Saturday, January 30, 2010

Who is Jesus? The Centrality of the Person and Work of Christ

I. Introduction – Jesus as the Center of Christianity
John 8:48-59 contains a fascinating exchange between Jesus and “the Jews” (the teachers and Pharisees).

The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”
“I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
At this the Jews exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets! Who do you think you are?”
Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

Why do the Jews try to stone Jesus at the end of that passage? Because Jesus claims to be God. “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” Jesus is not just saying that he has been around since before Abraham (a claim which would be kooky enough in its own right); he is taking upon himself the divine name – the name by which the Lord revealed himself to Moses (Exodus 3:14). I AM THAT I AM. I AM – Yahweh. “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” Jesus is claiming to be God in the flesh – the claim is not explicit, but it is obvious enough that the Jews respond violently. You can hear the exasperation and disbelief in their voices—Jesus, who do you think you are?!?! This is the question that I want us to consider today. Jesus – who do you think you are?

William Lane Craig rightly argues: “The Christian religion stands or falls with the person of Jesus Christ. Judaism could survive without Moses, Buddhism without Buddha, Islam without Mohammed; but Christianity could not survive without Christ. This is because unlike most other world religions, Christianity is belief in a person, a genuine historical individual—but at the same time a special individual, whom the church regards as not only human, but divine. At the center of any Christian apologetic therefore stand the person of Christ; and very important for the doctrine of Christ’s person are the personal claims of the historical Jesus. Did he claim to be divine? Or did he regard himself as a prophet? Or was he the exemplification of some highest human quality such as love or faith? Who did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be?”

The person and work of Jesus Christ sets Christianity entirely apart from every other religion and philosophy. What we believe about Jesus is unique and determinative.

a) Jesus is God incarnate – Jesus is not just a prophet, not just a teacher, not just a good moral example. He is God in the flesh, dwelling amongst man.
b) Jesus died as an atonement for sin – Jesus was crucified and died, but His death was not a martyr’s death. His death purchased our salvation, our eternal life.
c) Jesus rose from the dead – Jesus’ death was not the end of His story. He rose from the dead, and lives on in a glorified body.
d) Jesus determines our eternal destiny – Jesus will come back to judge the living and the dead. Where we go after we die is determined by our relationship to Jesus Christ.

That’s a core set of Christian beliefs about Jesus—not exhaustive, but it expresses the heart of our faith. But an important question needs to be asked—are these beliefs about Jesus true? Is Jesus who we Christians believe Him to be? Is Jesus truly the divine Son of God who died for our sins, rose again on the third day, and will determine our eternal destiny?

Three years ago, the blockbuster movie The DaVinci Code made some striking claims about Jesus of Nazareth. The movie’s authoritative teacher, Sir Leigh Teabing, declares:

Jesus Christ was a historical figure of staggering influence, perhaps the most enigmatic and inspirational leader the world has ever seen. … The Council of Nicaea … debated and voted upon … the divinity of Jesus. … Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet – a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal. … Many scholars claim that the early Church literally stole Jesus from His original followers, hijacking His human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power. … The vast majority of educated Christians know the history of their faith. Jesus was indeed a great and powerful man. Constantine’s underhanded political maneuvers don’t diminish the majesty of Christ’s life. Nobody is saying Christ was a fraud, or denying that He walked the earth and inspired millions to better lives. But he wasn’t God, and he never claimed to be.

While most people are smart enough not to take their theological education from a summer movie, the views espoused in The DaVinci Code have actually found a wide following amongst North Americans, even many Christians. The popular belief is that Jesus was a great man, a prophet, a revolutionary world-changer, but not God in the flesh. Jesus was a lot of wonderful things, and made a huge difference, but He is most certainly not who the Christian Church historically has claimed Him to be.

As Christians, we need to respond to such mistaken notions about Jesus of Nazareth, and point people towards who Jesus truly was and is. An essential task of Christian apologetics is demonstrating that Jesus Christ believed Himself to be God in the flesh, and demonstrated His Divine identity through His life, ministry, death, and resurrection. My prayer is for you to know that Jesus Christ demonstrated, through His Words and through His deeds, that He believed Himself to be (and in fact was) God in the flesh. In pursuit of that goal, we are going to look at words and deeds of Jesus that are accepted by almost all biblical scholars – including non-Christian scholars who absolutely reject the conclusions that I will draw. That is, the biblical evidence that we will survey together does not require you to believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I believe the Bible is both of those things – but the passages we will look at are generally accepted as authentic and historical even by scholars who reject the inspiration of Scripture.

Why, you might ask, would I want to limit us to passages that are accepted as authentically historical by radical atheistic scholars? Two reasons. First, because we can do so and still establish very powerfully and persuasively that Jesus Christ believed He was God incarnate. Second, because not everybody that we talk to accepts the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. I certainly do, and I know that most of you do as well. But I also have numerous friends and family members who do not. But even atheistic biblical scholars who think Jesus was just a radical dude acknowledge that much that is contained within the Gospels is literal history—an accurate record of Jesus’s words and deeds. And on the basis of such passages, we can show that Jesus believed He was God in the flesh. Even people who reject the authority of the Bible still have to deal with the person and work of Jesus Christ.
So – with that in mind, let’s look at the Jesus of the Gospels—who did Jesus think He was?

II. Who Did Jesus Think He Was?How do we determine who Jesus thought He was? There are two primary vehicles through which people demonstrate their assessment of themselves – their words and their deeds. So let’s look at what Jesus said about Himself, and then what He did to demonstrate who He was.

1. Jesus’ Words
How did Jesus understand and refer to Himself? What were the terms and titles that He used about Himself? There are three titles commonly used of Jesus in the Gospels.

a) Messiah
The first title used of Jesus, and the one most familiar to us, is the Hebrew “Messiah,” (or meschiach) whose Greek equivalent is “Christ,” (or Christos).
The title “Messiah” or “Christ” is not an explicitly divine title; rather, it is the acknowledgment of a divine anointing. King David was the “meshiach,” the anointed of the Lord. Others in the Old Testament shared that title. However, as Jewish history progressed, “Messiah” became a technical designation for the anointed of the Lord who was expected to come to redeem or rescue Israel from oppression and bondage. Very early on, “Christ” became the most popular title for Jesus, such that from Paul’s New Testament letters through to the modern church, it serves as a “surname” for Jesus. This title for Jesus is affirmed throughout the Gospels in many ways.

First, we find explicit affirmation that Jesus believed Himself to be the Messiah, the anointed Savior of Israel. Matthew 16:13-18 reads: When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Second, Jesus implicitly affirms His Messianic identity. In Luke 7, John the Baptist begins to wonder whether Jesus is who John had thought Him to be (namely, the Messiah). So we see John send his own disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” In Luke 7:21-23, we find Jesus’ reply. At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

Jesus’ reply, calling attention to the deeds He has been performing, hearken back to Is. 35:5-6 and Is. 61:1, which faithful Jews regarded as Messianic promises. In the first passage, Isaiah promises that in the time of the Messiah, Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Isaiah 61:1, another Messianic promise, reads: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. The words from Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies are echoed in the words that Jesus uses to reply to John’s disciples. “Yes, I am the Messiah – see how my ministry fulfills what was promised through the prophet Isaiah?” Jesus doesn’t have to come right out and say it; the allusions to Isaiah are sufficient implicit affirmation of His Messianic identity.

Finally, Jesus’ Messianic self-understanding is confirmed at His crucifixion. What did Pilate write on the placard on Jesus’ cross? Mark 15:26 reads: The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. This was the title given by Jews to the expected Messiah. As J. D. G. Dunn points out, Jesus was executed “on the charge of being a messianic pretender.” That is, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the coming redeemer of Israel – bringing a charge of treason, punishable by death. So explicitly and implicitly, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.

b) Son of God
The second title used of Jesus in the Gospels is “Son of God.” Today, Son of God is understood as being an explicit claim to Godhood, but this was actually not the case in the 1st century. That is, claiming to be the Son of God did not automatically mean that Jesus was claiming to be God in the flesh. That does not mean, however, that the term is empty or meaningless—far from it! The title “Son of God” claims a unique intimate relationship and connection with God.

Jesus explicitly claims to be the Son. Let’s look at Matthew 11:25-27. At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Strong words, identifying Jesus as having a unique family relationship with God.
Also, note the intimate claims to Sonhood contained in Jesus’ prayers. Mark 14:35-36: Going a little farther, Jesus fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” In all His prayers, Jesus refers to God as “Father.” This becomes more evident throughout the Gospel of John. Look through John 15-17 and notice how many times Jesus refers to “my Father,” “my Father in heaven,” and “the Father.” The intimate sonship that Jesus experienced and expressed was unheard of in Jewish religion. God was Lord, Yahweh, sovereign of the universe. But no self-respecting Jew would take it upon himself to call God “Father.” They would call Abraham “Father,” or Jacob, or even Moses. But to call God “Father” was to demonstrate spiritual arrogance and pride. Jesus, however, was comfortable praying to His “Father” in heaven, and even encouraged His followers to do the same.

c) Son of Man
While Messiah or Christ is the most popular title for Jesus today, and while Son of God carries (to our ears) the strongest claims to deity, the most important Gospel term used for Jesus is actually “Son of Man.” First it was Jesus’ favorite self-designation. This is what Jesus preferred to call Himself. For example, in Matthew 16:13, which we looked at earlier, Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus uses the term 83 times for Himself in the Gospels. Second, Son of Man, although it sounds somewhat innocent to our post-modern ears, carried very explicit divine connotations in 1st century Palestine.

The self-designation invokes Daniel 7:13-14, which recounts a heavenly vision granted to the prophet Daniel. In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. Daniel’s Son of Man is a human-looking figure, but is endowed with divine attributes: dominion, everlasting kingdom, clouds of heaven. While the figure of the Son of Man was not highly visible in the Hebrew Old Testament, it became more so in the intertestamental period, in the Jewish apocryphal literature. The Son of Man was a figure of exaltation and vindication – the vindication both of the Son of Man and, through him, of the people of Israel as a whole. The Son of Man was the figure used by God to bring a final end to the exile of Israel – her oppression under foreign rulers. So, the title which Jesus chooses to use of Himself most frequently is this somewhat obscure, but very pregnant term which carries heavily divine overtones.

d) Mark 14:60-64 – the coup de grace
During Jesus’ trial with the Jewish Sanhedrin, we see this fascinating and crucial exchange.
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”

What is the high priest asking Jesus? The question is basically – Jesus, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!?! “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus, “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death.

In this central confrontation, Jesus conflates all three self-designations into one. Are you the Christ? Yes. Are you the Son of the Blessed One? Yes. Not only that, I am the Son of Man. For good measure, Jesus adds that He will be “sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” To top it all off, he begins, once again, by invoking the divine name for himself – “I AM.” Folks, in 1st-century Judaism, it doesn’t get any more explicit than that. Yes, I am the Messiah, the anointed one. Yes, I am the Son of God; I have a unique, familiar relationship with God Almighty. I am the Son of Man, the divine deliverer of Daniel 7. And I will sit at the right hand of God the Father. I am God!

Did Jesus understand Himself to be divine, to be God incarnate? Yes – and the futile struggles of skeptical scholars (and the DaVinci Code) to argue otherwise ultimately shipwreck on passages like Mark 14. Jesus was crucified for being a blasphemer, a Messianic pretender. Jesus made radical claims for Himself, claims to be God in the flesh.

2. Jesus’ Deeds
But we do not just have Jesus’ self-understanding and self-designations to go on. Jesus also assumed divine authority and status through His works, His actions. Indeed, His actions speak louder than His words in many cases.

a) Authority to Forgive Sin

First, He takes upon Himself the right to forgive sin. Mark 2:1-12 relates a powerful story:

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Who has the right to forgive sins? Only God, and according to the teachers of the law, only through the sacrificial system. The teachers of the law are asking – “Who does this Jesus fellow think he is?!” Jesus is claiming for Himself the divine authority to bypass the temple altogether and forgive sins Himself, in His own name. The passage continues:

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins …” He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

b) Authority to Determine Eternal Destiny
Jesus claims authority to forgive sin, but even more astounding, he claims the authority and right to determine people’s eternal destiny. Let’s illustrate this with a few passages. In Luke 12:8-9, Jesus says, “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God.” In John 10:24-28, we read: Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” In other words, “Jesus – who do you think you are? Who are you?!”

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Again, this is merely a taste of the divine authority that Jesus assumes – to determine people’s eternal destiny. There are many more passages in the Gospels that we could go to, but those suffice to prove the point.

c) Authority to Teach Divine Truth

Perhaps even more astounding, at least to the Jews of the 1st century, Jesus also took upon Himself the authority to teach divine truth in His own name. The best demonstration of this is found in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5-7. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus insists: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.

In other words, Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Then, beginning in verse 21, we find a series of six teachings. Each time, he begins: You have heard that it was said; and continues by claiming, But I tell you. Jesus takes either an Old Testament law, or else a rabbinical interpretation of an Old Testament law, and turns it upside down. He deepens the teachings and challenges the authority of the Pharisees and the scribes as interpreters. And He does it on His own authority! Thus, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we read (7:28-29): When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Jesus takes upon Himself the teaching and guiding authority of God Almighty. In the same way, Jesus uses the formula “amen, amen,” or “I tell you the truth” (NIV) or “Truly, truly I say to you” (NAS) to introduce His divine teaching authority. This formula is used twenty-five times in John’s Gospel (e.g. John 3:3 and 3:5), and shows that Jesus is not merely speaking for God, but is speaking as God. As Ben Witherington says, “Here was someone who thought he possessed not only divine inspiration … but also divine authority and the power of direct divine utterance.”

d) Authority to Heal & Exorcise Demons

Throughout the Gospels, we also see Jesus assuming the authority to perform miraculous healings and exorcisms. In Mark 9:14-28, we see a lengthy exorcism described and narrated. Amongst others, we see miraculous healings of leprosy (Luke 5:12-14), distance healings (Luke 7:1-10), healing the blind (John 9:1-12), and raising the dead (John 11:1-44). New Testament scholars are increasingly coming to the conclusion that miraculous faith healings were an integral part of Jesus’ ministry. Many of those scholars refuse to believe that they actually happened, at least in any kind of miraculous sense; but they admit that you cannot explain them out of the Gospels. They are a key historical piece of Jesus’ life and ministry.

e) Jesus’ Cumulative Authority in Matthew 8-9
Matthew 8-9 contain a beautiful cumulative description of the all-inclusive authority of Jesus.
(i) Lord of Sickness & Disease (8:1-4, 5-13, 14-17)
(ii) Lord of Nature (8:23-27)
(iii) Lord of Spirits (8:28-34)
(iv) Lord of Sin (9:1-8)
(v) Lord of the Traditions of the Elders (9:14-17)
(vi) Lord of Death (9:18-26)

When you put together what Jesus says about Himself and what He does, you are left with the unmistakeable impression that He thought He possessed divine authority. Years ago, C. S. Lewis posed his famous trilemma about the person of Jesus Christ. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

When we examine the historical evidence to answer the question “Who Does Jesus Think He Is?” the answer which echoes back is: “God.”

Bono, lead singer of the band U2, was asked about his Christian faith. The interviewer asked, “We all know Jesus was a great teacher and moral example. But all that Christian stuff about him being God, isn’t that a little far-fetched?” Bono had this to say in response. “Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: He was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says, No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: ‘I’m the Messiah.’ I’m saying: ‘I am God incarnate.’ … So what you’re left with is either Christ was who He said He was—the Messiah—or a complete nutcase. … [and] the idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me that’s far-fetched.”

Skeptics will often refuse to embrace the terms of C. S. Lewis’ trilemma. Instead, they will respond by saying: “There’s a fourth option. I acknowledge that the Jesus presented in the Gospels claims to be divine. But I don’t think that account is an accurate record of what Jesus said and did. The Jesus of the Gospels is legend.” Thus, the skeptic tries to make the trilemma into a quadrilemma – Jesus is either liar, lunatic, lord, or legend. And they choose legend.

That is why I began this apologetics series not with the self-understanding of Jesus, but rather with the question of the historical reliability of the Gospels, followed by their textual integrity. The discussion of the previous two weeks demonstrates why legend is not a legitimate option. The Gospels are historically reliable. They were written very close to the time of the events that they narrate. They claim to contain eyewitness testimony, and that claim is confirmed both by the internal evidence within the Gospels (the presence of numerous incidental details) and the external evidence supplied by archaeology and other ancient literature. The Gospels were written and began circulating at a time when there were still numerous living eyewitnesses, both friends and foes, who could have countered any details that were incorrect. But we do not find that. Rather, both friends and foes accept the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Friends (Christians) proclaim it as Gospel truth, and worship the Savior and Lord contained therein. Foes (Jews and Romans) denounce the miracle-working Jesus as a sorcerer, a tool of the devil. All alike acknowledge the astounding claims that Jesus makes for Himself (indeed, the Jews have him crucified for those claims!), and the incredible miracles that He performs. The Gospels are historically reliable. Furthermore, the text of the Gospels is intact – it reflects what was originally written. Textual criticism has established with strong certainty the faithfulness of our current Greek text to the original autographs. Given the historical reliability and textual integrity of the New Testament Gospels, one cannot claim that the Jesus contained therein is a legend. It is simply not an option. Lewis’ trilemma stands – you can reject him as a liar, lock him up as a lunatic, or worship him as Lord and God. But you must make your choice!

The refusal of some scholars and skeptics to accept the logical conclusions of the Gospel record is due not to lack of historical evidence but to their personal prejudices—the logic of their atheistic or naturalistic worldview. In other words, people refuse to grant the conclusion that Jesus believed He was incarnate God simply because they are unwilling to accept that Jesus was incarnate God! Yet this is who the historical record in the Gospels clearly, consistently, and authoritatively present to us: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man. Jesus, who has the authority to forgive sin, who will determine men’s eternal destinies, who has the authority to teach divine truths in His own name, who has the ability to heal sickness in his own name. The Jesus presented by the historical record is a Jesus who talks and acts like one who believes he is, and is in fact, God in the flesh. Jesus shows himself to be the Christ, the divine Son of God who dies on a cross in order to save His people from their sins, the one who rose again on the third day, the one who now sits at the right hand of God the Father, and who will come again. So, having answered the question, “Who do you think you are?”, and identifying who Jesus is, the question now becomes turned toward us: “What are you going to do with this Jesus?” The options, ultimately, are few in number. You can ignore him, at your own peril; you can reject Him, to your own loss; or you can accept and worship Him as Savior and Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Textual Integrity of the New Testament

I. The Importance of Textual Integrity

As an evangelical Christian, I acknowledge the Bible, including the New Testament, as the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God – God’s revelation of His character, actions, purpose, and calling to His people. The text of the New Testament is central to our Christian faith. For example, we talked last week about the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. One of the reasons we can trust their accuracy is that they were written very soon after the death and resurrection of Christ. Eyewitnesses – both Christian and non-Christian – were present who could (and would) have contradicted any false historical claims contained in the Gospels. This is all fine and good – but what if the text, the words, of the Gospels were changed after their initial writing? That is, what if the words that we have in Matthew’s Gospel are not an accurate reflection of what Matthew actually wrote, but have been radically changed by later scribes and copyists? The words would no longer be a reflection of early eyewitness testimony.
This morning we are going to talk about textual integrity. A working definition of textual integrity is: “Accurate transmission of the words of the New Testament, such that the words we have in our New Testament are a faithful representation of the words originally written by the authors of Scripture.”

Furthermore, as Christians our faith is centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ. While Christianity affirms much more than this, the necessary core of faith in Christ must include and profess (1) the deity; (2) the atoning death; and (3) the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. How do we come to the place of acknowledging the centrality of these doctrines? From the New Testament. How do we know who Jesus is and what He has done? From the Gospels. The historical reliability of the New Testament is absolutely key. But so too is the textual integrity of the New Testament.

A. Textual Integrity and Historical Reliability

In many ways historical reliability depends upon textual integrity. Imagine with me that I have in my hands the only existing biography of my great-great-great-grandfather Sven Anderson – hand-written in Swedish by his eldest son Argur in a series of journals. Argur’s account of his father’s life would be the best source of information about the famous Sven Anderson (inventor of Swedish meatballs and the founder of IKEA). What a treasure it would be! Naturally, I prepare to publish the account so that the world can acknowledge the genius of my ancestor. But now, imagine that I come across some parts of Sven’s biography that strike me as inaccurate or unkind. I don’t want to malign great-great-great-grandfather’s memory, so I decide to, well, change a few details here and there. You know, take out the section about Sven beating his wife; change the section about Sven’s dispute with his neighbor to make the neighbor look worse. Whatever the changes I make, they are all made before the account of Sven’s life is published. My newly-published biography of Sven Anderson would still be the only source of information about the life of the great Swede; but it would no longer be an accurate account. The changes that I made would have rendered it historically suspect. The biography is no longer historically reliable – not because of any fault of the original author (Argur Anderson), or the original hand-written document, but rather because of the ill intentions and actions of myself as a later scribe.

B. Textual Reliability and the Person and Work of Jesus Christ

The New Testament Gospels are, by all accounts, the best source of information that we have about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Gospels are the result of a long process of textual corruption and alteration, such that the original form of the Gospels is irrecoverable, then our ability to know who Jesus is and what He has done and what we are to do in response would be compromised. A popular accusation launched by liberal theologians and scholars is that the real Jesus was just a man, but that later scribes and church authorities imposed a supernatural Jesus upon the earliest Gospel traditions. That is, the Gospel-writers did not necessarily present Jesus as being a God-man; that came later as scribes copied and re-wrote the Gospel material. In order to have faith in Jesus and follow Him faithfully, we need to know who Jesus was and what He did.

C. Textual Reliability and Scriptural Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Authority
Finally, our affirmation of the New Testament as the Word of God depends upon textual integrity. Along with 1 Peter 1:21, I affirm that Scriptural prophecy did not come about “by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Timothy 3:16 proclaims that Scripture is “God-breathed,” or inspired by the Holy Spirit, for the purposes of “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” But what precisely is inspired by God? It is natural to assume that it is the writing of the original Scriptural author. That is, the Gospel penned by Matthew is God-inspired. If later scribes introduced errors or mistakes into the text, those mistakes are not inspired Scripture. We affirm Scripture as being inerrant – that is, without error in all that it teaches and proclaims. However, what precisely is inerrant? Again, it is the original writings that must be seen as inerrant. If a later copyist or scribe introduced an error or addition to the original document, those scribal errors are not inerrant. Ditto for Scriptural authority. God’s Word is authoritative for our Christian belief and practice. We are to do what Jesus commands and exhorts us to do, and to believe what the New Testament teaches us to believe. But we must be confident that what we have is actually what God intended to communicate to us.
Thus, it is essential to be able to know and to show that we have good reasons for believing that the text of the New Testament that we have today is an accurate representation of the original text of the New Testament documents. So our endeavor today is to provide reasons to believe in the textual integrity of the New Testament.

II. The Textual Reliability of the New Testament
This may come as a shock, but the New Testament was not originally written in English. Rather, it was written in Greek – koine Greek, to be precise – the common language throughout the 1st-century Roman Empire. The Greek New Testament was then translated into other languages – Syriac and Latin being amongst the earliest. Our English New Testaments are translations of Greek originals.

However, originals is a misleading word. We do not have the original New Testament. That is, we do not have the hand-written Gospel of Matthew that came from Matthew’s pen. What we have, rather, is copies of the originals. The original documents (e.g. the Gospel written down personally by Matthew) are known as the “autographs” (αυτογραφοι). These documents are long gone, disintegrated in Middle Eastern dust, or burned in a Roman or Jewish fire. Thus, we have copies of the original autographs. In fact, we have copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of the first copy of the original autographs. The various copies of the New Testament (in whole and in part) are knows as the manuscripts, or the manuscript tradition; and it is from these copies that our English translations are derived.
The original copies of the New Testament documents were not done by computer, or by photocopying, or by printing press. Rather, they were painstakingly hand-written, by candlelight, often in the context of oppression and persecution. Sometimes the copies were hand-written as an elder or bishop read the Scriptures aloud. Either way, copies were made from a very early date, and circulated among the first Christian communities.

A. The Wealth of the Manuscript Tradition – Quantity and Quality
The existing copies of the New Testament documents are known as the Manuscript Tradition. We have an incredible wealth of New Testament manuscripts, especially in comparison to other ancient documents. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote his Annals around 100 A.D. – later than all (or nearly all if you accept the questionable dates put forward by more liberal scholars) of the New Testament documents. However, there are only two surviving manuscripts of the Annals, from the 9th and 11th centuries respectively. Our New Testament documents, on the other hand, have more than 5000 manuscripts in existence, the earliest ones being partial copies of individual books from the mid-2nd century, or less than 100 years after the autographs were written. We have manuscripts containing the entire text of the New Testament from as early as the 4th century. Tell me, how could you possibly tell whether the Annals reflect what Tacitus originally wrote or not? Well, you have to trust the two existing manuscripts, assuming that they agree with one another! In the case of the New Testament, however, we have thousands of manuscripts to compare to one another.

Ancient historians have great respect for the textual integrity of the New Testament, because they are accustomed to working with other ancient documents that have much poorer textual traditions.

But there’s a funny thing about copying by hand, especially under less-than-ideal conditions. Even with incredible care and attention, it is inevitable that some mistakes will be made in the copying process. When copying text, it is easy for your eye to skip a whole line and pick up further on – in fact, this sometimes happens when I am reading a text, let alone trying to copy it by hand. It’s also easy to err by replacing something unfamiliar with something much more familiar (e.g. replacing “Tawa” with “Tara” in a written copy, or with “Paul” if it’s read). Sometimes scribes could err by attempting to smooth out apparent inconsistencies or difficulties.

For example, take a simple sentence: “In the fifth year of marriage, his wife Shirley bore a firstborn, a son, and he named him John, a gift from God.” Imagine that this sentence is read out loud, and a number of scribes are busy writing out what they hear. How do they spell John? Jon (short for Jonathan) is a very common alternative spelling; if the scribe personally knows a Jon, they are quite likely to “mis”spell the name accordingly. Similarly, someone from a smaller community where there are no “Shirley”s, but a couple of “Shirlene”s, could easily hear the more familiar name and write it down instead. Furthermore, in hearing the words read, it would be quite natural to filter out “, a” and simply write “bore a firstborn son” instead. Thus, from one simple reading and writing of the sentence, there are three easily-understood errors that could occur.
Given a written copyist, other errors could just as easily occur. Instead of “In the fifth year of marriage,” a scribe could easily write “In their fifth year of marriage,” or even “In the fifth year of their marriage,” emphasizing that it was both the unnamed husband and the wife (Shirley) who were married for five years.
Indeed, we ought to expect that the manuscripts containing copies of the New Testament documents would have a large number of copying errors. And this is the case. There are thousands of scribal errors that can be identified in the New Testament manuscripts.

B. (Most) Copying Mistakes are Insignificant
However, the vast majority of those scribal errors are pitifully insignificant. For example, does Paul end the letter to the Philippians with “Amen,” or not? The manuscripts disagree – some have it, others do not. Does it matter? No. In 1 John 1:4, is John writing in order to make his or their (“our” or “your”) joy complete? Again, the manuscripts disagree – some have “our” (ημων), others have “your” (υμων). Does it matter? Not really. Both are perfectly applicable, and it doesn’t affect anything near the main message of the letter. Even the most strident opponents of Christianity admit that there are relatively few scribal errors in the New Testament manuscripts that have any sort of importance or relevance.

C. (Almost All) Copying Mistakes are Identifiable
Not only are scribal errors in the New Testament manuscripts relatively insignificant, they are also easily identifiable through the academic discipline of textual criticism.

By comparing New Testament manuscripts, it is almost always relatively easy to identify where the mistake was made, and what the original reading was. Why? Different scribes copying the same manuscript are almost certain to make different mistakes. Hence, where one scribe might miswrite “John” as “Jon”; another (perhaps Scandinavian in origin) may write “Johan,” another (perhaps French) “Jean,” and another yet “Jan.” Most of the scribes, however, would correctly transcribe “John” as “John.” Nearly always, by comparing existing manuscripts side by side, textual critics are able to ascertain with fair certainty what the original (correct) reading is.

What I would like to do now is take a look at several places in the New Testament where we have differences in the manuscript tradition – where some manuscripts read one way, and others a different way. The examples that we will look at are not chosen randomly or self-consciously. Rather, I have adopted most of the primary examples used by Bart Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus, where Ehrman struggles valiantly to demonstrate that the New Testament manuscripts are hopelessly and irreparably corrupted.

In looking at some of these examples, I will show that far from supporting Ehrman’s thesis about the textual corruption of the New Testament, we can see even from these (Ehrman’s strongest arguments), the textual integrity of the New Testament shines forth brightly.

IV. Some Test Cases of Textual Reliability
A. Obvious Additions: Mark 16:9-20 & John 7:53-8:11
Ehrman cites two prominent examples of places in the New Testament where later scribes have obviously inserted a lengthy passage where it did not originally exist.
Mark’s Gospel ends fairly abruptly. After the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, Mark 16 recounts the discovery of the empty tomb by three women. An angelic messenger instructs the women to “Go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Instead, verse 8 reads: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” And there ends the Gospel of Mark, according to the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. Most English translations continue to print verses 9-20 as the official ending to Mark’s Gospel – but notice that they preface the section with an indication that these verses are not in the earliest manuscripts. The scholarly consensus, among both Christian and non-Christian biblical scholars, is that verses 9-20 do not belong at the end of Mark’s Gospel. If there was more after verse 8 (and scholars are disagreed on whether there was or not), it has been lost; what we have is definitely not original. This is a clear case where later scribes have added an ending. The copyist who originally inserted the verses was unwilling to allow such an abrupt and seemingly non-triumphant ending to the Gospel; possibly he or she knew what we have as verses 9-20 through an apocryphal source, and added them as an “appropriate ending”.

Another significant and rather obvious addition is John 7:53-8:11, which also happens to be one of the best-loved Jesus narratives in the Gospels. In this story, a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus by a crowd eager to judge and stone her [no mention of where the guilty male party happened to be]. Jesus rebukes the crowd, inviting the innocent members of the mob to cast the first stones. Ashamed, they each walk away; Jesus implicitly absolves the woman of her wrongdoing and exhorts her to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Here, the manuscript evidence is similarly clear, but also somewhat confused. Many ancient manuscripts do not have these verses at all; others have the story, but at a different point in John’s Gospel; others still have the story, but place it in a different Gospel altogether. What seems clear, however, is that the story was not a part of the autograph of John’s Gospel – it is not originally there. Please note – this does not mean that the story must be false or invented. Indeed, as we saw last week, the John the Gospel-writer insists that not everything that could be told about Jesus is told about Jesus in his Gospel. Therefore, the narrative of Jesus and the adulterous woman could very well be authentic and historically accurate. However, it is quite clear that it is not part of the original Gospel of John.

How ought we as Christians, and as teachers and preachers, respond to these “obvious additions” to the New Testament? Simply put, we should not build a theological edifice of any sort upon these non-original passages. We should acknowledge that, to the best of our knowledge, Mark 16:9-20 is not a part of the Gospel of Mark. When we preach through Mark’s Gospel, we should not include these verses. We should certainly not initiate a snake-handling cult on the basis of Jesus’ promise in Mark 16:18! And while we all love the touching story of forgiveness and redemption in John 8, we ought not use it as our foremost example of Jesus’ compassion and mission to lost sinners. Fortunately, we have ample other material in the Gospels to illustrate Jesus’ love – John 4 immediately springs to mind as an acceptable alternative. However, we should steer clear of using either of these obvious additions in our preaching or teaching ministries to avoid the perception that we do not care about the textual integrity and reliability of the New Testament.
It must also be emphasized, however, that Christian scholars and textual critics all acknowledge that these two passages are not part of the original text of the New Testament. Furthermore, neither passage is essential to establishing either the reality of the resurrection of Christ or the forgiving and redeeming mission of Jesus.

B. Verbal Dictation Errors?: Revelation 1:5
Revelation 1:5 serves as a fascinating example of a possible early scribal error based upon a mishearing of the read Scripture. In the NIV, the second half of the verse reads: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, … [v. 6 – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.]” Most Bibles will not even have this as a textual note, but a minority of manuscripts have a different reading: “To him who loves us and has washed us from our sins by his blood …” The Greek word in question is either lusanti (λυσαντι – to release, to set free) or lousanti (λουσαντι – to wash). One can easily understand how a scribe could mistake the word – after all, they sound exactly the same. The presumption is that at one point in time, an elder or bishop would have been reading the text aloud to a group of copyists; one or more of the copyists heard the wrong word and recorded it. Perhaps they felt too shy to raise their hand and ask the elder to identify which word (lusanti or lousanti) he meant. Either way, a mistake was the end result.
Ehrman makes much of this example, even though textual critics are virtually certain that they have recovered the correct original reading (lusanti – freed/released). Why? He argues that this is an example where the scribal error has great theological significance. After all, Ehrman insists, there is a great difference between Jesus washing us from our sins and releasing us from our sins. However, there is not such a difference as Ehrman perceives. If there was, that first mistaken scribe would have been more likely to have raised his hand and asked the elder to clarify the word! Indeed, both connotations are amply evidenced in other New Testament passages – Jesus cleansing us from our sins (e.g. Acts 2:39, 1 Peter 3:21) and freeing us from our sins (e.g. Romans 6). We are not dependent upon Revelation 1:5 for either implication.

Ehrman also uses Revelation 1:5 as a paradigmatic example, arguing that there are likely thousands of other places where oral misunderstanding of the read Scripture resulted in textual errors. However, what Revelation 1:5 does instead, is affirm the role of textual criticism, and its incredible ability to identify places where oral misunderstanding has occurred and resulted in textual variants. Thus, our confidence in the textual integrity of the New Testament is heightened by acknowledging what happened here.

C. Heightened Christology?: John 1:18
Does John 1:18 read: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known”? Or is it supposed to read: “but the one and only son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known”? Textual critics are fairly confident that “God the One and Only” is the correct textual tradition; Bart Ehrman disagrees. Personally, I’ll go with the majority of textual scholars, but just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ehrman is correct, and that John’s Gospel originally read “the one and only Son” instead. What does this change?
According to Ehrman, a great deal. It demonstrates that some early copyist (very early, in this case), felt it necessary to make divine Christology explicit in John 1. The entire prologue of John (verses 1-18) emphasizes the divine nature and origin of Jesus of Nazareth. Verse 18 is kind of like the icing on the cake – emphasizing that Jesus is “God the One and Only”. Ehrman says this addition is late, and that originally the divine nature of Christ was only implicit in the passage. My question is – does it really matter? Our understanding of the divine nature of Jesus certainly does not rest on John 1:18. Even within the general passage, our understanding of Jesus’ divinity is amply evidenced. (1) Verse 1 – The Word was with God, and the Word was God. (2) Verses 2-3 – He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made. (3) Verse 12 – To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (4) Verse 14 – The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [tabernacled] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only.

Verse 18 adds to the divine overtones. But even if Ehrman is correct in asserting that it originally read “the one and only Son,” the Christology of John 1:1-18 is still incredibly rich, and points inescapably to the divine nature of Jesus. This is just an example of how the supposedly “significant theological implications” that Ehrman attributes to textual errors or disputes are really not important when they’re understood in context.

D. Countering Docetism?: Luke 22:43-44
Your Bible probably has a textual note concerning Luke 22:43-44. In my NIV, the verses are printed, but with a textual note that “some early manuscripts do not have” them. It is more likely that the verses were not in Luke’s Gospel originally, but were added in by later scribes to match the emotions of Jesus in the parallel passages of Matthew 26 and Mark 14. Compared to the other Gospel-writers, Luke’s Jesus is composed, almost impassionate, as he faces the knowledge of his impending death by crucifixion.

Critics suggest (somewhat plausibly) that later copyists added these two verses in to counter the growing heresy of docetism. Docetism taught that Jesus was the divine Son of God, but only seemed to take on humanity. Thus, when Jesus was on the cross, it was only the human flesh that was put to death; the divine essence of Jesus was unaffected. Luke’s Gospel was perceived as being the most susceptible to docetist tendencies – hence scribes felt the necessity to counter docetism by inserting anguished emotions upon the Savior.

Textual critics are fairly confident that these verses were not present in Luke’s autograph, even though the majority of our manuscript tradition contains the verses. The reason is simple – it is easier to conceive of a copyist adding these verses in (to counter docetist tendencies) than it is to imagine a copyist deleting these verses.

Let’s assume, then, that the verses were not originally there. What is changed or lost with that understanding? Absolutely nothing! There is simply the demonstration that later copyists did indeed mess with the text – but also the confident understanding that the discipline of textual criticism is able to discern occasions where that has happened and correct them. Is the Jesus of the Gospels altered? No. Are the emotions that Jesus experienced and expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane somehow eliminated? No – they are eminently present in Mark and Matthew. Again, this textual debate does not have any great theological significance. It sheds light on the reasons why early scribes might choose to make additions to the text. But, and I want to emphasize this strongly, it also demonstrates how good the process of textual criticism is at identifying places in the text where that has happened.

E. Eliminating Jesus’ Anger?: Mark 1:41
In Mark 1:40, a man with leprosy comes to Jesus and pleads: “If you are wiling, you can make me clean.” Verse 41 (in the NIV) reads: “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand …”, heals the man, and sends him away. The vast majority (including the earliest) of our manuscripts contain that reading – the Greek σπλαγχνισθεις, a participle translated as “filled with compassion.” A few other manuscripts omit the participle altogether (reflecting the parallel passages in Matthew 8 and Luke 5). A few other manuscripts have a different participle, the Greek οργισθεις, which means “filled with anger” (or, more simply, “angry”). Admittedly, the meaning of the text is changed if Jesus is filled with anger instead of compassion when he responds to the leprous man. However, it is easy to rationally explain why Jesus responds in anger to the man: (a) he is angry at the results of human sin, which include the sickness that plagues the man; or perhaps (b) he is angry that the man questions his willingness to heal him. Furthermore, the idea of Jesus being angry is quite compatible with the picture of Jesus drawn throughout the Gospels. Is Jesus filled with compassion or anger when he cleanses the temple, driving out the money-changers? Well, probably both, but his compassion is made manifest in anger. Jesus the God-man was not a mild-mannered sissy-white college boy. He experienced and expressed the full range of emotions, including anger and wrath. God Himself is often picture in the Scriptures as wrathful – why should God incarnate be any different?

BUT, the main point to bring forward here is that textual critics (apart from Mr. Ehrman) are very confident that Mark presents Jesus in this verse as being filled with compassion, not anger. Ehrman’s preferred textual variant is almost unrepresented in the manuscript tradition, and almost certainly does not retain the original wording. And even if it did, it would not be a theologically significant difference.

F. Atonement & The Father: Hebrews 2:8-9
The textual variant contained in Hebrews 2:9 is so unimportant that most of our New Testaments will not even contain a textual note about it. Indeed, textual critics are as certain as they can be that they have preserved the correct rendering. Nonetheless, Ehrman again seeks to make hay with the variants in the manuscript tradition. What precisely is at stake here?

The context of Hebrews 2 is about the person and nature of Jesus Christ, and his relationship to humanity. Calling upon the echoes of Psalm 8:4-6, Hebrews 2:9 reads: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Again, textual critics are almost certain that this is the original text. The vast majority of manuscripts, including our earliest ones, contain this reading. However, there are a few later manuscripts which, instead of “by the grace of God [χαρι θεου]” read “apart from God [χωρις θεου]”. Thus, the end of the verse would read that “apart from God he might taste death for everyone.” There is, I will admit, a difference in meaning with this variant. (Remember, again, that Ehrman is almost certainly wrong in assuming that “apart from God” was the original text; so much of this debate is academic and meaningless.)

However, this is not a significant difference. Both implications – that Jesus died by the grace of God and apart from God – are perfectly in accordance with New Testament theology. The first one is obvious and undisputed – hence Ehrman focuses on the less-attested variant reading. But what does Mark relate Jesus crying out from the cross? Mark 15:34 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? As Jesus hangs on the cross, bearing upon himself the accumulation of all human sin, also takes upon himself the punishment for those sins. As a result, God the Father turns His face away from God the Son; the divine communion within the Triune God is broken by the presence of sin upon the Son. Speaking of the atonement being achieved apart from God then emphasizes the separation, abandonment, that is felt by Jesus as He hangs, burdened by the guilt of our sin, upon the cross. Granted, the variant textual tradition of Hebrews 2:9 does not present this truth of Scripture in the most clear manner – but again, remember that this is almost certainly not the original reading of Hebrews 2:9 anyway! The correct reading is that Jesus tastes death by the grace of God. But even if we assume (which we need not) that Ehrman’s alternative is correct, Hebrews 2:9 still fits within the scope of orthodox New Testament theology concerning the atoning death of Christ.
Again we see that what Ehrman points to as a significant theological implication of textual variants simply is not there.

G. Teaching the Trinity: 1 John 5:7-8
1 John 5:7-8 contains another fairly evident textual variant. My NIV reads: “For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” Again, the vast majority of manuscripts, including the earliest ones, contain this reading. However, there are some manuscripts that have a longer version, and read: “For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” It is quite evident, therefore, that at some point in time a copyist or scribe added the longer reading in, in order to teach Trinitarian theology explicitly.
Ehrman makes a big deal of this, insisting that 1 John 5 is the only place in the New Testament where the Trinity is explicitly affirmed, and that with the restored original reading, the Trinity is not a New Testament teaching.

However, Ehrman is simply off base. I have taught, preached, and written about the Trinity numerous times, and not once have I turned to 1 John 5:7-8 for textual support. On the one hand, I acknowledge that the verses are not part of the original, and thus cannot legitimately be used to support Trinitarian teaching. On the other hand, full-blown Trinitarianism is easily defended from numerous other passages of Scripture. So, what Ehrman identifies as a theologically significant textual variant is, in reality, inconsequential.

V. Conclusion: The New Testament’s Textual Integrity
Craig Blomberg writes: “only two variants anywhere affect more than a couple of verses, that only eleven involve even a full verse or two, that the consensus among textual critics is that in the modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament we have, either in the text itself or the footnotes upwards of 97% of what the original authors wrote reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt, and that no doctrine of the Christian faith depends solely on one or more textually uncertain passages.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 333)

New Testament textual critics generally agree that we have recovered 97% of the original wording of the New Testament autographs with near certainty. Furthermore, places in the New Testament where textual critics still are not entirely certain which reading in the manuscript tradition truly reflects the original are insignificant. In fact, no Christian doctrines are affected by debated words, verses, and passages. The textual integrity of the New Testament is unparalleled in ancient literature. God has indeed preserved the text of His inspired Word, so that we might have confidence in the Savior who is proclaimed through it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Did Jesus Really Say That? The Reliability of the New Testament Gospels

Matthew 6:19-23 is one of my favorite Gospel passages. In it, Jesus says:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

This passage is powerful on many levels. First, it is a reminder that the things of God are more valuable than the things of this earth. You can’t take your earthly treasure with you when you die. Material things – the stuff we all pursue to greater or lesser degrees – are transitory. That nice Toyota Camry in the parking lot could be stolen during church this morning, or vandalized at home tomorrow, or demolished in an accident on Tuesday. For all I know, my precious piano in our Louisville townhouse has already been stolen or wrecked in our absence. Stuff doesn’t last. Spiritual treasures do. Second, the passage conveys the power of our worldview. The lens through which we view the world – our proverbial eyes in verses 22 and 23 – determines a great deal of how things affect us. If one’s eyes, one’s worldview, entirely discounts the very possibility of God’s existence, then no amount of evidence and argumentation will be able to change their mind. If the light within, the worldview, is darkness, how great indeed is the darkness that ensues. And third, the passage warns that we cannot serve both God and Money. Materialism is not a new temptation and snare for Christians – it pervaded 1st century Judaism and Christianity as well. God’s people have always been tempted to chase after the fruits of materialism instead of the fruits of the Spirit. This is nothing new. Jesus simply warns us, starkly, that we must make our choice. Money will master us unless we allow God to be our Master. It cannot be both ways. Indeed, this little passage carries deep, rich teaching for followers of Jesus Christ.

But have you ever wondered – did Jesus really say that? That is, are those words, which appear in my Bible as red-letter words, truly words which were uttered by Jesus of Nazareth? Beginning in the 18th century, the rise of critical scholarship questioned the historiticity of the New Testament documents, particularly the Gospels and Acts. In the mid-20th century, Rudolf Bultmann popularized the practice of “demythologization” – that is, stripping the Gospels of their layers of supernaturalism, miracle, and myth, and reducing them to their original ethical core. The original Gospels, according to Bultmann and others, were simply records of Jesus’ ethical teaching and revolutionary insubordination, upon which the Church later imposed its deification of Jesus and doctrinal assertions. In the 1980s, a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar began publishing their theory that the vast majority of words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels do not actually originate in Jesus. They argue that the Gospels are unreliable, theologically-colored texts. In their view, “the historical Jesus has been overlaid by Christian legend, myth, and metaphysics and thus scarcely resembled the Christ figure presented in the Gospels and worshiped by the church today.”[1] In their professional democratic opinion, less than 20% of Jesus’ words recorded in the Gospels are understood to be actually his own words; the rest are legendary additions.

Thus, when a pastor stands up and teaches that Jesus walked on water out to the disciples, the demythologizer responds – “no, he didn’t. The Gospels say he did, but that never happened.” If we want the demythologizer to accept the teaching of the New Testament, we need to provide good reasons to embrace the historicity of the documents.

So, there are a few important questions we need to answer: Are the Gospels accurate biographies of Jesus’ life and ministry? Did Jesus really say what the Gospels say he said? Did Jesus really do what the Gospels say he did? Are there good reasons for accepting the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels? Do we have good reasons for believing the Gospels to be reliable? Or must we take it on “blind faith”? I am convinced, personally speaking, that the Bible is entirely trustworthy because it is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. But it’s a funny thing – when I was an atheist, if someone quoted the Bible to me, I would simply say, “So what? Why should I believe that?” A skeptic is not going to accept the authority or inspiration of the Bible. Thus, if we want our skeptical friends to accept what the Gospels tell us about Jesus, we need to establish the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible by providing them with good reasons, good evidence, that points to the reliability of the texts which we trust and believe. Thankfully, those evidential reasons exist. Let's look at six lines of evidence that support the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels.

1. The Gospels Claim to be Eyewitnesses
First, the New Testament Gospels present themselves as either eyewitness accounts, or accounts derived from eyewitnesses.

a) Luke 1:1-4 – Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Notice the emphases that the historian Luke makes. First, his account accords with that of those who were eyewitnesses. Second, Luke has carefully investigated the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, he presents his Gospel as an orderly, historical account of Jesus’ life. Furthermore, when talking about the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel, we cannot separate it from the Book of Acts, of which Luke is also the author. In several passages in the book of Acts, Luke slips into first-person plural talk, revealing that he accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys. Note Acts 16:10 – After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia. The first-person plural recurs in Acts 20:5-11, 21:1-26, and chapters 27 & 28. Luke was an eye-witness of many of the accounts recorded in Acts; furthermore, he was an associate of Paul, and therefore had access to the eyewitness accounts of the other apostles – James, John, and Peter in particular. It is reasonable to conclude that Luke’s Gospel contains considerable eye-witness testimony. Indeed, it is highly unreasonable to argue to the contrary.

b) The Gospel of John was the last Gospel to be written down, somewhere around A.D. 95, or 65 years after Christ’s crucifixion. But the Gospel-writer insists that it is a trustworthy eye-witness account of what truly happened. John 20:30-31 reads: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. One page later, John 21:24-25 claims: This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. While this passage suggests that the words in John’s Gospel may have been written by John’s close associates rather than by John himself, they insist unapologetically and incontrovertibly that the words derive from the apostle John, an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry.
Admittedly, all this provides is a claim to be eyewitness testimony. But we do have corroborating evidence which supports the eyewitness claims of the Gospels, and that is what we are going to move on to.

2. The early date of the New Testament Gospels
A second reason to accept the reliability of the Gospels is that they were written relatively close to the time of the events which they relate. Almost all scholars agree that Mark is the earliest Gospel. Many scholars estimate it was written by A.D. 50, less than twenty years after Jesus’ death. The most liberal scholars out there, who seek to date things as late as humanly possible, agree that Mark must have been written before A.D. 65. Matthew and Luke were written between A.D. 60 and A.D. 85 (I tend to believe they were much closer to A.D. 60); and then John around A.D. 95. This means that when the New Testament Gospels were written and began to circulate amongst the Christian Churches, there would still have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people alive and present in those churches who themselves had seen and heard Jesus during His earthly ministry. While it is not in the Gospels, the testimony of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is important. There, Paul relates that after His resurrection, Jesus appeared (verse 6) to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Paul asserts that his claim can be checked with people who are still alive and were the eyewitnesses of what Paul is claiming to have happened. 1 Corinthians is written in the mid-50s, quite probably after Mark, but before the other Gospels.

Again, the point is simply that the Gospels are early enough to contain authentic eyewitness testimony—and by correlation, they were written early enough to have aroused opposition and contradictory testimony if they were not eyewitness reports. This latter point should not be underemphasized. The Gospel materials were already circulating widely by AD 50 – less than twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. That means that not only friends, but also foes of Christianity were around to counter false presentations. Yet there is not even a whisper of dissenting opinion. We have record of Jewish leaders circulating the report that the disciples of Jesus stole his body from the tomb. We also have record of Jews and Romans arguing that Jesus performed miracles because he was a sorcerer (or demon-possessed, which to Jews was the same thing). But we have NO non-Christian argument in those early decades (and centuries) that Jesus did not perform the miracles that he is reported to have performed, and NO non-Christian argument that he did not say and do the things that the Gospels report him as having said and done.

3. The historical church has always embraced them as eyewitness accounts.
A third compelling reason to accept the reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts is that the Christian Church universally has acknowledged them as such. From the first century onward, devout Christians have recognized that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are historical records of Jesus’ life. There is no debate within the church until the rise of critical scholarship during the Enlightenment (16th century and onwards). When the Gospels claim eyewitness status and the Church historically recognizes them as reliable and trustworthy, we ought to have strong reasons for rejecting such status.

What about other Gospels, accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry that are not in our New Testament? Two years ago the much-publicized “Gospel of Judas” made headlines around the world. Three years ago the blockbuster movie The DaVinci Code argued powerfully (and wrongly) that there were over 80 Gospels of Jesus’ life, and the patriarchal, misogynistic Catholic Church whittled them down to four acceptable, censored Gospels. The simple fact is that the early Church fathers, from the 1st century through the 4th century, did not recognize extra-canonical Gospels as authentic eyewitness accounts. Early church leaders like Clement, Papias, Justin, and Tertullian quote copiously from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and cite them as authoritative accounts. But they don't quote from other Gospels—Peter, Philip, Mary, Judas, etc. They never mention them as acceptable accounts. They do, however, sometimes cite them as untrustworthy accounts written later by people who had no connection with the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry. If you glance through some of the “other” accounts of Jesus’ life, you will most likely recognize quite quickly why the early Church did not accept them as valid historical accounts of Jesus’ ministry. For example, in the Gospel of Peter (a late 2nd-century invention largely copied from Matthew and John), we read this account of the scene of Jesus’ resurrection:

The stone cast before the entrance rolled away by itself and moved to one side; the tomb was open and both young men entered. . . .

They saw three men emerge from the tomb, two of them supporting the other, with a cross following behind them. The heads of the two reached up to the sky, but the head of the one they were leading went up above the skies. And they heard a voice from the skies, ‘Have you preached to those who are asleep?’ And a reply came from the cross, ‘Yes.’

Early Christians were not stupid. They were not foolish. They were not naïve. Like the Gospel-writer Luke, they sought to establish what they believed on solid historical and evidential grounds. They did not credulously swallow ever tale or myth about Jesus—only what was well-grounded and well-attested by eyewitness testimony. That is why the four canonical Gospels were accepted, and the others were not.

4. Internal evidence of the Gospels.
A fourth reason to accept the historical reliability of the Gospels is the Gospels themselves. That is, the internal evidence of events and details contained within each Gospel strongly support their status as reliable eyewitness documents. When the police seek an eyewitness account of what happened at a crime scene, they often look for incidental details that witnesses are able to provide. Simply put, the Gospels contain a plethora of incidental details which are best explained by eyewitness testimony.

John 5:1-5 – Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

As the narrative proceeds, Jesus heals the man, on the Sabbath Day, creating a ruckus amongst the Pharisees. But notice the details contained within John’s account. How long has the man been an invalid? Precisely 38 years – an incidental detail which adds nothing to the story, but supports eyewitness knowledge of the event. Where is the man healed? Notice that John provides the exact name of the Gate and pool, and even the number of surrounding covered colonnades. Vanessa and I are very different. We both enjoy fiction, particularly good mysteries. But a couple of weeks ago she was saying how she doesn’t really care for lengthy descriptive passages contained in many longer novels. She’s interested in the story itself. I, however, love the descriptive passages which draw a verbal picture. Skilled authors can bring you to the place of their writing, bringing to life in your imagination the view, the smell, the sights and sounds of the story. That is precisely what John is doing here – he is bringing the story to life, giving us the details which allow us to picture it in our own minds. Now, the picture admittedly doesn’t carry as much power with us as it would have for John’s original audience, who would have been familiar with the places that John writes about. But what John effectively does here is demonstrate his familiarity with exactly what happened, and exactly where.

I should also mention, in passing, that for skeptics and critics, it sometimes doesn’t matter. In situations like these, a critical scholar can happily claim, “John wasn’t really there. He just adds all of these details, some of them (like the name of the pool and gate) recalled from his memory of Jerusalem, others (like the length of his injury) purely imagined by John, in order to make us think that John was actually there.” For such scholars, the level of detail is not confirmation of eyewitness standing, but rather evidence of deliberate deception.

In other situations, however, the same scholars will point to the absence of details as evidence that the Gospel-writer was not an eyewitness at all. In fact, in this very passage, scholars will point to verse 1, and say, “Why didn’t John identify which feast it was? Obviously, because John wasn’t there, this didn’t really happen, and so he can’t say when the feast was.” So the lack of one detail is evidence that John wasn’t there, and the presence of other details is evidence of John’s deliberate deception. John just can’t win! If incidental details are there, it “proves” that John is making them up and putting them in to make the reader think he was actually there. If the details are not there, it “proves” that John wasn’t an eyewitness to what he relates. What is really going on is that such scholars are unwilling to admit the eyewitness standing of the Gospel-writers no matter what, because admitting the Gospels as eye-witness testimony has grave implications that they are absolutely unwilling to accept.

Another example is found in Mark 14:1-3. Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. ‘But not during the Feast,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’ While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Again, notice the details that Mark shares, which indicate his personal familiarity with the event. He tells us the exact day on which it occurs (two days before the Passover), the personal name of Jesus’ host (Simon the Leper), the precise type of perfume (made of pure nard), and even the method by which the woman pours the perfume on Jesus’ head (breaking the jar rather than pouring out from the top).

We have looked at just three of hundreds of passages in the Gospels which have such incidental details which support the eyewitness status of the accounts. Richard Bauckham, in his majestic work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses includes much more. Suffice to say that the New Testament Gospels provide sufficient support for their eyewitness claims.

5. Evidential support of the Gospels’ Historical Accuracy
A fifth reason is the evidential support of the Gospels historical accuracy. If police are presented with a professed eyewitness of a crime, they like to find empirical, objective confirmation that the individual was, in fact, at the scene. This is not always possible, but sometimes it is. The same is true with the New Testament Gospels. It is sometimes possible to confirm, through objective evidence, that the Gospel-writers had first-hand knowledge of what they wrote about. This is where the discipline of archaeology comes into play. Not everything can be verified from archaeological discoveries and extra-biblical records, but much has been.

One fascinating example has to do with a passage already discussed – the healing of a disabled man in John 5. For years, critical scholars rejected the eyewitness standing of John’s account on the basis that the name of the gate was not empirically verified, and the identification of five surrounding colonnades was structurally unlikely and, again, not verified through archaeological discoveries. There is a methodological problem with their argument. Archaeology can confirm biblical data, but it is honestly impossible for archaeology to disprove biblical claims. All that the absence of archaeological evidence for the Sheep Gate and five colonnades demonstrated was that so far as our limited archaeological evidence demonstrated, we could not confirm these historical details. That does not prove that John was making things up, or wrong, or lying – just that we cannot confirm that John is right! But some scholars, in their rush to denigrate the reliability of the Gospels, jump to such unsupported conclusions anyways. “We can’t find any inscriptions of a Sheep Gate by the pools of Bethsaida; therefore there was no such thing.” Come on!

Well, sadly for critics and happily for Christians, archaeological discoveries have verified the identity and name of the Sheep Gate by the Pool of Bethesda, as well as the presence of five porticos, or colonnades, there. What used to lack empirical, archaeological verification now has such it. Again, this demonstrates the futility of trying to draw conclusions of biblical inaccuracy from the limited and incomplete archaeological record. What currently lacks verification may well receive verification from future archaeological discoveries. Anyway, John 5 is simply one of dozens of details in the New Testament Gospels that have been confirmed through inscriptions and structures uncovered in archaeological digs. If you’re into looking for more, check out’s series:; or Mark Roberts’ series: Both have much more.

6. Experiential verification of the Gospels
So far we have covered five compelling reasons to acknowledge the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels – the Gospels’ claim to transmit accurate records of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death; the early church’s recognition of their eyewitness status; the internal evidence of the Gospels; and the empirical verification provided by archaeology. The sixth reason we have for accepting the reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospels is on a different level. It is not so much an intellectual or academic reason as it is an experiential reason.

If you put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, you will find the truth of the Gospels confirmed in your life. You will experience the release of forgiveness & reconciliation with God; you will receive abundant joy of life in Christ. You will, both quickly and gradually, experience the transformation of your character, will, and works. Finally, you will find redemption and meaning in the midst of suffering. All that Jesus promises in the Gospels to those who will follow Him, you will find confirmed in your life – if you follow Him.

In some ways, it is analogous to the argument that marital faithfulness is the best path to take in romantic relationships. I could point to Scriptural arguments saying that God has designed us for monogamous sexual faithfulness. I could also point to sociological arguments, that faithful spouses are happier and express greater sexual satisfaction. I could point to further evidence that children of faithful married couples exhibit less sociological dysfunctions. But my final appeal to you would be personal and experiential—that if you will enter into a marriage covenant, and remain faithful to your husband or wife, you will experience the best of what God has to offer in human relationships. It is an argument whose full force can only be felt by one who chooses willingly to experience it in their life.

Same with the Gospels of the New Testament. We have surveyed some strong rational and evidential reasons to consider them trustworthy historical records of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The Gospels themselves claim eyewitness status, and profess to contain a reliable record of Jesus’ life. The Gospels were written within the lifetime of those who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life. The Church historically has accepted the Gospels as trustworthy accounts. The incidental details contained within the Gospels confirm their eyewitness status. Archaeology has confirmed many of the eyewitness details recorded in the Gospels. But finally, and ultimately most persuasively, the Gospels are open to personal, experiential verification. As we embrace the Savior proclaimed in and through the Gospels, we find God confirming the truth of the accounts of Jesus’ life.

[1] Craig, Reasonable Faith (3rd ed.), 299.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Death and Resurrection of Rational Christianity

Last week I talked about the nature of apologetics, the desperate need for apologetics in your Christian life and ministry, and the purposes and focuses of apologetics. In passing, I commented on the distressing anti-intellectualism that characterized segments of the Western Church in the 20th century. Today I want to share some thoughts on how that came to be.

1. Western Christendom & The Predominance of Theism
The Christian Church was born in the midst of a robustly pagan Roman empire. The Roman religion incorporated numerous ‘gods,’ who were remarkably human in both form and behavior. Christians were actually accused of being atheists in the Roman Empire, because they refused to worship the various gods of the Empire, including the emperor (who was understood to be a living incarnation of the gods). In the midst of this pagan polytheism, monotheistic Judaism gave birth to monotheistic Christianity—the decisive cry that there is only one God, and that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh.

Christianity did not go over well in the Roman Empire. Christians faced intense persecution, first from fellow Jews, and later from pagan emperors and other regional authorities. The famous persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero in the 60s A.D. saw Christians being used as human torches to light the streets of Rome at night. Christians were crucified, burned alive, and thrown to wild animals in raunchy Colosseum games. Despite persecution, the Christian Church flourished and grew. As Eusebius records, “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” The Church quickly spread to all corners of the empire, spread by traveling missionaries (like Paul), but also by merchants traveling from city to city, and by ordinary citizens. Within two hundred years, a sizeable portion of the Empire’s population had converted to Christianity.

In 311 A.D., the Emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, converted to Christianity. The Church was no longer the object of persecution. Within a few generations, the Church became favored, and within a hundred years, the Empire was predominantly Christian. Eventually, the Roman Empire was vanquished by hordes of barbarian invaders (from whom I am descended, incidentally), and the political empire ceased to exist. The Eastern Empire, governed by Greek Orthodox kings, continued on, but our primary interest this morning is the fate of the Western Empire.

The annihilation of the Roman Empire brought on what is commonly called “The Dark Ages,” but is more appropriately titled “The Middle Ages” or “Medieval Christendom.” During this roughly 1000-year period, the Christian Church was the beacon of light and learning in Western Europe. Gradually, Christian missionaries (like the famous St. Patrick) converted barbarian Germanic and Norse tribes to Christianity. More importantly, the cathedrals and monasteries of Christendom were the primary, and often the only, repository of learning and intellectual life. Philosophers, historians, theologians—all were educated within the confines of the Christian Church. The three great giants of the medieval West were Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. During their eras, almost everyone acknowledged the existence of God. Theism was basically the default intellectual position. Even those who were not Christians were generally theists – Muslims and Jews, for instance.

2. The Englightenment & The Rise of Naturalism
The intellectual climate began to change in the Enlightenment, a period that began (depending who you ask) in the 15th century, at the same time as the invention of the printing press. During the Enlightenment, the universality of belief in God began to wane, ever so slightly. Atheistic humanism became rationally respectable. David Hume was one of the earlier explicit skeptics, and helped develop a naturalistic worldview. What does that mean – a naturalistic worldview? Basically, this is the belief that everything that happens has a purely natural, material cause and explanation. As Francis Schaeffer puts it, this view of the world accepts “the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes as a closed system.”[1] In this worldview, if there is a God, He does not act within the universe. Everything that occurs is a result of a closed system, a box. And, if everything that happens can be explained naturally, then, as physicist Stephen Hawking concludes, “what place is there for God?”

3. Critical Biblical Scholarship & The Demise of Rational Christianity
Not long after a naturalistic worldview arose, Western Europe saw the rise of critical biblical scholarship. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians viewed the Bible (Old and New Testament) as the inspired Word of God. They did not argue about such things as inerrancy, authority, and inspiration, as Christians argue about them today—rather, they all took these for granted! With the rise of critical scholarship (or liberal scholarship), this began to change. German scholars like Friedrich Schleiermacher, David Strauss, and Henri Reimarus began to propose that the Bible, rather than being inspired Word of God, was error-laden mythology. They sought out difficulties, inconsistencies, and contradictions within the Bible. Moreover, they accepted the Enlightenment’s worldview and operated within it. Thus they rejected everything miraculous and supernatural, including that in the life of Jesus Christ. For the most part, these scholars remained “Christians.” They believed in the existence of God (although they redefined Him substantially), and attempted to preserve Jesus’ ethical example and teaching. But they cut the branches out from underneath themselves by arguing that the intellectual and rational conclusion was that the Bible is full of mistakes and myths, and that everything that happens has a natural explanation (including Jesus’ miracles). By the late 19th century, the viewpoint of critical scholars had come to dominant European theology.

a) Orthodox retreat to pietism
There were, however, many within the church who continued to hold to the ancient Christian creeds, including the belief in an omnipotent, intimate God and belief in the deity of Jesus Christ. Sadly, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, these orthodox Christians began to retreat intellectually. Faced with a powerful alliance of theologians and philosophers who doubted the inspiration and reliability of the Bible, who believed God to be a distant uninvolved deity (at best), orthodox Christians ran away from the academy and withdrew into a pietistic fortress where “reason” could not assault them. “Just give me Jesus,” was the rallying cry. Throughout the Middle Ages, throughout the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, throughout the Reformation and the rise of the physical sciences, the most eminent, intelligent, and innovative scholars in the Western world were devout believing Christians. This began to change in the 1700s, and was simply no longer true in the 20th century. Devout Christians shied away from the academic world, afraid, so it seems, of losing their faith like so many before them.
This trend is particularly marked in the North American Church, where the retreat from the academy resulted in the rise of anti-intellectual fundamentalism. This represented a failure of Christians to obey the Greatest Commandment, “To Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” It also abandoned the imperative of 1 Peter 3:15 – to be prepared to give reasons for the hope that we have as Christians. Christianity abandoned rational faith and retreated to “mere belief”—what we call fideism. As a consequence, Christianity became intellectually bereft, and rightfully the object of academic and cultural scorn.

4. God is Dead (1960s)
By the mid-1900s, intellectual Christianity had sharply declined, and the result was a stark, disturbing lead article in Time magazine. “On April 8, 1966, Time magazine carried a dramatic cover with just three words emblazoned in red upon the black background. The words read: ‘Is God Dead?’ The article described the movement then current among American theologians [e.g. Paul Tillich] to proclaim the death of God.”[2] Note the key – it was American theologians who were proclaiming the death of God as a useful concept. The belief was that there was no point talking about God, because the word, the very idea, was meaningless. This from Christian theologians! The belief was that God was no longer a meaningful concept. Well-educated, intelligent Christians were somewhat difficult to find. Certainly Christian scholarship had declined.

5. The Resurrection of Rational Christianity
But a funny thing happened on the way to the morgue. Just as secular atheists (and some theologians) in the West declared God to be dead and buried, He made a stunning comeback. “In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anybody could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers, but in the crisp intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse.”[3]
The work of prominent and brilliant Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alistair McGrath, Gary Habermas, J. P. Moreland, Ronald Nash, Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig have brought substantial credibility to the resurgence of intellectual, rational Christianity. Christians have returned from academic exile. Atheist philosopher Kai Nelson lamented that “over ¼ of all philosophy professors in secular universities are now theists.” There have been three happy results of this academic resurgence within the western Christian Church.

a) Resurgence of traditional arguments for God’s existence
William Lane Craig writes: “Today all of the various traditional arguments for God’s existence find prominent, intelligent proponents, who defend these arguments in books published by the finest academic presses, in articles in professional journals of philosophy, and in papers presented at meetings of professional philosophical societies.”[4] Why does this matter? Well, if the most important question that anyone can ask is “Does God Exist?”, then we as Christians better have some rational backing for our answer, “Yes, He does exist.” And our answers had better be superior to the realm of “Yes, Victoria, there is a Santa Claus.”

b) Rejection of anti-intellectualism (at least in some circles)
Second, at least most of the Western Church has repudiated the anti-intellectual fundamentalism that characterized much of the 20th century. There was a time when parents grieved if their children were going off to university, particularly for Masters or Doctoral studies. The fear was that, if they went in a Christian, they would come out an atheist. Many Christian parents (and churches) urged their youth to fear the university, to see the university as “the Great Satan.” As Christians have re-entered academia in large and robust numbers, that sentiment is on the decline. Today it is not unusual to hear exhortations for Christians to engage the academy, to enter into university to face the best that secular atheism has to offer.

c) Emphasis upon the objective truth of Christianity, not just feeling or assent
Along those same lines, there has been a re-invigorating emphasis upon the objective truth of Christianity. The Church has come to acknowledge that Christianity is more than a feeling, that to embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord requires more than an irrational leap into spiritual assent. Rather, the Christian faith is founded upon objective, rational, historical truth.
I don’t know about you, but I am thankful for this. As Socrates argued, the unexamined life is not worth living. Moreover, I want to live according to the truth. I want to know what is real, and to live accordingly. Hugh Ross, a Christian astronomer and the founder of “Reasons to Believe” Ministries, says that if he was not convinced that Christianity is objectively true—that there really is a God out there, that Jesus Christ truly is His Son—he would not be a Christian. I have to say that I agree. This is why I am so thankful for brilliant men and women who are demonstrating the rationality of the Christian faith, who are arguing for the historical evidence that supports the truth of Christianity.

There are reasons to believe. Our Christian faith is a rational faith. God commands us to love Him with all our mind, and expects that we will do so by pursuing His truth. The descent of Western Christianity into irrational fideism was lamentable. The abandonment of academia to secular humanism was a grave error and a grievous sin. Let us return to the intellectual battle arena with a vigor inspired by the certainty the Holy Spirit gives us that our faith is true.

[1] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968), 52.
[2] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 93.
[3] “Modernizing the Case for God,” Time, April 7, 1980, 65-66.
[4] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 94.