Can We Trust the Gospels?

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“All Truth Is God’s Truth”

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, July 5, 2007

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

When I was a freshman in college and was struggling with my first New Testament class, I wondered if faith and reason simply didn’t fit together. I feared that if I wanted to be a confident Christian, I would have to avoid thinking carefully and critically about my faith, especially the Bible. Discovering the variations among the Gospels unsettled my confidence in their reliability. I couldn’t deny the facts of these differences among  the Gospels; but I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile them with what I had previously believed about their trustworthiness. For this reason, and others like it, I entered an extended season of doubting the veracity of the Gospels. I described this in more detail in chapter 1.

In the midst of my intellectual turmoil, John R. W. Stott visited the Harvard campus. A highly respected Christian thinker and expert in the New Testament, Dr. Stott attended an informal dessert gathering hosted by a friend of mine. Here was my chance to talk with someone who might understand my dilemma, I thought. Maybe I can get some help from him. When another student finished a conversation, I seized my chance. “Dr. Stott,” I said, “I’m taking a New Testament class. Much of what I’m being taught contradicts what I believe about the Bible. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s unwise to study Scripture in an academic way. I’d like to take more classes in New Testament, yet I’m afraid that what I learn will undermine my faith. What should I do?”

“I can understand your conflict and your fear,” Dr. Stott began, “because I’ve felt them myself. Many of the popular theories in New Testament scholarship do challenge orthodox Christianity.”

“But,” he continued, “you don’t have to be afraid. Let me tell you something that will give you confidence as you study: All truth is God’s truth. There isn’t anything true about the Bible that God doesn’t already know. You don’t have to fear that if you dig too deeply you’ll undermine genuine Christian faith. You may indeed discover that some of your beliefs aren’t correct. In fact, I hope you do make this discovery, many times over. That’s what happens when you live under biblical authority. But you never have to be afraid of seeking the genuine truth because all truth is God’s truth.”

This was a watershed moment in my life. On the one hand, it pointed me in the direction of biblical scholarship, a path I have followed for the last thirty years and which has enabled me to write this book. On the other hand, though Dr. Stott didn’t have time to deal with my specific struggles, the fact that he knew what I was going through and had managed to maintain a solid faith in biblical authority encouraged me to keep on seeking the truth about the Bible.

I expect that some readers of my book will be unsettled by part of what I’m saying about the Gospels. So far I’ve questioned whether or not John wrote the fourth Gospel and I’ve noted that Matthew and Mark use slightly different words for God’s proclamation when Jesus was baptized. This may be unsettling for some folks, maybe even for you. My encouragement is to keep on pressing for what is true. Don’t take my word for it. Don’t settle for believing things about the Gospels that are not true. And don’t fear that some undiscovered truth out there will overturn your trust in the Gospels. John Stott was right: “There isn’t anything true about the Bible that God doesn’t already know.” Indeed, “all truth is God’s truth.”

Before I leave this story, I want to make another point. I have told you about my encounter with Dr. Stott to the very best of my memory. I’m quite sure that I have the main facts correct. It was Dr. Stott with whom I spoke, not C. S. Lewis. The conversation did happen during the spring semester of my freshman year. And Dr. Stott did encourage me to keep on looking for truth. I’m almost positive he said, “All truth is God’s truth.” (I found out later that Dr. Stott was quoting from the Christian theologian St. Augustine.) But I don’t have a tape recording of that conversation. And I didn’t rush back to my dorm to write down exactly what Dr. Stott had said. In telling this story, I have made up words and put them in Dr. Stott’s mouth. Though I’m confident I have his ipsissima vox, I don’t have his ipsissima verba, except for “All truth is God’s truth.” Moreover, I’ve told this story before in print—in my book Dare to Be True—using slightly different words. Therefore, what I’ve done in telling this story is similar in many ways to what Hellenistic historians and biographers—including the evangelists—used to do.

Does my admission surprise you? I doubt it. Though you may not have considered this as you read, I expect you sensed that I was telling the story from memory, using my own words, even as I “quoted” Dr. Stott. You knew from the kind of narrative I was offering that I was not using a tape or transcript. Moreover, now that you have my confession, do you doubt the truthfulness of my story? I doubt this too. You probably believe that, though I may not have gotten every jot and tittle absolutely right, I have related my conversation with Dr. Stott in a trustworthy manner. (At least I hope you believe this! And if you don’t believe that I’m usually a truthful person, you probably shouldn’t bother reading this book!)

Is it possible to trust a biographical or historical writing that offers the ipsissima vox rather than the ipsissima verba? I believe it is. Of course this depends on your evaluation of the overall trustworthiness of the writer and the sources at his or her disposal. I’ve already talked about the sources used by the evangelists and how they contribute to the historicity of the Gospels. I’ll have much more to say about their general trustworthiness in the rest of this book.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

3 Responses to ““All Truth Is God’s Truth””

  1. Jim S. Says:
    July 5th, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    Mark- thanks for the interesting discussion. I am considering using your book in a Luke-Acts course I teach at Azusa Pacific. I have some of my own stories of encounters with John Stott, who evidently has just retired from public speaking. A great man, and a worthy example to emulate as a Christian, a scholar, a pastor, and a gentleman. You carry on the tradition well. Cheers!

  2. J. K. Jones Says:
    July 6th, 2007 at 9:23 am

    Good post.

    If John the Apostle did not write the gospel of John, who did?

  3. Evan Says:
    July 7th, 2007 at 7:23 am

    Among my professors in college and the higher critic authors I was assigned to read, there was always a list of “the books Paul actually wrote” and “the books Paul could not possibly have written.” It became quite amusing as the lists and the reasons were always different, and there is not a single book that they all agreed he did write or did not.

    During my freshman year, we were assigned to write a review of one of the books of the New Testament. I chose the Gospel of Luke. I lost points when I wrote that the author was Luke. “Where does it say that?” was the comment in bright red. We were taught that unless the body of the text had an assertion of authorship, the author was unknown, and even when it did, the author claimed was probably NOT the actual author.

    Using the scholastic tools I was taught, I concluded that Caesar did not write the history of his campaign in Gaul, and that his followers made up the events, including the fantastic bit about Alesia and a guy whose name nobody can pronounce (”Vercingetourix”– I mean, come on!)It was a hop, skip and a jump to finding that Caesar had never existed at all, and modern claims that he did could be traced to Shakespeare (who did not exist either, it was all written by Francis Bacon.)Okay, I’m kidding, but that was about how silly it got in classes I paid good money to take.

    You cannot suspend all the rules for evaluating ancient documents and their transmission when the topic is the Bible with any intellectual honesty. If all the higher critical skepticism were applied to the rest of history, we would conclude that we have no “reliable” knowledge of much beyond fairly recently, and certainly no idea how the Pyramids got there, etc. You can choose to reject Jesus’ claim to deity, but the assertion that we have no accurate record of what He said runs counter to the rules on history for all other ancient documents.


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