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The Attack of Liberal Theology on the Gospels

By Harold L. Flemings
November 1995


Numerous books have been published that assert that the Four Gospel accounts on the life of Jesus Christ are contradictory and contain historical inaccuracies. This paper compares four biographies on the life of Martin Luther and makes some interest analogies to criticisms of the Four Gospels.


The Growth of the Christian Church (Robert H. Nichols)

Highlights of Church History (Howard F. Vos)

Martin Luther - The Reformer (Published by Moody Press)

Encyclopeaedia Britannica "Martin Luther" (Vol. 14 (1959))

"Martin Luther" (1483 - 1546) was born of peasant stock at Eisleben, in Saxony. His father was an iron miner... he was able to give his son a first-rate education." - p. 182

"At eighteen he went to the most famous university of Germany, that of Erfurt, intending, as his father
desired, to study law." - p. 182

"... Then suddenly to the great disappointment of his father and friends, he became a monk, entering the Erfurt Convent of the Augustinians." - p. 183


"Born the son of a miner in 1483, Luther was well acquainted with poverty... Martin's father managed to provide for him an early education." - p. 78

"Thereafter, by his own efforts and the help of friends, he attended the University of Erfurt, where he earned the B.A. and M.A. degrees." - p. 78

"The same year he received the M.A., he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt." - p. 78

"Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483, in the little town of Eisleben, in Saxony... John Luther, his father, was a woodcutter. Often his mother, Margaret, carried wood upon her back, so that she might help to get the means for bringing up her children. When the little boy was six months old, his parents left Eisleben, and went to live at Mansfeld. Here for some time John Luther worked as a miner, and by steady perseverance managed to save sufficient money to purchase two small furnaces for smelting iron. He was a man fond of books, and sought the society of learned men." - p. 9

"John Luther wished to make his son a scholar, so, when he was fourteen years old, he was taken from the school at Mansfeld, and sent to a better one at Magdeburg. After being at Magdeburg about a year, his parents sent him to a preparation school at Eisenach." - p. 11

"Luther was now eighteen, a young man earnestly thirsting for knowledge. His father wished him to study law... He sent him to the University of Erfurt. This was in 1501. Here he attentively studied the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and read Cicero, Virgil and other classic authors. It is 1505, and Luther has been made Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy." - p. 19

"He has again paid his parents a visit, and is returning to Erfurt. When a short distance from that city, a violent thunderstorm comes on. The lightning flashes, the thunders roar, the bolt seems to fall at his feet... He makes a solemn vow that if God will spare him, he will forsake the world and devote himself to religion... To become a monk is his idea of finding holiness. He enters Erfurt again, and one evening he invites his college friends to a cheerful but frugal supper. All are happy; but while the merry talk goes on, Luther tells them of his resolve. They are sad and beg him not to go; but to no avail. That night, taking with him only a few books, he leaves for the convent of St. Augustine. Asking admittance, he is received and the talented young doctor is separated from the world. Only twenty-two and shut away from his parents and all that he loves best on earth." - pp. 19, 20.

"...The great German religious reformer, was born in November 10, 1483, at Eisleben, in the county of Mansfeld, whither his parents, Hans Luther and Margaret Ziegler who belonged to the free peasant class, had migrated from Mohra in Thuringia. Six months later they, removed to the town of Mansfeld, the centre of the iron ore mining and smelting industry, in which his father found employment as a miner. Within the next decade, Hans Luther became the lessee of several smelting furnaces and one of the four elected members of the town council... In [Martin's] 14th year (1497), he was sent to Magdeburg to continue his education, and in accordance with the practice of the time earned his bread by singing in the streets." - p. 491

"At the close of this training, which extended over three years, he entered the University of Erfurt in the Spring of 1501. The curriculum for the Bachelor of Arts degree, which he took in the Autumn of 1502, included grammar, logic, rhetoric, physics and philosophy. Two years further study were required for the Master's Degree, course including
besides high instruction in the subjects already studied, mathematics, metaphysics and ethics. At the desire of his father, rather than from personal inclination, he entered in the study of law in May 1505." - p. 491

"Two months later (July 17), he suddenly renounced the world and entered the monastery of the Augustinian Eremites at Erfurt. ... He himself ascribes it to the fear of death during a thunderstorm which overtook him on the road near Erfurt, whilst returning from his home at Mansfeld, when he was prostrated by a flash of lightning and vowed to become a monk." - p. 491




(1)  In the foregoing comparison chart, Nichols and Vos disagreed with the Moody report regarding the work history of Martin's father. While the Moody report mentions that Martin's father, John, was a woodcutter and later a miner, Nichols and Vos are silent on this, suggesting that they knew nothing of it and probably rejected it. This is a discrepancy that cannot, be pushed aside.


Omission of a fact is not ipso facto a rejection of that fact. It is mere speculation to argue that simply because an event in a person's life is not mentioned in a biography that it did not happen or that the one who omitted it necessarily denies it.

Parallel Criticism of Gospels:

In Michael Grant's book, Saint Peter - A Biography, on page 12, he wrote: "As the Gospels show, there could be curious diversities of opinion about what had actually taken place when miracles' were reported (thus Matthew omitted the
healing of the blind man of Bethsaida because he did not believe that Jesus' use of saliva was credible." Liberal theologians frequently commit this error in their evaluation of the Gospels; omission of a fact is not necessarily a denial of that fact. How do we know that Matthew did not believe that miracle?

(2)  While the Encyclopaedia Britannica mentioned that Martin Luther studied "philosophy" at the University of Erfurt, the Moody biography limits it to the "philosophy of the middle Ages", which clearly is not the same as the whole field of philosophy. this is a contradiction involving the range of study in a particular scholarly discipline. Another error that the critical thinker cannot overlook.


A reference to a field of study need not involve every element of that study. For example, if a student says that he took Chemistry last semester, the average educated person will not conclude that every aspect of Chemistry was studied. Indeed, when we watch the world news on television, we probably know that we are not viewing all of the world's news.

Parallel Criticism of the Gospels:

Frequently, the argument is made that if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were really reporting the life of Christ - his biography- that this implies the same subject matter in all respects. The fact is no biography views all of a person's life. Each will have a focus: one's life work, one's adult life, one's tragedies, etc. Just as Medieval Philosophy is a part of a whole, while still being philosophy, Matthew's careful biography involving many references to the Hebrew Bible for the Jewish reader and Luke's detailed biography oriented to the non-Jewish reader were both -biographies of the life of Jesus without being exhaustive and without covering all of the same events.

(3)  Vos does not seem to believe in the stormy encounter that Martin Luther had with God on the road to Erfurt; he simply points out that Martin "entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt" after receiving his M.A. The Encyclopaedia Britannica and Moody disagreed asserting that it happened. This gross discrepancy shows that while one biographer saw in Martin's change of mind the miraculous hand of God, the other biographer did not.


It must be stated that whenever one is comparing biographies, even intensely scholarly biographies, there will be differences in:

(a) The range of detail - One reporter may detail more than another.

(b) The writer's approach - A reporter writing for the general public will present differently than one writing for academics.

(c) The admission or omission of data - Everything about a person's life cannot be recorded, therefore, biographers must select from a vast storehouse of data. One may select experience "A" but not "C", and another may select "C" and not "A".

Parallel Criticism of Gospels:

In E. P. Sanders' book, The Historical Figure of Jesus, page 67, he argues that there is a conflict in the Gospels over just when Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem. John records that Jesus cleansed the Temple early in his ministry (John 2:13-22), while Matthew reports that he cleansed the Temple late in his ministry (Matthew 21:12-14). It apparently has not occurred to Sanders or other scholars holding this view that Jesus may have cleansed the Temple twice. Matthew reported one episode but not the other, while John reported the opposite episode but not the other. Let us turn to the secular literature to make the case. History tells us that during the American Civil War, there were two Battles of Bull Run, one in 1861 and the other in 1862. What if one historian or writer reported on one battle but not the other, while another did the reverse? Would it mean that we have contradictory accounts - or complimentary accounts? There were three Punic Wars. George Washington was the President of the United States two times. There were, at least, eight Catholic Crusades between the 11th and 13th Centuries. Detail reports on any one of these events without reference to other similar events does not deny them. Jesus cleansed the Temple twice just as there was a battle at Bull Run twice. Why make this a problem?

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