Unitarian Universalism-Part 6

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©2006
As we have seen, as far as the Bible and Christianity are concerned, Unitarian Universalism holds to liberal assumptions generally, and as far as Jesus is concerned, it holds to Jesus Seminar conclusions in particular. For reasons that will soon become evident, we can only urge UUs to more carefully consider these things. In this article we will look more closely at the influence of liberal theology and higher criticism on the teaching of this group.

CRITIQUE (con’t)

The Problem of Liberal Theology, Higher Criticism and the Jesus Seminar

As we have seen, as far as the Bible and Christianity are concerned, Unitarian Universalism [UU] holds to liberal assumptions generally, and as far as Jesus is concerned, it holds to Jesus Seminar [JS] conclusions in particular. For reasons that will soon become evident, we can only urge UUs to more carefully consider these things.

There is little denying the fact that once trust in the Bible as an authoritative revelation is undermined, its teachings will either be doubted or, especially if the teachings are unpopular, considered irrelevant or worse. Yet we don’t think that most Christians, and especially the average American, have any idea of the great weight of blame that can be laid at the feet of liberal theology and higher criticism, gener­ally, for destroying America’s faith in the Bible, or the terrible consequences, so­cially, morally and spiritually that have flowed from it.

The liberal approach to the Bible is illustrated by citing the “findings” of the so‑called Jesus Seminar, an extensive endeavor of liberal scholars to determine what Jesus “really” said. Many books have been written by liberal theologians in the search for the “historical Jesus,” the alleged enigmatic “real” Jesus of history as opposed to the so-called “Christ of faith” that Christians believe in and is found in the Bible. In recent years, this has resulted in dozens of books being written by liberal and non-evangelical theologians rejecting or attacking the very foundation of the Christian faith itself.

In recent liberal theology texts, Jesus has been portrayed in diverse and surpris­ing ways—as a Jewish holy man, an occult magician and mystic, a personification of a psychedelic mushroom cult, a homosexual, a twice married divorcé with three kids, a wicked priest, a social cynic, a political revolutionary and more. Unfortu­nately, these scholars seem more concerned to write about a Jesus whom they are personally comfortable with rather than about the Jesus found in the four Gospels.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic scholar who is critical of the Jesus Seminar, comments quite correctly, “People have no idea how fraudulent people who claim to be scholars can be.” Citing another problem, “Americans generally have an abysmal level of knowledge of the Bible. In this world of mass ignorance, to have headlines proclaim that this or that fact about [Jesus] has been declared untrue by supposedly scientific inquiry has the effect of gospel. There is no basis on which most people can counter these authoritative-sounding statements.”[1]

We would argue that when it comes to their basic worldview and critical methods, the conclusions of liberal theologians should not be trusted. To illustrate, liberals assume, a priori, that the Gospel writers were so over laden with “Christianizing” myths and propaganda that their writings are useless for determining who Jesus really was and, therefore, are essentially valueless as accurate historical docu­ments. If what these scholars say is true, Christianity is not just a false religion, it is a worthless religion and a fraud. One may be tempted to think that such a conclusion is perhaps the aim of the work of many of these scholars. After all, one might wonder why these scholars spend so much of their time and effort attempting to disprove what is so obviously a falsehood to begin with. Perhaps they suspect that the Gos­pels’ portrayal of Jesus might really be true after all, but they want to convince them­selves otherwise, like the TV narrator who said, “Perhaps the most fearful thing about the Christian hell is that it might be true.”[2]

It doesn’t take much reading to determine from the New Testament accounts that Jesus claimed to be God and that He said His words would never pass away. Nor does it take a Nobel Prize winner or a Ph.D. from Harvard to ascertain that the New Testament documents are historically accurate and that Jesus rose physically from the dead. What is noteworthy is the tremendous amount of legitimate scholarship that some liberal theologians and scholars will disregard in order to maintain their own unestablished biases.

As to knowledge of New Testament reliability, the informed Christian layperson is actually better educated than these scholars, whose skeptical assumptions leave them speaking nonsense or in a hopeless muddle, uncertain what to believe. As one commentator noted, “If a vote were taken on the usefulness of the Jesus Seminar, is there any doubt what the outcome would be?”[3] And because these scholars will not keep their destructive views to themselves, they persuade others not to trust in the biblical picture of Jesus.[4] And they are becoming quite successful. Their “new view of Christ that denies His supremacy is gaining followers all over the world….”[5] This is one reason the Jesus Seminar releases its “findings” just before Easter and Christmas. This is a calculated attempt to target the public at the best possible time to secure maximum exposure for their prejudiced views.

Another problem is that members of the JS fail to recognize that it is the conser­vative view of Scripture that “passes the rigorous tests of the rules of evidence,” not their historical distortions. This has been established by a great weight of evangeli­cal and non-evangelical scholarship. One will find clear and unambiguous refutation of what the liberals are doing, as well as objective scholarly defenses of New Testa­ment Christianity, in evangelical scholarship such as: the six volume Gospel Perspectives (Sheffield, JSOT Press, 1986), a ten year project by an international team of scholars, or N. T. Wright’s five volume, Christian Origins and the Question of God, or critiques of the JS like Michael Wilkins’ and J. P. Moreland’s, eds., Jesus Under Fire, and Gregory Boyd’s Cynic, Sage or Son of God?

This is not merely academic debating. Consider the tragic event relayed by William Lane Craig in The Son Rises. He recalls the incident of a retired pastor “who in his spare time began to study the thought of certain modern theologians” who denied Jesus’ resurrection. This pastor believed that their great learning was superior to his own and concluded that their views must be correct. “He understood clearly what that meant for him: his whole life and ministry had been based on a bundle of lies. He committed suicide.” Dr. Craig comments, correctly, “I believe that modern theologians must answer to God for that man’s death. One cannot make statements on such matters without accepting part of the responsibility for the consequences.”[6] Indeed, in the words of Wilkins and Moreland, “We are not overstating it when we say that these are life and death issues…. If Jesus is who he claimed to be and who his followers declare him to be, then we are not dealing simply with academic questions. We are instead dealing with the most important questions of the modern person’s daily life and eternal destiny.”[7]

What liberal theologians have never dealt with successfully are the philosophical and methodological flaws in their scholarship that are either false or refute their own conclusions. One of the dominant premises of the JS is a philosophical naturalism or scientism that by definition supports its critical agenda. For instance, this scientism can be seen in The Five Gospels in its claim, “The Christ creed and dogma… can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope. The old deities and demons were swept from the skies…. [Science has] dismantled the mythological abodes of the gods and Satan, and bequeathed us secular heavens.”[8] But scientism itself has long been discredited:

It is well past time to rest content with the politically correct, unjustified assertions of scientism and philosophical naturalism. University libraries are filled with books that show the weaknesses of these views, and the fellows of the Jesus Seminar show virtually no indication that they have so much as interacted with the arguments they contain, much less have they refuted their claims.[9]

Another false assumption of the Jesus Seminar includes the belief that the Chris­tian authors of the Gospels can’t be trusted simply because they were Christians. This is silly. Does anyone fault the research findings of medical doctors simply because they are physicians? Further examples of the JS methodological flaws are seen in the theologians’ use of their many “rules and evidence” and “criteria of authenticity” standards, which they employ to allegedly separate out the “real” teach­ings of Jesus.[10] For example, “The Jesus Seminar formulated and adopted ‘rules of evidence’ to guide its assessment of gospel traditions. Rules of evidence are standards by which evidence is presented and evaluated in court.”[11]

But the JS claim to impartiality and use of legal standards of evidence is highly misleading. The truth is that their “rules” are frequently irrelevant or incorporate their own biases against the text so that applying the rules only proves the critical conclu­sions the theologians already held. For example, their “context rule” assumes without justification that the Gospel writers “invent[ed] new narrative contexts” for the sayings of Jesus,[12] and their “commentary rule” assumes without justification that the Gospel writers revised Jesus’ sayings to conform to their own particularistic views.[13] Further, their “false attribution rule” assumes without justification that “the evangelists frequently attribute their own statements to Jesus.”[14] And on it goes. In other words, their own “rules of evidence” assume—without justification—that the Gospels as we have them are inventions and myths.

The real issue has nothing to do with the objective and judicial application of rules of evidence, for these disprove JS claims and establish the Bible, as Dr. John Warwick Montgomery and others have shown.[15] The real issue for the JS is simply to be rid of the biblical Jesus. The JS scholars also violate their own stated safe­guard, which they claim “all responsible scholars” practice: “The last temptation is to create Jesus in our own image, to martial the facts to support preconceived convic­tions. This fatal pitfall has prompted the Jesus Seminar to adopt as its final general rule of evidence: BEWARE OF FINDING A JESUS ENTIRELY CONGENIAL TO YOU.”[16] Yet the very next sentence reads: “Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him….”[17]

When liberal theologians condescendingly disparage conservative Christians as “far right fundamentalists,” “latter-day inquisitors” and “witch-hunters” and then claim, “Their reading of who Jesus was rests on the shifting sands of their own theological constructions,” one can only stand in wonder at the hubris.[18] One reads with further astonishment, “The evidence provided by the written gospels is hearsay evidence. Hearsay evidence is secondhand evidence… none of them [the Gospel authors] was an ear or eyewitness of the words and events he records.”[19] In the face of this “scholarship,” New Testament writers frequently claim to be ear and eyewitnesses: “That which… we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim…. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard…” (1 John 1:1,3; see Luke 1:2; 24:48; John 3:11; 19:35; 21:24; Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39; 26:26; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 John 4:14).

The sad fact is that the scholars of the JS care little for objective historical inquiry or truth. If they did, they could never make such a statement as just quoted. The “Dictionary of Terms” concluding The Five Gospels defines “critical” [scholarship] as “to exercise careful, considered judgment.”[20] This is something JS members have failed to do. After all, why this unwavering bias against the writings of nine men who have, for 2,000 years, been proven to be honest historical reporters? Has even a single argument against their accuracy withstood the test of time? No. In the Gospels we have four accounts, two of which (Matthew and John) were written firsthand by eyewitnesses who spent three years with Jesus and knew Him inti­mately. The other two, Mark and Luke, received their information from the Apostles (Peter and Paul respectively). They all wrote with great care and an unassailable integrity.

These four accounts have been subjected to the most vigorous criticism for 2,000 years by some of the world’s best and most critical scholars who have yet to make a case. As the late noted biblical scholar F. F. Bruce remarks, “There is, I imagine, no body of literature in the world that has been exposed to the stringent analytical study that the four gospels have sustained for the past 200 years. This is not something to be regretted; it is something to be accepted with satisfaction. Scholars today who treat the gospels as credible historical documents do so in the full light of analytical study, not by closing their minds to it.”[21] What more could the Christian ask for? What more does the critic want? Dr. Gregory A. Boyd (Yale University Divinity School; Ph.D. Princeton Theological Seminary) correctly points out, “The most compelling argument against any revisionist account of the historical Jesus is not the exposition of its internal weaknesses, as crucial as that is. It is, rather, the positive evidence for the reliability of the New Testament’s portrait of Christ.”[22]

Here is the New Testament portrait of Christ: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Jesus commanded people to love Him in the same way that they love God—with all their heart, soul and mind (Matt. 22:37). Jesus said that God the Holy Spirit would bear witness of Him and glorify Him (John 16:13-14). Jesus said that to know Him was to know God (John 14:7). To receive Him was to receive God (Matt. 10:40). To honor Him was to honor God (John 5:23). To believe in Him was to believe in God (John 12:44-45; 14:1). To see Him was to see God (John 8:19; 14:7). To deny Him was to deny God (1 John 2:23). To hate Him was to hate God (John 15:23).

All these statements, and many more like them, leave us little choice. Either Jesus was who He said He was—God incarnate—or else He was a liar or crazy. But who can believe that? In time, the research of the Jesus Seminar and all liberal critical biblical “scholarship” will be relegated to the “circular files” of rationalistic, historical skepticism for the simple reason they “evince a prejudice against the New Testament documents that can only be described as historically irresponsible.”[23] Crossan himself thinks that in the end, “There could be hopeless disagreement.”[24]

What other conclusion might one expect? It is logically impossible to believe the basic assumption of any criticism which, in effect, attributes to a first-century, scat­tered Christian community the kind of creative power to invent the Jesus Christ of the New Testament As many have persuasively argued, this is either unbelievable, absurd or both.[25]

Indeed, the more we carefully examine negative criticism generally, the more difficult it is to accept its conclusions. It is nonsense to really believe that most or all of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament were only myths concocted from the inventive imagination of early Christian believers and that they were then uncritically accepted by other Christian people everywhere—even though these stories were all easily discerned hoaxes. Early Christians could check out the details of the Gospels by talking to those who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. If what the critics say were true, there never would have been a Christianity to begin.

In the end, our only options are to believe in the foolishness of a critical methodol­ogy that invents myths or in the soundness of conservative biblical scholarship that has established its methods and conclusions. When Unitarian Universalism looks to the findings of the Jesus Seminar and higher critical methodologies to sustain its views, it is, sadly, only illustrating its own lack of concern with reason, logic and truth.

Moral Concerns

Despite the UU claim to support moral and social progress, their relativism undermines it. Rather than accept a social program based in absolute morality from God, they place absolute authority in the wisdom of their own liberal and radical social programs. Many UUs “deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.”[26] By “placing the measure of right and wrong, of true and false, external to the Bible, in moral conscience and reason,”[27] they have subjected moral verity to personal preference.

It is clearly not true that “that person is likely to behave best who exercises reason most,”[28] for history and contemporary culture are replete with well reasoned support for numerous evils and barbarisms, from adultery, divorce and homosexual­ity, to abortion, assisted suicide and human sacrifice. If relativism is absolute, reason can only respond, “Do whatever you want.” In Unitarian Universalism, and throughout American culture today, reason justifies all sorts of vices and evils, espe­cially hedonism through sex and drugs. Ethical validity in reason all depends on whether reason itself has the support of moral absolutes. If not, reason can justify any vice.

In the sexual area in particular, “reason” has conveniently concluded that no absolutes are necessary.[29] Reason argues especially that the Christian sex ethic is “inadequate,” even “perverse.” From the Playboy philosophy to Planned Parent­hood to pornography to pedophilia, every sexual liberty or perversion has its well-reasoned justification. Fornication, adultery, homosexuality, abortion and pedophilia are equally permitted.

Who can logically or compassionately continue to promote such things given the facts of the matter? First, worldwide, literally tens of millions of people (children included!) have been crippled or died from dozens of sexually transmitted diseases.[30] Second, tens of millions of marriages have been destroyed by “sexual freedom,” the consequential radical feminism, liberal divorce laws and so on. Be­sides the personal cost to parents, this has also brought moderate to severe dys­function to millions of children, which society also pays for in numerous ways. Third, the homosexual lifestyle” is proven beyond doubt to be morally, socially and financially consequential, indeed destructive, to the larger society.[31] Fourth, a trillion dollar pornography industry has destroyed countless marriages and ruined innumer­able lives, including children and teenagers.

Reasoned support for all this constitutes the height of social irresponsibility and moral degeneracy. UUs however would rather see most such things defended from the pulpits. For example, in deference to “freedom of conscience,” a UUA president, Eugene Pickett, spoke at the ordination of homosexual minister, Reverend Robert Wheatley, declaring “that it makes no sense to suggest that sexual orientation has any bearing on the condition of one’s soul,” noting that such ordination was “consis­tent with, indeed demanded by, my Unitarian Universalist faith.” Wheatley was the Director for the UUA Office of Gay Concerns, as well as Associate UUA Director for Social Responsibility.[32]


  1. David Van Biema, “The Gospel Truth(?)” Time, April 8, 1996, p. 57.
  2. A&E TV Channel, “Mysteries of the Bible: Heaven and Hell,” Oct. 3, 1996.
  3. “Who Was Jesus? Reflections on The Jesus Seminar,” Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin, Feb. 1994, p. 3.
  4. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (NY: MacMillan, 1993), p. 34.
  5. Adjith Fernando, The Supremacy of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Boosk, 1995), p. 19.
  6. William Lane Craig, The Son Rises (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), p. 133-36.
  7. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, “Introduction: The Furor Surrounding Jesus,” in Wilkins and Moreland (eds.), Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1005), p. 6, 11.
  8. Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, p. 2.
  9. Wilkins and Moreland in Wilkins and Moreland, p. 10.
  10. Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, pp. 16-33.
  11. Ibid., p. 16.
  12. Ibid., p. 19, emphasis added.
  13. Ibid., p. 21.
  14. Ibid., p. 23.
  15. William Lane Craig, “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Wilkins and Moreland (eds.), p. 162.
  16. Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, Five Gospels, p. 5; the last statement was colored red for emphasis; we capitalized it.
  17. Ibid., p. 5.
  18. Ibid., p. 5, 35.
  19. Ibid., p. 16.
  20. Ibid., p. 543.
  21. F. F. Bruce, Foreword in Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987), p. ix.
  22. Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic, Sage or Son of God? (Wheaton, IL: Bridge Point, 1995), p. 163.
  23. Craig, “Did Jesus Rise,” p. 168.
  24. Van Biema, “The Gospel Truth(?),” p. 59.
  25. E.g., Walter A. Maier, Form Criticism Reexamined (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), p. 38.
  26. J. L. Adams, op cit., p. 9.
  27. F. H. Wilson, in Miller (ed.), “Unitarian Universalist Views of Humanism,” p. 4.
  28. Mendelsohn, “Meet the Unitarian Universalist,” p. 6.
  29. “Unitarian Universalist Views of Christianity,” p. 5; Robert Hill, “Marriage, Remarriage and Di­vorce,” pp. 1, 2, 6.
  30. John Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Myth of Safe Sex (Chicago: Moody, 1993).
  31. See data from The Family Research Institute, Washington, DC.
  32. Unitarian Universalist World, January 15, 1980, p. 11.


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