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Ivan Karamazov worried that if God is dead then all things are permissible. Likewise, so evangelicals have been told, if there is no magisterial authority, then all biblical interpretations are permissible. But even if this is not the case, we could still argue that “biblicism” results in pervasive interpretive pluralism, which is a very serious problem. So goes the argument of Christian Smith in his new book The Bible Made Impossible. The conclusion in Smith’s argument seems to be that the Bible alone is not sufficient to bring us to clear, unambiguous answers on whatever topic we might want it to address.

Naturally, evangelicals have been resistant to Smith’s conclusion. The most prominent piece of criticism of Smith’s new book comes from Robert Gundry, which has been cited as a helpful defense of “biblicism” by a number of evangelical blogs. One scholar even goes so far to say Gundry’s article is a “superb review” from “a senior evangelical statesmen.” But it seems that not everyone shares such a high view of Gundry’s evangelical credentials.

Gundry was ousted from the Evangelical Theological Society, the closest thing evangelicals have that resembles a magisterium, in 1983. The reason: the method deployed in a 1982 commentary on Matthew reached conclusions that were judged to be incompatible with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Norman Geisler recounted the history of Gundry’s transgressions in a recent open letter that charges Michael Licona with the same sins. Apparently, Licona made an interpretive move in his recent book defending the historicity of the resurrection that lead him to conclude Matthew 27:51-54 was composed for literary reasons; not for the purposes of recording history. Al Mohler agrees that Licona has made the same interpretive blunder as Gundry and that Licona ought to recant his position.

The central premise in Mohler and Geisler’s argument is that the doctrine of inerrancy entails the historicity of Matthew 27:51-54. Thus any exegetical method that results in “dehistoricizing” the passage is unacceptable. Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement if Biblical Inerrancy is taken to make this clear:

WE AFFIRM that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.
WE DENY the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.

All I will say about how the Chicago Statement is being deployed is that taking account of a text’s literary forms and devices seems compatible with the conclusion that a given text may not have been intended as history. I am not qualified to judge whether or not this is the case in the disputed Matthew text, but it is clear to me that there is a noticeable irony in that this text seems to result in the problematic “interpretive pluralism” that Smith highlighted in his book. By all accounts Gundry and Licona are reputable evangelical scholars who are at home in the “biblicist” tradition. Yet at the same time, voices in this same tradition name them as rogues, or at least proprietors of rogue methods of biblical interpretation.

As to what we should think about the issues raised by the controversy between Licona and Geisler/Mohler, William Lane Craig offers a helpful strategy for approaching these issues from an apologetic standpoint. If views like Craig’s are deemed to be wrongly accommodating of Licona, then it seems we need a magisterium, some authoritative interpretive community, to make these calls. Does the ETS play that role? If so, then what do we make of Gundry and the status of “biblicism?” It seems evangelicals are faced with what may be a tough choice: jettison biblicism or the authority of ETS-like institutions as a boundary-setting entities. The curious case of Robert Gundry makes it difficult to accept both.


I was curious to see what Gundry’s 1982 commentary had to say about the Matthew 27:53. He writes:
Hence, Matthew probably means that the resurrected saints entered Jerusalem only after Jesus’ resurrection. It is unclear whether they came out of their tombs only after Jesus’ resurrection, or came out earlier but stayed in the countryside till Jesus had risen. The doctrine that he is “the first-born from the dead ” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5) and “the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Cor 15:20) favors the former view because a delayed exit from the realm of death would seem less liable to contradict that doctrine.” Thus Matthew probably means that the saints stayed in their tombs for several days even though their bodies had been raised to life. Then they came out and “entered into the holy city and appeared to many.” [Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1982), 576.]

So when Mohler says
In 1983, the Evangelical Theological Society voted to request that Robert Gundry resign from its membership. The arguments for his expulsion from the ETS are exactly those that are now directly relevant to the argument that Michael Licona makes about Matthew 27:51-54. The suggestions that these events reported by Matthew are “special effects” and a “poetic device” are exactly the kind of dehistoricizing that led to Gundry’s removal from the ETS. Gundry’s argument concerning Matthew’s use of midrash is virtually parallel to Licona’s argument from classical references and Jewish apocalyptic sources.

We should not take him to be making the impression that Licona’s interpretation mimics Gundry’s. It seems that Mohler and Geisler would be inclined to agree with Gundry here, making the Gundry/Licona connection less pronounced. It would be a matter of using the right hermeneutical method, not the necessarily getting the right results.

More on: Biblical Studies

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