Reviewed by Mark Stirling
In the preface to this short and accessible book, Pete Williams, warden of Tyndale House in Cambridge, states that his aim is to “present a case for the reliability of the Gospels to those who are thinking about the subject for the first time”. Has he managed to do so? It would be a very short review simply to answer in the affirmative, but I want to do exactly that before saying a little more. I want to commend Williams’ book and persuade you of its worth. Then I want to suggest who might be most helped by it.
The book proceeds through a number of arguments for the reliability of the Gospels, many of which will be familiar to anyone who has dipped their toe in these waters. The added value in this book is threefold. First, the issues are explained with a commendable clarity and simplicity. Secondly, it is obvious to any reader that there is a weight of scholarship behind every sentence in the book. Footnotes are kept to a minimum, but there are enough to give the reader confidence that Williams’ arguments are based on careful (and lifelong) engagement with these issues at an academic level. Thirdly, there are a number of lines of evidence adduced in this book that will be new to many readers and reflect some more recent scholarly findings. For example, Williams draws upon Bauckham’s work on the Gospels as eyewitness testimony and develops it further with his own work on naming conventions in 1st century Palestine and accuracy of geographical knowledge. For many, therefore, the chapter “Did the Gospel writers know their stuff?” is on its own worth the cost of the book, containing much fascinating information and pointers towards further reading for those particularly interested.
The cumulative case presented is compelling. Williams is careful to point out that he is not trying to “prove” the trustworthiness of the Gospels so much as trying to show that it is entirely rational to trust them as reliable accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching. In this aim, I would certainly judge him successful. However, this leads to a last reflection on Williams’ book. Who will benefit from it?
Is this the sort of book that could be given to an interested sceptic? Certainly – although I don’t meet many interested sceptics who are asking the particular questions being answered by this book. Does that mean that it’s not a useful book? Far from it! It’s just that we need to be clear that a book like this isn’t designed to compel someone into the Kingdom by sheer force of logic and weight of evidence – Williams is careful to avoid such a modernist construal of faith. Rather, I suspect that this book is going to be most helpful in giving confidence to young Christians. It is essential reading for Christians who have (or are faced with) questions about the reliability and authority of the Gospels and need to know that their questions or doubts can be answered so that they can engage in conversation with their non-believing friends without the fear that somehow their faith will be shown to be in vain. It would be an excellent resource for, for example, undergraduate theology students.
In conclusion, then, this is a great little book and should form part of an armoury of resources that will give Christians greater confidence in the reasonableness of their faith. If it then causes those Christians both to live in line with the Gospels and to share more confidently and winsomely the Good News of their subject, then the job will be well done.
Can we trust the Gospels? by Peter J Williams, Crossway, 2018.
ISBN 9781433552953 £8.99 . Purchase here.
Reviewed by Dr Mark Stirling. Mark is the Director of The Chalmers Institute in St Andrews. The Chalmers Institute exists for the renewal of Church leadership in Europe by developing Biblically mature leaders who will equip God’s people for lives of discipleship and evangelism.