Posts Tagged ‘Tim McGrew’

The angel at the empty tomb doesn’t say, “Take my word for it”

April 25, 2017

In my Easter sermon from this year, which I will post on my blog soon, I spend about half the sermon talking about evidence for the resurrection, based on clues from the sermon text, Matthew 28:1-20. The text itself invites us to look at the evidence. Frederick Dale Bruner, the theologian whose commentary on Matthew has proven so valuable for my sermon series in Matthew, certainly thinks so. He writes the following in relation to verse 6 and the angel’s words to the two Marys: “Come and take a look at the place where they put him.”

Among other things, this is the Gospel’s invitation to scientific research. The angel does not say, “Don’t look in here! Take it by faith! Don’t ask any questions!” Instead, the angel invites the women to check out his assertions with their senses. “Come, use your eyes and your mind, and see if what I say is true.” The scientific study of the biblical documents (called the historical-critical method) asks critical questions: “Did this happen? Is this historical? Is this parabolic? How does this fit with other and differing accounts? What is to be made of this in light of that?” These questions are not unbelief; rather, they are one form of obedience to the command to “come and take a loot the place where they put him” to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11)….

The Christian does not get a lobotomy when he or she makes the decision to be a disciple. Jesus wants his people to be honest, to think about their faith, and to be able to investigate its problems. The angel’s command to empirical investigation is wonderfully freeing, and rightly heard it can protect the church from anti-intellectualism.

I affirm this, with two caveats: First, no purely “scientific” investigation can begin to answer questions about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that it won’t also require faith to believe in it. Ultimately, we only come to this faith by revelation from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

Even an apologist like William Lane Craig—who has been criticized by some Reformed Christians (or at least one that I’ve heard, James White) for being too rational in his approach to God and the resurrection—believes that saving faith comes only by a revelatory act of the Spirit. By contrast, on his Reasonable Faith podcast, he said that when he was an undergraduate at Wheaton, one of his professors said he was so committed to the reasonableness of Christianity that he would abandon the faith if it proved unreasonable to believe it.

Craig said he was shocked: “If one of my arguments for God or the truth of Christianity proved false, I would assume that a better argument existed—because I already know Christianity is true. And I know that by revelation.”

My second caveat is that the historical-critical method will never prove that all scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Inasmuch as it’s “scientific,” this method isn’t, by definition, equipped to offer a judgment on the question. For that we need faith. By all means, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible can become more reasonable when we consider Jesus’ own high view of scripture. As a rule of thumb, when deciding whether something is true or not, always go with the opinion of the guy who was raised from the dead!

But in my own experience over the past eight years—having gone from doubting the Bible’s authority to believing in it to the utmost—I will say this: most of the Bible’s “problems,” such as they are, can be resolved once we ask ourselves this question: “What should I expect to be true if God the Holy Spirit guided the author to write what he wrote?”

As an example, consider this debate between skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable? podcast. McGrew was discussing “undesigned coincidences” in the New Testament: when one small part of the New Testament unintentionally corroborates another small part—such that the two parts fit together like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. McGrew was right: undesigned coincidences are a powerful apologetic tool, but only if you’re willing to entertain the idea that the Spirit inspired the different authors of the New Testament.

Are you willing or not? If not, why not?

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, a trolling progressive Christian whose name I won’t mention often comments on McKnight’s blog posts. In even the most innocuous post that affirms the authority of scripture, you can count on a skeptical comment from this reader. I want to say to him, “Yes, but suppose the evangelicals are right after all, and the Bible is reliable and true when it reports this or that. Why are you against that? What’s at stake for you in believing that the Bible isn’t historically reliable? Why do you prefer to believe that the Bible is, at best, only true in a metaphorical way?”

If I believed I could have a productive conversation I would ask him, but I know from experience I can’t.

Come to think of it, I could ask the same of my progressive Methodist clergy colleagues!

Do the four gospels reflect ideological “development”?

August 11, 2015

In the world of mainline Protestant seminary education, we take for granted the following “facts”: Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore the most “historical.” Since the understanding of Jesus as God developed over time, Mark portrays Jesus as more human and less divine than the other gospels. Matthew and Luke, written later, use Mark as a source for their own gospels, while also relying on a source they have in common, called “Q.” Inconveniently, this source—again, a taken-for-granted fact for us victims of mainline Protestant education—has managed to vanish without a trace.

While Matthew and Luke have access to other sources, unique to their respective gospels, neither is interested in telling a straightforward history. Rather, each has an ideological agenda to suit their particular audience. They freely change the historical data and invent stories and sayings of Jesus to suit this ideology.

John, meanwhile, written much later than the other three, portrays Jesus as nearly a superhero. It is by far the least historical.

And of course, none of the gospels was written by its attributed author; none is based on apostolic sources.

As you can guess, I now reject all of these highly speculative articles of faith. I’m happy to grant that Mark is the earliest gospel, but the truth is, as N.T. Wright points out, we don’t know for sure when the gospels were written—besides which, they were likely based on oral traditions that long predated them. (But even the consensus of critical scholarship now grants that John’s gospel was written within the first century; this wasn’t the case 50 years ago.) Also, there’s nothing at stake in believing that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark as a source, except… If they merely “copied” Mark, as so many critical scholars believe, why did they copy Mark so poorly?

I’m not talking about alleged changes they make to suit their agendas; I’m talking about differences in minor details that serve no ideological purpose—for example, did the four friends lower the paralytic through a thatched roof or tiled roof? Most neutral observers would say, I think, that these differences in details would be evidence of historians working with some degree of independence, relying on different sources or eyewitnesses.

All that to say, you can hear all the biases and clichés of mainline critical scholarship on full display in a recent two-part debate (here and here) on the Unbelievable? podcast between the famously agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian apologist Tim McGrew, a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University.

McGrew’s wife, Lydia, herself a fierce apologist, has written lengthy responses to both debates on her personal blog. Earlier this year, however, she wrote this post debunking the “development” trajectory in the four gospels’ Passion narratives. Before offering her own evidence, she challenges her readers to pick up their Bibles and see for themselves if they discern this progression from “more human” to “more divine.” She concludes:

I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as “making Jesus say” things he never said, portraying different “Jesuses” in a literary fashion, and “developing” Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus “develops” in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn’t so.

A mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. Love it!

It reminded me of a blog post that theologian Andrew Wilson wrote last year about another Unbelievable? debate, this time between two self-identified evangelicals, Peter Enns and David Instone-Brewer. Enns was defending a more critical approach to reading and interpreting the gospels. During the debate, Enns said the following:

I can see, for example, in the context of the Caesar-cult, that it makes perfect sense for Luke to have the Magi come, it makes perfect sense for me to have that there, because Jesus is the true king of the world. Or, you know, a virgin birth. Or, for Matthew, shepherds, right? For a God to come to the lowly, the unexpected, which supports (in my opinion) Matthew’s theology, which is summarised in the Sermon on the Mount: God is doing the unexpected … So could I see them making this up? Absolutely. It doesn’t mean they made it up, but I can see it, in terms of an ideology.

Notice any problem with Enns’s statement? Wilson did.

My concern here is not primarily with the obvious blunder, namely that it is Matthew (not Luke) who describes the coming of the Magi, and that it is Luke (not Matthew) who describes the visit of the shepherds; everyone makes mistakes. Nor is it with the fact that Enns says this in a discussion in which he stresses his credentials as a biblical scholar; even biblical scholars make mistakes, and it may well be that he kicked himself for this one after the programme. Nor is it with the idea that the evangelists deliberately selected and arranged their material to suit their agendas; that I take as axiomatic. Rather, it is the fact that even though Enns has got the details absolutely upside-down, he is still able to posit an “ideology” that could account for the Gospel writers “making this up.” He is so persuaded that the Bible is full of invented stories, written to support existing ideologies, that he sees them even when they don’t exist. (Richard Dawkins, interestingly, makes exactly the same point, with exactly the same error, in The God Delusion.)

The fact is, you can argue almost anything to be an ideological invention if you adopt this approach. Matthew made up X because God is doing the unexpected. Luke made up Y because of the Caesar-cult. John made up Z because, well, John. Once the rot sets in, no text is safe, no matter how innocent, and no ideologically-driven explanation is beyond plausibility, no matter how preposterous. As such, the only ideologically-driven invention here – though, as I say, I’m certain it is a genuine mistake – is that of Peter Enns, not Matthew or Luke.

In other words, once you buy into the hypothesis that the gospel writers were ideologically driven, this hypothesis is unfalsifiable.