Lazarus and Liberalism
“When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” John 11:43-44
The reason we dislike liberalism so much is that it is not merely a philosophy that majors in generosity or granting freedoms. No, it actually destroys much of our faith. Many of the more severe parries against the orthodox faith came in the 19th century from German critical scholars.
The list of opponents to Scripture blossomed in Germany and spread across Europe during that period. Virtually every school of thought that attacks the Bible is associated with a European liberal, beginning 200 years ago. Such liberal critics do not believe the narrative about Lazarus in John 11. Various attempts to explain away that chapter came from various higher critics.
In contrast, worth considering is a German commentator that I was unacquainted with until studying John 11 while reading one of our favorites, J. C. Ryle, this week.
The commentator cited below is John Augustus Henry Tittman (1773-1831), author of the multi-volume Synonyms of the New Testament. Tittman, a theology professor at the University of Leipzig, unfortunately, died at the age of 58, before completing that ambitious project. Still, he left some fine commentary and studies that were later translated and published in Scotland. One American theologian, Moses Stuart, in 1835 assessed Tittman as one of the “most able, sober, and impartial” commentators of the day. So, while much of higher criticism went off the rails, it began as an attempt to study the scriptures thoroughly, using the best knowledge available. Thus, J. C. Ryle commended him, and the sample below shows why. Maybe you could re-read the entire 11th chapter of John and appreciate this.
“The whole story is of a nature calculated to exclude all superstition or imposture, and to confirm the truth of the miracle. A well-known person of Bethany, named Lazarus, falls sick in the absence of Jesus. His sisters send a message to Jesus, announcing it; but while he is yet absent Lazarus dies, is buried, and kept in the tomb for four days, during which Jesus is still absent. Martha, Mary, and all his friends are convinced of his death. Our Lord, while yet remaining in the place where He had been staying, tells His disciples in plain terms that He means to go to Bethany, to raise Lazarus from the dead, . . . At our Lord’s approach, Martha goes to meet Him, and announces her brother’s death, laments the absence of Jesus before the event took place, and yet expresses a faint hope that by some means Jesus might yet render help. . . . Mary approaches, accompanied by weeping friends of Jerusalem. Our Lord Himself is moved, and weeps, and goes to the sepulchre, attended by a crowd. The stone is removed. The stench of the corpse is perceived. Our Lord, after pouring forth audible prayer to His Father, calls forth Lazarus from the Grave, in the hearing of all. The dead man obeys the call, comes forth to public view in the same dress that he was buried in, alive and well, and returns home without assistance. All persons present agree that Lazarus is raised to life, and that a great miracle has been worked, though not all believe the person who worked it to be the Messiah.”
Tittman then takes all that is so obvious from this passage and draws these conclusions, starting with the fact that even the hostile rulers do not dispute this great miracle but they begin, instead, to plot a cover-up and assassination of Jesus. He surmises: “The people flock in multitudes to Bethany, partly to see Jesus, and partly to view Lazarus. . . . Now if all these circumstances do not establish the truth of the miracle, there is no truth in history.” Thus, Ryle adds: “it really seems to require more credulity to deny it than to believe it. It is the unbeliever, and not the believer of this miracle, who seems to me the credulous man. The difficulties of disbelieving it are far greater than those of believing it.”
So while liberalism is a toxic deviation from orthodoxy, let’s welcome all good thought—regardless of nationality or century—but let’s also make sure we don’t throw the faith away in the search for creativity, scholarly notoriety, artistry, novelty, or entertainment. Better to believe than to disbelieve.
I’ll take Lazarus over liberalism any day. So should you.
-Pastor David Hall