Book Review: Duane A. Garrett. The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic, and Theological Approaches

Duane A. Garrett. The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic, and Theological Approaches, IVP Academic. 2020, 408 pp.

Jesus, Paul, and the apostles were raised on the Old Testament. Thus, there was no “New Testament” during the ministry of Jesus. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3: 16-17, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for  doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the  man of God may be  perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”  Here “Scripture” (graphē) must refer to the Old Testament written Scripture, for that is what the word graphē refers to in every one of its fifty-one occurrences in the New Testament.  So, for Christians to disregard the Old Testament as “outdated” and “inferior” will lead to unhealthy discipleship. For that matter, many  scholars don’t even use the phrase “Old Testament” anymore. Instead, they say, “Hebrew Bible,” “First Testament” or “Tanakh” (an acronym derived from the names of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (Instruction, or Law, also called the Pentateuch), Neviʾim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

Anyways, when I got my copy of this book, I had assumed that this was another attempt at the problem of violence in the Old Testament. I was wrong. Instead, Garret says:

“ The problem of the Old Testament is unlike any other. Many Christians say they never worry about eschatology or divine foreknowledge since God can sort out all of that. No one can so blithely dismiss concerns about the Old Testament. It is not, like predestination, an esoteric concept residing in the mind of God. It is a book set right before us. It is Holy Scripture, taking up two thirds of the canon. It instructs us in righteousness, and we are expected to read it daily. But like beautiful but ill-fitting shoes, or like medicine with grim side effects, sometimes the Old Testament doesn’t work well for the Christian. It is someone else’s mail; it is hand-me-down clothes; it just isn’t us (p. 4).”

Garret  describes the problem with three propositions:

The Old Testament is hard to define.

The Old Testament is hard to read.

The Old Testament is hard to reconcile with the New. ( p. 4).

He says, “Reading the Old Testament can be painful. Pastors struggle to get their congregations to persevere in a habit of reading it—even pastors admit that they, too, find the discipline hard to maintain. The genealogies, regulations for sacrifices, and lists of kosher foods have defeated many a Christian’s earnest resolve to read through the whole Bible. Even Proverbs, a book that speaks directly to problems we confront in daily life, seems to have little organization (p. 15).”

Also, as Garret says, “For the average Christian, the most pressing question is whether the New Testament properly handles the Old. Three aspects of this problem go to the heart of the Christian faith. These are

  1. The claim that the Old Testament makes prophecies about Jesus Christ
  2.  The claim that the Law has been made obsolete in Christ
  3. The problem of the relationship between Israel and the church (p. 17).

 Garret spends time discussing how the New Testament authors use prophecy of the Old Testament. He evaluates the issues with Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1. Of course, there have been several proposals on how to deal with this issue. As far as the issues with the Law and it’s relationship to Jesus, Garret is correct in that many Christians assume “the Old Testament is a book of legalism, it is not only inferior but also dangerous, ever luring us to reliance upon our innate virtues rather than upon grace. Such a conclusion has led many Christians to become practical Marcionites (Marcion was a second-century heretic who jettisoned the entire Old Testament). For those who regard the Old Testament as a sub-Christian work, it is effectively non-canonical (p. 29).”

Furthermore, as he says “The law/gospel dichotomy creates a rupture between the two testaments so severe that it forces us to ask whether the Old Testament and the New have anything in common. Some Christians believe that the ancient Israelite was justified by works but that the Christian is justified by grace. If this is true, are we even speaking of the same God? (p. 29).”

When it comes to dealing with the relationship between Israel and the Church, the tension points that arise are the following:

1.What are Gentiles believers supposed to do with Israel’s Scriptures?

2. If the New Covenant belongs to Israel, what claim do Gentiles have upon it?

3. Will God return Israel to its land and exalt it above every nation in a literal, historical sense?

4. Have Gentiles assumed ownership of the promises, so that Israel has been superseded?

5. If the church is the true people of God, and if all the promises are fulfilled in Christ, what do we make of the promises that appear to be given to national Israel? Are they to be discarded as obsolete?- (p. 31).

Garret is also correct to say that how one deals with these issues will impact how one reads the Bible. The good news is Garret tackles the ongoing to attempt to answer these questions by discussing the various hermeneutical solutions on the table. with two schools of thought (i.e., Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism) -see Ch 5.

He rightly shows where they both fall short. After all, the Bible is not a systematic theology. We use these systematic theologies (and defend them) as the correct way to make sense of Scripture. But there are limitations with this approach which is manifested on a regular basis.  Garrett concludes that “Israel is not separate from the church (as in dispensationalism), and it is not superseded by the church (as in covenant theology). Unrepentant Jews can be cut off from Israel, and believing Gentiles can be grafted in. Still, Israel is the locus of the work of God, and “salvation is of the Jews.” Gentiles, when they turn to Israel’s God and Messiah, fulfill promises such as Isaiah 2:1 4. (p. 353).” One scholar who is not mentioned is Ralph Korner. He has focused on the use of “Ekklēsia” and how it is used in antiquity. In the end, when it comes to the Israel/church terminology, I am not sure if the word “church” is helpful.

Also, “There is no hidden covenant, such as the covenant of grace or covenant of creation, that governs salvation history. Israel’s election, not the covenants, is the foundational idea of the Election Literature. The covenants have separate purposes. They do not all mark separate dispensations, and they do not successively build upon one another (p. 353).”

In Ch 3 and Ch 4, Garret discusses the Alexandrian and Antiochian approaches to interpreting the Old Testament. Throughout history, many Christians have tried to appeal to both of these interpretive methods.  The Antiochian Method focuses on the plain, obvious meaning of the text of Scripture. Its basic focus is understanding the message of the original author.

This led to what is called The Historical, Grammatical method in hermeneutics.   This doesn’t mean the Antiochian Method doesn’t take into account literary genres, apocalyptic imagery, anthropomorphisms, figures of speech, etc. The Antiochian Method rejected the use of allegory whereas the Alexandrian school were more interested in the theological and spiritual meaning of the Old Testament.  Allegorism is so appealing. As Garret says “”Paul said that all things written in the Old Testament were profitable for us (2 Tim 3:16), but many Christians find little profit in reading the Scriptures. Jesus said that the Scripture spoke about him (Jn 5:39), but many can see little of Jesus in the Old Testament. Allegorism solves the problem. With this tool, every Old Testament text represents Jesus. The problem of the Law vanishes. Understanding Torah to be “Jewish” when read according to the flesh but “Christian” when read according to the Spirit seems coherent with Paul’s teaching. And congregations enjoy being dazzled by a good, allegorical exposition (p. 70).”

As Garret rightly points out, Paul’ s use of  allegorizing is seen in Gal 4: 22-26. To assume because Paul is allegorizing in this text means interpreters now have full reign to allegorize the Old testament is beyond problematic. Garret is also correct that many interpreters have gone overboard on typology in that they have taken parts of the Old Testament and tried to force a typological fulfillment in Jesus when there isn’t one.

As far as the relationship between the Law and Christ, Garret concludes that “The Torah is the content of the Sinai Covenant, providing its specific stipulations. It anticipates the New Covenant, and it serves as a concrete manifestation of the ideal of God’s holiness. It is also a teacher of righteousness. Interpreting the teaching of the Law for the church is in principle no different than dealing with a book like 1 Corinthians, which was given to a specific congregation with a specific set of problems, although of course the distance between us and ancient Israel is greater (p.353).”

Garret also notes the Torah makes no division between the ceremonial, civil, and moral law. Thus, for Protestants to try to offer this division as a solution  can create some serious challenges.

As far as the rules for interpreting prophecy, Garret offers a case study of both  Hosea and Joel. He concludes that “Like narrative, a prophetic text can look back to previous events that in some manner are recapitulated or reversed in a later generation. Sometimes the deeds of the one will be repeated in the deeds of the many, or the deeds of the many will be repeated in the deeds of the one. Prophets rarely make single, specific predictions. Instead, they elaborate on a theme or pattern, such as the “Day of YHWH.” The first occurrence or manifestation of a theme may occur in the prophet’s lifetime, but later manifestations occur in the future, culminating in an eschatological fulfillment (p. 354).”

In conclusion, this book covered a lot of ground. There is plenty to take in and I appreciated Garret’s attempt to wrestle with some key issues. When it comes to understanding the Old Testament, interpreters have made plenty of mistakes. Garret is honest about some of these mistakes and he attempts to come up with some proposed solutions. I appreciated this book and look forward to using some of the material in my own classes.

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Is the Purpose of the Bible to Prove God’s Existence?

Note: For all that think I am begging the question by starting with the Bible, you can read the other posts on this site that deal with the reliability of the Bible/God’s existence outside the Bible.

The Bible and God’s Existence

Anyone who has read the Bible knows that the Bible presupposes God’s existence. In other words, the Bible’s sole purpose is not to “prove” God’s existence. For that matter, when it comes to talking about God’s existence, I have dropped the word “proof” from my vocabulary. I find that the word “proof” conveys the need to provide some sort of infallible, mathematical proof (2+2=4..etc..) for God’s existence. This is silly and unnecessary. One of the best solutions to handling the issue of evidence and arguments for God’s existence is to utilize what is called inference to the best explanation. But that is a topic for another post.

The skeptical issue in our culture mostly enters into the religious dialogue in the following way: “In the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine being, what kind of evidence should we expect to find? There is a tendency to forget that the Bible stresses that sin can dampen the cognitive faculties that God has given us to find Him. Therefore, sin has damaging consequences on the knowing process (Is. 6:9-10; Zech. 7:11-12; Matt. 13:10-13). Christianity, Judaism, Islam, are all theistic faiths in contrast to pantheism (all is God), polytheism (many gods), and atheism (without God). In this article, we are referring to the theistic God of the Bible. In a classical apologetic argument, the cosmological (including both the horizontal and vertical cosmological argument) give a general outline that point to theistic God of the Bible.

Biblically speaking, God can’t be reduced to an argument or a proposition. And God is not just an abstract idea. This doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t demonstrate any evidential arguments for God. Jesus continually appeals to His “works” as proof of His Messiahship (John 7:3, 21; 9:3, 4; 10:25, 32, 37, 38, 14:10, 11, 12, 15:24). These Scriptures appeal to the individual works of Jesus. The miracles “bear witness’” that He is the Messiah. And remember that the Apostles utilized an evidential model by appealing to prophecy and the resurrection as the basis for the evidence of Jesus’ Messiahship (Acts 2:14-32-39; 3:6-16, 4:8-14; 17:1-4; 26:26; 1 Cor. 15:1-8).

Since I am married, I can give an analogy: I don’t know what my wife expects of me unless she communicates. Otherwise, I am in the dark. That is why we must not forget that the acceptance of revelation is of fundamental importance to the Christian faith. The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word ” apokalupsis” which means “an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.” Therefore, the God of the Bible is capable of communicating/giving a revelation to mankind through a specific medium. One of the most important themes of the Bible is that since God is free and personal, that he acts on behalf of those whom he loves, and that his actions includes already within history, a partial disclosure of his nature, attributes, and intensions. (1)

So what are some of the ways people knew that the God of Israel existed in antiquity? By the way, these mediums are still used by God today.

1. The Light of Creation

While God predominately revealed Himself to the Jewish people through specific actions in the course of human history, the Jewish people agree that the Torah was the pivotal moment of God’s supreme revelation to them. But what about the Gentile nations? After all, it is Israel that was given the Torah. The good news is God has also taken the initiative to reveal Himself to Gentiles through general or natural revelation. In the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine, invisible being, we have to use induction. Induction is the method of drawing general conclusions from specific observations. For example, since we can’t observe gravity directly, we only observe its effects.

As Paul says in Romans 1: 18-21,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse. Because, knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened.”

In this passage, God’s knowledge is described as “eternal power and divine nature.” Paul lays out the basic principle of cause and effect. Paul says since God is the Designer (God is the cause), His “everlasting power and divinity” are seen “through the things that are made” (this is the effect). Therefore, the unbelievers problem is not one of not understanding the truth of God, but of suppression, which leads to not receiving the truth.

One comment about God’s revelation in nature has been made by Alvin Plantinga who happens to be one of the most influential theistic philosophers to date: He says:

“Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive God or to perceive him in his handiwork. Our knowledge of his character and his love toward us can be smothered: it can be transformed into resentful thought that God is to be feared and mistrusted; we may see him as indifferent or even malignant. In the traditional taxonomy of seven deadly sins, this is sloth. Sloth is not simple laziness, like the inclination to lie down and watch television rather than go out and get exercise you need; it is, instead, a kind of spiritual deadness, blindness, imperceptiveness, acedia, torpor, a failure to be aware of God’s presence, love, requirements.” (Plantinga, A. Warranted Christian Belief. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2000, 214-215).

2. The Light of Conscience

Another part of God’s general revelation to humanity is discussed in Romans 2. As Paul says, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-15).

The Greek word for conscience is “suneidesis” which means “a co-knowledge, of oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God as that which is designed to govern our lives; that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, condemning the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.” This type of natural revelation is called intuitive knowledge. It is instantaneously apprehended. The issue of moral knowledge is what C.S. Lewis discusses in The Abolition of Man. Lewis recalls that all cultures, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, Babylonian etc. show that natural revelation is true. In Romans 2:15, “suneidesis” stands alongside with the “heart” and “thoughts” as the faculty that allows the pagan world to live a life that corresponds to the Jewish people who have the written law. (2) Before the time of Jesus, and even after Jesus, the Jewish people viewed the heart as the core of the entire personality.

The Hebrew word for the conscience is “lebad,” which is usually translated as the “heart” in the Old Testament. The conscience is so much of the core of the human soul that the Hebrew mind did not draw a distinction between conscience and the rest of the inner person. (3) In the Hebrew Bible, not only is “heart” used to describe as a metaphor to describe the physical organ, but it is also the center or defining element of the entire person. It can be seen as the seat of the person’s intellectual, emotional, affective, and volitional life. In the New Testament, the heart is the psychic center of human affection or the source of spiritual life and the seat of intellect and will. (4)

The conscience can become dull, or seared (1 Tim 4:2). In other words, people can and do harden their heart towards God! Sadly, a hardened heart can make someone less sensitive to the things of God. Sometimes a hardened heart results from an unforgiving or bitter spirit.

3. Miracles

What is the definition of a miracle? Theologians and philosophers have offered numerous definitions. For example, Peter Kreeft says, a miracle is “a striking and religiously significant intervention of God in the system of natural causes.” (5) So we might say that a miracle is a special act of God in the natural world, something nature would not have done on its own. In the Bible, miracles have a distinctive purpose: they are used for three reasons:
1. To glorify the nature of God (John 2:11; 11:40)
2. To accredit certain persons as the spokesmen for God (Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:3–4)
3. To provide evidence for belief in God (John 6:2, 14; 20:30–31). (6)
Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, told Jesus, “‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him’ ” (Jn. 3:1–2).

In Acts, Peter told the crowd that Jesus had been “accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (Acts 2:22). Miracles also confirmed the apostolic claim. In 2 Corinthians 12:12: Paul says, “The things that mark an apostle signs, wonders, and miracles were done among you with great perseverance.” (7)

It is important to note that not all witnesses to a miracle believe. In this event the miracle is a witness against those who reject this evidence. John grieved: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him” (John 12:37). Jesus himself said of some, “They will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). One result, though not the purpose, of miracles is condemnation of the unbeliever (cf. John 12:31, 37). (8) So the Biblical pattern of miracles is the following:

Sign/Miracle—–Knowledge is Imparted—–Should Result in Obedience/Active Participation

4. Jesus as the Messiah

A few things shall be mentioned here: If you want to study this topic further, there are other articles on this website that deal with the reliability of the New Testament. However, I am starting with these premises and conclusion.
1.The New Testament documents are historically reliable evidence.
2.The historical evidence of the New Testament shows that Jesus is God incarnate. This claim to divinity was proven by a unique convergence of miracles/His speaking authority, His actions, and His resurrection.
3.Therefore, there is reliable historical evidence that Jesus is God incarnate.

While general revelation manifests God as Creator, it does not reveal Him as Redeemer. The principle of progressive revelation means that God does not reveal everything at once. In progressive revelation, there are many cases where the New Testament declares explicitly what was only implicit in the Tanakh. One of these truths is the Jesus is the long awaited Messiah who takes away not only the sins of Israel, but the entire world (John 1: 29; 3: 16). Although general revelation shows man is under condemnation, it is not sufficient for salvation. If the God of the Bible is a good God, it would make sense that He would give a fuller revelation of Himself to humanity.

As Heb. 1:1–2 says, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” Jesus did comment on how people respond to Him by saying, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” But he who practices the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:19-21).

Furthermore, the New Testament does not reveal Jesus as any ordinary prophet or religious teacher. Rather, it reveals Him as God incarnate (John 1:1; 8:58-59;10:29-31;14:8-9;20-28; Phil 2:5-7; Col 2:9;Titus 2;13; Heb 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1). Furthermore, Jesus is the only possible Savior for the human race (Matt. 11:27; John 1:18; 3:36; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 1: 5:11-12).

While Christianity is a Jewish story and salvation is from the Jews (John 4: 22), Paul makes it know that there is no distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish people. Both are under sin and must turn to God through repentance and faith through Jesus the Messiah. (Rom. 3: 9; Acts 20:21). For those who have already rejected Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus states that they already under condemnation (John 3: 16, 18).

Paul: The Need for Faith in Jesus the Messiah

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

We see: (1) Paul is urgent in his appeal for repentance; (2) According to Acts 14: 26, Paul states there was “a time in which God allowed the nations to walk in their own ways,” but now Paul states in Acts 17: 30, “The times of ignorance is over” – God has given man more revelation in the person of Jesus the Messiah; (3) Paul uses the same language as is used in the Jewish Scriptures about judgment (Psalm 9:9); (4) The judgment will be conducted by an agent, a man who God has appointed; (5) Paul treats the resurrection as an historical fact and he uses it as a proof of God’s appointment as Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead! (9)

5. Messengers

The normative way God reveals Himself to all humans is through the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah by a specific individual who takes the initiative to explain the message of salvation to another. This matches up with the biblical data. There are cases in the Bible where people are sincerely religious but still had to have explicit faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. For example, in Acts 10, Cornelius is shown to be a God fearer. He worshiped the correct God. However, he received a vision with instructions to send for Peter and awaited his message (Acts 10: 1-6, 22, 33; 11: 14). Because Cornelius ended up responding to special revelation concerning Jesus the Messiah, he attained salvation. In the Bible, people do experience salvation by the explicit preaching of the gospel (Luke 24:46-47; John 3:15-16;20-21; Acts 4:12; 11:14; 16:31; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Heb. 4:2; 1 Pet.1:3-25; 1 John 2:23; 5:12).

Conclusion:

Perhaps we all have to ask ourselves some questions:
1. If Christianity is true, would you want to be a Christian?
2. If the God of the Bible exists, would you want to know that?
3. If the God of the Bible does exist, would you be interested in looking at the evidence?

Sources:
1. Dulles, A.J. Models Of Revelation. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1983, 13.
2. W.E. Vine, Unger, Merrill F. and William White Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary Of Old And New Testament Words. Nashville: TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985, 532.
3. MacArthur, J. The Vanishing Conscience. Dallas, TX. Word Publishing.1994, 36-37.
4. Ibid.
5. Kreeft, P. Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1994, 101-120.
6. Geisler, N. L., BECA, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book. 1999, 481.
7. Ibid, pgs 470-481.
8. Ibid.
9. Marshall. I.H., The Acts of the Apostles. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: MI: Intervarsity Press. 1980, 288-290.

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Was Antony Flew’s Change of Mind a Victory for Christian Apologetics?

In the book An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World, the author’s note the end of life change that happened to Antony Flew. As they note, Flew was Britain’s most prominent philosophical atheist in the latter half of the twentieth century. The philosophical world was shocked when, in 2004, he declared that he had rejected the core beliefs of his atheistic worldview and now embraced the existence of a deistic creator of the universe. Flew’s atheistic worldview had been held consciously; he had examined his worldview beliefs and in fact had written copiously on questions of divine nonexistence. Nonetheless, his worldview changed as a result of his understanding of contemporary evidence from cosmology and physics that points to the existence of an intelligent designer and creator of the universe.

There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by [Flew, Antony, Varghese, Roy Abraham]

I read most of Flew’s book called “There is a God: How the World’s Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” When the book was released, some atheists said Flew was an senile old man. Thus, he wasn’t capable of making a good judgment. Anyway, many Christian apologists noted that Flew’s change proved that for those who are open to the evidence, a worldview conversion is possible.

While apologists are correct about a worldview conversion taking place, to the best of our knowledge, Flew never did embrace the Gospel. Yes, Flew did resurrection dialogues with Gary Habermas and noted the resurrection was the best attested miracle he had seen. But the real question is, “Should we celebrate what happened to Flew?” I think the answer is yes and no. Apologetics doesn’t convert anyone. It removes the barriers that helps people give the Gospel a serious hearing. Obviously, some of the barriers that had been in Flew’s mind did get removed. Also, cosmological and design arguments don’t give anyone saving faith. They take someone halfway and then the person must be willing to take a serious look at history. Has God spoken through Jesus? Only God know if Flew came to believe that God had spoken through His Son.

In the end, I don’t look at what happened to Flew as a total victory. Apologetics did the work it needed to do. But the final goal is bring someone to saving faith in the risen Lord. Perhaps, one day we will know what really happened to Flew.

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Interview with Tom Gilson: Too Good to Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality

In this clip, we have a discussion with author Tom Gilson who has written a unique book called: Too Good to Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality. Tom takes a unique apologetic approach in this book and makes a fresh contribution to the apologetic enterprise.

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Responding to the Co Exist Issue

My friend Jonathan Morrow has written a short piece called “Quick Thoughts on ‘All Religions Teach the Same Thing’.  I will add my own thoughts here:

Before I discuss the issue of religious pluralism, a few things shall be mentioned here. If you want to study this topic further, there are other articles on this blog that deal with the reliability of the New Testament. However, I am starting with the following premises and conclusion.

1. The New Testament documents are historically reliable evidence
2. The historical evidence of the New Testament shows that Jesus is God incarnate/the Jewish Messiah.This claim to divinity was proven by His miracles/His messianic speaking authority, His messianic actions, and His resurrection
3. Therefore, there is reliable historical evidence that Jesus is God incarnate/the Jewish Messiah

One Way? The Christian Claim

One of the most controversial issues in religious dialogue is whether there is one way of salvation. In other words, the Christian claim that Jesus is the only possible Savior for the human race (Matt 11:27; John 1:18; 3:36; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 1: 5:11-12) is considered to be overly exclusive and arrogant. The Bible speaks of God’s judgment on pagan religions. They are said to have no redemptive value to them (Exod. 20: 3-6; 2 Chron: 13: 8-9; Isa. 37: 18-19; Acts 26: 17-18; Col. 1:13). While Christianity is a Jewish story and salvation is from the Jews (John 4: 22), salvifically speaking, Paul makes it known that there is no distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish people. Both are under sin and must turn to God through repentance and faith through Jesus the Messiah (Rom 3:9; Acts 20:21).

What about those people in the Tanakh (the Old Testament ) that never exercised explicit belief in Jesus as the Messiah? What about people like Melchizedek, Jethro, Job and Rahab? In response, it is true that people in the Tanakh did not have explicit knowledge of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah as a payment for their sins. However, this objection fails to take into account the issue of progressive revelation. The principle of progressive revelation means that God does not reveal everything at once. In progressive revelation, there are many cases where the New Testament declares explicitly what was only implicit in the Tanakh. One of these truths is that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah who takes away not only the sins of Israel, but the entire world (John 1: 29;3:16).

Furthermore, Paul comments on this very issue in Acts 17: 30-31:

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

We see: (1) Paul is urgent in his appeal for repentance; (2) According to Acts 14: 26, Paul states there was “a time in which God allowed the nations to walk in their own ways,” but now Paul states in Acts 17: 30, “The times of ignorance is over” – God has given man more revelation in the person of Jesus the Messiah; (3) Paul uses the same language as is used in the Jewish Scriptures about judgment (Psalm 9:9); (4) The judgment will be conducted by an agent, a man who God has appointed; (5) Paul treats the resurrection as an historical fact and he uses it as a proof of God’s appointment as Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead! (1)

In the Bible, people do experience salvation by the explicit preaching of the gospel (Luke 24:46-47; John 3:15-16;20-21; Acts 4:12; 11:14; 16:31; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Heb. 4:2; 1 Pet.1:3-25; 1 John 2:23; 5:12).

Furthermore, the New Testament does not reveal Jesus as any ordinary prophet or religious teacher. Rather, it reveals Him as God incarnate (John 1:1; 8:58-59;10:29-31;14:8-9;20-28; Phil. 2:5-7; Col. 2:9; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1).

Religious Pluralism
As of today, a large majority of the religious landscape is dominated by religious pluralism. Pluralism is the belief that every religion is true. In other words, each faith provides a genuine religious experience with the Ultimate, and while others may be better than others, all are adequate.

The Correct Approach/Suggestions

1 In approaching this topic, there is no doubt that emotions run high. We need to be sensitive to one another. And remember, true tolerance respects the individual. Just because we may not agree with one another, it is incorrect to say that makes someone intolerant. As a Christian, I am called to love people unconditionally. But I can still exercise that love and compassion for others in the midst of disagreement.

2. There needs to be the willingness to implement critical thinking: Remember sincerity is not a test for truth. People have been sincerely wrong about a number of things (that includes me). And in inheriting the faith of your family or being born in a certain part of the world doesn’t make the claim true. If I was born in Nazi Germany and I was a Nazi, does that make it true?

3. There needs to be a call to intellectual honesty: Let’s admit the similarities and differences in each faith. John P. Newport sums up the issue rather nicely:

“No sane person tries to accept as authoritative revelation from God all writings which are self-declared to be such. However eager we may be for harmony and tolerance, we cannot be intellectually honest unless we face the fact that there is a real contradiction between conflicting truth claims. As we reflect on how we are created in the image of God, we need to remember that we are creatures of both will and mind, of faith and reason. We are called to think as well as act and feel; therefore our faith will always have a rational element to it.” (2)

One of the weaknesses of religious pluralism is the tendency to forget that the denial of truth of any particular faith or truth claim is itself a form of exclusivism. While the pluralist says others are intolerant if they do not accept all views as true, they tend to be intolerant of anyone who is not a pluralist. While there are some similarities in faiths such as truth, a God, a right and wrong, spiritual purpose in life, and communion with God, they all also have some glaring differences such as the nature of God, the afterlife, the nature of man, sin, salvation, and creation. Let’s take a small glance at the claims of different faiths:

Orthodox Christianity/ Messianic Judaism: Jesus is both God and man/Jesus is an uncreated being. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah as foretold in the Tanakh (the acronym that is formed from the first three parts of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (the first five books of the Bible), Nevi’ im (the Prophets), and K’ tuvim (the Writings) as well as the second person of the Godhead, equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit (John 1:1; Col. 1:15-19; Phil. 2: 5-11).

Islam/Traditional Judaism: Jesus in not God and man. Traditional Judaism says Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah as foretold in the Tanakh. Jesus may be simply regarded as a prophet or teacher but not divine. In the case of Islam, Islam’s founder is Muhammad who was forty years old when he began having visions accompanied by violent convulsions during which he received his revelation from Allah. His writings are called the Koran, which he claims were dictated to him directly by the Angel Gabriel. Islam states Jesus was never crucified, and therefore, never risen. The Qur’an was written some six hundred years after the life of Jesus which makes it a much later source of information than the New Testament.

Mormonism: claims to be founded on divine revelation. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelation from God on the basis of two visions, (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, the second one in 1823). The Bible asserts that Jesus is that He is uncreated (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16-17) while the Mormon claim is that Jesus is a created being.

The Watchtower Society/Jehovah Witnesses: In the Bible, Jesus is the second person of the Godhead, equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit (John 1:1; Col. 1:15-19; Phil. 2: 5-11). This is rejected by Jehovah Witnesses.

Buddhism/Hinduism: are not theistic faiths, they are pantheistic (all is God). Therefore, they are already different from Christianity. Buddhism teaches that Jesus was an enlightened man, but not God. Hinduism says that Jesus was a good teacher and perhaps an incarnation of Brahman who is an impersonal, supreme being.

After looking at these claims, we need to ask:
1. If God wants the human race to come to know him, why create so many contradictory paths?
2. Does God want people to be confused?
3. If God is good, would it make sense that He would make one way that is clear?

4. In evaluating any religious claim, here are a few guidelines:
1. What does it claim to know?
2. How does it claim to know it?
3. What is the evidence for it?

Did Jesus Address This Issue?

Jesus made some very strong statements that challenge the issue of religious pluralism. It must be noted that after reading some of these statements by Jesus, the common response is that the reader cannot take these passages literally. The entire issue of what qualifies as literal and non-literal in the Bible falls into the category of biblical hermeneutics. Biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation.This issue will not be addressed in this article. Needless to say, I suppose if Jesus really did say the following things and a person did take them literally, it would challenge them to face their autonomy before God. Here are some of Jesus’ statements. I am well aware that all these texts need to be studied in their proper context.

1. If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

2. Regarding the eternal destiny of people, Jesus said to his fellow countrymen, “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).

3. For the status of those who are presently rejecting Him, Jesus said “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).

4. Perhaps one of the most challenging statements Jesus gives is in Matthew 10:33-37, “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. “For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”

While we do need to study these passages in their proper context, we can ask, if religious pluralists did believe Jesus is the Son of God, and His claims are true, would there still be a case for religious pluralism?

1. Marshall. I.H., The Acts of the Apostles. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: MI: Intervarsity Press. 1980, 288-290.

2. Newport, John C. Life’s Most Important Questions: A Contemporary Philosophy of Religion. Dallas, Texas. Word Publishing. 1989, pgs 452-453.

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Five Lessons on the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith

Over the years, I have had the privilege of teaching on Jewish backgrounds of the Christian faith. I am not part of the Hebrew Roots movement.  But I think it is significant that when Marvin Wilson released his book called Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian Theology of Roots and Renewal, David Neff, who is former editor of Christianity Today, said the following:

“As a historical religion, Christianity must own its Jewish origins and live up to the best of that heritage. Marvin Wilson, a pioneer in evangelical-Jewish relations, makes a compelling argument for renewing Christian faith by recovering our Hebraic heritage. If only there were more like him, we could have a healthier church.”

So what about the renewal aspect that Neff mentions here? Here are five  lessons Christians can learn from the Jewish roots of their faith.

#1: Jesus and the Name of God

Regarding the disciples prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13), Jesus says:

This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.”

Regarding the hallowing of God’s name, Scot McKnight says:

“At no place have Christians been more insensitive to Judaism that when it comes to what Jesus believes and teaches about God. In particular, the concept that Jesus was the first to teach about God as Abba and that this innovation revealed that Jesus thought of God in terms of love while Jews thought of God in terms of holiness, wrath, and distance are intolerably inaccurate in the realm of historical study and, to be quite frank, simple pieces of bad polemics. The God of Jesus was the God of Israel, and there is nothing in Jesus’ vision of God that is not formed in the Bible he inherited from his ancestors and learned from his father and mother” “Countless Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer. When Jesus urged His followers to “hallow” or “sanctify” the Name of God (Matt 6:9), many are unaware of what that may have meant in Jesus’ day- in part, because Christianity has lost sight of God’s awesome splendorous holiness. A good reading of Amos 2:6-8 discusses this issue. “Reverencing the Name of God” is not just how Israel speaks of God-that it does not take the Name of God in vain when it utters oaths or when someone stubs a toe or hits a finger with an instrument -but that God’s Name is profaned when Israel lives outside the covenant and by defiling the name of God in it’s behavior” (Jer 34:15-46; Ezek. 20:39; Mal 1:6-14).
God’s Name is attached to the covenant people, and when the covenant people lives in sin, God’s Name is dragged into that sin along with His people. So, when Jesus urges his followers to “reverence,” or “sanctify” the Name of God, he is thinking of how his disciples are to live in the context of the covenant: they are to live obediently as Israelites.” -Paul Copan and Craig A. Evans. Who Was Jesus? A Jewish-Christian Dialogue. Lousiville: KY.Westminster John Knox Press. 2001, 84-85.

#2: Discipleship

The Hebrew word for disciple is “talmid.” A talmid is a student of one of the sages of Israel. A disciple is a learner, or pupil. When we decide to repent and turn to our Lord for the forgiveness of sins, we have to realize we are now on a new journey. The Gospel is a message for the here and now- not just the future. We have to learn how to live out our faith in the world around us. A disciple (in the New Testament sense) is someone who is striving (by God’s grace) to be consistent follower of Jesus.

The goal of the Christian is to imitate our Master.

Discipleship takes a commitment between the discipler and the one being discipled. For those that say they don’t need discipleship, you are setting yourself up for failure. Sorry to be so blunt. But there is no such thing as a Long Ranger Christian.

Discipleship is not getting any easier in the world we live in. In an overly sensate culture, people need to be constantly stimulated and have a hard time focusing on something such as discipleship. In a world that wants instant results, self- sacrifice is tough sell. Part of the problem is that churches preach a Gospel that promises that Jesus will fix all our problems. And when things get tough, many people bail out. A long-term commitment to our Lord which involves self denial (Luke 9:23) is hard to swallow for those that have been told The American Dream is the way of happiness.

#3: The Shema

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.-Deut 6:4-9

This was something every Jewish child would memorize at a very early age.In Deut : 6: 4-9, we see who our God is and how we should respond to him. It should be a holistic commitment towards him. We are to love him with everything. Not just our
heart and strength but with our very lives! We love our God with our emotions, our actions, and our entire beings (including our minds).

In Mark 12.28-34 we find a scribe asking Jesus a serious question, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus replied by quoting the Shema, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord
our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus then added to the
Shema a second commandment (from Leviticus 19.18) when he said, “The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Shema is the central creed for Jesus!

#4: Who Founded Christianity? Jesus, Paul, or Neither One?

Craig A. Evans

Craig Evan’s book,  From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation is a great resource.    In it he says:    “Did Jesus intend to found the Christian church? This interesting question can be answered in the affirmative and in the negative. It depends on what precisely is being asked. If by church one means an organization and a people that stand outside of Israel, the answer is no. If by a community of disciples committed to the restoration of Israel and the conversion and instruction of the Gentiles, then the answer is yes. Jesus did not wish to lead his disciples out of Israel, but to train followers who will lead Israel, who will bring renewal to Israel , and who will instruct Gentiles in the way of the Lord. Jesus longed for the fulfillment of the promises and the prophecies, a fulfillment that would bless Israel and the nations alike. The estrangement of the church from Israel was not the result of Jesus’ teaching or Paul’s teaching. Rather, the parting of the ways, as it has been called in recent years, was the result of a long process”—Craig Evans , From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation.   Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century wasn’t seen as a single “way.” There were many “Judaism’s”- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc.  The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5).  Josephus refers to the “sects” of Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees. The first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism.  

Let me add another quote by Evans:

But we must ask if Paul has created a new institution, a new organization, something that stands over against Israel, something that Jesus himself never anticipated. From time to time learned tomes and popular books have asserted that the Christian church is largely Paul’s creation, that Jesus himself never intended for such a thing to emerge. Frankly, I think the hypothesis of Paul as creator of the church or inventor of Christianity is too simplistic. A solution that is fairer to the sources, both Christian and Jewish, is more complicated. -Evans, Craig A., From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation .

Take a look at both quotes from Evans in this post.  From my own experience, most Christians and Jewish people like the current boundaries. In other words, we have two separate religions- Judaism and Christianity. Thus, we don’t care much about as to how we got to that place. One thing for sure: If we discuss the “imperial Christianity” that was legalized in the fourth century by Constantine  and whether Jesus or Paul is the founder of that, the answer is no. By then, the Christianity that existed was so far away from what Jesus and Paul had done, it had morphed into a new and separate religion.

As Evans says, this was the result of complex factors

#5: What Does it Mean to say Jesus is the “Christ”?

There is no doubt that the major identity marker for a committed Christian is to say they follow Jesus Christ. But for the average Jewish person, the name “Jesus Christ” has no relationship to Judaism. And for the average Christian, there is little a very limited understanding as to what it means to even say Jesus is “The Christ.”  In my personal experience, many of my Christian friends are fully convinced  that Jesus is the Savior of the world. Millions of sermons as well as evangelistic appeals are given each year to people to accept Jesus as their personal Savior. But when it comes to thinking about whether Jesus is actually the promised Messiah of Israel and the nations, many Christians know every little about what it means to affirm Jesus is actually the Messiah. Michael Bird says it so well:

The statement that “Jesus is the Messiah” presupposes a certain way of reading Israel’s Scriptures and assumes a certain hermeneutical approach that finds in Jesus the unifying thread and the supreme goal of Israel’s sacred literature. A messiah can only be a messiah from Israel and for Israel. The story of the Messiah can only be understood as part of the story of Israel. Paul arguably says as much to a largely Gentile audience in Rome: “For I tell you that Christ [Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9), Michael Bird , Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), 163.

But if we probe deeper, the Greek word Christos, from which we get the English word “Christ” carries the same connotations as the Hebrew word — “the Anointed One” which is where the word “messiah” comes from. The word “messiah” means “anointed one” and is derived from verbs that have the general meaning of “to rub something” or, more specifically, “to anoint someone.” The Jewish Scriptures records the history of those who were anointed for a specific purpose such as priests (Exod. 28:41; 29:7, 29; 30:30; Lev. 7:36; 8:12; 16:32;), kings (Jdg. 9:8; 9:15; 1 Sam. 9:16; 10:1; 15:1, 17; 16:3, 12, 13; 2 Sam. 2:4, 7; 3:39; 5:3; 1 Chron. 11:3; 5:17; 127; 2 Sam. 19:11; 1 Kgs. 1:34, 39, 45; 5:15;19:15,16; 2 Kgs 9:3, 6,12;11:12; 23:30; 2 Chron. 22:7; 23:11; 29:22; Ps 89:21), and even prophets (1Kgs.19:16; 1 Chron.16:22; Ps.105:15)

After teaching on this topic for several years, Dr. Brant Pitre summarizes the challenge that lays before us:

“Regarding Jesus, according to the testimony of the four Gospels, who did he claim to be? Who did his first followers believe him to be? And, even more important, why did they believe in him? As soon as we ask this question, we run into a bit of a problem—a paradox of sorts. I’ve noticed this paradox over the last ten years that I’ve been teaching the Bible as a professor in the classroom. On the one hand, if I ask my students what kind of Messiah the Jewish people were waiting for in the first century AD, they all seem to be very clear about the answer. Usually, their standard response goes “At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were waiting for an earthly, political Messiah to come and set them free from the Roman Empire.” On the other hand, if I ask students which prophecies led to this ancient Jewish hope for an earthly, political Messiah, they are often at a complete loss. The classroom quickly falls silent. They often get even quieter when I ask, “Which prophecies of the Messiah did Jesus actually fulfill?” or “What prophecies did the first Jewish Christians think he fulfilled?” Every time I pose these questions, the vast majority of the students (who are usually all Christians) can’t answer them. They often can’t name a single prophecy that Jesus fulfilled that would show that he was in fact the Messiah. Every now and then, one or two students may bring up the oracle of the virgin who bears a child (Isaiah 7) or the passage about the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52–53). However, that’s usually as far as it goes. If my experiences are any indication, many contemporary Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they don’t necessarily know why they believe he was the Messiah, much less why his first followers thought he was the long-awaited king of Israel.”—B. Pitre, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ(New York: Crown Publishing. 2016), 102-103.

I hope these five lessons can enhance your faith and help you to be a stronger disciple of Jesus.

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The Attempt to Find Purpose Without God

This  past year we had a family member suffer a stroke. As this 83 year old elderly person lost their ability to fully walk and do the things they once did, it caused me to ponder the issue of purpose. I even asked the family member what they think their purpose is in life. I even asked them what their purpose was before the stroke. Like most people, they said their purpose was to be a good wife or good mother. Their family was the main purpose in life. Now they also admitted they are just existing now. Thus, because they can’t go out and drive and go to places and do what they once did, they are not really ‘living’ anymore. What I notice in this situation and in  many situations is that people need a function. Thus, people seem to really struggle without a specific ‘function’ or ‘purpose’ in life. It should be noted that the ‘functional’ and ‘essentialist’ view of humans is what is at the center of the abortion debate as well.  Anyway,  I asked the family member the following: perhaps you have been missing your overall purpose in life which is to know God (John 17: 4)?

In a world without God is there is ultimate meaning to life? Certainly, people can create their own meaning and purpose, as French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre advises us to do. Again, if people can find meaning and purpose in relationships, careers, volunteer programs, or other things, what happens when these things are threatened or lost by factors that are beyond control? Thus, circumstances can shake people who are calloused towards God and cause people to recognize their ‘existential need’ for God. Now if God has created us with  existential needs, it would make sense that God is the only one who can completely fulfill these needs.Philosopher Clifford Williams argues that while humans may have desires and beliefs they fulfill through reason, they also look for emotional fulfillment, especially when it comes to believing in God.[1] Thus, humans want both their reason and emotional needs satisfied. Williams lists several existential [2] needs that all humans desire: there is the need for cosmic security and meaning in life. Further, there is the wonder and awe of the cosmos itself. Humans also need the opportunity to love, to feel loved, and to be with the ones we love.

Also,  many people invest in activities that promote the kind of world they want. They find a purpose in such activities. Many will admit they want to spend time making the world a better place. But who gets to define what “better” is? Most likely, people want a world of justice, equality, and for humans to be viewed with dignity and respect. But how do we know what the world should look like unless we have some standard as to what is just and unjust? People who fight for justice know how things ought to be, and they assume a standard of justice and goodness in order to bring to fruition their preconceived notions of a just, fair, and equitable society.

What is interesting when people lose a specific function they once had, they have to re-evaluate their lives. Do they still have value without the purpose they once had?  Sadly, to many people, the answer is no. For the theist, the answer is yes. The ultimate purpose for every human is know God and love him forever. Of course, if humans are made in the likeness and image of God,  they are therefore intrinsically valuable. They are not valuable because they have to fulfill some function such as a specific job or task. My challenge to my family member was that perhaps since they spend a lot of time sitting now they should open the Scriptures and get to know God. So perhaps it is time for them to start to fulfill the main purpose for which they were created for.

Disclaimer: Someone may wonder how they find purpose in a God they don’t think is real. There are more than enough posts on here that deal with that topic. Also, see the following clip from Reasonable Faith.

1.Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011).  

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Handling an Objection: “I love the moral teachings of Jesus but I don’t think He is divine.”

This past week I was doing some outreach on a major college campus. When it came time to talk about the identity of Jesus, I heard two similar responses. Granted, I have heard this objection many, many, times. It goes like this:

“I really like the moral teachings of Jesus, but I don’t think he is divine.”

I could respond to this by using the C.S. Lewis argument that Jesus is either Lord, Lunatic, or Liar. I tend to not use that one a lot. While it still has some value it generally begs the question of the reliability of the New Testament. After all, some skeptics assume the deity of Jesus is a later invention of the Church. As I have noted elsewhere, this is incorrect. The Christology is Jesus was at the very start of the formation of the early Jesus movement.

Jesus is the Message

Anyway, how do I respond to this? First, since the person already admires the teachings of Jesus, I point to the blind spot in their thinking. First, it is not the moral teachings of Jesus that is the message. Rather, Jesus is the message!

Probably the most pertinent examples of how Jesus in the message is in the Gospel of John where we see the “I AM” (Gk. ego eimi,) statements. I am well aware that all these passages need to be studied in context. But we see clearly that Jesus is emphasizing He is the message. For example:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. (John 10:9)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

From a tactical perspective, when people say they only like the teachings of Jesus, it can allow you the opportunity to share these passages from John and ask them if they might rethink their position.

Why Was Jesus Crucified?

Second, I ask the person is why was Jesus crucified? One issue that can tend to be overlooked is that we can minimize the issue of blasphemy in a Jewish setting. by the way, none of the above figures were accused of blasphemy. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. (1)

If this is true, why was Jesus accused of blasphemy? According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself.

Also, many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2: 1-12). Forgiving sins was something that was designated for God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9) and it was something that was done only in the Temple along with the proper sacrifice. So it can be seen that Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person. In Mark 14:58, it says, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ The Jewish leadership knew that God was the one who was responsible for building the temple (Ex. 15:17; 1 En. 90:28-29).(2)

Also, God is the only one that is permitted to announce and threaten the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7:12-13; 26:4-6, 9;1 En.90:28-29). (3) It is also evident that one reasons Jesus was accused of blasphemy was because He usurped God’s authority by making himself to actually be God (Jn. 10:33, 36). Not only was this considered by the Jews to be blasphemous, it was worthy of the death penalty (Matt. 26:63-66; Mk. 14:61-65; Lk. 22:66-71; Jn. 10:31-39; 19:7)

As the late Martin Hengal said:

“Jesus’ claim to authority goes far beyond anything that can be adduced as prophetic prototypes or parallels from the field of the Old Testament and from the New Testament period. [Jesus] remains in the last resort incommensurable, and so basically confounds every attempt to fit him into categories suggested by the phenomenology of sociology of religion.” (4)

Remember that there was a Jewish leader named Bar Kohba who made an open proclamation to be the real Messiah who would take over Rome and enable the Jewish people to regain their self-rule (A.D. 132-135). Even a prominent rabbi called Rabbi Akiba affirmed him as the Messiah. Unfortunately, the revolt led by Bar Kohba failed and as a result and both he and Rabbi Akiba were slain. And remember, Bar Kohba was not accused of blasphemy. He never claimed to have the authority to forgive sins or claim to be the Son of Man (as referring to Daniel 7).

Conclusion

In the end, I think the reason some people like the moral teachings of Jesus and avoid the divinity issue is an issue of autonomy. A non- divine Jesus is really not very threatening and doesn’t ask much of us.

Sources:

1. See Darrell L. Bock. Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge Against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.
2. William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith: Third Edition. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008, 307.
3. Martin Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers. New York: Crossroad, 1981. 68-69; Cited in Edwards, 96.
4. Jacob Immanuel Schochet. Mashiach: The Principle of Mashiach and the Messianic Era in Jewish Law and Tradition. New York: S.I.E. 1992, 93-101.
5. Ibid

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Quotes on the Genre of the Gospels

 

“Can we speak of the Gospels as biographies!? If by that what we mean modern, Western biographies, then of course not. Jesus lived in the Middle East, not in the West, and he lived long before the modern era. It would be sheer anachronism and a monstrous injustice to evaluate Matthew, Mark, and Luke by twenty-first century standards of precision, some of which they probably never could of imagined.” –Dr. Craig Blomberg

“In attempting to identify the gospels in terms of existing literary genres, it is not always recognized, as it should be, that Mark alone calls his book by that name. Furthermore, the four canonical gospels differ from each other in both character and intention. Mark wrote his text to be read aloud in church meetings (Mark 13:14) to demonstrate that Jesus was the awesome Son of Man who disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared. Luke wrote his two-volume “narrative” to confirm catechumens like Theophilus in the truth in which he had been instructed (Luke 1:1-4). Matthew wrote his gospel as a manual for the instruction of disciples, based on the collected teachings of the Christ (Matt 28:19). John wrote his book with special interest in Jesus’ miracle signs and lengthy pastoral and polemical discourse. The character and intention of each gospel are different. Luke and Matthew felt that Mark’s gospel was inadequate, so they adapted it and added other material to suit their purposes. John wrote his “book” to reassure his Christian hearers that Jesus was truly the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30-31). 

Clearly each gospel is biographical in character and bears some similarities to the Greco-Roman bioi of that general era, e.g., Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Nonetheless, the gospels are unusual if not unique because their intended readership and purpose are so exclusively defined. Whereas the contemporary biographers and historians wrote to inform everyone in general and no one in particular, the gospelers wrote their texts narrowly and specifically for Christians for “in-house” use. Accordingly, attempts to classify the gospels according to this genre or that should be regarded as secondary. The primary observation should be to recognize their unique intended audience as church-directed and their function as ecclesial-liturgical (Mark), polemical-apologetic (John), and instructional (Matthew, Luke-Acts).s’ Mark is a special case. The writer’s explicit direction to the lector to explain the meaning of an obscure text (Mark 13:14) and the many implied side comments to those present (e.g., 7:11,19;13:37; 15:21) identify this text as designed to be read aloud in a church meeting. Mark must be classified alongside the letters of Paul and the Apocalypse as a text the author specifically wrote for an aural purpose in a liturgical, ecclesial setting.58 That was also likely true of Matthew, Luke-Acts, and John. The gospels claim another dimension as well, the supranatural. That is to say, the gospels are existentially the word of the risen and ascended Kyrios that are read aloud to his assembled people (cf. Mark 13:14 – “Let the lector explain”). Mark’s opening words indicate that what follows is “the gospel of (i.e., from) Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” that is to say, his word to his hearers in the churches. The man Mark is merely the human cipher through whom the words of the risen Lord come to his people. Using different language, John asserts that the “book” he writes is a “true … witness” to Christ’s “signs” for his hearers to safely “believe” for immediate entry to “eternal life” (John 20:30-31; 19:35; cf. 21:24). Does the supranatural character of Mark suggest that his gospel is a historical, in fact mythical in character? No. Mark roots his narrative in the soil of geography (e.g., Nazareth, Capernaum, Gennesaret, Bethsaida, Tyre, Sidon, the Decapolis, Caesarea Philippi, Jerusalem) and (as noted) in the context of John the Baptist and of known political leaders (Herod the king [actually, tetrarch], the high priest, Pontius Pilate). Jesus’ movements as fugitive from the ruler of Galilee (chapters 6-9) are consistent with one avoiding the borders of Herod Antipas’s jurisdiction. Mark’s gospel is the word of the living Christ to the churches and a work that is both historical and geographical. We offer two observations about the genre of the gospels. First, their special readership (church groups) and purpose liturgical/polemical/apologetic/instructional) make it difficult to classify them alongside other contemporary texts. Second, insofar as they are able to be classified, they belong to the broad group of biographies (bioi). In short, they are ecclesial documents that are biographical and historical in character. For both Mark and John their words are supranaturally true. Yet at the same time they must also be historically true. If they are not historically true, they cannot be supranaturally true.”- Finding the Historical Christ (After Jesus) by Paul Barnett

“The Gospels are rooted in the Jewish Scriptures. They explicitly function as the continuation and fulfillment of the story of Israel. That is why they are replete with citations, allusions, and echoes of the Old Testament. The religious content and theological texture of the Gospels is heavily indebted to the worldview, socio-political landscape, and sacred texts of Judaism. Roman biography and Greek legends could refer to various religious literary works such as Delphic oracles or Homer’s Iliad. But for the Gospels, the story and worldview of Israel’s Scriptures are very much what the Gospels are about, namely, the God of Israel inaugurating his kingdom through Jesus the Messiah. It should not raise anyone’s eyebrows to say that the Gospels comprise a form of post-biblical Jewish literature with messianic faith in Jesus as its primary content. The main point of contact with the Gospels is that Jewish biographical literature contains a theography, a story about Israel’s God, working through an agent of deliverance, such as a prophet, king, or teacher. The protagonist leads the Jewish people at a time of national crisis or performs some miraculous deed at an important moment in Israel’s history. The Gospels possess a theological worldview, a geopolitical setting, didactic content, and a deliberate replication of Old Testament literary types that make some kind of connection with Jewish sacred literature irrefutable.”—-Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 229). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Bird also says:

The Gospels are the textual imprint of the oral phenomena of Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus. Viewed this way, they are Christian documents related to the needs of Christians in corporate reading, worship, apologetics, and proclamation. So in that sense they are a unique genre with no precise literary counterparts. However, their uniqueness is in many ways inconsequential because they remain largely analogous to Greco-Roman biography, and the biographical genre was typified by innovation and adaptation. The content of the Gospels is singularly determined by Jewish Christian content, while the literary form of the Gospels is a clear subtype of Greco-Roman biography.- Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 270), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

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