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

The following article appeared at:

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?

Frederik Mulder

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.

Friday, 14 May 2010

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