Friday, January 27, 2012


We have already noted the discussion surrounding the recent YouTube video "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus," and have suggested that at least part of the problem is that the church is not what it should be. We attempted to point out that Christianity is a message, a relationship, and a way of life, and that what is often missing in most modern churches is the relationship. There is little sense of the presence of God in our worship, little sense of real communion with Christ. Ironically, most modern churches do not strike outsiders as being especially "spiritual."

But this raises a pertinent question: what is the church supposed to be like? And when we turn to the New Testament what we find there is quite different from what are used to seeing today.

If it were somehow possible to travel back in time and visit a First Century church, we would be surprised at how different it would be. We would probably be struck by what we did not see. There would not be a church building as such – no towering steeple or stained glass windows, no organ and no mahogany pews. The church would most likely meet in a private home. Moreover there would not be a professionally trained clergyman. Neither would there be a formal liturgy nor an elaborate musical program. None of these things are essential to Christianity, and to some extent they may even serve to obscure the real meaning of the faith.

How, then, did the early church manage to function? One of the best explanations we have of how the church is supposed to operate is found in Eph. 4:1-16. What Paul describes there is an organic or mystical relationship between Christ and the church – what theologians sometimes call the "mystical union." He compares the church to a human body, of which Christ is the head, "from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (v. 16: NKJV). In other words, the life and vitality of the "body" (the church) flows from Christ. The body is healthy and strong only to the degree that it is connected to Christ Himself.

But how is this life and vitality transmitted to the body? The answer is, by means of spiritual gifts. Every believer, if he is genuinely born again and has the Holy Spirit living inside of Him, has a spiritual gift. "But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift" (v. 7). It will be noted that the underlying assumption here is that the church is a "believers' church," with a regenerate church membership. Every member is presumed to be vitally connected to Christ and to have the Holy Spirit dwelling within him. Paul, then, enumerates several of these special gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers, and he tells us that their function is "the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry" (v. 12). "Ministry" (the Greek word is "diakonia," meaning service) involves serving others – attending to their needs. "Grace," in this context, is the divinely imparted help and ability that enables us to perform the service. It is something that the Holy Spirit gives, not something that is the result of academic training. A person can graduate from an academic institution and not even be converted, let alone have the spiritual gifts necessary for ministry.

The end result of a genuinely spiritual ministry is the kind of church life described in verses 1-3. It is a congregational life marked by "all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (vv. 2,3). In a spiritually healthy church there should be a profound sense of unity, the "communion of the saints." As church members are each united to Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so they are united to each other in common fellowship. As they grow in spiritual maturity, the "come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God" (v. 13).

The church with which we are familiar today is but a pale shadow of the original. We maintain the outward form of religion, but the inward vitality is gone. We sing "Sweet Hour of Prayer," but we do not pray. As a result we have robbed ourselves of the church's crowning glory – communion with Christ Himself. And the world can see right through us.


Sunday, January 22, 2012


    It seems that the blogosphere is all abuzz over a recent YouTube video entitled "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." The producer is a 22 year old "spoken word" poet named Jefferson Bethke, and the video was an instant sensation. It was viewed 10 million times in its first ten days.

    Bethke's poem begins with a provocative question: "What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion . . ." He then goes on to attack "religion" for starting wars, neglecting the poor, and condemning divorcees, and says "It's just behavior modification, like a long list of chores." Jesus, by way of contrast, offers love and forgiveness.

    We have often heard people say that "Christianity is not a religion but a relationship," but have often thought that the claim was a little disingenuous. After all, what is a "relationship with Jesus" if it is not religion? But Bethke is using the word "religion" in a specialized sense. What he means by "religion" is "self-righteousness, justification and hypocrisy." It is obviously a caricature, and yet the fact that the video has gotten so much attention shows that there is a widespread perception that the church is not what it should be. A recent Barna Group survey showed that large percentages of young adults in the US think that Evangelical Christians are judgmental and hypocritical, as well as too involved in politics and insensitive to others. Partly in response to these perceptions the "Emerging Church" movement, with which Bethke is connected, has arisen, arguing that the church needs to take a new, more "post-modern" approach, stressing relationships over abstract doctrine.

All of this raises a pertinent question: what is Christianity supposed to be like? What did Jesus intend the church to be like? In a nutshell, the answer given in the Bible is this: Christianity is a message, a relationship and a way of life.

In his Epistle to the Romans the apostle Paul begins his magisterial description of the Christian faith by saying "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes . . ." (Rom. 1:16; NKJV). Here it will be seen that Christianity if first of all a message, "the gospel" or "good news," a message to be proclaimed. It involves certain propositions about God, man and salvation, and Paul spends the next seven chapters or so expounding this theology in detail. Thus doctrine is very much an essential part of Christianity.

But it is also certainly true that Christianity involves a relationship as well. Significantly Paul called the gospel "the power of God. . ." But how is this "power" realized? Paul explains in chapter 8. Comparing Christianity with Judaism he said "For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son . . . that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (8:3,4). Paul then goes on to describe the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer: He gives us an assurance of acceptance with God, helps us to pray, and intercedes on our behalf. As a result God guides us and protects us through His providence. This all begins with the "new birth," a kind of mystical experience in which God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, comes to reside in the believer's heart, producing spiritual life from within. But this relationship is one that must be cultivated: we must "walk according to the Spirit" – consciously seeking divine guidance and help. We know God only to the extent that we seek Him.

But Christianity is also a way of life. The relationship changes the way we live. Paul said that the gospel was "the power of God to salvation," or "for salvation," as it might better be translated (NASV, ESV). "Salvation" is more than just the forgiveness of sins; it is freedom from the power of sin as well. And so Paul goes on to describe in the latter part of the epistle to describe the practical aspects of Christianity. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:1,2). How one lives his life is definitely a matter of importance to God.

The problem with the modern church, then, is not that it has too much doctrine or too many rules. If anything it is noticeably lax in both doctrine and discipline. It is the quality of the relationship that is lacking. The real problem with the church is its lack of vital piety. We honor God with our lips but our heart is far from Him (cf. Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:7,9). We complain about prayer being removed from the public schools, but cannot find it in our churches. The traditional Wednesday night prayer meeting has been deserted. Our churches have become mere social clubs for the comfortable middle class. Is it any wonder that the world charges us with hypocrisy?


Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Nature of Morality

For many the word "morality" has an intimidating ring to it. It conjures up the image of a frowning Deity. It implies a compete loss of human freedom. It suggests a "holier than thou" attitude. These are some of the stereotypes common in our culture today. But are they accurate?

    The problem with the stereotypes is that they presuppose a cold, uncaring God – a God Who imposes demands but has no heart of compassion. And yet nothing could be farther from the truth. It is a complete misreading of the character of God. "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him" (I John 4:16; NKJV).   

    This is why the examples of religious perfidy brought forward by Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists are largely irrelevant. The Bible does not say that there is not evil in the world. It does not even say that there are not hypocrites in the church who bring reproach on the gospel through their ungodly behavior. What the Bible says is that it is impossible to know God Himself truly and genuinely without loving others. "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (v. 8). If love is an essential part of God's character, then if we have been born of God that same character will be reflected in us. And if we truly know Him, then we will conform our character to His. To know Him is to become like Him. This, then, is the first element in morality. It is not a natter of becoming a self-righteous, hyper-critical, spiritual snob. It is a matter of reflecting God's own compassionate and caring nature.

    One of the best summary statements of morality in the Bible is found in the book of Micah. The prophet Micah wrote from about 740 to 690 B.C. during the period when the northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. It was a time when both the northern and southern kingdoms (Israel and Judah) were marked by corruption, injustice, and economic oppression. In this context Micah asked a pointed question: "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,/ Ten thousand rivers of oil?/ Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,/ The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Mic. 6:7). In other words, was God impressed with a multitude of sacrifices, with religious ceremony and ritual, in the face of oppression and injustice? The answer is a resounding "no"! "He has shown you, O man, what is good;/ And what does the Lord require of you/ But to do justly,/ To love mercy,/ And to walk humbly with your God?" (v. 8). "To do justly," in this context, means giving each person his due according to God's law. But merely giving people what they deserve is not enough. We are also "to love mercy." The Hebrew word translated "mercy" (chesed) means caring enough for our fellow human beings that we show them favor, especially when they are in need. And what should drive our relationships with others is our relationship with God Himself. We need to submit humbly to His authority and live in accordance with His will. That is the essence of morality.

    Is morality, therefore, harsh and inhumane? Not at all. It is God's plan for us, and His plan is always best. Morality is what enables us to reach our full human potential. We can never find true happiness until we are in conformity with our Creator's will, and are functioning the way He intended us to. He is wise, and His purposes are good.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: A Lesson in Faith and Politics

Today we often think of Evangelical Christians and other religious conservatives as being aligned with the Republican Party. The Democrats are usually thought of as the party of the secular left - - staunch supporters of legalized abortion and advocates of "gay rights." It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the leader of the Democratic Party one hundred years ago was a devout Evangelical Christian: William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a renown orator, three-time candidate for President, and Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. He closed his career as a prosecutor in the famous Scopes evolution trial of 1925.

Bryan was a loyal Democrat if there ever was one. He held to the traditional view of his party that the honest, hardworking laboring men and women of America were being systematically exploited by the wealthy financiers on Wall Street. Therefore Bryan saw it as his Christian duty to speak up on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden. And so he began his political career by promoting the free coinage of silver as a way of expanding the money supply and thereby easing the burden on debt ridden farmers. He favored lower tariffs and was an early proponent of a federal income tax. He attacked trusts and monopolies and advocated the government ownership of railroads. Although reluctant at first, he eventually became a whole-hearted supporter of the prohibition movement (Democrats traditionally opposed prohibition.) After the Spanish-American War of 1898 he opposed the annexation of the Philippines. He was generally opposed to war, and resigned from Woodrow Wilson's cabinet over what he perceived as a bias in favor of the allied powers. Bryan was seen as a dangerous radical in his lifetime, but he was also a hero to millions of farmers and workers in rural America who admired his eloquence, moral fervor, and patent sincerity.

Bryan's last great battle was against the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools. Today we often see Creationism as a conservative cause, at odds with the liberal, progressive policies Bryan espoused throughout his career. But in Bryan's own mind the two were closely linked together. Evolution was about the ruthless struggle for existence - - the survival of the fittest. Progressive politics, however, rested on the moral foundation of Christian compassion. Social Darwinism is the very antithesis of the Social Gospel. And to use taxpayer money to tear down civilization was utterly beyond Bryan's comprehension. Accordingly he advocated outlawing the teaching of evolution in tax supported schools.

The major test case came in 1925 when John T. Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, TN, was arrested for teaching evolution in class. Bryan was invited to join the prosecution; the ACLU provided a defense team that included Clarence Darrow, one of the top trial lawyers in the nation, and, ironically, once a political supporter of Bryan. In an unusual move the defense called Bryan himself to the witness stand, and for two hours Darrow subjected Bryan to a withering cross examination in which he tried to make Bryan's faith in the Bible look naïve and ridiculous. As it turned out, Bryan did not get a chance to cross examine Darrow, and as a result Bryan's reputation was irreparably damaged. Bryan died shortly after the trial. It was a tragic end to a heroic life.

Bryan always couched his positions in moral terms. But there were some disturbing inconsistencies in his stance. He was reluctant to challenge his party's position against prohibition at first, and at times he cooperated with Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine in New York City. But the most serious blot on Bryan's character was his attitude toward race relations. The Democratic Party in his day stood firmly for white supremacy and racial segregation, and Bryan throughout his career offered lame excuses for his party's stance. In perhaps the most deplorable episode in his career, Bryan was Secretary of State when President Wilson ordered the segregation of the federal government. Even though the matter was undoubtedly discussed in cabinet meetings, Bryan evidently said nothing in protest. He was too much of a party loyalist to challenge the racial attitudes of his southern white supporters.

This raises an important question for any Christian who takes his faith seriously and loves his country dearly: is it possible for a Christian to participate in the political process without compromising his faith? Bryan certainly thought he could. But Bryan was possessed of a certain naïve optimism about human nature, and at other points he was simply too much a part of his time and culture to see the faults and shortcomings of his own party. It was easy for him to denounce Wall Street plutocrats; it was harder to see fault with the Ku Klux Klan. The former, after all, were Republicans; the latter were loyal Democrats. It was hard for him to find fault with the "good guys" in the ongoing war against evil.

As Americans it is our privilege to choose our own leaders, and it is our duty to vote. But as Christians our first responsibility is toward God, and for this reason we must be careful about aligning ourselves too closely with a secular political party. Parties represent various competing interests in society; as Christians we must be concerned about the common good. Politics is the art of compromise; but as Christians we must stand firmly for the truth.

Christians should participate in the political process, but not necessarily in partisan politics. We should be issue oriented, not party oriented. We can accomplish more for the cause of truth by protesting and letter writing than we can by campaigning for a flawed candidate. And sometimes it makes more sense to vote for a minor party candidate than it does to support one of the two major parties that are a part of the established system in Washington. Let every Christian search his own conscience, and act accordingly!   

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Alasdair MacIntyre: A Study in Moral Theory



After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

Alasdair MacIntyre

University of Notre Dame Press, 3rd Ed., 2007

286 pp. pbk.


    After Virtue, written by Alasdair MacIntyre, who is currently a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, has become one of the most influential books dealing with the subject of ethics written in our time. It has sparked discussion around the world (in at least eleven different languages, including Turkish, Chinese and Japanese), and had made its influence felt in the "emerging church": Brian McLaren has acknowledged his indebtedness to MacIntyre's book.

    MacIntyre is a native of Glasgow, Scotland, and began his teaching career in the U.K. before emigrating to the U.S. around 1969. Since then he has held a large number of different teaching positions in leading colleges and universities across the U.S.

    In addition to his academic wanderings MacIntyre has been on something of an intellectual voyage as well. Basically a disillusioned Marxist, he converted to the Catholic Church in the early 1980's. In his philosophy he has tried to combine insights from Marx with those of Aristotle, and now identifies himself as a Thomist.

    MacIntyre argues that we find ourselves in a situation in which it is nearly impossible to resolve conflicts over basic moral principles. Part of the reason for this is confusion over terminology. Western culture has changed greatly over the past several centuries, and yet we still use the terminology of the past when people thought very differently about morality than we do today.

    MacIntyre traces the problem back to what he calls "the failure of the Enlightenment project." The Enlightenment thinkers posited man as an autonomous moral agent. Rejecting authority in morality, the attempted instead to find a universally valid ethical norm based on pure reason alone. But by abandoning the idea of divine purpose or design they created an unbridgeable gap between the content of traditional morality and human nature as it actually exists. In other words, they were faced with the central problem of how to deduce an "ought" from an "is." The inevitable result was that by the end of the nineteenth century at least some philosophers had concluded that there is nothing to morality than personal preference (Emotivism). The moral autonomy of the Enlightenment led very naturally to the outright nihilism of Nietzsche.

    MacIntyre, however, tells us that there is another way, and suggests that we take a closer look at Aristotle. The apparent attraction of Aristotle consists in the fact that the ancient sage offers us an essentially sociological conception of "virtue." A "virtue" () is not a principle derived from a universal law, but rather an admirable quality or characteristic that will enable us to live happily in human society. What determines a "virtue" then, is largely determined by society.

    According to MacIntyre's own theory, a virtue is largely determined by three factors: practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives (p. xi). A "practice" is a field of human endeavor that imposes its own requirements necessary for success, such as the practice of law or medicine. The "narrative unity" of our personal lives is what gives our individual actions moral significance. All three of these factors (practices, traditions, and narrative unity) are essentially local and culture-specific, and as such will vary from one society to the next. This has left MacIntyre open to charges of relativism and communitarianism.

    MacIntyre's theory is fraught with manifold practical difficulties. Take, for example, his concept of "practices." While it is true that some fields constitute "practices" with defined standards of conduct focused on "internal goods" (e.g. sports, the military), others do not (most low level hourly paid jobs). This means that a large share of the population is left without a "practice" in which to demonstrate a "virtue." Their only motivation for work is the measly prospect of "external goods" (i.e., money), an unworthy motive in MacIntyre's estimation. Moreover, come practices involve norms that MacIntyre clearly feels are objectionable. The old Soviet Politburo and yes, the American business community, both fall within this category. Here the practice would require behavior that involves harming other people, socially or economically.

    And what about "traditions"? Here MacIntyre must face the fact that the Russian tradition is authoritarian and the American tradition is strongly individualistic, both of which MacIntyre finds objectionable.

    And what if a given society has conflicting traditions? On what basis do we resolve the conflict? How do we know which tradition to accept and which to modify or reject? American culture, for example, has strong elements of both Evangelical Protestantism and laissez-faire capitalism, and these sometimes come into conflict with each other. Shall we call our devotion to the almighty dollar "the profit motive" or just plain "filthy lucre"? MacIntyre would have us to believe that such internal conflicts are normal. But if they are normal, then what has moral philosophy solved? Very little, it would appear.

    To argue that virtues are determined by practices and traditions is merely to push the question back one step further. Is it possible for the practice or tradition itself to be evil? Could not an entire society at times be evil? On what basis could we make such an evaluation?

    It is not entirely clear in his book whether or not MacIntyre thinks that there is an objective standard of morality. On the surface he appears to be emphatic that there is not. He dismisses the divine command theory of morality, and ridicules the notion of "human rights." Belief in them, he says, is "one with belief in witches and unicorns" (p. 69). He criticizes the UN Declaration on Human Rights of 1949 for "not giving good reasons for any assertions whatsoever . . ." and concludes, "Natural or human rights then are fictitious" (p. 70). But at other points he makes comments that seem to imply the existence of just such a standard.

    MacIntyre tells us that at the time he wrote After Virtue he had been "preoccupied with the question of the basis for the rejection of Stalinism" (p. xvii). But if his aim is to counter the abuses of both Stalinist tyranny and cutthroat capitalism, his argument has led us to an ironic conclusion. Does not the evil endemic in both systems stem from the very fact that neither wants to acknowledge a universally valid higher law? And if virtues are determined by practices, traditions and personal narrative, then were not both Joseph Stalin and John D. Rockefellar acting virtuously? Were they not both acting consistently within their local practices, traditions and narratives?

    If morality is determined by society, and there is no higher law, no transcendent standard of justice or morality, then the power of the state is left unchecked. There is no higher court to which to appeal, no answer to the crushing brutality of the all powerful state. Minority rights disappear altogether. It is the tyranny of the majority completely unfettered, for no room for dissent of any kind. We cannot help but think that in MacIntyre's case the prescribed medicine is at least as bad as the disease itself.

    Ironically what MacIntyre has done is to reject the part of the Enlightenment that was classical, viz., its belief in truth, beauty, morality and justice, and has kept that part which was truly modern, viz., its secular outlook, its skepticism, its rationalist method, and its materialist philosophy. He got rid of Mozart and kept Robespierre! It was this modern aspect of the Enlightenment that eventually led to Nietzsche and all the horrors of 20th Century totalitarianism.

    By giving up belief in a universal moral standard Dr. MacIntyre has essentially eliminated the element of duty or obligation from morality. What he offers us is essentially a morality of convenience. But ultimately each individual decides for himself what is convenient. To a scholarly gentleman like Dr. MacIntyre it might be a quiet evening playing chess with a friend, but to the street hustler it might be successfully executing a drug sale, and Dr. MacIntyre might be hard pressed to explain why the drug dealer is "wrong," if it is even possible in his account to use such a term.

    But try as he might, Dr. MacIntyre cannot escape the law of God. It is written on his heart. He cannot give up his conscience without giving up his own humanity. That is why he instinctively recoils at capitalist greed and Stalinist oppression. He has not been able to explain why he feels that way, but he unmistakably does. The answer to his dilemma is only to be found in God.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How Do We Know that Jesus Rose from the Dead?

Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? That Jesus did so is probably the most extraordinary claim of Christianity, and not surprisingly, it is the claim that has elicited the most skepticism on the part of unbelievers.

    But how do we know that the resurrection actually took place? Perhaps the most detailed account that we have of it is contained in The Gospel According to John. John describes the death of Jesus on the cross, noting in particular that one of the Roman soldiers pierced the dead body of Jesus with a spear (John 19:34). John then tells of how the body was wrapped in strips of linen and placed in a nearby tomb.

    John then goes on to tell how he discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. He and Peter were informed by Mary Magdalene that the tomb was empty. Both men ran to the site and saw the empty tomb for themselves. John even describes the position of the linen wrappings that were still lying in the tomb. After Peter and John returned to their homes Jesus Himself appeared to Mary and addressed her by name. Thus Mary Magdalene became the first person to see Jesus alive after the crucifixion.

    John goes on then to record three separate instances in which Jesus appeared to the disciples as a group. The first of these took place in the evening of that first Sunday. The disciples were meeting behind locked doors when Jesus suddenly appeared in the room. He spoke with them and showed them the obvious identifying marks, the wounds on His hands and side.

    John then tells us the famous story about "doubting Thomas." Thomas was not present at the first appearance and found it hard to believe that any such thing as a physical resurrection could actually take place. Whatever the other disciples had seen, they did not see Jesus. "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (20:25; NKJV). In other words, he said exactly the same thing that modern skeptics, versed in naturalistic science, would have said.

    Jesus provided exactly the kind of proof that Thomas demanded. A week later He appeared again in the same room, and this time Thomas was there. Jesus challenged him to touch the wounds. We do not know that a modern atheist such as David Hume or Bertrand Russell would have been convinced, but Thomas certainly was. His response was, "My Lord and my God!" (v. 28).

    John then goes on to describe another incident that apparently happened sometime afterward. Several of the disciples were fishing in the Sea of Tiberias in northern Palestine when Jesus appeared on the shore preparing breakfast for them. He invited them to join Him. They all ate and engaged in conversation.

    How do we know that John is telling us the truth? There is corroborating evidence. All four gospels contain accounts of the resurrection. The apostles all claimed to have been eyewitnesses, and they made the resurrection a key point of their preaching. And the apostle Paul, writing in about A.D 55 to the church in Corinth in Greece made this interesting comment: Christ "rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and . . . was seen by Cephas [i.e., Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also . . ." (I Cor. 15:4-8).

    The gist of the matter is this: Jesus appeared on several different occasions; He appeared to several different people at the same time; He interacted with them; they could physically touch them; and on one occasion He ate the same food that they were eating. What all of this does is eliminate the possibilities of optical illusion, hallucination, temporary insanity, or conspiracy and fraud. A large number of people saw something, and it was enough to convince them that Jesus, Whom they had seen hanging lifeless on the cross, had actually risen from the dead. That was the unanimous testimony of the First Century church. The resurrection is one of the best documented events in ancient history.

    C.S. Lewis described his shock at hearing a friend of his, "the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew," say that say that the evidence for the historicity of the gospels was surprisingly good. "'Rum thing' he went on. 'All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as it if had really happened once.'" (Surprised by Joy; Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955, pp. 223-224). The comment shook Lewis' own faith in Atheism, and led to his eventually becoming a Christian. It is a comment well worth pondering.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

We have already stated in a previous blog post that our knowledge about God and reality rests upon the concurrence of three independent lines of evidence: nature, Scripture and conscience. Skeptics, however, have challenged all three. We have already devoted attention to the first, nature, involving science and evolution. What about the second, Scripture? In a recent comment on this blog Tildeb stated the objection this way: "All we really have is testimonials – often contradictory and out of sequence – in the form 'I know a guy who knew a guy who said he once knew of this guy who performed miracles.'" Making allowance for a certain amount of exaggeration on Tildeb's part, the statement does more or less reflect the thinking of modern critical scholarship on the issue. But is it true?

    Almost all of the information we have about the historical Jesus is contained in the four gospels of the New Testament. The "Gnostic gospels" of which we have heard so much about lately have little historical connection with First Century Palestine and are obvious attempts to recast Christianity in the mold of Greek philosophy.

    But how historically reliable are the four biblical gospels? Who wrote them, and how much did they know? The traditional view was stated by the Second Century church father Irenaeus, who tells us this: Matthew originally wrote his gospel in the language of the Hebrews (evidently either Hebrew or Aramaic). Mark wrote down what the apostle Peter had preached. Luke did the same with the Apostle Paul, and then finally John, a member of Jesus' inner circle, wrote his gospel. Thus while John gives us a firsthand eyewitness account, and Mark relates for us Peter's firsthand account, Luke is the careful third person historian, diligently gathering information and scrupulously weighing his sources, to give us a comprehensive biography of Jesus. Thus if the traditional accounting is correct, we are hardly dealing with hearsay evidence.

    All of this has been called into question in modern times, however. The chief stumbling block appears to be that all of the gospels record Jesus as performing miracles. Again, Tildeb states the objection. In order to believe the gospel accounts we have to suspend what we know about nature. Miracle do not happen; therefore the stories are implausible. The historical Jesus could not possible have done some of the things that He is reported to have done.

    How, then, did these stories get into the Bible? The modern critical answer is pretty much "I know a guy who knew a guy . . ." According to the modern critical reconstruction of events, the four gospels were written at a relatively late date by persons who were not eyewitnesses. Stories were handed down by word of mouth, and changed over time to meet the apologetic needs of the church.

    However, the methodology of the modern critics is questionable. They begin by subjecting the available evidence to intense scrutiny, and then conclude that it is either ambiguous or unreliable. One might suppose that this would leave us in a position of skepticism about the origins of the gospels, but surprisingly it does not. The critics go on to reconstruct the history of the gospels, relying very heavily on a subjective reading of the texts. But the reconstruction is mostly conjectural. What the critics have done, in effect, is to get rid of the evidence and replace it with speculation. O the marvels of modern scholarship!

    Ironically, confirmation of the traditional view comes from an unlikely source. One of the leading liberal theologians, Dr. John A. T. Robinson, published Redating the New Testament in 1976. Dr. Robinson was struck by the fact that not one of the New Testament writers mentions the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as a past event, which they almost certainly would have otherwise. Dr. Robinson went through and reexamined all of the evidence, and concluded that conservative scholars had largely been right all along. Most, at least, of the books of the New Testament had to have been written prior to A.D. 70.

    What the "I know a guy who knew a guy . . ." scenario overlooks is the role of the apostles in the transmission of information about Jesus. Jesus did not leave Himself without witnesses. He worked closely throughout His earthly ministry with a group of handpicked disciples. They saw Him alive after His crucifixion. The books that make up the New Testament are in the New Testament precisely because they were either written by apostles or by people who were closely associated with the apostles. The witnesses are so many, and they are so close in time to Jesus Himself, that they cannot possible all be wrong. Thus when we weight the evidence carefully and objectively, we are face to face with a crucified and risen Savior!