Who exactly was “the early church?”

 

As I thought through the claim that the pre-4th century church did not regard the four New Testament Gospels as authoritative, it occurred to me to ask, “Have you considered exactly who these ancient people are?” This is a ginormous question for skeptics claiming we must re-write the history books about the church’s own authoritative documents. It is most certainly one of several elephants in the room.

The Da Vinci Code Perspective (see blog post 1 and blog post 2) pits the Nag Hammadi documents, the Gnostic Gospels, against the four New Testament Gospels as the proper source behind the “real” Jesus of Nazareth. Like Gnosticism itself, it asserts special, almost mystical insight into supposedly murky and mysterious things that are otherwise unknowable. However, the reality is that we can lay the historical data out in the open, side-by-side with the four Gospels, and compare them with a great deal of clarity. No special glasses are needed.

urrim and thumin

Back to the elephant…WHO supposedly did not recognize the four Gospels as authoritative? The answer of course is the Christian church. The Da Vinci Code Perspective overlooks the fact that the 1st century church owes its very existence to the historical events surrounding the traditional Gospel message—Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, who lived and died and was resurrected to atone for sin. It was their impetus. It was their very identity. The 1st century church and its message of the Good News is rooted in the historical narrative. The four Gospels and Acts (Luke Volume 2) chronicle the history. If the lost Gospels were accurate and the Jesus of the revised history were true, there would be no Christian church in the 4th century or the 21st century to even look back upon the 1st. It would be utterly different. Such a Jesus and such a church is a phantom. Let’s follow the historical bread crumbs back to the beginning of the trail.

 eyewitnesses

First, there was a pre-4th century church who witnessed the events, proclaimed them, and wrote prolifically about Jesus and the Christian faith. So, we do not have to wonder and speculate about what these people believed about Jesus. The revisionists justify their need to re-construct Jesus by introducing doubt about the gap between the events of Jesus’s life and when the Gospels were penned. Certainly, there was a gap in time, but it is not cloaked in mystery. This is the fog-machine needed to peddle their special anti-fog glasses. Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony, makes a very strong case that “The Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship.” (pg. 6). The take-away here is, evidence shows the early church was comprised of eyewitnesses to the events; and the four Gospels, not the lost Gospels, are reliable hard copies of their orally transmitted testimonies.

The strength of the traditional history is that it is traceable to the eyewitnesses, opposed to Nag Hammadi which is traceable to a detached group of people some one to three hundred years removed.  Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, points out, “It is often proper for those Christians who side with orthodoxy to say that the Gnostics got things wrong when referring to the teachings of the historical Jesus and his disciples. The Gnostic literature is later than the New Testament literature, usually quite a bit later. Moreover, that the Gnostic literature contains authentic apostolic tradition is dubious, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas. But there is even uncertainty regarding Thomas.” (pg. 37).

quality-control

Second, concerning who the early church was, their name is important. We could perhaps call them “the meet-ers.” We use the term “church” with no obvious significance for us today. It is an anglicized, Germanic transliteration of the Greek word meaning “of the Lord.” It relates more to the place of worship than the people who are worshipping. As in our day, we see a building with a steeple and think “church.”

However, the early Christians did not have such structures. They met in private homes. The key is, they met. Their very name, “ekklesia,” in Greek, was an ordinary word for any assembly. They were known for what was most obvious about them…they gathered together often and regularly. Why is that important to this discussion? From the very beginning, they were a distinguishable, identifiable group of people with clearly recognized leadership. Jesus had twelve men in his inner circle. Eleven of them went on to lead this assembly of converts (most of whom were eyewitnesses, even participants in Jesus’s crucifixion).  Luke, the historian, quotes from Peter’s first sermon, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Luke explains, “when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart.” (Acts 2:36-37). After that sermon, the membership exploded. “But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4). Such growth required more leadership. The church appointed deacons (servant-leaders) to handle the practical needs of the group while the apostles were responsible for teaching and preaching. As the church expanded and moved beyond Jerusalem, local pastors, also called elders and bishops, were appointed to oversee the new “ekklesias” (congregations.)

Let us try to grasp the significance of these things. Christianity emerged onto the world stage with a message of faith around the historical events of Jesus of Nazareth. The message, the Gospel, was everything. It was their identity. It was the reason for which they gathered. It was the reason for which Jews and non-Jews abandoned their families, their way of life, overnight, and joined the church at great personal expense—even martyrdom. Built into the psyche of the assembly was preserving that message. The early church had an extraordinarily robust quality control system in place. As Timothy Paul Jones notes: “Early Christians rejected these [other] writings because they were looking for trustworthy testimony about Jesus, and that’s not what they found when the [sic] read the “lost Scriptures.” (pg. 88).

By contrast, the Gnostics had no structure or identifiable group. There was no creed, no gnosticbody of doctrine, and no cohesive leadership. Gnosticism was a philosophy, not a church, in an incipient form during and after the time of Christ. Nag Hammadi shows that a hundred or so years later it had gained some consistency of topics with disconnected leader like Carpocrates, Saturninus, Basilides, and Valentinus (See the Missing Gospels, by Darrel Bock, pg. 10).

Therefore, when the claim is made that the four New Testament Gospels were not authoritative among the early church, we must point out the elephants in the room. The church was vitally linked to the message, the events, and the people of the Gospels. The church produced them. There was no alternative, authoritative body or documents. The Da Vinci Code Perspective is self-refuting.

In the next post, I’ll discuss if the Gospel writers were even aware that they were writing scripture!

 

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Jesus#2, “Where did you come from?”

time mag jesus

Before asking our “To Tell the Truth” contestants some probing questions, I feel the need to explain something. The subject of this brief blog series requires me to take an informational, even corrective approach than I would prefer. If you knew me personally, you would know that I have a dry, witty sense of humor and that I really enjoy making people laugh with clever puns and jokes rather than confronting them over disagreements. Like most people, I am amused by and enjoy reading blogs about someone’s adventures trekking across the globe, complete with amazing photographs of places I will never see for myself. I am entertained by creative people who are able to notice and then transform a piece of garage-sale junk into a stunningly stylish bit of décor.  But that is not my task here. Instead, I am writing about serious matters—things associated with hope in this life and for life after death. These topics are not fodder solely for philosophers and theologians; they are the things that motivate us in our daily lives. I maintain that faith undergirds all we do, for the irreligious and the religious. We all have faith. Faith either trusts that Jesus is nothing or that he is everything. My blog attempts to direct your thoughts to a critical point of intersection between the spiritual and the physical worlds by looking at the historical claims of Christianity. When we deal with the person of Jesus and the historical record about him, we are confronted with a cardinal claim of Christianity: God came to Earth.

When it comes to Jesus, I plead with you to not give in to unfounded conspiracy theories or fanciful imaginations of his life, but rather pursue the facts. I find it ironic that many people in our scientific day seem inclined, even pre-disposed, to accept a revised account of Jesus when the original accounts are so solid. These are people, perhaps yourself, who otherwise rally around the flag of Science, resolute to consider only objective data and draw conclusions on the facts alone, yet they jettison the historical information about Jesus. Have you researched the data for yourself? Have you assumed the unreliability of the Bible and the historical record of the church or have you researched it? Are you really as scientific as you claim? Let’s now do a bit of cross-examination to separate the impostors from the genuine.

In the first blog, I named names. I pointed to two examples of revised history about Jesus. The authors’ perspectives were largely speculative, putting forth a theory and not a biography. They disavow traditional history and the documents from which it is founded, in favor of alternative documents with scant information. With tinted glasses donned, they anachronistically import their ideas into the historical record, seeing what is not there.

da vinci code

I’ve coined the phrase The Da Vinci Code Perspective, for my Jesus #2 candidate. It is short-hand for the popular notion that, The topic can be further narrowed to whether or not the four Gospels were recognized as accurate biographies of Jesus prior to the fourth century. Ironically, this perspective also claims to correct revised history. So, my first question to this Jesus #2 theory is, “Can you show me your ID?” or “What documents stand behind your story?”

nag hammadi

If the answer is, “The lost Gospels of Nag Hammadi,” we have our impostor. That sounds very mysterious and enlightening. Very Indiana jones-like. Revisionist theories have emerged due to an archaeological discovery of ancient documents in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. Prior to that discovery, Bible skeptics took an altogether different approach. They questioned the traditionally-held authorship of many of the Bible’s individual books. German scholars based their theories on a book’s internal grammatical, stylistic, and thematic differences. The scholars postulated that Isaiah, for one example, was authored by several people over a long time. Their approach is known as “form criticism” and it has all but gone the way of the dodo in modern scholarship. It proved to be the hunch de jour.

My point to you is that attacks against the traditional historicity of the Bible is nothing new. The reason this blog is about the historical Jesus and not form criticism is because the winds of skepticism changed and now blow toward Nag Hammadi. Any suspicion leading you to question who the “real Jesus” is did not originate with you, but came filtered down from the academies. What do you know about these lost Gospels? For starters, not only is their content severely lacking supportable historical content, their authorship and connections to the events are dubious. Referring to the New Testament Gospels, Dr. Darrel Bock points out, “These [traditional materials] have value because of when they were written, and because of the persons who did the writing and their relationships to Jesus or those around Him. In historical work, sources rule.” (The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities pg. 83.) The opposite applies to the Gnostic, or lost Gospels. They have no value [as biographical documents] because of when they were written, and because of the persons who did the writing and the lack of relationship to Jesus or those around Him. They are relatively late, in a time notorious for false appeals to apostolic authority.

serapionThe late 2nd to early 3rd century church not only knew about these documents, they were battling against them in real-time. The Nag Hammadi documents actually validate the pre 4th century traditional record rather than displace it. Archaeologists did not unearth ancient documents that cause us to correct history; they resurrected the very documents of the false teachers about whom the church was warned to avoid! A compelling example comes from the eighth bishop of Antioch, Serapion, regarding the so-called Gospel of Peter. (The church at Antioch goes back to the first Christians.) Serapion wrote: “For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the rest of the apostles as Christ Himself. But those writings which are falsely inscribed with their name, we as experienced persons reject, knowing that no such writings have been handed down to us. I supposed that all were in accord with the orthodox faith; and, although I had not read through the Gospel inscribed with the name of Peter which was brought forward by them…But, now that I have learnt from what has been told me that their mind was secretly cherishing some heresy, I will make all haste to come to you again….” See How We Got the Bible, by Timothy Paul Jones, pp. 62-63).

Whether you take the side of the New Testament Gospels or the Gnostic Gospels, what cannot be disputed is that the pre-4th century church did recognize the four New Testament Gospels as authoritative. Nag Hammadi may be news to us, but we are a bit late on the scene of history.

I have another question for Jesus #2, a real elephant in the room. But, it will have to wait for blog post #3.

Implications of the Resurrection

worship

If you have followed along in this series of blog posts, I trust that you recognize my desire to engage in thoughtful discussions of the matters of the Christian faith. I absolutely understand why topics such as the resurrection seem like fantasy and myth rather than reality and serious history. As I stated in the opening section, I and most Christians I know, also dispute, refute, and disbelieve so-called “miracle” stories. These accounts really have no bearing upon Christianity whatsoever. My faith does not live or die on them. And frankly, I suspect that most of these anecdotes have a purely naturalistic explanation. But the resurrection of Jesus is different on several levels.

In the debate with atheist Antony Flew, Gary Habermas makes the point, to which Flew confirmed, no other founder of a significant religion ever claimed to perform miracles. Jesus is unique. His claims were unique and relatively outlandish. Though many people consider Jesus as one of the “great teachers” alongside Buddha, Confucius, Gandhi, and etc., He cannot be classified as such. C.S. Lewis famously and rightly said that one must consider Jesus in one of three categories: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. His teaching included, even founded upon His claims to Deity. To be a great intellect or one among other great men is to undermine His teaching altogether. You see, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. The problem for the skeptic is that history proves His claim is valid. The historical record of human history that even makes us aware of the great teachers, attests to the Deity of Jesus. These implications place the greatest demand upon each of us to heed His words. As the writer of Hebrews states “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”

Jesus showed us God. He showed us that although God is holy and just who judges every evil though, motive, and deed and there will one day be a day of reckoning, He is also a God who condescends to meet with us, to reach out to us, to offer us hope. In the Bible, We see Jesus talking to the skeptics of the world. We see Him explaining and showing that there is more to reality than the physical world. The miracles He performed had multiple purposes. They validated His claims of Deity.

One of my personal favorite accounts of Jesus was the paralytic who was lowered through the roof before Him (Luke 5:18-25). The story goes that the house was full of people, clamoring to be with him, to be healed, to listen to Him. It was so crowded that this man’s friends decided to remove the roof above Jesus and lower him down. What a sight that must have been. It demanded Jesus’ attention. He was not perturbed by the incident, but instead admired the faith of the paralytic’s friends. Instead of healing the man, Jesus stated “Your sins are forgiven.” How interesting! Imagine being the paralyzed man. Was he disappointed by this pronouncement? He was not restored to health. Furthermore, Jesus knowingly provoked the religious leaders in the room.

These religious leaders, not Jesus’ friends, immediately recognized his claim of deity in that pronouncement. They responded with the greatest disdain, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” The punishment for blasphemy was death. Eventually they had their way on this matter, but for now they were just provoked. Jesus knew exactly what He was doing.

This situation, a paralyzed man before and a spiritual claim made, also shows us that Jesus is aware of the difficulty of believing a spiritual reality exists in a physical world. He addresses this directly by asking, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” Certainly it is easier to say “your sins are forgiven” because you cannot prove that. It is un-seeable. It cannot be proven or refuted. His disciples would believe it, just because He said it. His detractors would not believe it because He said it. Perhaps you would not believe it, because you do not believe in a spiritual reality involving God and the need for His forgiveness of your sins against Him. His claim to forgive the man’s sin could not be proven by the proclamation alone.

Therefore, Jesus took things to the next level. Surely the tension in the air was palpable. Here is a poor, broken man who wants to be healed. His friends have made a spectacle of themselves before everyone. The religious leaders were furious. The crowd was all eyes and ears. Jesus knowingly orchestrated the situation to prove His claim of Deity. He said, “’But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’—He said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home.’” Immediately he got up before them, and picked up what he had been lying on, and went home glorifying God.

In this instance, Jesus claimed to be God, claimed there is a spiritual reality over a purely naturalistic one, and proved it by performing a miracle. The resurrection was the ultimate validating miracle. It was the greatest demonstration of power and His claim of Deity. The implication is unmistakable. If Jesus is God, then who are we and what else has He said and does He require anything of me?

The resurrection, though validating Jesus’ claims and really all of the history and claims of the entire bible, had another purpose. The resurrection secured the salvation of all those who repent of their sin toward God and have faith in Him. You see, the resurrection is tied to the crucifixion. We understand from the Bible, that each of us has broken the Law of God and the just thing for a holy Judge to do is to punish the lawbreaker. He said that the wages of sin is death. But the “Good News” or “Gospel” is that Jesus’ death carried out that death sentence and was a substitution for your guilt. The wrath of God against sin and evil and disobedience was directed at His Son who was not guilty at all—who had not displeased God, His Father, in any way whatsoever. Here we see what Peter meant when he wrote, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”

Like Jesus with the paralytic in front Him, we hear an unprovable, spiritual claim being made—Jesus’ death was a substitution for you and me and our guilt. We deserved the death penalty, but Jesus paid it for us. All He demands of us is to confess our sin, agree with Him that we have offended God, turn our hearts away from our love of self and sin and turn toward Him in love, trust Him by faith. For we are told that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”—So, how can we know if this spiritual claim is true? In the case of the paralytic, Jesus healed him. In the case of His claims that His death paid for sin, He rose from the dead just like He said He would. His resurrection established proof and hope that we too will be raised from the dead, forgiven, washed clean of the guilt of our sin.

You see, the “debate” about the resurrection far exceeds winning or losing an argument. See that the resurrection of Jesus is an historical event, proving spiritual claims, with the greatest implications of eternity. The first question I asked in this blog is the question before you now, “Is the resurrection believable?” I hope you see that it is entirely believable and the risen Jesus calls you even now to believe in Him, pleading with you, saying, “Follow Me.”

A Resurrection? I Object!

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

Sherlock Holmes Quote[1]

-The Sign of Foursherlock

 

I ran Plantinga’s argument (see Blog #4) by my nineteen-year-old son, to see how acceptable the acclaimed philosopher’s thoughts would be taken in a real-world context. My son didn’t buy it. Perhaps his innate common-sense realism just didn’t buy into it. Nevertheless, it could indeed be the case that any naturalist who may read this blog won’t buy it either. Firmly holding to his materialistic ground, the resurrection skeptic sets forth several options that explain the resurrection naturally. This post will consider some of the common naturalistic explanations that have been proposed and the common retorts. Gary Habermas rightfully explains that to say “resurrections just don’t happen” is insufficient. Denial is a claim only and not a theory.[2] The skeptic must provide his own explanation. Hopefully, by the end of this post, reader and author alike will confirm Sherlock Holmes’ point above and accept the truth, no matter how improbable it may seem.

The first refutation of the resurrection of Jesus is found in the pages of the Bible itself. Matthew 28:11-15

Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

The obvious thing to note here is that the text plainly tells us this naturalistic explanation is a hoax, a conspiracy, and the real story had just been presented. If we take the Bible for what it says, the objection must immediately be dismissed. But perhaps the Bible is using some sort of psychological trick to disguise the truth and the hoax actually lies with its own explanation. The author is the conspirator after all and the disciples did steal the body.

For the sake of argument then, let’s consider the events and why that theory is implausible. It is implausible for several combined reasons. First, these tombs were built intentionally to keep grave robbers out, not to keep dead people from escaping. A 2016 article form the Biblical Archaeological Society explains that the traditional thought that the tomb was sealed with a disk-shaped stone is very unlikely. Of the 900 contemporary tombs, only four were disk-shaped. Of course, the rare of anything is set apart for the ultra-rich, nobility. The other 896 were square (cork-shaped) and were used by commoners, even wealthy ones like Joseph of Arimathea. The disk-shaped stones were designed to be re-opened, to entomb multiple family members over the course of time. The cork shaped ones, as seen in the picture below, could not be moved about easily, once set in place.

tomb-with-stopper-260x195

Moving a giant cork-shaped stone would certainly be a very difficult project physically for the disciples. Though perhaps eleven men could do that. However, they would have to perform this feat with a Roman guard on duty. Here “guard” indicates a company, and not a single soldier. Notice the plurality mentioned in the Matthew text above. Having been in the military, I know that falling asleep on watch is a punishable offense. I am sure for a Roman soldier, the penalty could cost him his life. These soldiers would all have to be asleep to such a degree as to remain undisturbed despite such activity all about them. This theory simply replaces one miracle with another. It is highly unlikely that the disciples, who were observed in public soon afterwards, stole the body of such a locally famous person and successfully hid it. Also, it is very unlikely that these disciples would be willing to die for a hoax, and most did die for their testimony of Jesus. Furthermore, the empty tomb is only half the story. The stolen body theory does not answer the eyewitness’ accounts of Jesus’s appearances.

The more common theory in our day is the hallucination theory. Habermas writes:

After a decades-long hiatus, the subjective vision theory [hallucination] is making a comeback and is again the most popular natural response to Jesus’ resurrection. The most influential version is that argued by German theologian Gerd Lüdemann. After a study of the major resurrection texts in the NT, Lüdemann appeals to “stimulus,” “religious intoxication,” and “enthusiasm” as the states of mind leading to the visions seen by Peter, as well as by others who concluded that Jesus was alive. Lüdemann prefers to speak of these experiences as visions rather than hallucinations, but he is clear that nothing literally happened to Jesus himself.[3]

One problem with this theory is that the disciples’ state of mind was far from being euphoric. They were quite the opposite. The disciples were grieving the loss of their leader. The spirit of the objection is the disciples experienced an extreme emotion—great joy or great grief. But the better rejoinder is not to argue the disciples’ emotional state as the stimulus for hallucinating. Rather it is not likely that groups of people experience the same extremities and the same hallucination simultaneously. The 1 Corinthians 15 passage, which is one of the “minimal facts” approved texts, states that Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred brethren at one time.” Furthermore, Paul states there “many of whom remain until now.” The implication is that his readers did not have to take Paul’s word for it, they could talk to the eyewitnesses personally, if they wish to corroborate the story. This theory also does not account for the Apostle Paul’s testimony, witnessed by others, of an experience with the risen Christ three years later. And we must remember that he was not a disciple in a euphoric or depressed state, instead he was an enemy to Christians, a thoroughgoing unbeliever. Paul was not the only skeptic to have changed his position on the matter of Jesus’ resurrection. The story of “doubting Thomas” and Jesus’ own skeptical brother, James, provide two examples of non-euphoric eyewitnesses. For these reasons, the hallucination theory also seems implausible.

The last naturalist theory that gained wide acceptance in generations past was the so-called “swoon theory.” This argument proposed that Jesus did not really die and that he recovered. The swoon theory has largely faded into oblivion. Jesus’ crucifixion is among the most reliable historical accounts in ancient history. The depiction of His death unmistakably describes death. First, the Romans were experienced crucifiers. They employed various techniques to hasten the death if needed. They would brake ankles in to prevent the person’s ability to push himself upward to inhale, ensuring suffocation. This technique was considered, but the crucifier recognized that Jesus had already expired, according to the Apostle John. To ensure death, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ heart with a spear. The famous description “blood and water poured out” indicates the pericardium sac, surrounding the heart, had been punctured. An article entitled, The Science of the Crucifixion by Cahleen Shrier, PhD. explains this. The swoon theory also decreases in feasibility when we consider again the cork-shaped stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. If Jesus survived crucifixion and a stab to the heart, how could he possibly remove the stone seal? Again, the naturalist theory replaces one miracle with another.

Given the reliability of the death of Jesus, acknowledged even by skeptics, as recorded in the Bible, no naturalistic theory can account for all of the data. Surely, we can see that all naturalistic theories fall short. When this is combined with the overwhelming historical accounts in the affirmative, the skeptic surely must acknowledge that best explanation is the improbable one; namely, Jesus was raised from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is true.

This post is meant to be an introduction to the various alternative, naturalistic explanations that are offered for the resurrection of Jesus. I urge the reader to research the topic using the links I provided. You will find ample material to read or watch which present far more exhaustive and reasoned arguments from both sides of the issue.

[1]http://sherlockholmesquotes.com/ accessed March 10, 2017.

[2]http://garyhabermas.com/articles/trinityjournal_latetwentieth/trinityjournal_latetwentieth.htm accessed March 10, 2017.

[3]Ibid.

Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?

The question before us in this post is “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” As the two previous blogs indicated, the resurrection is prominent in the good news of Jesus. It is the point upon which all of Christianity pivots. It, being concomitant to the cross, is the nexus of Biblical faith. Furthermore, the resurrection serves to bridge material and spiritual reality. (I may have just lost the materialist.) The cry of the skeptic goes something like this: “show me God and I’ll believe.” The resurrection is his evidence. Rather than God writing His name across the sky or speaking audibly and repeatedly from Heaven, He spoke finally through His Son, Jesus—a living, breathing, person from a remote town in the middle East…the One by whom our calendars mark the years. Yeah, that one.

It is no small point to say there were eyewitnesses to his life:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

 

If Jesus’s resurrection was indeed an historical event, then there should be evidence to affirm it; otherwise there should be evidence to refute the claim. An historical claim can be accurately researched. There are recognized guidelines, techniques, “science” used to investigate past events and people. The homicide investigator uses forensic science to gather information, clues, in order to establish the facts surrounding the past. Likewise, historians of antiquities use science: the study of ancient documents—particularly philology as a study of source criticism especially the Greek New Testament—, archaeology which involves the “hard sciences,” as well as anthropology. Surely, the materialist has no problem with science’s ability to accurately portray the past. Is this confidence not the foundation upon which the studies of the origin of the universe and evolution are built? Our task here should be much easier, as we are going back a mere 2,000 years and remaining on Earth rather than going back billions and billions of years looking into the vast cosmos.

One pertinent academic discipline akin to philology is historiography. The Mirriam-Webster definition is: the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods. Having original sources is ideal for historians. When original sources are not available, then secondary sources are used, and so on. Therefore, it is completely logical that the nearer a source is to the time of the person and events, the better. Furthermore, the higher number of supporting sources that corroborate, the better. As with any investigation, a reliable eye-witness, even multiple corroborating eye-witnesses is “golden.”

A major historian of Jesus’s resurrection is Christian professor and author Gary Habermas. Dr. Habermas puts forth what he calls the “minimal facts” argument, which I will summarize in this post. I find it to be a compelling argument. Before the skeptic balks at my using a Christian to defend Jesus’s resurrection, let me offer two counter-points to the objection that a Christian historian must be biased who undoubtedly will produce skewed conclusions. First, if a so-called unbiased person does the homework well, carefully researches a matter, stands up well to academic scrutiny, and the results lead him to act upon those conclusions to the degree that he becomes a “believer,” does that subsequent belief negate the research? It cannot. His “conversion” merely proves his character and integrity to respond personally and consistently with his research. I would be more suspicious of the character of a person who says “I conclude ‘X’ but remain ‘anti-X.’” Or, if a biased person does that same level of good research and his bias is strengthened, does that invalidate the research? Surely not. Though everyone’s research must stand the test of careful scrutiny, one’s bias does not automatically disqualify the research. This is the case with Dr. Habermas. His research was motivated by his own personal struggles of doubt about Christianity.

Secondly, if the “biased” person acknowledges his bias and then applies, not his own criteria, but the criteria of his opponents, to his research, would that help quench the suspicion of bias and appease the skeptic? I hope so. What else could be asked of him? It would respectfully identify common ground upon which both parties could proceed. Surely, that approach would be the only way dialogue and knowledge could healthily progress between them. Someone has to compromise (in a good way) their own beliefs in order to accommodate the other. That is exactly what Dr. Habermas does with his “minimal facts” argument. He restricts his dialogue to these “least common denominators” of agreement, recognized within critical, skeptical scholarship among credible subject-matter experts. It is only right to limit the debates to the academicians for obvious reasons…they are the ones who have done the homework and who have been recognized. It promotes the best possible measures of quality control.

Habermas’s criteria for a minimal fact is:

Each event had to be established by more than adequate scholarly evidence, and usually by several critically-ascertained, independent lines of argumentation. Additionally, the vast majority of contemporary scholars in relevant fields had to acknowledge the historicity of the occurrence. Of the two criteria, I have always held that the first is by far the most crucial, especially since this initial requirement is the one that actually establishes the historicity of the event. Besides, the acclamation of scholarly opinion may be mistaken or it could change.[1]

He also accommodates the skeptic by NOT basing his minimal facts on either the reliability or inspiration of the Bible. He offers these premises regarding the Bible and proof of the resurrection:

  1. If one concedes the Bible is Inspired, then the resurrection happened
  2. If one concedes the Bible is Reliable, then the resurrection happened
  3. IF one concedes the Bible is a book of ancient literature—and everyone does—, then the resurrection happened.

The third premise is his claim.

Some convenient data, but not necessary to the argument, is:

The empty tomb is accepted by 75% of true scholars.

The other data in his minimal facts argument is accepted by 95-100%.

How can such percentages be authenticated? He says it is from empirical data, “I counted.” Habermas claims to have catalogued critical scholars and their positions from 1975-2012 citing 3400 resources in French, German, and English, using 140 subcategories, amounting to 600 pages.

Habermas’s minimal facts include:

  1. Jesus died due to crucifixion.
  2. His disciples had experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus.
  3. Their lives were transformed because of this conviction.
  4. As a result, they proclaimed this message very soon after Jesus’ death, actually within weeks.
  5. A man named Saul of Tarsus was converted to Jesus Christ by what he

also concluded was a personal appearance of the risen Jesus to him.

These minimal facts present early, eyewitness accounts. They are multiple primary sources. Remember, this is the best possible scenario for historiographers.

The date of Jesus’s undisputed crucifixion was ~30 A.D. Among the seven or so New Testament books that are recognized as authentic is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, dated at 55 A.D or 25 years after the crucifixion. In that letter he claims a personal experience of the risen Jesus, three years after the crucifixion. He also records that at the time of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to 500 witnesses including Jesus’s own skeptical brother James. These eyewitnesses obviously put the time between the sources and the event at “Time Zero.”

The importance of these dates can be understood when you consider again historiography. From a historiography perspective, Paul’s writing twenty-five years after the resurrection is almost a ridiculously close timeframe. By comparison, Alexander the Great whose authenticity is not doubted. No one doubts Alexander the Great lived and conquered the world. There are no copies of historians who wrote during his life.

If you would like to view Dr. Habermas’s lecture on the minimal facts argument, you can do so here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5znVUFHqO4Q

This blog presents a very brief explanation of arguably the best, critical evidence for the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection. In the forthcoming blogs, I will consider some of the objections raised by skeptics. I would like to leave the skeptic with these thoughts, if you find the historical research to be reliable, then your argument for scientific evidence is satisfied, your exclusively materialistic worldview has been disproven, your demand for God to make Himself plain has been satisfied. The question then is: Will you believe Him? And if not, why not?

[1]http://garyhabermas.com/articles/southeastern_theological_review/minimal-facts-methodology_08-02-2012.htm, accessed March 5, 2017.

Christian Apologetics and Homosexuality: I know who doesn’t ignore the Old Testament Law.

three greats

The entire purpose of this blog series is to address the question “How can Christians claim the Bible forbids homosexual acts, but then ignore all the other Old Testament laws?” If its logic and implied conclusion is valid then the LGBTQ apologist has succeeded in correcting the traditional Biblical Christian’s error, removed the moral obstacle, eased the consciences of Christians and homosexuals, and progressed in gaining universal acceptance of homosexuality as not only an accepted practice, but even a good and moral practice.  The question at hand is worthy of critique because embedded within its foundational premise is a widely believed but somewhat distorted evangelical doctrine taken from Romans 6:14 and Ephesians 2:8, “We are saved by grace and not by law.” This popular doctrine is shared by traditional, evangelical Christians and LGBTQ Christians alike. The LGBTQ apologist is saying that traditional evangelicalism simply needs to apply the truth consistently. If evangelicals were only consistent, non-hypocritical, then they would see what we see—that homosexuality is okay. It is a powerful, emotive proposition. Liberal, Protestant churches accepted homosexuality long ago, and now with “gay marriage” being the law-of-the-land, some evangelical Christians are being persuaded as well. The reasoning in this question seems to satisfy some in their quest for a biblical justification for homosexuality. It is a monumentally important question.[Please note that I am in full agreement that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. My contention is that the distortion arises from convoluting this doctrine of salvation with sanctification.]

This fourth installment of the series continues my analysis and rebuttal of the primary question above. I maintain that the question itself is full of erroneous presuppositions, theological error, and should therefore be dismissed altogether. This series will hopefully serve to correct the LGBTQ apologist and to give the evangelical Christian assurance that his theological heritage, resting on its biblical foundation is solid and must not be abandoned. I fear though, that he does not know his theological heritage.

The Evangelical-Reformed Connection

One error in the question is its sweepingly false notion that it properly identifies and represents orthodox Christian doctrine. It begins, “How can Christians claim…?” Though, the questioner identifies and represents a popular Christian doctrine, zie has not identified and does not represent historic, Protestant, Christian doctrine. (See the third blog post which addresses the doctrine.) The popular doctrine is novel within the scope of Church History. This should cause the Christian to pause. As Paul warns in Galatians Ch. 1, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”

Modern, Evangelical Christianity is Protestant. Its branch of the Christian family tree forked at that major division known as the “Protestant Reformation.” Like it or not, your doctrine was forged by the likes of John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism. For instance, that bastion of evangelicalism, Dallas Theological Seminary, was started by a Presbyterian, Lewis Sperry Chafer. It’s safe to say Chafer was not thoroughly Reformed, but “DTS stands on the shoulders of great men [Reformed Theologians] like Spurgeon.” I cannot cite the quote, but I recall hearing it during a chapel service I attended sometime between 1993 and 1997.

 The Tripartite View of the Law in Church History

John Calvin’s teaching on the division of the law into Moral, Civil (Judicial), and Ceremonial may be the most recognized statement of the “Reformed” tripartite view of the Law, (See section 14 here from Institutes of the Christian Religion.), but it’s not the first. A look at Calvin’s footnote shows that he draws upon the teaching of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. That places the doctrine back to the 13th Century. Yet, Aquinas was not the originator either. He drew from the well of theological thought that had even much earlier origins. One of the most recognized church fathers, Augustine of Hippo, expressed similar doctrine in the late 4th century. I can recommend this article from the Westminster Theological Journal 61:2 (Fall 1999): 175-207 for a more thorough source treating the historical development of Aquinas’ view of the Law. Another excellent resource is Jonathan Bayes’ article  from Reformation Today, Issue 177. To be fair, I will include this blog from the Gospel Coalition and this interview of Dr. Thomas Schreiner for opposing views. However, my purpose here is not to defend the doctrine so much, but rather to prove that the doctrine of the threefold division of the law has a long and distinguished pedigree in church history.

Returning to John Calvin (1509-1564) as my historical place marker, I now move forward chronologically. The great Reformed confessions of Protestant doctrine that stand as faithful, though not inerrant, expressions of biblical truth consistently teach the tripartite division either formally or practically. By “practically” I mean they may use the alternate phrase “the three-fold purpose of the Law” which expresses how the Law pertains to the daily life of the New Testament Christian. Namely, the Law is to be a mirror, a restraint of evil, and a guide of what pleases God. Some of the confessions of faith and creeds include the Reformed Church’s Belgic Confession Article 25 (1618); the Presbyterians’ Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) chapter 19; The Congregationalists’ Savoy Declaration (1658) chapter 19; and the Reformed Baptists’ 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) chapter 19.

In addition to Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and these confessions of faith, the threefold division of the law is supported by such stalwart theologians as John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon, to name only three of many. I know there are other great theologians who differ. But again, my point is that the doctrine has a rich tradition with highly regarded proponents and is shared by vast numbers of Christians now and in times past. And it is also my point that this tradition is arguably representative of historic, orthodox, Protestant doctrine. For the LGBTQ apologist or the evangelical Christian to represent the popular, contrary doctrine as normative Christian doctrine is simply an error.

In conclusion, it is clear that the modern evangelical Christian—be he either unsympathetic to or embracing of the LGBQT perspective—should be aware that to be among those who think negatively about Old Testament Law is to be out-of-step with much of historic Christianity, with the Apostle Paul, and with Christ who said of Himself, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. ‘For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished….’”

Christian Apologetics and Homosexuality: The Role of the Old Testament Law for the New Testament Christian

Should Christians embrace homosexuality as normative since they ignore the rest of Old Testament Law?

The significance of this question is huge. LGBTQ apologists are attempting to entice Christians away from orthodoxy by arguing for Biblical precedence on this very point. And the angle by which they approach this is the popular evangelical doctrine, “We are not under the Law but under grace.” Why do I call this a “popular evangelical doctrine” and not “biblical doctrine” since it is a quote of the Apostle Paul in Romans 6:14?

A Background of Controversy

I do so because the popular doctrine skews the balance of biblical doctrine by having one truth eclipse another. Prominent Dispensational theologians from my alma mater, Dallas Theological Seminary, were engaged in a highly visible, public debate with John MacArthur in the late 1980’s and 1990’s in what is known as the “Lordship Salvation” vs “Free Grace” controversy. At stake was the centerpoint of Christianity, the Gospel. One side accused the other of “easy believism” and “antinomianism” (without law) while the other accused “legalism” and “works-based salvation.” The debate affected arguably millions of Evangelicals. As John MacArthur states about his book that launched the debate, The Gospel According to Jesus, “There are now [2003] about half a million copies in circulation, and the book is still in print. That is almost unprecedented for a polemic book dealing with a theological issue.” Evangelicals were faced with a decision to make: which side are you on? Is the Law good or is it bad? Does it have a place for Christians or not?

The Free Grace controversy was such a hot topic for the Dispensationalists for the same reason it concerns our question about there being a biblical argument for homosexuality. The topic hit very close-to-home on a fundamental tenet of Dispensationalism, namely the duality of, or separation between, the Old Testament and the New Testament. That foundation was part of the backdrop for stressing “saved by grace alone through faith alone” and “once saved always saved” but at the expense of any expectation of personal holiness (see Hebrews 12:14). The practical effect in the pew was a very pejorative view of Old Testament law. For them, to view the law favorably was tantamount to being a Pharisee, Jesus’ earthly antagonist. The doctrine communicates that there is absolutely no place for the Old Testament Law for the New Testament Christian. And this doctrine now finds welcome support by the LGBTQ apologist. The “Free Grace” doctrine, with its staunch opposition to the Law, is now being used by LGBTQ apologists to promote a theological argument favorable to homosexuality. I’m not making an ad-hominem argument against my Dispensationalist brothers’ doctrine.  The point is, you can see the doctrine residing in the question: “How can Christians claim the Bible forbids homosexual acts, but then ignore all the other Old Testament laws?” It is no wonder that the LGBTQ apologist can stump some Christians by asking the question; because a large number of Christians do indeed ignore all the “other” Old Testament laws.

The Ten Commandments are for Today

The Covenantal position, in my view, provides the best biblical theology for addressing the  role of the Law for the Christian. I point to Reformed theologian John Calvin’s statement of the doctrine of the Law, not as proof, but for a definition: “We must bear in mind that common division of the whole law of God published by Moses into moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws.” (See section 14 here from Institutes of the Christian Religion.) With the Law of Moses divided into parts, we are able to make better sense of the Apostle Paul’s multiple uses of the term “law” in the book of Romans. It helps us understand which laws remain and which do not. While Romans 6:14 seems to support the LGBTQ / Free Grace position and disfavors the Law: “you are not under law but under grace,” Romans 7:12 speaks favorably of the Law, “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

In Romans 7:12, Paul juxtaposes the character of the law with the character of the Lawgiver. The Law is holy and righteous and good, because God is holy and righteous and good. It is that quality of the Law that gives it the nomenclature “Moral Law.” The Ten Commandments are uniquely set apart in Scripture, written in stone by the very finger of God amidst smoke and fire and fear. They serve as standards, transcending the 613 civil and ceremonial laws that governed ancient Israel socially and religiously. It is not hard to make the connection that the 613 laws were detailed, specific out-workings of the ten. Christ had this perspective too it seems, evidenced by His further summarizing the Law of Moses this way:“…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

The point being made here is that the Moral Law is eternal. It cannot and must not be ignored today. It expresses what is holy and righteous and good for all of mankind, God’s preeminent creature, made in the very likeness of God. The Moral Law existed prior to its being codified on Mt. Sinai; it permeated the temporary Mosaic Covenant laws; and it continues to govern the consciences of the New Testament believer. For example, it was sin to murder before Moses, during Moses, and after Moses. As to the new covenant believer, what other Law could God have meant when He spoke through the prophet Jeremiah saying, “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’”?

For the above reasons, it is evident that the question posed:  “How can Christians claim the Bible forbids homosexual acts, but then ignore all the other Old Testament laws?” perpetuates a wrong, but popular, doctrine that Old Testament Laws are to be dismissed. They are not. The Moral Law remains.  Let us go forward with confidence in the manner Paul writes in Ephesians 5:3 “But immorality [porneia-sexual sin] or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints….