• Matt O'Reilly

Inerrancy and Interpretation: The Licona Controversy

The details of the controversy are available in other places; so I’ll simply sum up the core issue. In his massive book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona devoted a few paragraphs to Matthew 27:52-53, which says that at the time of Jesus’ death, “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Licona suggests that this passage is apocalyptic “special effects” rather than historical detail (552). In response to Licona’s interpretation of the passage, Norman Geisler, a prominent evangelical apologist, sent two open letters to Licona (1, 2) charging him with dehistoricizing the text, thus violating biblical inerrancy, and called upon him to recant his interpretation of the passage in question. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, followed Geisler calling Licona’s argument “shocking and disastrous.” Licona responded to these criticisms by affirming his commitment to inerrancy and stating his willingness to revise that portion of his argument in a future edition of the book, though he did not satisfy his critics by recanting.

One disturbing aspect of Mohler’s and Geisler’s criticisms is that they are not acknowledging that Licona understands his interpretation to comport with the truthfulness of scripture. The issue here is not one of inerrancy. The issue is about how we interpret and understand what the Bible is actually saying. Everyone involved in this debate knows that meaning depends on genre and authorial intent. So, the question is not whether Matthew was telling the truth. The question is whether he was intending to communicate apocalyptic symbolism or historical detail. If Licona is right, and Matthew is exhibiting a bit of apocalyptic flair in order to make a certain point, then Mohler and Geisler are guilty of not taking the text on its own terms. Instead, they are reading their presuppositions into the text, which subverts the truthfulness and authority of the text. Inerrancy is not incompatible with symbolism. Licona is not rejecting the literal truth of the text. Indeed, if Matthew is intending to communicate in apocalyptic poeticism, then the text is literally symbolic, and Mohler and Geisler have themselves missed the literal meaning of the text. Is it true and literal history or true and literal symbolism? That is the question on which this debate should turn.

Further, the charge that Licona is dehistoricizing the text is unfounded. Before a text can be dehistoricized, it must be shown that the author intended the text to be read as history. Licona is suggesting that Matthew did not intend the text to be taken as historical fact. Thus, he is not technically dehistoricizing this passage. Instead, he is suggesting that the genre of the text is something other than history, namely apocalyptic, and is interpreting it through the lens of what he takes to be the author’s intent. This does not conflict with grammatico-historical exegesis, as Mohler suggests; it is grammatico-historical exegesis, which takes into account genre, literary form, various textual devices, and the use of similar concepts and ideas in other relevant primary source literature.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Mohler and Geisler are not arguing for the inerrancy of the text but for the inerrancy of their own particular interpretation of the text. They have mistakenly granted to their understanding of scripture a quality held only by scripture itself, namely authoritative truthfulness. Their interpretation may be right; but it could just as well be wrong. And the same is true for Licona.

At the end of the day, the issue here is not inerrancy but interpretation, not history but hermeneutics. The truly sad thing is that Licona’s contribution to evangelical theology is being overshadowed by this silly and misguided controversy. More so, Licona has had negative professional repercussions as a result of all this. I hope that Mohler and Geisler will withdraw their mistaken attacks, apologize for their ill-founded criticisms, and respectfully agree to disagree with Licona with regard to the interpretation of this text.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to Licona’s response to Geisler entiteld “When the Saints Go Marching In (Matthew 27:52-53): Historicity, Apocalyptic, Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy.” This paper was given at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.


N.B. This is not to say that all criticism is out of line within the larger evangelical tent (or any tent, for that matter). It is simply to say that such criticism should be fair and charitable. One can be fair, charitable, and level strong criticism all at the same time. I’ve attempted to hold all of these qualities in balance in this post (and others), even as I’m arguing that the criticisms of Mohler and Geisler are unfair and ill-founded.

UPDATE: Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

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