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'Grave' Theology Debate Continues: Leading Apologist Assessed in Southern Baptist Journal

Mike Licona's views on the 'raised saints' of Matthew 27 sparked a theological war of words.

(BP) Southern Baptist apologist Mike Licona sparked a theological war of words (and subsequently left his job) in 2011 when he questioned the "raised saints" passage of Matthew 27. Now a group of noted theologians has assessed Licona's controversial analysis in a roundtable discussion in the Southeastern Theological Review.

The journal, published by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, also included four articles related to Licona's book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which has been praised as a landmark achievement but also has renewed concerns over biblical inerrancy because of the Matthew passage.

Licona, of Houston Baptist University, was included in the roundtable, along with Danny Akin of Southeastern Seminary, Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, Paul Copan of Palm Beach Atlantic University, Michael Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary, and Charles Quarles of Louisiana College.

In The Resurrection of Jesus, Licona presents a defense of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, arguing that Jesus' resurrection must have been literal.

But the passage at issue is Matthew 27:51-53, which reads: "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people."

Licona, a former apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board, writes, "It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel." The bodies of many holy people, Licona suggests, were not literally raised to life.

In the Southeastern roundtable published last summer, Licona said, "Since my book was published, I have found additional ancient reports that confirm this interpretation and others that cast doubt on it. Accordingly, I am presently undecided pertaining to how Matthew intended his readers to understand the saints raised at Jesus' death. More research needs to be conducted. It's a tough passage."

Quarles, who wrote an extensive review of Licona's book in an edition of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, said the context of the passage suggests Matthew intended for readers to understand the words as descriptions of actual occurrences.

"The 'special effects' interpretation requires a shift in genre from historical narrative to apocalyptic in the middle of a single sentence, then back to historical narrative in the next sentence," Quarles said in the roundtable. "If a writer flows so quickly and freely from historical narrative to apocalyptic, one could hardly ever know the author's intention."

Blomberg said he doesn't necessarily agree with Licona's suggestion that the raised saints are a poetic device, but "scholars should have the academic freedom to explore the possibility without fear of losing their jobs or their reputations."

Quarles said it's difficult to answer whether Licona has diverged from historicity of the account of the resurrection and diverged from inerrancy "in part because it seems that Dr. Licona's position is evolving."

"Some elements of the original discussion were alarming and, I fear, did have the potential to undermine a high view of Scripture. I am grateful that Dr. Licona had the humility to listen to the concerns of fellow inerrantists and to more carefully state his position," Quarles said. "I am confident that it is not Dr. Licona's intent to 'dehistoricize' the account."

Although Licona might not have intended to dehistoricize the text, Quarles said that would be the unintended effect of his interpretation if his interpretation is incorrect. Quarles agreed with Licona that hermeneutic blunders can have tragic consequences.

"The misinterpretation of a text as important as the Bible can have rather grave consequences, even if it is not a direct denial of a carefully nuanced statement on biblical inerrancy," Quarles said, referring to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CBSI).

Licona, in the roundtable, again appealed to J.I. Packer's involvement in drafting the Chicago Statement while employing a "prose poem" interpretation of the creation account. Packer said, "What I'm trying to do as a theologian is to read my Bible in a way which receives the message that it intended to give me," Licona noted.

"I took a similar approach when proposing that Matthew intended for his readers to understand the raised saints as apocalyptic symbols," Licona said. "I'm still open to interpreting the raised saints in a literal-historical sense and I'm hard-pressed to choose between the two at the moment.

"But I would only be denying the inerrancy of the text if I knew that Matthew meant for his readers to understand the raised saints in a literal-historical sense but was interpreting them as an apocalyptic symbol anyway," Licona added. "So, this is a matter of hermeneutics rather than inerrancy."

Copan said he considers Licona's apocalyptic view consistent with inerrancy even though he would take the historical interpretation of the passage.

"Licona's measured work has been unfairly compared to Robert Gundry's," Copan said, referring to a scholar who was expelled from ETS for dehistoricizing the Gospel record. "Ironically, the careful New Testament scholar Douglas Moo both strongly disagreed with Gundry in dialogue in the Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society and considers Licona's view consistent with inerrancy.

"... CBSI signatories with whom I've interacted don't see Licona's view to be in conflict with inerrancy," Copan said. "And I wonder why other prominent evangelicals holding Licona's earlier-held apocalyptic view haven't been so targeted."

Also in the roundtable, Blomberg said, "If a scholar makes a proposal that a certain text of Scripture falls into a certain literary form or genre, understands the truth claims made by that genre, and believes and fully submits himself or herself to those truths, inerrancy is being upheld."

Kruger said Licona's book "will no doubt prove to be a fundamental resource for defending the historicity of [the resurrection] from the challenges of critical scholars," but he too takes the raised saints passage as straightforward historical narrative.

"I do not think that Licona's view would constitute a violation of inerrancy. In essence, the doctrine of inerrancy teaches that whatever Scripture affirms is true," Kruger said. "But, this doctrine, in and of itself, does not answer the question of what Scripture affirms."

He pointed to whether Genesis affirms six 24-hour days.

"This is an interpretive issue; not an inerrancy issue," Kruger said. "Inerrancy is violated if a person acknowledges that Scripture affirms something, and then also acknowledges that the thing it affirms is false. And Licona has not done this."

Inerrancy, Kruger said, is not the only crucial issue surrounding the Licona matter.

"A view can have other problems – or could lead to other problems – even if it is not a violation of this important doctrine. My concern about Licona's position falls into this camp," Kruger said. "Personally, I think the evidence for taking Matt. 27:52-53 as non-historical and symbolic is pretty thin.

"And when the basis for a certain interpretation is that thin, it raises concerns about whether the same hermeneutical method could possibly be employed when we are faced with other passages that prove to be problematic or embarrassing. In fact, I think this is probably the main issue that has been driving this whole controversy," Kruger said.

Akin agreed that the Licona debate is first a matter of hermeneutics, but he believes it is "more than just a matter of hermeneutics."

"The tragic fact is one can become so adept at 'hermeneutical gymnastics' that they can wittingly or unwittingly compromise a high view of the Bible's inspiration," Akin said in the roundtable. "Do I think Dr. Licona intended to do that with his interpretation of Matt. 27:51-54? No, I do not. Do I think he runs a very real risk of doing so anyway with his view of the text as 'special effects,' 'legend,' 'story embellishment' and 'poetic devices'? Yes I do."

Akin said he would like to see Licona revisit his position, publicly acknowledge a change in his position and correct his view in future editions of The Resurrection of Jesus.

Despite Licona's current understanding of Matthew 27 and what he thinks are acceptable literary genres that may be applied to the Bible, Akin said last summer, Akin would consider inviting Licona to speak on the campus of Southeastern Seminary, much like he might invite the late C.S. Lewis if he could, the seminary's president said.

"Would I extend to Dr. Licona an invitation to join the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary?" Akin said in the roundtable. "The unequivocal answer is no, I would not. There is too much at stake when it comes to 'rightly handling the word of truth' (2 Tim. 2:15).

"The apostle Peter makes clear that 'we did not follow cleverly devised myths' (2 Pet. 1:16). Dr. Licona's view of Matt. 27:51-54 opens a theological Pandora's Box that does not rightly interpret the text, nor does it encourage confidence in the historical veracity and accuracy of the Word of God," Akin said.

Editor's note: CT reported the theological war of words in 2011 when Licona's questioning of Matthew 27 sparked a grave theology debate.

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