How Heretics Help Establish the Historicity of Jesus
by J Warner Wallace
Last week I presented the case for the Resurrection of Jesus at the University of Transylvania in Lexington Kentucky. The students there listened attentively as I traced the New Testament “Chain of Custody” to demonstrate how early Church Fathers (like Polycarp, Ignatius and Clement) helped establish the reliability of the Resurrection account. I recounted the writings of many of these early Church leaders as they described what they learned from the original disciples and eyewitnesses of Jesus’. Historic claims related to the life of Jesus and the Resurrection can also be traced in the writings of men like Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, Tatian, Justin Martyr and many others. After the talk (during the Q and A), one astute student noted some of the Church Fathers in my “Chain of Custody” actually held heretical positions related to Christian doctrines. He also observed these Church leaders were identified within the historic role-call of Roman Catholic leaders. He questioned how I might be willing to accept their testimony related to what they
learned about the historicity of Jesus if I wasn’t willing to accept their “Roman Catholic-ish” beliefs about things such as the role of sacraments, the existence of purgatory or the nature of Mary. Can people who hold different theological views still play an important role in establishing the historicity of Jesus? Yes they can.
In every criminal trial, we call witnesses who hold theological, philosophical, or political views differing from our own. We don’t have to agree on these issues (even if some of these points are critically important to our worldview) in order to contribute as a witness in a limited, focused way. Witnesses are asked to describe what they saw or heard at a particular point in time. Little more will be allowed by the judge. Imagine, for example, a witness observes a suspect to run to his car, enter on the driver’s side, start the engine, but then hesitate just prior to speeding from the location. At the trial, the witness will be asked to describe what he or she saw related to the actions of the suspect. But a question like, “Why do you think he hesitated before he fled the scene?” is beyond the scope of the witness’ knowledge and testimony. It’s one thing to testify about what you’ve seen, it’s another to testify about what you think it means. If an attorney was to ask, “Why do you think he hesitated before he fled the scene?” the opposing lawyer would surely object and rightly declare the answer to be nothing more than speculation on the part of the witness…
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