The Geisler-Licona Controversy:
Part 1: What Is This All About?

December 1, 2011

by Steve Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, McFarland Chair of Theology, and Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

A debate has been swirling in Apologetics circles (particularly the Evangelical Philosophical Society) between two well-known and effective Christian apologists, Norman Geisler and Michael Licona. We at SBC Today have been aware of the debate for some time, but withheld comments on it in hope that a resolution amenable to all parties would take place. After the EPS meeting in San Francisco earlier this month, it has become apparent that no such reconciliation is likely. Therefore, we want to describe our understanding of what has happened (in Part 1), particularly for those of you who were not previously aware of this controversy. In a future post (Part 2), we would like to attempt to provide some perspective on the debate.

The subject of this controversy is Mike Licona, a Christian apologist who (until recently) served as Apologetics Coordinator for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as a research professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. He has spoken and debated on behalf of positions held by evangelical Christians in numerous venues – regional Baptist meetings, evangelism conferences, scholarly meetings, and college campuses. He is a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, which requires an affirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture as a prerequisite for membership. So, to summarize, Licona is a conservative evangelical and inerrantist who has served the SBC effectively in addressing Apologetics issues in conferences, churches, and college campuses.

The focus of the controversy is several pages in Licona’s new book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2010). The overwhelming majority of this book is very positive, presenting a careful and well-researched scholarly defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. However, it is just a few pages (pp. 185-186, 548-553) out of this 718 page book around which the controversy has swirled. On these pages Licona addresses “that strange little text” (p. 548) in Matt. 27:52-53, which describes six events after the crucifixion – darkness, an earthquake, the tearing of the temple veil, rocks splitting, the opening of tombs, and some saints coming to life from the tombs. Licona mentions this scriptural account while addressing John Dominic Crossan’s hypothesis that these events were associated with the “harrowing of hell” (1 Pet. 3:19-20, 4:6). Licona suggests that apocalyptic events such as these were claimed in Greco-Roman literature at the death of kings (Romulus, Julius Caeser, Cladius, etc.) and similar significant events. Indeed, Licona notes, the Roman historian Lucian openly admitted that he embellished his stores “for the sake of ‘dullards’” (p. 549).

Licona also notes the similarity of these words and events with the apocalyptic language utilized in Old Testament texts (Judg. 5:4; 1 Kings 19:11-12; Ps. 77:18; Isa. 2:19, 5:25, 24:18; Jer. 4:23-24, 15:9; Ezek. 37:12-13; Dan. 12:2; Joel 2:2, 10, 28-32; Amos 8:8-9; Nah. 1:5-6; Zeph. 1:15-18; and Zech. 14:4). Since Matthew would have been familiar with this Old Testament apocalyptic language and the practice of “phenomenological language used in a symbolic manner in both Jewish and Roman literature relating to major events,” Licona proposes that it is “most plausible” that Matt. 27:53-54 be understood as “special effects” drawn from “eschatological Jewish texts” (p. 552). Licona also “forthrightly” acknowledges that not only these events but also including the post-resurrection appearances of angels (Matt. 28:2-7, Mark 16:5-7, Luke 24:4-7, and John 20:11-13) were possibly “mixed with legend” (p. 185). Licona holds this interpretation despite acknowledging that (a) the darkness was reported in all three Synoptic gospels, as well as by the secular historian Thallus, and (b) that earthquakes were common in that region, which would have accounted for the earthquake, the tearing of the temple veil, the rocks splitting, and the tombs opening.

Enter Norman Geisler. Norman Geisler is one of the best known conservative Christian apologists over the last few decades, the former President of Southern Evangelical Seminary and of the Evangelical Theological Society. He was a framer and original signer of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and wrote the commentary for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics. Geisler expressed concern that Licona’s interpretation of Matt. 27:52-53 did not pass muster with inerrancy as defined in the Chicago Statement. After a personal note received no response from Licona for a month, Geisler published his first open letter to Licona. After Licona continued not to respond, Geisler published a second open letter (August 21, 2011). Licona did respond with his own open letter (August 31), which included Licona’s reaffirmation of inerrancy, an acknowledgment that in any such book “there will always be portions in which one could have articulated a matter more appropriately,” and a statement that the furor had led him to “reexamine” his position, resulting in at least this concession: “…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.” Geisler responded with a third open letter (September 8), in which he did not find Licona’s concessions sufficient. At the ETS meeting in San Francisco, Licona presented a paper that defended the ahistorical reading of Matthew 27, but also characterized himself as “undecided” in interpreting that text. Geisler responded to Licona’s paper as well.

By this time, a number of others were weighing in on the debate. Al Mohler published a post largely critical of Licona, to which Licona responded. Baptist Press had two articles, one citing the concerns with Licona’s views, and another offering a response from Licona. Geisler then posted his response to the Baptist Press articles. Among others, Peter Lumpkins, Tim Rogers, James White, and Nick Norelli (here and here) essentially agreed with Geisler and Mohler that Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27 (and inerrancy) was problematic. Christianity Today also published an article on the controversy, (basically pro-Licona) to which Geisler also responded.

On the other side, a number of Christian apologists and New Testament scholars rose to Licona’s defense (while not necessarily agreeing with his interpretation of Matthew 27), asserting that Licona’s view was not inconsistent with inerrancy. Some such defenders included (among many others) Licona’s son-in-law Nick Peters (here and here), Steve Hays (here and here), Jason Engwer, Max Andrews, Jacob Allee (here and here),  Randy Everist, Brian LePort, Marc Cortez, Michael Bird, Randal Rauser, J. P. Holding, and Dave Jones. In addition, after Licona’s first response to Geisler, a number of well-known evangelical scholars affirmed that despite most of them disagreeing with Licona’s specific interpretation of Matthew 27, “we are in firm agreement that it is compatible with biblical inerrancy.” This group included David Beck, Craig Blomberg, James Chancellor, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Craig Keener, Douglas Moo, J. P. Moreland, Daniel B. Wallace, and Edwin Yamauchi. Paul Copan, President of EPS, while also disagreeing with Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27, has also affirmed that Licona’s view is consistent with inerrancy.

Meanwhile, secular humanists and skeptics have gleefully enjoyed the intramural evangelical fight, though clearly siding with the Licona perspective (here, here, and here). This has led some evangelicals such as Stephen Bedard to plea for peace from both sides.

So, what do you think about all this? I’ll be providing my perspective in Part 2.