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

A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg – Part 2

baldIf I were teaching a beginner’s class on contemporary theology, I would use Clark Pinnock’s book Tracking the Maze (Harper & Row – 1990) as the text.  I have long appreciated Clark Pinnock as a theologian, and this book is probably my favorite of the many that he wrote and that I have profitably read.   In the Introduction, after naming the incredibly “pluralistic and diverse” state of modern theology, Clark Pinnock lined out on a continuum the broad theological options that are available to us ranging from a “dogmatic” and “close-minded” “Modernism” on the left pole to an equally “dogmatic” and “close-minded” “Fundamentalism” on the right pole, with “Evangelical Liberalism” and “Conservative Evangelicalism” in-between.  And then Clark Pinnock observed that the middle positions “are often more open to discussion.”  In fact, he said that it had been his experience as an Evangelical theologian that “it often proved possible to have a very worthwhile discussion between evangelical liberals and conservative evangelicals but not at all easy to have one with either modernists or fundamentalists” (11).  It all came down, in his judgment, to just how “open” or “closed” the conversationalists were to what the other had to say, and he believed that one’s capacity for being able to do this decreased the closer to either of the extremes that you moved.

Since his death two weeks ago, I have been having a conversation with Marcus Borg in my weekly blog as part of my tribute to him.  He was part of the “faithful opposition” to my particular brand of Christian faith, and that’s why I read him and kept him around the household of my faith.  While he challenged some of my core convictions, I always felt like he did so reverently and respectfully.  He was “open” to the conversation, as am I, and so, with his passing, I feel like I have lost a friend.  Many of my colleagues and peers in recent days have been posting their tributes to Dr. Borg online, heralding him as the teacher who “saved” their faith.   That was not my experience with Marcus Borg.  When Clark Pinnock died on August 15, 2010, or Donald Bloesch nine days later on August 24, 2010, I lost two of the contemporary theologians who had decisively “shaped” my thinking and believing.  What so many of my friends are now saying about Marcus Borg I could have just as easily and authentically said about Clark Pinnock and Donald Bloesch then.  But as an “open” “Conservative Evangelical,” I am not oblivious to the way that Marcus Borg had an important hand in helping to refine what it is that I believe and proclaim, and so I have taken up the challenge of one of his last essays to try to explain from my faith perspective what is lost by letting go of the “happenedness” of the Christ event as the Gospels report and the rest of the New Testament bears witness to it, as the best way for me to honor his memory.

E. StanleyJones described the theological battles in the church of his day as “long-distance dueling.” He explained –

We have shelled each other’s positions, or what we thought were the positions, but there has been much smoke and confusion and not a little un-Christian feeling.  Why not sit down at Round Tables as Christian men and women… where we could listen reverently to what the other man would say [his faith’s convictions] were bringing to him, and we would share what it was meaning to us.  At the close we might not be agreed, but we would be mutually enriched, and certainly we would be closer to the real issues.  (Christ at the Round Table – Abingdon Press – 1928).

And so I write. DBS+

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The Next Step in the Argument:  The Trustworthiness of the Testimony
“That you may come to believe…and through believing that you may have life in His name…”

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Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

– John 20:30-31

In last week’s “Borg Blog” I simply observed that the New Testament reads as if it were eyewitness testimony, the observations of people who were claiming to have had “a historical experience of the great event of salvation” (Rudolf Schnackenburg).  In that posting I pointed out that these people could have been completely mistaken about what they said they saw, or deliberately deceptive, or creatively embellishing, or certifiably crazy, seeing things that weren’t there and hearing things that weren’t said.  Last week I didn’t address the question of the trustworthiness of the testimony that the New Testament offers, I just wanted to establish the fact that the New Testament reads as if it were eyewitness testimony.  This week in my “Borg Blog” I turn my attention to the question of the reliability of what the New Testament authors are telling us, and next week in my last “Borg Blog” I will try to explain why it matters so much to me that what they say happened actually did.

blindFor years at youth rallies and retreats, high school camps and conferences, it was a standard part of one’s bag of youth ministry tricks to divide everybody up into pairs and then to send them off on a trust walk.  The instructions were simple.  One member of the pair was told to close their eyes, or better yet, was blindfolded, and the other member of the pair was then asked to verbally guide their unseeing partner across the campground without running then into trees or off of cliffs.

The teaching point of this exercise was that faith involves this kind of trust.  As Peter put it in his first letter: “Though you have not seen Christ, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him, greatly rejoicing with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (I Peter 1:8-9).  We haven’t seen Christ, but somebody did, and we now believe in Him “through their word” (John 17:20).  This was the whole point of those verses from the end of the Gospel of John with which I began this posting (20:30-31).  John explained that the selected and interpreted stories about Jesus Christ that he told his readers in his Gospel were there to move them toward a decision of faith about Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, “and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

oldIt was because of verses like these that Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), came up with “his” distinctive definition, which in turn became “our” distinctive definition of faith.

No testimony, no faith: for faith is only the belief of testimony, or confidence in testimony as true.  To believe without testimony is just as impossible as to see without light. The measure, quality, and power of faith are always found in the testimony believed.   Where testimony begins, faith begins; and where testimony ends, faith ends. (“Faith” – The Christian System – 1839).

And this makes the “trustworthiness” of the New Testament witness a matter of critical importance to faith.  The argument is succinctly and clearly stated in 2 Peter 1.

  • In verses 13-15,  Simon Peter (the named author in 1:1), told his readers that he felt a certain urgency in stirring up their remembrance of the things that he’d previously taught them because he sensed his approaching death, and after his departure he wanted them to be able “to call these things to mind.”
  • And in verses 16-18, Simon Peter told his readers that the things that he had previously told them about Jesus Christ “were not cleverly devised tales,” but things that he himself had a seen and heard about Jesus Christ as an “eyewitness.”   In other words, Peter was extending an invitation of faith to his readers based on the trustworthiness of his own testimony as an eyewitness, and this whole argument collapses if the things to which Peter bore witness never happened, or if Peter didn’t actually see them as he emphatically insisted that he did.  Peter was telling his readers to “trust” him and to believe that what he was telling them about Jesus Christ was accurate and true, and if it turns out that I can’t, well then, I’m converting to Buddhism, or Judaism, or Islam, or to almost anything other than Christianity.  You see, I believe in Jesus Christ on the basis of the apostolic word of testimony, on the basis of their “memoirs” of the Christ Event and their explanation of its meaning.

Marcus Borg pointed out that “conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today,” and I completely agree!   In fact, I think that  Andrew Wilson (a leader in the British “New Frontiers” Movement) is exactly right when he says that “the biggest theological debate of the next twenty years” is going to be the church’s doctrine of Scripture – how we read, understand and apply the Bible.

Much modern discussion about hell isn’t really about what specific texts say, but how (or even if) we should form our theology of judgment, or God, from them (from the text of Scripture).  Much modern discussion about the roles of men and women isn’t really about what specific texts say, but about whether or not the situation in which they were written was different enough from ours to allow us (or compel us) to apply them (the Biblical texts) differently today. As such, although the debates seem to be about one thing – hell, gender roles, gay bishops, the atonement, or whatever – they are actually about something else: how we understand and apply these ancient texts in the modern world. (http://thinktheology.co.uk)

The issue here is how the New Testament is going to function as the authority for the church’s faith and practice today. And the crucial question concerns just how much confidence we can reasonably have in the claims that are made by the New Testament documents.  Are they deserving of our trust as reliable witnesses to the Christ Event and as faithful interpretations of its normative meaning?

treesSpend a little time on the internet or in the library of your local seminary, and the complexity and diversity of the issues involved in sorting through this question will quickly become apparent.  There are a number of “forks in the road” that will send you down the path towards either confidence in or suspicion of what the New Testament reports.  Included among the issues that are vigorously debated are-

  • The question of the nature of the New Testament texts themselves – what is their “genre”?  How did the authors of the Gospels actually intend their readers to understand what it was that they were writing? What kind of literature are we looking at?
  • The questions of the accuracy and authenticity of the established New Testament texts?  Since we don’t have any original New Testament manuscripts – nothing from the actual hand and pen of Paul, or John, or Luke, or Peter – how much trust can we actually put in the copies of texts that we do have in our New Testaments?  Aren’t there wild variations between the different copies of the New Testament books that we do possess that substantially change the meaning of what is written depending on which one you are looking at?
  • And how about all those contradictions, discrepancies and inaccuracies between the accounts of the events that are reported in the New Testament as we have it, and the irreconcilable differences between the meaning of those events as they are explained by other New Testament writers?   Things like Matthew and Luke saying that Mary was a Virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, and Mark, John and Paul not mentioning it all? Or the number of angels at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning?  Or Paul’s insistence that we are saved by faith and not works, and James teaching that faith without works is dead?
  • Another hotly debated topic are the seeming parallels between what the Gospels tell us about Jesus and what we find in the mystery religions of the ancient Middle East about dying and rising saviors and the stories of divine births from the mythologies of other ancient peoples?  How much of what the Gospels report are just borrowed categories from these sources?  Familiar ways of symbolically talking about matters of spiritual significance and transcendence?
  • And isn’t the New Testament as we have it just the “victor’s” account of things?  Early Christianity was crowded with competing versions of the faith, this take on things says. There were other books with other interpretations about Jesus that “lost” the contest for ascendency as the official faith of the church.  These books were “lost” and their teachings suppressed, but now, thanks to archeology, we are finding them and they provide us with entirely new ways  of thinking about Christianity.  Therefore the New Testament documents must be stripped of their “privileged” position as the authoritative source for our faith and practice as Christians and room made for these “new/old” voices.
  • And finally, there is the big question of competing worldviews – the closed universe of naturalism in which Divine action is rejected from the outset making what the New Testament claims impossible versus the open universe of supernaturalism which the in-breaking of the Divine in the Incarnation, Atoning Death, Resurrection, Ascension and promised Return of Jesus Christ which the New Testament documents assume and affirm.

These are all the topics for doctoral dissertations and the subjects of thousand page scholarly volumes.  As wise King Solomon observed long ago, “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).   I am a working pastor, a practical theologian, which is to say that I read some of the books and understand the broad outlines of the arguments.  And what I know is this: For every argument made there is a counterargument that can be offered.  Every point has a counterpoint. I have found intelligent and articulate scholars on either side of all of these “fork in the road” issues, and this fact has lowered my expectations about what this process can deliver.

Intellectual certainty is a myth.

No question is beyond doubt, no argument is final. Both the “dogmatic” and “close-minded”  “modernists” and the “dogmatic” and “close-minded”  “fundamentalists” at the poles of Clark Pinnock’s continuum of contemporary theology make this same mistake.  They make their arguments, state their case and then drop the microphone and walk away, acting as if the question is thereby settled and the case is forever closed by the brilliance and indomitability of their logic.  It should be apparent by how I write that I have settled opinions on all of the “fork in the road” questions that I have listed above.  I have read the arguments and drawn my own conclusions about all of these matters that I think make the best sense of things.  But I hold those conclusions “modestly” and with a real appreciation for the “mystery” of it all.  The conclusions I have drawn are all “plausible,” or else I wouldn’t have drawn them.  But because we walk by faith and not by sight, my conclusion cannot be “absolute.”   And for me this means that I cannot act as if somebody who disagrees with me and my conclusions is stupid or wicked.  Their settled conclusions are “plausible” too, or else they wouldn’t have drawn them.  And it seems to me that this is the best we can hope for in the contest of ideas; a stalemate.

Faith cannot be compelled by logic, by the persuasiveness of some argument. And so John G. Stackhouse, Jr., urges Christians to adopt what he calls the approach of “humble apologetics” when fulfilling our I Peter 3:15 obligation to “give an account for the hope that is in you… gently and reverently.”  His whole book is an important read (Humble Apologetics – Oxford University Press –  2002), but this principle is at its very core –

Given historic Christian teachings regarding the finitude and falleness of human beings and of our thinking in particular, we must be careful not to claim too much for what we believe.  We Christians should not need postmodernists to tell us that we do not know it all.  We should not need anyone to tell us that all human thought is partial, distorted, and usually deployed in the interest of this or that personal agenda. 

…This we are as committed as we can be to what we believe is real, and especially to the One whom we love, worship and obey as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We gladly offer what, and whom, we believe we have found to be true to our neighbors in the hope that they also will recognize it, and him, as true.  We recognize that there are good reasons for them not to believe, even as we recognize that there can be good reasons for our own doubts. Indeed, we can recognize that God may have given them some things to teach us, and we gratefully receive them in the mutual exchange of God’s great economy of salvation.

[But] we recognize, ultimately, that to truly believe, to truly commit oneself to God, is itself a gift that God alone bestows.  Conversion is a gift.  Faith is a gift.  God alone can change minds so that those minds can both see and embrace the great truths of the Gospel, and the One who stands at their center.

And this opens the door on the last room in my “Borg Blog” that I want to walk through with you next week.  Suffice it for now to say that I think that the things that the New Testament tells me about the Christ Event, about what actually happened and what it normatively means, makes the most sense when it is taken at face value, as the eyewitness reports of “a historical experience of the great event of salvation.”  And I can direct you to the scholars and their works that I have read that makes this choice “plausible” – intellectually respectable and acceptable.  But when push comes to shove, the reason why I take what the New Testament reports at face value, is because it is what the New Testament tells me that Jesus Christ said and did that has convinced me that He is “the Messiah, the Son of God,” and it is through believing this that I have personally received “life in his name.”

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“Credo ut intelligam”

“Credo ut intelligam” (alternatively spelled “Credo ut intellegam”) is Latin for “I believe so that I may understand” and is a maxim of Anselm of Canterbury (Proslogion, 1), which is based on a saying of Augustine of Hippo (“crede, ut intelligas,” “believe so that you may understand”; Tract. Ev. Jo., 29.6) to relate faith and reason. In Anselm’s writing, it is placed in juxtaposition to its converse, “intellego ut credam” (“I think so that I may believe”), when he says “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam” (“I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”).

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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