Jesus Under Fire

By Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds.
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1995). 243 Pages.

Reviewed by
6.2 (Fall 1995) : 263-265

In their introduction, Wilkins and Moreland state that the two main objectives of Jesus Under Fire are (1) "to address current teachings that undermine the biblical record of Jesus and his life and ministry" and (2) to "present a rationally justified affirmation of the biblical teaching of the particular topics" (11). The book is an anthology of essays from the evidentialist perspective in which the authors strive to vindicate the gospels from the attacks of critics.

 The strength of the book is its criticism of the Jesus Seminar. The editors are correct that the Christian's conflict with the Seminar is a clashing of world-views (1) and they offer a critique of the philosophical naturalism that undergirds gospel criticism (8-10). They also show that presuppositions inherent to this system are not in concord. For example, the critics attempt to be objective when they establish criteria by which to distinguish historical and non-historical material in the gospels, and at the same time hold that objectivity is not possible (3). Blomberg exposes the arbitrary restrictions the Jesus Seminar places on what Jesus could have said (20-21). The authors also draw attention to the circular reasoning (5), inconsistency (91), and unargued bias (128) of gospel critics.

The weakness of the book is its poor defense of the gospel records. The basic approach of the authors is to apply the standard canons of historiography to the Gospels as they would any other literature (3, 39). Applying this method, Blomberg concludes that the notion that someone invented Jesus's sayings is only "unlikely" (33) and he can only affirm the gospels' "general trustworthiness" (39). Evans estimates that the occurrence of several events in Jesus' life, including the Romans' crucifying him as "king of the Jews," is only "highly probable" (103). Habermas approves Blomberg's statement in another article that the "earliest forms" of certain miracle stories in the gospels are "most probably historical" (131). Craig asserts that the Bible's record that Joseph laid Jesus' body in his own tomb is "probably historical" (148) and the investigation of the empty tomb by Peter and John is "historically probable" (151). A compounding of all these probabilities makes the gospel records seem untrustworthy.

It is on this quicksand that the authors build their defense of the content of the gospels, and this defense has flaws as well. Craig writes that if Jesus' resurrection occurred, it possibly has a supernatural explanation (146). Geivett argues that the Bible has the "greatest support" among competing revelation claims (195). In the end, the writers have offered a world-view that is possible, but not certain. The editors can only reassure that by their methodology "we increase our chances that our decisions are based on true beliefs" (7). It is apparently here that reason ends, and faith begins.

The basic fallacy of this approach is putting the gospels into the same category as any other literature. But the gospels are not like any other literature, they are God's revelation. The authors encounter a fundamental epistemological conflict by using rationalism and empiricism as final judges of what they conclude is the final judge, God's revelation. For example, Geivett writes that the Bible is most likely God's revelation partly because it is "compatible with what is revealed about God apart from the source of that special revelation claim" (195). He means that the Bible is most likely God's Word because it coheres with his (Geivett's) natural theology. This begs the question, though, of how he confirmed his natural theology.

Blomberg uses ancient non-Christian literature, archaeology, and later Christian writings to contradict or corroborate the gospels (39-41). This procedure only raises the questions of how he verified this evidence, and what he will do if future evidence appears to contradict the Bible. The authors' autonomous starting-point necessarily ends in subjectivity and skepticism. Objectivity and certainty, on the other hand, are possible only by starting with God's knowledge revealed in his self-authenticating Word.

Jesus Under Fire offers some benefit in its critique of the Jesus Seminar, but this reviewer cannot recommend it because of its flawed methodology and skeptical conclusions.