April 2011
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Elgin’s Books

  • Christianity and Secularism

  • Evidence for the Bible
  • Archive for April, 2011

    Review: Why Four Gospels. By David Alan Black

    Monday, April 25th, 2011 by Elgin Hushbeck

    There are two types of books that I particularly like. First are those books that clearly, concisely, and rationally lay out and defend a position from differing points of view. Sadly, many books lack this attribute, in one form or another. Many authors simply assume their position and don’t even mention opposing points of view. When they do, it is often in such a straw man fashion as to be barely recognizable to their respective supporters. Secondly are books that argue in favor of a minority position. Even when I believe they are wrong, they ‘keep me on my toes’ so to speak; challenging me to consider evidence I may not have fully considered. As James Burke points out in his BBC series, The Day the Universe Changed, we all have a basic built-in tendency to ignore any evidence that does not fit how we view things.

    In Why Four Gospels, David Alan Black has succeeded in both areas. First, the majority view. No one disputes that there is a close literary relationship between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, as they are just too similar, and in fact in some places match word for word. While there are numerous variations, the majority view is basically that Mark was written first, and then was used in the creation of Matthew and Luke. The variations emerge because, while this would explain a lot, it does not explain all of the literary relationships, such as the places that Matthew and Luke agree, but differ from Mark. Based on this some argue that Luke was based on Matthew as well. Others postulate a hitherto unknown source called Q. But whatever the variations, the majority all agree that Mark was the first to be written.

    In a mere 78 pages, Dr. Black clearly, concisely, and rationally points out the problems with the majority position and lays out the evidence for a different point of view, a view in which Matthew was written first, and then latter used in the writing of Luke. The Gospel of Mark, rather than being written first, was the last of the three and based on the other two according to this view.

    Now it is important to note that Dr. Black’s book, while based on serious scholarship, is not, as he points out “written for biblical scholars” (p. v). Thus the book is very accessible to anyone with an interest in this question. The layperson will find the argument summarized without scholarly jargon or a need to understand Greek, while those interested in exploring the questions raised in greater detail will find a twenty page Bibliography to get them started.

    Of course the most obvious question is what leads Dr. Black to such a different conclusion than the majority. At its core, the difference comes from how one views the various types of evidence. Markan priority, the majority view, is based primarily on internal evidence; that is the detailed comparison and analysis of the passages that three Gospels share in common, along with the passages where they differ, to try and determine which was written first and who used whom. That this method has not yielded a clear answer, but has many variations, and in some cases has had to invent new sources such as Q to make it work, is enough to call it into question for Dr. Black.

    The view that Matthew was written first is based on external evidence, primarily the statements of the earliest church fathers, those closest in time to their writing. One of the real benefits of Why Four Gospels is that, rather than just discuss these references, it quotes all the relevant passages. The reason for this is pretty clear. “Whenever the four Gospels are mentioned, Matthew always heads the list”(p. 28). In fact, patristic evidence argues pretty clearly and consistently against the modern view of Markan priority and in favor of the view Dr. Black lays out.

    Thus, whether or not one ultimately agrees with Dr. Black’s view, Why Four Gospels preforms a valuable service. Its clear and concise arguments, its laying out of the evidence from the earliest Christians, its rational critique of the evidence behind the majority position, is sure to challenge, if not convince. If nothing else, it will challenge the existing notion of many biblical scholars that the earliest Christian sources are “inconsistent, contradictory, and insecurely based” (p. 33), a view that, while common among biblical scholars, is not shared by scholars of Classical Greece and Rome.

    Thus Dr. Black’s Why Four Gospels is an important work that should be read by every serious student of the New Testament.

    Is Baptism necessary for Salvation?

    Friday, April 8th, 2011 by Elgin Hushbeck

    Some Christians believe that Baptism is necessary for one to be saved. Supporters point to Mark 16:16 “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever doesn’t believe will be condemned.” (ISV) Here, they claim, Jesus commands that we be baptized. As one supporter put it,

    “How much clearer must we have it said by the Lord Himself than this… Why would Jesus tell His disciples to baptize if it were not necessary? Don’t you think that if the Lord had intended baptism to be optional that He would not have made such a strict command out of it here.”

    The problem, however, is that it could have been clearer. Notice that only belief is mentioned in both parts of statement. Thus to be clearer Mark could have written the second half as “but whoever doesn’t believe or is not baptized will be condemned.” That would have been very clear. It would also be clearer if baptism was consistently mentioned as a requirement for salvation, but it isn’t. There are many passages which discuss what must be done to be saved that do not mention baptism.

    When Jesus was directly asked in Mark 16:16, “‘What must we do to perform the actions of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the action of God: to believe in the one whom he has sent.’” (ISV) If baptism were required, why didn’t he mention it? If Baptism were required for salvation, how could Paul say that Christ is not send him to baptize? (1 Cor 1:17)

    But there is a deeper issue here, one that goes to the core of how we are saved. Eph 2:8-9 says, “For by such grace you have been saved through faith. This does not come from you; it is the gift of God and not the result of actions, to put a stop to all boasting.” (ISV).

    Salvation is God’s work in us. We can accept it or we can reject it, but we cannot earn it. The real problem with saying that baptism, or any other work, is required for salvation is that it means that Christ death on the Cross is insufficient; that something else is needed. It would hold, contrary to Eph 2:8-9, that salvation is not completely a gift but something that must be earned, at least in part, as the result of the action of being baptized. One can believe that Baptism is necessary, or one can believe Eph 2:8-9. It is not possible to hold both and remain consistent.

    Does this mean that we don’t need to be baptized? As the supporter above asked, “Why would Jesus tell His disciples to baptize if it were not necessary?” Jesus commanded a lot of things, if we took all of them as requirement for salvation, we truly would be putting ourselves back under the law. Fundamentally this confuses what is important with what is required.

    But if they are not required for salvation, why do we follow them? John 14:21-24 lays this out. As verse 23 says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” We are not baptized to be saved. We do not avoid sin to be saved. We do on serve others to be saved. If we do any of this to earn salvation, our works will be as filthy rags. Rather we should do all of this and more, out of love. We serve our Lord and Savior because we love him. A gift offered to earn something will be judged based on its merit, a gift offered in love, will be judge based on the love in which it was offered.

    I have a painted rock sitting on my desk. It has sat there for over two decades now. It is not some expense piece of abstract art. And for many people, it is just a rock with sort of face on it. But for me it is very valuable. This is because it was given to me by my daughter, and it was given in love.

    That is how God looks at our works as well. Not for their intrinsic merit, but for the love in which they are offered.