HBU's Licona addresses Bible's 'contradictions'
Houston Baptist University is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and has a ministry relationship with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. The SBTC does not place trustees on the HBU board or allocate Cooperative Program funds to the university.
Licona's handling of Scripture, as voiced in an interview in November, drew concern from R. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Jim Richards of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and support from Robert Sloan, Houston Baptist University's president, in subsequent comments to Baptist Press.
In an interview with Lenny Esposito of Come Reason Ministries at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting, Licona, a former apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board, said it had not necessarily ever bothered him that some facts reported in the Gospels appeared to be contradictions.
"I believe in biblical inerrancy, but I also realize that biblical inerrancy is not one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The resurrection is," Licona told Esposito. "So if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is still true even if it turned out that some things in the Bible weren't. So it didn't really bother me a whole lot even if some contradictions existed. But it did bother a lot of Christians."
Licona recalled a student in a class he was teaching at Southern Evangelical Seminary who, with tears forming in her eyes, wanted to know whether there were indeed contradictions. A majority of the class, he said, raised their hands to indicate they were troubled by apparent contradictions. Then he realized it was something he should address.
As he studied the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Licona began keeping a document of the differences he noticed. The document grew to 50 pages. He then read ancient biographies written around the time of Jesus because New Testament scholars often regard the Gospels as ancient biographies, he said.
Licona focused on Plutarch's biographies. The assassination of Julius Caesar, he noted, is told in five different biographies by Plutarch.
"So you have the same biographer telling the same story five different times. By noticing how Plutarch tells the story of Caesar's assassination differently, we can notice the kinds of biographical liberties that Plutarch took, and he's writing around the same time that some of the Gospels are being written and in the same language -- Greek -- to boot," Licona told Esposito.
"As I started to note some of these liberties that he took, I immediately started recognizing these are the same liberties that I noticed that the evangelists take -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John," Licona said.
"... If this is the case, then these most commonly cited differences in the Gospels ... aren't contradictions after all. They're just the standard biographical liberties that ancient biographers of that day took."
When someone cites biblical contradictions as a reason to reject Christianity, Licona, as an apologist defending the faith, recommends putting the charge in perspective.
"I would point out that when the Titanic sank 100 years ago, the eyewitnesses contradicted one another on some peripheral details. For example, some said the ship broke in half prior to sinking," Licona said. "Others said, 'No, it went down intact.' Well, how do you get that wrong?
"... I don't know how they got it wrong, but no one concludes therefore that the Titanic didn't sink. It just meant there was a peripheral detail that they didn't know what had happened until they discovered [the sunken Titanic] in the 1980s.
"I can tell you that of the 50 pages of differences that I've found in the Gospels -- and I'm still finding new ones -- all of them are in the peripheral details," Licona said. "There isn't a single perceived contradiction or difference in the Gospels that are any major details, any major details regarding an account.
"For example, was there one or were there two angels at the tomb? No one says the tomb was not empty. Even if you couldn't account for the difference between one and two angels -- and I think you can -- but even if you couldn't, it's still a major thing that Jesus rose and the tomb was empty.
"... You may lose some form of biblical inerrancy if there are contradictions in the Gospels, but you still have the truth of Christianity that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think that's the most important point we can make," Licona said.
Also in a discussion of apparent contradictions, Licona said, it is important to distinguish between a contradiction and a difference.
"Most of the things we find in the Gospels are differences. There are only maybe a handful of things between the Gospels that are potential contradictions in my opinion and only one or two that I've found that are really stubborn for me at this point -- and they're all in the peripherals," Licona said.
Mohler, in comments to Baptist Press Feb. 6, said, "It would be nonsense to affirm real contradictions in the Bible and then to affirm inerrancy."
"Even Dr. Licona concedes that we 'may lose some form of biblical inerrancy if there are contradictions in the Gospels.' What you lose is inerrancy itself," Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy clearly and rightly affirms 'the unity and internal consistency of Scripture' and denies that any argument for contradictions within the Bible is compatible with inerrancy. An actual contradiction is an error."
Mohler identified two other major problems regarding Licona's methodology.
"First, we cannot reduce the Gospels to the status of nothing more than ancient biographies. The Bible claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit right down to the inspired words," Mohler said.
"The second problem is isolating the resurrection of Christ from all of the other truth claims revealed in the Bible. The resurrection is central, essential and non-negotiable, but the Christian faith rests on a comprehensive set of truth claims and doctrines," Mohler said. "All of these are revealed in the Bible, and without the Bible we have no access to them."
Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, expressed concern over Licona's hiring and emphasized the convention's strong regard for Scripture. The full text of Richards' statement to Baptist Press Feb. 8 follows:
"Although the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has enjoyed a ministry relationship with Houston Baptist University for nearly 10 years, that relationship is not one whereby the convention participates in the governance of the university. Our relationship with HBU is based on a mutual affirmation of a high view of Scripture," Richards said.
"The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention was formed on a commitment to biblical inerrancy, that the Bible is true in all that it asserts. Certainly, our churches, board and convention messengers expect our ministry relationships to be compatible with this core value. We will be in conversation with President Sloan regarding HBU's response to Mike Licona's comments bearing on the reliability of Scriptures," Richards said.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas had not submitted a statement by press time.
In regard to the hiring of Licona as an associate theology professor at Houston Baptist, Sloan, the university's president, conveyed confidence. The full text of Sloan's statement to Baptist Press Feb. 7 follows:
"Dr. Michael Licona is a very fine Christian. We trust completely his commitment to Scripture. There are those who disagree with his comments on what is a very difficult passage (Matthew 27:45-53, especially verses 52-53), but Mike Licona's devotion to the Lord Jesus, his magisterial defense of the resurrection, his publicly and solemnly declared affirmation of the complete trustworthiness of Scripture and his worldwide efforts to win others to Christ give us full confidence in his work as a teacher, colleague and faculty member of Houston Baptist University," Sloan said.
In comments to Baptist Press Feb. 5, Licona said he has not claimed there are contradictions in the Gospels.
"I have said that because Jesus rose from the dead, the truth of Christianity stands even if it turned out that a few contradictions existed among the Gospels," Licona said.
In January, Licona was a key source in an article by The Christian Post about Newsweek's cover story on Jesus as myth. The Newsweek story was written by Bart Ehrman, an agnostic Licona has debated a couple of times. The Newsweek story leads one to doubt the historical veracity of the Gospels, The Post said, while Licona attests to their historical reliability.
In 2011, Mohler wrote an article stating that Licona's characterization of verses in Matthew 27 demonstrated that it is not sufficient to affirm biblical inerrancy in principle without also affirming it in detail.
Mohler's public challenge of Licona's beliefs regarding inerrancy in 2011 prompted a two-part story in Baptist Press. Prior to that ordeal, Licona's apologetics articles had appeared with frequency in BP as columns.
Along with Mohler's challenge, Norman Geisler, distinguished professor of apologetics at Veritas Evangelical Seminary in California, wrote three open letters to Licona in 2011, accessible at normangeisler.net, comparing the inerrancy matter to the Evangelical Theological Society's 1983 expulsion of Robert Gundry, who dehistoricized the Gospel of Matthew.
Last year, the Southeastern Theological Review, the journal of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, devoted its summer edition to a discussion stemming from Licona's 2010 book "The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach."
Though the scholars included in a roundtable discussion of Licona's book in the journal didn't hold his apocalyptic interpretation of the raised saints passage in Matthew 27, they mostly agreed that he should be afforded academic freedom to explore the issue.
In the conclusion of his article in the Southeastern journal, Gary Habermas, chair of the philosophy and theology department at Liberty University, wrote that people should remember that Licona's approach is an apologetic strategy.
"Thus, it is not a prescription for how a given text should be approached in the original languages and translated, or how a systematic theology is developed, or how a sermon is written," Habermas wrote. "So it should never be concluded that the use of such methods in an apologetic context indicate a lack of trust in Scripture as a whole, or, say, the Gospels in particular."
Also in January, Geisler added an article to his website titled "Mike Licona Admits Contradictions in the Gospels" based on Licona's interview with Esposito. Licona's view of Scripture, Geisler said, "is not consistent with the historic view of inerrancy as held by the framers" of the ETS and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy statements.
"Licona adopts an unorthodox methodology, and unorthodox methodology leads to unorthodox theology," Geisler wrote. "Any method that can be used to justify errors in the Gospels and yet be able to claim they are inerrant is not only contrary to the Bible, and the historic view on inerrancy, but it is contrary to logic and common sense."
Licona told Baptist Press, "I suppose that if one were to claim that it's unorthodox to read the Gospels and attempt to understand them according to the genre in which they were written rather than impose Dr. Geisler's modern idea of precision upon them, then I'm guilty as charged. I'm attempting to read the Gospels as they were intended because I revere them as God's Word."
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).