Unjustified Skepticism: The Reliability of Luke’s Testimony

The New Testament contains the most well-attested ancient texts in existence, yet its factual reliability is a matter of high controversy. The predominant reason? The books record supernatural happenings. Skeptics with a pre-commitment to materialism are philosophically compelled to reject any and all testimonies that allege divine activity– miraculous healings, resurrections, and the like. In other words, since the New Testament records such things, the entire collection is suspect and shouldn’t be taken seriously as a compilation of historical documents.

But is this justified? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If an ancient document withstands the pressures of scholarly scrutiny when it comes to historical details, if there are many early manuscripts still in existence that can be compared with one another and with our modern translations to demonstrate faithful transmission, and if independent facts can place the original writing of the document very close to the events it records, it seems only reasonable that we should at least carefully consider any supernatural happenings described in the text.

The typical rebuttal to this is that our everyday experience doesn’t include supernatural phenomenon and such happenings would violate the laws and regularities of nature. Therefore, supernaturalism is false and the New Testament isn’t reliable. This is a textbook example of begging the question. By definition, a supernatural occurrence is an anomaly; it stands out because it isn’t what we would predict based upon current scientific knowledge. However, that says nothing about whether or not a supernatural event is possible or could have happened in the past. I see no difficulty in the idea that God can work in the natural world either through the laws and regularities He has ordained or by their temporary suspension. To say that our cosmos is a self-contained, closed causal system that is never acted upon from “outside” is to make a philosophical statement, since science cannot, by definition, prove that immaterial, transcendent intervention in the world has never occurred or doesn’t continue to occur, detected or undetected.

My central argument here is that rejecting Scripture based on the fact that it testifies to events inexplicable by the natural sciences isn’t justified. It is reasonable to be open-minded about supernatural content, based on the demonstrable integrity of the remainder of the book.

With all that said, we can consider test cases from the New Testament. I am particularly fascinated by the writings of Luke, which include the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, so I’ll use those for this discussion. (Click here for a bit of background on Dr. Luke.)

Historical Veracity of Luke and Acts

When an ancient historical document is evaluated for accuracy, it is compared with other surviving historical records to check for potential corroboration of the alleged facts. The books of the New Testament are subjected to this scholarly scrutiny and fare quite beautifully. Using Luke’s writings a test case, here are some of the pertinent facts:

1. We know that Acts was written as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Therefore, if we can give Acts an early date, it’s reasonable to assign the Gospel of Luke a slightly earlier date.

2. The oldest surviving fragments and manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke and Acts (dating to about 200-250 A.D.) as well as the large numbers of somewhat later manuscripts translated into many languages, give New Testament scholars a high degree of confidence that our best modern translations are faithful to the original autographs (originally penned documents). Don’t let anyone fool you with that ridiculous telephone game argument, which shows complete ignorance of the dynamics of textual transmission and textual criticism.

3. Acts, being a record of the birth of the Church and its early history, is conspicuously silent on major (even earth-shattering) historical events that we have extra-biblical records of. These include: 1) The severe persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero, which began around 64 A.D. This was a gruesome, horrific episode in early Church history, yet Acts doesn’t mention it at all. 2) The Roman-Jewish War, which began in 66 A.D. 3) The fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It’s absurd to think that the fall of a central city for Christendom would not make it into the first historical account of the Church. 4) The martyrdoms of James (61 A.D.), Paul (64 A.D.), and Peter (66 A.D.) Surely Luke would mention the execution of early Christianity’s key leaders. The best explanation for why Acts of the Apostles is silent on all of these crucial events is that it was written before they occurred, which places the writing of Acts (and by default, Luke) in the mid-first century, A.D. at the latest. This means, of course, that the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written very close to the time of the events they describe. 

4. The Gospel of Luke is accurate on fine historical details. For example, Luke 3:1-2 says, “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene”. Now, back in the 19th century, this passage caused scholars to doubt the accuracy of Luke’s gospel, because although there was a ruler in history named Lysanias, he was killed by Mark Antony in 36 B.C., a half-century before the events Luke is referring to. But later, in the very same province near Damascus (in today’s modern Syria), an inscription was discovered that spoke of a tetrarch named Lysanias who was ruling during the time frame precisely consistent with Luke’s account. It is significant that, in addition to the time frame, Luke got both the title and the name of the individual correct.

5. Acts is accurate on fine historical details. For example, Acts 18:11-2 says, “But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat.” Note that our best estimate for when Paul arrived in Corinth is based upon the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius in the year 49 A.D. This puts Paul arriving in Corinth sometime around 50 A.D., and then Achaia in 51 A.D. So, what we need to corroborate the veracity of this passage is evidence that Achaia had a proconsul named Gallio in the year of Paul’s trial.

The title of the leader of a province in Rome depended upon whether the province was senatorial or imperial. If it was senatorial, the leader was called a proconsul, but if it was imperial, the leader was called a legate. Achaia went through three different phases. From 27 B.C. to 15 A.D. it was a senatorial province, from 16 A.D. to 44 A.D. it was an imperial province, and then from 44 A.D. onward, it was a senatorial province again. This means that a leader in 51 A.D would indeed have been called a proconsul. What about the name of this proconsul?

gallio

Gallio Inscription at Delphi

Well, in the early 20th century, a limestone inscription (thought to have been attached to the outer wall of the Temple of Apollo) was uncovered in Delphi, Greece. It is a letter from Claudius to the city of Delphi, naming Gallio as the friend of Claudius and proconsul of Achaia. The dating of the inscription (between April and July of 52 A.D.) places the beginning of Gallio’s tenure as proconsul in July of 51 A.D. Luke got it all correct. 

Conclusion

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are accurate on fine historical details, they were written very soon after the events they describe, and we have a high degree of certainty that the content of the original texts has been reliably transmitted throughout history. At the least, this means that we can trust these books as historical records. As such, it is entirely reasonable to take the supernatural content into serious consideration. In fact, dismissing the books because of their supernatural content isn’t justified. Rejecting the books or just particular portions because of supernatural content shows a philosophical pre-commitment to materialism rather than an objective weighing of the historical evidence.

Humans: Inherently Valuable or a Plague on the Planet?

A thought experiment:

You are an ecological researcher hiking alone through a particularly remote region of a national park in the Pacific Northwest. It is nearing sunset on your first day of a two-day journey to a rendezvous point where you will be collected by helicopter and transported back to your research station.

You’re making your way along a narrow path bordered on one side by a wall of granite and the other by a fairly sharp drop into a deep ravine. Suddenly, a flash of neon orange catches your eye from far below. It’s the form of a person lying immobile on the ravine floor. Beside the person lies what appears to be a very large dog, perhaps a mastiff of some kind. You call out, but there is no response, no movement from either the person or the dog.

You painstakingly pick your way down into the ravine, and when you reach the side of the two bodies, you observe: (1) both the dog and the young man are breathing but unconscious, (2)  the young man has badly broken legs, likely from falling from the path above, and (3) the dog has apparently been mauled by a wild animal, and has lost a lot of blood.

You are a strong, healthy person but you know beyond any doubt that even if you make two trips to drag both the man and the dog out of the ravine, you definitely aren’t capable of pulling their combined weight along with you to the rendezvous point, which is still another day’s hike away. You are faced with an inescapable choice–do you save the young man, or do you save the dog?

Now that you’ve answered that question in your mind (and I assume you chose the young man) my next question for you is: Why was that the correct decision? Obviously, you had to make a value judgment which in turn determined the moral choice. You determined that the human being was more valuable than the canine, so you had a moral duty to choose him over the dog.

BUT, what are you grounding your judgment upon? Objectively speaking, why is the human to be given survival priority in such situations?

According to Christian theism, human beings are different in kind, not just degree, from the rest of the animal kingdom. While we have a large amount of biological similarity to other mammals, we are fundamentally different in that we possess a soul that will persist after our physical bodies die, and we are here for a purpose greater than our own sensory pleasure and the survival of our genes. In other words, Christians fully embrace the philosophy of human exceptionalism.

What, then, is the case for the materialist (defined here as a non-theist who believes that the material world is all there is)? Can he or she give an objective reason for placing a higher value upon the young man? Some might answer that the animal with the higher rationality is more valuable. But what if the materialist somehow knew that the young man was severely mentally handicapped and that the dog was capable of displaying more working intelligence? That wouldn’t change their decision, right? One can imagine all sorts of different reasons that a materialist might give to justify valuing the man above the dog, but any reason they could give runs into similar fatal flaws when the logic is carefully examined.

The fact cannot be avoided: If human beings are a biological accident, if they were not intended by a Creator and endowed with distinctive qualities and eternal purpose, then they have no inherent value to begin with, and any attempt by the materialist to formulate a value hierarchy from insects to animals to humans is based upon arbitrary criteria at best, subjective emotionalism at worst.

Let’s expand that thought to include the entirety of the human race. If we are merely an evolutionary novelty, if we have no Creator-given purpose, then why should humanity as a whole be preserved? If the world’s entire water supply was suddenly tainted with a substance that quickly sterilized all humans and we eventually became extinct, why would it even matter, according to the materialist? Surely another species could simply evolve to take our place at the top of the food chain. Essentially, it would be a neutral event. Furthermore, at the end of the day, ANY event in a God-less, finite universe  is completely neutral, of no permanent consequence whatsoever. Concepts such as “love” and “justice” are utterly meaningless, just made-up abstractions.

But, thank God, most materialists don’t live out their philosophy consistently.

Some, however, have taken the idea of humans being equal in value to other animals, even to plants, or the idea that humans are of LESS value than the global ecosystem, to some serious extremes in the name of animal rights or radical environmentalism. To see what I mean, take a look at this new short (and entertaining) film from Wesley J. Smith, The War on Humans.

Women Apologists: Blazing Trails and Building Bridges

Only a decade or so ago, women apologists were an extreme rarity.  If you encountered someone who even knew what the word “apologetics” meant, they would very likely only be able to name a few of the more popular male apologists such as Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell. Even ministry leaders trained in the discipline probably wouldn’t have been able to readily name a woman in the field. This state of affairs is changing rapidly and dramatically, as God is raising up competent women in the field just in time for what Strobel calls “the cusp of a Golden Era in Christian apologetics.” Women apologists may still be odd ducks, but we aren’t quite as odd as we used to be.

Female_Speaker_in_SilhouetteThis is a tremendously important development. First and foremost, women apologists are in a unique position to encourage other women to embrace a more intellectual faith, to love God with their minds. Many women would be too intimidated by, or perhaps simply disinterested in apologetics, seeing it as an area reserved “for the boys,” much as the field of theology was viewed up until recent years. But seeing a sister in Christ directly engaged in apologetics education and ministry opens the minds of such women to the possibilities and value. Second, in addition to deepening their faith and adding a wonderful new dimension to their worship, the study of apologetics equips mothers to raise children with confident faith and the ability to give reasons for the hope that they have (I Peter 3:15). This should be high on the priority list for every Christian working to train up their sons and daughters in this increasingly pluralistic, relativistic society.

I am honored to serve on the faculty at Houston Baptist University, home to some of today’s leading apologists, including several who are women. Mary Jo Sharp, Nancy Pearcey, and Dr. Holly Ordway continue to blaze trails in their areas of specialty. It is wonderful to see the fruits of their scholarship and ministries, how they have sparked new fires in the hearts of believers, including women who otherwise may have never gained an interest in apologetics.

I’d like to introduce you to several more women apologists working diligently and effectively in their respective areas of expertise. I am blessed to be personally acquainted with these gifted apologists! This list is by no means exhaustive, it is simply a sampling of our growing demographic.

Julie Miller, M.A. 

JulieJulie serves as chapter director and chaplain of Ratio Christi at Rutgers University, an on-campus apologetics education and outreach ministry.  She earned a Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, graduating with highest honors, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Finance from Texas A&M University, graduating Cum Laude.  She worked as a CPA for five years after obtaining her undergraduate degree, and has spent twenty-six years studying, serving in Bible Study Fellowship, and raising a family. Apologetics became a necessity in her life while ministering to internationals in Houston, Texas through Friends International and while parenting two teenagers in a post-Christian culture. Julie is interested in equipping Christians and engaging skeptics with the best answers to the objections raised against Christianity.  She is a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and the International Society for Women in Apologetics. She currently  lives in New Jersey with Buzz, her husband of 28 years.  They have two sons; Cameron is 25 and works in Houston, and Noah is 22 and attends Wheaton College in Illinois.

Kristen Davis, M.A. 

Kristin

Kristen Davis is the founder and president of DoubtLess Faith Ministries, a ministry devoted to equipping lay people with the tools needed to defend the accuracy of Scripture as well as the validity of the Christian worldview. Kristen has a Bachelors in Religion with a focus on Biblical Studies from Liberty University, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude, and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, where she graduated with Highest Honors. She did her Master’s thesis on the religious artifacts at Tel Dan analyzing their impact on the historical reliability of the Conquest narrative. Her passion is archaeology and how it aids in the defense of scripture as well as how it sheds light on the roots of modern non-Christian worldviews. In 2010 she was a part of the Western Wall Plaza salvage excavation in Jerusalem, Israel and is co-leading an Israel tour in spring 2015. She is an Associate of Associates for Biblical Research and has been published in Bible and Spade Magazine. Kristen teaches Ethics for Southeastern University’s Jacksonville campus and hopes to one day speak and teach full-time. She resides in Jacksonville, Florida.

Megan Almon, M.A.

MeganMegan is in ministry with Life Training Institute, an organization that “trains Christians and pro-life advocates to persuasively defend their views in the marketplace of ideas by clearly presenting the pro-life position in live events and through the full use of modern media.” She regularly speaks to assemblies of high school students on the case for life, and she writes for the LTI website. After graduating in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Megan spent three years as a reporter for the local daily newspaper in Newnan, Ga. She won awards for feature and news writing, and lifestyle and education coverage. In 2008 she left her career in journalism and put her communication skills to use for the Kingdom. In 2011 Megan was awarded the Master of Arts degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. In addition to working with LTI, Megan also oversees “Answers,” a monthly public forum and presentation held by Four Corners Church of Newnan that addresses topics of an apologetic nature. She also has experience working with youth organizations, campus outreach, and women’s groups. Megan was part of the 2002 SEC Championship team for University of Georgia gymnastics, and is still known to practice handstands in her living room. She resides in Newnan, Georgia with her husband, daughter, and son.

 Sarah Ankenman, M.A. 

SaraSarah is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty Baptist Seminary and recently graduated with her Masters in Christian Leadership from Grand Canyon University. She received her Bachelors in Biblical Studies at Calvary Chapel Bible College and has a second in Christian Studies from Grand Canyon University. She has taught Women in Faith, Drama and Film, and Apologetics to Islam at Calvary Chapel Bible College and currently teaches Apologetics and Worldviews, Church History, and Comparative Religions at Maranatha High School in Rancho Bernardo, CA. Her research interests include the argument from desire, the age of Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, and the Ancient Near East. She is the President of the International Society for Women in Apologetics and has written a curriculum to equip the average, busy Christian woman. She blogs as The Valley Girl Apologist and is currently working on a book on the argument from desire entitled, Seeking Something More. Sarah resides with her son in Temecula, California.

 

Lecture: Cultural Apologetics as Christian Witness

What distinguishes Houston Baptist University’s M.A. in Apologetics from other available graduate programs?  First and foremost, it is the program’s unique focus on cultural apologetics. Whenever you hear the word “apologetics,” the first thing that probably comes to your mind is the discipline of using logic, historical evidence, and philosophy to make intellectually rigorous arguments for the truth of Christian theism. This is more properly known as “classical apologetics.” Cultural apologetics, on the other hand, takes Christian case-making to an entirely new level–one that is, arguably, even more effective in the practice of evangelism.

The main purpose of this post is to share a phenomenal lecture with you, one that goes into detail about what cultural apologetics is and why Christians need to learn it. The speaker is Dr. John Mark Reynolds, Provost at Houston Baptist University, where I am honored to serve on the faculty for the School of Christian Thought.

Prior to becoming HBU’s Provost, Dr. John Mark Reynolds served as Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, Dr. John Mark Reynolds, Houston Baptist University Provostwhere I first knew him as the lecturing professor for the graduate course in Cultural Apologetics. Being a student in the Science and Religion rather than the general Apologetics program, I never had the opportunity to take Dr. Reynolds’ course, but his students raved about it and I wanted to hear for myself what all the fuss was about. So, one afternoon during my summer residency at Biola, I stood outside the door of the lecture hall to eavesdrop on this frock-coat-wearing scholar. Let’s just say, rumors of his brilliance were not exaggerated.

So, without further ado, I encourage you to take an hour (or several portions of an hour) out of your day and listen to Dr. Reynolds’ lecture on “Cultural Apologetics as Christian Witness.”  (<—That’s the link to the lecture.) If you are inspired by what you hear (and I bet you will be), you may be interested to know that HBU’s M.A. in Apologetics will become available 100% online in the fall of this new year. Come study with us!

What is Man?

“What is man that You remember him,
the son of man that You look after him?
You made him little less than God
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him lord over the works of Your hands;
You put everything under his feet.”

Psalm 8:4-6

By far, my favorite subtopic in Christian apologetics is human ontology. That’s fancy philosopher-speak for the study of the nature of mankind. It asks: What, exactly, IS a human being? Or, as the Psalm above words it, “What is man?”

Is Homo sapiens different from the animal kingdom in degree only? In other words, are we simply animals with more highly evolved cognitive capacities, including rationality? Is our “self” nothing more than our material brain? Or, are we different in kind, meaning, is there something about man that makes him essentially distinct from any other living creature, and thus, of higher value? 

According to orthodox Christianity, human beings are a different kind of being altogether. Most importantly, we all have a soul, a self, which can be defined as the immaterial mind–the seat of rationality and moral awareness. Many theologians have said that having an immortal human soul (as opposed to a finite animal soul) is what it means to be made in the imago Dei, the image of God. It is this distinctive that imparts a supreme value to humans. This is why Christians have strong convictions on bioethical issues in particular. We believe that humans are equally valuable from the moment of conception to their final breath, and should be protected and treasured at every single moment in between. To be sure, animals have considerable worth as part of God’s good creation, but human health and survival always trumps that of any animal.

Contrast this view with that of the materialist, who denies this sharp discontinuity between humans and all other organisms. By their lights, we are only different in degree, thanks to blind evolutionary processes. Our species is at the top of the food chain thanks to our more sophisticated neural networks. There is, then, no ground upon which to say humans are more precious than any other species. To do so would be to commit “species-ism,” as some atheist bioethicists, such as Peter Singer, have pointed out. Singer, you may be aware, is the Princeton professor who has said that “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons,” and “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” According to Singer, if a baby is born with abnormalities, it should be permissible to perform an after-birth abortion (infanticide) and “start all over.” And you know what? If atheism is true, and humans are only material creatures who are not of higher value and not morally accountable to a higher power, Singer is correct. He is simply being consistent in his worldview. As Wesley Smith (a conservative bioethicist and opponent of Singer’s) has so aptly phrased it, the materialist’s view implies that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

Now, many non-theists reject the logical conclusion of their metaphysical beliefs. Something within them, I believe the very image of God they deny possessing, makes them aware that this cannot be right! Humans must be more valuable than a sewer rat, and a newborn baby should not be euthanized just because he or she suffers from an abnormality. The problem is, the non-theist cannot offer objective justification for such beliefs. Whenever I’ve asked a non-theist to explain how they justify the  claim that humans have higher value than any other living thing, the usual response has been, “Well, we have to use our emotions and/or rational faculties in these situations.” So basically, we have to use our [blindly evolved] brains to determine the value hierarchy of [blindly evolved] animals and when (and if) human animals should be protected at high cost. That assertion seems arbitrary and down-right circular to me.

On the other hand, if human beings are intentionally made by God, in His image, endowed by Him with great value, and distinct in kind from all other life forms, the problem evaporates. If Christian doctrine is correct, then objectively speaking, we have high, unalterable worth–born or unborn, able or disabled.

There is actually another serious ramification to claiming that human beings have unalienable inherent value, and it is one that a great many non-theists refuse to accept: the existence of objective morality. But the problem is, you can’t have the former without the latter. How do I figure this?

If something, such as a human being, has inherent value, then objective moral rules that serve to protect that thing must exist. 

Stated another way: To argue that mankind has intrinsic value is to assume the existence of objective moral rules conducive to human preservation. Otherwise, we’re just making up reasons and we won’t all agree on what should be done in various situations. The debates over abortion and assisted suicide are perfect examples.

[Furthermore, if there is such thing as objective morality, there has to be an unchanging standard for it that exists outside of us (this is known as the grounding problem). Any attempt to formulate a moral rule without assuming the existence of an absolute standard, must rely on relativism---on human opinion, which varies from one person to the next, one culture to the next, and one time period to the next. Therefore, God--the only conceivable unchanging standard of good--is necessary for objective morality to exist. This is known as the Moral Argument for the existence of God.]

In 2014, God willing, I’ll begin my doctoral work, focusing strongly on the subject of human ontology, so you’ll likely hear much more from me on this topic in the coming years, as I grow in my knowledge and understanding. For now, I would like to direct you to the best podcast series I’ve ever worked though: “The Doctrine of Man” by William Lane Craig. It is available through the Reasonable Faith app. Just click on “Podcasts” then choose “Defenders.” So far, Dr. Craig has posted 15 installments to the series. You can also access it through iTunes at this link.