Cave to the Cross Apologetics Interview
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Apologetics Interview

Andreas Köstenberger discusses a broad range of topics related to New Testament scholarship and apologetics.

Timeline Breakdown:

00:00 – Introduction
01:44 – How Does He Write So Much?!
04:41 – The Importance Of Writing With Others
06:31 – On The Importance Of John & “Signs Of The Messiah”
08:23 – From Atheist Economist To Christian Theologian
14:09 – Setting His Target On Bart Ehrman
17:36 – The Inspiration For “Truth In A Culture Of Doubt”
19:00 – The Skeptic’s Problem Of The Problem Of Evil
23:15 – Bart Ehrman – The Poor Man’s Theologian
26:15 – Bart Ehrman’s Two Audiences
29:02 – The Layout Of “Truth In A Culture Of Doubt”
36:46 – Bart & Bauer Still Going – Why?
43:00 – Christianity Has A Reliance On Written Texts At The Beginning
47:23 – The Future & Needs Of New Testament Scholarship
49:25 – The Desire For Academics To Throw Out Truths Of Christianity
54:15 – Where Andreas Köstenberger Thinks The Future Of Apologetics Is Going
58:30 – Biblical Foundations Organization & Its Impact

Note: The following is not a transcript but notes for the interview that was conducted roughly along the following lines.

How did you get into theology and apologetics, the topics you write about, your prolific bibliography, and the range of subjects you’ve covered?

Well, to tell you a little about my own story, I became a Christian during my years at university in Vienna, Austria. Even though I grew up nominal Roman Catholic, as a student I was very much attracted to existentialism, because I found it to be more radical than other philosophies. If there is no God, then we are thrown into an ultimately meaningless existence, and so our existence is really absurd. That’s what existentialists believe, and at the time, I thought this was more honest and rigorous intellectually than to pretend there is a meaning to life when there really isn’t, or to make up some meaning that is merely subjectively defined and doesn’t objectively exist in reality. Does that make sense?

So, then, when I became a Christian, my thinking changed radically. I came to believe that one day I would have to give an account for the life I lived and the choices I made to God, my Creator, and I realized that at that point I couldn’t do that. I also realized that I was sinful through and through and desperately needed what Christ had to offer – salvation and forgiveness of sins, something not available anywhere else in this world. So, I humbled myself before God in prayer, admitted my sinful state and my need for a Savior, and thanked Jesus for dying on the cross for my sins. It was like God took a huge load off my shoulders and I no longer had to bear the burden of my own sin – Christ did it for me! I can’t tell you what an incredible relief and liberation that was!

So, my existentialist days were over, and I found myself on my own road to Damascus. I asked God, “What do you want me to do, Lord?” similar to the way Paul did. I soon found myself on the way to study theology at seminary, and later getting my PhD in biblical studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School under the renown scholar D. A. Carson, who encouraged me to work with college students and engage in student ministry. I did some of that over the years, but it wasn’t until my children approached college age that I sensed a growing urgency to address apologetic topics, especially in interaction with one of the foremost skeptics of our day, Bart Ehrman.

In fact, I attended and live-tweeted a debate between Ehrman and Dallas Seminary professor Dan Wallace on the campus of the UNC-Chapel Hill, just before my oldest daughter enrolled there as a freshman. What struck me in that debate is while Dan Wallace had most of the evidence on his side, somehow Bart Ehrman, in his charismatic style and home-field advantage at UNC, managed to “win” the debate! I realized that the truth doesn’t always win out, and debates are not always the best way to settle a given issue. So, the idea for Truth in a Culture of Doubt was born, and also the popular version, Truth Matters. In both of those books, we methodically dismantle Ehrman’s arguments one at a time: on the topic of suffering and the problem of evil, on alleged contradictions in the Bible, on the alleged corruption of Scripture and problems in the transmission of the text, and on the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection.

As to Truth In A Culture of Doubt, with other books referenced who were responding to Bart Ehrman out, what was your and your fellow authors’ purpose in writing the book?

We wrote the book primarily for young people and seekers who are asking intelligent questions of the faith, of Christianity, and the Bible. We wanted to show that there are satisfying answers to all the critical and even skeptical questions people like Ehrman are raising and there is no need to resort to the skeptical conclusions people like Ehrman are advocating. You know, that kind of skepticism infects everything: your view of God, your view of the Bible, your view of Jesus. That’s why we start Truth Matters with a chapter called “Skepticism 101.” Similarly, in Truth in a Culture of Doubt, we start out with a chapter called From Fundamentalist to Skeptic. Ehrman often in public appearances touts his “conversion story” from believer to skeptic and alleges that anyone who believes in the Bible is anti-intellectual, gullible, and naïve.

Among the three of us, we have four PhDs and hardly qualify as the simpletons Ehrman makes all Bible-believing Christians and scholars out to be. So, we want to show, as my teenage daughter (the one who went to UNC) summed it up, “Dad, what you’re saying is you can be an intelligent person and still be a Christian,” and, I might add, believe the Bible. In the remainder of the book, we cover the whole gamut of skepticism that in Ehrman’s case has infected people’s view of the Bible: why God allows human suffering; alleged contradictions in the Bible (especially the ones alleged by Ehrman); the supposed corruption of the existing manuscripts; the idea that originally, there were multiple Christianities (the so-called “Bauer thesis,” after the German scholar Walter Bauer), and the alleged forgery of New Testament documents (including the alleged pseudonymity of writings such as 1-2 Timothy and Titus).

On the problem of evil and Bible contradictions: Do you find it odd that skeptics like Bart Ehrman tend to focus on this subject? Does this subject need more work from the Christian community or is there work you’ve found interesting or important concerning this topic?

Yes, I do find it odd. His field of expertise is textual criticism. That’s what his first book was on, called The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. He studied with the renowned text critic Bruce Metzger at Princeton. In many of his writings, Ehrman makes it sound like his main problem is that the text of the Bible is corrupt, that there are irresolvable contradictions, and so forth. But then it turns out his real problem is with God allowing human suffering. Of course, as far as I know, he has little expertise in this area, as this is a matter of theology, even philosophy. He is a rank amateur in those fields. In any case, I believe there is ample material on the nature of suffering from a Christian perspective.

In both our books, Truth Matters and Truth in a Culture of Doubt, we start out with a chapter on God allowing suffering and point out that there are multiple reasons why people may suffer. Not every instance of suffering is the same. We may suffer because of our own ill-advised actions, such as when a teenage girl gets pregnant or a guy gets into an accident because he was driving too fast. Much suffering, I believe, is in fact self-inflicted. Not all of it is, of course. There are cases that remain a mystery. We live in a fallen world, and sometimes we suffer because of the poor choices made by others. We must trust God and believe that he is good and loving, that he cares and works everything out for good for those who love him (Rom. 8:28).

On Walter Bauer: How did his theory become known to someone like Ehrman to make popular? Why does it still hang around? Not enough people read Heresy of Orthodoxy?

Well, yes, in short, Walter Bauer’s theory says that in the beginning, Christianity was diverse, and only later coalesced into what we today know as the Christian faith. In other words, in the first and early second century, Bauer claimed, there was no such thing as orthodoxy. There were rather multiple Christianities (in the plural) that could equally stake the claim of being true. You can see how this appeals to people today, like Bart Ehrman, who affirm diversity and try to debunk the truthfulness of the Bible and its claims regarding Jesus. As a result, Ehrman speaks of the writers of Scripture as “proto-orthodox” and says it was only the Roman church later on that used its clout to decree what Christians were to believe and branded everything else as heretical. It’s really a rather cynical view, as it says there is no such thing as absolute truth; all truth is relative and simply a matter of what the powerful impose on others.

So, that’s why Bauer’s theory still hangs around: it resonates with our contemporary culture’s fascination with diversity and imposes it onto first-century Christianity. You know what the funny thing is, though? Even though Bauer’s book is called, Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity, first published in 1934 but translated into English only in 1971, Bauer never even studied the first century! His is essentially a study of Christianity in the second century in four major urban centers such as Ephesus or Edessa. So his claim to have studied “earliest” Christianity is patently false. What we actually find when we look at the first-century evidence, as we show in our books, is that there was a very strong definition of apostolic Christianity and the gospel and people who taught contrary to it were denounced by the first Christians in the strongest terms possible.

On forged New Testament documents: Where do you see this area of study going? Will we ever settle on authors and dates that are satisfactory to “mainstream scholarship”? What work still needs to be done?

Well, the problem is, during the Enlightenment period, it became fashionable, almost required, to challenge long-held views taught by the institutional church. In some cases, this was good, as it bequeathed on us a recovery of the gospel of justification through faith by grace by the Reformers. In many other cases, it was bad, because people also overturned long-held beliefs that were based on solid early evidence, such as the authorship of our New Testament writings.

Unfortunately, there is a great divide between believing and critical or even skeptical scholars today. Critical scholars typically have a strong aversion toward the titles of the Gospels (“The Gospel according to Matthew,” etc.) and the explicit attribution of the New Testament letters to authors such as Paul or Peter. They don’t believe in biblical inerrancy or inspiration. But contrary to their claims, history is not on their side. The canonical lists of the early centuries include only our 4 Gospels and none of the Gnostic ones. They affirm the claimed attribution of Paul’s letters to Paul, and so forth. It is chronological snobbery, as C. S. Lewis put it, for critical scholars today to say that they know the truth better than those much, much closer to the time.

So, you have to ask yourself, why would people want to dispute the New Testament’s claims regarding authorship in the first place? In some cases, it is outright skepticism toward Christianity itself, so Bart Ehrman claims many of the New Testament documents were forged in order to discredit them. In other cases, it may be specific teachings in certain writings that people try to set aside because they are inconvenient or offensive to them, such as Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the church in 1 Timothy 2. By saying 1 Timothy is late and spurious, critical scholars marginalize such teachings and can claim these writings lack authority and they can safely ignore them. So, you see, there is often an agenda behind why scholars affirm pseudonymity or claim the New Testament writings are a fraud.

Where do you see apologetics heading?

Well, I actually don’t believe you can reason someone into the kingdom. So apologetics is of some value, but it’s of limited value. God has to draw a person, and even faith in Christ is ultimately a gift from God, as Paul affirms in Ephesians 2:8-9. One hopeful sign I see is that a branch of apologetics is developing that is more biblically grounded and less dogmatic and philosophical in nature. Such an approach is evident in the work of scholars such as our co-author Josh Chatraw and his book, Apologetics at the Cross or his work, Telling a Better Story.

I think we’ve already moved away quite a bit from previous generations of apologists such as Evidence that Demands a Verdict which are based on the assumption that all we have to do is set forth all the evidence for Christianity, or the empty tomb, and people will believe. The problem with this approach is, however, that many people today are not going to be convinced even if we set forth all the evidence; they have subjective reasons why they are resistant. That’s why we need to engage people on the level of their own life story and experience and show them that Jesus is relevant to their lives. We need to tell them the story of the Bible, and the story of Jesus and the early Christians, and show them that it’s a compelling story of love, and truth, and try to captivate them with that story as they struggle with sin and making sense of their lives.

You know, we can’t figure God out logically. His ways are higher than ours. As Paul says, his foolishness is wiser than our wisdom. In my own case, I didn’t become a Christian because someone sat me down and set forth all the evidence for the empty tomb. No, I became a Christian because someone cared for me and loved me enough to take me to the Scriptures and explained to me that God loves me and that he sent Jesus to die for me for the forgiveness of my sins so I can lead a new, abundant life. You’ve heard of postmodernism, and I think one thing they got right is that there are limits to rationalism and rational argumentation.

We need to engage people, especially young people, on a subjective, existential level and show them that there is absolute truth, but ultimately that truth resides in one person, the Lord Jesus Christ, and especially in the cross, God’s demonstration of his love for us, and his gift of righteousness for all who believe. Not that that’ll always happen, because, as John says, people prefer to stay in darkness rather than come to the light, but as those who are called to serve as God’s witnesses we need to spread the word and God will draw those whom he has appointed to eternal life.

Note: On the heresy of orthodoxy, see the book co-authored by Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. See also the video with Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger here.

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