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Dr. Larry Arnn’s Hillsdale dialogue on the Gospels

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HH: It is that time of the week that many of you have come to love, the Hillsdale dialogues with Dr. Larry Arnn, or one of his colleagues from Hillsdale College in Michigan. You can learn all about the college at You can capture via podcast every one of these conversations we’ve had about the great books of the West by going to Or, if you just go to and poke around and register, it’s all completely free. You’ll find yourself swimming in the greatest online courses on the Constitution, on the progressives, on Western civilization, on American history, and indeed these dialogues. Everything you need to be an educated person is there. Ordinarily with Dr. Larry Arnn, I begin the first segment of our time together in the hour of Hillsdale talking about current events. But today, we are doing something, and next week, that’s a little bit more difficult than we ordinarily do. We’re going to cover the New Testament. And I doubt there’s anything more freighted with peril for us than these two weeks of conversation, because so many people bring so much to the table. In three weeks, Dr. Arnn, we’ll be talking about Herodotus. We could say that he juggled with clowns, and very few people could contradict us. But as we talk about the New Testament, and especially about the Gospels, everyone pulls up their chair, and they wish to hear what Larry Arnn’s heresies will be.

LA: Yeah, well, I just want to repudiate the idea that Jesus juggled with clowns.

HH: (laughing) That was Herodotus.

LA: (laughing)

HH: There, you’re safe. Well, why don’t you tell people a little bit about how the college approaches sacred text, especially something so sacred as to have built the West.

LA: Well, our college is fundamentally committed to Christianity. And so we…always has been, and so far as we’re strong enough and God grants, always will be. So we approach them as sacred. But also, we approach them as things to be understood. The goods of the college, that it is said in its 1844 founding document to seek are civil and religious freedom and intelligent piety. And so intelligent piety is piety that’s smart, that knows things as they are as best as one can. So we try to understand them. What do they say? And in reading any great book, I love to say this, and the kids here get tired of me saying it, but the first thing to know about any great book is what does it say? And it’s full of, a lifetime, a great book, you can spend a lifetime on it and not penetrate its depth. But the first step is what does it say? And so we start out with that. And the New Testament is richly rewarded if you start with that question.

HH: And it’s always rewarding, because you sent me some notes for the conversation this week and next, and you sent me a line from Hebrews 12:18-29. I don’t think I’ve ever read it. I don’t think…you know, I’ve been reading Scripture and hearing Scripture read for 56 years, and don’t think I’ve ever come across this. And so it’s endlessly new if you pay attention.

LA: Yeah, yeah. And I’m looking for it now to see what it was, because I’ve forgotten. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?

HH: Well, go ahead. We’ll go out of line here. Tell people about that. That’s from Hebrews, the letter to the Hebrews.

LA: Well, so the apostle, Paul, who writes most of the letters, you know, the New Testament is divided into the Gospels and the letters, and maybe Acts and Revelation are separate things. So Paul is writing to the Hebrews, and he’s working out something about what’s happening to the law and to the Jewish way since the Messiah has come. And in Hebrews 12:18-29, he writes this. I guess it’s worth reading. I love it myself. “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word bet spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight, that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come…and see, in other words, you’ve not come to that awesome thing, which is awesome. You have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born, who are enrolled in Heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. So what’s lovely about that? There are beautiful things in Paul, although he’s a cranky, old goat so often. But what’s so beautiful about that is the mightiness and awesomeness of Mount Sinai, and Moses going up there to get the law, is an overwhelming thing, and this is more than that.

HH: And that is, that’s quite a way to begin, because the Gospels begin quietly in some respects, meekly or genealogically in other respects. They’re not that, they’re not Mount Zion. They’re not the law giving. And so when you begin to read the Gospels with the students at Hillsdale, how do they…do they sit there and read all four of them and come back then and talk about them?

LA: Oh, yeah. Of course. And everything’s done that way here. And the Gospels, see, you said genealogically, and the first, you know, the first thing to know about the New Testament is it seeks to locate itself in a tradition while it claims to make a complete revolution in all the affairs of man. And so the generations that are given at the opening of the book of Matthew, the opening of the New Testament, those tie Jesus to the same lineage as David. And the kings that are mentioned, especially Hezekiah and Josiah in the lineage of Jesus, tend to be the good kings, the ones who restored the Israelites to the law and the service of the Lord, and won back their prosperity. And so Jesus is put forward from the beginning as the successor to all of that, and the fulfillment of all of that. And that is the argument at the beginning of the Gospels made episodically through the Gospels, and it is very much the burden of the argument of the apostle, Paul.

HH: The historicity of the New Testament has been much debated since the German school arose a few decades back and flowered in its time. But I think it stood that test fairly well.

LA: Oh, yeah. Well, we know there was a fellow, Pilate, and so it’s located, you know, it’s not like…if you read the story of Noah, Harvard University didn’t have a history department, yet. And so even at Oxford and Cambridge, and the University of Paris in Bologna were not really recording everything quite yet. Well, the New Testament is much more modern. It’s in the time of Rome. And so there’s a lot of Roman history. And there’s a continuity. A lot’s lost, too. So we don’t know everything, but what we know, like for example, it is the latest view, I’ve had the privilege with Sir Martin Gilbert to walk around Jerusalem a lot in my life. And if you go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in one way, it’s a big, old mess of a place, because there’s like four churches there that compete with each other, and even shout over each other at having services. And every little piece of real estate inside that huge church is marked out for one of them. And so that’s kind of a mess. But the best evidence is the wife of Constantine, the mother of Constantine, Helen, Helena, got it right. That is where all that stuff happened. And it probably did happen, I’d say.

HH: There are steps that one walks down that are the steps that Jesus would have walked during His passion from the Garden, or to His captivity, and all of that. But when you sit down with your students, and you ask them to read, do you ask them to read as history, or as inspired Scripture?

LA: Well, that’s not, that’s not the question you start with. The first thing you do is read. And we’re here to learn, right? And what we have before us is some writing. And it’s not the student’s way to make up his mind before he starts. Let it talk to you. And you know, by the way, when they come here, the overwhelming majority of them have read the Bible extensively. And they read it eagerly every day, and almost everybody here. And so it’s not unfamiliar to them. Our business is to teach them what it is to read a thing and let it talk to you.

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HH: Larry Arnn, I’m the most familiar of the books that we will discuss, may be the hardest for me to figure out how to approach, because everyone is listening closely to how you address this. I’m going to just give you the floor and let you lecture for a few minutes on how one ought to read the Gospels.

LA: Well, the word Gospel means good news. Here’s some news, right? It’s kind of like a newspaper report, except good news.

HH: True.

LA: So these are a bunch of things that happened. Here’s this man, He was born a very unusual way, unique, by the way, both unique and impossible, and yet it happened. And these are the parents, and this is how He grew up, and this is what He did. And so it’s a story. And He met these fellows, and He called them, and He went around for about three years when he was, you know, He started out when he was 30, I think, and He went around and preached and taught, and cured people, and worked various miracles. He emerges as a very radical man. He says very radical things. And they mean that if they’re not true, He was a lunatic. One of C.S. Lewis’ proofs, one of the reasons, it’s not quite a proof, but one of the reasons he believes the claims of Jesus is that no one who met Jesus regarded him as a simple fool or a lunatic. He was taken very seriously by everybody – His enemies, who were very many, and His friends, something going on there that was awesome. When He would open His mouth, there are several settings where He is in a synagogue where learned people hold forth about the meaning of the law and the prophets and the writings. And when He opens His mouth, it’s a different kind of thing. And people are agog with it. They don’t know what to do. They can’t account for it. So He’s an incredibly impressive man. And He goes around saying that He is God. And so this startling, this unprecedented, and you know, mark the point, this is very different than the awesomeness like that passage from Hebrews. This is very different than the awesomeness of Moses, which is a very awesome thing. And this is very different than the awesomeness of Mohammed, that is a very awesome thing. His claim is that He is God incarnate, and with a mother and a father, and a death that becomes a very important part of the story. And He goes around saying that He is God. And that is not taken as, you know, sit Him down in the corner and throw a schilling in his cup, poor fool. That’s a grave blasphemy, and it amounts to something more than the claim that He is the prophet, the Messiah, one reading of what the Messiah is, is that it’s a prophet and a leader come back to restore the nation of Israel. He seems to claim more than that. And by the way, on that specific hope, that He will restore the nation of Israel in authority over Jerusalem and its environs, He proves to be completely disappointing. And so it’s just very difficult to figure out what to make of this. And so you’re forced to choose between two things that are terribly implausible. And one of them is that this fellow was the son of God, and was resurrected after born to a virgin, was crucified cruelly and publicly, and then resurrected. You have to believe that, or else you have to believe that all of the testimony that’s recorded in the Gospels, and in the letters, too, and in whatever else we have about it from various sources, everybody has been duped by this guy for two thousand years now. You talked about the retirement of Benedict in a previous show. And that very intelligent man has been led astray, and all of his predecessors in the grossest way by this fellow, and so it just seems to me extremely unlikely that either of those things would happen, and so you have to choose between them.

HH: What’s interesting as well is that you are with students of the age where many who have grown up with the Scriptures put them aside and reject them. And while many who have never touched them come into contact with them and believe them, there’s something about the age, a little bit younger and a little bit older, surrounding college, that people decide these things. Are you aware of that at the college, that this is the age in which they decide these things?

LA: Oh, yeah. And see, because you know, first of all, we do something that’s formidable, and carries an enormous responsibility. I’ll give you an anecdote. I often have conversations like this, and so I like to say I’ve become an excellent judge of parent flesh, because I meet a lot of parents. And they want to know, you know, what they want to know is they want to know if I and the college are going to be good for their child. And I once had a lady lined up five bright home-schooled kids, some of them students at our college right now, and they were all high school kids at the time. And she said are you going to reinforce what we’ve taught our children? And I replied, to her shock, oh now, ma’am, that’s not what we do. And she said what do you do? And I said well, they’re going to become learned, and that means, that’s partly a process of destruction. They have to learn to look at things anew and more deeply. They have to let those things talk to them, and find out on what level they make sense. And the young people do that, right? And my father, a high school teacher, remains a very influential man with me. And it’s not so much because of things he lectured me about, although that happened. It’s more about how he lived, and the moral universe in which he lived, and the religious Christian universe in which he lived. And you know, he was not a perfect Christian, nor am I. But it was a very serious thing to him. Well, I had to work out the arguments myself about giving an account of it all. One of my favorite things, that was one of his favorite things that I ever said, I used to say it to him a lot because he liked it so much, is I said well, Dad, I spent a lot of years learning complicated reasons why you were right. And he just loved that. But on the other hand, that wasn’t exactly what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to prove that my father was right. I was trying to find out what is right. And I’m still trying to find that out.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, I have had many conversations over the years on these Gospels with a lot of people who don’t believe them – my old friend, Hitch, and people like Robert Wright of the New Republic, and Michael Shermer of the Skeptic Magazine. They’re all collected in a book called Talking With Pagans, and I’ve hosted debates. But the most memorable conversation I had was with Richard Dawkins, evolutionary scientist who discovered in the course of the conversation with me that I was a believer, that I believed in this. And he was shocked. He said you really believe this? And I said yes. And he said you believe, and he can summon up at that point any miracle he wants to put on the table. And he said you really believe that Jesus changed water into wine? And I said yes, and bigger things than that. And he said really, water into wine? And he said now I know what I’m dealing with. And it was striking to me that that was the miracle that he thought most illustrative of the irrationality of Christianity. You mentioned miracles. There are many books on the miracles. How do you teach your students who are very serious about science, Hillsdale has a very great scientific undertaking in its education, about miracles?

LA: Well, first of all, Mr. Dawkins, isn’t he at Oxford, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And so he probably knows how wine is made. That is actually how it’s made. So what the miracles are is they alter, most of them, alter processes that are going on in nature anyway, right? So yeah, you can’t do that, you couldn’t, you and I couldn’t do that. But winemakers do it. So it’s not, you know, it’s not…the miracles are the loaves and the fishes, right? A few grains of seed are turned, and a few, when fishes procreate, they’re turned into multitudes. And how does that come to be? And by the way, Dawkins’ explanation of all that, first of all, as I understand the man, and I’ve read a little bit by him, he claims to know how it all started, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And know that God did not have an agency in it. And that’s just foolish, right? That’s just dog foolish.

HH: Yes.

LA: Because you can, if you could prove it, and it isn’t proved, I believe that the most plausible explanation of the formation of the universe is the evolutionary one. It’s what science has, and it seems to be right, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the price of bread, because how do you know that’s not just how God did it? And the cosmology of the Big Bang theory, it always starts with some lump of something very dense, and it explodes. And you know, it does look like, if you look at telescopes, apparently, it does look like that all the stuff you can see in the universe is moving very fast away from a central point. And that is apparently an observed phenomenon in science, right? But where did that lump come from? And so the point is, it doesn’t have anything to do with it. And Dawkins seems unable to understand that.

HH: Oh, he does. The idea of a point in time in which God intervenes to resurrect the world through His Son. He doesn’t buy into an understanding which is perfectly obvious to me. But to some, it’s not given. Let’s go back to the person of Jesus now. When we read books, we take away an assessment of character. We take away an assessment of the nature of their courage and of their other virtues. What is it about Jesus that your students and you walk away with, not the divine side, but of the character of the man?

LA: Well, one thinks of Him as kind, but that’s not exactly what He is. He’s kind of fierce. He’s troubled, He feels the tragedy of the things around Him. But also, He’s uncompromising. The effect of the New Testament on morality, for example, is it strengthens the morality of the family. Divorce is frowned upon much more firmly than under the Jewish law, for example, and there are many things like that throughout the book. And one cannot but understand that as a definite intention of the New Testament to alter that and make it firmer. Now on the other hand, I will turn father against son and mother against daughter? There’s nothing that can be put first ahead of Jesus. He is very firm about that.

— – –

HH: We were reflecting on the personage of Jesus when we went to break, Dr. Arnn, and I want to pick up there, because I think it’s really the heart and the soul of people as they read the Gospels. Who is this man? Who is this God? And what does He want to convey?

LA: He simplifies His teaching, and it’s not very hard to name the things that make up the teaching of Jesus. And they’re pretty short. Love the Lord, thy God, with all they heart and all thy might and all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is more than don’t do anybody any harm and do justice, right, because we don’t really always want justice for ourselves. We’d like to have better than that. So there’s a morality in it, and it is a morality of equality, of moral upright, and of love. And God is love. And so Jesus preaches that very powerfully, and often, you know, the teaching of Christ looks, reads to me like a comfort and a challenge, always at the same time. And it’s very difficult to have the one, it’s very difficult to keep one of those two things before your mind without the other, because they’re both wrapped up with each other, right? He says, every time He says you get forgiveness, He says you’ve got to forgive. Every time He says you’re going to be taken care of, you know, those wonderful comforting passages in the Gospels, you know, God knows the numbers of the hairs on your head, and you’re not to worry about anything. Everything is going to be taken care of. The lilies of the field are more splendid than the raiments of Solomon, I think I’m getting that right. And so everything is taken care of for you. And yet you should value nothing except one thing. And so that’s the way of it. That’s what He was like. He was very demanding. And His love for his closest companions, the apostles, is manifest and deep. And on the other hand, He’s stern with them, especially Peter, who’s always messing up. And so He was a galvanizing figure.HH: I want to talk just a minute about his courage. Next week, when we do Paul, we’ll talk a lot about courage. But Jesus is not often discussed that way, but I’m looking at Matthew 26 as He goes into the Garden on the night that He’s arrested, and He says My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me. And of course, the apostles don’t, and they run away, and all that good stuff happens.

LA: First, they go to sleep.

HH: I’m overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, and He just, He knew what was coming, and He stared it in the face. And courage is not often talked about in the context of Christ. But that is really central to His story.

LA: Yeah. I don’t like that Mel Gibson movie very much, The Passion Of The Christ. I have a reason for that. But I do admire, in general, I salute him for it, I guess I’d say. But in the beginning in the Garden, it’s very good, because it’s a tremendous depiction of the misery of the man. He doesn’t want to do this. It’s going to hurt. And to be defamed in this way is a terrible fate for anyone, but someone who claims to be what He is, right? And so if He’s a fraud, as I say, it’s hard to think of Him as a fraud, because He wasn’t taken as a fraud by anybody, at least not as any kind of a light fraud. But He’s got now to stoop to this thing, and He chooses it. And He does pray if there’s a way, let’s not do this. But I know there isn’t a way. So it is a courageous act, of course.

HH: So what would, what is it that gave rise, you were a student of English history, and we just talked about the terrible suffering He has to do. And many English saints of both Protestant and Catholic denomination ended up suffering terrible trials as they put rack and ruin to each of them in turn, depending upon who was on the throne, that no one ever gave pause to say this is not what He was about.

LA: Well, we’re all human, and my view is a great teaching came into the world more clearly with the birth of American than before. And before…and that teaching is you ought not to be hurting anything if they believe in any kind of a decent religion. And the definition of decent is wide – just has to obey the moral law. But before that, of course, any great thing, and the greater it is, the more possible it is for this to happen, can be taken by human beings and distorted, and made into a cause of harm. And so of course, the people who boiled people in oil, and flayed them alive and all that, they were saving souls. And that is, by the way, the motive for the killing of Jesus. So yeah, it’s, we humans are, you know they great book by Michael Shaara about the Civil War, the…

HH: Fallen Angels?

LA: The Killer Angels, it’s called.

HH: The Killer Angels, yeah.

LA: Right, and there’s the phrase that gives rise to the title of the book, is somebody says to somebody, well you know, we’re like the angels. And then the reply is, well, we’re a very killing kind of angel, aren’t we?

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, as always, a pleasure. When we come back next week, we will be talking about Paul and Revelation for an entire hour as we conclude our five week study of Scripture, and then on to Herodotus the following week.

End of interview.


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