I was listening to a discussion between two gentleman at the Credo House this afternoon. The conversation started as one man introduced another man to a guest scholar we have invited to the Credo House for our “Coffee and Scholars” in two weeks: Mike Licona. He will be here speaking about the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. His recent work The Resurrection of Jesus hit the stands last year and I was glad to get this resource in my hands and glad to have Licona get it into the public stream of scholarship. Proud. Maybe that is not a good word for someone like me to use of someone like Mike Licona. But ever since I was introduced to Mike a few years back, he has made me proud. Proud to be an evangelical. Proud to be a Christian. But most of all, today, proud to have such a resource that defends the resurrection of my savior with such persuasiveness.
My ears perked up to the conversation between the two gentlemen at the Credo House. Hoping against hope that I would not hear what I thought I might hear, longing for the conversation to dignify truth, justice, and the evangelical way, I tuned in to see how this invite to hear Mike tell his testimony might play out. From behind the bar, this peaceful coffee barista’s countenance turned red-nosed in anger as I heard how Licona was introduced. “You know Mike Licona,” the one man told the other, “the guy who Norman Geisler called on to repent because of his view of the dead saints that rose in Matthew. He believes . . .” I told the guy to stop. I took over and told about the Mike Licona who just produced what might be the best historic defense of the resurrection that an evangelical has ever had his thumb print on. I told about the Mike Licona who is traveling all over the world in the power of the Spirit persuading people that the Christ is alive right now. I told about the Mike Licona who is out on the front lines debating atheists with grace, kindness, and resolve. I told about the Mike Licona who reaches out to those who are doubting their faith with mercy, gently giving hope back to them one gentle spoonful at a time. The Mike Licona that Norman Geisler has created should be nothing more than a parenthetical afterthought.
(Warning: Anger laden satire forthcoming with multiple mixed metaphors. Cover your ears and allow me to vent.)
Unfortunately, the Mike Licona that Norm Geisler has created is in the spotlight. With gloves on and mouthpiece in, Mike’s image and priorities have been changed. He is on the defense as his own blood relatives with Jesus DNA and tiger’s blood are tag-teaming with one purpose: to bring Mike to repentance. “In this corner,” the announcer screams, “‘Team Inerrancy’: Norman Geisler and Alber Mohler.” The stands behind them, filled with life-long followers, scream and cheer. “In the other corner, ‘Team Resurrection’: Mike Licona.” The stands behind him have just a few brave souls. The empty seats have personal letters to Mike expressing their support and sorrow that they could not attend to give public support. Mike came to this ring expecting discussion, dialogue, or maybe (God forbid) a pat on the back and invitation to join the team. But as he arrived he found only a tribunal. His new book was laid on the table. The men point to the book and say, “Did you write this?” Mike says, “That’s my name on the cov . . .” They responded before he was finished, “Are you ready to recant!” Taken aback, Mike said “Of what am I to recant? My belief in resurrection of Jesus?” “No,” they responded, “Of your denial of inerrancy.” “But I don’t deny inerrancy,” Mike said. “Yes, you do,” Geisler’s voice become distinct, “I wrote the book on inerrancy. I say who denies it and who does not. And you, sir, deny inerrancy due to your faulty interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53.” “No, I don’t. I just said that it might be apocalyptic, the same as many others evangelicals have said.” “Well, I don’t accept your interpretation as being a valid option. If you will turn to the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, page 4, you will see . . .”
“Let’s just hold him until he recants.”
“Wait, wait . . . the prisoner wishes to say a word . . .”
(Satire over…I hope)
For those of you who don’t know, Christian apologist and New Testament scholar, Mike Licona, has been publicly called to repentance by theologian and author Norman Geisler and the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler. The accusation is that he has denied inerrancy (the doctrine that the Bible contains no errors, historic or scientific) because he suggested in his book The Resurrection of Jesus that the account of the dead saints rising in Matthew 27:52-53 might be apocalyptic. One statement in this 718 page book that Craig Keener says is “the most thorough treatment on the resurrection and historiography to date [building] a coherent case showing that the best explanation for our evidence involves Jesus’ historical resurrection” has caused Geisler to issue a personal call to repentance followed by three open letters and five public reprimands for Licona’s interpretation. So prominent is this issue that Norman Geisler’s website has a section on the front page devoted to this issue called the “Licona Letters” (source). Albert Mohler followed Geisler’s call to repentance with one of his own making a shocking statement that “Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon” (source).
First, let me say this: I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Geisler and Mohler. Geisler’s A General Introduction to the Bible was instrumental for me early in my studies. I have just about everything he has ever written and have loved and benefited greatly from most of it. Mohler deserves no less a commendation as he has contributed greatly to the cause of Christ. Both will forever be heroes of mine. However, I can’t think of anything else in the last ten years that has disturbed me as much as this controversy. A few months ago, I avoided interaction at all costs. While Licona’s first response to Norm Geisler was placed on our blog, I did so reluctantly for two reasons: 1) I did not and do not want Credo House Ministries to be involved in controversial issues involving specific personalities if at all possible. 2) I did not like to give “air time” to an issue creating dirty laundry where none really exists. After all, I thought (hoped), Norm Geisler’s open letters are not very accessible as his website gets very little traffic. And he is only one person involved and most “insiders” already call him “Stormin’ Norman” due to his slight theological temper. I just thought (hoped) that it would die.
However, I think I have stood by and watched my friend Mike Licona take enough shots. Not that there is anything personally I can do or that my voice is that loud or deep. And it is not as if I am the only one coming to his defense. But when Albert Mohler joined the tribunal, I knew that this controversy would go viral and have terrible effects on many levels. Now that this controversy makes up the first point of contact on Mike’s Wikipedia legacy (sigh . . . can someone please edit that out?) and Google’s search engine produces the suggested query “Mike Licona Norm Geisler” when “Mike Licona” is all I am searching for, it is time to realize that the cat is out of the bag and making a spectacle of evangelical theology. But most importantly, as I reluctantly caught up on all that has been written about last Saturday, I came to morn greatly when I found out that Mike’s recent job transitions out of the North American Mission Board and Southern Evangelical Seminary were not coincidental. This great apologist’s life and family is being deeply affected by the unrelenting crusade of very few, but powerful, evangelical brothers. It is a spectacle and a travesty.
Three points of concern:
1. I don’t agree with Mike Licona about the possibility that Matthew 27:52-53 is apocalyptic imagery rather than describing historical events. Let me make that clear. I have read his defense and dug into it just enough to say that I think that the raising of the dead saints, while odd, is meant to be understood as historical. However, this is an issue of interpretation, not inerrancy. I believe in inerrancy, but I also believe that we have to separate inerrancy from particular interpretations. Just about anything could be tied to inerrancy when disagreement about interpretation is at issue. I have seen people say that those who deny that Revelation 20 is speaking of a literal thousand year future millennium are denying inerrancy. While I believe it is a literal thousand years, I don’t say that inerrancy says you can’t interpret it any other way than literal. There is symbolism in the Scripture, even in historic narrative. However, even if one completely thinks someone else has lost their interpretive marbles when they spiritualize some passage through appeals to apocalyptic, symbolic, or, even, allegorical interpretation, the issue is one of hermeneutics, not inerrancy. In other words, you cannot tie inerrancy to a particular interpretation.
As well, Geisler believes in an old earth. In other words, he does not take the narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 literally. Even though it is embedded in a historical genre, he gives himself liberty to see symbolism in the creation account (probably due to the testimony of modern science). Why does his view of inerrancy allow him this freedom, but when Licona suggests something similar, he is called to public reprimand and repentance? When someone professes inerrancy, our interpretation and hermeneutic cannot be the judge as to whether they really believe in it or not. There has to be academic freedom, even in tighter circles of Protestant theology such as evangelicalism, especially when the discovery of truth is the issue.
2. Norm Geisler and Albert Mohler both call on Mike to reaffirm biblical inerrancy by changing his interpretive position. Their banner flag is inerrancy and they fly it high. But it is not just inerrancy that is written on their banner, it is inerrancy as defined by the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy codified in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) of 1978. In fact, as I read through both of their critiques of Licona, I believe they quote from the CSBI more than any other source, even Scripture. The issue, for them, seems to be not whether Mike’s interpretation was valid or even the need to counter his interpretation with their own, but whether or not Licona had violated this 1978 creedal statement. How did the CSBI become the premier standard to orthodoxy? Don’t get me wrong, the last time I read it, I agreed with it all (except for one statement). But as much as I respect the history and personalities behind the CSBI, it is neither infallible nor the norma normans sed non normata norm (Lat. “norm which norms which is not normed”—a statement of faith about the supreme authority of Scripture, not about “Norm” Geisler!). In the end, Geisler and Mohler are not calling on Licona to repent and return to the orthodoxy of this historic Christian faith, but to repent and return to their interpretation of the CSBI.
Now, last time I checked, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is much more a distinctive of Protestant orthodoxy than is inerrancy. Sola Scriptura is one of the two primary battle cries of the Great Reformation (the other is sola fide “justification by faith alone”). As a matter of fact, a few years ago, after the Francis Beckwith issue I suggested an amendment to change the defining characteristic of Evangelical Theological Society from inerrancy to sola Scriptura. The doctrine of sola Scriptura says that the Scripture is our final and only infallible source of revelation. The Scripture, not any council (much less a 1978 Evangelical council), is the norm that norms which is not normed. I think that Geisler (and possibly Mohler) are in more danger of violating the more central doctrine of sola Scriptura than Licona is of violating inerrancy.
3. But there is something that looms much larger than both of these concerns in my opinion. It is the blatant violation of evangelical theological propriety that this issue has raised. Grace is absent. Mike Licona has just written what both men recognize is a (if not the) premiere defense of the central doctrine of the Christian faith: the resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Licona is not only an evangelical in every sense of the word, he is a rising apologetic leader whose central focus of his life is the risen Jesus. His work on the subject is surpassed by none, even the great N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God. It is fine that these two men had concerns with Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27. It might even be fine that they felt that these concerns could have some significant “slippery slope” repercussions. But their concerns should have been drowned out by the commendation that they gave Licona for his monumental work. Geisler, an apologist of the “old school,” should have written twenty open letters of commendation and praise before he ever even thought of writing his first open letter of criticism which eventually left Mike out of a job. Though I have talked to Mike briefly about this over the phone and he did not seem too discouraged, what a deflation of purpose, drive, and ambition this must be for him. To contribute so significantly to the defense of the core of Christianity only to find his greatest battle coming not from unbelievers, but from his very own kin whose commendations serve only as a prelude to calls to repentance, recantation, and reform must be more than difficult.
Geisler and Mohler should have thrown Mike Licona a parade but instead they have paraded a spectacle of shame and dishonor, elevating a non-essential issue of interpretation to the very test of orthodoxy. Mohler said that “Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon.” I am beginning to think that just the opposite is true. Mohler and Geisler (and anyone else who has defined Licona accordingly) are presently giving the enemies of Christ a powerful weapon. Illegitimate weapon, yes. But powerful nonetheless. (Not to mention embarrassing.)
“We have met the enemy and it is us.” This comic strip phrase captures the essence of how evangelicals often eat their young. I have met the enemy and it is not Mike Licona.
Mike, for what it is worth, I stand behind you even understanding that my ministry could suffer indirectly due to my support. I commend you as I did on your Facebook page right after I got your book on the resurrection. I commend you as I did after I handed out your Evidences for God book on the airplane to a grateful gentleman. I commend you as you, four years ago, patiently came on our “Converse with Scholars” program and settled people’s fears about the Talpiot tomb. I commend you as you are open and brave to express your understanding, doubts, and struggles yet glorify God in defending the faith. I pray that the stands are full in your corner during this battle. There are so many of us who appreciate what you are doing and are praying for you.
I think that Max Andrews said it best when he brought Wormwood into the mix:
“My Dearest Wormwood,
Whenever you find an expert defense of the enemy’s resurrection marshall the forces of the fundamentalists to marginalize it by ceaseless debates over ‘inerrancy’ in minor, inconsequential details.”
There are moments when I am proud to be an Evangelical. This is not one of them.
Mike’s site: http://risenjesus.com/, Support him.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]