Friday, April 6, 2012

Geisler's Cone of Noise

Just when you thought he had finally shut up…

Yes, he’s at it again. Norman Geisler has reigned in another guest piece in his anti-Licona crusade, but as usual, it’s not that impressive. Christopher Cone is the President of Tyndale Seminary – an unaccredited institution, though to be fair, he also has a real degree from the University of North Texas…in philosophy. Pardon me if I ask why someone with these kinds of credentials gets status over Licona with his doctorate in NT studies. Maybe it’s because Geisler thinks his degree in philosophy is adequate for that too.

Not that there’s much deserving of attention anyway. Cone is somewhat more judicious in his language than past critics of Licona have been, but he’s no more apt to produce substance than they are. Take out the sermonizing and the descriptive text, and here’s what we have left (and our comments):

1) It’s dangerous to get into a place where you “betray a preference for historiography over and against the Biblical data as inspired.” Yes, it’s that fundamentalist head in sand routine again, the one that has generated enough apostasies and cognitive dissonance to fill college bowl games and the Final Four for a thousand years. Let’s make this plain: If something disproves inerrancy, or the Resurrection, or any other “inspired” doctrine, we do no service clinging to it, and if anything make it harder to believe. For if we disprove one of these, then obviously, we also prove there was no “inspiration” to begin with. Geisler is a chief leader in this viciously circular system, and it has caused him to make monumentally absurd exegetical and historical arguments, to the point (as we have shown in prior entries on this issue) that he badly self-contradicts.

2) Maybe the Gospels aren’t really Greco-Roman bioi. Unfortunately, to get to this conclusion, Cone quotes several points from Richard Burridge which definitively place the Gospels in the bioi category, and then sums them up by saying that Burridge “admits” nothing requires putting them there. It’s hard to see how that comes out of statements like:

“Therefore the Gospels must belong to the genre of Bios”

“The four canonical gospels belong together as Bioi Iesou, unlike the non-canonical gospels, many of which have lost the generic features of Bios. Furthermore, nothing in the social setting of the gospel texts, writers and audiences prevents them being interpreted as Bioi.”

To get from these statements some idea that Burridge “admits” that “there is nothing that prevents their genre classification, there is also nothing that requires it”, as Cone puts it, is ludicrous. This is a perverse reading of Burridge that comes closest in audacity to Mormon interpretations of texts like Genesis 1:26 and 1 Cor. 15:29.

Burridge places the gospels firmly in the bios genre. So do Talbert, Votaw, and a number of other scholars. The only dispute is to what extent the gospels may be classified within that genre – eg, what type of biography are they?

Cone also applies some heavy fundamentalist spin when he says that the genre “allows the interpreter to arbitrarily cast aside certain aspects of the text as long as we don’t cast aside the centrality of Jesus.” Er, no. It is not in the least “arbitrary.” Licona gave a number of arguments for his classification of Matthew 27; he did not simply “arbitrarily” designate it as literally non-historical. Cone knows this, because he even briefly describes those arguments. Cone’s claim that scholars like Burridge use the genre classification system to “redeem the Scriptures from rationalistic critiques” is simply obscurantist nonsense, the product of the sort of childlike, fundamentalist mindset that uses such responses the way an infant uses a pacifier.

The fact is, the Gospels are bioi. From this, conclusions follow. Cone’s proper response (or Geisler’s) would be to answer, in detail, the arguments for the Gospels as bioi (as indicated in my challenge which remains ignored to this day). Instead, Cone opts for a technique beneath contempt: Twisting unwarranted uncertainty out of Burridge’s language to cast vague and unsubstantiated doubts.

Like Geisler, Cone also cannot get the simple point that techniques like Licona’s do not “undermine the authority of the text.” What they undermine, rather, is the contrived structure that fundamentalists like Geisler and Cone have imposed on the text; the modern readings they assume, and the exegetical decisions they make based on the assumption that the authors of the Bible were Ken and Barbie, just like us.

I should say a word about where Cone says, “Licona admits, if any of the text is legend, it becomes difficult to know where the legend ends and the history begins.” No page number is given for this reference, but it possibly refers to a comment Licona made on page 34, in which he noted that ancient bios generally had history in view, and that different biographers took varying degrees of liberty: Some reported fantastic stuff, some reported seriously. This may indeed make things difficult (especially for someone like Geisler or Cone who’d rather bully or throw threats around than learn and do the necessary academic spadework), but it’s no more difficult than (say) the prospects facing any true disciple of Jesus, who might choose to learn Greek, or educate themselves in apologetics, or what have you. Licona’s point (again, assuming this is what Cone had in mind, which is “difficult” to discern – ha ha! – without a page number from a book with over 700 pages), at any rate, is rather more nuanced than Cone lets on, and reflects an epistemic difficulty most of us face every day in one form or another. Difficult, indeed.

It should further be noted that part of Licona’s point is that when one approaches the Gospels as a historian, not a believer, there are challenges to face as a result of the Gospels belonging to the genre of bioi. This is one of several challenges related to analysis of eyewitness testimony from historical sources. Regrettably, neither Cone nor Geisler see, to be able to grasp how thinking Christians (such as myself, Licona, Nick Peters, and so many others) can recognize a distinction being made between what is believed in by faith (loyalty) alone and what can be proved with reasonable certainty by a historian or scholar.

What else? Top it all off with the usual unwarranted panic-button threats of uncertainty (“And if the Gospel writers had the flexibility of inventing speeches, how can I have any certainty about what Jesus said?”) and the only thing that needs to be added is a vision of a miniature Satan in red tights cackling on Licona’s shoulder. Cone concludes with the vague suggestion that rather than bios, the Gospels are “simply…historical narrative.” Not that that helps him; as I have noted, even straight history written by the ancients took creative (what we would call literally non-historical) detours now and then. And yes, despite Cone, Luke is biography too (he seems to think that because Luke says he reports “the exact truth”, this somehow takes his Gospel out of that genre).

I have news for Cone: The issue is not how foolish we look to Skeptics. It’s how foolish he (and Geisler) actually are when they make these kinds of arguments.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the reply JPH. Let's see what he trots out next time.