Tim Keller’s Response to “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally”

This Sunday, July 15, I’m lined up to deliver a lesson at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Chicago, titled “Scripture, Canon, and Authority.” If you’re in the area, you are welcome to join us. I’ll answer questions such as what do Dufflepuds have to do with Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code? What is the heartbeat of Christian revelation? And how does perspicuity give us access to biblical truth?

The session will begin with a video clip from Tim Keller’s series, The Reason for God. Below is a summary of his chapter on the veracity of Scripture, which we put together for the session (by the way, if you happen to make it, I highly recommend a seven minute excursion to Elmwood Park, just next store, to visit my favorite Italian cafe and gelateria, Massa. You won’t be disappointed… note, it opens at noon on Sundays)


Outline on Tim Keller’s chapter “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally” in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism Popularly believed:

I. “We Can’t Trust the Bible Historically”

A. The Bible is a collection of legends

B. The New Testament gospels were written so many years after the events that the writers’ accounts of Jesus’ life can’t be trusted

C. The writings are highly embellished if not wholly imagined

D. The canonical gospels were only four out of scores of other texts

E. The gospels were only written to support the church hierarchy’s power while other writing were suppressed

Why the Gospel accounts should be considered historically reliable rather than legend:

I. The timing is far too early for the gospels to be legend

A. The canonical gospels were written at the very most forty to sixty years after Jesus’ death

   1. Paul’s letters were written just fifteen to twenty-five years after the death of Jesus

      i. Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life were circulating within the lifetimes of hundreds who had been present at the events of Jesus’ ministry

         a. Luke’s gospel claims he got his account of Jesus’ life from eyewitnesses who were still alive (Luke 1:1-4)

B. Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

   1. When the gospels were written, there were still numerous well-known living eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching and life events

   2. The eyewitnesses had committed these events and teaching to memory and remained active in public life of the churches

      i. They served as guarantors of the truth to these accounts

C. Bauckham uses evidence within the gospels themselves to show that the gospel writers named their eyewitness sources within the text to assure readers of their accounts’ authenticity.

   1. Mark says that the man who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary “was the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21)

      i. There is no reason for the author to include such names unless the readers know or could have access to them

         a. Mark is saying, “Alexander and Rufus vouch for the truth of what I am telling you, if you want to ask them.”

   2. Paul also appeals to readers to check with living eyewitnesses if they want to establish the truth of what he is saying about the events of Jesus’ life (1 Cor 15:1-6)

      i. 500 eyewitnesses who saw the risen Christ at once and could confirm what the Paul said as truth.

         a. These records were not anonymous, collective, evolving oral traditions.

         b. These records were oral histories taken down from the mouths of the living eyewitnesses who preserved the words and deeds of Jesus in great detail

D. Bystanders, officials and opponents who had actually heard Jesus teach, seen his actions, and watched him die were also still alive

   1. They would have been ready to challenge any accounts that were fabricated

      i. For a highly altered, fictionalized account of an event to take hold of the public imagination it is necessary that the eyewitnesses (and their children and grandchildren) all be long dead

E. It would have been impossible for this new faith to spread as it did had Jesus never said or done the things mentioned in the gospel accounts

   1. “These things were not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26)

      i. The people of Jerusalem had been there—they had been in the crowds that heard and watched Jesus publicly

   2. The New Testament documents could not say Jesus was crucified when thousands of people were still alive who knew whether he was or not

      i. If there had not been appearances after his death, if there had not been an empty tomb, if he had not made these claims, and these public documents claimed they happened, Christianity would never have gotten off the ground

II. The content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends

A. The working theory of many is that the gospels were made up by the leaders of the early church to promote their policies, consolidate their power, and build their movement.

   1. This theory is not what is found in the gospels at all

      i. Why would the leaders of the early Christian movement have made up the story of the crucifixion if it didn’t happen?

         a. To be crucified was not something to boast about

         b. Any listener of the gospel in either Greek of Jewish culture would have automatically suspected that anyone who had been crucified was a criminal

      ii. Why would any Christian make up the account of Jesus asking God in the garden of Gethsemane if he could get out of his mission?

      iii. Why would someone make up the part on the cross when Jesus cries out that God had abandoned him?

         a. People would have concluded that Jesus was weak and failing his God

      iv. Why invent women as the first witnesses of the resurrection?

         a. In that society, women were assigned such low status that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court

      v. The only plausible reason that all of these incidents would be included in these accounts is that they actually happened

B. Why depict the apostles—the eventual leaders of the early Church—as petty and jealous, almost impossibly slow-witted, and in the end as cowards who either actively or passively failed their master?

   1. Bauckham noted counterproductive idea of Peter (the churches prominent leader) denying Jesus

      i. Bauckham also states that no one but Peter himself would have dared to recount it unless Peter himself was the source and had authorized its preservation and proagation

III. The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend

A. Ancient fiction is not like modern fiction

   1. Modern fiction contains details and dialogue and reads like an eyewitness account

      i. Developing within the last three hundred years

      ii. Details were added to create the aura of realism but this was not the case in ancient fiction

   2. Ancient writing had few details which were only added to drive the plot or develop a character

B. The Gospel is not fiction

   1. There are so many details in the Gospel some of which are irrelevant to the character or the plot

      i. These details do not coinciding with the writing style historically

   2. The only explanation is that these details were retained because they were recorded by eyewitnesses

C. Richard Bauckham’s findings:

   1. Recollective memory is selective

      i. It fixes on unique and consequential events and retains irrelevant details

   2. Vivid details can remain in one’s mind for decades if frequently rehearsed and/or retold (*think of family stories that people think are funny to repeat at family get together, it’s pretty easy to keep things to memory especially in community*)

      i. Disciples in the ancient world were expected to memorize masters’ teachings

      ii. Many of Jesus’s statements are presented in a form that was actually designed for memorization

IV. “We can’t trust the Bible culturally.”

A. Reexamine a passage with correct historical context

   1. Ex: “slaves obey your masters.”

      i. Slavery in a more recent context is thought of the sex trade or the African slave trade

      ii. Slaves in the times of the Bible were quite free. They were treated well and were not segregated from the rest of society. They were also earning enough as a free laborer and could buy themselves out of slavery

         a. Very few slaves were slaves for life

B. Readers need to consider that their problem with some texts might be based on an unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over all others

   1. We need to keep a humble attitude while reading the Word

      i. Refrain from thinking that our worldview is the ultimate one and consider the truth of other historical periods before jumping to conclusions

      ii. To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views to upset you. That does not make any sense.

V. A Trustworthy Bible or a Stepford God?

A. If you don’t trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God?

   1. In a truly personal relationship, the other person had to be able to contradict you.

B. A Stepford God would be impersonal (like the film, The Stepford Wives)

   1. If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you, teach you, and shape you?

      i. This God would become a God of your own making, not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction

C. God wants to have a loving real relationship with us which is why we must believe the truth that Christ died for us written in the Gospels.

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