Dear Pastor….

Can I critique your sermon this Sunday? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

(Note: This post is not about my own church or our sermon Sunday. This is a hypothetical that could be used for what I think are the sad majority of pastors in any church on a given Sunday. No reference to any specific person or timeframe is intended.)

Dear Pastor,

I wanted to talk to you about your sermon. I think you did a good job of showing that the Bible tells us that God loves us immensely. I think you were correct in that we need to live our lives accordingly with what is revealed in Scripture. I think your sermon did have some excellent application to it. Unfortunately, while I agree with that, I have a problem with your sermon.

You see, I write in the area of Christian apologetics and defending Christianity. All that you said is true, but I kept wondering, what if someone doesn’t believe the Bible is true? What does it mean to them? What about someone who could be even wondering if the Bible is truly a revelation from God?

If someone wants to believe in the love of God, can they believe in the message of love if they don’t know if they can trust the messenger of that love? Suppose I go see a doctor who is right, but he’s right 90% of the time. He tells me I have cancer and I need to undergo intense chemotherapy to treat it. Would it make sense to sign up immediately? Should I not consider a second opinion just to make sure? His message could be right, but I would want to know if it was right. If I knew he was right 100% of the time, I would sign up, but what if I have that 10% of doubt? What if he’s right and I have that 10% and never go get a second opinion? That doubt could kill me.

Pastor. Your congregation is encountering this doubt. Now of course, many people are firmly in a position where they will not wrestle with these questions. Many are not. Many of them are watching the History Channel and the Discovery Channel and National Geographic and reading the magazines and they see these specials about the Bible. Every time Easter and Christmas roll around, you have these specials coming out undermining something about the Bible. You had a movie like the Da Vinci Code come out and the book itself was quite popular and even a skeptical scholar like Bart Ehrman had a best-selling book on textual criticism calling into question the reliability of the Bible.

If that doesn’t leave you concerned, you’re not paying attention.

You see, you talked so much about what the Bible says and how to apply its message, but you said very little about the Bible itself. I’m not suggesting your sermon be apologetics, but wouldn’t it be a good opening to explain a little bit about the book you’re exegeting, when it was written, and some historical facts about it? This would not take long and it would also bring the text more to life. As it stands, if people don’t know the history of the Bible and when it was written and such, it’s essentially a text floating in air and it won’t take much to bring it down.

I understand you want to reach that person who is there for the first time also, but what if that person is an atheist? What if they’re a Jew? A Mormon? A Buddhist? You don’t know who they are. I don’t either. I do know that they won’t just blindly believe the Bible. They need some reason to do so.

Application is good and important, but is that all there is? Is the whole point of Jesus dying and rising again just so that we could be good people? I’m all for marriage enrichment and beating your personal problems and so many other things, and we need them, but you can have many of those things without Christianity. Christianity is not about giving good advice. It certainly will give good advice, but Christianity is about Jesus being the King of this world and how we must submit to Him.

If all we have is good advice, well Pastor, we can turn on Dr. Phil or Oprah or anything else and get advice. We’ve also never really been prone to follow good advice. I daresay that most people will leave the church and forget all that they heard in an hour if all they heard was good advice. If you give them a question that could be a thorn in their side that suggests that the Bible could really be from God and God could really have some authority on their lives, that is something that will not be easy to cast aside.

That’s something I want to hear. I don’t want to just hear moralizing from the pulpit because I can get that from anywhere else and from most any other religion. I want to hear what Christianity alone can tell me. I want to hear about King Jesus dying and rising again from the dead and not just what this means for me, but what it means for the future of humanity and the world that we live in. No other belief system can offer that.

Pastor. Let’s also not forget you have young people in your audience. Let’s even suppose the youth are growing up in good Christian homes, which is more and more becoming questionable since even many Christians are compromising in areas of morality, such as living together before marriage or endorsing homosexual practice. Is this young man or woman growing up in a devout Christian home safe? Not on your life.

Imagine them in their bedroom one day on the computer. No. They’re not watching porn, though you should also be concerned that many in your congregation are, but they’re doing something like listening to a song from their favorite Christian band. What do they see on the related videos on the side? “Ten Questions Every Christian Must Answer.” Pastor. What if that’s a video put out by an atheist? What if they get curious and click it? Have you prepared them for what they will see? If you know the answers to these questions and don’t prepare them, do you not bear some responsibility when they fall away? If you don’t know the answers, how can you get up and tell people the Bible is a revelation from God if you yourself have no reason to think that? Are you not the blind leading the blind?

They also won’t fall away for intellectual difficulties. I’m not sure if you watch any TV or movies pastor, but sex sells. It’s big on the big screen nowadays. We just had Fifty Shades Darker come out and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of women from your church went to see it. Believe it or not also, young men and women are greatly tempted to have sex. Women want to have that love and acceptance from a man. Many young men just want to have a good time with a woman and think sex makes them a man.

Do they know enough to know why they shouldn’t? Yeah. We can tell them what Paul said. If they can resist what Paul said on lesser things, such as talking back to their parents or overeating or buying things they can’t afford, why think they will be able to overpower the sex drive? Do you know how strong that is? If you don’t, I think you’ve just said a lot more about your marriage than you intended.

So you might say that when they engage, they’ll feel great guilt and will repent. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. If they don’t, then they will think the church lied to them. What else did the church lie about? Do you know how many of them are being told the church is trying to restrict them? Do you know how many atheists talk about liberation from the church’s teachings?

Pastor. Would it really hurt your church to know the historical reasons for believing that Christianity is true? Again, you don’t have to do a whole sermon on this. In fact, I don’t think you should, but you should at least touch on it. Now if you want to have a class separate from the sermon on this, by all means go ahead. That would be wonderful.

You still have an obligation to prevent your flock from falling away. Please also don’t tell them to just have faith. I cringe most every time when a pastor says that we need to have faith. Faith is a badly misunderstood term and one that an atheist will pounce on in a second.

Pastor. You might want your congregation to be safe and not put in danger from contrary thought. First off, they aren’t safe. Second, they will encounter contrary thought be it in the classroom or on TV or on YouTube or at the water cooler in conversation. Third, we are not called to be safe. We are called to do the Great Commission and the historic Christian church was not safe. They still aren’t. I just saw a highly reliable friend post a study showing that 90,000 Christians were martyred for their faith in 2016. 90,000 are martyred and you’re thinking your church needs to be shielded from contrary thought? These weren’t. They had to live in it regularly and they were incredibly faithful. In fact, they were probably more faithful than even you or I are. When your life could depend on if the Jesus question is true or not, you probably take it a lot more serious and you know, you probably live out that application a whole lot better.

Your congregation is not meant to live in a bubble. They’re meant to do the Great Commission. How can they do it unless they are equipped to do it? It’s not enough to get them to tell their personal testimony. Everyone has a testimony. Even atheists in debate will often open with their personal anti-testimony. We don’t live in a time where testimonies have the same effectiveness. Consider instead combining them with a good apologetic, and you could be on to something.

Pastor. Please take these words to heart. I encounter atheists most every day that used to be Christians and they are often extremely evangelistic and antagonistic. If you’ve ever heard of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, they were established by someone who used to be in ministry as well. The sad thing is many of these questions are easily answered if you just have a congregation that is at least semi-informed. You’re the only one who can determine that. Think about your own standing before God one day. Do you want to be responsible for people falling away and the damage they do? Do you want to risk that you could be?

I’m at your service if need be, but the ball is in your court. Please consider giving us something different. Give us a reason to believe and then to live differently.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

Deeper Waters Podcast 10/15/2016: Mike Licona

What’s coming up Saturday? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

The Gospels are some of the most well known works of literature in the world. Yet today, there is much debate about them. On the one hand, you have some people who are convinced that everything in them is literally true. On the other, you have people who are more of the mythicist mindset who think they’re all totally false. In the middle you have various positions, like my own which is a contextualizing inerrancy or that of many NT scholars today who think there is some truth but not everything is true.

Well what are we to think? Are the Gospels reliable? Can they stand up to the test of scrutiny? Are they good sources to learn about the historical Jesus from?

These are all good questions to ask. Of course, if you ask a good question, you need to make sure you go to a good source for the answer. For that, I decided to bring back a personal favorite guest of mine. This Saturday, I’m pleased to welcome one of the two people in the world I can rightly call “Dad” to the studio. It will be my father-in-law Mike Licona.

Who is he?

MikeLicona

According to his bio:

Mike Licona has a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies (University of Pretoria), which he completed with distinction. He serves as associate professor in theology at Houston Baptist University. Mike was interviewed by Lee Strobel in his book The Case for the Real Jesus and appeared in Strobel’s video The Case for Christ. He is the author of numerous books including Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017), The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010), Paul Meets Muhammad (Baker, 2006), co-author with Gary Habermas of the award-winning book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004) and co-editor with William Dembski of Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science (Baker, 2010). Mike is a member of the Evangelical Theological and Philosophical Societies, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature. He has spoken on more than 90 university campuses, and has appeared on dozens of radio and television programs.

We’ll be talking about the questions surrounding the Gospels. Having recently debated this with Bart Ehrman and having written a book (Which we will be interviewing him on) about the topic of the Gospels as Greco-Roman biographies, Mike is prepared to tackle this question for us. We will also answer questions of if the Gospels really are Greco-Roman biographies, since apparently some people dispute this, and what that means.

Then we’ll ask how we should try to approach the Gospels and what we’re looking for. Do some people set the standard too high? Do some people set it too low? How do the Gospels compare to other works of literature of the time? What about claims of authorship?

I hope you’ll be joining us next time. We are working on getting past episodes up. We do have the one from the 24th of September and the 8th of this month. They will be up soon. Please consider also leaving a review of the show on ITunes.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Atheism And The Case Against Christ Chapter Two

What do I think of the second chapter of McCormick’s book? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

As we come to the second chapter, we get to the history of the Jesus story. Now I have to say that while the first chapter gave me some hope, pretty much everything else from then on goes downhill and it keeps getting worse and worse. Every night when I close my Kindle, I go to sleep astounded that someone could just be so unbelievably uninformed of what they write about.

To begin with, at location 482, when it comes to Jesus, McCormick tells us that the existence of such a person is an active point of some disagreement.

Sure. If he wants to say the age of the Earth or the idea of evolution are also active points of disagreement. Now I’m sure he’d say those are settled questions, but you will find more authorities in the field who question those claims than you will find those who question the existence of Jesus. Still, McCormick buys into the idea that there’s some debate going on about the existence of Jesus. As Jonathan Bernier says

And on those matters Carrier fails, as has been shown repeatedly by various NT scholars, professional and amateur, here on the interwebs (which, one should note, is just about the only place that this “debate” is taking place. It’s certainly not taking place in the academy. Kinda like what fundamentalist Christians euphemistically call the evolution “debate”; the debate, it turns out, exists primarily in their heads).

Unfortunately, as we go through this book, we will see more of the same. Regularly McCormick will speak of events like the alleged crucifixion and such. Most of us back in reality have realized that when someone is open even to mythicism, they’re pretty much entirely unreliable on history.

McCormick will also say the Gospels were not by the people attributed to them and they do not contain eyewitness testimony. Of course, it would be good to have claims like these to be backed. I realize there are many scholars who would hold to this, but McCormick doesn’t even bother making an attempt to name any such scholars. Instead, it’s just thrown out there. One would think that if you were making a case, you might do something bizarre like, I don’t know, make a case.

McCormick tries to respond to the idea of Jewish oral tradition and says the problem with saying the Gospel stories were handed down that way is that Jesus was seen as a radical new teacher so why would His teaching be preserved in Jewish oral tradition. It’s simply amazing that someone thinks that this is an argument. Did the Jews use a different rule for memorization with their tradition than they did for anything else? Are they not aware that rabbis would quote teachings from other rabbis and who they received them from? Is McCormick not aware that even in non-Jewish societies oral tradition is still a reality and even in some parts of the world today still is? Oral tradition is not married to Judaism. Judaism uses oral tradition, but it’s not the case that oral tradition uses Judaism.

Instead, Jesus’s teachings as a rabbi himself would be memorized the same way. It’s also fair to say that Jesus as a traveling teacher would give the same parable or sermon more than once. Just this month, I have spoken at two different churches and given essentially the same talk. Of course there are variations in what I say, but the talk is still the same. Are we to think that something like the Prodigal Son was told only one time and that was it? Jesus was completely different from every other teacher in that He taught a message once and never repeated it?

Jesus also used aphorisms. These are short pithy sayings that are easy to remember. Judge not lest you also be judged. What profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? These are short sayings that would be readily remembered.

Not only that, there’s also the point that in an age without post-it notes and computers to recall information, that people will rely on memory more and have better memories. A good researcher would have interacted with memorization at the time of Jesus and in oral traditions. Unfortunately, McCormick does not do this because he is not a good researcher.

At 512, McCormick says it’s relevant that none of the original Gospels or any other NT documents have survived. For people who don’t know a thing about ancient history and the transmission of documents, this can seem like a powerful point. For anyone who’s read anything on the topic, it doesn’t matter at all. Reality is I don’t know of a single original ancient document we have. All we have in every case is copies. If McCormick wants to know how the NT stacks up with relation to copies in comparison to all other ancient manuscripts, we have far more manuscripts and such of the NT, in far more languages, and far closer to the time of the original writing than any other ancient document bar none.

Of course, don’t count on McCormick to tell you this. No. McCormick is simply a popularizer of tired old canards that only appeal to uninformed atheists that want something to make them think they have a stumper. They don’t. It’s quite sad that McCormick quotes Ehrman’s book on the NT and how we have copies of copies of copies and thinks he has a point. McCormick. Did you read to the end of the book, like I did?

In spite of these remarkable [textual] differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 481.

McCormick also says that even if we talk about the preponderance of documents later on, that doesn’t prove their accuracy and more than a million copies of Sherlock Holmes proves he was a real person. Could someone please find the scholar who is arguing that because we have multiple copies of the NT that it must be true? Please let him know he’s doing us a disservice.

Oh wait. That’s not being said at all. All that’s being asked by textual criticism is “Do we have what was originally written?” Whether it is true or not is completely irrelevant at this point. Once again, someone informed on the topic would know this, which is why McCormick doesn’t.

Of course, McCormick has something to say about canonization. After all, there was a vast number of works floating around the Roman Empire by Christians and by the heretics as well and such and only a few made it in the canon. In trying to find which ones belonged in the canon and which ones didn’t, McCormick says “A variety of criteria drove this separation.” Now someone who really wanted to know about history and this process would then say “Ah. What were these criteria? Why did the Gospel of Matthew make it in and the Gospel of Thomas didn’t?” These would be good to know. All McCormick points to is ideological and political disputes.

Well for those who don’t know since McCormick hasn’t informed you, let me list some criteria. First, was the text written by an apostle or the associate of an apostle. Now McCormick might think that it wasn’t written by those people, but the question was did the church think it was? Second, was it accepted by the church as a whole? One little community over here liking the Gospel of Peter does not mean everyone thinks it should be canonical. Third, was it in line with what was known to be from the apostles?

These would all be helpful to know about, but of course, McCormick doesn’t mention them. It’s also important to note that the debate also was more cautious than anything. Many books we have today were heavily disputed and claims of authorship are nothing new. These were debated even then.

If he wants to know about the other Gospels, well one thing he could do is read them. If you read through the Gospel of Thomas, you will find that it really doesn’t fit with the picture of Jesus. Also, all of these works are extremely late. All the canonical Gospels can be dated to the first century. The other Gospels come later long after all the apostles have died.

Naturally, McCormick has something about the accounts being written 30-100 years later. (Although I highly question the 100 date.) One wonders what McCormick thinks about the fact that this describes practically every work in ancient history. How skeptical is he of events that are written about when they’re all this late? McCormick also would have you think that the writers had no clue about the story and then just wrote it down. Could it not be that they’re out there teaching about what they’ve seen and then after years of speaking about it decide to write it down? Such ideas never come to McCormick. Again, this is because McCormick is just not a good researcher in this area.

McCormick also quotes Ehrman thinking that it’s astounding that no two manuscripts of the NT we have are identical. Well geez. What’s so scary about this? Most differences we notice are slips of the pen or spelling mistakes. They’re easily detectable. Sometimes, there would be manuscript changes that were intentional and not for malignant reasons. Suppose you’re writing out the text for the sermon this Sunday at your church in the ancient world. You start out with a section about Jesus going into the city and it starts with “He went into the city.” Well your audience might not know who He is, so you just put in “Jesus went into the city.” This is a change that could take place and it’s easily noticeable. McCormick instead thinks like a conspiracy theorist as if there’s some grand cover-up and by noticing that there are differences in the manuscripts, he’s shown the emperor has no clothes. These differences were known from the beginning in church history. McCormick is just 1,800 years behind the times.

Naturally also, McCormick does not interact with 1 Cor. 15 significantly at all, despite this being the earliest account we have of the resurrection story. There is nothing about it being an oral tradition that can date to at the latest about five years after the events. (Note for atheist readers who don’t pay attention to scholarship. I’m not saying the letter of 1 Cor. 15 dates to this time but the material in the creed in this text does.)

McCormick does say that if believing requires more or different scholarship than he has given, then most Christians have ungrounded belief. With this, I agree. I am not saying all Christians need to be reading scholarship constantly, but churches need to be educating their laypeople on what the scholars in the field are saying so that Christians have more than a testimony and a feeling to back their worldview. Of course, McCormick himself has unreasonable grounds for his unbelief.

McCormick also says that what Christians also did is just made a document based on what they already believed and then noted how it all fit together so well. It’s amazing that he says this after talking about all the divergencies in the resurrection accounts. Of course, I’ve already pointed out what went into canonization and there were plenty of works that McCormick could have read, such as writers like Lee MacDonald or Michael Kreuger, but sadly he doesn’t avail himself of those.

McCormick also says that with our sources, we have a disturbingly short list for the most important event in human history. Of course, McCormick says this as someone in a post-Gutenberg culture who believes the written word is the best way to establish anything. One also wonders who else should have written about this? Why should they? McCormick doesn’t answer those questions. He just says we don’t have enough writings. How many do we need before he thinks the case deserves a fairer hearing? If this is the most important event, would a thousand be enough? Ten thousand? How many?

While no doubt not everything in this chapter has been covered, enough has been. McCormick is speaking about matters he knows not. It’s a shame he’s seen as an authority for some reason.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

A review of chapter one can be found here.

A review of chapter three can be found here.

A review of chapter four can be found here.

A review of chapter five can be found here.

A review of chapter six can be found here.

A review of chapter seven can be found here.

A review of chapter eight can be found here.

A review of chapter nine can be found here.

A review of chapter ten can be found here.

A review of chapter eleven can be found here.

A review of chapter twelve can be found here.

A review of chapter thirteen can be found here.

McCormick’s Gaffe