The Jesus of History: The First Quest (Part 2)

Historical Background

Most historians credit Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) as the person to initiate the quest for the Historical Jesus.[1] He was a German historian who sought to re-write the story of Jesus’ life in a naturalistic framework rather than the prevalent super-naturalistic one. Reimarus, however, was not without predecessors to lay the groundwork.

Before the Quest

Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) argued against miracles to lay the foundations of a thoroughly naturalistic approach to the study of history. In his view, the historian bought to the study of history the certain knowledge that no miracles have ever occurred, rather than it being his/her task to discover if there has been a miracle. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), the French philosopher and critic was renowned for his skepticism of historical religious claims. English Deism was also making its mark through such people as Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), John Tolland (1670-1720), Anthony Collins (1676-1729) – who was a friend and disciple of John Locke, and others whose influence extended into France and Germany in particular.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish philosopher and historian, was composing his arguments against miracles about the same time as Reimarus. He conceded that miracles could occur, but argued that even if one had occurred we should never be entitled to conclude one had. As the Humean in-principle argument “has left an indelible impression on modern biblical scholarship”[2] we shall have to return to discuss further Hume’s arguments. For now it enough to note that as a result of his writing, it is believed that no one is entitled to conclude that a genuine miracle (including fulfilled prophesy) has occurred on the basis of the evidence alone.[3]

The milieu of the Enlightenment conspired to create a situation where a Reimarus was the natural consequence.

The First Quest

Reimarus’ “Fragments” were published posthumously by G. E. Lessing from 1774-8. In them he sharply distinguished between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.[4] For him the Jesus of history was a real person, who lived in Palestine as a teacher of rational, practical religion. This Jesus did not think of himself as divine, but may have thought of himself as a political messiah, teaching the coming of the kingdom of God and Jewish liberation from Roman rule. The Christ of faith on the other hand was an “intentional, deliberate fabrication”[5] created by the disciples who were motivated primarily by financial gain. His hypothesis was that the disciples stole the body of Jesus away from the tomb, invented stories of the resurrection and his imminent return, and attributed to Christ a theological significance Jesus never once claimed for himself. Much later they made Christ the Savior of the world.

The main thrust of this quest was to uncover whom Jesus supposedly really was, without the supernatural legendary accretion that supposedly developed after his death. Many different lives of Jesus were discovered in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, including; the eleven volume work of Karl F. Bahrdt’s Ausfuhrung des Plan und Zwecks Jesu (1784-1792), [6] the four volume work of Karl H. Venturini’s Naturliche Greshichte des grossen Propheten von Nazareth (1800-1802),[7] the two volume work of H. E. G. Paulus’s Das Leban Jesu (1828).[8] Each to varying degrees sought to explain away Jesus’ miracles with clever naturalistic explanations, such as he was a medicinal healer, Lazarus was actually in a coma, and the disciples mistakenly thought Jesus was walking on water when he was actually only walking on a sandbank in the shallows.

It was D. F. Strauss that ended this school of thought with his book Das Laben Jesus, kritishe bearbeitet (1835).[9] He dismissed the miraculous accounts as non-historical on the basis that they were inconsistent internally or else with other equally credible accounts, or contradicted by known natural laws. He went one step further however by rejecting the naturalistic explanations offered for them as well. For him, the shear number of miracles and the contrived explanations given to them, as well as the irreconcilable contradictions and unhamonizable chronologies, could best be explained with the idea that the gospels were never intended to be historical accounts. Rather they were sacred history that were meant to convey deep spiritual truths. The miracles were mythological, developed by Jewish messianic expectation and applied to Jesus for theological reasons. There was a virulent response to Strauss’s views in Germany at the time, but despite this the miracle-working Jesus of history was largely abandoned in academia.

Liberal theology in the latter half of the nineteenth century turned Jesus into merely a great moral teacher who was the model for humanity. Optimism that the man behind the myth could be found persisted until William Wrede published The Messianic Secret (1901). New Testament criticism had developed the two-source hypothesis, and by the turn of the century most scholars accepted the priority of Mark. Wrede succeeding in convincing others that even Mark, the earliest source where the historical Jesus was supposed to be found, was coloured with theological concerns. Thus, a biography of the historical Jesus was deemed futile.

Albert Schweitzer, the historiographer of this interesting period, says historians set out to find the historical Jesus believing they could bring him into our time as Teacher and Savior. He concluded, “He does not stay; he passes by our time and returns to his own.”[10] William Lane Craig writes,

“. . . apparently unaware of the personal element they all brought to their research, each writer reconstructed a historical Jesus after his own image. There was Strauss’s Hegelian Jesus, Renan’s sentimental Jesus,[11] Bauer’s non-existent Jesus,[12] Ritschl’s liberal Jesus, and so forth. To paraphrase George Tyrell, each one looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom.”[13]


[1] Raymond Martin, The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000) p. 29.

[2] Charles Sanders Peirce, Values in a Universe of Chance: Selected Writings of Charles S. Peirce. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958) p. 293. Cited by Timothy McGrew in “Miracles,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, forthcoming Spring 2010.

[3] And even if it could be, no one can establish if it was truly a result of super-natural agency. In many circles the miraculous is considered to be outside the domain of historical investigation.

[4] Reimarus: Framents, ed. C. H. Talbert, trans. R. S. Frazer (Philadelphia: Fortress Ress, 1970), See also Reimarus, “The Intention of Jesus and His Disciples” 1788

[5] Ibid., p. 151.

[6] An Explanation of the plans and aims of Jesus

[7] A Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth

[8] The life of Jesus as the Basis of a Purely Historical Account of Early Christianity

[9] The Life of Jesus Critically Examined

[10] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Strudy of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York: Macmillan, 1957 [1906]), p. 26.

[11] E. Renan, The History of the Origins of Christianity (1863)

[12] Bruno Bauer, Criticism of the Gospels and the History of Their Origin (1850-1851)

[13] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003) p. 218 See also, George Tyrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads (London: Longman, Green, 1910) p. 44

The Jesus of History: An Introduction (Part 1)

An Introduction

The scandal of Christianity is that it is a religion grounded in historical events, which if they can be demonstrated to be false, would empty it of meaning and all power. Chief among those historical events is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle Paul declares, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”[1] Michael Green was right when he wrote, “Once disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ, and Christianity will collapse like a pack of cards.”[2] If Christians are to maintain that faith is reasonable, it will be crucial to establish that not only the events of history in general can be known, but also specific events of the past are true.

Most people when they come to Christ do not do historical research or consider things like the problem of historical knowledge. Rather, they come to know the great truths of the gospel, such as Christ’s atoning life and death, and his resurrection from the dead on the basis of their experience of the Spirit of God. This experience I take as veridical, and a fully legitimate grounding of knowledge.[3] So although the Christian is warranted in believing what happened 2000 years ago without studying history or philosophy, the following entries in this series will concern themselves with exactly that. I will be summarizing the search for the historical Jesus, then assess some of the search’s surrounding dilemmas. It will not be a thorough treatment. Whole books have been written, and still could be, on any one of these issues. I seek only to summarize, explain and briefly offer what refutation can be given. Included will be an assessment of Historical Relativism, the Problem of Miracles, imposing Methodological Naturalism in the study of history, and three methods for establishing historical descriptions.

I begin this journey with a goal in mind: to establish the description of the person of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel narratives as truly historical. The pen of John Stuart Mill eloquently expresses the same conviction.

“It is of no use to say that Christ as exhibited in the gospels is not historical . . . Who among his disciples or among their proselytes was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee, still less the early Christian writers.”[4]


[1] 1 Cor 15:17 (NASB)

[2] Michael Green, Runaway World (London: Inter-Varsity, 1968), p. 2.

[3] Philosophers call these beliefs properly basic. They need not have arguments to support them, for they are bedrock beliefs that are wholly sensible in and of themselves, from which we argue to other things.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Essays on Nature, the Utility of Religion and Theism (London: Longmans, 1874).

Video from the 2010 Ligonier National Conference

This year, the Ligonier National Conference in Orlando, Florida, was focused on addressing some of the tough and perplexing questions that are often raised against Christianity.  For those of us who were not able to attend, the conference was streamed live online. And if you missed that, the video from sessions have now just been made available from the first day on Christianity.com. Ligonier Ministries is an international Christian organization based on the ministry of R. C. Sproul. Founded in 1971, the organization has been committed to helping Christians understand what they believe and why they believe it.

Here are the videos and summary notes from the talks (provided by Tim Challies and Alex Chediak). I’ll update the links for the Friday and Saturday sessions when they are posted.

Thursday

Pre-Conference (Bits, Bytes, Blogs & Bibles)

The Brave New World of New Media – Ed Stetzer

Summary

Video

Principles for Conduct in Communication – Tim Challies

No Summary

Video

Taking Captive New Media for the Church – Burk Parsons

Summary

Video

The Hypersocialized Generation – Albert Mohler

Summary

Video

Questions and Answers – Challies, Stetzer, Parsons, Mohler and Chris Larson.

No Summary

Video

2010 National Conference Main Sessions:

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? – John MacArthur

Summary

Video

Is the Doctrine of Inerrancy Defensible? – Michael Horton

Summary

Video

Does the Doctrine of Divine Decrees Eliminate Human Will – John MacArthur

Summary

Video

Friday

What is Evil and Where Did it Come From? – R. C. Sproul

Summary

Why Do Christians Still Sin? – R. C. Sproul, Jr

Summary

How Do We Know Which Interpretation is Right? – Derek Thomas

Summary

Is the Bible Just Another Book? – Steve Lawson

Summary

Is the Exclusivity of Christ Unjust? – Alistair Begg

Summary

Questions and Answers – Begg, Horton, Lawson and Mohler, hosted by Sproul

Summary

Saturday

Why Does the Universe Look so Old? – Albert Mohler

Summary

Is Calvinism Good for the Church? – Burk Parsons

Summary

If God is Good, How Could He Command Holy War? – Derek Thomas

Summary

Can We Enjoy Heaven Knowing of Loved Ones in Hell? – R. C. Sproul

Summary

God, Absence of Evidence, and the Atheist’s Teapot

Brian Garvey, a lecturer in the philosophy of mind and psychology at Lancaster University, has written an article exploring Russell’s famous celestial teapot. The article, Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot, appears in in the latest volume of Ars Disputandi, a philosophy of religion journal hosted by Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Here’s the abstract:

Atheists often admit that there is no positive evidence for atheism. Many argue that there is nonetheless a prima facie argument, which I will refer to as the ‘teapot argument’. They liken agnosticism to remaining neutral on the existence of a teapot in outer space. The present paper argues that this analogy fails, for the person who denies such a teapot can agree with the person who affirms it regarding every other feature of the world, which is not the case with the atheist vis-a-vis the theist. The atheist is committed to there being an alternative explanation of why the universe exists and is the way it is. Moreover, the analogy relies on assumptions about the prior plausibility of atheism. Hence, the teapot argument fails.

And a quote:

“There is, I want to argue, a significant di fference between denying the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun, and denying the existence of God. When two people disagree over whether or not there is a teapot orbiting the sun, they are disagreeing over whether the world includes that particular item or not. For all that that particular disagreement implies, the two people agree about every other feature of the world: the tea-ist believes in a world that is exactly the same as the one the a-tea-ist believes in, with the single difference that it contains one item that the a-tea-ist’s world doesn’t contain. Since, as I have argued in the previous section, the only thing that could count as evidence for the teapot orbiting the sun is that someone has seen it, it is in one way analogous to a situation where one person says: ‘there’s a postbox at the end of the high street’ and the other person says ‘no there isn’t, go and have a look’, and the first person goes and looks and doesn’t see one. If that person is reasonable, that will be the end of the argument. The two situations are not quite analogous, however, in that no-one has gone and looked to see whether there is a teapot in outer space. But the situations are disanalogous in a second way too, and a way which helps to illuminate why, in the absence of evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no such teapot. That is, that there is nothing manifestly far-fetched in the idea of there being a postbox at the end of the high street. In the absence of seeing one (leaving aside the possibility of more indirect evidence, such as seeing a map of where all the postboxes are at the GPO) one is hardly being unreasonable if one doesn’t come down on one side or the other. And this difference between the postbox and the teapot tells us something about why it is unreasonable to suspend judgement regarding the teapot, even though we have not only failed to see one, but failed to carry out anything remotely approaching an exhaustive search. Because of its manifest far-fetchedness, or what amounts to the same thing, because it’s reasonable in the absence of prior evidence on the specific hypothesis to estimate that it’s highly unlikely, we can say that, when it comes to teapots orbiting the sun, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. The atheist’s argument attempts to gain persuasiveness by ignoring this issue of prior plausibility. It is true that we cannot (at present) conclusively prove that there’s no teapot in outer space in the way that we could conclusively prove that there’s no postbox on the end of the street by going there and looking. But part of the reason why, despite not being able to do this, it is still reasonable to conclude that there isn’t, is that prior to any investigation the hypothesis is manifestly far-fetched. In the postbox case it is not, and thus we can see that absence of evidence, as far as rendering it reasonable to deny something’s existence goes, has different force depending on the case in hand. Unless the existence of God is taken to be also manifestly far-fetched, the argument to the effect that if we don’t suspend judgement regarding the teapot then we shouldn’t suspend it regarding God, doesn’t get off the ground.”

Read the whole thing on the Ars Disputandi website.

(Source: Z)

Auckland Event: Exploring Biblical Spirituality

This Friday, Rev Dr Peter Adam will be speaking at St Margaret’s Anglican Church in Auckland on the topic of Christian spirituality. Adam is the Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne and the author of several books, including Written For Us (read Paul Windsor’s review here) and Speaking God’s words: A Practical Theology of Preaching. His latest book, Hearing God’s words: Exploring biblical spirituality is a part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology, edited by D. A. Carson.  With the concept of spirituality today becoming increasingly fuzzy – both outside and within the church – Adam is passionate about calling Christians to be confident in the model of spirituality taught in the Bible.

This Wednesday and Thursday he will be in Hamilton (see more details here) and Friday’s message will be from Isaiah 55, continuing his discussion of what we can learn from the Bible about spirituality and what spirituality results from using the Bible. For more resources by Peter, go to www.ridley.edu.au

WHAT: Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality with Peter Adam

WHEN: Friday June 25, 7.30pm

WHERE: St Margaret’s Anglican Church,  102 Hillsborough Road, Hillsborough, Auckland, New Zealand

Questions answered on the role of evidence

A while back the blogger Ken Perrott asked of me a series of questions on the role of evidence and its relation to the what makes acceptable belief. The following are the answers I promised I would eventually get to when final assignments were in and exams were over.

Q: Do you accept the key role of interaction with reality and validation of any conclusions against reality?

(I have confirmed with Ken that by “reality” he means the mind-independent world. He and I share this definition.)

A: Yes, we should be testing hypotheses according the best methods we have available. Yes, this testing plays a key role in verification. 

The question is, overall, a little unclear, so let me clearly affirm the hypothetico-deductive method as very useful in scientific investigation.

Q: Do you accept that this should be a social process open to critique from colleagues?

A: Yes. I also accept this is an excellent way for curtailing errors, and for public confidence. However, I do not accept this critique is a truth-making property.

What do I mean by that? I mean that just because something is passed by a community who were involved at critiquing it does not mean the truth of that something is guaranteed.

Now, why do I say that? First, its an informal fallacy, specifically called an appeal to authority. The truth of any opinion, hypothesis, model, theory, explanation, etc., is unrelated to a persons beliefs about it, no matter who that person is or how qualified they are. Second, authorities – even peer-reviewed papers – in the history of science have later been found to have passed or believed conclusions that were wrong.

Q: Do you accept that logic/argument alone is worthless without validation?

(I’m not sure what the question is getting at here. What does “logic/argument” refer to precisely? And worthless for what exactly? As a basis for living? As a basis for research? One should expect different tests for different purposes. I’m going to take a gamble and respond to the following interpretation, “Do you accept that logical arguments are worthless without validation?”)

A: Logical arguments are already valid. Think about it – if they weren’t valid they’d be illogical arguments. 

We can validate the premises of an argument with several methods, including the discovery of physical-evidence, our store of past experiences, scientific testing, etc. 

Before these premises are validated, are logical arguments worthless? No, I don’t think so. Ken continually goes on about how in science we can test our theories “against reality.” So if he admits that science proceeds on uncertainty, it’s curious as to why he’d require a premise from an argument be validated as true for certain before the argument is considered worth anything. 

Here are some other reasons why a premise is worthwhile even if it is not validated. (1) Unvalidated premises can provide a conceptual basis to formulate hypotheses. (2) Unvalidated premises can be held provisionally until such time as they receive evidentiary support. This means scientific thought and speculation can proceed in advance of time-consuming lab work or expensive testing procedures. (3) Provisional premises can provide conclusions which can be used as premises in a “second-level” logical arguments which can be tested. (4) (i) If logical arguments were truly worthless without evidentiary validation we should never believe in high-level theoretical entities (such as quarks, black holes, or an early inflationary period in the history of the universe), which are in-principle unable to be empirically detected. (ii) Even low-level theoretical entities (such as ice-age glaciers and dinosaurs) would be ruled out as unbelievable if all premises in logical arguments had to be validated with certainty before they were worth anything – like believing. 

The Point?

Now, exactly what the point was by asking me these questions is unknown to me. Why Ken should want to know my opinion is quite odd. Almost as odd as why he felt the need to ask these particular question in the first place, when I have (with the possible exception of the third question) never explicitly or implicitly (to my knowledge at least) denied these things. The context in which these questions emerged was Ken’s blog “Theological intrusions into science,” which made out it was responding to my article “Are logical arguments evidence?” (In fact, it was not a response to my article. It was a response to one paragraph of my article – and a paragraph not vital to the purpose of that article. It began by misstating of my position and went on to waffle about appropriate belief forming methodology. I have detailed his misreading of that article in the comments to “Are logical arguments evidence?”.) From this I suspect that Ken holds the mistaken belief that I “denigrate the value of evidence and validation.” Which is completely wrong.

Ken guards jealously the methods of scientific discovery and proclaims science as a superior way of knowing to any other. He also takes a special interest in those who appear to be, in his opinion, anti-science. But I’m not in any way anti-science. This, I hope, is demonstrated by my forthright answers to his questions above. And neither are others that Ken claims are anti-science for that matter. A possible caveat.

If disagreeing with, or reserving judgment on, certain scientific beliefs that Ken and others who agree with him is being “anti-science”, then I guess I am according to that definition. But if thats the case, I would respectfully suggest that it is Ken who is actually closer to being anti-science. Why? Several reasons, but here is the main one:

In order for science to succeed it requires free enquiry and should allow others the freedom to question or reserve definitive judgments. Some of the greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. When Ken and many of his regular commenters shout down those honest enough to say, “I don’t know if thats really the case,” or bold enough to say “I have a critique of this hypothesis,” and “I think this different hypothesis should be considered thoughtfully,” then he is curtailing or discouraging free enquiry, which is much closer to being anti-science.

Its ironic that the defender so easily becomes the destroyer of what he originally sought to protect.

Hitchens and Haldane Debate Secularism and Faith in the Public Square

Last month, John Haldane and Christopher Hitchens participated in a discussion at Oxford University. The dialogue, organized by the Veritas Forum, considered whether secularism or religion provides a superior public philosophy.  The issue of whether the public square should be free of appeals to faith is fiercely contested today in the Western world. Both speakers give their opinions on this question, as well as examining which worldview can deliver a better foundation for human rights, liberties, and shared ideals. John Haldane is the Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and the Director of their Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs. Christopher Hitchens is a essayist, journalist and author several books, including God is Not Great.

The video from the exchange has just gone up on YouTube in ten parts (H/T: Edward Feser) and the audio can be found here. I’ve embedded the Vimeo video below (courtesy of the Veritas Forum).

‘We Don’t Do God’? Secularism and Faith in the Public Square from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

Insufficient but not Unnecessary: The Importance of Arguments

Andy Naselli has posted a great quote by American theologian and founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, J. Gresham Machen, on the place of arguments in the proclamation of the Gospel:

“Certainly a Christianity that avoids argument is not the Christianity of the New Testament. The New Testament is full of argument in defense of the faith. The Epistles of Paul are full of argument—no one can doubt that. But even the words of Jesus are full of argument in defense of the truth of what Jesus was saying. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?” Is not that a well-known form of reasoning, which the logicians would put in its proper category? Many of the parables of Jesus are argumentative in character. Even our Lord, who spake in the plenitude of divine authority, did condescend to reason with men. Everywhere the New Testament meets objections fairly, and presents the gospel as a thoroughly reasonable thing.

Some years ago I was in a company of students who were discussing methods of Christian work. An older man, who had had much experience in working among students, arose and said that according to his experience you never win a man to Christ until you stop arguing with him. When he said that, I was not impressed.

It is perfectly true, of course, that argument alone is quite insufficient to make a man a Christian. You may argue with him from now until the end of the world: you may bring forth the most magnificent arguments: but all will be in vain unless there be one other thing—the mysterious, creative power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. But because argument is insufficient, it does not follow that it is unnecessary. Sometimes it is used directly by the Holy Spirit to bring a man to Christ. But more frequently it is used indirectly. A man hears an answer to objections raised against the truth of the Christian religion: and at the time when he hears it he is not impressed. But afterwards, perhaps many years afterwards, his heart at last is touched: he is convicted of sin; he desires to be saved. Yet without that half-forgotten argument he could not believe: the gospel would not seem to him to be true, and he would remain in his sin. As it is, however, the thought of what he has heard long ago comes into his mind; Christian apologetics at last has its day, the way is open, and when he will believe he can believe because he has been made to see that believing is not an offence against truth.”

from “The Importance of Christian Scholarship” (pdf file at reformedaudio.org).

(HT: Joe Fleener)

Can we Love Jesus and Accept Evolution?

James Anderson, assistant professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, reviews “I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution”, the latest book by Denis Lamoureux:

“A full critique of Lamoureux’s evolutionary creationism cannot be given here. I will, however, indicate some of the major reasons why I don’t find his arguments compelling. In the first place, his approach to interpreting Scripture is highly problematic. He professes to acknowledge both the “Book of God’s Works” (revelation in nature) and the “Book of God’s Words” (revelation in Scripture) but it’s clear that he gives the former unqualified priority over the latter; if there is any apparent conflict between nature (for which read: modern science) and the Bible, Lamoureux concludes that the Bible is mistaken due to its accommodation to ancient science. On this way of thinking, the Bible must always be judged in the light of modern science. Yet this prioritization is the very opposite of the view that Christians have historically taken on the issue. As Calvin famously put it, the Bible functions like a pair of spectacles given to correct the distortion of natural revelation by our fallen intellects. Scripture has authority over science, whether ancient or modern.

Furthermore, Lamoureux’s separation of theological statements and scientific statements in the Bible is impossible to apply in practice. Take, for instance, the claim that God judged the world by sending a great flood (cf. 2 Peter 3:6). Is that a theological statement or a scientific statement? On the face of it, it’s both—at the very least, it has theological elements and scientific elements that cannot be teased apart.

A further concern is raised by Lamoureux’s central claim that the Bible is accommodated to ancient science and therefore makes scientific statements that are false. Why think that the accommodation only pertains to science? Why not suppose, for much the same reasons, that the Bible is accommodated to ancient morality too? Indeed, that’s precisely the argument used by many liberal theologians today who argue that Christianity is compatible with monogamous homosexual relationships. If Lamoureux wouldn’t accept their position, why should we accept his? What do modern scientists have that modern ethicists don’t?

The point can be pushed further still. If the Bible is accommodated to the fallible scientific outlook of its original audience, perhaps it is also accommodated to their fallible religious outlook. Perhaps all those claims in the New Testament regarding Christ’s substitutionary atonement are merely a concession to the religious outlook of ancient people who were used to thinking in terms of animal sacrifices, propitiatory atonement, and so forth. Presumably those claims would be no more immune to error than the Bible’s scientific claims. But then how much confidence could we place in the gospel message preached by the apostles?

The point is this: accommodationist theories of biblical inspiration such as Lamoureux’s are like a universal acid that burns its way through everything. Once we argue that the Bible is unreliable in one area (science) due to its accommodation to ancient ignorance, we can have no principled basis for insisting that it is still reliable—never mind inerrant—in other areas such as ethics and theology.

So much for Lamoureux’s doctrine of Scripture. What about his scientific arguments? I’ve noted already some of the weaknesses in his case: circular reasoning, selective evidence, and conclusions that go far beyond what the empirical data support. Equally problematic is the fact that he doesn’t even mention, let alone address, some of the many significant scientific difficulties faced by the theory that all living organisms have gradually evolved from rudimentary life forms by purely natural processes (e.g., the lack of a plausible mechanism for large-scale evolutionary development, the so-called “Cambrian explosion” in the fossil record, the origin of sexual differentiation, and the existence of irreducibly complex biological structures). The uninformed reader will almost certainly be misled into thinking that the scientific case for evolution is beyond question. Still, perhaps we should cut Lamoureux some slack on this point. After all, if the biblical authors can be excused their misleading or false statements on the basis that they were captive to the science-of-the-day, presumably so can he!

Finally, I suspect many evangelical readers will be unconvinced by Lamoureux’s plea that his position preserves all the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. He speaks several times of “non-negotiable” Christian beliefs, but never explains what criteria he uses for treating some traditional Christian beliefs as non-negotiable and others as dispensable. One can’t help but suspect that his list of essential doctrines is rigged so that his own views fall safely within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Lamoureux’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin, which follows of necessity from his rejection of the historical Adam and Eve, is particularly problematic. If Adam never existed then obviously no human being could have inherited a sinful nature from him. Lamoureux suggests that this traditional doctrine originated with Augustine (who was, of course, misled by the science-of-the-day) but he fails to acknowledge that Augustine argued his position from Scripture. What Lamoureux recommends in place of the traditional doctrine might be dubbed “Original Sin Lite” (or perhaps “Original Sin Zero”): every human being is a sinner and that’s all we need to affirm. Yet surely this falls far short of the doctrine taught in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, which offers both a coherent theological explanation for universal human sinfulness and a profound parallel (and contrast) between Adam and Jesus. It’s remarkable that Lamoureux makes no reference to these passages in his discussion of original sin, and his treatments elsewhere in the book require him to hold these texts at arm’s length. One has to wonder whether he would have so quickly concluded that Adam is a dispensable mythical figure had he been more exposed to the Reformed tradition in his theological studies. There is far more at stake here than whether Paul was mistaken in certain incidental historical facts.

I have to conclude that despite its irenic approach and the undoubted expertise of its author, this book fails in its goal of reconciling biblical Christianity with modern evolutionary science. Nevertheless, it is very useful in this respect: it makes clear what price has to be paid in order to make peace with evolution, even if one takes a relatively conservative approach. The first casualties are the doctrines of biblical authority, clarity, and inerrancy, closely followed by the doctrine of original sin; and once those are sacrificed it’s inevitable that more will follow, for no doctrine is an island. The doctrines of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone, to cite two examples, are intimately connected to the nature of the fall and its consequences.”

Read the whole thing here (or an abridged version at Discerning Reader here).

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New Book: Has Christianity Failed You?

Chesterton famously wrote that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Has Christianity Failed You? is a new book by evangelical thinker and apologist, Ravi Zacharias, written to address the struggles that many experience in trying to follow Jesus Christ. In a culture that is post-Christian, there will be many people who end up rejecting Christianity for different reasons – personal loss or suffering, false expectations shaped by broken relationships, traumatic church experiences, and often because of intellectual struggles. Ravi explores the nature of disappointment with God and the difficult questions that often arise from those who have feel betrayed intellectually and spiritually by the church or by their Christian experience. Some of the specific questions addressed in the book:

  • Have you stumbled and fallen in your faith?
  • Do you have intellectual questions that are unanswered?
  • Is Christianity not what you thought it was?
  • Have you been affected by hypocrisy in the church?
  • Are you swayed by the challenges to the Holy Scriptures?
  • Has science tested your Christian belief?

Ravi is a gifted writer and I have benefited greatly from his discussion of logical and existential questions (Can Man Live Without God, Cries of the Heart and Deliver Us From Evil are excellent works). This new book by him looks to again balance out both the practical and philosophical considerations involved when God seems distant or when the Christian life seems harder than we expected it to be. Let’s face it, religious people and institutions can often be the biggest obstacle to belief in God (movements like the emergent church prove this pretty well). Hopefully this book will be helpful for many who find themselves in this position.

Has Christianity Failed You? becomes available on Amazon this month.

Here are two questions from an interview Ravi did with Danielle DuRant about the book (the full interview can be found on the RZIM site):

What do you say to the person who cognitively believes God is good and wants to trust him but, based on a past heartache or a present situation, still struggles to experience him as compassionate and trustworthy?

RZ: These are what I call the rub questions. They are not easy to answer. And these situations are more often the rule than the exception in our experience. I think about this a lot, and I wonder how much we have been wrongly taught in these matters? Have our expectations for life as a Christian been wrong? In our efforts to be relevant, we have forgotten that some things are going to be irrelevant and unexplainable for us, and it is we who need to become relevant to the truth, not the other way around. We are not God. Imagine trying to force a square peg into a round hole—all you accomplish in the end is to damage the edges of the peg. Sometimes we try to force God to fit our mold for him, to fit our idea of how he should act, and then when he doesn’t meet these expectations, we blame him for not meeting our expectations.

I have concluded that the greatest of loves comes at the greatest cost. The greatest of loves will never come cheaply. It takes everything you have to honor that love and everything you have to honor that trust. And the greatest love that any of us could have is our relationship with God.

Look at any athletes who have succeeded. Discipline is an indispensable part of their lives— unless, of course, they cheat. And when you’ve got the discipline, you’ve got the marks on your body to demonstrate it. But we sit down Sunday after Sunday, in the West particularly, to a delicious buffet of programming. Then when the first temptation comes, we are walloped; we are thrashed, and we wonder where God is. God is exactly where we have left him—way behind, reshaped into our image.

Something I heard from a Muslim doctor I met in Pakistan who had come to know Christ comes to my mind often. He told me about the two sentences he heard from a preacher that changed his life: “In surrendering, you win. In dying, you live.” This is the counterperspective. So when you say, “I don’t feel God here. I’m afraid to trust him here,” realize that there are many days when you don’t feel the love you want to feel from your spouse, your children, your family. But you have to be big enough to surrender your own needs and keep loving and “kicking against the goads,” as it were. I believe when it is over, you will discover that perseverance was what it was all about.

You’ve raised many significant points today—that we must carefully examine our expectations of God and our disappointments, not denying them but bringing them to God and asking him to show us where we may be thinking improperly, and that we must come to him in prayer rather than turn our backs on our relationship, asking him to show us more of himself and his love for us.

RZ: There are two important implications, Danielle. Blaming our poor relationship with our heavenly Father on our poor relationships with our earthly fathers is similar to saying that Christianity has failed us because of what we see or experience in the church. This is a false extrapolation. Yes, the church is flawed; yes, it is broken. But if you think of the twelve men whom Jesus chose—my word! Certainly an insightful Divine Being could have picked better disciples than he did. And out of these less-than-perfect disciples, he took perhaps the least promising— Peter—and gave him the key spot. Then he took a terrorist—Paul— and made him the penman for one-third of the New Testament. So I think we take a great risk if we base our decision about ultimate matters only on what we can see.

Second and very important, one of the chapters in this book is a response to Robert Price and his view of the irrationality and untenability of the Christian faith. This is not a face-value response, but I want the reader to understand this: Examine any other worldview, and you’ll find an important difference between it and the Christian faith. In the Christian faith, we may ask the questions, in fact, encourage questions, and while we may not always have comprehensive answers, we have very meaningful answers. In any other worldview, not only do they not have meaningful answers, they cannot even justify their questions. This is not to say that Christianity is the best of some horrible options. No! I think the questions of morality, meaning, love, destiny, values, sexuality, marriage, friendship, and word over feeling are most meaningfully answered in the Judeo-Christian worldview. I am more convinced of this than I was at the moment I first committed my life to Christ. So examine Christianity against all other alternatives, and I believe with my whole heart that you will find that Christianity has not failed you.