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Merritt, seminary profs criticize ABC’s ‘one-sided’ Jesus documentary

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–An upcoming television documentary on the life of Jesus is largely one-sided and is highly critical of the historical accuracy of the Gospels, the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention said.

James Merritt, elected SBC president in Orlando, Fla., June 13, had mostly critical remarks after screening “Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus.” The two-hour program, which follows Jennings on a journey through the Holy Land, airs June 26 at 9 p.m. (EDT) on ABC. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., obtained a review copy of the documentary from ABC and made it available to selected faculty members and to Merritt on June 21.

“I was encouraged and discouraged,” Merritt said in an interview at Southern Seminary June 22 where he was teaching a doctor of ministry seminar on preaching. “First of all, the fact that ABC would tackle a spiritual issue — that’s encouraging always. Of course, I don’t think you can talk about a better subject than to talk about Jesus. But I have to be very candid and say that I was very discouraged over the whole tone of the program. … There certainly was not a balance there with good solid conservative evangelical theologians.”

Of the seven biblical scholars on the program, only one — N.T. Wright, canon theologian of Westminster Abbey — is a self-described evangelical. Four of the seven scholars participated in the highly controversial Jesus Seminar, which was comprised of more than 200 men and women who met and “voted” to determine the accuracy of the Gospels. They concluded that only 18 percent of the sayings of Jesus were at least “probably” accurate, while only 16 percent of the events in the Gospels “probably” occurred.

The Jesus Seminar participants featured on the ABC broadcast include the Jesus Seminar founder, Robert W. Funk of Wester Institute. The others are: Marcus Borg, Oregon State University; John Dominic Crossan, DePaul University; and Marvin Meyer, Chapman University.

The remaining two biblical scholars on “The Search for Jesus” — Father Jerome Murphy O’Connor of Ecole Biblique and Paula Fredriksen of Boston University — seem to share the same critical approach to the Bible.

“Most of the people that were interviewed — and especially the Jesus Seminar people — have by their own admission a complete anti-supernatural bias about all things theological,” said Merritt, who received his doctorate at Southern Seminary and is currently pastor of the 12,000-member First Baptist Church in Snellville, Ga., in the Atlanta area. “They’re not going to look at the evidence and say, ‘Where does the evidence take us?’ They’re going to go in and say, ‘Well, the evidence can’t take us here because of my presupposition.’ When you come in with that presupposition, there’s only one thing to do with the evidence — you have to throw it in the garbage can.”

Several Southern Seminary professors agreed with Merritt.

“In the end, we have here the Gospel according to Peter Jennings, which differs little from that historical imagination of the late 19th century which saw in Jesus the message of universal love and justice,” said New Testament professor Mark Seifrid, who received his doctorate at Princeton Theological Seminary. “Once the reliability of the Gospels has been set aside, it is inevitable that the Jesus we create for ourselves looks much like us, at least in our own aspirations and wishes.”

Preaching professor Hershael York, who received his doctorate in New Testament studies, was just as critical.

“It was the most slanted, biased and myopic presentation of the life of Christ imaginable,” York said. “It’s not that they discounted our point of view — the point of view of conservative scholarship. It’s that they did not even acknowledge that it’s there. They did not interview one single conservative scholar. … I hope there’s a sequel to ‘The Search for Jesus’ because they didn’t find him in the first one.”

York, in fact, was invited to participate in the Jesus Seminar while he was pastor of a church in Lexington, Ky. He declined the invitation. “I knew what they were doing,” he said. “I said, ‘If you’re just going to vote on which words of Jesus are authentic, I can save us a lot of time. I vote with Jesus every time. There’s really no point in me showing up at the meetings for two days to sit there and raise my hand every time.'”

York and Seifrid agreed that Wright falls short of presenting an evangelical perspective. Wright defends the resurrection of Jesus, but only by saying there was no other explanation for the spreading of Christianity.

“One has to give Jennings credit for including Wright, who is known as an evangelical scholar, but in this case Wright is definitely not at his best,” Seifrid said. “Rather than leavening the whole dough, his comments are leavened by the rest.”

Merritt pointed out that Jennings does interview another evangelical — Louisiana Pentecostal pastor Anthony Mangun. Mangun, though, is not identified as a scholar, and he is not shown defending any of the critical comments by the other participants.

“What [the program] really said was [that] we should accept the word of a biblical scholar just because he calls himself a scholar and has a degree from Harvard. … Let’s have a fair debate here,” Merritt said. “Let’s have the scholarly side that says, ‘Let me tell you why I believe exactly the way the Bible says it happened.’ And then let the other side say what they want to say.”

Daniel Akin, dean of the school of theology at Southern Seminary, said the lack of representation was not due to a lack of evangelical scholars. Akin said he would have recommended Denver Seminary’s Craig Blomberg, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Don Carson, Dallas Theological Seminary’s Darrell Bock and Southern Seminary’s Robert Stein.

“These are four of the most respected evangelical New Testament scholars in the world. … The failure to include at least one or two of them was irresponsible journalism,” Akin said.

Two Internet sites are providing extensive coverage of the program: ABCNEWS.com and Beliefnet.com.

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  • Michael Foust