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.


  1. I absolutely loved this. Well said.

  2. It's ironic that Geisler would expect Licona to answer his challenges immediately when Geisler completely ignores James White's challenges regarding his defense of Ergun Caner. This is what White wrote about it:

    "I find it ironic that Norman Geisler would note that Mike Licona has not yet responded to his open letter. It has been over a year since I posted a video asking Dr. Geisler three simple questions. He is well aware of the video, and he has not responded to it. It hardly seems like Dr. Geisler has grounds for complaining about Licona ignoring his open letter, when Dr. Geisler himself has remained so silent for so long on such an obvious issue as the dishonesty of Ergun Caner. Something to think about."

    Here is the video:

  3. That's the precedent which makes me think he'll ignore me too...but I'm not going away any time soon. ;)

  4. Why doesn't Geisler just go all the way and adopt KJV-Onlyism? If there's a slippery slope, that's the one I see Geisler on. I had a guy one time (a KJV-onlier) try to tell me that you don't even need a dictionary to learn the definition of a word used in the Bible: you're supposed to be able to look up the definition by looking at where it is first used in the Bible (in the KJV, of course, with the books in the specific order you see them in printed editions of today). Is this where Geisler will end up?

    I first learned of Geisler when I was going through a severe crisis of faith and groping my way around the apologetics world (newly discovered for me). Someone had given me a copy of Geisler's "When Critics Ask" they had found in a thrift store. Unfortunately, I found the book kind of unhelpful. I leafed through it and read two or three entries, all of which I found to be contrived, "whistling in the dark" explanations of Bible difficulties; I don't think I have opened that volume since. This came at a time when I was in a deep existential depression due to worries that Christian belief was possibly false and that Christians were simply making up cleverly devised fables to hold on to cherished beliefs. The underlying epistemology I saw peeking out from behind Geisler's pages only served to confirm this fear. I'm soooo glad I moved on to REAL apologetics material. I'm sure Geisler has written some worthwile things, and I've heard him in audio items I've downloaded from the net in which there was worthwhile and thought-provoking discussion. So with my limited exposure to his material, its probably unfair of me to pass judgement on his work. However, with the little bit of him I have seen, I'm generally not greatly impressed with him as a thinker.

  5. Jared, perhaps you might consider William Lane Craig on his website,

  6. Re: "Scripture is to interpret Scripture" in reference to rejecting insights from cultural anthropology and history in exegesis, this strikes me as being a common meme expressed in evangelicalism, one I've seen used by people when they sense a threat to their own theology.

    It really is amazing if you think about it how very little self-reflection there is in a statement like that. And it only fosters epistemic closure where thinking about scripture itself must be confined to certain "right" way, which 99% of the time is going to accord with the reader's own time and space.

    Ultimately it's this attitude, or others very much like it, that produce very silly and even theologically dangerous ideas. For instance, the Greek of the NT, different as it was from that of classic antiquity, was thought to be a special "spiritual" tongue when in fact the more obvious answer never occurred to people until the Oxyrhynchus discoveries that what they were reading was merely a long forgotten dialect, no more spiritual than the Latin inscriptions on U.S. currency.

    I think you are right to press this issue with Geisler, irrespective of Licona's reading of Matt. 27. Evangelical leaders ought not to bury their heads in the sand as scholarship continues to advance.

  7. I am just an average guy, but I think I would not be wrong if say that something is seriously wrong with Geisler's psyche. Sorry, Geisler, sorry!

  8. i find Geisler's attitude so sad. while i disagree with Licona (and you, Mr. Holding) on the issue of preterism, i gladly embrace you both as brothers in our Lord Jesus.

    after all, it is the resurrection of Jesus which makes it possible for us to have eternal life. i have watched countless hours of mike methodically going through the facts which support the resurrection of our Lord.

    i would have been far more sympathetic to Mr. Geisler's comments if he had acknowledged how Licona's efforts have benefited the body of Christ, and how his books and lectures are helping the illiterate church understand WHY we believe that Christianity is true.

    all of this makes me so sad. J.P., even though i may disagree with you here and there, the articles on your website have helped me so much through the years.

    when i disagree with you about something, i freely extend grace to you, knowing that NONE of us has a 100% perfect theology.

    the gospel is so simple that a child can receive salvation. to make every minuscule issue a test for orthodoxy as Geisler has done..........well, it ruins any hope for fellowship and peace among the body of Christ.

    i am so glad that i have the ability to learn from all sorts of believers. as long as they hold to the basic tenets of the faith, i will never toss away a brother in Christ, over an in-house debate. would that Norman Geisler would learn to do the same.