I just began my second time through an introductory course on the Gospels. The very first assignment I have my students do is to read and respond to an article Scot McKnight wrote in CT back in 2010 titled “The Jesus We’ll Never Know,” in which he argues that evangelicals should abandon the quest for the historical Jesus. (If you’re unfamiliar with this topic, here’s an introductory talk I gave on it last year at our seminary’s conference on preaching.) To help point my students in the right direction, I also have them read two responses CT published alongside McKnight’s piece, one by N. T. Wright titled “We Need History” and the other by Craig Keener titled “Jesus Studies Matter.” The point of the assignment is simply to get students thinking about the place of history and historical work—like the quest—in studying the Gospels. After we survey the quest and discuss the articles and their responses, I then offer two of my own reasons for why I think McKnight overstates his case, for why I think he’s too pessimistic about the quest and its work. I suggest, first, that history is necessary and, second, that for this reason the quest for the historical Jesus matters. Here I’ll briefly reprise the first argument, saving the second for a subsequent post.
History is necessary and it’s necessary for two reasons. First, it’s necessary because Christianity depends on historical events. In one sense, at least, Christianity is nothing more than an (the) interpretation of historical events. Here it may help us to remember that many of Jesus’ Jewish peers didn’t deny the historicity of his works; rather, they simply gave them alternative explanations (see, e.g., Mark 3:20-27; Matthew 9:27-34; Matthew 12:22-29; Luke 11:14-22; John 8:48-59; John 10:1-21) Christianity, to say it again, is an explanation of historical data, which is, in fact, one of the things that sets it apart from nearly every other religion. Christianity depends on history in a way, e.g., that Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Islam do not. Take away Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, take away history, and Christianity, with its interpretation of that event (e.g., Romans 4:25), becomes not only wrong, but meaningless. The interpretation, the faith, requires the event.
Second, history is necessary for understanding Christianity; it’s necessary for interpreting the Christian Scriptures. If we hope, e.g., to understand the Gospels in any sufficiently thorough sense, then we’ve got to understand the context in which they were produced and in which the events they narrate took place. This is what we mean, isn’t it, when we say we’re committed to historical-grammatical exegesis? History helps fill in much of what the Gospel writers simply assumed. It explains, e.g., (1) why Pilate was so worried about his status as Caesar’s friend and thus so ready to convict an innocent man; (2) why Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans (cf. John 4:9); (3) why the Sanhedrin didn’t have the authority to execute Jesus (John 18:31) but had the authority to execute his brother (Jos., Ant. 20.197–203); (4) who the chief priests or the Pharisees were; (5) how much, if at all, Jesus’ interpretation of the OT (e.g., his idea of ‘Christ’ or ‘son of man’) differed from his opponents or his disciples; (6) why Jesus was crucified as a messianic pretender. In fact, more basic than all of this is the fact that without history most of us wouldn’t have access to the Scriptures, since most of us aren’t native Hebrew, Aramaic, or (Koine) Greek speakers. Every time we use a modern English version or look up a word in BDAG, we admit the necessity of history and acknowledge our dependence on it.*
Wright sums all this up nicely in his response to McKnight, saying, history “is necessary—not to construct a ‘fifth gospel,’ but rather to understand the four we already have. History confounds not only the skeptic who says ‘Jesus never existed’ or ‘Jesus couldn’t have thought or said this or that,’ but also the shallow would-be ‘orthodox’ Christian who, misreading the texts, marginalizes Jesus’ first-century Jewish humanity.”
*Wayne Grudem’s attempt in a recent article (“The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Them 34/4 :297) to distinguish between “lexicographical resources” and “historical background information” seems artificial to me. For example, which is at play when trying to understand the titles used of Jesus in the Gospels, spec. “Christ” and “son of man”?
In 1768 the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Voltaire was not trying to denigrate Christianity. Rather, he was arguing for the social benefit of belief in God. He thought that belief in God helped provide incentive to people to live morally and helped establish social order and justice. Thus, if God did not exist, it would be better for society to convince people that God did exist.
There are a growing number of atheists in our day who are clamoring for the abolishment of religion. The late Christopher Hitchens was a leading voice in this movement, and he did not hide his contempt for Voltaire’s sentiment. “Though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with” (God is Not Great, 96).
In response to these calls for the abolishment of religion, some are continuing to argue that religion, though perhaps (likely?) false, is still good. Thus, much of the discussion has moved past the question of whether or not Christianity is true to whether or not Christianity (and religion more broadly) is beneficial. Where should Christians side in this debate? Should we tout the idea that religion has tangible benefits even if it is false?
One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that Jesus is alive today—He rose from the dead. This historical event has been both questioned and affirmed for centuries. A couple of years ago, we held a lecture for our campus ministry at Wayne State University on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. During the Q&A session afterward, a young lady—after stating that she was a Christian—asked whether or not it really mattered. Is anything changed if Jesus did not rise from the dead? Even if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, isn’t Christianity still good?
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses an issue related to that question. Some in Corinth were denying the Apostolic teaching of the resurrection of the dead. In confronting this error, Paul considers the consequences if Jesus did not rise from the dead.
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14–19)
What if Jesus did not rise from the dead?
The first consequence Paul mentions is that the preaching of the gospel would be empty. If Paul were to talk with the preachers in churches all over America who do not believe Jesus rose from the dead but still “preach” each Sunday, he would tell them it would be better if they just went fishing or golfing on Sundays. There is no truth to the message being preached if Jesus did not rise.
Some in our day might respond that the objective reality of Jesus’ resurrection is insignificant. What really matters is that we believe he is alive in our hearts! But Paul next states that our faith is empty if Jesus did not rise. The Christian faith is not about wishful thinking. It’s not hoping something is true in spite of the fact that it probably isn’t. It’s about trust in a person and what that person did. If that person did not do what he claimed, then the faith is empty.
Many today would point to the value of moral instruction that religion provides. But Paul next states that he and the other apostles are liars if Jesus did not rise from the dead. He and the other apostles have been preaching that God raised Christ from the dead, and if He did not then they have been lying about God. They have been testifying falsely against him. If they’ve been lying about God, why would we trust them on what they have to say about moral issues? (Or why would we trust Jesus on moral issues when He said He would rise from the dead?) Here’s some valuable advice you may want to tuck away: you don’t want to get your ethical instruction from someone who has been lying about the central part of their message!
But isn’t there still a personal, psychological benefit from believing in Christianity even if it is not true? Paul points out that our faith is of no value if Jesus is still dead. Whereas before Paul says our faith is empty, here he says it is futile or worthless. It’s incapable of accomplishing anything for us.
The reason our faith is futile is because it is not intended to provide a psychological benefit but to deal with our problem of sin. Jesus, as a sinless person, died to pay the penalty for our sins. The resurrection is God’s public display of approval of Christ’s payment for sin. But without the resurrection the payment was not accepted. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then his death was simply for his own sin—just like everyone else who has ever died.
If our sin has not been dealt with, then there is no hope of escaping death. If we are still in our sins, death is not simply falling asleep in Christ, but is really the end—eternal separation from God.
Paul concludes by declaring that if Christ is not raised, Christians are the most to be pitied. He is not simply saying that Christians are to be pitied because they expected heaven but didn’t get it. Christ’s resurrection has bearing on our current lives. It frees us to willingly sacrifice for the sake of God and others (cf. 1 Cor 15:30–32). But if Christ is not alive, there is no point in living a sacrificial life for others. We might as well simply live for ourselves.
Paul does not believe that the Christian life has meaning in itself if Christ is not risen. Christians are a bunch of fools if Christ has not risen! But as Paul points out in the next verse: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20). Christianity is worthless if it is not true. But Christianity is true, and the truth of Christianity is infinitely good.
Recent decades have provided Christians with an increasing evaluation of and interaction with various world religions. The growth of immigration from non-Christian nations combined with a greater global awareness through travel and communication have confronted Christians with the reality of diversity in faith and practice. Protestant Christians have responded in different ways to this reality. Often, these responses are grouped in three broad categories. However, with the rise of postmodernism a fourth category has appeared. I will endeavor to explain and evaluate these four approaches below, concluding with the approach I believe best adheres with biblical Christianity.
The first approach to world religions may be classified as universalism. Universalism proposes that all religions are more or less equal, with no one religion able to claim supremacy. Two common illustrations are used when explaining this approach, but provide slightly different nuances. The first is to picture salvation or truth as a mountain top and various religions as paths up the mountain. At points along the way these paths may appear different, but when followed to the end they lead to the same place. Thus, all religions ultimately teach the same thing. If adherents merely took the time to interact with one another they would discover how much they actually agreed. This perspective would eschew proselytizing, opting instead for simple dialogue.
Another picture is of a group of blind men approaching an elephant, with each man grabbing a different part of the animal and concluding partially true statements about it. However, none of them fully understands the elephant. In this illustration, no one religion has a claim to all truth. Instead, one must recognize that all religions have part of the truth, so the best approach is to incorporate beliefs from different religions.
Though this approach is popular among more liberal Protestants, attempts to defend it biblically are scarce. This scarcity is not surprising since there is little to no biblical support for universalism. Throughout the Old Testament, the God of the Jews is set in opposition to the gods of the surrounding peoples. The first commandment in the Decalogue places Yahweh as the supreme God. The nation is called to abandon other gods for the true God. In the New Testament, Jesus points to himself as “the way,” claiming that “no one comes to the Father except by [him].” Paul refers to the worship of idols as the worship of demons and applauds the Thessalonians for turning from idols to serve the true and living God. Nor are believers called to look to other religions to gain a better understanding of God. Jesus claimed that those who knew him knew God and that those who rejected him rejected God.
Universalism also creates logical difficulties. A thorough study of the different religions reveals that they do not all teach the same thing but often proclaim explicitly contradictory truths. Some religions are monotheistic, while others are polytheistic or pantheistic. Some believe that life is cyclical, while others hold to a linear view of history. Clearly all religions are not teaching the same thing. Arguing that all religions only have part of the truth does not ultimately solve this dilemma, for the only way to know that each religion has part of the truth is to have access to all of the truth. Those who hold universalism may have a laudable goal of reducing conflict by emphasizing unity, but they do injustice to the Bible and to other religions.
With the rise of postmodernism a modification of universalism has emerged that could be classified as relativism. Whereas universalism claims that all religions lead to the truth or contain part of the truth, relativism says that all religions have their own truths. In essence, a relativist would say that religions are not different paths up one mountain but different mountains altogether. This approach recognizes the clear differences between religions, but states that these different truths are not ultimately contradictory because they are true in themselves. There is no universal truth by which to judge the truths of the various religions. Again, the relativist sees no need for proselytizing, since no religion could be judged as better than another.
The relativist approach runs into the same biblical problem as the universalist approach. Christ not only claimed to be “the way” but also “the truth.” He called his followers to go throughout the world making disciples, which entails conversion to the truth. God is never portrayed as one choice among many but as the only God.
Ultimately, a relativistic approach to religions crumbles under the same difficulty as relativism in general—it is a self-defeating philosophy. Relativism proceeds on the idea that ultimate or universal truth is non-existent, but the claim that there is no universal truth is itself a universal truth. Further, relativism is incapable of condemning any action or attitude, since there is no standard by which to judge. In relativism, acts of terrorism and acts of charity are equally valid ways to demonstrate one’s commitment to religion. However, most people easily recognize these acts are not equally valid because of their universal sense of right and wrong. Though some may argue for a relativistic approach to religion, they never fully embrace it because of these difficulties.
A third approach to religion is inclusivism. In inclusivism, one’s own religion is the supreme religion, but other religions have truths that will ultimately lead to the truth found in the supreme religion. From a Christian perspective, that means that one can only be saved in Christ, but the Bible is not the only revelation of Christ. On the more liberal end of this perspective, proponents argue that sincere worshippers in other religions may be saved if they follow their religion and never have a chance to hear of Christ and Christianity. They believe the Quran has truths in it inspired by the Holy Spirit, so a devout Muslim who never hears of Christ may be saved by following these inspired truths in the Quran. On the more conservative end of this approach, proponents believe that someone may become a Christian by believing the gospel of Christ but continue to worship in their original religion. Thus, a Muslim may put faith in Christ but continue to practice as a Muslim because of the inspired truths in the Quran. An inclusivist would practice proselytizing but may not consider it an urgent matter.
Inclusivism does take seriously the biblical teaching that salvation is in Christ alone. It also recognizes the biblical teaching that some revelation of God has gone out to all people, i.e., general revelation. However, it fails to incorporate the Bible’s teaching on how an individual is saved through Christ. There are no biblical examples of a person being saved without knowledge of Christ. Rather, Paul states that people cannot believe in someone of whom they have never heard. Jesus’ command to go and make disciples would be less significant if salvation were possible apart from the proclamation of the Gospel. Inclusivism actually makes general revelation salvific in nature when the Bible never indicates that general revelation is able to lead to salvation. Romans 1 and Romans 2 both point to general revelation as important for the condemnation of all people, since people universally suppress the truth God has revealed about himself and his moral law, leaving unbelievers with no excuse.
On the more conservative end, proponents fail to incorporate the biblical teaching of conversion. Though they rightly recognize that salvation comes through faith in Christ, they minimize the transformative effects of that salvation. Salvation includes regeneration, which enables believers to turn from their sinful ways and turn to serve Christ alone. One of the evidences of regeneration is a rejection of false religion to embrace biblical Christianity. The proponents also distort the teaching of inspiration. The Bible claims inspiration for itself but does not extend that inspiration outside of itself. Any truth in other religions can be traced to general revelation and common grace rather than inspiration.
The final approach to world religions is exclusivism. This approach teaches that there is only one true religion and only one way of salvation. For a Christian, Christ is the only way of salvation and the Bible is the only source of saving revelation today. Other religions are sourced in man’s rebellion against God and/or demonic influence. Though other religions may have some truths in them, they are not saving truths. Exclusivism encourages proselytizing since it is the only hope for adherents of other religions to be saved.
This approach best lines up with the teachings of Scripture and of the beliefs held by the majority of Christians in church history. A potential danger in this approach is that one may develop an arrogant attitude that assumes possession of the truth entails superiority. However, a true understanding of salvation in Christianity minimizes this danger. Since the Bible teaches that salvation is a work of God graciously given to unworthy sinners, those who have been saved have no grounds for boasting. They do not have the truth because they have greater intelligence, morality, or wealth. Rather, they have the truth because they received grace and mercy and should desire to see others experience that same grace and mercy.
It’s no secret that I have an abiding interest in the place and function of sanctification in the life of believers. The journey that began for me as a doctoral dissertation answering the Keswick model of sanctification that has historically punished dispensational fundamentalism has taken a new twist in recent years as a new threat has emerged within conservative evangelicalism: the gospel-driven sanctification approach most vividly seen in the writings of Tullian Tchividjian, but certainly not restricted to his sphere of influence.
In ultimate terms, I am not opposed to the label “gospel-driven” as applied to sanctification. My tension with the contemporary use of this label by those in the “contemporary grace movement” (as it is now being labeled in some Reformed circles) is that it restricts the gospel, in varying degrees, to Christ’s accomplishment of justification for us while giving scant attention to Christ’s accomplishment of regeneration in us. As such, “gospel-driven” sanctification becomes, to a greater or lesser degree, an exercise in recalling Christ’s righteousness imputed in justification (with an attendant abhorrence of all that smacks of “doing” or “rule-keeping”) rather than as a disciplined cultivation and exercise of Christ’s righteousness imparted in regeneration. This is an irregularity of no small concern.
The Great Commission knows nothing of this irregularity. Its burden is not only to secure professions of faith, but to create Christ-followers who are baptized into local church communities and then “taught to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). In short, the Gospel includes teaching new believers to keep God’s rules, both cultivating virtue and extirpating sin. This very compact expectation represents, I think, the very essence of sanctification, and it is a part of the Great Commission. Obedience is not, to be sure, necessary to salvation, but it is, most emphatically, necessary of salvation. So necessary are obedience and good works in the Christian religion that the Scriptures can say, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The burden of this statement, which dominates several whole books of the NT canon (James, 1 John, and 2 Peter), informs us that obedience is important to God. As Rick Phillips has recently (and very carefully) explained, the Gospel includes sanctification (read the whole thing—he says things so very much more clearly than I). But let me take his statement one provocative step further: if the Gospel includes sanctification/regeneration (and I think Pastor Phillips is correct in affirming this), then to the degree that Gospel presentations suppress/omit these ideas, they risk altering the Gospel into something other than what the Bible claims it to be. And that is a very, very big deal.
The reason we Protestants tend to diminish the importance of obedience is, of course, the real and vital concern that we might communicate to an unbeliever that one’s obedience contributes to one’s justification. This is a devastating error, and we rightly want to avoid it at all costs. And so, we reason, if introducing regeneration/sanctification/obedience in a Gospel presentation might confuse an unbeliever about the means of justification, then we may dispense with these topics as matters of secondary importance: it’s more important, after all, to get people saved than it is to get people holy. But this is a very anthropocentric sentiment that flies in the face of Christ’s earthly mission. Christ came not only to rescue his people from the guilt of sin, but also from the power and practice of sin—he came to destroy the works of the evil one and to create a heaven that is scoured free not only of guilt, but of all unrighteousness (see, e.g., 1 John 3:5–8; Rom 6:1–14; etc.).
I remain mindful that the “movements” from which many of us and many of our churches have emerged have emphasized obedience and rules to excess, and I cannot condone this. Still, we err mightily if we adopt the binary approach that sees libertinism as the only remedy for legalism. There is an excluded middle here that we badly need to discover.
Theologically Driven features insight on Scripture, the church, and contemporary culture from faculty and staff at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. DBTS has faithfully prepared men for gospel ministry since its founding in 1976. As a ministry of the Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, Michigan, it provides graduate level training with a balance between strong academics and a heart for local church ministry.
Contributors to the blog include:
John Aloisi, Assistant Professor of Church History
Bill Combs, Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament
Bruce Compton, Professor of Biblical Languages and Exposition
Jared Compton, Assistant Professor of New Testament
Sam Dawson, Professor of Systematic Theology
Dave Doran, President and Professor of Pastoral Theology
Pearson Johnson, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology
Bob McCabe, Professor of Old Testament
Mark Snoeberger, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
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