For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3,4).
What would your answer be to this question: who was the most influential New Testament scholar of 20th century?
Many people, when they hear that question automatically think of the most influential Christian of the era.
And so, some would answer Billy Graham, the most famous evangelist of the 20th century. Since the historic 8-week crusade in Los Angeles in 1949, Dr. Graham has spoken to more people live and in person around the globe than any other man or woman in history! He has preached to massive crowds – in 5 days in 1973, an estimated 3.2 million people attended the Billy Graham Crusade in Seoul, South Korea. And he has successfully pioneered evangelism in many places that had previously vigorously prohibited the gospel.
Or this response: apologist and philosopher Francis Schaeffer who died in 1984. Schaeffer, born in the USA, founded the faith community L’Abri in Switzerland in 1955, and was a prominent 20th century apologist, philosopher, and author (including A Christian Manifesto, and How Should We Then Live?).
Another prominent name within the Christian community was former presidential special counsel and White House inner-circle advisor Charles Colson. Colson who died in 2012, was the first member of the Richard Nixon administration to spend time in prison (7 months) resulting from the Watergate debacle; however, before his incarceration, Colson came to Christ in 1973. Thereafter, Colson was a powerful spokesman for the Body of Christ as a cultural observer and author of over 30 books. He may be best known as the founder of Prison Fellowship, an international Christian organization advocating prison and criminal justice reform in over 100 countries.
Mother Theresa died in 1997, but her life spanned most of the century and was spent in alleviating the suffering of others, specifically those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, leprosy and people facing the most gruelling forms of poverty. Her credo: to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor”. She was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but also a controversial figure for her broadly “inclusive” understanding of the gospel.
The Nazi regime was one of the most dominant forces for evil in the 20th century. German pastor and writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a courageous Christ-follower prepared to risk his life in standing resolutely against it. He was one of the first German spiritual leaders to see through the early facade of Hitler and the Third Reich, and made the thorny decision to assist in the attempt to assassinate Hitler for which he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned for 2 years. He was hanged in April 1945 at the age of 39, mere weeks before the Nazi regime collapsed and the Second World War ended. He is remembered best by his signature book, The Cost of Discipleship.
Many would argue for C.S. Lewis to have a place on the list. The death of the Oxford and Cambridge lecturer was overshadowed – he died on the day of the assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963. Lewis came to Christ describing his conversion experience in characteristically unusual terms: “I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” As a commanding Christian influence Lewis was a writer and broadcaster, apologist and social commentator, a novelist and eminent provider of quotes. He is as well-known for his writing today as he was famous in his own lifetime, for non-fiction (including Mere Christianity) and for children’s fantasy (most notably, The Narnia Chronicles).
But our opening question probed for the most influential New Testament scholar of 20th century. And in the halls of academia, it is likely that none of the above would top the list. Rather, the name most academicians would advance is a German seminary professor unknown to most Christians today: Rudolf Bultmann.
Bultmann (who died in 1976), was an expert in the meticulous process of understanding the nuanced expression of the Greek text. However, although he understood the narrative with unparalleled clarity and precision, he didn’t believe it – at least not literally.
Bultmann denied the supernatural, arguing that the New Testament is encased in a husk of mythology. Therefore, he believed that to understand the life of Christ the reader needed to “demythologize” the text. Consequently, Bultmann amended – some would say vandalized – the gospel narrative by arbitrarily stripping it of elements he considered to reflect a 1st century “mythical world picture”: angels and demons, miracles, and most importantly, the Resurrection of Christ.
So there we have it.
Six influential 20th century individuals – Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson, Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis – who believed that Jesus was the very Son of God, capable of the miraculous because He was God. Each believed that if the God of the Bible exists, then the realm of the supernatural is rational and logical. And each believed that the Bible’s greatest recorded supernatural event in all of human history – the Resurrection – was the climax of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, proving Him to be precisely Who He claimed to be.
And a seventh – representing what is today the majority position of New Testament scholarship, who views the life of Christ – and the gospel record – very differently. Bultmann – and many like him – deny that it is reasonable in the 20th century to believe in that which cannot be explained naturally, no matter the evidence of history.
Yet the inescapable reality of the Christian message is this: the gospel is intentionally rooted in objective history, and without apology, the supernatural.
If certain things did not occur – like the Resurrection – the Christian faith collapses. Paul says as much in his classic passage on the Resurrection of Jesus: And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The Bible – and those who believe it remain unapologetic, and unmoved in what they affirm as the truth of the Faith, based on the compelling and convincing evidence of history.
Paul summarizes the identity of Jesus as central to the drama of redemption this way:the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:2-4).
Takeaway – the apostolic gospel of the New Testament and early church is clear:
- we cannot be saved without believing (understanding, assenting to, and trusting in) the Resurrection of Jesus.
- we cannot live victorious Christian lives unless prepared to take our stand – stake our eternal destinies upon – the risen Christ!