Erwin Lutzer. Christ among Other Gods: A Defense of Christ in an Age of Tolerance. Moody: 1994, 2016. See here to buy the book.
Erwin Lutzer is senior pastor as Chicago’s Moody Church and a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and Loyola University. In Christ among the Gods, Lutzer argues that Jesus Christ in the New Testament makes unique and better claims than those made by other religions. He criticizes the Jesus Seminar and New Age portrayals of Christ, defends the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection as an indicator for the truth of Christianity, and critiques Christian inclusivism, which holds that non-Christians can go to heaven without having knowingly accepted Christ in this life. Lutzer goes through the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus—-not so much in a biographical sense, but more to highlight the uniqueness and authority of Jesus, present the Gospel as one of grace and not works, critique relativistic pluralism, respond to criticisms of Christian doctrines (i.e., the virgin birth), and offer eschatological speculations. On eschatology, Lutzer forecasts that the current push towards pluralism will lead to the Antichrist religion and the stigmatization of Christians as intolerant, even dangerous.
Here are some of my thoughts about this book:
A. Lutzer often says that the biblical Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony, but he never defends that claim. A lot of the biblical scholarship that he cites is dated: for example, he mentions Sir William Ramsay’s conclusion that the Book of Acts is historically trustworthy, and Ramsay lived in 1852-1916! Lutzer still makes fairly decent arguments and asks good questions: Why would the Gospel authors invent an incredible virgin birth story to counter charges that Jesus was born illegitimately (for Lutzer, they did not)? How would the notion of Jesus’ divinity arise in a strictly monotheistic Jewish culture (for Lutzer, the answer is that Jesus actually rose from the dead)? Lutzer’s arguments are not infallible: the Gospel authors could have been modeling Jesus’ birth on miraculous births in the Hebrew Bible, and Bart Ehrman has argued that the raw materials for seeing Jesus as divine existed in Second Temple Judaism. Still, there may be something to Lutzer’s argument: even Bart Ehrman maintains that the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection (obtained through visions) contributed to their belief in Jesus’ divinity!
How could Lutzer have made the book better, in terms of interacting with biblical scholarship? He could have referred to N.T. Wright’s arguments on the resurrection, Ben Witherington III’s work on Acts, and Richard Bauckham’s work on the Gospels as eyewitness testimony and the early Christian conception of Jesus as divine. Lutzer could have cited common ground between himself and Bart Ehrman on the significance of a belief in Jesus’ resurrection in conceptions of Jesus as divine.
Granted, Lutzer’s book first came out in 1994, before a lot of these books were even written. Still, is it too much to ask that the book contain at least some updates when it is being re-released? The updates would not entail a lot of revision: Lutzer can still make the same points, but he would cite additional (or, in some cases, different) scholars and elaborate, in places.
B. Did Lutzer utilize or critique sources fairly and accurately? He probably tried to do so. I would be interested in tracking down some of his sources and reading the quotations in context (i.e., a New Age author’s defense of the plagues in the Book of Revelation, which Lutzer ties with the Antichrist’s coming persecution of Christians). And, while Lutzer was rather dismissive of Clark Pinnock’s open-theism, treating it as Pinnock’s wishful thinking, Lutzer did address inclusivists’ Scriptural arguments.
In a few cases, Lutzer did seem to interpret sources in light of his agenda, when the sources may have been saying something else, or promoting a different ideology. Two examples come to mind. First, Lutzer refers to Augustine’s statement, “O, God, demand what you will, but supply what you demand!” Lutzer states that Augustine “understood that we do not have to fear God’s high standard as long as He meets it for us” (page 151). Augustine did not appear to be talking about Christ’s perfect righteousness being imputed to believers in that context (Confessions, Book 9, Chapter 29), however, but rather was expressing his wish that God would make him continent.
Second, Lutzer frequently discusses his experiences at the Parliament of World Religions. Lutzer argues that pluralism will lead to an attempt to merge the world religions together, while stigmatizing religions (like Christianity) that are narrow in their conception of truth. But the mission statement of the Parliament of World Religions presents another picture, supporting religious diversity, rather than trying to merge religions into one. It states: “The problem with seeking unity among religions is the risk of loss of the unique and precious character of each individual religious and spiritual tradition; this understanding is key to our framework.”
C. Lutzer makes one argument that is effective, albeit frightening. In critiquing Christian inclusivism, Lutzer argues that God does not necessarily act according to our conceptions of fairness. Therefore, God may condemn non-believers to hell, even if many deem that to be unfair. Many of us would expect a fair or loving God to deliver people from pain and catastrophe, Lutzer argues, but God does not always do that. God also permits inequalities, as some people have more access to the truth of God than others. Lutzer makes a good point: If there is a God, God does not always seem to be acting according to what we believe is fair, at least not in a manner that is apparent to us. Lutzer still believes God has done beneficent things, though.
D. Lutzer’s book was not incredibly deep. He criticized Lessing’s statement that he would prefer a search for truth rather than having the truth, as well as people who leave Christianity in search of something deeper (in their eyes). Lutzer seems to believe that truth and error are black and white, while characterizing Eastern religions as more open to contradictions (with exceptions). Lutzer’s arguments are good, but they are not incredibly satisfying, from an emotional standpoint. Sure, one needs the truth to avoid falling into a ditch, but cannot one at least sympathize with Lessing’s desire for a search for truth, an intellectual adventure of learning, growth, and exploration? Cannot one at least understand an openness to paradox, as opposed to strict binary thinking? Christianity itself can be deep and paradoxical, in areas!
Still, I did gain some new and interesting insights from Lutzer’s book. For example, Lutzer raises the possibility that there may have been multiple Antichrists throughout history. Lutzer states that Satan does not know when Christ will return, so Satan may have attempted to raise up the Antichrist in the past. Hitler may have been an example of this, for Lutzer. I have questions about this proposal: Hitler did not try to make peace with Israel, which Lutzer believes the Antichrist will do, in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Yet, Lutzer’s proposal is intriguing, and perhaps tempting for one who wants to reconcile Christianity with historical criticism of the Bible (not that Lutzer has that agenda). Maybe people like Nero, Domitian, Hitler, etc. were Satan’s attempts to raise up the Antichrist in the past! Could we even go before the historical Jesus Christ with this proposal, seeing Antiochus Epiphanes as a similar Antichrist figure? Could this be a key to seeing apocalyptic literature as discussing its own historical contexts, while still being divine revelation?
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!