and godly evangelicals scholars hold both views.  What is important is not the antiquity of Genesis but the historicity of Genesis. And the ICBI Old Earthers all affirmed the historicity of Genesis 1-11 and a literal Adam and Eve who were created by God.  Licona, on the other hand denied the historicity and literalness of events recorded in the Gospels.

One defender (Paul Copan) bases an argument for Licona on a clear misreading of the passage, claiming that it says that the saints in Matthew 27 are said to be raised before Jesus was raised which would conflict with Jesus as the “firstfruits” (1 Cor. 15:20) of those raised from the dead.  This is, however, clearly the opposite of what the text says, namely, “and many bodies of the saints were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his [Jesus’] resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (vs. 52-53, emphasis added).  In fact, the whole point of the passage shows that Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection and that these saints were resurrected as a result of Jesus’ resurrection.  What happened before this (at Jesus’ death) was that “the tombs were opened” (v. 52), that is, the stone was rolled back.  But the bodies in them were not raised from the dead until “after his [Jesus’] resurrection” (see J. W. Wenham, “When Where the Saints Raised?  Also, see John Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, vol. 3,  211-212 and Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea [Commentary According to St. Matthew], vol. 1, 963-964). 


The Use of an Invalid Historical Verification Principle


Licona’s new book operates with an admittedly “new historiographical approach” (the subtitle of his book) to the resurrection of Christ which misplaced the locus of authority from the inspired Word of God to a lower authority.  The implicit historiographical verification principle used by Licona subverts the authority of the Word of God by, among other ways, placing it on par with external pagan authorities.  J. I. Packer spoke about this very issue in Fundamentalism and the Word of God where he wrote: “But in fact this approach is not right. Faith does not wait on historical criticism. Certainly, there is value in reviewing the quantity and strength of the evidence that there is (regarded simply as human testimony) for the great Christian facts. It is good to test the credentials of Christianity by the most searching scholarship, and to make faith give account of itself at the bar of history. . . . [However], faith is rooted in the realization that the gospel is God’s word; and faith recognizes in its divine origin a full and sufficient guarantee of its veracity. So with Scripture, ‘God’s Word written’: faith rests its confidence in the truth of the biblical narratives, not on the critical acumen of the historian, but on the unfailing trustworthiness of God” (166-167).  

Packer adds in a footnote, “It should perhaps be emphasized that we do not mean by this that Scripture history is written according to the canons of modern scientific history. Biblical historians are not concerned to answer all the questions which modern historians ask, nor to tell their story with the detailed completeness to which the modern researcher aspires….The biblical writers had their own aims and interests guiding their selection of the evidence, and their own conventions for using it; and if we fail to take account of these things in interpreting what they wrote, we violate the canon of literal interpretation …. Our point in the text is simply that, when Scripture professes to narrate fact, faith receives the narrative as factual on God’s authority, and does not conclude it to be legendary, or mythical, or mystical, or mere human authority (167, emphasis added). 

This misdirected effort of Licona and other current New Testament scholars to embrace “a new historiographical approach” is discussed in detail in Chapter 11 of our new book Defending Inerrancy. The new historiography was conceived by liberal scholars and is suited to their end.  It is unwise for evangelicals to baptize it and try to use it to defend an evangelical view of Scripture.  As Licona’s efforts shows, it falls far short of their goal.


The Use of Other Scholars to Support His View


            Licona and some of his supporters appeal to other scholars who hold similar views or who support the orthodoxy of his views.  However, the value of this is dubious for several reasons.  First of all, if one wants to count numbers, the weight of history leans heavily against Licona’s views.  For it is difficult to find any orthodox scholars in the history of the Church up to modern times who denied the historicity of the Matthew 27 passage under dispute.  The largest gathering of scholars on the topic of inerrancy in the 20th century, the ICBI (1978), condemned a similar view to that held by Licona (as shown in the above citations).  Further, the largest group of evangelical scholars in modern time to speak to the issue voted overwhelmingly to ask Robert Gundry to leave the ETS (1983) because of the inconsistency of his view with inerrancy.

            Second, one can always find scholars somewhere—even evangelical scholars—who agree with their deviant views.  However, what is interesting about many of the names used in support of Licona’s view is that: (a) some do not even believe in inerrancy; (b) others do not agree with Licona’s denial of the historicity of Matthew 27; (c) other agree only with the use of apocalyptic language but do not deny the historicity of events narrated in the Gospels, and (d) most who agree with Licona have been influenced by negative biblical criticism that springs from methodological naturalistic presuppositions that are contrary to evangelical thought.  All of this is treated more comprehensively in our new book, Defending Inerrancy (Baker).

            Finally, at best the argument that other scholars hold similar views only demonstrates that their views are subject to the same criticism.  It does not show that Licona’s view is true.  Hopefully, the Licona issue will cause pause and self-examination among other evangelical scholars who have drifted into methodological unorthodoxy unwittingly.




Laying aside his emotive and ad hominem responses, Licona’s actual defense of his view is patently weak.  First, he completely ignores the bulk of the evidence against his “deshistoricizing” of the resurrection of the saints in Gospel narrative of Matthew 27.  Second, he offers only “possible” arguments in favor of his view.  Third, he ignores treatment of the other Gospel events that he thinks may be legends too, such as, the angels at the tomb and the mob in John 18 falling backward in the face of Jesus’ claim.  Fourth, contrary to his claim, his view is completely incompatible with the ICBI view on inerrancy as confirmed by living framers.  Fifth, he employs a faulty hermeneutic in coming to his conclusion that the Gospels may contain a mixture of legends with the history by using extra-biblical legends to determine  what is not historical in the records.  Finally, even Licona admits that “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (The Resurrection of Jesus, 34). Thus, as Dr. Al Mohler observed, “Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon.”