Unitarian Universalism - Part 8
Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Fernando, The Supremacy of Christ (Wheaton, IL:
Crossway Boosk, 1995), p. 19.
Lane Craig, The Son Rises (Chicago: Moody
Press, 1981), p. 133-36.
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.
Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, p. 2.
and Moreland in Wilkins and Moreland, p. 10.
Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, pp. 16-33.
p. 19, emphasis added.
Lane Craig, "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?" in Wilkins
and Moreland (eds.), p. 162.
Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, Five Gospels, p.
5; the last statement was colored red for emphasis; we
p. 5, 35.
21 F. F.
Bruce, Foreword in Craig L. Blomberg, The
Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987), p. ix.
A. Boyd, Cynic, Sage or Son of God? (Wheaton,
IL: Bridge Point, 1995), p. 163.
"Did Jesus Rise," p. 168.
Biema, "The Gospel Truth(?)," p. 59.
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.
Mendelsohn, "Meet the Unitarian Universalist," p. 6.
"Unitarian Universalist Views of Christianity," p. 5;
Robert Hill, "Marriage, Remarriage and Divorce," pp.
1, 2, 6.
Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Myth of Safe Sex
(Chicago: Moody, 1993).
31 See data
from The Family Research Institute, Washington,
Unitarian Universalist World, January 15, 1980, p.
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute