Book Review: Is Jesus the Only Savior?, by James Edwards
People in our postmodern, pluralistic world, says James Edwards, “would breathe more easily if we could all agree that Jesus is a savior of the world, not the savior of the world” (xi). However, with sound scholarship, a clear presentation of biblical testimony, insightful interaction with contemporary issues, and a few engaging personal anecdotes sprinkled along the way, Edwards demonstrates that the world is mistaken. Not only is Jesus the savior, but the only way to truly “breathe more easily” is to put one’s faith in him, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; cf. 105-6).
SUMMARY: WHY JESUS IS THE ONLY SAVIOR
Edwards’s book begins by demonstrating that the academic theories claiming to get at the “historical Jesus” are not grounded in scientific objectivity, but in a naturalistic worldview that rules out anything supernatural from the start. The anti-supernaturalist conclusions of groups like the Jesus Seminar and other quests for the historical Jesus, he argues, “are not determined by unbiased scientific evidence…but by prior convictions and personal beliefs” (32).
Having undercut the “objective proof” for the relativists’ case, Edwards presents his own evidence for Jesus’ unique status as Savior. He argues for the historical reliability of the New Testament (chapter 3), considers its trustworthiness as a testimony to the Jesus of history (chapter 4), and examines Jesus’ own self understanding (chapter 5).
With the New Testament’s reliability established, Edwards is able in chapter 6 to detail how the “collage of images” the New Testament contains “expresses the universal scope and uncompromising character of redemption in Jesus Christ” (112). This sixth chapter is the best in the book. Edwards points to numerous biblical images, all of which testify to Christ’s unique role as the world’s only Redeemer.
In the last few chapters, Edwards addresses some common objections to the exclusivity of Christ. In chapter 7, he dispels the popular myth that the gospel arose in an insular, intellectually naïve world vastly different from the pluralistic and complex world of today.
In chapter 8, he argues that people no longer understand Jesus’ work because they no longer understand sin. If people understood the depth of humanity’s problem, they would see that “the death of God’s Son for the sins of the world is the only way the world can be reunited with its Maker and Redeemer” (151).
In chapter 9, Edwards defends the gospel’s viability against the postmodern rejection of metanarratives. He also addresses postmodern fears about religious violence and elitism. The peace promised in the gospel, he says, utterly transcends the relativists’ “anemic” vision of non-hostility.
In the final chapters, Edwards addresses the question of Christianity and other religions. He shows humility and charity even as he strongly affirms the truth that Jesus is the savior of the world.
In the book’s preface, Edwards claims that his subject matter is too important either “to be relegated to academia” or “to be written simplistically or breezily” (xii-xiii). On the whole, he succeeds in the difficult task of walking that fence.
Similarly, defending the exclusivity of the gospel requires both boldness and humility, and Edwards largely succeeds in this regard, too. He does not shy away from concepts like sin, hell, and substitutionary atonement (153-156), but presents them confidently and without apology.
His case for the exclusivity of Christ is a compelling one, not only because he exposes the hidden assumptions that drive those who deny it, but also because the competent, confident, yet humble tone which marks the book is a compelling reflection of Jesus himself. Throughout his work, Edwards refrains from deriding opposing views, even when the shaky logic supporting them invites it. He speaks the truth in love, and that adds hugely to his book’s usefulness in evangelistic relationships.
I do have some criticisms and reservations about the book. First, though Edwards addresses all the necessary aspects of salvation at some point, he never combines them to make clear the response his readers should have to Jesus’ unique saving act. He is exceptionally clear about sin and our need to be forgiven, but he largely skims over Jesus’ call to repentance (e.g. Mark 1:15)—on the believer’s responsibility to turn away from sin.
Second, in his discussion of other religions, I believe Edwards errs too far on the side of charity by claiming, “In some instances religious practices are rejected not for their wickedness but for their worthlessness” (211). This is a false distinction. Yes, some religions lead to activity that is more morally reprehensible than others, but turning from the true God to any other faith, no matter how “moral,” is the essence of sin. After all, the hyper-moral Pharisees received Jesus’ strictest condemnation (e.g. Matthew 23).
Third, and most significantly, Edwards convincingly beats the Jesus Seminar at its own game, but he uses its methodology to undercut its claims. I fear that adopting their methods nevertheless concedes the victory. Method conveys meaning, and to establish the uniqueness of Jesus by applying modern historiographical methods to the New Testament is finally to make historiography the ultimate authority. We do not believe in Jesus because modern historiography tells us it is okay to do so. We believe because Jesus himself claimed to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and all his claims were vindicated when he rose from the dead. Edwards’s approach would be better turned on its head, “for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).
Edwards presents pastors and seminarians with an accessible entrée into contemporary Jesus scholarship, and his interaction with the “currents” of postmodernity provide a good starting point for further study in these areas.
Though one should bear in mind the concerns I raised above about method, the book may be used for reassuring Christians that “there is much more information, evidence, and reasoning in support of the trustworthiness of the New Testament and the truth of the gospel than many people are aware of” (xii).
Finally, the kind of person who would perhaps benefit most from this book is the skeptic who is sympathetic to the claims of the Jesus Seminar and other similar scholars. Here he will find an irenic yet forceful refutation of those approaches, and a humble but clear affirmation of Jesus Christ as the world’s only Savior.
Note: Bible.org has recently launched a new blog, Jesus in Primetime: Engaging the Public Square about Jesus, in which a formidable group of Christian scholars address the types of issues dealt with in this book. It can be found at http://blog.bible.org/primetimejesus/ (HT: Justin Taylor).