Is Christianity Based on Fact or Fiction? – Program 2

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Gerstner, Dr. R.C. Sproul; ©1982
Are the New Testament documents reliable? How can you decide which interpretation is the right one?


Tonight on the John Ankerberg Show you will hear two professors debate the question, “Does Christianity rest on fact or fantasy?” John’s first guest, Dr. John Gerstner, received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. From 1950 to 1980 Dr. Gerstner was professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and professor at large for the Ligonier Valley Study Center. He has authored more than 30 major theological articles and has written 18 books. He has also been a contributing editor of Christianity Today. John’s second guest, Dr. R. C. Sproul, received his doctorate from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently the adjunct professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi and president of Ligonier Valley Study Center. Dr. Sproul has written 10 books and numerous theological articles. And now to begin our debate would you welcome our host, John Ankerberg.

Program 2: Does Christianity Rest on Fact or Fantasy?
Can We Trust the New Testament?

Ankerberg: We’re glad to see all of you and to have with us Dr. Gerstner and Dr. Sproul. And Dr. Sproul is enunciating questions that many people that are investigating Christian truth claims are asking. We appreciate your honest inquiries and we appreciate the answers that are coming from Dr. Gerstner. We’d like to pick up where we left off last week concerning the reliability of the New Testament documents. I think we have a question right here.
Audience: Dr. Gerstner, there are so many different interpretations of the Bible, how can I know whether yours or anyone else’s is correct?
Sproul: The question as I hear the gentleman posing it, Dr. Gerstner, is with all the myriad number of varying interpretations of Scripture, how do you know that your interpretation of Scripture is the right one? Is that the way you stated it?
Ankerberg: That’s correct.
Gerstner: Well, first thing I’d like to say, Dr. Sproul and friend from the audience there, is that there aren’t that many varying interpretations. As you know, for 30 years I taught church history. And I would say this, that in the whole history of the church, as far as church polity is concerned, there are only three forms. As far as theology is concerned there are only three forms, what we call the Reformed, the Arminian and the Liberal interpretations. So, there is a great deal of agreement fundamentally on what the Bible says. Where do we get this notion that there’s all sorts of… oh, I admit around the edges, peripheral details, but not in the essential message.
Sproul: But, Dr. Gerstner, there are 2,000 different denominations in the United States of America alone, all claiming the Bible is their authority and as their source, but somebody is getting confused. It may be on the edges. But what we want to get down to is, when it gets down to that essential message, what I hear you saying is that there’s at least three significant different understandings of the essential message.
Gerstner: I didn’t mean to give that impression that there are three differences of the essential message. See, the Christian church agrees on the Apostle’s Creed. That’s been a universal affirmation of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and all varieties of Protestantism as far as the core doctrines of God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, and life through the forgiveness of sins by Jesus Christ and so on. Now, you mentioned the thousands of denominations there have been, but that’s because people, unfortunately, and I think contrary to the teaching of Scripture, tend to start a new denomination with a drop of a hat. That’s the most casual thing many people think they can do, not that the Bible teaches many varieties of opinions that would justify separate organizations. But the basic message of the Bible is essentially the same and it is quite clear to most people.
Sproul: Well, Dr. Gerstner, how do you know besides that that your understanding of that quite clear message, which at least would be radically different from a liberal, how do you know yours is right?
Gerstner: Alright, take the liberal in the thoroughgoing sense of “liberal” here. That’s used liberally very frequently and it doesn’t mean what I mean. I’m thinking of liberal here as a person who denies the very thing we’re taking about: the miraculous, the virgin birth of Christ, the resurrection, inspiration of the Bible and so on. Now, persons like that down through the history of the church have been called Pelagians and Soscinians and Modernists and Liberals and so on. I’m saying about that view that it has no right to existence, and the whole Christian church holds those other two theologies put together.
Sproul: Hold it right there. I want to interrupt you. You were saying that they have no right to their existence, and they are saying that you have no right to yours, Gerstner. And the whole point is, how can you say it? How do you know that your judgment of what the essence of Christianity is is the correct one rather than the liberal one?
Gerstner: The interesting thing is that it isn’t any monopoly of mine. This is what the whole consensus of the Christian church does maintain, and you know, Frances Landey Patton of Princeton Seminary once said “Liberals fly at a low level of visibility,” which is a way of saying they only pass as Christians because they sound as if they believe differently than they actually do. When liberalism is recognized anti-supernaturally, the whole Christian church joins together back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder and says, “You are not Christian people. You do not believe what’s essential in the Christian religion.”
Sproul: What are those essentials?
Gerstner: As I say, there are three theologies which have appeared. That one has no right to have appeared. And when it comes in its own colors, it’s recognized and repudiated. The two, speaking theologically, are what we call the semi-Pelagianism of the early church and Arminianism today, Evangelicalism against Reformed, and Calvinism. Those are the only two basic theologies which the Christian church has come up with in 2,000 years of biblical theology.
Sproul: Okay. Well, I appreciate the lesson in church history. But the question I believe this man is asking right here is not a question of church history and what the consensus of the church has been, but how do you know when you interpret the Bible… maybe what I’m hearing you saying implicitly is, you look at the tradition of the church, and then what the consensus of the church has been for 2,000 years, that’s the authoritative guide that determines for you how to interpret the Bible correctly. Is that a fair assessment of your position?
Gerstner: It’s a fair assessment of what I’ve said so far, but it is not what I mean. I would actually say that when a person looks at the Bible without any prejudices against it, supernaturalism and so on, he comes out with one of two theologies not dozens and dozens of them: in other words, what we call the perspicuity of Scripture or the “see-throughableness” of Scripture. Scripture is a book which was written by God as we have said not to hide His will from us but to reveal it. So it stands to reason that if we are honest and will tremble before God’s Word and will as Christ said, “Let the Word of God have free course in us,” we will see what it says and the testimony of the Christian churches for 2,000 years has been a fundamental agreement.
Sproul: Okay. I know that. Again we’re back in the history lesson and I grant that, yes, there are certain things held in common by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and so on. But let’s get to those fringe points, those fringe points where you do disagree with Baptists. You do disagree with Lutherans and other people like that. How do you know you’re right?
Gerstner: Well, before I say how I know I’m right, let’s say with respect to the Baptists since you mentioned them. Yes, I disagree with them…
Sproul: As friends incidentally, because we’re in a Baptist Church here tonight.
Gerstner: You protect me after program. I disagree with the Baptists on about 5% of their theology and 95% of that theology I agree with.
Ankerberg: We appreciate your thoughts in terms of the theology, but some people go back even further than the theology. They don’t accept the documents at all and I think there’s a question right here that this man has that he would like you to answer.
Audience: Dr. Gerstner, how can anyone believe the New Testament account of Jesus’ life since it was written so long after His death?
Gerstner: Well, of course, actually it wasn’t written so long after Christ’s death. We don’t know for certain when He died, but about AD 30, and certainly the earliest Gospels were in the 50s at any rate. And we assume that in that span of say a quarter of a century, of course, the Gospel was being circulated by what the New Testament scholars would call the oral Gospel. You can be perfectly sure before anybody wrote it down, they were talking about it. So this is extremely impressive. So far from being an argument against Christianity, it’s one of the strongest arguments for Christianity: that our original sources about Jesus Christ came right out of His own context, His own generation, people who were there and heard Him speak and listened to Him and saw the miracles, for example, which He did.
Sproul: Is there any way, Dr. Gerstner, that we can test those records? I know about an oral tradition and all of that, but are there any historical principles of verification or analysis that we can take for those documents to get it to the point of what you were calling general reliability?
Gerstner: Oh, my, yes. All students of ancient history are absolutely overwhelmed with the amount of support we have for the original early dating of the Gospel account. F. F. Bruce makes the statement, “There is nothing like it in history and the only people who have any trouble with it are theologians, not historians, who are overwhelmed by it.”
Sproul: But theologians do have problems with it because we are not there. And we want to see the logic of the facts that these men are trying to send before us. Now, if that logic is so compelling, let’s hear some.
Gerstner: The logic is overwhelming, as a matter of fact. You know, a manuscript which was written say in the third quarter of the first century actually has a fragment just less than 50 years later that is incredible; can hardly believe it. It shows, incidentally, God’s sense of humor that the fragment we have, which dates about AD 125, is from nothing other than the Apostle John in the fourth Gospel. You can’t appreciate this so much, Dr. Sproul, because you’re a young man. But when I was a young person going through seminary, it was absolutely taken for granted that John’s Gospel couldn’t possibly have been first century, couldn’t possibly been written by John. Now, nobody would be caught dead with that idea.
Sproul: But the fragment only dates to the early part of the second century.
Gerstner: I can see you’re not used to historic documents. That’s about the same thing as having the handwriting wet.
Sproul: Well, how is it the same thing? Most of my handwriting dries in less than 20 years, Dr. Gerstner.
Gerstner: You’re pulling my leg right now. But seriously speaking, that’s incredible evidence. Then we have thousands of manuscripts coming from the early century. There’s nothing like it in ancient literature, nothing to compare with it. As I say, Bruce is absolutely amazed. No historian would have problems. It takes a theologian to import a problem in a situation like this.
Sproul: Alright, but what about other means of testing then, besides the fact that we have all this? Well, I grant that there are thousands.
Gerstner: How much more do you need?
Sproul: Well, we know that the manuscripts were written, but I guess I didn’t make my question clear, Dr. Gerstner. Those manuscripts tell a story that’s astonishing. We were talking about miracles. And it talks about angels appearing at the side of a tomb. Now, I understand that unless we can dig up some petrified angel wings, we’re not going to be able to verify that by the normal canons of archaeological research and so on. But is there any point at which the New Testament message touches what we would call normal history, things that can be tested and verified by the spade of the archaeologist?
Gerstner: Oh, there is an awful lot of that type of thing that is corroborative but I don’t understand your asking about evidence of manuscripts as early as this.
Sproul: But Dr. Gerstner it is the nature of the manuscripts. They are…
Gerstner: You must be desperate.
Sproul: These manuscripts are of a sort that we could call “propaganda.” They are written with a stated purpose to convince people to be followers of a particular man, to give their life to devotion. You’re aware in your field of church history of the concept that these are not normal historical documents but they are redemptive historical documents. Now what about that?
Gerstner: They’re redemptive; they’re miraculous; they’re unusual; they’re talking about a man who’s God; they talk about a man who is born of a virgin.
Sproul: But doesn’t that require just faith to believe that redemptive dimension?
Gerstner: Why does it? Now, here’s the thing about the earliness of this manuscript. I remember once when I was walking by Cana in Galilee when I was over there some years ago and so on. And I said to myself, “Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God incarnate, actually turned water into wine in Cana.” Okay, I was overwhelmed by it. But suppose I said, “Maybe these people made that story up.” When I was going to school this idea that Jesus was made into a deity and these miracles were brought in afterwards, that was common parlance. Nobody would be caught dead with that idea today. But the point about it is that I thought to myself as I was walking along there, there were people living when that story was circulated who could have denied it at the moment and said, “I was there at that wedding, and I remember Jesus was there, but there was no water turned into any wine!”
Sproul: But you would have to admit also as a logician, Dr. Gerstner, perhaps 500 people presented that kind of negative evidence and the church suppressed it and that it died a death of suppression, and your argument is an argument from silence. Isn’t it?
Gerstner: Silence?
Sproul: Silence. We don’t have any evidence. You’re right. We don’t have any evidence, so what?
Gerstner: We don’t have evidence? You have the Testament.
Sproul: I mean evidence of a counter-reply. I grant that we don’t have anything that exists today that says, “These Gospel writers gave you a fraudulent account.” But it is possible at least, isn’t it that such rebuttals could have been written and they were lost in the course of centuries for one reason or another?
Gerstner: No, I don’t think it is possible at all. For example, the Jews opposed Jesus at that time. Not all of them, of course, most of the early apostles were Jews. All of the apostles were but most of the early Christian church wasn’t. But the establishment did oppose Jesus very formidably, as you know very well. Now, we have in their Jewish writings, Talmud and so on, familiarity with the existence of the Christian church. But there is no denial that Jesus lived or the contention that He was not doing miracles or anything. We don’t have anything like that.
Ankerberg: Alright. If, in fact, we have accurate information about Jesus Christ, and He makes some fantastic statements; and let’s say that the miracles that are there are described accurately, so what? How does it affect us in the 20th century today?
Gerstner: Well, you see, the one thing that’s immediately established when His credentials demonstrate, as Nicodemus says, He’s a teacher sent from God, then we know immediately that whatever He says is true. He said to Nicodemus “You must be born again,” [John 3] so a person must be born again. He teaches that the Bible is the Word of God, so the Bible must be the Word of God. He teaches that His blood was shed for the remission of sins, so His blood is shed for the remission of sins. He teaches that unless you repent you will also perish. In other words, everything that Jesus Christ says about Himself, about the Bible, about truth must be believed because it is the Word of God and your eternal life depends upon it.
Ankerberg: Alright. What would be the main message of Jesus Christ to us today then as you see it?
Gerstner: Well, I would say the very thing I alluded to in passing there. The initial message of Jesus Christ to mankind in general is: “Except you repent, you shall perish.” [Luke 13:3] So everybody ought to know that if Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the messenger of God, they are in a very dreadful predicament.
Ankerberg: I would bet, Dr. Sproul, you probably are going to enunciate “Do you actually believe that a God would send you to hell forever? Is that the kind of God you find in the Bible?”
Sproul: Dr. Gerstner, this is my challenge at this point. You’re saying the essential message is “Repent or you go to hell,” that sort of thing. Very good scholars, man like Harnock in the 19th century wrote books on the essence of Christianity and you know that better than I. He said that’s not the central message of the Gospel. The central message of the Gospel is the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. And what I hear is the evil of man and the anger of God coming from you. Who says that’s the central message?
Gerstner: Now, before we go back to Harnock, let me say this. I didn’t say that was the central message. He said, “What’s the most relevant thing to hear?” and I said that you are going to perish unless you repent. Now Christ comes with a method of salvation, too, but you’re asking me now about Harnock and the liberal interpretation of the Bible as….
Sproul: Okay. I see it. I do see it and you don’t have to labor it. But let me state back…. What you’re saying is that it’s like a voice from Heaven, like God Himself came down here and made an announcement that we’re in big trouble…
Gerstner: Profound trouble.
Sproul: …and unless we take advantage of some means of escape we’re going to perish forever, and there’s nothing that could possibly be more significant than that. If that’s true, I would accept that as being manifest…
Ankerberg: But you know what? Nobody seems to feel or think that we have that problem. What would you say to a whole group of people that say, “I don’t feel any conviction? I don’t feel any guilt. I don’t feel under the wrath of God”?
Gerstner: What I would say to them is “You’d better feel it!” It comes back to our fundamental principle. If God is the Creator of the world and has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ and Christ tells you you are in imminent danger and you say, “I don’t feel it,” you’re an idiot, aren’t you? Is there any other interpretation?
Ankerberg: But people today say, “Listen, my experiences, my feelings, that’s where it’s at. I’ve got to follow my feelings.”
Gerstner: Okay. It’s your experience versus the Word of God. Which do you vote for?
Sproul: Dr. Gerstner, we have religious teachers all through history that are constantly voicing this announcement of doom. You know, the weeping prophets of the Old Testaments, the doomsday forecasters that come down the street. How do we know that Jesus here is not just another doomsday forecaster?
Gerstner: We have already established His credit as a proposer, haven’t we? There could have been a million false….
Sproul: We’ve established that the New Testament documents are basically reliable.
Gerstner: And He, as a miracle worker, is certified; and whatever He says is true; and He says among other things that they are doomed!
Sproul: Okay. I surrender. I have to wave the white flag. We did go over that and you don’t have to rub it in. Alright, I see what you’re saying. If Christ is indeed the truth incarnate and He makes that kind of statement, that would set Him apart from other doomsday forecasters. I see that. Okay, but why? What kind of a God would be so hateful, and spiteful, and odious as to threaten His very creation that He is supposed to be in love with – He’s supposed to be a loving God – with everlasting torment? Does that not square with the Bible’s own teaching about God?
Gerstner: It squares right down the middle with the Bible’s teaching throughout that this is a fallen world. Remember, we’re just scratching the surface here. We can’t go into the full theology, but you know very well, Dr. Sproul, that this is a fallen world; that it’s under the wrath of God; that there’s no return to Him except through the blood of Jesus which He preaches to an otherwise perishing world. This God who you’re talking about as being so cruel, and hard line and so on is the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish. But that whosoever believeth in Him should have eternal life. [John 3:16] Now, that is the quintessence of mercy, love and grace.
Sproul: That’s the kind of God I believe in, a loving God, Dr. Gerstner. I even believe that in Christ He performed that act to redeem us, you know. So, what’s the big deal? Christ has taken care of it. What do I need to worry about?
Gerstner: Because Christ Himself says He hasn’t taken care of it apart from your faith. And there are many persons who, not repenting as Jesus Christ said, are certainly going to perish because they have spurned His sacrifice and will not accept.
Sproul: I’m not spurning His sacrifice. I’m grateful for His sacrifice. I mean, I’m not attacking it or violently, vehemently opposed to it or anything like that. But at the same time, Dr. Gerstner, I don’t feel particularly excited about it. I don’t feel that I have to be all that exercised about it like you seem to be, so zealous about it, running around. I say, “Okay, God did it. Thank you, God.”
Gerstner: Did you agree, Dr. Sproul, that if Jesus said you should be excited about it you better be excited about it?
Sproul: Does He say that?
Gerstner: Yes.
Sproul: Where does He say that I should be excited about it?
Gerstner: Well, He says, for example, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness. They are the ones who are going to be filled.” [Matt. 5:6] “Men of violence take the Kingdom of Heaven by force.” [Matt. 11:12] He talks about a widow thumping away on a judge’s door who couldn’t care less about God or man, but in order to have a little peace and quiet, gave up. [Luke 18] But that’s the kind of faith that He calls for. And I guess you’d grant, if that is the case, you better be excited about it, right?
Sproul: Well that sounds to me like what we call “fanatics.” You’re telling me that Jesus wants me to be a fanatic?
Gerstner: Jesus never said anything about being a fanatic, which by definition is a person, who when his vision is halved, doubles his zeal.
Sproul: Wait a minute, I lost that one. When his vision is…?
Gerstner: …halved, he doubles his zeal. That’s what we usually mean by a fanatic. And Christ is the light of the world. He doesn’t put a premium on ignorance. He expects you to follow in His footsteps and He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Now does that add up to fanaticism?
Ankerberg: Alright, we are going to break in. And next week we’d like to talk to you about other people that look at that Bible and they mix something with faith. They say you’ve got to have faith and then you’ve got to do something. Alright, we want to hear that next week.

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