"Quick! Hide! There Are Missionaries at the Door!"
If American Express decided to market Strangers at Your Door, its slogan might be: "Don't stay home without it." This book covers all the religious groups most likely to accost you at home.
Remember how miserable you felt the last time missionaries came to the door? After a few strained pleasantries the argument began. They attacked Catholicism (using the Bible, of course), and you did your best to fend them off. But since you hadn't studied your own beliefs as much as you might have wished, the missionaries had you at a disadvantage. The worst part was that they knew it.
Take heart! Now you can even things up. Strangers at Your Door was written just for you. It explains in simple, practical terms how you can respond to door-to-door religion peddlers such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Fundamentalists. It also shows you how to avoid being bamboozled by televangelists such as Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart.
The author explains that "the purpose of this book is to show you what you must believe to be a Catholic Christian, to explain how the teachings of those modern sects differ from traditional [Catholic] beliefs, to demonstrate that many of these sects or cults are but counterfeits of true Christianity, and to give you the means to reach out to these well-meaning but mistaken adherents and try to win them to your own beliefs."
Handling missionaries is the main focus of this book. Nevins lays out the ground rules: "To successfully counter the strangers at your door, you must know what you believe and why. You must be ready to ask your visitors questions and put them on the defensive so that they will examine their own beliefs."
This advice is of paramount importance. You must retain control of the discussion. Because the missionaries (regardless of which sect they represent) have been trained to ask all the questions, they aren't prepared for you to put them on the spot. This is their primary weakness.
Since missionaries function effectively only when they dominate a conversation, Catholics should take charge and "evangelize the evangelists."
Strangers at Your Door concentrates on the history, doctrines, and proselytization tactics of three groups Catholics are most likely to encounter: Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and television preachers. Each section supplies solid answers to standard challenges. For example, you get tips on how to put Jehovah's Witnesses on the spot with tough questions about their peculiar beliefs on blood transfusions, holidays, saluting the flag, and the 144,000 who will go to heaven.
The section on Mormonism is packed with useful information on Joseph Smith, Mormon history, contradictions and problems with the Book of Mormon (and other Mormon writings), temple ceremonies, baptism for the dead, and polytheism. These are topics Catholics must be familiar with if they want to be able to deal effectively with Mormons. Nevins gives sample questions to ask "elders" who might call on you.
Next come chapters on the background and tactics used by televangelists and neighborhood Fundamentalist ministries, as well as information on the more bizarre cults such as Unity, the Way, the Moonies, and the Hare Krishnas.
This book is neither tedious nor technical. It avoids theological jargon, and when the author uses unfamiliar terms he explains them. You don't get bogged down in superfluous detail.
Let’s face it. Most Catholics are easy prey for missionaries and televangelists because they don't read the Bible regularly and don't bother to study their faith. This apathy allows many Catholics to be duped by the sects.
As Nevins explains (even urges), this situation doesn't have to continue. Improvement lies in preparation. You don't need to be a biblical scholar or to have degrees in theology to neutralize and evangelize missionaries.
Preparation requires several key ingredients: First, fortification by the sacraments. Second, getting basic information about the other side in order to know what questions to ask. Third, a familiarity with the Bible (which means reading it every day) and Church history. Fourth, daily prayer for faith, hope, and charity as well as humility and courage.
With these ingredients Catholics can overcome everyday challenges to the faith. As important as that is, though, it isn't the main reason for being prepared. Catholicism isn't something merely to be defended, but something to be shared.
For that reason "the stranger who comes to you should be seen as an opportunity to fulfill the missionary vocation which was conferred on you in baptism," says Nevins. "Christ's command to `go and teach' was meant for each of his followers. It is tragicthat those who promote the ideas of mere men should be so zealous, while those who possess God's truth should remain idle."
-- Patrick Madrid
Strangers at Your Door
By Albert J. Nevins
Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1988
Jesus: Historical or Legendary?
There’s an apocryphal tale, told among Scripture scholars, of a conversation between Karl Barth, the famous Protestant theologian, and Rudolph Bultmann, the architect of modern biblical criticism. For Barth, Christ's Resurrection was real but "outside history" (whatever that means). For Bultmann, the bodily Resurrection never happened at all.
According to the story, the two men were talking about the discovery of Christ's bones in a Palestinian tomb.
BARTH : "This is devastating to the Christian faith!"
BULTMANN : "So he really did live after all!"
While this story may not accurately represent how these two modern theologians would have responded in such (impossible) circumstances, it does express the skeptical disposition of many New Testament scholars when it comes to obtaining historically reliable data about Christ.
Ever since M. Kaehler's The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ, published in 1892, some biblical scholars have made a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
For many such scholars, the Jesus of history is the real Jesus--the man as he lived and died in Palestine two thousand years ago (sans miracles, of course). The Christ of faith is what the Church later came to believe and teach about Jesus. As many radical critics perceive things, the latter is factually very different from the former, about whom very little can be known.
Until recently this attitude of extreme historical skepticism about Christ's life was largely confined to liberal Protestant scholarship. The introduction of the historical critical method into Catholic biblical scholarship has forced Catholics to grapple with the questions "What can be known about Jesus?" and "How does this knowledge compare with the Church's Christological dogmas about him?"
Some radical Catholic scholars have serious doubts about Church teaching concerning Jesus. Professor Thomas Sheehan of Loyola University has claimed that it would be hard to find "a Catholic Biblical scholar who maintains that Jesus thought he was the divine Son of God who preexisted from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he became a human being."
While this statement is certainly an exaggeration, there are those who call themselves Catholic scholars but who challenged basic Catholic doctrines about Jesus. A recent example is the Australian theologian David Coffey, who has been rebuked by the Vatican for denying Christ's bodily Resurrection.
That such opinions are presented as compatible with the Catholic faith shows something is amiss. The Church needs to do a better of job of explaining its message so it's clear such notions are theological whimsy (or worse), not Catholic doctrine.
Not so long ago it was common for Catholic apologetics to treat the general reliability of the New Testament and the picture of Jesus therein presented. Arnold Lunn's The Third Day, Maisie Ward's They Saw His Glory, and Karl Adam's The Son of God are classic examples of this.
Unfortunately, apologetics has gotten a bad name in some circles, so Catholics haven't been covering this ground as they should. And the old books, good as they were for their time, aren't enough for today. As a result, Catholic apologists stand to benefit from those who have been on top of the subject--Evangelical Protestants.
One such Evangelical scholar is R. T. France, vice principal and professor of biblical studies at London Bible College. The Evidence for Jesus is a popular yet intellectually substantive defense of the New Testament's portrait of Christ. To say it's popular yet intellectually substantive is to distinguish it from two genres of Evangelical books on the subject.
First, there's the scholarly stuff. These are books in which a third of each page is eaten up by footnotes. Scholarly work is absolutely necessary if Christians are to defend their faith intelligently, but such books can be difficult to wade through, particularly if you're new to apologetics or if you're not academically inclined.
On the other side are the popular Evangelical apologetics books, many of which are simply inadequate. Often they refute straw men. They may bring solace and an illusory sense of intellectual security to the believer, but they don't challenge the non-Christian.
A virtue of The Evidence for Jesus is that it's readable enough for the non-scholar, yet deals with the real arguments put forward by the skeptics.
France defends the historicity of Christ by taking the reader through a series of concentric circles. Moving from the outside toward the center, he presents first the non-Christian references to Christ in the early centuries, then Christian evidence outside the New Testament, and finally the New Testament itself. Each stage of the discussion reveals historically reliable information about Christ.
Non-Christian sources cited include pagan writers such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger and Jewish sources such as Josephus and the rabbinic tradition. There's also an examination of early Gnostic writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas.
In each instance France is careful not to overstate the amount of historical data about Jesus which can be gleaned from non-Christian sources. He concludes they offer at least a rudimentary outline of Christ's life.
The key section of The Evidence for Jesus deals with the historical reliability of New Testament. France begins outside the Gospels because most scholars believe they were written later than the other books of the New Testament.
After painstakingly analyzing the arguments, France concludes that the non-Gospel portions of the New Testament tell us about the real Jesus. This is particularly true of the Pauline epistles, which are generally believed to be the earliest Christian writings we possess.
Some scholars have argued that Paul has no interest in the historical Jesus and cares only for the exalted Christ of faith. Paul's statement that "even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer" (2Cor. 5:16) is taken as proof of this. But France points out this is a gross misunderstanding of the text:
"What is abjured is Paul's previously 'fleshly' understanding (or rather misunderstanding) of the significance of Jesus. A continuing interest in his earthly life and teaching is not incompatible with Paul's recognition that before his conversion he had failed to appreciate its importance."
P AUL'S letters aren't biographies. Still, what we find in them, says France, is "surely enough to give the lie to any suggestion that Paul neither knew nor cared about Jesus as a figure of history."
Look at Paul's statement in 1Corinthians 15:3-6: "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep."
This passage doesn't offer much biographical data about Christ, but it does express interest on the part of Paul to get the basic facts right. Why does Paul bother mentioning the five hundred witnesses to the Resurrection, if he's not interested in what really happened?
France points out that such is "hardly the remark of a man who was not interested in the factuality of the events--he mentions that they are alive presumably because they are therefore still available for questioning on what actually happened."
After seeking historical information about Christ elsewhere in the New Testament, France turns his attention to the Gospels. Here he avoids the trap into which so many believers fall: dealing with the Gospels as self-evidently historical. He treats the Gospels as ancient documents which purport to contain historical data, but which must be tested to see if this is so.
The tools France uses to test the Gospels are those of modern biblical scholarship (form criticism, redaction criticism, and so on), but he never permits himself to become a captive of these methods. He retains the intellectual liberty to point out their defects.
One such defect is the assumption that because the Gospel writers want to bring people to, or reinforce them in, a personal faith in Jesus as the Messiah, this necessarily means they have little or no concern for historical accuracy. To this France responds:
"Of course the Gospels cannot claim immunity from the sort of historical investigation which would be appropriate to other documents which purport to record facts of ancient history. But neither should they be refused a fair hearing on the arbitrary grounds that 'theologians' cannot also be responsible historians."
The mere fact that a writer has a point of view or a particular thesis to demonstrate isn't usually taken as a disqualifier to historical reliability. Most modern historians don't disavow Tacitus's Germania, to mention one example, just because, in addition to being a study of the Germans, it's also a moral and political tract contrasting the virtues of the Germans and the moral degeneracy of the Roman Empire.
France also incorporates more recent, innovative approaches to the Gospels into his study. For example, Kenneth Bailey's model of "informal, controlled oral tradition" is cited to explain how the Gospel material about Christ was passed along before being written down. This theory upholds the substantial accuracy of Jesus' sayings in our Gospels, while allowing for some variation and flexibility in form.
After surveying the arguments about the Gospels, France concludes there's no reason to think that "the traditions which found their way into the Gospels represent a significant movement away from the historical reality."
If this is so, then why is there such skepticism about the New Testament's depiction of Christ? France explains it as follows:
"The basic divide among interpreters of the Gospels is not between those who are or are not open to the results of historical investigation so much as between those whose philosophical/ theological viewpoint allows them to accept the records in which it is enshrined, and those for whom no amount of historical testimony could be allowed to substantiate what is antecedently labelled as a 'mythical' account of events."
So the real problem isn't a lack of historical evidence for Christ--there's plenty of that--but the philosophical preconceptions, the interpretive frameworks, skeptics bring to their reading of the New Testament.
-- Mark Brumley
The Evidence for Jesus
By R.T. France
Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986