Monday, December 19, 2011

Howe Now, Have a Cow?

Updated 12/23/11 to reflect an update by Howe. Much of the update is directed to views uniquely held by Licona, and so not of my concern. However, much of what relates to my concerns remains the same.


It seems my vid "Geisler's Christmas Carol" has provoked a response by Dr. Thomas Howe, who I gather is not aware that it's me who is the creative impetus behind it. He has a few comments I'll respond to here, though I will also be skipping much that has to do with Licona's readings of passages that I do not agree with.

First of all, it is unprecedented that an author, including Matthew, would stick a piece of apocalyptic literature in the midst of historical reports...

No, actually, it would have had a great deal of precedent. Licona's original volume argued that this sort of thing did indeed happen; and as I learned from my study of mimesis, ancient writers did stick in non-historical sidelights for artistic effect (just not to the enormous extent argued by Dennis MacDonald). So this "all or nothing" perception of the ancient craft of writing is not arrived at by way of serious consideration of ancient literary composition, and requires a great deal more argument to establish. 12/23: This as well, in spite of Howe's new quotation of Osborne expressing incredulity that Matthew might do such a thing. Authors did indeed do this without what we would call a "hint" -- an explicit indication. Indeed, in a high context society, the "hint" would be in the writing itself, an allusion the reader would be expected to recognize. (Though I reiterate, I do not agree Matthew did that in this case.)

By the same token, Jesus' own Resurrection was also unprecedented; and the logic Howe uses here is essentially the same as that of David Hume, who argued that the unprecedented experience of miracles counted as a strike against their historicity. That's not really a door we want to open in Christian apologetics.

Not only is it nearly impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the intent of an author was, it is even more difficult to prove one’s suppositions about an author’s intent.

I find it odd that Howe can say such a thing, since by this reckoning, we can have no idea what his intentions are by saying this either. But they are not said first from him anyway, for as he says further:

At one point, the ghost asks Geisler something like this: “Isn’t an author’s intent part of understanding the text?” The maker of the video has Geisler answering yes to this question. Unfortunately, the makers of this video did not bother to try to understand either Geisler or his position on such an issue, and Geisler has written enough that it would take far less energy to discover his position than to produce a video. Geisler would never have answered yes to such a question. All it would have taken for the makers of the video to understanding Geisler’s position would have been actually read some of his writings, especially his article on “Does Purpose Determine Meaning.”

Several points here.

First, I have in fact read Geisler's rather outlandish arguments in this regard from back when he was trying to turn Gundry into 7 layer dip, and consider them little more than an extended exercise in self-contradiction. Gundry rightly dismissed such shenanigans by Geisler, as I noted in a Ticker entry some months ago:


...Geisler offers what can only be described as an astonishing analysis in which he argues that the purpose and intention of an author shouldn’t be part of our interpretive exercise. Gundry is accused of confusing the “what” of a passage with the “why” of a passage and it is argued that one does not need to know a “why” in order to understand a “what”.

This is misguided for a couple of reasons. One is that the Biblical text was written in a high context society, in which the audience is frequently assumed to be in on the “why” Therefore, the lack of a “why” in a text is not sufficient argument to say that there was not one that was understood. Geisler offers the example of Ex. 23:19 (“you are not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk”) and notes that commentators have offered multiple speculations as to the “why” of this verse. But, Geisler says, “the children of Israel did not need to know why; all they needed to know was what it meant, and that is clear without knowing the purpose.” Really? The false step here is that simply because we do not know the purpose, this means that they did not know it. When evaluating a high context text, that sort of hypothesis is without basis. But even if it were not, it would remain that the law did have some purpose, even if it were not revealed to Israel at any point in its history by whatever means.

Geisler’s most disturbing comment in this regard is, “No method is legitimate if it goes behind or beyond the text to find the meaning.” This sounds more like an obscurantist KJV Onlyist attitude than something that would be said by a serious disciple. In essence, it forbids us to seek defining contexts of all sorts – whether they involve insights from anthropology, from linguistics, or even from genre study. It goes further than that: To read our Bibles, we have to be literate in a language, and we learned that language from somewhere “beyond” the text. Gundry rightly replies: “I refuse to separate the text from the author’s mind, as Geisler does. To make such a separation is to empty the text of any meaning except what we read into it…”

In all of this, I cannot help but think that Geisler was in a mode of panic and could not see the deficiency in his reasoning and the inevitable results of his statement. In no place did he provide a serious, legitimate answer to why midrash is not compatible with inerrancy (as Moo allowed that it was!); indeed he did not even rightly grasp what midrash was. His stance has even broader implications beyond the Bible: It undercuts arguments about the “intent” of the authors of the Constitution, for example. But the critical issue here is one of classification and intent, and Geisler’s professions about intent amount to a scorched earth policy with respect to exegesis.


A further irony is that those who say such things are also in no way able to assert, then, that Matthew would never insert a dash of apocalypse in an otherwise historical narrative -- they're no more able to discern intent than anyone else. Those who declare that we cannot know Matthew's intent undercut their own criticisms of Licona.

Second, Howe says that the question of the Ghost of Inerrancy Past was "something like this" –“Isn’t an author’s intent part of understanding the text?” I think "something like" is a rather generous way to put it. Here's the actual dialogue:

GIP: No. You see here. Does not inerrancy consider the intentions of the author?

NG: Well, yes...

So, no, the question was not exactly about understanding the text; it was about inerrancy. And I think it would be vain to argue that inerrancy doesn't take into account authorial intention: The ICBI statement quite clearly refers to this:

We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

“Literary forms and devices” is something that can’t be considered without acknowledging awareness of authorial intention. The obvious answer then to the question asked of Geisler by the ghost is yes.

That said, we are assured by Howe that unlike in my vid, Geisler would never have answered “yes” to the question, as Howe puts it. Actually, I rather doubt that Geisler would have answered no, unless he found himself trapped and in over his head as he did in his exchange with Gundry. For example, I am quite sure that Geisler would argue vociferously against any notion that his “intent” in Chosen But Free could have been to enable others to become champion ping pong players. In turn, if Geisler disappeared and was unable to advise us, it would be entirely absurd to suggest that his intent in CBF was not (among other things) to respond to positions of James White. While some authorial intentions may be more obscure and difficult to discern than others, it is clear that to claim in a blanket fashion that author intent is not part of understanding a text, or that it is "nearly impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the intent of an author was," is simply abject, self-refuting nonsense.

In addition, since Geisler has repeatedly argued (whether soundly or not) that it was the intentions of the framers of ICBI to put a stop to the sort of interpretive work Gundry was doing then and Licona is doing now, he has already answered "yes" to the question Howe poses by his own actions.

Finally, we should note a statement in the ICBI’s statement on hermeneutics (or ICBH, written by JI Packer) which says, “The initial quest is always for what God’s penman meant by what he wrote.” He then goes on to say that one should not include attempts to go “behind the text.” In this regard it appears Geisler is in some way trying to conflate these two concepts, one that is allowed by ICBH and one that is not; alternatively, Geisler is arbitrarily deciding what he thinks is “getting behind the text” and what is not. Whatever the case, it seems again that this reveals that it is Geisler’s preferences, not ICBI or scholarship, that is deciding what is legitimate and what is not.

Howe goes on:

In defense of Licona’s claim, Licona and others have attempted to appeal to an analogy between statements in Revelation and the statements in Matthew’s Gospel. For example, some have argued that if we take Matthew’s statement literally, we would have to believe that Satan is a literal dragon. But this completely misses the point.

I don't know about "others" but the point of my analogy was nothing like that. Rather, it was:

1) Licona's argument is that Matt. 27:51-3 is a mini-apocalypse, like Revelation.

2) Given this view of his, accusing him of denying inerrancy would be like saying someone denied inerrancy because they didn't take Satan to be a literal dragon.

Indeed, Howe's criticisms even fail to accurately represent Licona's argument, which indeed is that Matt. 27:51-53 is an apocalyptic statement -- not that it didn't occur as a historical event. If also it is apocalyptic, then to suggest this means that Matthew was not telling the literal truth is also a misguided claim. The view Howe proposes comes of a binary reading of the text derived from modern fundamentalism -- not from the sort of serious study of genre and composition Licona offered.

Even in the wildly fantastic statements in Enoch, one can only assume that Enoch believed that the events he describes actually occurred. Whether they occurred or not, Enoch presents them as actual events. Nowhere does Enoch say he did not believe his apocalyptic descriptions and symbols referred to actual historical events, so we can only grant that he in fact did believe this.

That may be so, but in apocalyptic, as is implied here, what is described in the text -- the symbols -- are "code" (to put it simply) for some other event. In that respect, Licona would say that indeed, the event Mathew intended to indicate by his "code" in 27:51-3 actually did happen: namely, it accentuates that God’s Son had just been killed (the literal event).

As a final aspect of this issue, the charge has been laid that I and others “do not understand” inerrancy. Actually, I understand it all too well, and it is summed up well by this user comment by “JediMasterJarrett” on the video, and my reply (both edited for grammatical clarity):

JMJ: Different understanding of inerrancy. Norman Geisler and others believe in an absolute inerrancy and verbal inspiration; God dictated to man word for word. Therefore they see everything in the Bible as literal. Mike Licona and others believe in an full inerrancy and plenary inspiration; God inspired the teaching taught by the authors which are wholly true. Which deals with the problem of phenomenal language (sun setting and rising) and other biblical problems that absolute inerrancy cannot answer.

JPH: A good way to put it. Another is that Geisler and Co believe in a 21st century form of inerrancy, while Licona believes in a 1st century form. Now I wonder which one would apply...

Geisler's views are an example of the absurdity that results from a 21st century view of inerrancy. Another is of the sort I noted in a review of The Jesus Crisis some years ago -- a book with criticisms of scholars that resemble in many ways those of Geisler and Howe -- showing that indeed I understand inerrancy as both sides see it all too well:


I've answered points claiming contradiction between Matt and Luke's versions of the Sermon on the Mount by noting that Matt's version is likely to be an anthology -- a collection of Jesus' teachings, organized by Matthew according to his purpose as the composer of a handbook of faith; whereas Luke is more on the historical side, and reports what was actually said on that occasion.

No big problem. Both writers were following standard literary and historical practices for the time. But Thomas insists that such an approach "inevitably leads to diminishing historical accuracy in the Gospels" -- for you see, Matthew 5:1-2 "indicates Jesus began at a certain point to give the Sermon's contents." And what of the literary-device explanation above? Thomas wonders, then, "why would (Matthew) mislead his readers" into thinking that Jesus made this full sermon on one occasion?

What is missing here: This was a normal practice for the day. No one would be "misled" into thinking this was a full sermon because no one would have thought it was meant to be recorded as such in the first place. But Thomas, clearly, does not agree, with comments like this in response to Blomberg's assertion that Biblical writers followed the typical practices for composers of the day: "Despite what the practice of ancient historians may have been, Matthew's intention to cite a continuous discourse from a single occasion is conspicuous. Was he mistaken?" "No matter what the alleged motives of the writers in so doing, that kind of action is fundamentally problematic at best and dishonest at worst." (!) The only difference between these comment and comments like C. Dennis McKinsey's "read the Bible like a newspaper" is that McKinsey is nastier in his formulations. And yet we are told that it is we who propose such solutions who are "run(ning) roughshod over the historicity of the Sermon's introductory and concluding formulas".

You might wonder, of course, how Thomas suggests that we resolve the differences in the Sermon, and his answer is: By harmonization -- of an extreme, unnecessary sort. Put it this way: Did Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor" or "Blessed are the poor in spirit"? Thomas replies: He said both, and on the same occasion. Matt and Luke just chose to report one or the other: "Most probably Jesus repeated this beatitude in at least two different forms when he preached His Sermon on the Mount/Plain, using the third person once and the second person another time and referring to the Kingdom of God by different titles." Odd here how omission is not a sin; but commission is. I thought it was Matthew's intent to show he was citing a continuous discourse? If that is the case, isn't he "misleading" his readers by not giving a full report and leaving things out?


Understand that I am not saying here that the two types of inerrancy are poles apart on all issues. I expect they would agree on solutions to 85-90% of the standard “Bible contradictions and problem” produced by critics like C. Dennis McKinsey or Sam Harris. It is that remaining 10-15% that is the difference, and it is a huge, problematic difference. Explanations like Thomas' are contrived and absurd, and will do little to protect the flock from the critiques of our faith by the likes of Bart Ehrman, and I have for many years had to counsel Christians whose faith was in danger because they saw the weakness of such explanations. In offering these types of explanations, teachers like Thomas and Geisler are doing far more harm than good --- and that is a point I have been making repeatedly for many years now. I understand inerrancy -- very well.

In the end, I find it astonishing that such criticisms as these come from those who are acting as leaders in our churches and educational institutions. But as I also know well, there have also been, at the other extreme, atheists who make similar mistakes and argue in similarly outlandish ways; some (like the late Ken Pulliam) were even once fundamentalists themselves. The need is strong for us to cleanse ourselves of this sort of poor thinking if we want to protect the faith of future generations from those like Ehrman and Pulliam who have turned their evangelistic zeal in the wrong direction.


  1. figured you'd take some flak for this video. I hadn't even heard of Thomas Howe until now....

  2. @Dan Yikes, he won't be pleased to hear that...!

  3. If I may, I'd say that Geisler's response to Licona is no more sensible, in terms of evidence and rationality, than the arguments made against Pete Enns over the last few years. Are those who support Licona ready to support more extreme appeals to genre, such as are made by Enns and like-minded evangelicals?

  4. Howe's blog is empty for some reason. I posted a link just a day or two ago to your post here. Not sure if that's related, but still wanted to point it out!


  5. @Kent I haven't seen anything regarding Enns pro or con. Maybe I'll look into it someday.

  6. @Greg Yes, so I was advised last night. If it remains off by Friday I may revise this posting so that it is more general. Over the years it's been my policy not to keep up responses to items no longer online.