Can We Trust the Gospels? - A Review

Are the gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ reliable?

That, perhaps, is the central question that every Christian must ask. The accounts in the Gospels are, after all, accounts of the most important events in the Christian faith. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then we have no hope beyond this life. If that is true, he argues, then we are most to be pitied. The truthfulness of the Gospels is a question that every Christian must consider, which has implications for the validity of faith itself.

Peter Williams of Tyndale House in Cambridge asks this all-important question in his book, Can We Trust the Gospels? His answer is accessible, informative, and helpful to those that are willing to take up and read this concise book.

Given the number of apologetics books on the market that deal with the reliability of Scripture it might seem that Williams’ book would be simply another entry into a crowded field. However, Can We Trust the Gospels? is offers a fresh approach to an enduring question. It is one of those rare popular-level books that caused me not simply to nod along in agreement but to look up and wonder why I had never thought of that before. It is, in short, an important book that will remain useful for decades.

The reliability of Scripture is a well-worn topic, especially in evangelical circles, so many of the chapter topics will appear familiar to the experienced readers. Williams begins the book by asking what non-Christian sources from around the time the Gospels were set say. The basic concern is to see whether historical accounts corroborate the information in the Gospels. As many other writers have noted, there are a number of non-Christian writers whose work supports the historicity of the gospel accounts.

Williams also highlights an argument that is less common among defenders of Christianity: The historical accounts support the rapid spread and increasing popularity of Christianity (with all of its supernatural beliefs). Approximately 30 years after the death of Christ there was a reasonably large population of Christians in Rome, as well as throughout much of the Roman empire. All of them attest to believe similar supernatural ideas about Jesus Christ, which undermines the argument made by some critics of Scripture that ascribing miracles to Jesus and affirming his deity were late revisions of Christianity. That idea simply does not match the historical truths surrounding the spread of Christianity, as attested in hostile, non-Christian witnesses.

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In the second chapter, Williams provides evidence that the four Gospels were likely historical documents, written by people close to Jesus. These records were widely disseminated throughout the known world within a century or two of Christ’s death, which is record time for ancient manuscripts. Significantly, this mass distribution and frequent translation occurred before there was a central authority within Christendom to manipulate the message of Scripture, which undermines one of the most common attacks against the historicity of the Gospels.

Further attesting to the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts is the minor details embedded within the books. Williams illuminates many examples in his third chapter. Historical books, especially in the ancient world, that were written by people unfamiliar with the actual places, typical names, and unusual customs of that place and time. The Gospels validate each other by their particularity in geography, which often overlaps, but their differences also support their validity as independent witnesses. The pattern of knowledge and included details supports the authenticity of the Gospels.

In Chapter Four, the book discusses the undesigned coincidences in the Gospels. The books will include the same characters in different scenes, but with the same characteristics. This also includes overlap with non-Christian sources. Williams here provides evidence that either the Gospel authors were corroborating to write realistic fiction or they were telling stories they believed were true from different perspectives. They may have known of each other’s writings, but even if they did, the unity in the diversity is uncanny given the literary genres of the day.

The fifth chapter asks whether the Gospels record Jesus’ actual words. Williams argues that there is good reason to believe that what we have in Scripture is a faithful presentation of Jesus’ actual teaching, not ideas put into his mouth centuries after. They may not be the exact words, since direct quotation was not considered necessary for accuracy in ancient records. However, there are clear signs in the language recorded by the Gospel authors of the authenticity of their recorded speeches.

Chapter Six explores the question of the quality of the manuscripts. Here Williams documents the massive number of available manuscripts and, amazingly, their consistency across languages, regions, and time. Significantly, these factors make the hypothesis that there were major theological changes imposed on the texts highly unlikely.

The seventh chapter is very brief, arguing that there are formal contradictions within the work of Gospel writers. These were often designed, according to Williams, to cause readers to think more deeply about the potential meanings of the words involved. He writes, “These formal contradictions do show that the author is more interested in encouraging people to read deeply than in satisfying those who want to find a fault.”

Chapter Eight is a brief conclusion that sums up the broader arguments. Basically, Williams has been making the argument that it is much more likely that the Gospel accounts are trustworthy accounts of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of a man named Jesus from Nazareth. The logical contortions one must go through to believe that all of the Gospel-stories are just made up to gain control is much more difficult that simply taking the four Gospels, with their miracles and all, at face value.

Williams sets out to show that there are good reasons to believe in the authenticity of the Gospels. He is careful not to claim a cast-iron case. Instead, he shows the credibility of the texts we have today, which is a strong argument for the day.

This book is a welcome addition to the large field of textual apologetics volumes on the market. Can We Trust the Gospels? stands out because it presents different, more nuanced arguments than many other similar texts make. The book is remarkably accessible, carefully nuanced, and well-researched. This should be a vital resource in the libraries of pastors, scholars, and lay-people for generations.

Can We Trust the Gospels?
By Peter J. Williams

Scientism and Secularism - A Review

Depending on who you talk to, you may find yourself in a conversation with someone who thinks there is a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity. This typically happens on the fringes of both Christianity and the so-called scientific community. If there is a group of Christians who find science antagonistic toward their religion, it is often (but not exclusively) fundamentalists. And, beyond the realm of actual science, there are secularists the suppose that the information of science fundamentally undermines the tenets of religion.

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Secularists who claim that science undermines fundamental religious claims are not, however, actually proclaiming the superiority of science. Instead, they are presenting a case for what is better known as scientism. According to J. P. Moreland, scientism is “the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of religion.”

In his recent book, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, Moreland argues for a distinction between science and scientism. He also argues that scientism is fundamentally corrosive to society and leads people away from truth.

In popular culture, scientism has overtaken other religious systems as a dominant plausibility structure. In other words, it is how many people make sense of the world around them. Not only does this often displace belief in God, but it undermines the ability of those who hold to scientism to accurately evaluate competing, non-scientistic perspectives that might provide better access to truth.

Scientism has influenced several of the shifts our culture has witnessed in recent decades. The first is that it has taught people that science sums up the totality of accessible knowledge, while religion is blind faith divorced from reality. This myth may help people coexist, but it does much less to encourage the pursuit of truths that cannot be known empirically, much less fairly evaluate those that haven’t adopted the current orthodoxy of scientism.

A second shift caused by scientism is the pursuit of immediate gratification instead of honest pursuit of truth. All the truth that can be known is knowable by science. Scientism claims that all there is in this world is material. Therefore, there are no consequences to pursuing whatever comes easiest to hand.

That leads to the third major shift caused by scientism, which is the adoption of a minimalist ethics. This rejects the idea that there is a good or bad, apart from the apparent benefit or harm measured by surveys, metrics, and calculations. This, of course, leads to bad science, where those who expound the conclusions that naturally and obviously arise from their data can be ridiculed, ousted from tenured posts, and assaulted if their conclusions go against the presuppositions of the mob. If scientism is true, and measured harms provide the evidence of actions to avoid, then what is not measured cannot be wrong.

Moreland is right to note that scientism is a significant problem, and that it is pervasive in our culture. His book rightly shows how fake-science, which is what scientism is, leads to militant secularism. Therefor his book serves as a warning for Christians to identify the influences of scientism, particularly in their own homes, and root them out.

Scientism and Secularism is a book for Christians trying to figure out what is wrong with the world. How have we gotten to the place where there are intelligent people who will argue in public that all decisions must be made based on empirical evidence? Moreland traces some of the influences that led to the current situation, but, more significantly, he explains why scientism is wrong and even self-refuting.

At points this book is a little dense for the average reader. Moreland is communicating some complex philosophical ideas as clearly as can be, but there is a level of complexity in his arguments that cannot be reduced without detriment. This book will most benefit those who have some background and interest in philosophy. At the same time, if a reader is willing to plow through the sections where Moreland is a bit more technical, then there is much to be gained for the educated laity. It offers both warning and antidote to a philosophical movement that is growing in strength and is threatening to displace both sound science and well-formed orthodox Christianity in the minds of many both inside and outside the church.