Monday, February 8, 2016

A Response To Lydia McGrew

I was quite saddened to see what was on Lydia's blog post this morning. Saddened because I do have a great relationship with Tim McGrew who I value as one of my dearest friends in this world. I do not want to have this be seen as a personal attack.

As the son-in-law of Mike and Debbie Licona, some might say that I will just walk in lockstep. Not a bit. In fact, Mike and I have had some strong disagreements as have Debbie and I. They know something for sure about me. (Other than the fact that I'm crazy about their daughter.) I speak my own mind and I do not let myself be easily swayed. If I thought Mike was seriously wrong on something, I would tell him. He knows this because I've done it before. 

So let's look at what is said. Lydia starts this off by speaking about how Mike is a New Testament scholar and apologist, which is certainly true, but that he shook up the world by suggesting that the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 was a literary device. This part I don't really agree with. Mike did not shake up the evangelical world. It was Geisler who did it for whatever reasons and started his own personal crusade against Mike. This continues to this day where you can go to Norman Geisler's web site and see articles about Mike Licona. (Sadly, just taking a look on this, I see that there's a section of online articles and the response to Mike Licona is put above "How to Know God.")

The reality is I think Michael Patton wrote one of the finest pieces here in this regard. What he said was:

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.
I could not agree more. Unfortunately, even if you go to Mike's Wikipedia page, there is a whole section on this controversy. This is a controversy that should have never happened. With the way Mike was treated, you would have thought he had been denying the deity of Christ. Instead, Mike writes a whole book defending the resurrection and what happens? He gets called to the carpet.

Trust me. The non-Christian world noticed. I don't know how many skeptics I saw saying that Mike's losing his jobs is proof that in Seminaries and places like that that you can't hold to positions that go against the grain. This to them was all the more reason to not take Christian scholarship seriously. Now of course, we could say the same could happen to a scientist who dared to really question evolution, which I take no sides on, but that people were saying this should concern us.

The reality is most evangelicals just really weren't caring so much as Geisler was. It was not what Mike said that the watching world noticed but how the Christian community was attacking its own. To disagree is one thing, and we should have disagreements, but to go after someone's livelihood is another, and I am thankful to see that Lydia does go against that. Mike had taken the steps to resolve this privately, but the debacle went public instead of being treated in a scholarly conclave like it should have.

By the way, I've seen the way it should happen. I was privileged to go to the last meeting of ETS and be in a session where Mike presented his views with responses from Craig Blomberg and Darrell Bock. Mike responded to them as well. I did not get to see Bock, but at the end of the conference, I did see Blomberg who had disagreed with some of Mike's views. There was no animosity whatsoever. It wasn't even on my mind. This is the way it should have been handled.

And as for the events being a poetic device, my concern here is to say "Well what happens when we see this showing up in pagan literature?" After all, it does. Do we say "Well that's not historical because that's not the Bible, but it is historical when it is in the Bible."? If so, then we are doing what the skeptics regularly do. We are treating the Bible with a different standard. What should have been said is "You know Mike. I'm not really sure about your idea and I think it could be mistaken, but let's investigate it and see what we can find out." I can assure anyone of this. If someone could make a persuasive enough scholarly case against Mike's position, he would change his mind. Mike has to go where the evidence leads. Is that not what we should all be doing?

Lydia now gives us three ways that Mike says the Gospels handled situations differently.

Compression: When an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than they had actually occurred.
Transferral: When an author knowingly attributes words or actions to a person that he knew belonged to another.
Displacement: When an author knowingly removes an event from its original context and places it in another.
Lydia wants to speak about the word knowingly. Is the Gospel really giving us false information? For instance, she points to John's dating. Why did John do this this way? I don't know. My plan is quite simple. When I get the chance to talk to Mike again, I plan to simply ask him and look at his reply and see what I think of it. Mike's studied this for a long time using the best scholarly material so I take what he says very seriously.

Now as for compression, I have no real problem here with compression. In fact, this could get us to fall into the trap of skeptics. After all, how many times have you heard the thing about Luke not knowing when the ascension took place. In Luke, it seems to happen immediately. In Acts, it's after 40 days. This is compression. This should show us that this took place and if we are going to judge an ancient work, we should judge it by the standards of the time and not by our standards.

Lydia also disagrees with how Mike handles the strained harmonizations. Unfortunately, there are harmonizations like that. Just look at something like The Jesus Crisis. There are too many harmonizations that are just frankly embarrassing. Yet Rob Bowman has commented with a great answer. You can read that here.

As for the coming of James and John, what's wrong with Mike's approach? We have seen this elsewhere before. Who came and spoke to Jesus? Was it the centurion or his servants? One account says one thing. Another says another. Why not think the servants came on behalf of the centurion?

Lydia goes on to say that:

1) Disdaining harmonization inflates the number of places where the gospels are actually saying something (in the ordinary sense of "saying something") that is false. Relabeling these false statements as "literary devices" doesn't change the fact that, by abandoning even modest harmonization, you just blew up to much higher levels than necessary the number of places in the Gospels where what the text is to all appearances saying just isn't what really happened.
And the part in italics, which are hers, is the key part. To all appearances. This gets to what I see online with skeptics who want to argue against what the text "clearly" says." When we speak this way, we speak of how it looks to us. We can easily forget how it looks to an ancient person in their society. Would they see the "plain meaning" of the text?

2) Adopting the idea that the evangelists were knowingly changing things all over the place does not eliminate the possibility of actual errors of memory or mistakes in understanding (e.g., Luke's understanding of what was being claimed by one of his sources). It merely brings in an additional source of unreliability. So it's not as though one who adopts this method is somehow protecting the Gospels from claims that one or more of the evangelists made some bona fide error. A highly literary John who says that something happened on a day when he knows it didn't happen doesn't become ipso facto a John with a better memory. Hence one's estimate of the unreliability of the statements in the Gospels should (unfortunately) actually be raised by this approach. Of course, one could simply choose to interpret any putative error as a "deliberate literary trope," but this would be entirely arbitrary.
I think a key issue here is did the audience also know that this was happening? Mike's contention is that the audience would have recognized these literary devices. Consider the case of Paul's dialogue in Romans 7 that so many people today think describes every man's struggle with sin. Most scholars today think it is not autobiographical, but that is not what the "plain meaning" suggests. The difference is the audience would have recognized what was going on. If the audience recognized it, then there is not an issue.

3) Licona does not intend to say that there are usually clues in a given text as to when such a deliberate change is taking place. At one point in the lecture he says that there might be such a clue from "editorial fatigue," because an editor didn't sufficiently "clean up" a passage that he was displacing from a different context, but he does not appear to hold in general that there will be such clues. And that makes sense, given the view he's propounding. One shouldn't expect such clues given his definitions, since the definitions make it clear that the writer is deliberately attempting to write "as if" the event took place at a different time, the words were said by a different person, and so forth. This makes such changes invisible unless we happen to stumble across them by noticing discrepancies with other accounts. Licona claims to have identified quite a few of such tropes; he emphasizes in his talk that the three he discusses in the lecture are only a sample. He also shows great readiness to believe that the evangelists are using them. It would therefore seem that, if his view of the evangelists' modus operandi is correct, the probability is actually "decent" (20%, 30%? more?) in any given passage that the author is deliberately changing something, using one or the other of such techniques, but making it look like he isn't doing so. The rate of the use of such techniques postulated by Licona seems a lot higher than the ordinary rate of minor error on the part of honest witnesses who are in a position to know what happened and who are not trying to fictionalize their accounts. In other words, if we adopt Licona's approach it seems that we have significant reason to distrust the factual statements in the Gospels even where we don't have any other reason to doubt them. Take, for example, Licona's own readiness to believe that Mary the sister of Lazarus actually was the one who anointed Jesus' feet. But why think that? If John had no qualms about changing the date of the event, if the gospel writers had no qualms about putting words in a person's mouth when that person didn't say them, and so forth, why not wonder if John "transferred" the foot anointing from some unknown woman to Mary the sister of Lazarus? And then also transferred the story to Saturday to group all the stuff about Mary close together? The point is that once you start saying that the gospel writers, in essence, made stuff up for literary reasons, this has a tendency to metastasize. And I contend that it spreads far more quickly than the admission that they may, while trying to get it right, have made a few small errors.
And these are good questions worthy of discussion, so how about this? Mike's written a book on this that's due out in the fall. How about we read it and see his case and then critique the case then when we have a much fuller case. A presentation unfortunately cannot give the whole picture as you can't put all the footnotes in you want and everything.

4) In general, this approach runs in precisely the wrong direction, because it presents the Gospels to us as highly "massaged," literary documents in their relationship to the truth, not as honest memoirs just trying to tell it like it happened. What research in areas like unexplained allusions and undesigned coincidences reveals is the latter--the marks of truthful witnesses with the normal variation of detail that we would expect from them, not the marks of literary composition of a fictionalizing sort. The highly literary view of the Gospels tells us to look for hidden meanings and agendas rather than taking them at face value. This causes an artificial view of other evidences as well. For example, consider the evidence of unnecessary details. The Gospels are full of otherwise pointless time indications, statements that one place was "near to" another place, details about how many fish were caught or how many men were fed, and so forth. The historical view of the Gospels would lead us to note that these are prima facie evidences of verisimilitude. This is how real people talk. They throw in unnecessary details, they make unexplained allusions, and so forth. It is part of the dysfunctionality of over-sophisticated New Testament criticism to teach readers to overlook this obvious fact and instead to go off into fancies of literary speculation--e.g., symbolic meanings for specific numbers and names, etc. Licona's approach, while less fanciful than some others, is definitely on the ahistorical, over-literary side of this divide. It thus undermines readers' ability to see the force of other evidences of reliability, since it teaches them to think of the Gospel writers as people who are trying to do lots of invisible altering of the facts for literary or theological purposes.
Now I have no problem with undesigned coincidences and see no reason why both cannot be employed, but I do hesitate when we speak of the way ordinary people talk and about taking a text at face value. Are we not still too much reading this as if it was a book written to a 21st century Western audience?

My whole concern in all of this as Lydia goes on is that it looks like the whole thing is starting again. I was expecting something to happen when Mike had his book released, but not before. I do think that these are issues worth discussing and I do plan on discussing them, especially whenever I get to interview Mike on it. (I've asked for first interview!)

Ultimately, this is also one reason I just do not make a strong effort to defend Inerrancy really. If you engage a skeptic who makes a big deal out of it, they will just go to a website with 101 Bible contradictions and even if you addressed all of them, there would be more that they would want to have addressed. This has become such a hot button issue that we are losing sight of the real deal. When is the resurrection going to be central? When are we going to look at the Risen Jesus?

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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