“What is lost by letting go of the ‘Happenedness’ of the Gospel?”

A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg

marcusMarcus Borg died on Wednesday, January 21, 2015.  Since his death, the social media postings of many of my cyber-friends and acquaintances, both people I know “in the flesh,” as well as people I only know electronically, have written heartfelt tributes about how Marcus Borg was the scholar who saved their Christianity.   And while I certainly honor their journeys and the cherished role that Dr. Borg played in them, this has not been my journey and this was certainly not the role that Dr. Borg  played in mine.  As I explained last week in my blog, Dr. Borg was one of the “house” critics whom I intentionally invited into my faith to help keep things honest.  He didn’t “save” my faith.  If anything, he challenged it. And while he helped me to see a number of things in the Gospels that I might have otherwise overlooked, where I found myself most at odds with him was at the point of our presuppositions.  I directed folks in my blog last week to take a good look at Dr. Borg’s essay: “Has Christmas Been Swallowed by the Miraculous?” – December 11, 2014 – http://www.patheos.com to better understand his basic point of view.  He didn’t think that the miraculous details of the Gospel narratives actually happened, but that they nevertheless mattered as symbols of significance – not “factual” but still “true.”  And then he challenged people like myself who believe that they actually happened, and that it matters that they did, to explain ourselves.  He ended that essay with a string of questions – “What is lost by letting go of that?” “Is anything gained by thinking of these elements in the stories as affirmations of the significance of Jesus?” “Does the truth of Christmas (and Christianity for that matter) depend upon the ‘happenedness’ of the miraculous?”  “Is its truth more-than-factual?” 

Although my relationship with Marcus Borg was very different from that of so many of my colleagues and peers, he was nevertheless a highly valued and deeply respected conversation partner in my faith’s formation and expression. My “festschrift” of him is therefore going to be an attempt to answer his questions just as clearly and honestly as I can.  Because there is, at least to my way of thinking, way too much theological “taunting” these days  – progressives mocking the imagined stupidity of people of traditional faith like me, and people of traditional faith like mine making the room reservations and bunk assignments for progressives in hell – I will not write argumentatively but confessionally.  I will tell you what I think and believe in these postings, and try to explain why.  I kept Marcus Borg around my faith as I did because he was always such a respectful guest.  He challenged me, but I never felt demeaned by him.  He pushed me, and at times he pushed me hard, but I never felt abused by him.  Despite our disagreements, at several points “foundational” differences, I nevertheless felt like Marcus Borg always treated me with spiritual and intellectual respect as a fellow member of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 2:19).  And the best way for me to honor his memory and value his contributions to my faith is to take up the challenge of his questions in that same spirit. 

Theologian Karl Barth thought that the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher was an example of everything that had gone wrong with Christianity in his day.   And yet, in his introduction to the German edition to his volume on Protestant Thought (1959), Karl Barth wrote –

“I believe one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”  And if I seriously intend to listen to a theologian of the past – whether it be Schleiermacher or Ritschl or anyone else – then I must mean this “I believe” seriously, unless I have been released from this obligation by private inspiration!   That is, regardless of my myriad opinions I must include these people in the Christian Church.  And in view of the fact that I myself, together with my theological work, belong to the Christian Church solely on the basis of forgiveness, I have no right to deny or even to doubt that they were as fundamentally concerned as I am about the Christian faith.

I strongly disagreed with Marcus Borg about the “happenedness” of the Gospel narratives.  I think that some important things are lost when this is given away.  But I never doubted that Marcus Borg was as “fundamentally concerned as I am about the Christian faith.”  And when this series is finished, my deepest hope is that even though you might very well disagree with me, that at least you will acknowledge that it is a considered position and admit that we who hold it, or something like it, are as “fundamentally concerned about the Christian faith” as you are.  I think this approach would please and best honors Dr. Borg whose faith has now become sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) and who “knows just as fully as he is known” (I Corinthians 13:12).  DBS+


 First Things First:  Establishing the Claim of the “Happenedness” of the Gospel
“What we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled…”


Every Wednesday at noon at the church I serve we have a Bible study.  Thirty to forty folks gather each week with a sack lunch and their Bibles in hand, and we take an hour to work through a New Testament book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse.  After more than 2 years in Romans, last week we started I John.  We took the first three verses in a single bite –

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–  this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us–  we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

The people in the room for this Bible Study are all smart and sophisticated people. They are doctors and accountants, businesspeople and attorneys, bankers and financial managers, real estate agents and retired teachers.  And after reading these first few verses of I John, had you asked any of them what they thought the author was telling them, to a person they would have told you that what they thought they were looking at was an eyewitness account of something that had really happened.

Robert W. Yarbrough in his Commentary on I, 2 & 3 John (Baker Academic 2008) summarizes the argument of these verses under the heading of “Eyewitness Privilege and Proclamation,” and develops the argument in five points (32) –

1. The fact of the Incarnation (1:1)
2. The validity of eyewitness testimony (1:1-3)
3. What the Incarnation manifested (1:1-2)
4. The truth and import of the Incarnation (1:1-3)
5. The goal of the proclamation (1:3)

Quoting the conclusion of the Catholic New Testament scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg about these verses at the beginning of I John, Yarbrough wrote: “the wording of the verses backs the claim that the viewpoint is one of ‘people who have had a historical experience of the great event of salvation’” (35). In other words, these trained New Testament scholars read I John 1:1-3 in pretty much the same way that the people in my noon Bible Study on Wednesdays read them.

Of course, we could all be wrong.

This claim by the author of I John to have been an eyewitness to the historical happenings of the Christ Event could have all been made up, a complete fabrication with either innocent or malevolent intent.  Somebody might have just been trying to be creative, you know, trying to gild the rose, or deceptive, deliberately trying to lead us astray.  Or it could have been an illusion, the ravings of a madman who thought that he saw something when nothing was actually there.  We will have to think and talk about these possibilities later in this blog series.  But for right now, all I want to point out is that on the surface, the author of I John purports to be an eyewitness reporter of the Christ event.  I John begins with its author telling us that he had really seen something, or, in this case, somebody, with his own two eyes, and heard Him with his own two ears, and touched Him with his own two hands, and that he wanted us to know all about what he had seen, heard and touched in order that we might enter into his experience with Him as well.  And this claim is not unique to I John.

In Acts 26, in his appearance before King Agrippa, after telling the story of his arrest for preaching the Gospel of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, Paul, when accused of being crazy for believing and teaching such things (26:24), responded: “I am not out of mind… but I utter words of sober truth… for the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner” (26:25-26).  In other words, Paul believed that the Christianity he preached was based on something that really happened, on something that happened outwardly on the stage of public history where people could see it, touch it and hear it.  In other words, he was not making this stuff up; it had been observed, it could be checked out, verified.

Carl Trueman in his foreword to the new edition of J. Gresham Machen’s 1923 Christianity & Liberalism (Eerdmans) observed-

If any simple Christian of one hundred years ago, or even today, were asked what would become of his religion if history should prove indubitably that no man called Jesus ever lived and died in the first century of our era, he would undoubtedly answer that his religion would fall away. (4)

And this sounds to me like an echo of Paul’s own conclusion in I Corinthians 15 that if Christ had not been not been raised from the dead, which he had just taken great pains to establish as being both the heart of the Gospel message (15:1-4) and an actual event   that people had seen and could verify (15:5-11), then both our preaching and our faith are “vain” (15:14), we are “false witnesses” of God (15:15), we are dead in our sins and our graves (15:17-18), and we are gullible fools (15:19).

Machen’s argument back in 1923 was that our spiritual experience as Christians today, what he described as the Gospel’s subjective “effects” in our hearts, were rooted and grounded in something that actually happened in history.   It’s the baptismal argument of Romans 6 all over again.  We have been raised to walk in newness of life – our present spiritual experience (6:4) through our personal identification with and participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ by faith – the saving act of God in Jesus Christ that played out on the stage of history (6:3-5).

Dr. Borg was representative of many who have separated these two things in their minds and heart.  Finding the “happenedness” of the saving act of God in Jesus Christ on the stage of history to be historically improbable and scientifically incredible, they have cast the claims made by the New Testament authors about Jesus Christ to be creative inventions that were designed to convey spiritual truths and foster spiritual experiences without being in any sense a reliable account of history, a trustworthy report of anything that ever actually happened anywhere outside the human heart and in the religious imagination.  Again, we will have to come back around to this divide, to this “ugly ditch” between the claim of the “happenedness” of the Gospel and the validity of its spiritual effects in the lives of believers.  We will have to explore further the reasons why some find it impossible to take the New Testament’s claims of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ (Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and Ascension) to be historical, and why others of us find it credible, but for now, the only point I am trying to make is that it is a completely natural and reasonable way to read the New Testament documents as the accounts of “people who have had a historical experience of the great event of salvation.”  They purport to be the eyewitness accounts of people who think that they saw something that really happened, and that they want us to know about because if it did, it changes everything.

In closing, I want to share something that Stephen T. Davis, a professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, wrote in the introduction of his book Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Eerdmans 1993).  He speaks for all of us who hold the event of the Gospel, its “happenedness,” together with the effects of the Gospel, its spiritual impact on our lives and in our world.

…Let me separate two questions about the resurrection of Jesus.  The first is: “Did it really happen? (or “What really happened?).  The second is: “What does it or should it mean to us?”  A surprising number of Christian scholars believe that the second question is more important than the first.  Some argue that the first question is a modern question quite alien to the New Testament texts.   Hans Kung says, “All questions about the historicity of the empty tomb and the Easter experience cease to count beside the question of the significance of the resurrection message.   After discussing what he takes to be the theological significance of the resurrection of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, Norman Perrin says, “These are the meanings of the resurrection so far as the evangelists are concerned, and as such they are more important than the question of “What actually happened” in terms of appearance stories and empty tomb traditions.

For myself, I would not know how to judge which of the two question is more important.  I am not even sure that such a judgment would mean anything that could be coherently expressed.  But I am convinced that the resurrection means little unless it really happened.  If the resurrection of Jesus turns out to have been a fraud or a pious myth or even somehow an honest mistake, then there is little reason (for me) to think about it or find meaning in it.   Perhaps it would provide some lessons about courageously facing death, but that would be about all.  Furthermore, it is not true that the first question is unbiblical.   I agree that the New Testament authors were interested in proclaiming the resurrection faith and that their writings ought not primarily to be classified as examples of scientific history or philosophical theology. But I am quite sure that they were deeply interested in convincing people that Jesus really rose from the dead.   And I am not sure how you go about convincing people that “X” rise from the dead without having to talk about “what really happened to “X” after “X’s” death. (viii-ix)

And to be perfectly honest, neither am I. DBS+




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