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

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation - A Review

One of the biggest divides between Roman Catholics and Protestants has been the understanding of the relative weight of authority of the Church and Scripture. Roman Catholics have tended to have a very high view of both sources of authority with equal or nearly equal weight given to both when making doctrinal determinations. Protestants, with their famous motto sola scriptura have tended to minimize the importance of church tradition in understanding doctrine.

Many of the radical reformers (i.e., Anabaptists) and contemporary fundamentalists have clung to Scripture alone, when the reality is that suprema scriptura is probably more consistent with the intent and practice of the reformation. Scripture alone is the supreme authority in making doctrinal determinations. However, if Church tradition is entirely neglected and a foundation for doctrine is laid only on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, then Mormonism, the Campbellite doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and Charles Finney’s (near) Pelagianism is a likely result. “No creed but the Bible” is a warning sign that heresy is soon to come. This is a pattern that has been reinforced by Church History.

On the other hand, the approach Matthew Levering takes in Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture, is not correct. Levering is Roman Catholic. Therefore, when he finds a dual source for revelation in both the Church and Scripture, it is not surprising. His conclusions, like my own, were likely to go no farther than his presuppositions. However, Levering makes the case so clearly that, were I to be converted to a Roman Catholic understanding of revelation, this would be the sort of argument that I would find most convincing.

Summary

After the introduction, which surveys some of the previous academic volumes on this topic, the book is divided into eight chapters. In each of the chapters Levering explains how divine revelation is mediated by the Church through various means. Chapter One begins with revelation mediated through the outward motion of the Church as she fulfills her mission. As the Church participates in the self-denying missio Dei, she demonstrates the very nature of God to herself and the world. The second chapter focuses on revelation experienced through the Church’s liturgy, which is considered a demonstration of God’s character on public display.

Levering then shifts to treating revelation and the hierarchical priesthood, arguing that the accepted hierarchy of the Roman Catholic (and some “high church” Protestant denominations) affirms Jesus’ design for the Church, and represents divine revelation. This is, I think, the weakest of the chapters because there is no clear logical basis for this assertion. Chapter Four relates the relationship between the gospel and revelation. While Chapter One focused mostly on the Church’s collective demonstration of revelation through action, this section zooms in on the life of the individual as impacted by the gospel.

Chapter Five explains the necessity of Tradition and Levering’s belief that Church Tradition has been faithfully transmitted in much the same way Scripture has been transmitted. Levering seems to beg the question in this chapter, as can be seen in his introductory comments that “divine revelation has a specific cognitive content that must be transmitted. Tradition cannot be less than this.” This is valid in the way that Levering intends it only if you assume the premise he is trying to prove. The sixth chapter moves into the relationship between revelation and the development of doctrine, arguing that the Roman Catholic Church has, necessarily, been faithful in transmitting doctrine in the same manner that Scripture has been faithfully transmitted.

The next chapter deals with revelation and biblical inspiration. This is a more helpful chapter, though Levering’s conclusions concede too much ground. He points out the difference between modern expectations for historical and scientific accuracy, arguing for more latitude in interpreting Scripture so that contemporary hermeneutic constraints are not applied to an ancient document. At the same time, Levering’s approach allows the denial of the historicity of significant events without clear guidance as to how one would have faith in certain facts over others. Therefore, he affirms the historicity of the resurrection, which is of first importance, but the same arguments he uses to allow for denial of other historical events could be used to undermine that one. This is problematic.

Chapter Eight closes the volume exploring some of the relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and Scripture, particularly places where Levering believes such philosophical elements were imported (not merely referenced) in Scripture. His conclusion in this chapter is that “we should view Hellenistic philosophical culture as providentially providing the scriptural communication of divine revelation with some important and true insights about God.” It would be easy to overreact to this statement, because it seems to imply too strong a link between pagan philosophy and Scripture. It would be better had Levering nuanced his position to argue Hellenistic provided a helpful framework for expressing truths about God, which is more likely the case. In that sense, such philosophies shaped Scripture, but it does not seem they were a source for divine revelation, as it were.

Analysis

While I appreciate what Levering has done here I am unconvinced. His scholarship is of high quality and his summaries of many different thinkers are fair and accurate, however his case is built upon presuppositions he never adequately supports. His purpose is “to explore the missional, liturgical, and doctrinal forms of the Church’s mediation of divine revelation and to appreciate Scripture’s inspiration and truth in this context.” This is admirable, except that it assumes that the Church and the Church alone can mediate divine revelation. It also seems to imply that the Church has faithfully done so through its history. Levering provides no reason to suppose this is so and history, at least as seen from this Protestant’s perspective, seems to argue otherwise.

Additionally, in trying to argue for the consistent mediation of divine revelation through the Church as a close analogy to that mediation through Scripture, Levering does more to denigrate Scripture than to elevate the Church. He writes,

I agree with Gunton’s view that Scripture’s truthfulness does not depend on an absolute lack of any kind of error, just as I agree with his insistence that there has been no rupture in the mediation of ‘certain beliefs about God, Christ, salvation, the church and the work of the Spirit.’ (26)

 He goes on,

In my view, we need not claim for the later Church the same ‘relation to revelation’ as the apostles, but we can still argue that the Church, like the prophets and apostles, mediates divine revelation in the process of appropriating it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Without placing the Church over revelation, the Spirit can guarantee the Church’s preservation from error in its definitive interpretations of revelation––which differs from guaranteeing the truthfulness of everything the Church says and does. This perspective enables us to give due weight to ‘the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15). IN short, we can accept the existence of errors within the Church’s works and teachings over the centuries, so long as we do not suppose that these (reformable) errors produced a rupture, that is to say a false definitive doctrine about faith or morals in the heart of the transmission of revelation. (27)

I quote this section at length because it is assumed and not supported throughout the remainder of the argument. To my mind, Levering needed to show how this could be so. Instead, he assumes this and shows how he thinks it comes to pass. Hence the book has a great deal of explanatory power, but little chance of convincing those skeptical of this position. This, I think, is the critical weakness of the volume.

Overall, though, this volume is well written and may replace Avery Dulles’ book, Models of Revelation. Having done a fair amount of reading on this topic, it is the best explanation of a Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of Revelation I have encountered. I would recommend it to those seeking to meaningfully engage in inter-denominational dialogue on this topic. Levering is an excellent scholar, whose work on Augustine I have benefited from in the past. This book is a helpful addition to the discussion, but it is far from the final word.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.