Licona appeals to J.I. Packer's view
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Apologist Mike Licona's commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture has been challenged following his characterization of a passage in Matthew, and he has pointed to Anglican theologian J.I. Packer's view of Genesis in defending his position.
Licona also appealed to French theologian Henri Blocher's view of Genesis as a model of interpretation that gives him (Licona) latitude to interpret Matthew's record of the saints being raised from their graves at the moment of Jesus' death as an apocalyptic symbol rather than a historical event.
Baptist Press sought responses from Packer and Blocher regarding Licona's assessment of their views and use of their names in making his case.
Norman Geisler, distinguished professor of apologetics at Veritas Evangelical Seminary in California, objected to the assessment of Matthew 27:52 in Licona's book "The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach."
Geisler said in a series of public letters beginning in August that until Licona publicly recants his published view of the passage, his position should be considered "unorthodox, non-evangelical and a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism."
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, joined Geisler in questioning Licona's treatment of the raised saints passage. Mohler wrote a blog post on the subject Sept. 14 at albertmohler.com. See the related article at http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=36522.
Licona, a former apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board, responded to Geisler's critiques in a written statement to Baptist Press.
"Dr. Geisler repeatedly says that the interpretive move I made in my book is precisely what he and the other framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy had in mind as what to avoid," Licona wrote. "This is simply not true."
Comparing his interpretive model to Packer, Licona wrote, "J.I. Packer was also a framer [of the Chicago statement on Inerrancy] and he is very sympathetic toward theistic evolution. Packer also interprets the creation of Eve from Adam's rib, the incident between Eve and the serpent, and the trees of life and good and evil as symbolic that may not have corresponding events and objects.
"Professor Packer also sees no incompatibility between Genesis and theistic evolution, the same position taken by B.B. Warfield, the grandfather of inerrancy," Licona added.
Packer's views, Licona said, "are far more radical in the eyes of many evangelicals than the one I proposed in my book regarding Matthew's raised saints."
"But it would be difficult to accuse Professor Packer of abandoning biblical inerrancy since he helped craft the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy," Licona wrote.
Packer's position on Genesis is relevant, Licona said, because Packer interprets all of Genesis 1:1 through 2:4 as "prose poem" and a "quasi-liturgical celebration of the fact of creation ... and certainly not a kind of naïve observational account of what we would have seen if we could have traveled back in time and hovered above the chaos and watched how things got sorted out during a hundred and forty-four hours of our time."
Licona said the argument could be made of Packer: "If he interprets Genesis 1:1 through 2:4 as poetry, then how do we know that Adam and Eve were historical?"
"My point in citing Packer is that one may fault him on his hermeneutics. But it's difficult to charge him with abandoning biblical inerrancy since he was one of those who wrote the definition for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy to which Drs. Mohler and Geisler appeal," Licona wrote to BP. "Thus, disagreements with the interpretation of the dead saints that I offered in my book is a matter of hermeneutics and not related to biblical inerrancy."
Given Packer's status as a professor emeritus at Regent College in Vancouver, Baptist Press sought but was unable to secure a response about Licona's characterization of his views and how they relate to Licona's model of interpretation in Matthew 27.
Licona likened Packer's views to Blocher's on Genesis and noted that both men were among the 300 signers of the Chicago Statement.
Blocher, Licona wrote, "does not believe the tree of life and the tree of good and evil were actual trees but regards them as entirely symbolic," and Blocher's book "was published only one year after" signing the Chicago statement. This "shows that he thought his view fell within the parameters of the [statement] when he signed it," Licona added.
In responding to the "slippery slope argument" which would say, "If we allow this interpretation of the dead saints as symbols, where could this lead us?," Licona again pointed to Blocher, who in answering a similar charge from Old Testament scholar Edward J. Young wrote, "To allow one single symbol would seem to him a concession of ground to the opponent who would then advance closer to the heart of the battleground. But exegesis is not called to establish a series of fortresses, like the 'hedge' of supplementary commandments that the Pharisees built around the Law. Its vocation is the quest for truth -- the meaning of the Word, nothing more and nothing less."
Licona wrote, "I'm neither endorsing nor condemning the views of Packer and Blocher. I'm simply saying that Geisler does not at all speak for all of the framers and signers of [the Chicago Statement], which is obviously broader than Geisler imagines."
Blocher, in comments to Baptist Press Nov. 7, said he was not familiar with Licona's work but had given some thought to the issue surrounding the Evangelical Theological Society's 1983 expulsion of Robert Gundry, who also dehistoricized the Gospel record. Supposing the two are similar, he said, he offered his thoughts.
Gundry's definition of inerrancy was orthodox and basically unobjectionable, Blocher said, but the way he interpreted the biblical text conflicted with his claim to be an inerrantist. Blocher said Licona seems to have committed a similar error.
"The principle is valid: that inerrancy attaches to the content of biblical utterances as correctly understood, and it is so understood when the language of the text in its context, including all features of common usage and literary genre and clues provided by the writer, are taken into account," Blocher, who retired from Wheaton College in 2008, said. "Proper evidence can legitimate a nonliteral interpretation of a particular passage of Scripture."
Even so, careless interpretation of Scripture passages can undermine inerrancy, Blocher said.
"The precise meaning of dogmatic terms and statements, being somewhat flexible, is partly defined by the actual treatment of Scripture that follows and accompanies them," Blocher, a descendent of French Baptist pastors, said. "It is thus possible to talk of Scripture's supreme authority, perfect trustworthiness, infallibility and inerrancy and to empty such talk of the full and exact meaning it should retain by the way one handles the text."
Blocher said the way Licona interprets the raised saints passage is incorrect.
"I reject the suggestion that Matthew 27:52f should be read nonliterally, and I consider that it puts in jeopardy the affirmation of biblical inerrancy which I resolutely uphold," he said.
Blocher advocates a literal interpretation of the passage because the last words of verse 53 "sound as an emphatic claim of historical, factual, truthfulness with an intention akin to that of 1 Corinthians 15:6."
The plea that it warrants a nonliteral interpretation "seems rather to be motivated by the difficulty of believing the thing told and by an unconscious desire to conform to the critical views of non-evangelical scholarship," Blocher said, adding that the pressure of non-evangelical scholarship weighs heavily on the work of evangelical scholars.
Licona's claim to be an inerrantist is incongruous with the way he handles the raised saints passage, Blocher said.
"The lack of evidence that would warrant a nonliteral interpretation of Matthew 27:52f does not expose this interpretation only as an exegetical mistake," Blocher said. "In effect, it modifies the way in which biblical inerrancy is affirmed. Contrary to the intention of those propounding it, it undermines the meaning of 'inerrancy' which we should, with utmost vigilance, preserve."
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).