Book Review – God Among Sages

Kenneth Richard Samples, a senior research scholar at Reasons To Believe, holds degrees in theology and philosophy, and as someone who works as a theologian and works very closely with scientists thus, he definitely fits the role of a philosopher of science and religion. Recognizing he has a personal interest in the history of WW2, combined with his philosophical background gives him an analytic perspective on history and its reconstruction. This, in turn, provides insights for understanding the historical inquisition, in this case the life of Jesus.  

 

Ken has written numerous books, such as ‘7 Truths that Changed the World,’ A World Of Difference, ‘Without A Doubt,’ ‘The Cult of the Virgin,’ co-authored with Elliot Miller. Ken is an apologists apologist to which I can relate best. Like him, I prefer prose to equations. His ability to relate the scientific community’s perspectives to the rest of us is enhanced due to his association with the scientists at Reasons to Believe. And he does so in a very accessible way, something I highly appreciate. 

 

 

Ken’s most recent book, “God Among Sages, Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader,” is a book that examines the life of Jesus, His teachings, and His claims, and compares/contrasts Him to His historical peers, including Buddha, Muhammad and other sages of the world’s religions. He compares and examines how Jesus compares to them and uniquely includes what Jesus said about Himself. As CS Lewis has written, Jesus must have been a liar, a lunatic, or Lord–. Ken sets out to answer Jesus’ question to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” through historical inquiry, by examining Jesus’ own words about Himself as seen in Matthew 16:13-20. 

 

 

I approached this book with one question in mind, “What difference does it make?” I have often been asked to what end am, I as a Christian apologist, correcting misconceptions or erroneous beliefs about Jesus and belief in God!? After all, we all die with false beliefs, and I will even die with false ideas about the nature of God, even as a Christian, why one more piece to the furniture of knowledge!? Setting that question aside, for now, I want to see how Ken treats the life of Jesus, as a unique teacher. 

 

 

For those who have read previous works of Mr Samples, he defends the important steps in Christian apologetics, as outlined by Norman Geisler, which are crucial. Quickly mentioning these seems important, given we need to see which step Ken takes up in this book. 

 

The truth about reality is knowable. 

Opposites cannot both be true. 

A theistic God exists. 

Miracles are possible. 

Miracles confirm a truth claim by a messenger of God. 

New Testament documents are reliable. 

Jesus claimed to be God , as witnessed in the New Testament,. 

Jesus’ claim to divinity was vindicated by a unique and unprecedented convergence of miracles. 

Therefore, Jesus is God in human flesh. 

Jesus, who is who is the embodiment of truth, affirms truth. 

Jesus taught the Bible was God’s inerrant word. 

Therefore, the Bible is God’s word and all that is opposed to Biblical truth is false. 
 

 

In Chapter 1, Jesus’ self-understanding is taken on. Summarizing the work of his friend and Jehovah’s Witness debater, Robert Bowman, “Putting Jesus in His place,” Ken defends the idea that if it looks like a God, walks like a God and talks like a God, then it must be a God. Did the words, actions and honour attributed to Jesus match both His claims about Himself and does it correspond to contemporary belief about Him, today, or have we gotten it all wrong!? This chapter, alone, is worth the price of admission, as it outlines and provides a concise Christological apologetic, and would be valuable for anyone wishing to respond to Jehovah’s Witnesses, or those borrowing from the gospels, just enough to get some good teachings while maintaining their new-age, or humanist views–after all, it seems all the world views want a piece of Jesus, from the Hindus to the Muslims, but without putting Him on a unique, divine, pedestal. Here, Ken certainly adequately argues that Jesus had a self-understanding of Himself, as shown in the parable of the landowner and the tenants, in Matthew 21:33-44, that He was God’s final messenger to mankind and that there could be no further messenger beyond Himself. He was the culmination of the law and the prophets. Ken argues that Jesus claimed equality with Yahweh, and not that Jesus denied we have God as our Father, but he notes Jesus claimed a special relationship to the Father, such as in John 5:17-18, where He says, not “Our Father,” but “My Father,” implying a unique relationship reserved for Him and the Father, but one which we are called into through Him. Ken also notes how Jesus invoked divine prerogatives, such as forgiving sins, but not just sins against Himself, but sins in general and He authenticates them by performing a miracle after. Jesus performed acts reserved for God the Father, and they were recognized as such acts by His contemporary audience, and the Pharisees charged Him with blasphemy on this basis, but these charges, as Ken notes, could not stick because they were well authenticated by divine acts of raising the dead. John 5:21. 

Jesus did not just speak as one who has authority, but He spoke as one with divine authority and put His own words on par with the words of the Old Testament. Luke 24:27. 

For anyone looking for a concise Christology, refuting Biblical Unitarians or those in the WatchTower, this chapter more than adequately demonstrates that Jesus claimed to be more than just a good teacher, or one who was struggling to attain God-hood. 

Chapter 1 certainly sets the stage for who Jesus thought He was, but if we went around worshipping everyone who claims to be a god, as god, we would be a very polytheistic society, not to mention gullible.

 Chapter 2 gets into the life of Jesus, we can go from who He said he was, to examining whether or not we can eliminate liar or lunatic from his possible character traits. Here, Ken defends the notion that Jesus led a matchless life, one where not even His enemies could find guilt in Him. Ken even notes how in John 8:46 Jesus challenged His harshest opponents to point out sin that He was guilty of and they could find none, and had to try tricking Him with questions throughout His ministry. But being a good guy, again, does not make one worthy of worship. A lunatic may be sincere in their claims, while living an otherwise exemplary life, although not morally perfect. Jesus’ life was not only characterized with a moral perfection, and a moral message, but his message was authenticated by genuine miracles. Three types of miracles are noted here, 1. Healing, 2. Exorcisms, and 3. Nature Miracles. 

The nature, or purpose, of each type of miracle is briefly discussed. The purposes of these miracles were not to entertain, but to establish authority, Mark 2:10, and credibility. The healing Jesus performed was unique and was not a process, as would be the case with a charlatan, and they foreshadowed God’s restorative plan for humanity. Ken notes that these miracles enabled Jesus to be the one who stepped directly out of the pages of Biblical prophecy, distinguishing Himself from any false Messiah’s, who may have also been performing tricks, and they were so clear that even His enemies acknowledged He performed miracles, Matthew 12:22-24. 

Stepping, somewhat, outside of the Bible–in chapter 3, Ken asks the question, “What did the earliest believers says about Him?” Here the early creeds, such as the Creed of Chalcedon (AD 451) are discussed. Creeds, to the early church, were not private dogmas, but were succinct codifications of scripture, and without having easy access to Scripture, the common believer could appeal to these creeds, which had their roots in Scripture, and could be used to refute heretics, such as Arius and Sabellius, both who taught misconceptions of the Trinity and the Deity of Jesus. Ken demonstrates that these creeds, although not directly inspired, came from inspired texts. While the Chalcedon creed robustly explains that Christ is both, eternally, God and Man, and to what end; to represent God to man and man to God, Ken notes that it does not assert by which mechanism these two natures are united in one person, but outlines what is essential for historic Christianity, based on early belief. Afterward, a brief understanding of the incarnation is provided, as well as its importance, and Ken notes,

The doctrine of the Incarnation is at the heart of the Biblical message because it reveals the person and nature of the Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. 

Continuing from this point, the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union is defended, that God took on a contingent, human, nature, while retaining all of His deity and he does not just assert the point, but traces it back to what the early church believed, which was rooted in the same Scripture we have access to today. Ken compares this doctrine to the heresy of Kenosis, which is that during His earthly sojourn, Christ ceased to be God, or set aside His divine nature. Ken notes that this model is not without Biblical roots, Philippians 2:7, but clarifies the misunderstanding by pointing out it ran contrary to the early creeds, which had their roots in Scripture, as well. This apparent tension in Scripture , between the belief, founded in John 1:1, 14, which teaches that the word that was God became flesh, while other Scripture that teaches Christ emptied Himself, underscores the need for strong exegesis, in interpreting the hazy in the light of the crystal clear, and what is clear is the Word which was God took on human flesh, and this emptying is not one of deity, but one of divine glory and taking on humility. 

Ken provides 10 important points of the incarnation, which deal with Nestorian, Docetistic, Monophysite and Arian heresies, but teaching that the Christ had two natures, one essential to His deity and the other essential to His humanity, but these two natures do not mix and His humanity is not necessary to His deity, nor His deity to His humanity, and they forever remain separate, yet inseparable– in one person, not two. 

Ken makes critical note that the doctrine of the incarnation did not come about lightly. Christ revealed Himself to fierce monotheists, who would have been more than hesitant to believe in more deities than the God of the Old Testament, and he points to correlations between the Old and New Testaments showing that Jesus had the legal right to claim the divine titles, “Son of Man/God,” even though He did not directly say, “I am God!” As Robert Bowman notes, Jesus certainly did lay claim to the divine names of God, as well as performing the deeds reserved exclusively for God. Ken goes on to outline the vast amount of verses which teach Christ was as much man as He was God. The incarnation certainly seems to be the best way to understand how Jesus had limited knowledge, Matthew 24:36-37, yet lay claim to the divine title, Mark 14:62, John 8:58 and exercise divine prerogatives, Mark 2:8-9. 

Ken goes on to tackle the question, “What about verses which put Christ as subordinate to the Father?” Appealing to the Athanasian creed, he notes that this creed teaches Christ is equal to the Father as regards deity, but subordinate to the Father with regards humanity. This creed is not arbitrary, but codifies, once again, a litany of passages in Scripture. Ken goes on to take on several verses erroneously used by the cults, such as Colossians 1:15, which mistakenly translates “prototokos” as being “firstborn over creation,” when it means “preeminent one.” But we can even forgive the less than preferable translation here, since it does not say that Christ is the ‘firstborn of creation,” rather that He is ‘over creation.’ The idea is there, even though a timid word was used by translators, when it could have been more powerful. 

At the end of chapter 3 Ken brings the first three chapters together by noting Jesus is not just another guy with some good teachings, but that Christianity falls apart in the absence of Jesus and the incarnation, while Buddhism remains Buddhism, even if there is no historical Buddha, but the real historical Jesus and His true claim to divinity is the engine that drives Christianity. One just cannot imagine a Christ-less Christianity, which is certainly the case even with Jehovah’s Witnesses who relegate Jesus to being an exalted angel, who serves as our example for attaining salvation. By putting us on any kind of equal footing with Jesus, Christianity breaks down and becomes something else. For me, this point is worth the price of the book and answers the question I asked at the beginning, “What difference does it make?” 

 In subsequent chapters, Ken goes on to compare/contrast the life and ministry of Jesus to that of other leaders of world religions, such as the prophet Muhammad. The claims made by Jesus were superior to Muhammad, the nature of the miracles performed were true, testable and not private. The moral life of Jesus stands in stark contrast with Muhammad, who took on numerous wives and waged war against unbelievers. While Jesus had an immediate understanding of who He was, Muhammad had doubts about his ministry and even thought he was possessed by a demon, subsequent to his revelation. 

Without giving away the whole book, “God Among Sages” provides an excellent Christology, and wonderfully defends essential Christian doctrines without getting too technical. This is an invaluable tool for those looking to answer questions about the nature of Jesus, or for those witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Furthermore, this book is essential for those looking to answer the very pluralistic culture we live in, where society has adopted a view that truth is a matter of private subjectivity, at least when it comes to matters of morality and worldview, and is comparable to whether one prefers boxers or briefs. While many Liberals and post-modernists want to lay claim to some of Jesus’ teachings, they seem to want the love of God without the God that it necessitates and deny statements, made by Jesus, such as, “I am the way, the light, and no one comes to the Father, but through Me!” John 14:6. 

This book would be more than suitable for large, or small Bible studies, as well as personal study, as each chapter has study questions for checking understanding of the text. One weakness I noted is, this may not be a book for those outside the church, but for equipping the church–then again, this may be a strength because the church needs to be insulated against attacks from other world views, just as much as critics need to be responded to. However, this book does not just preach to the choir, it parallels Jesus’ ministry to other world view leaders and gives the reader knowledge of these other views. This book provides, both, an introduction to Christology and an introduction to comparative religion, but from a Christian perspective. One would do well to read this book alongside a secular text on comparative religion, to get a full and fair comparison of what is being said. 

Ken is no stranger to the works of, philosopher of religion, the late Huston Smith, who wrote a book on the worlds religions, giving them all equal and impartial representation and this book takes that tone, but demonstrates why the ministry of Jesus is unique from the ministry of even the noblest of religious figures. 

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