Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Geisler 2: The Rise of the Ehrmanator...and More on Defending Inerrancy and ICBI

Today I've released a third video on TektonTV related to Norman Geisler, but this one's not related specifically to the Licona debacle. It does, however, go back to an issue that Geisler himself has compared to the Licona situation, and in which the historical roots of that interaction reside.

For this one, I've reached back to the early 80s and the interactions with Robert Gundry. Like Licona, Gundry suggested that parts of Matthew were not meant to be taken as history; though where Licona suggested that an isolated passage be read as apocalyptic, Gundry suggested that rather more narrative portions (like the magi) be taken as midrash. Like Licona, Gundry was accused by Geisler of violating inerrancy, and like Licona, some scholars came to Gundry's defense on this point, and Geisler himself failed to grasp the very simple point that you can't dehistoricize a text not meant to be taken as historical.

For the vid I adopted as my parody theme the Terminator cycle of stories; most of the vid is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Geisler's stances (and that of others like him) have allowed fundamentalist atheists to gain power. Gundry makes an appearance, as does Bart Ehrman (as "the Ehrmanator," reprogrammed and sent back in time to rescue Geisler from assassination). The bulk of the vid in that setting is devoted to a dialogue between Geisler and a character I use to represent my point of view in my vids; many of Geisler's lines and arguments, and the single line by Gundry, come directly from the 1983 exchange between them in JETS.

I won't give away more than that, save to say that the critical narrative turn rests on the very issue of "author intention" that was a hinge point (one of several, but in my mind, one of the most important) for the discussion between Geisler and Gundry. (On that, see prior Ticker post linked below.) Geisler's arguments in this regard, I found to be exceptionally outlandish, and the vid illustrates the predicament one can get into when one denies that intention of the author should be considered when interpreting a text.

It's on this occasion as well that it is also appropriate to say a few words about Chapter 7 of Defending Inerrancy, on Kevin Vanhoozer. Before DI, I had not heard of Vanhoozer, and I freely admit that much of what DI ascribes to him involves matters of semantic and literary theory I don't get into. However, of significance for today is that in this chapter, Geisler and Roach use some of the very same arguments Geisler used against Gundry -- at some points, word for word.

How odd that in nearly 30 years, and even after Gundry's pointed critique, and surely many others, Geisler has still not changed his arguments. Beyond that, here are some other problems with Ch 7.

Vanhoozer is criticized for making what DI calls "up front genre decisions" about the Biblical text. (See more about "up front" below.) Here we see the basis for Geisler's resistance to Licona's classification of the Gospels as Greco-Roman bioi -- as well as some of the most patently obscurantist argumentation to be found in DI. Such decisions are called "misdirected and dangerous" (!) for it may lead to "the denial of the historicity of long-held historical sections of Scripture..." That these "long-held" views might be in error is apparently not considered an option; once again, Great Men Have Spoken, and their word too is inerrant and infallible.

Sadly, rational argumentation against such decisions is sorely lacking from Geisler and Roach. Their first point is a non-starter, saying that just because one myth or legend from antiquity contains "unusual feats," this does not mean a Biblical story with unusual feats is also a myth of legend. This is true, but it is also beside the point, and reflects a highly simplistic and simplified version of what Licona, for example, has argued. No one is making genre decisions on the mere basis of the reporting of "unusual feats," least of all Licona, who (Geisler seems to fail to notice) is arguing for the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (an unusual feat). DI beats this drum further in the chapter, but it is not on the mere basis of reportage of miracles that the Gospels are classified as Greco-Roman biography -- indeed, that is not even on the genre radar of scholars like Burridge and Talbert.

The second argument designates as "question-begging" the idea that one can make genre decisions based on comparison to extrabiblical material. In other words, scholars like Burridge and Talbert, when they provide detailed expositions indicating strong correspondence between the Gospels and ancient biographies, are merely question-begging. This is problematic, we are told, because it "does not allow for the possibility that the Bible may offer a new genre of its own that does not fit any of these categories, for example, redemptive history or (in the New Testament) Gospel history."

Uh...what was that about begging the question?

Words like “absurd” one might suppose to not be appropriate when addressing someone like Geisler, but there are frankly no better words for such a nonsensical argument. (See more on this in link below.)

In a nutshell, genres like "redemptive history" or "Gospel history" are simply manufactured categories Geisler invents to save his views. They, and his suggestion of some new and unknown category, and merely contrivances, and have no basis in fact whatsoever.

It's worth stopping here for a "by the way". In the 1981 volume Inerrancy, of which Geisler was the editor, Walter Kaiser issued a strong warning against the notion that Biblical words might take on new and different meanings unknown to the language as it was used in the first century. Kaiser's warning is a well founded one; yet Geisler's special plea for a potential "new genre" contains an opposing sentiment. This makes it all the more clear that Geisler's plea is simply made up to suit the corner he is backed into. Compare the words of Kaiser and those of Geisler:

While one may be talking about genre and the other about language, the principle remains the same, and it is hard to see how Geisler’s special plea does not open the door Kaiser warns against.

To make matters worse, DI goes on to confuse the issue by giving as an alleged analogy the way liberal scholars have denied Paul the Pastoral epistles based on "style and vocabulary." What this is supposed to have to do with matters of genre is not explained. At the same time, the middle ground of Paul as authority and Luke as author of the Pastorals isn't considered in the mix. Genre and vocabulary/writing style are two entirely different discussions, and it is exemplary of Geisler's lack of serious scholarship in this area that he thinks he has made an appropriate analogy.

The third reason given is quite nearly incoherent, arguing that an up- front genre decision in some way constitutes a rejection of the historical-grammatical method, inasmuch as the critic is thereby "legislating the meaning of the text rather than listening to it." This is reflective as well of Geisler's contrived arguments against author intention against Gundry; it does not occur to him that in selecting genre that is clearly that of e.g., Greco-Roman biography, the author was saying something to which we should listen. However, Geisler once again handily contrives the excuse that "Gospel literature may become a genre category of its own" to forestall any objections. (He does this specifically to counter the straw man noted above, regarding working of miracles as a genre signal, which again, doesn't properly represent anything anyone is actually arguing.)

I need to break here and segue into some comments on Ch 15, regarding what Geisler apparently means by an "up front" genre decision. From his comments, and those derived from Thomas Howe, it appears that he means that scholars like Vanhoozer are somehow deciding on the genre of a text before assigning its contents any meaning whatsoever. I somehow doubt that this is the actual procedure being employed, and suppose rather that this is yet another case of Geisler either misunderstanding what is going on, or else painting the matter in black and white terms that are not justified by the actual practices. The scholars I have observed are doing exactly what DI allows, which is using genre to arrive at decisions about significance, not "basic meaning" of a text. That Geisler does not indeed understand what is going on is indicated by his inclusion of Licona as an example of the process being done incorrectly.

Thereafter, we see partial repeats of Geisler's arguments against Gundry, which are addressed by the vid. This time though, rather than appeal to Exodus 23:19 at first -- he does so later in Ch 15 -- Geisler offers a new analogy, but one with no more merit:

If a person says to another, "Here is one thousand dollars I am giving to you," it is perfectly clear what those words mean apart from knowing the purpose of the giver. If he later learns that the giver was trying to buy his support for a cause he did not believe in, then he understands the purpose (significance) of the words, but they do not get any new meaning. The meaning remains the same.

There are a couple of obvious problems here. One is that Geisler has carefully cherry-picked or constructed the simplest phrase possible to support his contentions; a more complex phrase in length or content (as the vid shows) would not serve him. The second problem is that despite his argument, in semantics as well as normal discourse, purpose is considered essential to completely determining meaning. Without it, the "thousand dollars" statement is void of critical information which would be of concern to the one receiving the money. In the real world, no one simply walks up to someone else and says, "here is one thousand dollars I am giving to you," hands over the money, and walks off never to be seen again. That and only that is the sort of situation in which Geisler's strict sort of parsing would possibly have any relevance. In the real world, however, people give such sums for a purpose, and that purpose is critical to interpreting the statement and deciding meaning -- and what we are to do about it.

In Ch. 15, DI reiterates this distinction between "meaning" and "purpose," using a new sentence, "come over to my house." But not only is this again a cherry-picked example, it is also, as with the money offer, subject to limitation in use: In the real world, conversation and interaction is not restricted to limited-expression one-liners like that one. No one considers such an invitation without consideration of purpose -- whether based on past considerations (such as the inviter being a good friend with whom one has dined in the past) or present ones (the inviter is dressed shabbily, seems to be high on drugs, and is carrying pornographic magazines) which indicate purpose.

Here as well, Geisler again appeals to Ex. 23:19, as he did with Gundry, as well as repeating some of his arguments about not looking beyond a text for meaning. In our prior post, and in the vid, we point out the serious contextual flaws in his argument. One point we might add is that Geisler overstates the point when he says, "if purpose determines meaning, then no one would know what the meaning is." In typical black and white fashion, Geisler chooses to falsely characterize the argument as being that purpose exhaustively determines meaning, which is not what anyone is arguing in the first place. Rather, it is argued that knowing purpose completes our grasp of meaning; bare words do not (as the money and invitation examples indicate).

One final note for today. I have repeatedly wondered here about the role of the 300 or so ICBI members (he says “scholars”) Geisler appeals to, noting that two have openly disagreed with Geisler regarding the Licona issue, many are dead, many are not scholars, and one is even now apostate. This has always made it questionable just how powerful Geisler’s appeal to this body of 300+ is. Over the past several days I have made contact with several of the 300+ of that body and inquired about the exact role they played as members of that body. The answer almost to a person has been that they played no role whatsoever in the formulation, composition, and construction of the statements on inerrancy – this was solely the domain of those who were noted as framers. Only one of the 300 I spoke to indicated that they played any greater role – in which they were able, behind the scenes, to give some personal feedback to one of the framers.

Thus it is that Geisler’s repeated appeals to these 300+ “scholars” is shown at last to be, in every way, without merit in terms of how he uses them to subvert Licona’s arguments. The 300 were merely little more than a rubber stamp body – not an active partner in the composition and application of the statements.

Enjoy the vid as an enlivened parable about Geisler's past -- and now recent -- follies as an apologist.

re material on Greco-Roman biographies.

a look at the original exchange with Gundry in 1983


  1. Nice video. You can read an in-depth critique from the mind of Joseph Hardy on Geisler's facebook right now, BTW

    1. ? -- Is that facetious? Because I see nothing like that there and I know Joseph Hardy has nothing in his mind most of the time. :P

  2. Replies
    1. ROFL, it was for about 2 hours...I'm told he did reply later. But it was indeed nothing.