Friday, 14 May 2010

First ever world-class debate on the resurrection in South Africa?

A friend brought it to my attention that there was a significant debate held at the University of Pretoria on Wednesday 12 May 2010. The speakers where William Lane Craig and Mike Licona arguing for the authenticity of Jesus' bodily resurrection, over against Sakkie Spangenberg and Hansie Wolmarans arguing against it. Craig and Licona regard themselves as evangelical Christians, whereas Spangenberg and Wolmarans are part of the New Reformation Movement in South Africa, with links to the Jesus Seminar in the USA.

I wish I could've been there! Will be nice to get some feedback from folks who attended the debate. How many people attended? What were the main arguments? Who did best? Why?


Johannes said...

I was one of the attendees. I came across your post while I was looking for some feedback of the debate myself. Hopefully the organisers ( will make the recording available on their website (the debate was professionally recorded).

The auditorium where it was held (The Musaion) was packed to capacity and a screen was set up in the amphitheatre outside to accommodate us. According to Michael Licona's twitter (, approximately 1200 people turned up.

The debate topic was stated as "How should we understand the narratives about Jesus' resurrection?" Dr Craig and Mr Licona opened with two claims: 1) That Jesus and the resurrection account is best understood from within a first-century Jewish context (in particular the belief in a bodily resurrection), and 2) that no good reason exists to understand the gospels any other way. They argued their points clearly and eloquently, engaged the audience, cited authoritative references and stayed on the topic - truly world-class debaters.

The opposition by Wolmarans and Spangenberg, on the other hand, seemed poorly structured, ill-supported and uncoordinated. In his reply, Licona justly remarked that the opposition had not even challenged the main propositions, and he had little to respond to. Spangenberg simply seemed to suggest an alternative method of reading the gospels (as mythical narrative) without reasonably justifying why that's the proper way to understand it - apart from citing disastrous interpretations and past abuses of the church (emphatically mentioning Apartheid). He said nothing about historicity, except that Evangelical Christianity is a fourth century Augustinian novelty not authentic to Jesus' teachings, and that Paul built his own theology around the myth of substitutionary sacrifice.

Licona retorted the topic was how the narratives SHOULD be understood, not how they COULD be understood.

The opposition seemed poorly prepared and poorly organised, and although they made some interesting assertions, their arguments were either off topic (Licona easily dismissed them as red herrings) or not supported by very persuasive logic or evidence. As a result, the South Africans came across as biased and emotional. This badly damaged their case and left their flanks wide open for the accusation that their thinking was old-fashioned and driven by biased agendas. With some coaching, I think the New Reformers could have presented a much better challenge and made the debate less one-sided.

My personal opinion is that the debate was a wasted opportunity for the New Reformers to state their case rationally and feasibly. They are evidently not seasoned debaters, which is unfortunate in the face of such formidable speakers as Craig and Licona. Where Spangenberg just seemed like a typical example of the fire-and-brimstone traditionalists he was railing against, the Americans were calm and collected, which made their arguments so much more digestible and convincing.

I hope this gives you some idea. I'm just a layman, so I'd like to see an appraisal from someone more qualified.

Anonymous said...

It is so good to hear that the Evangelicals could do well in the debate with the gnostic Nuwe Hervormers. I trust that the Americans have shown the South African believers that it is possible and indeed necessary to stand up and be counted and that it can be done well. May we again have the priviledge to see real Bible believing christian scholars willing and able to meet with the heresies of our day and shine in the encounter with humility while able to wield the Sword of the Spirit in a mighty way! How wonderful to hear good news from afar, sitting here in New Zealand, removed over land and sea from our beloved South Africa...

francois mulder said...

Hennie Stander oor die "Debat oor Jesus se opstanding"

Anonymous said...

We also attended this seminar and agree wholeheartedly with the above commentries. Craig and Licona spoke with confidence and radiance, reminding of the Scripture, that they recognized them that they were with JESUS. It was a real challenge that Licona addressed the conservative believers and encouraged them to keep their faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ. All real believers were proud of the authenticity of the Bible and our Christ.

Anonymous said...

Ferdie, hoe kon dit anders! die waarheid sal altyd seevier! Johann Fourie

Anonymous said...

Although I did not attend the debate, I have a good idea of the philosphy of Spangenberg and co. They are almost a mirror "faction" of the Jesus Seminar. For a thorough refutation of the Jesus Seminar's claims I can suggest a book by a prominent New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dan Wallace, co written with Ed Komozewski and James Sawyer, titled: Reinventing Jesus, How modern scholars distort the Gospels and mislead popular culture. This ground (Spangenberg's claims) has been covered before and the issues decicively dealt with.

To say that Christianity is is a 4th century concoction is just patently false. For one, what about The John Rylands Papyrus - P52, carbondated to within the early second century, it's a fragment from the book of John, a book wherein the deity of Jesus is firmly attested to. So much for the claim that Christianity is a 4th century fraud. It makes me wonder about the real agenda of Spangenberg and his pals!!

Rudo said...

I agree that the Nuwe Hervormers could have done much better, had they been trained in debating like their opponents. Because I realy think they have the better argument. They just did not have the skills to convey it that well.

Johannes said...

Rudo, that's two different issues. They did not make a coherent argument at all, debating skills aside.

If there is a good argument for the Nuwe Hervormers out there, these two proponents did not know about it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Dr. Craig's summary of the debate on his website "Reasonable Faith" in describing the new hervormers' claims as "an incoherent mishmash of modernist scientific naturalism and post-modernist denial of objective meaning".

For one, to argue that Jesus could not have been bodily resurrected is like suggesting that the teleological, ontological or cosmological arguments for the existence of God is incoherent because these kinds of thing just don't happen. Well....I guess that settles it then.

Frederik Mulder said...

Seems like people keep on talking about this event in South Africa. I want to make it clear - everyone is welcome to share their thoughts here. I managed to retrieve dr William Lane Craig's short assessment of the event:
"In the debate Mike and I defended two contentions: (1) The texts of the New Testament teach that Jesus' resurrection was a physical, historical event; and (2) There's no good reason to deny this traditional understanding of the texts.
In my opening speech I defended our first contention, and we planned that Mike would defend our second contention in response to any criticisms that Spangenberg might offer in his opening speech. Well, to our shock Spangenberg got up and rambled on about irrelevancies and never got around to saying anything about the question under debate, so that poor Mike had virtually nothing to respond to! So he had to reply to criticisms that Spangenberg has offered in his published work, even though he didn't bring them up in the debate. Wolmarans then got up and, of all things, defended the mythological view of Jesus! (In my nearly 30 years of debate experience with scholars like Crossan, Borg, Lüdemann, Ehrman, et al., I have never encountered anyone who defends this line, and both of my opponents in South Africa espouse this silliness!)
In my rebuttal I explained why this view of Christian origins has been eclipsed among New Testament scholars and then reviewed some of the evidence for the historicity of the events of Easter. A very angry Spangenberg then came to the podium and began to rail against apartheid and Christianity's connection to it. It was unbelievable. Mike then explained that all the points raised by Prof. Spangenberg, though important and interesting in and of themselves, were just one red herring after another in the context of the debate that night. Then he closed with a very personal appeal to the Christians of South Africa not to be fooled by the false claims and superficial arguments (what arguments?) of those in the New Reformation movement. Wolmarans closed out the debate by telling a rambling and sentimental story about a baker and the parents of a little boy killed in a car accident. (I know--nobody else understood its relevance either.)"
I will try and search for dr Spangenberg's interpretation of the evening as well..

Frederik Mulder said...

I managed to find Sakkie Spangenberg's side of the debate in Pretoria. We will probably now be able to come to a more accurate understanding of the different takes on the evening (at least until we can buy the DVD recordings..)I place it in two post - it's too long for one take:

"Conflicting views of Scripture and the world.

Prof. William Lane Craig and Dr. Mike Licona use a typical fundamentalist approach to interpret the Bible and they therefore believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. According to this approach the Bible is inspired by God and does not contain any contradictions – period. Everything mentioned in the Bible is factually true and historically correct. They are absolutely convinced that Jonah, for instance, could and did indeed live inside a (living) fish (and in the water) for three days. They read the gospels from the same antiquated perspective and are convinced that Jesus was indeed resurrected literally, historically and physically from the dead.

Biblical scholars proved this kind of understanding of the Bible as untenable at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. The following facts brought them to the conclusion. Firstly, the Bible contains many contradictions. Consider the following examples (Cf. Barr 1977:309–311; Deist 1978:3–7):
1. There are two irreconcilable versions of creation in Genesis: Genesis 1:1–2:4a and Genesis 2:4b–3:24.
2. According to Gen. 6:19-22; 7:15 two pairs of all animals had to be taken into the Ark. However, the impure animals later approached the ark in two pairs and the pure animals in pairs of seven (Gen. 7:2
3. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ cleansing of the occurred at the beginning of his (recorded) activity (Joh 2:13-25), but the synoptic gospels place it much later, at the end just before his crucifixion (Mark 11:15-18; Matt 21:12-17; Luc 19:45

Secondly, scholars also discovered that the Bible contains material which was borrowed from other cultures. The most obvious examples are that of the story of the deluge also know as Noah’s story (Gen. 6-9) and that of the well-known section in the book of Proverbs (Prov 22:17–24:22). The story about the deluge correlates with the Mesopotamian version, known as the Gilgamesh narrative. This section in Proverbs was taken from an Egyptian wisdom writing, known as the Wisdom of Amenemope.

Thirdly, scholarly study made it quite clear that the Bible was written by people for people living in a specific context (which is not ours). None of the books is addressed to Christians living in the twentieth or twenty-first century. It was not directly God-inspired. He did not whisper it into human ears (or consciousness) as was previously believed or based on the so-called doctrine of inspiration, as alluded to in 2 Timothy 3:16. Biblical scholars were subsequently forced to formulate a new understanding of the Bible and its origin: the Bible is just an ordinary book, fraught with the imprints and idiosyncrasies left by the authors from whose mind it originated. James Barr (1980:88) is therefore correct when he states that biblical scholars were forced to “ a doctrine of scripture ‘from below’ and not ‘from above’” They had to “... read it for what it itself is and what itself says, and avoid reading into it ‘the evangelical doctrine of scripture’, the opinions that some people in evangelical Protestantism held about the Bible two centuries or so ago.

These two conflicting viewpoints about the Bible were present last night during the presentations and discussions but the audience seemed to have been oblivious to it. Most of last nights’ attendees were simply not aware of all of the research and that is why Bernard McGinn (1989:539) is so critically correct in his assertion that: “The conflict of interpretations between academic readings carried on in schools of divinity and religion and in departments of English on the one hand and the mass of general readers on the other is probably greater now than ever before.”

Frederik Mulder said...

And the last bit:
"Quite apart from the differing viewpoints about the Bible the two groups also adhere to widely divergent world views. The manner in which William Craig attempted to explain Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ascension is a case in point. It is patently unscientific (if not transparent trickery) to claim that Jesus’ body currently resides in a foreign and alien dimension of which we are totally unaware of. You simply have to accept prevailing universal world views or reject it but you cannot logically reconcile antiquated biblical perceptions with our modern world by any stretch of the imagination. We have no tacit evidence of any direct and present-day divine intervention or the occurrence of godly miracles anymore, as was generally believed to be the case during the antiquities. James Barr (1977:209) who made a thorough study of fundamentalism writes the following about this phenomenon in Christianity: “Fundamentalism is, in the end, a religion of the old world: in doctrine, in philosophy, in personal outlook it looks back to the eighteenth century”."

Johannes said...

From his comments it's obvious how Spangenberg operates from a caricature of Christianity (the "Fundamentalists Who Caused Apartheid" model), and this is the strawman he kept attacking in the debate as well.

If someone doesn't believe in God, then of course logic dictates that he must be a naturalist, and judge all evidence with a naturalistic bias. CS Lewis addressed this fallacy in his brilliant book 'Miracles'. I also recommend the debate between Craig and Bart Ehrman (2006).

The other glaring fact visible here, which Prof Craig also pointed out during the debate, is the age of Spangenberg's sources: his most recent source is from 1989!

Anonymous said...

Johannes mentions straw men. I agree with his assesments. Another statement I don't agree with is this statement in Frederick's post on comments made by the Nuwe Hervormers:

"It is patently unscientific (if not transparent trickery) to claim that Jesus’ body currently resides in a foreign and alien dimension of which we are totally unaware of."

What DOES science tell us? Science tell us that the universe is finite. The second law of thermodynamics affirms that. Science also affirms that there MUST be something that caused the universe to come into existence. If the universe started to exist some time in the distant past, then whatever caused it must be timeless and immaterial. The cosmological argument for the existence of God coherently poses that cause to be God. Christians believe God to be a timeless immaterial being. If God both ordered the physical world and ordered it such as to be finite, then He obviously has the power to manipulate space (matter) and time. So if God chose to manifest in bodily form as Jesus, then Jesus HAS the power available to Him to revert back to a timeless immaterial state.

For the Nuwe Hervormers' statement to be true, they have to show that either God CANNOT exist as a timeless immaterial being, or that Jesus isn't God.

Troy Brooks said...

Mike Licona is actually the only person who is born-again of the four. William Lane Craig is a non-OSASer. In other words he believes potentially he could lose eternal life tomorrow and thus go to Hell. The Bible teaches those who are born-again "shall never perish". So what's going on with Craig? Why does he teach what the Roman Church believe? Because he has given himself selfishly to the god who gives him an out-clause like a couple discussing potential divorce. Craig is unwilling to give his life to the God who keeps; he likes having his selfish out-clause. A spirit of a man that is truly regenerated knows it can never lose eternal life. Craig has no sense of this because he is not a child of God. He is actually relying on his own strength to keep himself saved in a false salvation. Let's pray for him.

Johannes said...

@Parture Craig might simply be wrong about it - that does not mean God doesn't accept him as his child. Why would someone want a 'selfish out-clause' if that means he's going to hell? Sure, a faith based on works is futile, but so is believing that you are saved when you are not (like someone who thinks all it takes is a 'Jesus Prayer'). Being a good Calvinist is no better than being a good Catholic.

The threat of 'false salvation' is just as serious for people who think they're saved by an empty faith.

That means we always have reason to pray for all believers' faith to be strengthened.

Anonymous said...

Craig pwns all.