Our Reasonable Faith 8

This series and this post are by RJS; and we are glad Scot is back – because the challenges confronting us in this chapter are up his alley not mine.
Come on, many ask us today, you can’t really take the Bible literally—Can you? This is the important question addressed in Chapter 7 of Tim Keller’s book The Reason for Godalthough this is not really the question answered in the chapter. A better formulation and a more important question is: You can’t take the Bible seriously—Can you?

Consider the Bible, especially the New Testament: How can we trust this two thousand year old book? Isn’t it a politically motivated collection of early texts designed to enhance the power and prestige of the Roman emperor and the Church hierarchy? Isn’t it full of error and uncertainty – so that we cannot even know what Jesus said or taught with any confidence?
After all, we are told, there are more textual variants than words in the text…the early church suppressed the true diversity of early Christianity for its own benefit…The Gospel of Judas provides important new insight into the early church understanding of the crucifixion…Jesus was married and we have the tomb and ossuaries to prove it…Matthew didn’t really write Matthew…John didn’t really write John…Peter didn’t really write Peter…Paul didn’t really write half of the letters attributed to him…many of the documents were written 100 or more years after the fact…we can reconstruct a Q gospel and a gospel of the cross providing better insight into the early church and historical events before mythology and legend took over…the New Testament is culturally bound, repressive, and not a valid guide for the 21st century…women are oppressed…slavery is supported — you name it. We see the news, watch the documentaries, read the books.
The answer, of course, is that it perfectly reasonable to take the Bible seriously. One need not check one’s brains at the door to do so. Keller has some of the usual discussion and good list of resources. I am not going to address more specific questions about why we can take the Bible seriously here – but with Scot back in town I am sure he will be willing to discuss any questions folks might have.
I have a personal reflection though — this has been a question that I have pondered and studied extensively. One of the biggest issues for me was a doctrine of scripture that seemed to pit faith and reason in mortal combat. But this need not be. We must be able to take the Bible seriously – but quite honestly faith does not really demand any more than that. When it comes right down to it I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative because I am a Christian – I am not a Christian because I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative. Even more importantly I have come to the realization that we must let the Bible be the book it is and let the book we have, preserved by God, for us, through the work of the Spirit in the church, define what it means for the Bible to be inspired and authoritative. We get into big trouble when we first define what the Bible must be and then try to make it fit our mold, our mode thinking. This, I think, has been a major problem in much of Protestant, especially evangelical, Christianity.
Off that soap box and on to another issue. In his book Keller also suggests that nonchristians considering the gospel should not worry about the hard texts (like 1 Tim 2:11-15 for example) and the intramural squabbles of the church. Christians disagree over these texts, so nonchristians should ignore them and look at the whole message – the core doctrine. Is the Gospel of Jesus attractive and viable? If so worry about the details later. In particular he sidesteps the issues of the role of women or oppression of women in this fashion.
Ok – I have a few of questions here:
What is your understanding of the nature of scripture?
How important is our theology or doctrine of scripture to the Christian faith?
and …
Is it right to brush the hard questions under the rug initially — or will this only lead to problems later on?

  • mariam

    Scripture is the sacred writing of our faith. It provides the only guide we need for our spiritual growth and understanding our relationship with God. It is not a history book although it gives us historical and anthropological insights. It provides us with a foundation for ethics but it is not a book of law. It tells us how a culture in ancient times defined their relationship with God and tried to apply His laws to their culture. Yes we see the differences and we have to be aware that the authors were bound by their culture, but the amazing thing is how alive those people and those stories seem and how in fundamental ways they are exactly the same as us.
    When I read scripture it is like digging for diamonds. We pull the diamonds out of the mud that is cultural context, personality of the author and limited human knowledge; we brush off the mud and we see brilliant abiding truths. Each diamond is multi-faceted and each time we dig one up it can reveal yet another way of seeing things. I think people are missing out on a lot when they try and fit the scriptures into some sort of procrustean systematics.
    So none of those questions – did Peter really write Peter?, how many Johns were there and what did they write, did Jesus fulfill OT prophesy or did the authors of the Gospel rewrite his life to fulfill prophesy, was Mary really a virgin, etc – none of those questions really matter fundamentally to me. I accept the Bible, as it has been handed down, as the sacred writing of my faith. It doesn’t matter to me whether it is literally true in parts, whether the authors made errors or used hyperbole or spoke in parables and metaphors. In fact I couldn’t take the Bible seriously if I had to take it literally, nor could I imagine it was “true”. The writers of scripture were not newspaper reporters or historians or scientists – they were poets, prophets, scribes, dreamers, tellers of epics, recounters of myths and legends – but chiefly, lovers of God. And God speaks to us through them in all those wonderful, literal and non-literal, plain and poetic ways. When scripture is seen that way we don’t have to brush any of the hard questions under the rug initially or later on.

  • http://www.virtuphill.blogspot.com phil_style

    Best sound-bite (which of course, is great for blogs!) I ever came accross was, provided recently by James McGrath (he may have been quoting someone else), and is paraphrased thus:
    “the bible is not the LAST word, but the First”.
    I like this way of reading the bible. The bible helps us understand where we can start with an issue. Then we can use many more tools available to us to develop our understanding, as opposed to turning to sometimes obscure verses for final and/or authoritative decisions.

  • paul

    when teaching middle school kids the bible, i say this:
    “the bible is inspired by God. this means the words in the bible are the words God wanted us to have”

  • Scott M

    Interesting questions, RJS. I was just listening to a podcast by Father Thomas Hopko the other day discussing the readings for this period which come from Acts and from John. And he made a very interesting point. Again and again in Acts, you see the proclamation of Jesus made to those who are outside the church — the kerygma. Acts and the synoptic gospels go hand in hand. They focus on a proclamation of the gospel or euvangelion to those outside the church. John, on the other hand, is designed and structured to expound the mystery of God and the Incarnation. Nowhere does it even use the term euvangelion. John (and the letters and the apocalypse) are theologia. John is even called, John the Theologian. And the theologia, the exploration of the mystery of God, is primarily intended for those who are within the Church. As such, we should proclaim the good news in the manner it is proclaimed in the synoptics and the acts of the apostles, not from the letters. Or even worse, from the apocalypse of John.
    I found that an intriguing perspective and it seems to directly relate to your questions. Of course, the Bible is the sacred text for Christians. (Hmmm. Though even among Christians, we don’t have any real agreement on which Old Testament canon to use.) If you do not follow the God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, there’s no reason to take Scripture seriously at all. If you don’t adhere to Islam, after all, you probably don’t form your life around Qu’ran. And it’s unlikely that you study the Vedas if you are not at least interested in Hinduism. It’s the same thing in Christianity. If you are a Christian, it’s perfectly reasonable to take your sacred text seriously. If you aren’t, there’s no reason to think you would.

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    RJS,
    This statement of yours is very significant for me: “Even more importantly I have come to the realization that we must let the Bible be the book it is and let the book we have, preserved by God, for us, through the work of the Spirit in the church, define what it means for the Bible to be inspired and authoritative. We get into big trouble when we first define what the Bible must be and then try to make it fit our mold, our mode thinking. This, I think, has been a major problem in much of Protestant, especially evangelical, Christianity.”
    I agree … let the Bible be what it is. If modernity taught us to use the sciences and the facts, it sometimes also gave to us some theories about the Bible that have hung on in spite of themselves.

  • http://microclesia.com John L

    As Scot, I echo your penultimate paragraph, RJS. You’ve said it better than I could. “We must be able to take the Bible seriously – but quite honestly faith does not really demand any more than that.”

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com/ Matt Edwards

    I read the Scriptures as a dialogue with those who have gone before. It’s a conversation with the Fathers of the faith. If I claim to be a part of this movement called Christianity, I feel the need to take seriously the thoughts, beliefs, and lifestyles of those who framed the movement.
    What kind of book do we have in the Scriptures? The Scriptures are the early generation’s thoughts about the significance of Christ. That being said, I think they are more than just “one person’s opinion.” I think Apostles had a special gift–one that gave them special spiritual insight that no one since has had. The Scriptures are “inspired” by God in the sense that the Holy Spirit gifted the Apostles to write with special insight. This allows for the modern conservative evangelical notion of verbal plenary inerrancy but does not demand it.
    I do not see bibliology as a test of faith in any way. Although, a “low view” of the Bible will likely lead to theology that differs from the beliefs of the ancients. To me, that would be a problem.

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    good questions, rjs.
    and good comments – i especially like mariam’s (#1).
    read my thoughts on the chapter here, if you care to. lots of mindless drivel, but only because i am far from sound mind, and drivel is one of my favorite words…
    and i like the comment, “let if be the first word.”
    but, in reading it, don’t necessarily let it be the last. that’s the position i find too prevalent in the bibliolators of our day – forcing it to be the last (only?) word. those wanting ‘absolute truths’ fear that making any concessions means we lose everything, and that’s simply not the case.
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    mikerucker.wordpress.com

  • Faith J. Totushek

    I think the Bible is relevant for us today. but I think we approach it like a science text book or a rule book. Then we read verses like rules to follow. I think the bible is primarily about God and his relationship with humanity. Scripture records the drama of God engaging with humans to draw them to himself and invite them to live out his character in their daily world. Hard passages such as 1Timothy 2:12-15 are a part of the story as the church struggles to deal with questions of the day that arise in the community of God’s people. We can see that wrestling and discernment as Apostles and Prophets seek to apply the wisdom of God to daily situations that come up in the body.
    I think we would respect the scripture more if we could look at it more that way and wrestle with God’s character as revealed in Jesus, and the gospel set forth by Jesus applying it to the situations and struggles in our world. We would be called to reliance on the gospel and on the Spirit with insights gained in how the early church wrestled with issues. When I look at the letters, I see the apostles seeking to apply the message to new situations that come up as they bring the gospel to other cities and nations and cultures.
    It’s not a science book that refutes Darwin, or a manual on the roles of men and women in marriage and the church. It’s not a parenting book in how to discipline children. Nor is it a book on managing money. It speaks to all of these things but only as the gospel of Jesus is applied to our relationships and idols.
    I hope I am making myself clear…. I so value the Word and its meaning. I just don’t think it is a literalistic rule book. We are called to think carefully and thoughtfully and in relation with the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

  • Ranger

    “I agree … let the Bible be what it is. If modernity taught us to use the sciences and the facts, it sometimes also gave to us some theories about the Bible that have hung on in spite of themselves.”
    Yep, and that’s good to think about in regards to both the “conservative” and “liberal” perspectives because both come to the text with presuppositions that hinder how we view the text, and many of those presuppositions are the result of modernity.

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    On the “brushing of hard questions under the rug initially”:
    I don’t know if we have any choice here. Jesus invites us to trust him. There are inherently things about him at that initial call–and everyday afterward–that we just don’t know or understand or want or maybe even agree with. But the call is what it is. It’s a call to trust him in some significant and often unpreferred way. Anyone who has no “brushing” or pushing or even shoving of other concerns or questions aside in this ongoing process of trust . . . well, they’re likely not trusting in the way Jesus defines the term.

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    I don’t mean to say that answers never come or that we have to check our brain at the door of faith. I just mean that anyone who insists on having all answers before trusting Jesus at all will never have them, and they’ll be refusing to trust the best Hope they have for answers in the process. There is an inherent mix of known and unknown in trusting, especially at first.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Miriam said: It provides the only guide we need for our spiritual growth and understanding our relationship with God.
    The only?
    What about relationships within the community? What about tradition? What about the reflections of theologians, mystics, critics and friends?
    This is one of the mistakes I think Protestants make wrt how they view the Bible. The Bible (if we are to follow RJS and Scot’s suggestion to let the Bible be what it is) is not designed as a guide.
    The “Bible” doesn’t even exist. The idea of housing all the various documents, letters, narratives, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, etc. together as one volume is a rather late development if we look at the history of its evolution.
    When I read “let the Bible be what it is” I find myself bristling a bit. This sometimes comes across to me as a way of saying, “I don’t have to look at the Bible critically – I can ignore historical criticism or textual analysis or inconsistencies because it’s basically good enough.”
    If someone uses this language after acknowledging the limits of the texts (the historical limits, the conflicts of doctrine, the differences between points of view offered by the varieties of authors, the theological puzzles), then I can see it. But frequently I hear evangelicals and emergents wanting to move (imo) too quickly to “The Bible is fine for what we need it for – don’t quibble over this other stuff.”
    For me, the years of study I spent in deconstruction helped me appreciate the journey of faith and the stabs at insight that the writings in the Bible preserve for us. I don’t take it as a whole. I take it as a collection. Are there threads that can be seen throughout? Yes, but fewer than I usually find when I discuss doctrine with my more evangelical friends, to be quite honest.
    Perhaps RJS and Scot can address this: what is it that you mean when you say “Let the Bible be what it is?”

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    T – #11 and #12: You can only trust Jesus if you have a concept of who Jesus is. The Jesus you trust is a composite of the way you read the Bible, your cultural context, the church tradition in which you participate or were raised, the comments friends make casually, your subjective spiritual experiences when you pray, your hopes and best wishes about who Jesus is and a slew of stuff I haven’t even mentioned and can’t know about you.
    Theological inquiry and reflection are meant to help us understand who the Jesus of the Gospels is… but the truth is, there isn’t just “one Jesus” presented in the Bible and there isn’t just “one right version of Jesus” offered by Christians for all time.
    “Trusting Jesus” (even that language) is a part of a tradition!
    Sorry to be the postmodern fly in the ointment here, but I think it’s important for us to remember that we can’t simply dismiss the power of the influences on us when we come to the Bible, faith or even something that appears to be as simple as “trusting Jesus.”

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    This is one of the hardest questions, IMO. If the Bible’s inspired, how can it not be inerrant? If it’s not inspired, what can you trust? If the Bible is inspired, how do you explain some of the things in it?
    If 1 Tim 2 isn’t trustworthy, why is John 3? If Romans 1 is outdated, why should I trust Romans 3? It makes my head hurt.
    I’m going to join the chorus of loving this statement from RJS: “we must let the Bible be the book it is and let the book we have, preserved by God, for us, through the work of the Spirit in the church, define what it means for the Bible to be inspired and authoritative.”
    I saw an interesting quote from Hodge and Warfield on inerrancy: “[The Scriptures] are written in human languages, whose words, inflections, constructions and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of error. The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.”
    The old guard apparently had a very different definition of inerrancy than modern evangelicals.
    Is it right to brush the hard questions under the rug initially — or will this only lead to problems later on?
    I think it’s a healthy way to approach the problem. I guess the natural caveat is that it’s done openly and purposefully. If something gets sprung on someone later, they might feel betrayed, but if they make a conscious decision to set a topic aside, they’re going to be fine.
    I think the topic works with believers as well. You don’t like Joshua being told to wipe out the Canaanites? Let it go for a couple of years; revisit it later and you might find you understand.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Matt #7: I read the Scriptures as a dialogue with those who have gone before. It’s a conversation with the Fathers of the faith.
    Just a quickie and then I’ll be going. :) Your post jumped out at me. Fathers of the Faith… Another issue I have with the Bible. :( No women writers that we know of. And that matters a lot to me.
    Only male reports of what women may have done or said. In the cases where some theologians suggest female authorship (some say that about Hebrews, for instance), the fact of its non-disclosure (if indeed that is the case) is yet one more instance where we have evidence that women and their perspectives were not honored or as easily obtained… and therefore we’ve lost a valuable thread/trajectory of theological reflection down through the ages.
    This is another reason why I could never limit my spiritual life to the Bible. 50% of humankind has gone unrepresented through authorship in that collection of books.
    Omissions/exclusions are every bit as important to consider – to recognize as what has been protected and handed down.

  • Scott M

    Julie, it’s the same reason that we have comparatively few writings from women leaders of the church, even those who are called equal to the apostles. In the ancient world, it was very uncommon for women to receive the sort of education which lent itself to expression in writing or formal rhetoric. (A fair amount of the NT is actually oral rhetoric that was only written down because the person could not be there to deliver it in person.) The NT does preserve the importance and prominence of women in the Church, something which certainly was somewhat scandalous for the time. It even preserves the fact that women were the first witnesses of the risen Lord and the first sent by him to tell others. (In other words, it’s not only that there were women apostles, but that women were, in fact, the first apostles.)
    That aspect of our text and the majority of the ancient writings and interpretations of that text simply reflect the realities of the time. It was not impossible for a woman to receive that sort of education. But it was not easy or likely and thus was pretty uncommon. And so we mostly have stories about the great women recorded by men. For some reason, St. Mary of Egypt springs to mind here. I’m not sure why.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Scott, I know all of this. I wasn’t saying that they should have written – only that closing the canon before women have had the opportunity to contribute to the theological reflections that shape Christianity is a bit hard to take, as a woman of the 21st century. I draw much insight, for instance, from someone from the 14th century like Julian of Norwich (whose insights into universalism and God’s love are like a refreshing wave before the horrible destructiveness of John Calvin only two centuries later) or more modern theologians like Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza.
    To limit ourselves to the Bible as the superior insight into God necessarily marginalizes the contributions of women beyond the closing of the canon and that’s what I can’t accept.
    Julie

  • Scott M

    Ah, but the NT canon was never intended as “insight into God”. Rather, the goal of the church was to ensure that it preserved the true apostolic witness, written and oral, in the face of many challenges, changes, and additions to that witness. The books that were canonized were the ones the church agreed were written by actual witnesses to the Resurrection. Theological insight has been and is still welcome. But the canon is to preserve the written portion of the apostolic witness.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Yes, Scott, that is what the Catholics say of it (and treat the Bible as such – since most Catholics don’t even read the Bible, let alone base all of their theological points of view on the Bible). I was addressing the Protestant view in particular which elevates the Bible as the “only guide we need” in our spiritual lives.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    To limit ourselves to the Bible as the superior insight into God necessarily marginalizes the contributions of women beyond the closing of the canon and that’s what I can’t accept.
    The Bible is God’s self-revelation, so of course it’s superior.
    Our theology has to be based on God’s self-disclosure, otherwise it’s just our opinions about our theories and preferences.
    Christian theology offends your 21st century mindset? Well, it offended 1st century mindsets, 10th century mindsets, and will offend 22nd century mindsets. At least it’s consistent. What isn’t consistent is that 21st century mindset — one day that will be passe. And the Bible will still be the Bible.
    The fundamental question is not whether you like what the Bible says but whether it’s true.

  • Glenn

    “Is it right to brush the hard questions under the rug initially — or will this only lead to problems later on?”
    I remember watching the special features of an animation dvd. Finding Nemo or a similar style movie? I can’t recall. What I remember was the director. He required his crew to become certified in scuba diving and take a trip where they could spend a significant amount of time doing nothing but simply exploring the underwater world of the ocean. Once they had this experience they could move forward in the development of the movie. His question was, how else can we make an animation movie about an underwater world unless we actually spend time in this world ourselves? I find Tim Keller taking a similar approach. Let’s dive into this biblical world and see the majesty and mystery, the beauty and splendor. This experience will then shape everything else we do.

  • Rick

    Glenn #22:
    Well said.
    N.T. Wright stated something similar in regards to Scripture (and its authority):
    “It is the story which confirms the fact that God had redeemed the world in Jesus Christ. It is the story which breaks open all other world-views and, by so doing, invites men and women, young and old, to see this story as their story. In other words, as we let the Bible be the Bible, God works through us-and it-to do what he intends to do in and for the church and the world.”

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Let me say it another way:
    The Bible, in its current format, and based on its most often asserted reputation as the superior, most relevant, most God-breathed compilation of texts related to our Protestant Christian faith has necessarily marginalized theological reflection beyond the Bible itself.
    All theology is subjected to what is considered the biblical litmus test. The Bible is not seen merely as a record of historical witness to Jesus. It is used as a specific theological tool that holds sway over other theological insight. More, a specific traditional point of view (in much of evangelical Protestantism today) trumps anything that differs from it – even by saying “that idea/contradiction/correction/criticism may have some merit but is irrelevant.”)
    What this means is that challenges to the theological content of the Bible as historically interpreted by Protestants (in whatever quarter of the church) will be seen as inferior to whatever is in the Bible and how it has been understood in times past. If more recent theologians then do the work of examining the text (criticizing it), their points of view are seen as suspicious, as inferior.
    So if a woman comes along, for instance, and reads the text and challenges patriarchy as a cultural condition which ought to be overturned today, she has an agenda (the biblical authors don’t – the late-comer theologian does), for many Christian traditions.
    If a theologian using the historical-critical method challenges the notion that Paul and Jesus share the same theology (saying they don’t), the traditional point of view that their theology can be harmonized will trump even the question, let alone the conclusions for most Christians.
    If someone does work on what “resurrection” actually means…. and wonders at a literal resurrection – how open are most Protestants to considering that? Really? Are they not worried that their faith will be upended?
    What this means is that those sincere Christians who are not as easily pacified by the typical resolutions for their deep questions are now suspect too, pushed to the margins of the faith community.
    For my part: I think we do a great disservice to Christianity and the Bible when we move too quickly to leaving the very real issues aside in favor of “taking the Bible as it is” when that usually means taking it the way we always have and not liking anything that differs from that way of seeing it, not allowing change, disruption or critique to cause us to look at our faith and theology with new eyes.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    ChrisB: Lol! :)
    You crack me up. Of course you see it this way. So what do you do with me since I don’t?

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    Julie, the answer to your question is: Pray for you. That probably offends you too.

  • Rick

    Julie #25-
    “So what do you do with me since I don’t?”
    What do you do with yourself? Where do you consider yourself in regards to a Christian community of faith?
    Also, are you saying you don’t believe in the physical resurrection of Christ, or you simply have questions about it (and other issues) that you struggle with?

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    I’ll take any prayers, Bob. :)
    Rick: I attend a church downtown which has fairly traditional theology. Love the community and what they do in ministry for others. Don’t have a problem being a member, myself.
    I brought up the resurrection because I know it’s a bone of contention… one of those issues that I wondered if it was “being swept under the rug” in favor of letting the Bible be what it is.

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    Julie,
    I agree with you that the voice of women has largely been ignored in history–including church history. This is tragic and it needs to change.
    However, gender is not the only issue in the homogeneity of the Scriptures. In the New Testament, the writers are all from the first (or perhaps early second) century. They all live in the Mediterranean world. They are almost exclusively Jewish. I could go on. This is true of all communication–it is perspectival.
    But where does that leave us? (Not just when we read the Scriptures, but when we communicate with anyone.) Do we say, “Because the communicator is not just like me, I refuse to accept their message?” That is passive aggressive. When you communicate with people, you communicate with people who are different than you.
    The Scriptures were written within a cultural context. Some of it is descriptive and not prescriptive. However, I believe that the Holy Spirit was involved in it’s writing in a way that makes the message of the Scriptures timeless and cross-cultural.

  • Rick

    Julie #28-
    Since I would assume Keller (and orthodox Christianty)considers the resurrection a “core” issue of the faith, I don’t think he would think that one should be swept under the rug. It is a key part of the overall Gospel/Scripture story.
    The “non-essentials” (they may important, just not essential/core) would be the ones he would not put out front with non-believers.

  • Joel

    The issue of bodily resurrection has not been “swept under the rug”, many theologians have carefully exegeted it. I suggest reading NT Wright’s “Surprised By Hope”, or “The Resurrection of the Son of God” for a more academic treatment. One thing that’s worth pointing out is that in Judaism and the ancient world in general, “resurrection” was always used to refer to a bodily resurrection. The word never meant spiritual ascension or any other sort of afterlife.

  • Joel

    And as NT Wright put it, if there is no bodily resurrection, then Marx was essentially right about Christianity.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    Julie said: What this means is that challenges to the theological content of the Bible as historically interpreted by Protestants… will be seen as inferior to whatever is in the Bible and how it has been understood in times past. If more recent theologians then do the work of examining the text,… their points of view are seen as suspicious, as inferior.
    Let me try an analogy. In science, you make observations, take data, and try to determine a theory that explains the data. The theory that best explains the existing data is dominant until we get new data or a better explanation comes along.
    In theology, the Bible is the data. It is regarded as the only reliable data because it is God’s self-revelation as opposed to being what we think and feel about what we see in the world.
    So how do you reconcile data that don’t fit neatly together — e.g., the picture of God in John vs the one in Romans 1 or the Pentateuch? Enter the theologians. Their job is to try to figure out how these different pictures work together, and, yes, the assumption (which takes us back the question of the day) is that they do fit together.
    A theological position is held because we think it’s the best explanation of the biblical data. If one survives for hundreds or thousands of years, that suggests it is a pretty good explanation.
    If you want to call one of those theories into question, you can do so, but you have to show that your interpretation better explains the extant data. Enter bias. The old-guard is 1) comfortable with the status quo and 2) convinced that their theories are the best explanation. So not only does inertia hold them back, they also suspect bias on your part.
    Frankly, I’m always suspect when someone wants to overturn the interpretation that’s been in place for three hundred generations. The question becomes, are you seeing something in the text the rest have missed, or are you seeing something you want to see?
    If you want to question the current concensus, you can do that, but you’ve got a tough job ahead. You must convince everyone else that you’re not seeing what you want, then you must convince them that you’re right.
    For example, the role of women drawn from Eph 5, 1 Tim 2, etc — do those who oppose this interpretation do so because they’re seeing something past generations have missed, or do they oppose it because it offends their 20-21st century sensibilites about equality?
    The first task of the egalitarian movement is to convince the complimentarians that it is the former. (For the record, I’m neutral to mildly egalitarian.)
    As to Julie’s question, “What do you do with me?” Pray, argue, love, argue some more :) Eventually someone will get tired and quit. Or Jesus will come.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Well thankfully, I’m about to do just that Chris: Get tired and leave. But with a big smile on my face. I will be gone the rest of the day. Thanks everyone for letting me express my pov. Continue as you were.
    And Chris: As to Julie’s question, “What do you do with me?” Pray, argue, love, argue some more :) Eventually someone will get tired and quit. Or Jesus will come.
    Works for me. :)

  • Bob

    Julie,
    Always like your thought provoking questions. I don’t understand how you can go to a traditional church one the one hand and live with these skepical “going agianst the grain” kind of questions that you ask. It seems that would lead to some kind of psychological breakdown. Why are you not at a church that goes along with your thinking or start your own.

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    Julie (14),
    I hear you. I agree that all the things you mentioned and more besides influence our perceptions of Jesus. My own perception of Jesus is flawed for a variety of reasons, and I don’t even know which parts of my perception are flawed. Our inherent limitations of real knowledge that you mention are a significant part of why I was saying we can’t avoid shelving many questions and unresolved issues as we begin and continue to trust this one called “Jesus”. I hope greater humility and willingness to learn gets more ground based on the limitations of knowledge that postmodernity has emphasized. We cannot have all or even most of the hard questions answered even after starting to trust Jesus, and certainly not before. In fact, our limitations form part of the reason for us to trust Another in the first place.
    As I’ve been faced with these limitations of my own ability to know and discern the real Jesus, the real scriptures and their meaning, etc., I’ve chosen, at these times, to do the following, in the hope that at least a few fundamentals that many, many voices within the OT, NT, and the larger Christian tradition have said about God (not that that makes it true): namely, that he’s alive, that he’s powerful enough to hear earnest thoughts and groanings (and respond to them appropriately), and he is truly good. (I “hope in his unfailing love”.) If only those few things are true, then I can (and do) ask him to lead and help me (even citing my many flaws and limits as reasons I need help and guidance!), even knowing I don’t fully know the one I’m asking for help. What has resulted from those requests for me has convinced me of those fundamentals and thensome. I can’t sum up here all that he’s confirmed and how, but you get the idea.
    I guess what I’m saying is, it’s true I do need some concept of Jesus to begin to rely on him, but I don’t need a perfect concept (I still don’t have one) or even a very good one to reach out in trust to an all-powerful, supremely good and merciful person. In this whole life, we will see the one we’re trusting only in part. Our main hope lies not in our ability to know but in his abilities and willingness to be known and to lead, and even answer when spoken to. That’s what we trust and hope in. I’m grateful for the Bible, and several biblical writers seem to be so as well. But even the biblical writers seem much more grateful that there is a supremely good and powerful Person who calls to us and even answers us, through the Bible and through other means. I think–though I’m not sure–that’s what RJS was getting at when she said she trusts the bible because of Jesus, not the other way around.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    Scot, I’d be very interested in hearing your story re: your view of scripture, given that you’d been at TEDS, with its history of being the conservative alternative to Fuller. I agree with you and the others who’ve noted that the way conservative evangelicalism has defined “inerrancy” over the past few decades, particularly at the popular level, has not been helpful. Recent efforts to adopt a more incarnational model, ala Peter Enns and Kent Sparks, seem interesting and helpful, but feel to me incomplete. I like NT Wright’s approach, as well as Grenz / Franke’s “norming norm” language. Maybe there just needs to be a bit of loosening of the grip on this issue to allow for a variety of formulations.

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    Whoa! quite a few “Julie” comments after I had opened what became comment . . . 36! See you soon, I’m sure.

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    dopderdeck,
    Well, you’ll have to read The Blue Parakeet when it comes out. I think the word “inerrancy” comes at Scripture from the wrong angle — the angle of our capacity, on the basis of empirical work, to prove that it is right. I like the word “truth,” which tells us much more than inerrancy. Furthermore, we’ve downloaded so many discussions and conclusions, some of which have been proven wrong or at least seriously disputed, into that word that newer, fresher, more accurate words are needed. I think “true” and “truth” are the words to use.
    Scripture is treated epistemically by too many: that is, it is the ground of our epistemic claims. True enough, but Scripture is so much more. This sort of thing doesn’t come up in texts in the Bible that really do reflect on Scripture as God’s Word: say, Ps 119 or even 2 Tim 3. So, I fashion a bigger picture of Scripture along the lines of Story and Relationship. No more cats out of the bag.
    Oh, and one more thing: as I say in A Community called Atonement, the order is God – Spirit – Church – Scripture, not God – Scripture – Church. Scripture — I mean the writings — derive from God’s Spirit at work in the Church.

  • Mike K

    I think Julie’s #13 questions are important to the discussion because we talk an awful lot about historical criticism but somehow still give the Bible a “pass” when we say “let the Bible be what it is”. You can read thread of this pass throughout this discussion (i.e. “the Bible is God’s self-revelation, so of course it’s superior…” or “let the book we have, preserved by God, for us, through the work of the Spirit…”). What is that???
    I feel like we are checking our brains at the door (or portal if you like the blog term better).
    Don’t get me wrong..I think the Bible is a wonderful book full of insight, wisdom, ideas, calling, appeals to our better nature…but this whole idea of divine inspiration leaves me somewhat bewildered. I am not sure what to do with it or even what that means.
    R. Michael

  • RJS

    Scot,
    Looking at various Statements of Faith one might actually think that many hold the order to be Scripture-God-Faith-Church. I agree with your order though God – Spirit – Church – Scripture and liked that section of A Community Called Atonement.
    And…another hook to sell books.
    But…as you know from the boatload of e-mails we’ve exchanged over the last few years, I think that this is one of the biggest issues facing the Church today. This book (Blue Parakeet) is on my to get and to recommend list.

  • http://www.trissel.blogspot.com Taylor George

    This is a really good thread so far. I just wanted to say thanks to the commentors and that I’m getting a lot out of this dialogue.

  • RJS

    Let’s take a little different tack here and look at a slightly different issue — taking Scot’s advice, or following his example or whatever, one of the things I’ve been doing lately is starting at the beginning and reading the Bible – for formation not information; and all of it – not skipping from Genesis to Romans (see Scot there are some who listen sometimes).
    Unfortunately I am not too good at this and find myself dragged to commentaries on occasion (ok —regular occasion). So take the beginning of Exodus (or we could go to Samuel or other places for additional examples). Here we have the story of God calling and commissioning Moses. But frankly it looks, if I just read it, that what we have is several different views or recollections of a key event tacked together. So evangelical commentaries spend reams of paper and gallons of ink advancing somewhat farfetched arguments about how the text really is a coherent linear story – divinely inerrant in all detail. It seems to me that this is a classic example of taking our assumptions to the text. Theology or doctrine of scripture demands something of scripture that the text we have does not really support. We are as bad as John Calvin was in this example I quoted a few days ago ( in comment #46). Another example of this is, of course, seen in the various attempts that have been made to homogenize the passion and resurrection stories in the gospels.
    Isn’t this the wrong approach? Shouldn’t we be letting scripture tell us what it means for the Bible to be inspired and authoritative rather than importing our definitions and assumptions?

  • http://taddelay.blogspot.com tad delay

    A question I’ve been tossing around in my head has been on the nature of the theology of the Scripture writers. For instance, Peter talks as if fire will destroy the earth, while Paul talks endlessly of the renewal of all things. Now, we try to synthesize these into a coherent theology (and we certainly will do so with enough determination), but what if the two writers simply had different theology and wrote as such? That is certainly the case with any two people discussing God today. Is it that far out to expect such would be possible in Scripture?
    By the way, I flushed this out further in a series of my personal blog posts, starting:
    http://taddelay.blogspot.com/2008/04/words-of-god-versus-word-of-god.html

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    The worst lie of modernity was that the only way to take the bible seriously was to take it literally. Nobody takes the bible “literally”. Even literalists! The questions only become “hard” when you try to force a literal reading of texts intended to be parabolic stories not factual history.
    The question should not be “can we trust the bible?” It should be “What can we trust the bible to tell us?” It has cooking instructions, yet, it is a poor cookbook. It has descriptions of the origins of the world and ancient attempts at astronomy, yet it is a poor science book.
    If we let the bible be what it is and recognize its origins (ancient man’s poetic awe of God from their particular vantage points) we can begin to take it much more seriously. This wonderful book of poetry and inspiration is still relevant today. Unfortunately, some people have tried to use it in ways it was not intended.
    The truth of the Bible is not in its historical facts (or lack of facts). However, it is still the most profoundly truth-filled set of stories I’ve ever read. If more people would stop arguing over the facts, we could probably all agree on more of the truths.

  • Scott M

    Julie, I want to go back to your response directly to me first. For the record, I am Protestant and not Catholic (either Roman or Orthodox or Oriental), so I can only speak from that perspective. However, at the point in time when the NT canon was formed none of those later schisms had happened. There was only one church and we are all heir to that tradition. (Note that the same thing is not true for the OT. Each tradition uses a different OT canon. Personally, I find the historical Orthodox argument for the septuagint most convincing and the Protestant argument for the later developing Masoretic canon the least, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
    However, the statement you made that Catholic (Roman or Orthodox) theological statements are not based on Scripture is simply wrong. You cannot read theology from any century from either tradition without finding it saturated with Scripture. Further, I have many family and friends who are Roman Catholic and your statement that they don’t read the Bible is simply wrong. They read it at least as much as Protestants. And if either Roman Catholics or Orthodox adhere to a follow a rule of prayer, they will actually read much more scripture — in the form of prayer — than the vast majority of Protestants I know. The same is true for those who regularly attend liturgy.
    Scripture is extremely important to both traditions. They just don’t believe it somehow magically interprets itself. But in all honesty, however much they bluster to the contrary, I haven’t found any Protestant tradition that actually believes that either. But that’s probably my postmodern suspicion speaking.
    At any rate, the description I gave for the motivation and basis for the inclusion of texts in the NT canon is not a Catholic description. It is the shared description of all Christian traditions. That is how the canon was formed, that was the historical intent, and that was the basis. It doesn’t include any writings from women because either none of the first century women who were witnesses to the resurrection ever recorded the witness we know they preached or those writings did not survive. From a historical perspective of the education of the era, it’s not surprising that there were no writings specifically by women. We do certainly know that Mary, the God-bearer, contributed to the gospels since there is information in them that nobody but her could possibly have known. And I think the same is probably true of some of the other women apostles.
    However, that’s the canon we have and since those witnesses to the resurrection have now all fallen asleep in the Lord, it seems unlikely to me that it will change. We do have many theological writings and kerygma by many since then, both men and women. And much of that is of great value and Christians should explore more of it. But it is not the testimony and teaching of the witnesses to the Resurrection.
    And I had an interest in ancient history that long preceded the completion of my journey into Christianity. Wright and others who make the point are correct. You can’t find any talk of resurrection in the ancient world that doesn’t mean new bodies. Now most didn’t think it was possible or even that it would be a good thing if it did happen. The Jews were definitely in the minority there. But historically that’s what resurrection means. It’s an incredible claim. It was then and it still is now. But Christianity hangs its hat completely on it. I’ve been other things in the past and if something happened to prove that Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead, I would likely choose among them for the spiritual path around which I would shape my life. But the one thing I can certainly say is that I would immediately cease being Christian. I understand exactly what Paul means on that point. It would be ridiculous and a complete waste of my life to continue as a Christian if the Resurrection is not true.

  • Scott M

    RJS, I’ve always just left the claims I often hear about the “inerrancy of Scripture” to one side. It’s always been a bizarre set of arguments to me. I can understand that people find in it some reason or justification that helps them place their confidence in the God revealed in Jesus about whom we hear in the text. For the life of me, I’ve never understood why some find the idea helpful. And so I’ve not wasted much energy on it.
    God is made known to us, is fully revealed to us, in Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture is not linear from a Christian perspective. Rather, it is centered entirely around Jesus. I suppose I’m fully in the camp of the ancient Fathers on this one. All of Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted through the lens of Jesus. Period. I won’t claim I always know how to do that with a particular text. But when I don’t, I tend to set it aside rather than interpret it wrongly. For I firmly believe that any interpretation through any lens other than Jesus of Nazareth is not a Christian interpretation.
    I’m also not sure that Scripture is capable of speaking to us about itself. People say things like that all the time. It seems like a strange thing to say to me. Texts cannot interpret themselves. They just are. People provide interpretation.

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    “Isn’t this the wrong approach? Shouldn’t we be letting scripture tell us what it means for the Bible to be inspired and authoritative rather than importing our definitions and assumptions?”
    Yes and Yes. ;) I hope for progress here at best, though.
    And you’re right, scripture itself doesn’t seem overly concerned that the Gospels aren’t journalistic quotes of Jesus (or that the “quotes” aren’t the same), for example. The scriptures seem to imply that we don’t always need the exact quote to know what was said, nor every action to know what happened.

  • Scott M

    Quotes? If there’s anything we know, it’s that Jesus went from place to place teaching. Even in our culture which has been shaped differently by the printing press and subsequent written forms, as well as vastly improved communication, when someone does that, even if they are teaching the same thing, they rarely say it all exactly the same way twice unless they are simply reading or reciting a prepared text. In a much more oral culture, if Jesus said something once, he likely said it tens if not hundreds of times. And he probably didn’t say it exactly the same way all the time. We have a synthesis of those teachings from those who were with him as we taught. We then trust that the accounts convey to us what is needful and helpful for our faith.
    People think we have quotes in the teaching recorded in the gospels of things Jesus only said once and only in one particular way and without any influence by the memory of those listening? What an odd thing to think …

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    Scott M,
    Sorry; I don’t think I was very clear. My point was that the idea that the Gospels are quotations, at least where there is recorded dialog, is one of those modern assumptions that still have wide use in evangelical churches. The gospel writers are faithful witnesses, but not tape recorders.

  • Scott M

    Of course Julie, if your complaint is that most Christians of any flavor simply don’t read scripture, then my response is, “So what else is new?” That was one of St. John Chrysostom’s big complaints in his homilies way back in the fourth century. His parishioners could tell you everything about the games and the theater, but found it too much trouble to read scripture. And that’s back when even owning one book of Scripture was a significant financial investment. At least if you even simply show up in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions you will be exposed to a significant amount of Scripture in the liturgy rather than the typical small bit of scripture accompanying the sermon in most Protestant churches.

  • Scott M

    T, I guess I’ll just repeat my last thought: What an odd thing to think ….

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Scott,
    I think that what T is suggesting (sorry if I mangle your idea T) is that reading the gospels and assuming the red letters are exact quotes would be like watching the movie “Walk the line” and assuming every word of the actor was an exact quote from Johnny Cash. Nobody ever watches a movie and makes that assumption even if it says right up front (this movie is based on a true story). We’ve tried to make those texts something they are not. We’ve tried to read them as if they were the transcripts of a court reporter, rather than the creative products of play writers and poets crafting entertaining liturgical texts set against the backdrop of Jewish antiquity (common techniques of midrash text like these). It just doesn’t make sense to apply a modernistic layer of factuality onto creative works of art. THAT would be an odd thing to think.
    The dialogue in these scripts is highly charged with the particular theological motives of the writers. They are written in a way that places the historical events in the context of Jewish History. They make the case that Jesus is the new Moses (i.e. the similar escape from genocide and trip from Egypt stories). Jesus is the new Caesar (i.e. the divine birth story). Jesus is the new Elijah (i.e. the ascension story). Each writer has his own intention based on the particular community of faith that inspires their unique gospel tradition. The differences between the earliest script and the latest are not there because the historical characters were different, but because the theology of the writers had shifted between the time of Mark and the time of John.
    Nobody who watched “walk the line” ran out of the theatre saying “They lied to us! It’s a fake. I know for a fact that Johnny Cash never said ‘xyz…’”. It would be naive to apply that kind of scrutiny to any narrative. However, they might wonder why the screenplay included particular allegorical images and juxtaposition of dialogue to make a more symbolic meaning about the character’s life. We shouldn’t ask “why did Jesus say that?” We should ask “why did this author present Jesus in that way? Why did they include that scene or change it from earlier scripts? What was the screenwriter trying to tell us about the way Jesus had become known to these people re-telling his story?”

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    Progressive Faith,
    Be careful not to overstate the differences between the Gospels. The fact that Matthew and Luke used Mark shows that these Gospels got around and that they were not just intended for one community. Although they are primarily theological documents, the Gospel writers used all of the ancient methods of writing “good historiography.” Richard Bauckham has done many convincing studies on this topic–especially his new book on John. Richard Burridge has also done a great study comparing the Gospels to ancient Greco-Roman biography that challenges some of the old assumptions about their genre.
    Further, claims of “theological development” between Mark and John have consistently been shown to be overstated or inaccurate (especially with regard to christology and eschatology). Sure, there are theological distinctives between the Gospels, but they are much more similar to each other than any of them are to any of the non-canonical gospels.
    Further, don’t confuse “theological” with “non-historical.” The Gospel writers certainly shaped their narratives according to their theological purposes, but this does not make them unhistorical. Again, Richard Bauckham has done a number of convincing studies on this topic.

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Progressive,
    It is unwise to compare the Gospels to a modern screenplay. Sure, you can “explain” what Walk the Line does with what the Gospels do, but “explanation” is one thing; proof with evidence from the 1st Century is something else.
    So, I suggest comparing Mark and Matthew and Luke to see how they treated traditions in front of them; assume, as is common, that Matt and Luke used Mark and see how they treated Mark — and I can assure you it is not the way Walk the Line had to make things up when they didn’t know what really happened. An impression of Johnny Cash on the part of a Hollywood money-making machine is entirely different than a set of Evangelists who (1) knew their lives were at least at threat some of the time, (2) knew what they were saying was controversial, and (3) knew that these Gospels were the anchor of their entire faith.
    Phone call…

  • Scott M

    Progressive, I was commenting on the style of thinking about scripture that T was describing some people use (exact quote, trying to reconcile differences, etc) when I said it struck me as an odd way to think. Sorry if I wasn’t clear.
    Matt, do you mean there’s some dispute about whether or not the gospels fit the ancient category of “biography”? That’s strange. That much was obvious to me when I first read them. They don’t much look like a modern biography, but that’s pretty different from the ancient genre.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Matt (#54),
    I think you’ll notice I’m not saying the texts are unhistorical. I’m saying they are creative texts about historical events (it’s a case of both-and not either-or). So don’t confuse “narrative” with “untrue”. Don’t confuse “art” with “not real”. Modernity has been setting those concepts at odds for the last few centuries.
    As for the different theology of Mark and John, not only is the theological purpose different, but their is a very different worldview involved. John is so much more Greek and certainly has more symbolism. John have ventured very far from “historical”. We might even say it is more gnostic or at a minimum influenced by gnosticism.
    The main point is to note that “less historical” does NOT mean “less valuable” or “less truthful”. It just means the author has less intention to convey history and more intention to convey meaning.

  • RJS

    Progressive Faith,
    I don’t think “creative texts about historical events” hits the right note. Christian faith is grounded in history not creative story or narrative about history.

  • Scott M

    Progressive, John is the theologia rather than the kerygma of the Church. However, it is very little like Greek thought (and in the context of John, my assumption would be that in saying that you have Plato in mind?). In fact, the prologue is a slap in the face to platonism when it describes the logos becoming flesh. At its core, John’s perspective is deeply Jewish even though it is written in such a way that at first it appears comfortable to those who read from different perspectives. I was such a one and I thought I like John until he had sucked me in and I realized he was actually dismantling most of the beliefs with which I thought I was comfortable.

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    Progressive Faith,
    I don’t think my comment diminished the artistic value of the gospels in any way. Sure, they are works of art–but they also contain real history.
    I have to disagree with you about John’s worldview. Bultmann’s idea that John was “Greek” or “Gnostic” has long since been abandoned. The discovery of the scrolls at Qumran showed that the dualism in John was very present in the Judaism of his day. Any modern commentary on John will describe and refute the views you are espousing.
    In some instances “less historical” does mean “less truthful.” I would refer you to Brent Sandy’s for this issue, or Scott M’s comments above on #46. In some cases, especially that of the resurrection, the “truthfulness” of the narrative is tied to it’s historicity. I will grant that this isn’t always the case (see Sandy for this), but sometimes it is.
    Perhaps we are not as far apart as I am letting on. I grant that there is art in the narrative, and it sounds like you are willing to grant that there is history. Like you said, the two are not mutually exclusive.

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    Sorry, in the above #60 Sandy’s book is called Plowshares and Pruning Hooks.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    RJS (#58),
    I never said the texts are not “grounded in history”. That is exactly what I mean by “creative texts about historical events”.
    Scott (#55),
    2 things you said…
    “I can assure you it is not the way Walk the Line had to make things up when they didn’t know what really happened…”
    The authors of that screenplay had more access to the life of Johnny Cash than any gospel author would have had of Jesus. None of the gospel writers had tape or video of Jesus. I also think you’re grasping hard for the modern mindset that “if it ain’t exactly word for word, then it’s useless”. (don’t mean to put words in your mouth so feel free to let me know if I’m missing your sentiment).
    Please keep in mind that I’m not comparing the VALUE of a modern movie with the value of the bible – merely the genre. I don’t see any biblical reason to see that these writers felt their lives depended on the historical accuracy of their stories. I DO think they felt their lives were at stake because they dared to apply the MEANING of the stories.
    I don’t think the writers of any narrative (then or now) are tyring to “make things up”. They are however trying to imagine what words will paint the best picture for their readers and what scenes are needed to get the point accross.
    As for proof within the 1st century, I think it is obvious in the texts themselves and even more evidenced when we examine the Jewish way of communicating truth. Just read the many Midrash texts and see how meaning is communicated by telling parables about parables. New stories are created to unearth more meaning from old stories. Mark is a Midrash on Q (and oral traditions). Matthew and Luke are midrash on Mark. John is very much Midrash on all the earlier works. All you need to do is read the first chapter of John and see how he sets the whole story about to come. He makes a bold statement on what Jesus MEANS and then writes the script to prove it. He tells us right up front that the comming story is about an interpretation of Jesus as the logos made flesh. That is theology, not history. There’s nothing wrong with theology, it’s just a different genre.

  • RJS

    Progressive Faith,
    I’ve read Marcus Borg for example – and the sense of “creative texts about historical events” in his work is exactly what I mean by “not grounded in history.” Yes there is some real history – but the gospels we have are primarily true about Jesus as theology – not history.
    Are you saying something different?

  • mariam

    Julie:
    I’m obviously not good at getting my point across succinctly, which is why my comments tend to be long and rambling and full of parentheses (like this one) so I can qualify everything – unlike my first comment on this post. I agree with you taking me to task for the phrase “the only guide we need”. That was careless wording and obviously not inspired or authoritative. Mea culpa. I don’t have a Christian background and sometimes I use phrases which I realize later are politicized in terms or right/left theology. I see however that you have seized on that phrase and given it a lot more import and a narrower meaning than what I intended, so I suspect something is going on and I am in “lost in translation” land. If you read the rest of my comment, I am far from being a sola scriptura type, (and really only ran into that phrase a little over a year ago). I do not believe that the “Bible” is the WORD OF GOD in any absolute narrow sense. I mean that isn’t even a fully biblical idea – you have to string a whole bunch of ambiguous verses and cross your fingers to come up with that one. In contrast, at least one gospel writer tells us plainly that Jesus is the Word of God. If we don’t believe Jesus is the central truth in our faith, then I don’t think we can claim to be Christian . And the Bible, with whatever disclaimers we want to attach to it, is our only primary (ish) written source for who and what Jesus was. We can quibble about whether Jesus is revealed in the writings of other faiths, either through story as in Islam, or through ideas, as in Bhuddism, but for Christians the Bible is our primary source of theology – it’s part of the package we accept fundamental to our faith. It is therefore in that sense authoritative and we should take it seriously.
    I am not an inerrantist (or whatever the word is) and not an exclusionist. In theological outlook I fall somewhere between Scott M and Progressive Faith. I don’t believe that God stopped speaking to us 2000 years ago and has been mute since and I hope that God continues to speak to me in various ways, so that I never get complacent and arrogant enough to believe I have Her ;) nailed down. I certainly think we have to look at the historical and cultural context in which the scriptures were written, and in fact, I think that that is necessary to get at the diamonds of enduring truth which lays underneath all that – which is what I was trying to say. I am also not claiming there are not diamonds of enduring truth in the scriptures of other faiths, and the spiritual writings of other people. Reading other philosophical and spiritual writings can enrich and enlarge our understanding of the truths in our own Christian scriptures. So when I said “the only guide we need” I did not mean that we should shut everything else out, which is what I think, Julie, you heard me saying. I also did not mean the phrase proscriptively, as in the “only guide you SHOULD ever use”. What I meant in my head, although in my 10 minute spurt of commenting I didn’t expand into writing, was “the Bible (which is a collection of books written by different authors in differing circumstances with different understandings and knowledge and theologies, and canonized by long and sometimes rancorous and very un-Christlike decision-making in the church by flawed individuals, sometimes motivated by politics and/or individual agendas over hundreds of years, which probably because of human nature and lack of insight, left out some really good bits that was God speaking and included some stuff which wasn’t really God speaking at all AND includes errors in translation and interpretation by those who passed it on) tells us the true (if limited) story of our faith and our Judeo-Christian interpretation of man’s relationship with God and as Christians it is all we NEED to interpret our faith as it pertains to our spiritual growth and an understanding (as Christians) to our relationship with God. I do not make the claim that it is all we should have for our spiritual growth any more that I think we should only ever eat bread and water, even though that may be all we need to stay alive.
    I have no doubt aroused the ire or at least the prayers of the Biblicists (which I welcome – the prayer not the ire). I enjoy my discussions with Brad, for example, and respect his position and his patience with me, even though I am not even remotely close to sharing his theology. As long as he is not threatening to burn me at the stake for heresy I don’t feel threatened or offended by his take on the Bible. His ideas seem exotic to me but I find them interesting and, in some ways, reasonable and true. I feel that when I explore the beliefs that are most distant to mine (and these wouldn’t necessarily be yours, Brad) that my understanding is enlarged. I don’t believe that divine truth is relative but human truth is, and human truth is really all we have. I believe that God has revealed Himself to us in a variety of ways for a reason, and that in our blindness we need to describe the part of the elephant nearest us to each other and argue about it so that we get a glimpse of the whole elephant. So while I am currently a left-leaning, relativist, universalist love fundamentalist I hold lightly to those beliefs and am interested in the perspective of the right-leaning, absolutist, exclusionist “path of wrath” fundamentalist to help clarify my own fuzzy beliefs. Of course I couldn’t really hold on to my theological position if I wasn’t willing to do that and I might feel differently if I lived in a theocracy or a society where religious freedom was physically suppressed.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    RJS,
    You lost me in post #63. I’m not sure what you are asking. I’ll say agian that I think many events and even possibly some of the dialogue are probably historical. However, the texts we have are not written by people taking notes of the conversations. I’m just saying we should remember that and factor it into our thinking. It doesn’t lessen the value of the texts.
    Please don’t try to read into what I saying. I’m not trying to discredit the texts. I’m a Christian. Those texts are my life. In fact, I feel they have more credit and we can take them more seriously once we stop reading them literal. For example, can anyone take revelation seriously if taken literally?
    Matt,
    When I said John was “more Greek” and had more symbolism, I simply mean that Jewish culture was becoming more and more western in thought (granted it took centuries since plato), but using concepts like “logos” is a great example. It was the philosophy that was becoming more Greek. The notion of afterlife and body/mind dualism is obviously Greek influenced and veered from Jewish thinking. These things are not black and white. It is gradual.
    As for Gnosticism, John places the value of our faith in knowing certain things about Jesus. That is the basis of Gnosticism. It finds salvation in knowing something secret or believing something that others don’t know or believe. For later Christians (like those that created John), coming into the kingdom is a product of coming to know (be certain) the secret that Jesus is divine and resurrected. That concept is not forefront in other gospels or Paul’s letters (not enough time here to tease that out fully).
    The point here, and I think we all would agree, is that the bible is a library of differt types of texts. It is not a single book of a single source. There is no way to deny that John is a very differnt type of document from the synoptics. That is why we call the others synoptics.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Miriam, didn’t mean to get your ire up. I was using your comment as a springboard for issues that are commonly associated with discussions like these. I was not trying to take you to task at all nor did I intend for you to have to defend yourself. But thanks for expanding your thoughts! I always value them.
    Julie

  • Dianne P

    mariam,
    a grateful heart for your posts here.
    Progressive Faith,
    “Please keep in mind that I’m not comparing the VALUE of a modern movie with the value of the bible – merely the genre.”
    Wow! I don’t see the genres as remotely comparable. Isn’t the objective of moviemakers to provide entertainment and make money? Or maybe to make money and provide entertainment? Just guessing that neither of those were objectives of any of the writers of scripture.

  • Scott M

    The Church has never denied that John is different from the other gospels. John doesn’t even call itself a gospel. Not only has the church never denied that reality, it has called John the theologian, a label not lightly handed out. Further, it has typically treated John as writing which leads the Church deeply into the mysteries of God while the ones we call ‘synoptics’ these days are the ones primarily intended as proclamations to those not within the Church. That’s not a ‘rule’, but simply a recognition of their different natures.
    However, I can’t imagine a reading of the synoptics, the Acts of the Apostles (which is really just the continuation of Luke), and the epistles that does not see the divinity and resurrection of Jesus front and center. That would have to be a very strange reading indeed. How do you even explain the very first sermon given by Peter on Pentecost without acknowledging both? And it wasn’t Jesus’ claims to be Messiah which got him in hot water with the Jewish powers and a charge of blasphemy. That was risky, but it wasn’t blasphemous. There were any number of would-be Messiahs around that same time period. And Paul constantly refers to the Resurrection and speaks of Jesus in divine terms that placed him above even Caesar.
    Mariam, did anything I say lead you to believe that I think God has been silent for two thousand years or that there aren’t a great number of writings worth dwelling upon? If so, I’m confused what it might be. I just outlined the historical criteria the church used to create a canon of those writings which captured the apostolic witness. There were other writings which then and now still carry a great deal of weight. The didache comes to mind. But they couldn’t be satisfactorily linked to an apostle. That was the debate over the questionable books. And that’s why the canon has been closed since then. That doesn’t make God silent. It simply means that the apostolic witnesses are no longer writing texts.

  • RJS

    Progressive Faith,
    Perhaps I misunderstand you. What do you mean by “read them literal”?
    If you simply mean that they are not transcriptions – I agree.
    If you mean they are reconstructions or constructions by the church to tell the theological story based on the early church’s new understanding of Jesus – I disagree.
    This later is what some mean by “not literal.”

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    If you mean they are reconstructions or constructions by the church to tell the theological story based on the early church’s new understanding of Jesus – I disagree.
    RJS, so can you expand what you and Scot mean when you say that we should let the Bible be what it is? How do you see it? What is it, in your mind?

  • Scott M

    And I also agree they aren’t transcriptions. That’s the perspective I called an odd way to think. I’m sure I’m surrounded by people who do think that way, but it’s so alien to the way my mind interacts with scripture, I guess I never noticed. The classic meaning of ‘literal’ is (more or less) the meaning the author intended the text to convey. I would also agree that that is too narrow a way to read scripture if it is your only way of understanding it. It is one necessary component, but it might not even be the most important one. We clearly see that as Jesus and the apostles use OT texts in ways their authors could not possibly have imagined or intended. So it may be that we are all speaking the same words, but with very different understandings of those words.
    Perhaps my deep appreciation for John springs from the fact that I read it from the eyes of very mixed spiritual roots. My childhood and young adult perspective was heavily influenced by the sort of monoism one finds in Eastern spirituality, especially Hinduism and the Vedas. At the same time, though, I had layered some beliefs which could be considered dualistic, but not in the sense of platonism. It wasn’t the dualism of flesh and spirit, but more the dualism of male and female as embodying differing spiritual meanings. (I was never someone for whom spiritual matters were ignored or in the background, whether I was identifiably Christian or not.)
    And trust me, whatever dualism had impacted Jewish culture is not what influences John. John feels comfortable and familiar at first both from a dualistic and monist perspective. The synoptics and many of the letters just feel strange unless you have managed to absorb a fair degree of Jewish perspective. (I had to find ways to immerse myself in that perspective before I could really begin to grasp what the uniquely Christian story was saying.) But John feels almost like a well-worn shoe at first. But that comfort is illusory. John peels back the layers of those perspectives and leaves them on the floor. Read all of John straight through several times in succession. If you end up still perceiving either dualism or monism in him, and are not left pretty uncomfortable and challenged, then we must not be reading the same text. John is the hard nails of Christianity, the tack which pops the bubbles of illusion (and some would say delusion).

  • RJS

    Julie (#70),
    A quick, short, partial, answer of what I mean (I wouldn’t presume to speak for Scot): We should not impose our system on the text, be it Calvinism, or dispensationalism, or literalism or what have you.
    But you are probably asking more in conjunction with the quote you include — I do think that the gospels were composed by the church with at least some theological intent – but I don’t think that incidents were constructed to make theological points. But now I see myself entering a morass I can’t work out of easily this late at night.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    but I don’t think that incidents were constructed to make theological points.
    This helps! I see the Gospels as constructions, but not to create theological points! So there are lots more possibilities here and I can see how we each keep bringing additional ideas/ assumptions to what we read in each other’s short posts.
    Thanks for a great discussion RJS all week!

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Julie,
    To suggest any artist is “only out to make money” would be seen as a slap in the face (or worse). Most artists would argue they are making a statement, or trying to suggest something deep about society, or themselves, or the world. Stories are meant to convey meaning. That is the comparison I’m making. The gospels are making statements about what Jesus had come to mean to the writers and their communities.
    Scott,
    I think the charge of blaspheme is a trumped up charge and embelished as Christianty became more seperate from judaism. The real charge that lead to Jesus death, is the failure to yeild to proper authority. By Jesus forgiving sins, and restoring community to outcasts he was over stepping his authority and underminning the authority of the temple. He also ventured into the authority of Rome when he taught techniques for non-violent protest (see the sermon on the mount’s instructions for protest).
    RJS,
    I think you and Scott may be caught in the false dichotomy that the texts must be 100% accurate history or else they are lies. I don’t think there was some kind of goofy davinci code conspiracy. It was the natural creation and expansion of narratives to convey meaning. This was normal to people well versed in the Midrash tradition. They reference history, but tell history through parables.

  • Scott M

    Progressive, I’m not caught in any sort of dichotomy, false or otherwise. I’ve personally followed and practiced a number of spiritual paths and studied and explored many more to one degree or another. Christianity makes specific historically rooted claims about its God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth which are pretty different once you scratch below the surface from anything else you’ll encounter. And it lives or dies by them. Take away the Incarnation and the Resurrection as specific historical events and I wouldn’t call anything in Christianity even good advice for how to try to live as a human being. In fact, most of it would be pretty bad advice. Subtract those from the equation and you would really have to be a fool to adhere to the practices of this faith. (Yes, there are superficially some which are common to many faiths and those might be good advice by themselves, but the fullness of the sort of life toward which Christianity calls you and the story it tells about what it means to be a human being are sheer idiocy without Jesus of Nazareth alive, crucified, and resurrected at their core.) We see in the sacred text and in all the writings that we have that Christianity lived and died by those historical claims at every point along the continuum. Heck, those claims had already been transformed to the creedal form of oral tradition by the time of Paul. That’s how important they were.
    I’m not even sure what you mean by 100% accurate “history”. Actually, I’m not sure what you mean by either “100% accurate” or by “history”. The “letters” are mostly in the form of rhetoric. The apocalypse is Jewish apocalyptic literature. The gospels are essentially bios in the ancient form. Perhaps the Acts is closest to what would be considered an ancient history.
    Nor do I have any idea what you mean on the other side of the dichotomy you are proposing. I don’t particularly care whether the authors wrote with an attitude of truthfulness or deceit and “lies” speaks more to the understanding and mental state of the author than anything else. And that makes very little difference to me at all.
    The texts describe a particular view on the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. And that view is rooted and repeatedly linked to specific events in a specific place at a specific time involving a specific person. Either those events, strange as they are (and they were at least as strange to people in the first century as they are now, perhaps stranger) happened or there is no reason to be Christian. And that’s the case whether the authors were “lying” or not.
    I would also point out the Midrash period begins after the generation of Bar Kokhba, so is not directly applicable to the first century, second temple period. Judaism changed pretty dramatically (and intentionally) after the destruction of Jerusalem and the last would be Messiah. Even within the first century period, most of the authors of the NT, with the exception of Paul, were not and had not been trained as rabbis. Even Jesus, by all accounts, did not follow the traditional path to that end. (Though fictional, I do love the way Anne Rice has Jesus explain that choice to a questioner in her latest book.)

  • Brad Cooper

    WOW! Quite a robust discussion going on here….I like it!
    No need for my long-windedness tonight….. ;) So I’ll keep it really really short for a change…..besides, I’m one of those troublesome hard-headed inerrantists that everybody keeps whining about….so you probably are afraid of what I might say anyways. :) Besides, Scot would make short work of me……Maybe I just need to go to sleep…..Ha!
    I do like the principle to just let the Bible be what it says it is…..and truth is definitely a good concept to rally around (if we could just stick with the Bible’s definition of truth and didn’t have to fight over everybody else wanting to redefine it in their own terms)….the Bible says it’s God’s words so I try to listen….and I’ve found that when I remember to listen, I can indeed hear him speak….. and that’s more than enough for me.
    ………..
    JULIE (#13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 25, 33, 44, 52, 65, 79, 82…),
    I feel your pain. I didn’t think it was right that they closed the canon before I got a chance to write something either. BTW, did you graduate from UTS, Dayton?
    Peace.
    ……
    OK…that was really really short for me. ;) Shalom my friends.

  • mariam

    Julie,
    You didn’t get my ire up (LOL). It takes a lot more than a gentle theological discussion to do that. Maybe my comment does come across a little strong but if you could see my face you would have seen me grinning, not scowling. However I did feel the need to defend myself, lest I lose my reputation as the resident forum liberal (although there seem to be a lot more of us around lately). We once had a discussion about how you were shedding your theological baggage while I was picking it up. I didn’t want you to think I had picked up THAT much theology:)
    Scott
    Absolutely nothing you said made me think that you think God stopped communicating with us 2,000 years ago. On the contrary – I sense from you a strong belief in God’s near presence and communication with us. I think it was the juxtaposition of your name and the next sentence that made you think that. I didn’t mean them to be connected. When other people write things here I often wish that I’d said and that probably happens most often with your comments. In fact, sometimes I read your comments and wonder if I wrote it and forgot, except they are just a little bit too well-informed and insightful to be mine:) Cheers! (Not that I’m accusing you of being liberal.)

  • Ranger

    “So there are lots more possibilities here and I can see how we each keep bringing additional ideas / assumptions to what we read in each other’s short posts.”
    Great point Julie! You (unintentionally?) hit the nail on the head of one of the biggest problems that we have in moving forward with these types of discussions: we all bring serious (sometimes unrecognizable) presuppositions to our hermeneutics. And that’s at the heart of why this issue has caused such a great divide between many believers! If we struggle with reading ideas and concepts into another persons comments, imagine what we bring to reading Scripture!
    I think N.T. Wright gives a great illustration at the beginning of “The New Testament and the People of God” when he suggests that the Bible is parallel to Israel in that “it has again and again been a battleground for warring armies,” and that’s a shame. But, I think we can all still agree with him when he says, “yet it has remained a powerful and evocative book, full of delicacy and majesty, tears and laughter.”
    I’m with RJS in that I too believe that these stories are basically historical (especially in the Gospels), but that they have been recorded in ways to highlight their theological meaning.
    Personally, I struggle with a consistent hermeneutic, and think we all do. Let me illustrate:
    1. My wife and I have been reading through the Bible together each night for a long time. Right now, we are back in Numbers. Personally, I feel like I spend more time each night saying, “Why is God so angry?” or “Can God act like this and still be what we would call just?” I understand the biblical concept of holiness, et. al., and much of the theological themes at work in the story, but I still am often left confused. Take for instance the story of Balaam. God tells him to go with the mean who come from Balak in 22:20, and then two verses later it says, “But God’s anger was kindled because he went…” What? In the rest of Balaam’s story he seems pretty faithful outside of abusing his donkey, and still the angel calls him “perverse.” Then in the New Testament we twice read about Balaam’s error and I’m just left scratching my head wondering what he did wrong, and why God comes across as being so on edge in these ancient stories.
    2. I’m personally working through Mark. Jesus in this book is clearly God, and clearly calls his followers to live a revolutionary life that promotes justice and equality all through a life of love. I like this picture of God. I want to follow this God. In fact, I call myself a Christian because of the revelation of God in Christ.
    So what gives? I agree with whoever it was who said above that we should read the passages such as those in Numbers through the lens of Christ, and I really like the old Baptist saying that clearly was influenced by Barthian theology, which says, “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
    Still, I’m not sure where that gets my overall hermeneutic. I think if anything we must all admit that no matter how literalist, naturalist, spiritualistic or theological our personal hermeneutics may be, we all struggle with consistency in applying those hermeneutics.

  • mariam

    Brad! I was wondering where you were.
    I’m one of those troublesome hard-headed inerrantists that everybody keeps whining about
    And that’s why we love you.
    the Bible says it’s God’s words
    We also love a good circular argument. Seriously, I also think God speaks through scripture – just not in quite the direct way you do.
    Shalom, indeed :)

  • Ranger

    “However, the texts we have are not written by people taking notes of the conversations. I’m just saying we should remember that and factor it into our thinking.”
    That’s a great point Progressive Faith. To a certain degree though I will disagree. For years our literate minds have not been able to grasp what it was like to live in an oral culture, and since the majority of NT research has been done by those who are extremely literate, little research (until recently) has been done in regards to the accuracy of oral transmission. Sure, everyone talks about the text being transmitted orally but until recently it doesn’t seem like many plunged very deep into what this means in regards to NT transmission.
    The New Testament world was about 2-3% literate by most estimates. Recent orality research has shown that in oral cultures people can memorize things in one setting when being intentional about it. The level of accuracy by people from these oral cultures is astounding.
    China (where I live) was very much that way until the last thirty years. When the church was shut down and the missionaries were kicked out back in 1949, most pastors were imprisoned and much literature was burned. The vast majority of churches didn’t have Bibles, but many of the believers could accurately quote large sections of the Bible or long sections of missionary teaching material that they had personally only heard one or two times simply because they came from an oral culture with the ability to memorize extremely easily. Whenever I listen to people share stories of this period it’s like a page out of the Bradbury novel “Farenheit 451″ where people were reconstructing New Testaments simply from shared memory.
    If we think about this in regards to the New Testament world, then we see that it is very much possible that the major portions, and even some of the smaller dialogues and discussions could be accurate even if the first sayings gospels weren’t written down for many years. Take for instance the sermon on the mount. The people came wanting to learn a special teaching from Jesus. As such, they would have been very attentive to what he said and could have memorized his words. In this particular situation, if you factor in that a community was hearing him and that they could correct each other if someone didn’t hear clearly or remember clearly, then you see that it is at least feasible that our accounts could be accurate without even factoring in the theological reasons that we believe in their accuracy.

  • http://www.virtuphill.blogspot.com phil_style

    A quick 2 pence,
    Compliments to everyone for this discussion. Differences to be sure, but respect for each other and friendliness all round!
    Thankyou, a pleasure to read.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Scott M,
    you said. “Take away the Incarnation and the Resurrection as specific historical events and I wouldn’t call anything in Christianity even good advice for how to try to live as a human being. In fact, most of it would be pretty bad advice. Subtract those from the equation and you would really have to be a fool to adhere to the practices of this faith.”
    Wow! I’m really surprised to hear you say that. You just threw all of Jesus’ sermons into the category of foolish. You just threw his protest in the temple and all the healing stories away. Is following Jesus’ teachings foolish? Do you really mean that turning the other cheek, caring about injustice, and opposing corruption in government is “bad advice”?
    Midrash tradition is much older. It goes back before Jesus. Rabbi Hillel, who’s grandson taught the apostle Paul as a pharisee, for example who gave Jesus the “do unto others” line, and even in the torah itself there are Midrash examples. Notice the connections between how Joshua is painted as the new Moses and how his story is tied back to Moses with literary allegory (Crossing the jordon in a way that ties him to Moses’ crossing the red sea). That seems to obviously be a work of Midrash. In Jewish antiquity every story must in some way connect to an older story. The same is true with the New testament stories of Jesus.
    Thanks for the dialogue and civility. Again, I’m not suggesting these stories have no history. I’m saying that the real hard historical facts are told through parables. By “false dichotomy”, I’m not trying to insult you. I mean that your arguments seem to be based on an either/or that ignores other alternatives beyond those two polar opposites. I think there is a 3rd way beyond the two sides of the modern bible wars.

  • RJS

    Progressive Faith,
    Well – you’d be surprised with me as well, as I am completely with Scott M on this one.
    Not that there is nothing good in the teachings of Jesus – but anything good is found in a multitude of other places and cultures as well. And…following through on the ethic of Jesus in the way he teaches is foolishness if not ground in the act of God in history – and this is the incarnation and resurrection.
    I think that there is a third way as well – but the impression I get from what you write (and I could misinterpret here) is that it isn’t your “third way”.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    RJS (#83)
    you said: “Not that there is nothing good in the teachings of Jesus – but anything good is found in a multitude of other places and cultures as well.”
    What I hear you saying there is that anything you teach is only valuable if we can somehow prove nobody else had the same idea. That seems very odd. Is love wrong because other religions teach it too? Should we ignore compassion as foolishness since somebody else talked about it centuries before Jesus?
    That logic seems flawed. It feels more like being concerned with winning some kind of religious competition rather than looking for truth.
    Scott M,
    Again, I’m not denying the truth of resurrection and incarnation. Those ARE the core meanings of the stories. I’m saying that the truths of those concepts do not depend on literal interpretations of those events. We don’t have to bet the farm on the historical accuracy of the stories. Let’s bet the farm on the meanings that the stories point toward (the transformative power of grace and mercy achieved through the act of sacrificial love).
    I am suggesting a “3rd way” because I’m not forcing a decision on based on proving stories to be historical. The modern mistakes of both side (fundmentalism and atheism) depend on accepting or denying facts. The alternative that you are not considering is to realize that the real meaning of Christ does not live or die on the facts of the story, but the meanings that the story point toward.
    Nobody died because they stood ground on the facts of the story. People were killed because they dared to follow Jesus’ principles. They dared to live a life in opposition to the forces that ruled this world. If someone in the first century had claimed that their brother-in-law fred jones was resurrected and lived at the right had of God, they would not be crucified (maybe laughed at). But, if they stood up to the oppressive forces that ruled the temple and denied the temple’s sole authority to forgive debts (sins) and declared outcasts could return to community (healed), then they would be in a world of trouble with the authorities.

  • RJS

    Progressive Faith,
    Come on – Of course not. That wasn’t the point – the next statement was.
    I am saying that the only reason the Christian story is worth fighting for (not violence – or coercion; but taking a stand in the face of opposition) and even dying for is because of the rootedness in the act of God through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And … my point is that the truth lives and dies with and depends upon the truth of these historical facts. Without these facts there is no “real meaning of Christ.” Taking a stand as a Christian is a waste of breath and stress.
    In the absence of this history we have an altruistic ethic that we should fight for, the “meaning of the stories” is nice – but maybe it is just programmed into our genes.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Julie,
    To suggest any artist is “only out to make money” would be seen as a slap in the face (or worse). Most artists would argue they are making a statement, or trying to suggest something deep about society, or themselves, or the world. Stories are meant to convey meaning. That is the comparison I’m making. The gospels are making statements about what Jesus had come to mean to the writers and their communities.

    PF, where did I say that the narratives were written “only to make money”? I think you confused me with someone else.
    I am convinced the Gospels and Acts were written to tell a story and that these stories were crafted to speak to specific communities. When I say crafted, I don’t mean that they were intentional fiction (the way we think about it today). Rather they are narratives that use the raw materials of record, experience, witness, popular understandings of events and dates and ideas and numbers, familiar narrative arcs and even recognizable “types” (as in how the “characters” – people – are presented in the stories).

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    RJS (#84),
    ok, I miss understood you. I’m glad that wasn’t what you meant. Yet, it seems you restate the same sentiment when you say :
    “Without these facts there is no ‘real meaning of Christ.’ Taking a stand as a Christian is a waste of breath and stress.”
    The meanings of scripture changed my life, regardless of their factuality. They give me life. I don’t see how being transformed into the image of Christ is “a waste of breath and stress”. It is a much better life and could radically change the world.
    Also, I don’t think Christianity should be something we “fight for”. Absolutely not! It should be something we are willing resist fighting for. It should be something we are willing to turn the other cheek for. We should not die for any religion. We should die for the cause of justice and stand in non-violent opposition to any force that creates injustice. We should take up our cross and protest even unto our death just like Jesus did as our supreme example.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Sorry Julie (#86)! That was for Dianne P. (#67)

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    I am suggesting a “3rd way” because I’m not forcing a decision on based on proving stories to be historical. The modern mistakes of both side (fundmentalism and atheism) depend on accepting or denying facts. The alternative that you are not considering is to realize that the real meaning of Christ does not live or die on the facts of the story, but the meanings that the story point toward.
    PF, I liked how you put this and I want to expand on it just a bit. When the idea is put forth to “let the Bible be what it is” and then we are confronted with the idea that if that doesn’t include historical fact as the basis for the Gospels (at least insofar as incarnation and resurrection must match historically-grounded, scientific proofs of literal, bodily manifestations of each of these) somehow our faith is deficient, flawed, even idiocy or worthless, I am stunned almost to silence. (I said almost. :))
    The thing of it is: I have lived all three – first a belief in the literal nature of the historical records of the Bible (similar to Ranger’s admission that he is struggling with the “wrathful” God of the OT in contrast to the Jesus of Mark, yet accepts and reconciles these as best he can), second, a rejection of the Bible as historically and scientifically reliable and therefore “worthless,” and finally, the third way, which for me means becoming more interested in the Bible as dialogue partner, discovering insight and counterpoint, cultural critique as well as personal challenge, rooted in the climax of the collection of books- the stories of (including memories, quotes, paraphrases, descriptions, visions, dreams, etc.) Jesus.
    Of the three, I feel my spiritual life is the most real and relevant now (subjective, I realize, but that’s how we’re all playing this game called life). I’ve been moved out of my comfort zone in each point of view and have had to contend for what was painful and uncomfortable against prevailing attitudes.
    What I haven’t found, however, is that my faith has become worthless, less worth dying for (actually, I think I used to say I would die for Jesus when I was a missionary to Muslims… but I was always afraid I wouldn’t go through with it). Today, I would die for what my faith means to me because it isn’t rooted in dying for beliefs. I would take a stand with people who suffer injustice and I’d be more likely to die in that context… and for that I would die, inspired by, led by, informed by my beliefs about what Jesus’s legacy calls me to be.
    So I don’t like how people throw out coercive dichotomies rather than asking someone like PF or me how this “other way” actually works in practice, in our real lives. That’s why “letting the Bible be what it is” to me means “Letting the Bible be what it is to each of us.”
    Oh and someone asked aeons ago why I go to a conservative church. I attend an inner city black church. The theology is not my primary draw. It’s the local work they do, the love, relationships, passion for justice and the fantastic preaching of the pastor that drew me. I don’t need weekly doses of sermons that match my beliefs. I need to be with people that match my social concerns. They do.
    Julie

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Mariam, we’re cool. :) I know what you believe and relate to a lot of it. And I always enjoy reading your posts.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    PF – you wrote what I did in half the space and with more power! Thank you.
    And Brad, thanks for recording just how many posts I’ve contributed to this thread. (blushes a deep red) Egads.
    Good thing I have to work this morning. Thanks everyone for a great discussion.

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    I really like the old Baptist saying that clearly was influenced by Barthian theology, which says, “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
    what’s sad is that the baptists no longer believe that – i believe they removed that from their faith and practice documents within the last few years. i think that was one of the reasons jimmy carter broke away from the SBC to form his cooperative baptist group.
    and, really, you’re summing up a lot of the discussion in that one quote – because my contention is that the loudest evangelical voices now – and certainly the ones writing the most popular books and taking control of seminaries – are those that elevate the written word above the revealed Word. their argument becomes, well, what else do we have to reveal that Word to us? what they forget or choose to ignore is that somehow God was able to get His job done before the invention of the printing press, before the protestant reformation, and before the closing of the canon of scripture.
    books are tangible – easy to handle.
    the Holy Spirit – relationships with others – seeing God revealed in the myriad details of our lives – these aren’t things that allow black-and-white systematic theologies to be built around them.
    nor do they demand one be written.
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    mikerucker.wordpress.com

  • RJS

    Progressive Faith,
    See—I think that the problem in the world is alienation from God – corporate and individual. This is pervasive – in and of everything. Power, domination, violence, injustice, and human evil of all sorts, are all only symptoms of the problem.
    The act of God through Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the central act of history. He restored us to union with God. Jesus did for us what we could not and cannot do for ourselves so that we can rest in that assurance of reunion with God and participate in bringing about the Kingdom of God – the community of the people of God.
    But this means that the historicity is critical — without it we have nothing.
    I might as well claim that my essence would still exist even if a woman had not actually given birth to me in the flesh. My existence cannot be separated from my flesh and blood being.
    The basic historicity of Jesus’ life, death, and bodily resurrection cannot be separated from the “real meaning of Christ” without doing great violence to the gospel.
    So while I do think we need a “third way” between liberal and conservative readings of the Bible – I think my third way is probably quite different from yours.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Julie,
    I’ve had a similar path. Thanks for sharing. Well said.
    RJS,
    I appreciate you faithfulness! I think we agree about the problem being alienation from God and the solution being restoration. I don’t in any way mean to suggest that you should change or water down your beliefs. I do think that dialogue would be more fruitful if you might reconsider the all or nothing divisive language.
    “But this means that the historicity is critical — without it we have nothing.”
    Nothing? Really? No matter what you believe about the historicity, you HAVE to acknowledge the tremendous wealth in the rest of the story. You can’t discount the library. Easter may be central (as it is for me) and you may take the story very literally, but there is more story to be told. There is a whole library of texts there from Genesis to Revelation to interact with. When you make such a stong statement you really negate so much of God’s story with humanity. Would we even know what to think of Easter if it were not for the rest of the story?
    I think your statement also negates the fact that Easter doesn’t necessarily tell a new story, but it tells this same story of restoration that is told in the Torah, yet it tells us the story through a different community in a different time and a differnt metaphorical lens. At the same time, it uses allegory to tie it back to the older stories.
    Instead of arguing over which metaphor/story is “real history” and which is not, why don’t we all cooperate on making the meaning of all the metaphors a reality. All these stories point toward a theme of restoration from estrangement but they use different imagery and story lines (slavery, exhile, occupation, injustice, death). Underneath, they are all saying the same thing. That is why when cornered, Jesus (like his jewish teachers, and like those in many religions before and after) boils the whole thing down to the love of God and neighbor.

  • RJS

    Progressive Faith,
    I read and think about as broadly as anyone here, and rather dislike being patronized.
    I have read many of the opposing views and options; including others expressing what you say here. And – having thought about it extensively, I stand by that statement. Without historicity of the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus we have nothing. There is no Christianity worth the name. Why? Because the entire story you discuss apart from Easter is a story of failure. Easter is the victory – and without the victory we have, past, present, and future, only poignant stories of futility.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    RJS,
    Not a problem! Thanks for sharing that. I was merely hoping to find some common ground and suggest that we could agree on some of the deeper meanings of the stories even though we disagree on the historicity of the events. I guess you see no way to find that common ground. I completely respect the more literal view of scripture and I acknowledge its value to your life. I truly am looking for a way beyond the scripture wars. I wish you could somehow see that I’m not rejecting the concept of Easter. It is central for me too. Without victory there is nothing. Without God’s affirmation of Jesus’ life the story is empty. But, that doesn’t have to mean every event in the story is a literal historical event (in my view). I’m happy to suspend judgment in either direction about the events long enough to discuss and find agreement on the meaning of the events.
    Peace,
    -Mike

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    Progressive,
    “Nobody died because they stood ground on the facts of the story. People were killed because they dared to follow Jesus’ principles. They dared to live a life in opposition to the forces that ruled this world.”
    I think it’s fair to say that most of the Christians that dared to follow Jesus’ principles into their actual physical lives–betting the farm, or at least their physical bodies–did so because they trusted and hoped that they too, like their leader, would attain the (physical) resurrection of the dead.
    You too neatly separate what was clearly intended and interpreted to go together: trust in resurrection as the “reason” to follow Jesus with boldness and without fear into a risky agape ethic.
    Now, if only we “conservatives” who insist on belief in the physical resurrection as necessary to the orthodox faith would assess our trust by our willingness to take risks in agape rather than our zealous words . . . Mmmm . . .

  • RJS

    T,
    Yeah – and like you I would also contend that right belief is not in fact right belief unless it carries through in action. We are called to participate in bringing about the Kingdom of God – the community of the people of God. And among other things this means assessing our trust by our willingness to take risks.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Mike!
    Love your post (#96). :) I affirm it!
    Julie

  • Scott M

    Progressive, read the stories of the martyrs. The ones who were executed were executed because they said the crucified and risen Jesus was Lord — specifically because of the Resurrection — and thus Caesar (or any other would be Lord for that matter) wasn’t. Yes, they were killed for directly challenging the powers and authorities. But they challenged them specifically on the grounds of the resurrection. And yes, you are precisely write that people proclaiming a risen Lord in the ancient world would have been laughed at. The first century Christians were most frequently laughed at and ridiculed for daring to proclaim that their Lord had been crucified (extraordinarily shameful in every ancient culture of the era and region) and then was raised again with a new body. Paul was essentially laughed out of Athens for proclaiming that gospel. And yet that was the ground on which they stood to their deaths. And strangely, on their testimony people did believe this strangest of stories. Just a few at first, but in a short period of time coming to be a significant force in the ancient world.
    I have Jewish friends. Hillel and the others of that era are not considered Midrash, but the precursors of Midrash. That era has a different name, though I forget what it is right now. Of course, the various Jewish terms do sometimes get jumbled in my head, so it may be that I’ve confused that term with something else.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    RJS and T (97&98),
    I think we finally arrived at an understanding. Not an agreement, but a mutual understanding. I think what you may want to consider (not adopt, but just consider), is that often the fascination with historicity that became a part of the modern era (both atheism and fundamentalism) stands in the way of “our willingness to take risks in agape rather than our zealous words”.
    I know that for me, it was only after I began to question my belief in the historicity of the events that was I really motivated to see how Jesus could change the here and now. I’m not saying that all people must take my same journey, but you may want to consider why that appears to be a common trend. Maybe there is a both/and possibility. There has been a history in the last few centuries of liberal Christians being more likely to follow through with actions of compassion on a social and political level. I think the theology has informed the trends. Many Christians who are focused on a Gospel of personal salvation are not able to make the leap to social and political allegiance to Christ’s values. I don’t say that to try and stereotype people. There are wonderful Christ-like people on both side. I do think we can move past the stereotypes and learn from both sides. There is good and bad in both.
    All,
    Thanks for the conversation!

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Scott M (#100),
    I think you’ll find that the idea of “truth through allegorical storytelling” is deep in Jewish antiquity going back much farther. I’ve heard Jewish people read the Gospels and immediately suggest that it sounds like Midrash. The label Midrash may or may not have been applied until later. It think the Torah itself is an example. Creation, the exodus, and all the many stories are so rich with symbolic elements that I don’t see any reason to blindly assume they would be “historical”. At a minimum, the way the told the events was non-historical even if the event themselves physically happened. That is my point. Did Moses cross the red sea and carry people into the promised land. I think so even though we can’t prove it. However, I don’t particular think the water literally parted. But, the story does convey a truth. They had been delivered and they clearly attributed it to God so it makes perfect sense to immortalize and preserve the event in mythic language.
    Do you have some reference that might show how the death of Christians was specifically tied to their belief in the supernatural? I will agree with you that the resurrection story was central to winning people to the cause, but I don’t see a connection between a specific belief in a physical resurrection and a threat to their lives. It was only when they followed through with actions in subversion of the dominant forces of the day that their lives were taken. The truth is that they didn’t need to be Christian to be killed by Rome after the war (AD66-70). Just being Jewish was dangerous enough. Heck, the Roman Coliseum was built by Jewish captives and funded with the spoils of the Temple. I don’t think Rome made much distinction about beliefs. You either obeyed Caesar or you didn’t and by the time the gospels are written (post AD70) even their obedience was of little value.

  • Scott M

    Progressive, anything I’ve ever seen anyone mean by ‘supernatural’, whether they supported it in terms of Christianity or not, is essentially the superimposition of a modern category on an ancient faith. No, I don’t believe anyone in the ancient world held a perspective that could be called ‘supernatural’ simply because nobody would have viewed the world in terms of the modern categories of ‘natural’ or ‘ordinary’. Those concepts simply don’t exist before about the sixteenth century. I’ve always made a point of approaching any religion or faith on its own terms, thus the question of the resurrection specifically or ‘miracles’ in general have never been a particular issue for me any more than the Hindu concept of avatar was an issue when I was trying to immerse myself in that way of thinking. My issues with Christianity had more to do with whether or not I had any desire to be a part of that particular people — if I wanted to make their baggage and history my own. I thought I had settled that question in the negative for quite a long time, but that’s another story.
    Because they aided Augustine militarily, the Jewish people in the first century were given an exemption from the Caesar cult. At first, Christianity was viewed as a sect of Judaism and shared that exemption and so most of their persecution came from within the Jewish persecution. However, over time and well before the destruction of Jerusalem when Rome finally got fed up with Jewish rebellion, Rome had begun to realize that this sect had a lot of non-Jewish members and so Christians were not afforded the exemption that had been given to Jews. While Rome generally allowed other religions, the people also (by the first century at least) had to offer worship to the Caesar cult. Refusal was not an option. So the persecution from Rome came as Christianity became perceived as separate from Judaism and its adherents refused to obey this Roman law. They refused to obey it because they said Jesus was the only true Lord. And the reason they gave for that belief was the Resurrection. You see, without that Jesus is just another failed would be Messiah. There are plenty of those around the same time. Whatever he claimed to have been or tried to do meant nothing if the end of the story was death on a Roman cross. Period. Game over.
    Now, Christians were typically good citizens. You see admonishments to that effect in scripture. And as you read first and second and third century non-Christian writings, you find that again and again. A second century Roman governor perplexed with what to do. He knows they were banned, but they take care of people nobody else will take care of. Writers who don’t know much about Christians, but know about things like their ritual cannibalism and belief in resurrection. So they were subversive, but they were subversive not because of their actions, but because they steadfastly refused to recognize Caesar as their Lord except under the authority of Jesus of Nazareth. And they would worship nobody but Jesus.
    Christianity should not exist. You don’t see anyone running around claiming the Bar Kokhba, for one instance, is actually really the Jewish Messiah and because of that is the true Lord of heaven and earth. The Jesus movement should have ended with his crucifixion. That’s what everyone expected, even his own followers. Read the account on the road in Luke, “we thought he was the Messiah,” but obviously he couldn’t have been, now could he? That’s clearly what they are saying. And it is exactly what anyone in the first century would have said.
    Now, Jesus proposes an ethic for life and provides an answer to the question of what it means to be a human being that is utterly different from anything you find in any other religion. Yes, in the shallow water he shares some principles that are almost universal, but when you scratch below the surface, the way we are instructed to live is totally different from any ancient ethic. The only one which comes close in terms of self-sacrifice is Buddhism and the reasons in that vein of spirituality are very different from the Christian reasons. It’s a thoroughly different perspective on the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. This was completely new in the ancient world. In a plague city, for instance, everyone who could get out, did — including the doctors. But the Christians stayed. And they cared for everyone, not just their own. That was unheard of.
    And they did it because they said Jesus was Lord and this is how he taught them to live. And the proof of his Lordship was the Resurrection. Now, though poorly, I am trying to reshape my life according to what Jesus says it means to be a human being. And I trust that the fundamental nature of reality is revealed to us in the dance of the Triune God. However, all of that is based on the nature of a God who becomes one with his creation, who takes upon himself a human nature like in every way to our nature. It’s a God who lives and suffers in every way we suffer up to taking the ultimate violence and insult of the powers upon himself all the way to death. In death, the Triune God breaks the gates of Hades, destroying the grip of the final power, death, on all humanity, and providing to us his own energies to become his true eikons. It is the resurrection that forever breaks that last power, death.
    Now, if you subtract the Resurrection, you have another failed first century Messiah who, when you really look at it, gave some pretty bad advice on how to live as a human being. Make myself least? Be a servant of all? Return blessing for insult? Do good to those who wish me (or my family) harm? Give up my right to restitution, to “fairness”? If Jesus is not the risen Lord, the one who has trampled down death by death, then frankly that’s pretty lousy advice. I’ll run back to a more Hindu perspective in a heartbeat if you subtract the resurrection. I’m certainly not going to try to live like that.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Scott M,
    I agree for the most part with your historical analysis. The note I’d make is that I’d say it was the “resurrection story” not belief in a physical resurrection that was the catalyst for the movement. Regardless of historicity, the story would have been enough to do what it did.
    There were many views on the resurrection. Even the Gospels are not consistent about what it was that was resurrected. Was it a walking corpse that needed the stone to be rolled away to “get out” of the tomb? Or was it a ghost like being that could go through walls (but then not through rock)? Or, was it the spirit, character, and attitude of Jesus living in those on the journey and finally visible once they gathered to break bread (see the emmaus road story). Or, was it the angelic blinding light that Paul encountered. All these stories are there and they all present a different take on what a resurrecting might look like. I don’t see only one as correct. I think they all hint at the answer through the eyes of different people who themselves had different metaphysical assumptions about what a resurrection would mean ranging from pharisees (like Paul) who believed in afterlife to sadducees who didn’t to classical Greek daulism to gnostic mysticism.
    I really have enjoyed the conversation and completely hear what you are saying about the centrality of resurrection. I can live with that to some extent and find harmony. The only thing that really bothers me is your idea that somehow the teachings of Jesus are “bad advice”. Tell that to Ghandi who changed 2 continents with that advice. Tell that to Wilberforce and Dr. King. They seemed to appreciate and have very good success with those techniques and ideas. The whole point of Jesus to me is that self-sacrifice is a more successful way of life. I think it is unfortunate that Christianity tries to say that our way is bad for you, but you should do it to earn God’s reward instead of punishment. Why can’t we just suggest that peace is better than war, giving is better than receiving, loving is better than hating, and self-sacrifice is better than pride. We have a winning solution, but we don’t advertise it as such. I can agree to disagree with your view on physical resurrection, but I have trouble letting that part of your response go. The sermon on the mount is solid advice regardless of your beliefs.

  • Dianne P

    Come on Progressive…
    Please don’t misquote in a more extreme mode than I’ve actually written and then go on to mis-characterize my point. (#67,86,88) I don’t think that’s how we work on this blog. I’ve been largely quiet here, mostly enjoying the back and forth, but please…
    I did not say “artists” are “only out to make money”. I never even used the word “artists” but said “moviemakers” (some of whom may claim to be artists, some may actually be, many are investors, many just people trying to earn a living in the movie business). I also did NOT say “only out to make money”, but said “to provide entertainment and make money”.
    I suppose some might disagree, but I see moviemaking – at least when done by major studios as a commercial venture, a la “Walk the Line” – as primarily a business to provide entertainment and make money. “Artists” were neither part of my comment nor part of my point.
    In any case, my key point was that the gospel writers were not in any type of mega-business venture – neither entertainment-wise nor money-wise. I don’t understand the comparison of a movie-making genre to a gospel-writing genre without taking into account the purpose of each one. (Interestingly if you read Roseanne Cash’s recent post about this movie, she doesn’t see much truth in it either.) Whereas the gospel writers goal was to communicate truth. My point was NEVER to say that artists are only out to make money (or to make any sort of comment on artists and money at all), but simply to say that the movie comparison doesn’t work for me and why.
    Next time you want to counter what I said, and we all do enjoy that type of dialogue here, please be so kind as to address what I actually did say.
    Peace.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    Dianne P,
    I didn’t try to misquote you and I don’t think I actually did. I intentionally made the point (and I think most would agree) that you’d have a hard time getting Stephen Spielberg or George Lucus to say they are not artists. I think you would also find that most would suggest they are trying to tell a story and convey some kind of meaning first and getting paid second (you could argue otherwise but don’t try to tell them). Even in a movie like Schindler’s List you have a case of artwork based on a historical event. That is the comparison I mean to make. Again, I’ll repeat that I’m not comparing the value of the bible to the value of any modern movie. But, YES they are similar in genre and some ways. Some narratives are based on historical facts, and others are purely fiction. A movie like “walk the line” is clearly a narrative based on history, but like all works of art, they have a motive in mind are not likely to be historically accurate down to the word.
    I think you are reading some hostility in this that I don’t have. You do have every right to suggest that the gospels are not creative narratives, but are instead history. That is a valid argument, but I think they fall into the category of “both/and”. I think they are art about history . The simple fact that they have dialogue and have scenes in first person are evidence. You don’t generally find dialogue and careful scene setup in history books.

  • Dianne P

    Scott M,
    Excellent post – especially appreciated your “shallow water” picture. There is so much that compares on the surface, it’s seductively easy to forget what lies deeper.

  • http://www.faithprogression.com Progressive Faith

    I’ve come to realize that on the surface the “shallow water” aspects of our language, metaphors, and symbols seem different, but in the depth of meanings behind the word there is more similarity than difference. Faith, hope, and love are universal. Love trumps all cultural and philosophical differences.


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