Let me familiarize you with some of the sound bites in the Mike Licona situation that have people upset:
“It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly be mixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes.”
“We may also be reading poetic language or legend at certain points, such as Matthew’s report of the raising of some dead saints at Jesus’ death.”
(Mike Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 185-186).
Sound bites are very dangerous as they can be used to misrepresent and, sometimes, destroy someone else’s standing within a particular community. In this case, Mike Licona’s standing is in jeopardy with many people in conservative Christian theology who like what he has done, but don’t know how to process the statements above. Sound bites? You know what I am talking about. Take someone’s words out of context and we lose all ability to communicate. People have done this to you and you say in response, “You don’t understand the context in which I said that.” “You have to know some more background before you can make a judgement.” I am going to try to give you some of what I suppose to be the theological and methodological context in which Mike’s sound bites occurred.
Pop quiz (circle one): As Christians we are to . . .
a) follow the evidence no matter where it leads
b) follow the Bible no matter where it leads
c) follow rationality no matter where it leads
d) follow our faith no matter where it leads
What did you circle? Tuck your answer away; we will revisit this in a bit.
Not long ago, I started a Christian theology class this way: “Carl Sagan could be right. It could be that we are all alone in this universe. It could be the silence that we get from God is natural to the way things really are. It could be that the reason Jesus has yet to return is because he is not coming. It could be that the teachings of the Bible are a crutch we use to support our otherwise hopeless life. But it could be that we are right, and Christianity holds the meta-narrative to all existence. We have to consider and examine all possibilities if we are to have integrity, even those possibilities that make us the most uncomfortable.”
Many of you do not like the language I just used. Sound bites could be pulled from that introduction and placed on billboards and they would hurt my influence among other Christians. Many would say, “It could be? How could you, as a Christian, say that our faith could be true? You are making our beliefs contingent on the reasoning of man. How long will you waver between two opinions? It either is or it isn’t; there is no could be.” Anyone reading or hearing these sound bites would misunderstand my method, my approach, and my audience. Just because I say something could be does not mean I believe that it is likely, much less probable.
The language I used may not preach. But it will teach.
There is a difference in teaching and preaching. Preaching seeks to encourage people with the truth. Teaching seeks to instruct people in the truth. Preaching exhorts. Teaching educates. Preaching is more deductive. Teaching is more inductive. Preaching is decisive. Teaching is inquisitive. Preaching builds a creedal faith. Teaching builds a credible faith. Both are needed. Both are important. Both are biblical. The method used depends on the speaker’s audience and purpose.
Let me switch gears for a moment and head one more (last?) time to the Mike Licona issue.
Rob Bowman, in the wonderfully helpful work he co-authored with Ken Boa entitled Faith Has Its Reasons (highly suggested), tells us about the different methods Christian apologists (those who defend the faith) will use to defend the faith. There are four:
1. Presuppositional: presuppose the truthfulness and authority of the Scripture as a properly basic belief.
2. Classical: rationally present a case for the Christian faith.
3. Fideist: faith transcends evidence and reason; just believe.
4. Evidential: evidentially build a case for the faith.
While these descriptions may be somewhat oversimplified, they nevertheless capture the essence of the four systems. It is important to note that the first three are top-down approaches, which are more deductive. The last is more bottom up; it is inductive.
Without getting too much into the right or wrong and strengths or weaknesses of these four, let me say this: the first three will preach! The last won’t preach too well, but it will teach.
When writing a book about the historicity of the resurrection, each one of these approaches is going to produce a different type of book that is tailored for different audiences. The presuppositional, fideist, and to some degree the classical, will produce language of assurance and conviction to a larger degree than the evidential approach. This book will be more directed toward those who already generally believe in the truths of the Bible. The evidentialist will appeal more to those who are seekers and skeptics.
Question: Why do we believe the resurrection?
Presupposition: Because the Bible, God’s word and thus our ultimate authority, says it happened; therefore, we believe it.
Classical: Because we can deduce through rational inquiry that the Bible is God’s word. The Bible says it happened, therefore, we believe it. (Though, to be fair, most classical apologists use evidence as well).
Fideist: Because our faith in the resurrection transcends all else; no matter what the evidence and reason say, we believe it.
Evidentialist: Because the resurrection is the most probable explanation for all the historical data; therefore, we believe it.
Notice that the evidentialist approach is the most contingent in its rhetoric. It says that the resurrection is the “most probable.” That is language of contingency. Why does it use such language? Because the proposed truth is dependent on the strength of the evidences. Therefore, it is going to be open to more sound bite critique. People can take individual arguments out of context and misunderstand what is going on by failing to look at the big picture. “Probable?” they will say. “You mean to tell me that the resurrection is only probable in your thinking? No thanks. I want the blessed absolute assurance, not this method that caves to human understanding.”
Mike Licona’s work on the historicity of the resurrection utilizes an evidendential approach to defending the faith. Agree or not, it is the same bottom-up methodology used by many Christian scholars both today and throughout the history of the church. It is the same method Thomas used when he doubted the resurrection. “Show me the evidence!” was Thomas’ cry. It is the same methodology Luke used in producing his books (Luke and Acts; Luke 1:1).
Why does Mike Licona use this method? Because of the audience Licona is trying to reach. Agree or not, the evidentialist approach has a broader appeal than the other three approaches, due to the fact that this is the world people function in every day – the world of evidences and decisions based on probability. We make decisions to purchase a new car, to marry a certain person, or to take a job, not because we have absolute and infallible presupposed or rationalized assurance that these decisions are correct, but because we base our decisions on which outcome is most probable, according to the evidence. Due to the history of the car maker, the reviews we have read, and our multiple test drives, we make a decision to invest $20,000 into a car and drive it down the highway at 60+ mph. Could we have chosen poorly? Yes. Does that mean we did? No. Why? Because the evidentialist is working under this assumption: the possibility of error does not equal the probability of error.
Licona makes some statements in his work The Resurrection of Jesus that are being used right now as sound bites of indictment. He says things such as, “It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly be mixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes.” Once we hear that, we fall apart. What does this mean? Is he conceding that the Bible could be wrong? I think there are two things happening here: 1) He is merely suggesting another interpretive option; and 2) he is speaking with the language of an evidentialist in order to build his case. However, neither of these mean that the contingencies of the language and rhetoric used suggest he is actually denying the truthfulness of the event (rightly interpreted) or the probability of its legendary status.
When you approach things evidentially, though your theology may say otherwise, though you may be emotionally tied to certain conclusions, your methodology cannot be prejudiced in such a way. In other words, you cannot assume a conclusion, as an evidentialist, then interpret the data only in a way that supports your presupposition. You must follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Concerning the historicity of the resurrection, one cannot write a book like Mike Licona has written and use his presupposed inerrant theology to dictate his method or conclusions. Ironically, from the standpoint of the evidentialist, this would dishonor God more than anything, as it is not Truth you are really in search of, but truth as you have presupposed it.
As an evidentialist, Mike must use the language of contingency to make his points stronger. If there is stronger evidence for one historical event than for another, then he must present it as such. If one event, from this bottom-up approach, has less historic credibility than another, then his conclusions will follow suit. When we are trying to build our case for Christianity inductively, from the ground up, there are going to be some things that are more historically credible than others. This does not mean we are denying the things that are less credible from a historic standpoint, it just means that they don’t form the bedrock of our case and will be spoken of more contingently. Mike says, “We may also be reading poetic language or legend at certain points, such as Matthew’s report of the raising of some dead saints at Jesus’ death (Mt 27:51-54) and the angel(s) at the tomb (Mk 15:5-7; Mt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7; Jn 20:11-13” (emphasis mine). This is just the language of the evidentialist. It is the language that he has to use to have intellectual honesty, integrity, and (the word everyone hates) credibility when inductively building his case.
I remember hearing this rhetoric for the first time from Darrel Bock at seminary. It killed me for a few days. “How could he say this or that probably happened? How could he say such-and-such unbeliever may be right?” It was not until I took into account the method he was using and the audience he was trying to reach that I understood. I realized he was using evidentialist rhetoric that did not necessarily express his own personal theological stands. I realized he was giving more honor to God by speaking contingently – according to the evidence – rather than according to his presuppositions.
When you read Mike Licona’s statements in his book, please take into account who he is writing to and the method he necessarily must take in order to honor God and reach people’s minds with the truth of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.
Pop quiz: As Christians we are to . . .
a) follow the evidence no matter where it leads (evidentialist)
b) follow the Bible no matter where it leads (presuppositionalist)
c) follow rationality no matter where it leads (classicalist)
d) follow our faith no matter where it leads (fideist)
All have their place. But not all have their place in the type of work Mike Licona produced. Mike Licona is teaching us about the resurrection of Jesus so that our preaching can have more true conviction.
Having said all this, I am not completely certain this would accurately describe how Mike sees this issue. Though I have written on this quite a bit in the last week, I am certainly not the official Licona spokesperson. Either way, this should be some good advice to seminaries and religious education organizations: if you don’t want your employees to phrase their work with such contengencies, hire only presuppositionalists, fideists, and classical apologists. Stay away from evidentialists!