Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Brief Book Musings: J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity

It has been a pleasure to have time for "my own" reading at the beginning of this summer.  The past two years have been incredibly busy, and have not afforded me much time for reading of my own choice.  Over the past couple of weeks I have managed to carve out some time to read books I've been interested in reading.  Yesterday I posted a brief review of David Naugle's Philosophy: A Student's Guide.  Today, I want to share, very briefly, some musings on J. Warner Wallace's Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels.  I will not offer up a full summary and outline.  Rather, I will just share some brief thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of Wallace's work.

J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013. 288 pp. 

First off, I am a detective junkie.  I love mystery novels (Brother Cadfael, Inspector Monk, Father Brown, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) and detective/crime TV shows (Columbo, the old CSI, Law & Order, Cold Case, Monk, Psych, etc.).  Thus, one of the aspects of Wallace's book that I thoroughly enjoyed was the smattering of examples from cases he has worked over the years.  Wallace worked as a detective, and later as a cold-case detective, investigating murders that went unsolved and are re-opened years later.  He shares a number of cases that he was involved in, and outlines how the principles he utilized as a criminal investigator are similar to principles that need to be employed to assess the reliability and truthfulness of ancient documents, including the New Testament Gospels.

Wallace makes the simple point that one cannot interview or interrogate 1st-century eyewitnesses, and is thus dependent upon circumstantial evidence in drawing historical conclusions.  While this should not be surprising, scientism, positivism and historical relativism combine to make people suspicious of historical claims that are not presented as iron-clad, deductively certain conclusions.  Wallace helpfully notes that if one held historical knowledge up to that standard, one could know next to nothing about what has occurred in the past.  It might also be helpful to note that what is currently 'present' will be past ten seconds from now - thus, if we can't have knowledge of the past, we ultimately know next to nothing at all about anything.

Drawing that thread together, Wallace notes that the Gospels are often held to an unrealistic standard.  If detectives and prosecutors were held to that same standard, no criminal would be convicted of a crime, as the bar is set at an unattainable level.  Furthermore, ancient documents other than the Gospels are not held to that same standard.

Just to give a brief taste for the structure of Wallace's work.  Cold Case Christianity is broken into two major sections.  Section I (Learn to Be a Detective) outlines 10 important principles [in ten chapters, one chapter for each principle] that "every aspiring detective needs to master", which principles also apply to assessment of the New Testament Gospels.  Among those principles, these are the ones that I found most important and helpful: (1) Resisting the influence of dangerous presuppositions; (3) Respecting the nature of circumstantial evidence; (4) Evaluating the reliability of witnesses; (7) Recognizing the rarity of true conspiracies; and (10) Distinguishing between possible alternatives and reasonable refutations.

Section II (Examine the Evidence) applies those 10 principles to the case of the New Testament Gospels.  Four crucial questions are asked of the New Testament 'witnesses' [in four chapters, one chapter for each question]: Were They Present? Were They Corroborated? Were They Accurate? Were They Biased?  Chapter 11 (Were They Present?) is a particularly strong presentation of the case for the early date and eyewitness status of the New Testament Gospels - very good work indeed.

All together, I was pleased with the content of Wallace's work.  His approach reminded me of John Warwick Montgomery for a CSI generation - not sure if the characterization is valid, but that was what it called to mind.  It was an enjoyable read - nothing earth-shattering or revolutionary, but much that is helpful. The target audience appears to be the layperson in the pew, perhaps someone who is interested in the question of New Testament reliability but has not delved into the subject matter in great depth.  Someone familiar with the work of Bauckham, Blomberg, Ehrman, Bultmann, Ludemann, Bruce, and/or Wright will not necessarily learn anything new from Wallace's work.  But even they will be rewarded by Cold Case Christianity.  The means of presentation, and the use of stories from his law-enforcement career make Wallace's book a unique contribution to the sphere of popular apologetics.  I applaud his work, and recommend it to the eager reader.