Michael Licona is a highly respected Christian apologist, and the author of the massively researched The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. He has come under intense fire from two other estimable scholars, Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler, for what they consider to be dangerous compromise in his interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53. It is a minor theme in a very long book, but they have brought it under major public scrutiny. Dr. Licona has interpreted the events in that Matthew passage as probably belonging to a figurative and eschatological genre: apocalyptic, in other words, as he clarified later in his response to Dr. Geisler. Apocalyptic literature is often intended not to be taken literally.* Drs. Geisler and Mohler say that in this context, such an interpretation represents a denial of biblical inerrancy.
I have high respect for all three men. Full disclosure: I am somewhat personally acquainted with Dr. Licona through mutual friends and a couple of passing conversations we’ve had at conferences. He has responded to both challenges. The first of those responses is undersigned by an impressive list of Christian scholars who support him in terms of the inerrancy question.
Though I cannot rehearse all the issues here, I need to note that The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy recognizes that figurative and non-literal apocalyptic interpretations are valid where they reflect the intent and genre of the text. I will also point out that Dr. Licona stated his view tentatively, using the language, “it seems to me that [this interpretation] is most plausible.” In his response to Dr. Geisler, he moderated his view to make it even more tentative. He is treating it as a question to be pursued, in other words.
It is question that is outside of my expertise: I don’t know whether Dr. Licona’s interpretation is more likely to be correct than Dr. Mohler’s and Dr. Geisler’s or not. I have questions of my own, though, about the process by which this is playing out:
1. Is the apocalyptic interpretation entirely impossible under the standard of biblical inerrancy, is it known to be entirely impossible under the standard of inerrancy, and is there reasonably strong consensus among trustworthy, inerrancy-affirming scholars that it is known to be entirely impossible under that standard?
Dr. Licona’s list of supporting academics would seem to demonstrate that such a consensus among Bible-believing scholars does not exist.
2. If the answer to any of the above is either no or we’re not sure, doesn’t that imply that there is at least some possibility that the apocalyptic interpretation might be better than the historic, non-apocalyptic interpretation?
3. If there is a possibility that the apocalyptic interpretation is better than the literal-historic interpretation, doesn’t it follow that there is an open question here that can be legitimately pursued?
That brings me to my questions about process.
4. If Bible-believing, inerrancy-affirming scholars can be subjected to such intense public pressure for raising issues that can legitimately be regarded as open for discussion, where does that leave biblical scholarship? Is it okay to pursue such questions or not? If not, why not?
5. Where does that leave the biblical scholars themselves who raise questions that should be open questions? Is this kind of public pressure helpful or fair to them and their families? Is it good for the church at large?
6. Given that a certain amount of disagreement is inevitable among students of the Bible, isn’t there a better way to approach it?
I close with a note regarding the discussion that might follow this blog post. We could talk about whether Dr. Licona’s interpretation is correct or not, and that’s certainly a good question, but it’s not the one I’ve raised. What I’ve brought up here, and what I hope we discuss, is whether or not it’s okay for scholars to raise interpretive questions like this one.
*The Bible is literally true in all that it affirms, but in the case of figurative language, what it affirms is to be understood figuratively rather than literally. The Psalms tell us that our God is a rock, and there is definite meaning being affirmed there that is really true, but it is not that God is primarily composed of silicates.