Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Snap: Douglas Groothuis' "Christian Apologetics"

This is the latest "gateway" apologetics book to hit the market, and it doesn't look half bad. I'd like to be more specific, but the bulk of it -- in line with Groothuis' own expertise -- is philosophical in orientation, covering such issues as postmodernism and the theistic proofs. Beyond that the nuts and bolts type apologetics I do is covered in only 2-3 chapters -- one written by Craig Blomberg.

Appropriate to a gateway book, there is not much depth here, but there is enough that I'd definitely put this one in the basket with Strobel's as "best in show." The one drawback for some: It's a monster in size, and therefore not easy reading. It may have been well served as 4 volumes, and it's presentation style is not that of a reference book as its size implies. Still and all, count this one as recommended.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What Is Norman Geisler Scared Of?

I had not intended posting today, as I'm at USDA training, but this was important enough that I'm posting it while at lunch from a WiFi location (awesome). Over on the Forge I had noted that Norman Geisler had deleted a link to my challenge. In the past few hours that post received this comment:

That was me who posted the challenge there. A few days later I noticed it was deleted, several of my comments were deleted, and I was banned from posting anymore on the page!

As a result, my respect for Geisler has plummeted significantly. I expected better of him, and I hope the Evangelical community puts enough pressure on him and Mohler to cause them to admit their error and back off from Licona.

But, like you, I'm not holding my breath for these two.

Neither am I. But I'll sure keep the pressure on...and part of that will be this post. There's really no excuse for this kind of thing -- if this is what Geisler does with a challenge from a fellow Christian, then I have to wonder what to make of his responses to others as well.

Friday, September 23, 2011

September 2011 E-Block

The new E-Block went out yesterday -- here's what it has cooking.

The Musicians' Gambit: To make this one more interesting, I now turn the series back in time to some groups that were the rage when I still thought music was cool. I'll have a look at the classic group Petra. The goal here will be to see if Christian music has gotten any less substantive since their time. (The answer from this one is...yes, it has!)

Cruel Vegetable Soup: I was feeling masochistic again, so I obliged a reader request to have a look at a rather loony fellow who insists that the Bible is all hot about vegetarianism and animal cruelty. How loony is he? His whole case amounts to conveniently hypothesizing textual changes (eg, it was actually Cain, not Abel, who sacrificed a sheep, and much of Leviticus is a fraud) and accepting as valid any apocryphal text he can lay his hands on -- including some relatively modern forgeries.

Ride in the Reconstruction Zone: I read another 500+ pages of R. J. Rushdoony and still couldn't find anything that controversial, other than some possible research flubs. The man could at least make it interesting by proposing something radical, like clown school uniforms. Sheesh.

Carl Medearis, Part 2. Speaking of sheesh, I also did Part 2 and last of a review of the work of Carl Medearis. The fun one here was a screwup he had with respect to honor and shame, that deserves a reprint here:

115 -- Thankfully, Medearis here at least admits to the importance of sound doctrine (even as he had been saying the opposite up until now). However, he advises against "lead[ing] a conversation with doctrine rather than Jesus Himself." And this means what exactly? That's not too clear. He tells a story of having ignored a Muslim doctor who interrupted a Bible study he held with other Muslim doctors by asking his fellow Muslims how they could sit with someone who believed Jesus had been crucified. Rather than answer the man, the host asked him to join the study, which proved embarrassing to the man.

I detect some problems here. The first is that these Muslims (who were from Lebanon) undoubtedly adhered to an honor-shame social view. In that light, the host's refusal to answer the question -- whether Medearis understood so or not -- was actually a shaming device which told the man that his question wasn't worthy of being answered. So in a nutshell, Medearis has mistaken a public shaming for not wanting to "lead with doctrine." And he has also offered an example that would have failed miserably had the group been made up instead of American atheists, for example.

Second, there is nothing "doctrinal" about Jesus being crucified. That is a matter of historic fact or not. Muslim insistence that Jesus was not crucified is, to put it bluntly, an embarrassing contrivance. (And for that reason, the public shaming of the man was all the more appropriate.)

Finally, in light of all this, Medearis is wrong to suppose that this shows that "fighting over doctrine" would have been "a huge error" any time such a situation arises. It would not have been at all times. In this group, he tells us, everyone was a doctor; they were all social equals, and the host was quite able to respond in kind as he did. The situation would have been quite different had the objector been a social superior to the host -- or an inferior. Medearis has unwittingly fallen for the sort of one-size-fits-all methodology for which he expresses disdain.

John Loftus' new book: Also speaking of sheesh, I did a brief review of Loftus' The End of Christianity. Why brief? Because 8 of the 14 chapters are "been therem done that". The rest are just silly stuff.

The Ticker will be off a few days as I attend some USDA training -- may be back next Friday, or the Monday after.

E-Block subscriptions

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Martyr Complexities, Part 2

Wolf continues his essay by discussing caused of voluntary false confession, or VFC. We find rather quickly that all of them would either not apply to the Biblical world or would require serious qualification in order to apply.

Wanting a voice. Some VFCers confess out of a desire for attention. This is much the same as what we discussed last entry: As we have pointed out, this will only cohere in the Biblical world if the focus is honor, not attention. If anything, most would seek to avoid attention in the Biblical world because it would mean scrutiny, challenge, and especially envy; the attention seeker was one who sought to draw from the limited pool of honor.

Wanting thrills. Or, as Wolf puts it, there is a "rush some people get from lying to other people." I'd like to see Wolf attempt to apply this to a situation where that "thrill" is followed by a "kill" -- or the sort of serious consequences that would follow in a collectivist society. The thrill, perhaps, is engaged as well because the VFCers knows they can also get out of the problems they cause themselves easily. In any event I cannot imagine such thrill-seeking being of any importance to first century persons; as described, it appears to be a way to relieve boredom or lack of status, and the first did not exist in the ancient world, while the second was either not a concern at all (since trying to change status was difficult or impossible, and was also thought to be set by fate), or was resolved in ways that (as above) would arouse negative reactions like envy.

Having low self-esteem. As noted at the end of Part 1, this one just won't fly in the Biblical world; the sense of self requried did not exist to give people high or low "self-esteem." So likewise, Wolf's analysis concerning guilt and its relationship to VFCs falls flat; guilt, too, did not exist in the Biblical world, and so nor would depression over it. (This makes it all the more ironically delicious that Wolf criticizes Christianity for having appeal "to someone with deep-seated self-esteem problems" -- which means, in essence, no one in the ancient world! -- and then spends several paragraphs presenting this as his showpiece for why the Christian martyrs could have been producing VFCs! One sentence renders hours of work on his part moot.)

In all of this, the one reason that MIGHT emerge for an early Christian martyr to lie is shame -- claiming Jesus rose because it was seen as a way to recover from the shame of association with Jesus. However, as even in my impossible faith thesis, this explains only why Jesus had a few followers from the start -- it doesn't explain new converts, much less from faraway places and from among the relatively successful middle class.

The next section discusses the ability of authorities to identify a false confession, but I know of no one in apologetics who would make an application on that basis; Wolf then offers two guesses as to why he thinks the "martyr argument persists". Neither is an argument I would use, but we may close with this observation on these questions Wolf asks:

In the end, though I have one rhetorical question about the martyr argument: What would be the point of any Christian dying for the truth? According to the stories, God knows whether you believe or not—doesn’t He? Would merciful Jesus condemn you to hell for avoiding torture by lying to evil men—and going on to spread his Word and save others, later?

Based on the principles of honor and rewards, it would cost a lot in terms of status once one gets to heaven. In this light, when Jesus' statement that he will deny those who deny him, which some read in terms of salvation, refers to Jesus refusing to acknowledge status. One might say that such denial costs all previously earned rewards -- as is appropriate.

Such is the matter of martyrs from one unimaginative atheist website.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Geisler Makes a Mountain Out of a Mohler-hill

Yes, another wait for our next entry on martyrs. Norman Geisler has continued to ignore my challenge, but he has taken the time to horn in on Licona's response to Mohler, and naturally we have a few things to say, once again mostly about inerrancy as opposed to Matthew 27.

The main issue to discuss is that Geisler insists that the intention of ICBI's framers was to exclude exactly the sort of process Licona used on Matthew 27. My response would be if that was the case, then they did an exceptionally poor job of expressing this via ICBI, since 1) the actual text of the Chicago Statement doesn't reflect that alleged intention, and indeed expresses in plain language an opposing intention; 2) so many credentialed scholars disagree that such intention is reflected in the Statement, including 3) Moreland and Yamauchi who were in on the process. If Geisler and certain of his associates were that poor at expressing their intentions, they should resign immediately as public communicators and allow more qualified writers to handle the job.

It boils down again to the failure of Geisler and others to understand a very simple point we have noted here repeatedly: You cannot "dehistoricize" a text that wasn't meant to be taken as history in the first place. You also cannot object that one is "dehistoricizing" a text that "presents itself" as factual when the point being made is that the evidence suggests that the text is actually presenting itself as non-factual (in a historical sense). Geisler clearly fails to understand this, and so continues to run in the same circle. (And by the way, Licona does not call the text a "legend" as Geisler says, but rather a "poetic device," understood in terms of apocalyptic imagery.)

A second issue is that Geisler continues to obfuscate when it comes to use of externals to help interpret the Biblical texts, and fails to see that "grammatico-historical exegesis" by nature is contrary to his profession that follows that:

"..Scripture is to interpret Scripture,” not extra-biblical texts used to determine the meaning of the biblical text.

The absurdity of that of course is that one must initially use the extra-Biblical facts about the Greek language to even begin to interpret Scripture. This is not an "either-or" proposition as Geisler makes it out to be, and Scripture is not a thoroughly closed, self-interpretable entity. The doctrine is sola, not solo, Scriptura. So again, it would also be understandable why Geisler would want to avoid my challenge concerning Greco-Roman biographies and rhetoric in the NT. Following his lead, we would be left with the outlandish proposition that God inspired texts that just happened to resemble first-century Greco-Roman artifacts, but really were not. (Alternatively, he may offer the inconsistent view that it would be OK to accept those "pagan" tools, since they do not disturb his view of Scripture.)

Third, Geisler again does not solve the historicity question of Matt. 27 by pointing out that Matthew and Luke elsewhere say they will present history in their texts and otherwise report historical data all around Matthew 27. This was his argument in Round 1, and as before, Geisler fails to grasp that methods of historical reportage were inclusive of forms of presentation that amounted to what we would call non-factual artifices, and this right smack dab in the middle of what was otherwise "straight history". This was a fairly isolated phenomenon, but it nevertheless did occur. Readers of Matthew and Luke would be aware of such artifices and interpret them accordingly. It is thus Geisler, not Licona, who begs the question by asking:

All the main events of Matthew are taken to be historical, even by Licona, including the birth, life, works, words, death and resurrection of Jesus. Why then should not the rest of the book be considered historical as well.

Why then? Because Geisler's "all or nothing" approach is fundamentally without recognizance of how ancient writers sometimes did their work.

The one part Geisler does get right is that yes, the burden of proof is on anyone who thinks some element is non-historical reportage. It was not such a commonplace phenomenon that it can be found just anywhere (which was MacDonald's error in his Homeric epics thesis). And of course, I did not think Licona had satisfied that burden re Matthew 27. That said, Geisler's claim that use of external sources to interpret Scripture is a completely misdirected way of interpreting Scripture" is, as noted, marginalizing nonsense that he refutes himself any time he picks up a lexicon. His qualification that Licona is misusing ICBI because it only allows exegetes to "clarify" meaning is merely an equivocation, and at worst, further indication that he and some of his ICBI cohorts did an exceptionally poor job of communication (or else understanding what others were saying). Licona's effort was indeed one done to attempt to "clarify" the text -- it was hardly done to muddy it. And again, when he says:

As Dr. Mohler correctly noted, they cannot be used to “invalidate” the teaching of a biblical text.

How many times must the lesson be repeated? The very question at issue is what in particular is being taught by the text. If Licona were right, then he is not invalidating the teaching of a text but clarifying it. This simple point eludes Geisler time and time again.

Further on, I find somewhat amusing Geisler's warning to not place much weight on the proposed round table discussion "because some of those involved have already placed approval on his view in a recent Open Letter released by Licona. So, it may be a case of the fox guarding the hen house." Aside from the rather tendentious nature of Geisler's warning as (dare I say) one of the "chickens" involved, this is yet again Geisler resorting to ad hominem in place of argument. We are also assured that "[t]here are far bigger and better scholarly circles than this, such as, the nearly 300 international scholars who formed the ICBI statement on inerrancy and its statements which declare that views like Licona’s were incompatible with the view of full inerrancy which declared that the Bible is wholly and completely without error and denied all dehistoricizing of the Gospel record." As noted, if some of these 300 people did such a poor job of communicating their wishes, then we hardly need them.

As it is, Geisler's list of 300 "scholars" manifestly includes many people who are not scholars (eg, pastors, such as W. A. Criswell and D. James Kennedy, and er…Hal Lindsey and Josh McDowell!!) or who are scholars in fields not relevant to Licona’s variety of NT study (such as Gleason Archer and Roger Nicole); it also includes at least two (Moreland and Yamauchi) who contradict Geisler, and others I believe would likewise contradict him based on the works of their I have read (Blocher, Carson). Many names I do not recognize, and some are certainly deceased (like Greg Bahnsen, and Archer). Perhaps a survey of these names is in order once we get done with the martyr series, in order to decide just how many did have the knowledge and authority to make pronouncements about what inerrancy would have meant to Biblical readers.

Nevertheless, with a few exceptions (people who Geisler knows well, like Nix), what license does Geisler have to speak for the them and why are they more scholarly in the literature? Why should this discussion be avoided just because the people there disagree with Geisler? Are we to say we only pay attention to people who agree with Geisler? He says he wishes to stop "bad scholarship" but that is very hard to accept as his intention when he won't answer a simple challenge like mine, and makes such obscurantist statements about use of externals to interpret Scripture. Geisler had best not cherish the numbers before he gets his arguments straight; and he's conspicuously gotten Licona's arguments wrong again and again.

Geisler denies that he is a "dectractor" of any sort; I don't prefer that term myself -- for Geisler right now, I prefer terms like obscurantist, bully, and perhaps even controlling dictator might fit as well. I might be persuaded to rethink application of those terms if he took the time to answer my challenge, but it becomes readily apparent that he does not wish to expose himself to this kind of scrutiny.

In close, a few miscellaneous notes.

First, I have been informed that the Liconas were on a European vacation during some portion of the time when Geisler presents himself as waiting for a response.

Second, Geisler's appeal to Gundry's case as an analogy is without merit. The cases are not identical. Douglas Moo, as we noted in a prior entry here, interacted with Gundry in the original discussion, has said that Licona is not in violation of inerrancy. What does Geisler know that Moo, a scholar, does not?

Third, it deserves reiteration that there are those who would regard Geisler's view of the days of Genesis as a compromise on the same order as his treatments of Licona and Gundry. I know of many creationists who would say that Geisler is compromising on the biblical evidence because of scientific evidence that wasn’t available to the people of the time. The point is not to vouch for either side of the debate, since that is not my topical expertise; the point is that Geisler can be regarded as a compromiser and non-inerrantist by the same reasoning he applies to Licona -- and would be replied to for his defense the same way he has replied to Licona, particularly with respect to his use of extra-Biblical information.

Fourth, Geisler’s appeal to the authority of ETS is puzzling since he resigned from ETS some time ago over their refusal to disavow Clark Pinnock over open theism. The language he used in resigning as quite strong: He wrote for example of ETS having lost its “doctrinal integrity.” So by what logic does he now suppose to subject Licona and others to the authority of ETS?

The challenge remains open, but I won't hold my breath.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mike Licona Responds to Al Mohler

We'll break from our series on martyrs to reproduce Mike Licona's response to Al Mohler, who weighed in on Geisler's side -- sadly -- in the recent debate. I'll have my own comments at the end.


The Devil is Indeed in the Details and We Do Well Not to Ignore Them: A Brief Response to Al Mohler

By Mike Licona

Because I am leaving the country today and must attend to last minute preparations, brevity is required. I am grateful to Dr. Mohler for his kind remarks pertaining to both me and my book, which has recently raised quite a bit of controversy in certain evangelical circles. Although I disagree with much of what he has asserted pertaining to my treatment of the raised saints in Matthew 27:52-53, one should not doubt my respect for him and gratitude for the contributions he has made for the cause of Christ and to the Southern Baptist Convention.

An accurate interpretation of a particular biblical text is assisted by an accurate understanding of the cultural milieu in which it was written. It is unfortunate that this does not appear to be a practice of my detractors Drs. Mohler and Geisler. Their judgment that an incompatibility exists between the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and interpreting Matthew’s raised saints at Jesus’ -death as apocalyptic symbols—or even to consider this interpretation as a viable way of understanding what Matthew was communicating (which is my present position)—without engaging in a thorough and sophisticated discussion of the milieu in which Matthew wrote is quite premature.

Dr. Mohler asks, “What could one possibly find in the Greco-Roman literature that would either validate or invalidate the status of this report as historical fact?” This is the wrong question. For it presupposes that Matthew intends the report of the raised saints to be understood as a historical event. So, the first question one should ask is how Matthew intended for his readers to understand this text. If he intended for us to regard the raised saints as apocalyptic symbols, then Drs. Mohler and Geisler are mistaken when regarding them as “historical fact.” It is only IF one can determine after an exhaustive study that Matthew intended for us to regard the raised saints as an event that occurred in space-time that Dr. Mohler could legitimately claim that the Greco-Roman literature offers nothing to assist us toward a correct interpretation of the text.

Instead, Drs. Mohler and Geisler have pre-determined what the text means. But it is Scripture that is inerrant. Thus, we must be careful not to canonize our interpretation of Scripture so that we come to believe that it, too, is inerrant.

Article XX of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics states,

“We affirm that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. WE FURTHER AFFIRM THAT IN SOME CASES EXTRABIBLICAL DATA HAVE VALUE FOR CLARIFYING WHAT SCRIPTURE TEACHES, AND FOR PROMPTING CORRECTION OF FAULTY INTERPRETATIONS [emphasis mine]. We deny that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it.”

Thus, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics asserts that extrabiblical data can assist us in clarifying what Matthew is teaching and correct faulty interpretations.

We find a similar statement in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:

“We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, GOD UTILIZED THE CULTURE AND CONVENTIONS OF HIS PENMAN’S MILIEU, A MILIEU THAT GOD CONTROLS IN HIS SOVERIGN PROVIDENCE; IT IS MISINTERPRETATION TO IMAGINE OTHERWISE [emphasis mine].

“So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. DIFFERENCES BETWEEN LITERARY CONVENTIONS IN BIBLE TIMES AND IN OURS MUST ALSO BE OBSERVED” [emphasis mine].

Thus, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy asserts that an inattention to the culture and literary conventions in Bible times could lead to a misinterpretation of the biblical text.

Examples in the extrabiblical literature of phenomena similar to the raised saints in Matthew 27 may provide insights pertaining to how Matthew intended for us to interpret his raised saints.

When we study the literary conventions in Bible times, we identify specific language in the Greco-Roman (Virgil, Dio Cassius, Plutarch), Jewish (Josephus) and biblical (Matthew 24, Acts 2) literature that may be employed to accent an event believed to have cosmic or even divine significance. Thus, when I noticed what might be similar language in Matthew 27:52-53, the interpretive possibility I proposed in my book emerged. Couldn’t the same be said 2,000 years from now pertaining to a proper interpretation of a text in which it was asserted that “the events of 9/11 were earth-shaking” while others may wrongly interpret the statement “Hell will freeze over before Ahmadinejad converts to Christianity” as a prophecy of two events rather than as a statement of enormous improbability?

The charge that I have “dehistoricized” the text is likewise problematic, since it likewise presupposes that Matthew intended the raised saints to be understood as historical. But what if he intended for them to be understood as apocalyptic symbols? It would then be misguided to “historicize” them. This would be little different than regarding as historical the seven-headed great red dragon in Revelation 12:3-4 whose tail sweeps up a third of the stars and casts them to earth. I regard this description as entirely symbolic and that to regard it as a real space monster would be to “historicize” the text.

The text in Matthew 27:52-53 has puzzled many New Testament scholars for years and will continue to do so. I remain puzzled but continue to seek a better understanding of what Matthew intended to communicate here. The calls of Drs. Geisler and Mohler for me to retract my opinion that it is possible Matthew intended for his readers to understand the raised saints in Matthew 27:52-53 as apocalyptic symbols is not helpful. Instead, such premature calls stifle scholarship and authentic quests for truth. I will be happy to retract my opinion once I am convinced that Matthew’s authorial intent was to communicate that the raised saints are to be understood as an event that occurred in space-time. So far, I have found the arguments offered by Drs. Geisler and Mohler to be unpersuasive and misguided.

I am grateful to the Southeastern Theological Review for their invitation to participate in a roundtable discussion on the meaning of this text and whether the solution I proposed in my recent book is compatible with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. It is their desire to publish that discussion within the next 60 days. I will reserve my defense and further criticisms for that discussion and want to express my gratitude to the many who have sent words of support and to those who have written in my defense on the web. It is sad—and perhaps telling—that they have been ignored by Drs. Mohler and Geisler, since some of their arguments are quite good.


My own two cents (Holding):

Personally I have never thought that much of Mohler beyond his moral leadership. It seems to me that he does little to encourage serious education, and that we owe our current crisis in good part to leaders like him who have failed to foster an interest in it. The very fact that Licona has had to explain why inerrancy is not problematic for his view in ROJ re Matthew 27 speaks for itself in terms of the shortcomings Geisler and Mohler have in understanding their own professed doctrines (or else, Licona's position).

If our leaders are this deficient at understanding such things, how can they possibly be competent as leaders in most or even all other respects?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Martyr Complexities, Part 1

As readers may know, my own version of the well-worn "who would die for a lie" argument isn't quite that simple; I tie it in to my "impossible faith" arguments and the social and cultural background of the NT. In this light, I have been asked to critique a certain atheist blog (which I will not permit the dignity or attention of being named or linked to, per my usual policy with respect to what I consider to be insignificant drivel) which tackles the standard "die for a lie" argument. We'll look at this material over the next entries as needed.

The entry author -- who I'll call Wolf, for reasons that can remain obscure -- seeks a way to argue that early Christians had some other motive for lying about the risen Jesus. It takes some time for Wolf to get down to the actual case for this, prefacing his core arguments with all manner of examples (none of them applicable to the early Christians) of people lying for all manner of reasons. They then present quotes from several Christian apologists summarizing the "die for a lie" argument (starting with Josh McDowell, which gives you a fair idea of the depth Wolf has reached in his knowledge of Christian apologetics; after that, he has but a handful of obscure no-names to offer). In the end he sums up the argument as:

If a person knows their claim is a lie—such as a claim someone made up himself—it is impossible that person would die for it.

Now of course my own version of this isn't quite so simple, and perhaps cannot be so readily simplified. There are matters of the balance of honor and shame, and the importance placed on them in the Biblical world; the use of lies, indeed, to stay out of trouble (so if anything, a Christian in trouble would have been trained to lie to get out of it, not to tell the truth), and so on. So while this may be a fair summary of the popular form of the argument, it doesn't do my version any real justice.

Wolf continues with what he calls "three giveaways" which are said to be examples of persons dying for lies. The purpose of these is apparently to further define the "die for a lie" argument, but just for the record, let's look at these and ask how well they cohere with the situation in the New Testament world.

Coercion 1: This would be a situation where someone who knows you is being interrogated, and they name you as someone who was running around preaching the resurrection. It is a lie. You know it is a lie. You are brought in and beaten and questioned. You, like many people today who admit to murder due to police interrogations that I will wager are not nearly as horrible as what I would expect to encounter in antiquity, tell them whatever they want to hear to get them to stop beating you. You hope for leniency, but you are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

You do? Not hardly. The record indicates that those who renounced Christ were shown immediate leniency after being "roughed up" with interrogation. Pliny the Younger recounts:

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

...Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

And Trajan the Emperor replied to Pliny:

They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.

So scenario 1 is already unrealistic as an example. Scenario 2 is only slightly varied, supposing you know you will be executed, which again does not cohere with the testimony of Pliny and how the Romans treated Christians.

The third example is different but no less fruitful:

Protecting Someone You Love: Someone reports to the authorities that a person in your house was preaching the resurrection. You know it was your child, who is involved with the Christians. You lie and say it was you. You are arrested and executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

No, you don't, actually. This presupposes a sort of inter-familial love virtually unknown in the NT era. Matthew 10 records the actual scenario: The deviant Christian being stripped of family rights, or shunned, or held in check by others. The scenario described would be unknown. (If there was a desire to save a child, it would be done with a much better lie -- the child is insane, for example -- that would not rebound responsibility to the parent.)

All that said, Wolf restates the Christian argument (I think properly) as:

Nobody would voluntarily, and without external coercion or pressure, offer a false confession to a capital offense, knowing it was false—up to, and including, something he, himself, manufactured.

Though I think that "no one would die for a lie" (even as presented by McDowell) already implied as much as this.

After an excursus on the option of simply denying the historicity of martyr stories -- which he deems it appropriate not to address in this context -- Wolf returns to the main subject, and to his main weapon, which is a psychological paper on false confessions, Right away this may be deemed irrelevant, since the paper was a study done on persons in the modern world, and not on persons in an agonistic society. Specifically, the paper is summed as saying that people make false confessions in order to get attention. But agonistic peoples do not seek "attention" -- they seek honor. And if they seek honor by way of some claim, that claim will be challenged at once so as to ensure that they do not undeservedly draw from the limited pool of honor available. This is no "limelight" as the article describes it -- it is a penetrating and uncomfortable searchlight; there would be no mass media giving them TV time (what media there was would ignore or denigrate them), which is what modern "false confessors" as described are all about. The early Christians would not have received "immediate fame or infamy" but would have been shut away in dark jails, their fate and presence unknown to all save their family and some neighbors, their fellow prisoners and the roaches.

Furthermore, what Wolf misses about the situation is that these false confessors are fully aware that the evidence will lead them to be found not guilty of the crime to which they confess. Christians would have no such option. His comparison to 200+ false confessors to the Lindbergh kidnapping is rather ludicrous in that regard; all knew that once the police had asked a few questions, the game was up and the attention was over. In contrast, Christians were convicted by their own witness and beliefs, which would be confirmed by witnesses (per Pliny) and chances at recantation in light of threats of punishment. (Wolf notes that H. L. Mencken called the Lindbergh kidnapping to the Resurrection in terms of being a big story; Mencken was not particularly bright, but I doubt if even he meant to imply, as Wolf seems to suppose, that there was any parallel to false confession; most likely Mencken was being obnoxious, as he frequently was, by denigrating the Resurrection.)

So it is that a desire for "notoriety" doesn't have any application for the matter of early Christianity. We'll look at some more from Wolf Friday, and word ahead: It's even more anachronistic. In one case, he even suggests "low self-esteem" as a possible motive for lying.

Yep. You know where THAT will be going.

Monday, September 12, 2011

An Open Challenge to Norman Geisler

I'm keeping up with the continuing saga of Geisler vs Licona, which now includes a second "open letter" from Geisler. After Licona's last response, Geisler would have done well to drop the matter, but it seems he cannot. That being the case, I am now posting my own official entry, an open challenge to Geisler to take the matter to the floor with me. Readers are asked to reproduce the link to this challenge (or the text of it, as appropriate) in whatever venues they deem suitable. (Including Geisler's own Facebook page, which, since I am not a Facebooker myself, I can't post to.) First, though, a review of Geisler's second open letter.

Initially, he offers a recitation of the timeline of his inquiry, and some have noted that he seems to think Licona had nothing else to do but respond to him. Geisler's actual feelings on the matter are not discernible, but at the very least he seems unaware that he has the appearance of someone acting like a bully who thinks that responding to him should take precedence over anything else anyone has to do.

I obviously don’t have access to Licona’s schedule – I know that he was on the road a lot in late July, and that undoubtedly involved preparation earlier that month – but I'll note that since Geisler posted his first letter July 3, it should at least have occurred to him that Licona -- who still has a son residing at home -- might want to spend some quality time with his family over the summer school break. As it is, Geisler is doing very little to deflect criticism of acting impatient, self-important, and like a bully -- and in that regard, he is also reflecting the sort of "good old boy" authoritarian attitude that has done so much to stagnate American Christianity.

(In that regard I also have to chuckle at Geisler's remark that he "waited in vain a whole month for a response" from Licona, as if he were being unfairly delayed from more pressing matters because Licona didn't respond to him. I also have to chuckle at his further sentiment that Licona "owe[d] me a quicker response". Excuse me? Why does Licona "owe" Geisler anything? Has Geisler imagined himself to be our pope that any of us owe HIM an explanation on anything, and within the timeframe he decides we owe it to him?)

In terms of his response to Licona now, since, again, I did not think Licona's assessment of Matthew 27 was correct, I'll be dialing down only to 1) points that directly discuss the matter of my concern -- whether what Licona offered was or was not compatible with inerrancy; 2) places where Geisler is manifesting the attitude of a bully. That means we don't get to anything I want to touch on until the end of point 2:

In short, after two months, I still have a mere reply but not a real response to the issues I raised. And this reply is something that could easily have been written two months ago. Apparently, the pressure from Southern Baptist sources that preceded his resignation from his position at their North American Mission Board helped convinced him to resign and reconsider writing a reply.

Again, as noted, Geisler is insensate to Licona's duties as a public debater and speaker, a writer and researcher. As for the latter, I would only remark that this is again the sort of "good old boy" attitude that we need to erase from our churches and from SBC in particular. No one apart from Licona at SBC or NAMB, I'd think, was qualified to assess Licona's work in scholarly terms, so if there was any "pressure" it was from people who had no genuine authority to apply it (meaning, they had nothing more than assigned authority).

The third point touches on the inerrancy issue, only objecting that Licona did not explain why his view is in line with the "historic view on inerrancy." As it happens that is not a point I would make anyway; just because there is a "historic view" of any given doctrine does not grant it much authority, though it does place a burden on dissenters to explain why those prior were wrong. In this particular case, I might note that much of the modern perception of "inerrancy" is rooted in a literalist form of reading that was unknown in the ancient world. But barring specifics, I can't comment further.

In his fourth point Geisler reiterates that the framers of the ICBI (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy) "clearly denied that views like Licona's are compatible with inerrancy." However, Licona got two signers-on to ICBI to append their affirmations to his own open letters. So Geisler will now have to try to throw out them as well, apparently. By the time he's done he'll be standing all by himself, and everyone but him will be a heretic.

The fifth point has to do with Matt. 27, so I'll skip to point 6:

Sixth, listing some scholars who agree with him misses the point. First, as he admits, most of them do not agree with his unrecanted in-print view. Further, the fact that they say they are "in firm agreement that it is compatible with biblical inerrancy" misses the point entirely.

Well, no, it doesn't, and that they do not agree with his view of Matt. 27 is not the point, since it was the basis of inerrancy that caused Geisler to comment from the start, not merely Licona's interpretation. In terms of compatibility, I would note again that these scholars are in a far better position to assess what "inerrancy" would mean in the context of the Biblical world. Geisler is a philosopher whose interest and specialty in issues of historic and social-contextual exegesis is marginal at best.

For it does not answer the question of with whose view of inerrancy it is in agreement? As we all know, the term "inerrancy" can be twisted to mean many things to many people.

I'm sure it can. But fear-mongering over the possibility of a slippery slope doesn't mean that Licona has found one. The answer here would be for Geisler to humbly buckle down and educate himself on the views of inerrancy held by these scholars, do the same study they have, and reach a fair decision -- either that, or refrain from commenting. As it is, he remains content to merely assume that his view is unchallengeable.

And again, wielding ICBI as a club does not aid him in any case. ICBI is fully compatible with Licona's views; but it seems to me that certain framers (like Geisler) who think it is not do not even understand what the implications are of what they wrote -- and I think that is because they continue to fail to grasp what the positions are, as noted here before:

Geisler's view of Matthew 27: Matthew is reporting history as history.

Licona's view of Matthew 27: Matthew is reporting a poetic device as a poetic device.

Geisler's view of Licona's view of Matthew 27: Matthew is reporting a poetic device as history.

As we have noted, one cannot "dehistoricize" a text that was never intended to be taken as historical. Geisler continues to miss this point and thus continues to misapprehend Licona's views with respect to inerrancy. And if ICBI's framers also did this (when they may have misunderstood Gundry in the same way), then I can only suggest that that doesn't speak well for the perceptiveness of certain of ICBI’s framers (though it does speak much of their reactionary and even perhaps thoughtless framing of ICBI).

Point seven is yet another "slippery slope" threat. On this point I would merely note that despite Geisler's "the sky may fall on us" performance, there has yet to be discovered any historical, social, or literary context that would allow Mary Baker Eddy's readings of the Bible to be supported, in contrast to Licona's own argument, which at least does rely on some first century literary precedent. Eddy’s perceptions are nearly as foreign to the first century as Geisler’s.

I would also add that despite Geisler, the resurrection of the saints and that of Jesus are not "interwoven" in any literary or other sense. Indeed this reflects Geisler's lack of knowledge of the nature of Greco-Roman biography (as the Gospels are) as episodic in nature. Which leads in turn to point 8, which of all of these, is the most horrifying, and the basis for my challenge to Geisler:

Eighth, Licona reveals the basis of his own problem when he admits that his view on Matthew 27 "is based upon my [his] analysis of the genre of the text" and that this was based on a comparison with "similar phenomena in the Greco-Roman literature in general." But this is clearly not the way to interpret a biblical text which should be understood by the "historical-grammatical" method (as ICBI held) of (a) looking at a text in its context and (b) by comparing other biblical texts, affirming that "Scripture is to interpret Scripture" (as ICBI mandated). The proper meaning is certainly not found by superimposing some external pagan idea on the text in order to determine what the text means.

The Gospels are in the form of Greco-Roman biographies. Paul and other NT authors make frequent use of Greco-Roman rhetorical techniques. While some critics overstate the influence of Greco-Romanism on the NT, there is a certain clear amount of it, and Geisler's remark concerning "external pagan idea[s]" is simply so obscurantist as to be embarrassing -- only sadly, I have doubt that Geiser realizes how embarrassing this should be to him, or that he ever will.

I also doubt ICBI really forbids use of such external contexts; or if it does forbid them, it needs badly to be revised. Scripture doesn't teach us how to read Greek, or interpret rhetorical forms. Geisler's resistance here is of the sort that will only lead to even more cognitive dissonance, more marginalization of the church, and more apostasy (thanks as well to those like Bart Ehrman who, after the manner of hyenas, will gladly step in to lick the sores produced).

It gets worse than that though, for Geisler’s position. The NT world was a high-context society. The background would have been understood by all people as would have been any idioms. The NT does not have a lesson on understanding biblical Greek for the people of the time generally spoke Greek. There is no such thing as a glossary of biblical terms within the Bible that had to be used when writing Scripture. One wonders if Geisler would have had a problem with the council of Nicaea using non-biblical words to describe the Trinity. Would that have been super-imposing Greek philosophical ideas on Scripture?

When we read a text like 1 Corinthians 7, we read that concerning the present times, it is good not to marry. Geisler is married. I am married. Licona is married. Licona’s daughter is married to my ministry partner, Nick Peters. Are we raising an objection to Paul, or, are we simply aware that Paul was aware that certain circumstances dictated this teaching by Paul (e.g., as Bruce Winter observed, Corinth was undergoing a famine at the time and to have to support another in such a time was not the wisest of choices)?

One can get a good message out of the Prodigal Son parable, but one has a totally different view of it when they realize that when the younger son requested his portion he was really saying to his father “I wish you would drop dead!”

Geisler’s position will mean that such does not matter. Why should this be so? Licona sees his position reflected in the Greco-Roman biographies. When Geisler reads about such events happening at the death of a Caesar in such a biography, does he automatically state that the author wished to be taken literally and rule them out as a bad historian? If not, why? If he does see it as non-literal, why is it the biblical text is suddenly different? Note that the biblical text like the Greco-Roman biographies would indicate that this apocalyptic description is centered around a historical event. Despite what has been said, it is not an all-or-nothing game. It is remarkable that Geisler says that this can be used to deny anything when Licona has written a whole book explaining why that CANNOT be the case with the resurrection of Christ.

Furthermore, Geisler’s view cannot be said to be biblical for if one needs a biblical hermeneutic to understand the Bible, how does one understand the Bible in the first place if they need the hermeneutic that supposedly comes from the Bible? The Bible does not come with a hermeneutic. Nor should we expect it to.

He then says:

So, it matters not how many scholars one can line up in support of the consistency of their personal view on inerrancy (and many more than this can be lined up on the other side).

Oh really? Then let Geisler line them up. And then let them face off. Geisler's further "we've always done it this way" response isn't enough; it has too much the scent of someone who doesn't want his views scrutinized.

Sadly, many names on Licona's list of scholars are members of ETS (some of whom are on the faculties of evangelical seminaries that require their faculty to sign the ICBI view of inerrancy). What is more, their approval of Licona's view reveals they are not signing the doctrinal statement in good conscience according to intention expressed by the framers. The ETS and ICBI framers have drawn a line in the sand, and Licona has clearly stepped over it. Only a clear recantation will reverse the matter and, unfortunately, Licona has not done this. Let's pray that he does.

No...let's pray that he doesn't, at least not because of Geisler's bullying tactics. (Licona has said that he's reconsidering his view of Matt. 27 for other reasons...scholarly ones.) And let's also see if Geisler will now try to get the rest of those signers thrown out of ETS en masse. The wrestling-mat side of me wishes he'd try -- and also wishes he'd try some of that bullying in Tekton's direction as well, and that is why today I am issuing an open challenge to him on this last point, specifically in this way, and on the horns of a dilemma for him:

Challenge: Are the Gospels in the genre of Greco-Roman biographies (bioi)? If not, why not? If so, then why is this not a case of “by superimposing some external pagan idea on the text in order to determine what the text means”?

Neither option bodes well for Geisler. Identifying the Gospels as bioi has been of some assistance in determining their nature, meaning, and purpose. It has not been particularly relevant to the exegesis of the Gospels, but it remains that identifying them as such was the same process of Licona used in trying to identify Matt. 27 as a poetic device – it was done by comparison to “some external pagan (!) idea” which was then (as Geisler puts it) “superimposed on the text.”

On the other hand, if he chooses to deny that the Gospels are bioi, he will be hard-pressed to explain why the credible scholarship of Burridge, Talbert, and others ought to be rejected.

Challenge: Do the epistles of Paul make use of the techniques of Greco-Roman rhetoric? If not, why not? If so, then why is this not a case of “by superimposing some external pagan idea on the text in order to determine what the text means”?

This one will be even harder on him, because there are several instances in which the principles of rhetoric have helped us interpret Paul’s meaning. Geisler will be compelled to explain why so much of what is in Paul looks so much like Greco-Roman rhetoric, and also why scholars like Kennedy, Witherington, and Porter are wrong in their assessments.

Geisler is left with three options. One is to meet this challenge head on, and if he does try it, I can tell you will not go well for him. And I say that with some regrets that one of our current leading names in apologetics is so unwisely spending his legacy on such poorly thought out arguments.

His second option is to admit his error. I don’t think I need to comment on the likelihood of that happening.

His third option – the one I am fairly sure he will choose – is to ignore this challenge, as he has apparently done when challenged regarding Ergun Caner. And that will speak for itself.

Geisler prays for Licona to recant. I say, let’s pray rather that we work this out so that we can have a rational, supportable, and invincible faith that will keep hyenas like Bart Ehrman from handmaidening others into the same apostasy he went into. Geisler’s form of apologetics is doing nothing whatsoever to prevent such apostasies and the time for his anachronistic and authoritarian methodology has passed.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mike Licona Responds to Norman Geisler

I posted this on the Forge yesterday and decided to put it here too today -- so that it gets as much exposure (and search engine finds) as possible. In a real sense, the back and forth between Geisler and Licona represents a battle I have fought for years between two approaches to apologetics, and it's all the better the more exposure it gets.

Licona has given clearance for public posting. 9/10/11: Licona has asked for a revision, explained below.


An Open Response to Norman Geisler

Norman Geisler has taken issue with a portion of my recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, in which I proposed that the story of the raised saints in Matthew 27:52-53 should probably be interpreted as apocalyptic imagery rather than literal history. In response, Dr. Geisler has offered strong criticisms in two Open Letters to me on the Internet. Until now I have been unable to comment because I have multiple writing deadlines, two September debates in South Africa for which to prepare, and, consequently, no time to be drawn into what would probably turn into an endless debate. I shared these first two reasons with Dr. Geisler in an email several weeks ago. Yet he insisted that I “give careful and immediate attention” to the matter. I simply could not do this and fulfill the pressing obligations of my ministry, which is my higher priority before the Lord.

Dr. Geisler questions whether I still hold to biblical inerrancy. I want to be clear that I continue to affirm this evangelical distinctive. My conclusion in reference to the raised saints in Matthew 27 was based upon my analysis of the genre of the text. This was not an attempt to wiggle out from under the burden of an inerrant text; it was an attempt to respect the text by seeking to learn what Matthew was trying to communicate. This is responsible hermeneutical practice. Any reasonable doctrine of biblical inerrancy must respect authorial intent rather than predetermine it.

When writing a sizable book, there will always be portions in which one could have articulated a matter more appropriately. And those portions, I suppose, will often be located outside the primary thesis of the book, such as the one on which Dr. Geisler has chosen to focus. When writing my book, I always regarded the entirety of Matthew 27 as historical narrative containing apocalyptic allusions. I selected the term “poetic” in order to allude to similar phenomena in the Greco-Roman literature in general and Virgil in particular. However, since Matthew is a Jew writing to Jews, “apocalyptic” may be the most appropriate technical term, while “special effects” communicates the gist on a popular level.

Further research over the last year in the Greco-Roman literature has led me to reexamine the position I took in my book. Although additional research certainly remains, at present I am just as inclined to understand the narrative of the raised saints in Matthew 27 as a report of a factual (i.e., literal) event as I am to view it as an apocalyptic symbol. It may also be a report of a real event described partially in apocalyptic terms. I will be pleased to revise the relevant section in a future edition of my book.

Michael R. Licona, Ph.D.

August 31, 2011

We the undersigned are aware of the above stated position by Dr. Michael Licona, including his present position pertaining to the report of the raised saints in Matthew 27: He proposes that the report may refer to a literal/historical event, a real event partially described in apocalyptic terms, or an apocalyptic symbol. Though most of us do not hold Licona’s proposal, we are in firm agreement that it is compatible with biblical inerrancy, despite objections to the contrary. We are encouraged to see the confluence of biblical scholars, historians, and philosophers in this question.

It has come to my attention that this matter may become a political/theological hot potato. The scholars on the list have stood with me. It was not my intent to amass a huge list. It was my intent to demonstrate that a significant number of the most highly respected evangelical scholars, all of whom are members of ETS, see no incompatibility between the position I took in my book and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The list has served its purpose. I have no desire to be the cause of pressure brought on those who have stood with me or on their academic institutions. Therefore, I have decided to remove the list of names for the present time at least. In no case, did an institution demand that their professors withdraw their names.

A number of scholars have suggested that this discussion is better played out in the theatre of an academic forum. I could not agree more! Southeastern Theological Review (STR) has offered to host a ‘virtual’ roundtable discussion involving several significant scholars commenting on my book. A main subject of this roundtable will be the raising of the dead saints in Matthew 27:52-53. This roundtable discussion(s) will be posted on the STR web site and will precede a full journal devoted to my book in the Summer 2012 edition of STR.