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Truthful History Motivated by Theology

By Mark D. Roberts | Saturday, July 7, 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.

Sometimes I find it odd that certain scholars have so much trouble seeing how history and theology are intertwined, and how one with a theological agenda can, in fact, labor faithfully to pass on reliable history. This is hard for me to fathom because, frankly, I am motivated all the time by a theological passion that calls me to be a faithful historian.

Virtually every weekend I preach a sermon in the four worship services at Irvine Presbyterian Church. I freely admit that my sermons reflect my theological agenda. I want my congregants to grow in their faith. And, at the same time, I’m seeking to encourage non-Christians to put their faith in Christ. So I have a clear, open, and passionate theological agenda. No question about it. Agenda-less preaching would be drivel.

My agenda leads me to tell stories because I believe stories communicate powerfully in today’s world. Most of my stories concern events that really happened, either in my own life or in the lives of people I know, though sometimes I use items that have appeared in the news or other sources. When I tell a true story, I make every effort to get the crucial facts right. This also reflects my “agenda,” because I believe that my congregation will trust me if I am a reliable historian. Moreover, my theology tells me that truth matters.

My commitment to telling the truth means that when I hear some wonderful story from a friend or from the Internet, I work hard to verify its truthfulness before I use it in a sermon. Sometimes the most heartrending stories turn out to be fictitious. A notable example is the tale of little Teddy Stallard (or Stoddard), the disadvantaged student who became a success because of the love of a teacher, Miss Thompson. This saga has been used in hundreds of sermons, sometimes by pastors who talk as if they know Teddy personally. But, alas, Teddy  is a fictional character, made up in a short story by Elizabeth Ballard. See my blog entry on little Teddy.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

15 Responses to “Truthful History Motivated by Theology”

  1. ChrisK Says:
    July 7th, 2007 at 10:47 am

    It’s interesting to me why people write and send these urban legends in the first place, They take an interesting idea, add factual-sounding detail, a thoughtfully moral phrase or two, and then promote it to a few people who spread it. Often there’s a “wise” lesson at the heart of the fiction. Do the writers feel a great sense of power that so many people believe their fiction?

    I think there’s food for thought with various religious writings in our culture. I’m agnostic. Do the writers of urban legends have malice? Did the “Little Teddy Stallard” writers have a hidden agenda? Why did they do it?

    It’s difficult to discuss these ideas without sounding like I’m cheaply ridiculing the New Testament. I’m trying not to, I think.

    But I’ve read hundreds of urban legends and it amazes me that people believe them. I also in probably a similar way am honestly surprised Christians can accept that the New Testament is an account of the Creator or the son of a creator of the universe. There’s certainly no link in Luke, Mark, etc. to something so powerful that it could design the physics of the universe.

    It seems far more truthful, or that the odds are greatly with the agnostic, to say the gospels don’t have the weight of fact on their side. I bet there was a lot of truth to the Teddy story—some correct details a good historian could track down (maybe it’s a compendium of a number of stories)—but at heart it never happened.

  2. Rick Says:
    July 7th, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Rising from the dead, appearing and disappearing suddenly certainly demonstrate glimpses of the Creator’s power.
    ChrisK, you seem to be trying to convince yourself of your agnostiscm. Please be assured that I and many others are praying that God will allow you to see His Truth and add you to His family.

  3. ChrisK Says:
    July 7th, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    Rick: re: prayer for my conversion. I assume you’re trying to help.

    Scary thought I know for you (!!!), but put yourself in a nonbeliever’s shoes. I’ll help here.

    The thing you have to understand is in my nonbelief, I think I have something wonderful and special. If I have a wife that I love and cherish, but you can’t figure out why I love her so much, would you want to pray that she dies?

    I suppose we all get a wondrous, beautiful decision in life to believe or not believe. Don’t be so sure the other guy got the worst of the deal.

  4. Kurt Norlin Says:
    July 7th, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    ChrisK, your comment piques my curiosity. Can you explain why your nonbelief is wonderful and special to you?

  5. ChrisK Says:
    July 7th, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    I’ll try to be short. Probably the most precious things to me are certain values, especially truth and goodness.

    When we follow or complete or perform those values to the very best, most heartfelt way, I think we’re living as deeply and importantly as possible. For example, if I wake up in the morning, and make the value of “goodness” the aim of my day—helping others less fortunate, caring for loved ones, loving my enemies, etc.—I’ve had a perfect day.

    So values are important, right? They shouldn’t be given away lightly. They’re sublime. Without values, I’m not sure life is worth living.

    The value of truth may be most important of the values that guide our day.

    I think nonbelievers often make a difficult, but finally a rewarding, decision that there’s not enough evidence of a God. They’ve held true to their value of truth. 95% of Americans think otherwise, and often agnostics and atheists are held with the contempt of fly manure. So there’s a cost to choosing truth for these folks. But wow the choice feels good, precious, worth fighting for, and makes life worth living! That’s the feeling truth brings.

    I would agree that many believers sincerely and deeply feel they have chosen or found truth. (Some of my best friends are Christians :-) I’ll disagree with them.

    Probably what’s most important is we really struggle with this decision of what’s true for our lives and the world we live on. There’s no simple answer, so to be really true to our values, I think we have to really work at figuring out the truth.

    I love reading Pastor Roberts’s writings here. I think he struggles hard to find the truth. Let’s argue with him when we see holes in his logic, but hey!—we probably need to cheer on anybody working so hard. Even if we disagree with their conclusions and see the evidence differently.

  6. Kurt Norlin Says:
    July 8th, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    ChrisK, thanks for explaining it so well. I understand better. But of course a communication gap remains. Rick doesn’t believe he’s praying for your wife (”the truth”) to die. He’s praying for you to realize that the woman you’re with isn’t your wife (so to speak).

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