Given the readability of the book, its dialogical form, and its wide use among adult church study groups, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions is a useful text in highlighting theological tensions in contemporary mainline Protestantism. It is more, though incompletely that than it is an adequate summary of Borg and Wright given the range and depth of their other texts, an analysis of which extends beyond the purposes of this chapter. The role of metaphor and myth, the importance of historical accuracy as a signpost for theological truth, the inclusive/exclusive debate on the relationship between Christianity and other world religions, and ultimately the basis and shape of Christian belief are examined through divergent and sometimes complementary perspectives that our two authors provide. Given the core premise underlying this book of viewing the Bible as the interpretive basis to interrogate the world, Borg’s theological liberalism has largely served as my foil. This is not to discount Borg’s project of seeking to make Christianity viable to modern/postmodern sensibility, as his way of seeing both the Bible and Jesus anew has opened up faith possibilities to many for whom the traditional orthodox story no longer (or never seemed) persuasive. At his best, Borg has presented a credible picture of Christianity as a beautiful and profound pathway to the holy and one in which those who choose to do so can enter in and find rich meaning without having to diminish the validity of other religious traditions and faith journeys. I accept the intent of Borg’s apologetic project.
However, I have problems with several of Borg’s assumptions. Specifically, I wonder the extent to which his metaphorical interpretation is Christian to its core as opposed to exhibiting a profound Christian sensibility within a syncretistic context that views all of the world religions as more or less equally valid and somewhat divergent pathways to ultimately the same underlying truth that is reflected through their various traditions and “metaphors.” That is, from the hypotheses that I am building upon, I am taking as axiomatic that it is God in his fullness that is revealed in Jesus Christ and that the Bible in its comprehensiveness is the primary source of revelation, which requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit and much depth commentary even to partially grasp. It is this incarnational perspective, which drives the assumption that God is revealed most fully and truly to humankind in and through Christ not simply as an experience, but, however perceived through a mirror, dimly as an ontological truth claim with universal applicability.
This perspective does not discount the value of other perspectives, religious or secular, but it does assert that in the most fundamental sense that the fullest revelation of God given to humankind is reflected in, and only in Christianity even as there is much to learn and potentially to incorporate from other world views. Given the limitations and flawed nature of one’s own knowledge, as well as a healthy regard for the views of others, humility requires such openness. However, one can only go so far in embracing pluralism without sacrificing that which is most essential; namely, the belief that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life without equivocation and remainder in which the pathway of syncretism is nothing short of idolatry. No doubt, this can sound extremely arrogant, and when embraced as a form of triumphalism, contains its own idolatrous temptations. It is a scandal of major proportions. However, if the grounding point of Christianity is the Incarnation, the Trinity, then God revealed in his fullest and truest sense can be through no other name, lest one surrender the very essence of faith, to that which might be viewed, evangelistically as the idolatry of syncretism in the name of religious globalism.
This is the hypothesis from which I build, the substance of which I seek to articulate throughout the course of this book. A secondary hypothesis is that any substantive revitalization of mainline Protestantism will require a return to a fully-orbed and “generous” orthodox position, thoroughly conversant with modern culture and scholarship, but based upon a renewal and reinvigoration of its own religious traditions. This includes among other things, comprehensive Bible study and biblically-based worship through which the ultimate vocabulary and meaning of the faith is grounded, in which scriptural revelation becomes the basis for interpreting the world; that is, the culture (Erickson, 1983/1984/1985). I encourage Borg and those sympathetic to his project to further flesh out their assumptions and implications thereof. I do not diminish the importance of such work, which very well could contribute as well to that which I seek, a revitalization of mainline Protestantism on its founding assumption and traditions in a manner that can be appreciated by modern people. However, that is not the tack I am taking here, as I am working from a more orthodox perspective and seek to build my case from within an evangelical-reformed-based hermeneutical sensibility that reaches toward an ecumenical participation (Bloesch, 1992; Fackre, 1993). From this vantagepoint, the Borg presented in The Meaning of Jesus is one that I have little choice but to criticize in some rather stringent ways.
The broader issue with which this chapter seeks to grapple is the role of history in its relationship to faith. Its primary focus has been on divergent interpretations of the historical Jesus and the significance thereof as reflected in the views of Borg and Wright. I will not recount that discussion here except to allude back to the ways in which the authors’ christologies are invariably informed by their interpretations of this history. As a faith grounded both in Jewish tradition and the broader ancient world it is impossible to grasp something of the origins of Christianity without acknowledging the importance of this history. It is in and through this tradition that the monotheistic Lord God revealed himself to humankind. This is the scandal of particularity which religious globalism categorically rejects upon which, in my view, the core claims of Christianity stand or fall. What is awesome in the magisterial sense is less why God has chosen this particular pathway through Israel’s history, a question that perhaps cannot be answered by human beings, than how God has revealed himself through this tradition and the nature of his character and core precepts that “belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut 29:29). Obviously, this claim cannot be proven except through revelation itself. It can only be lived, illustrated, and compared to other world constructions. Nonetheless, it is the axiomatic truth claim upon which Christianity stands—the doctrinal ultimate vocabulary to which even apologetics, in the final analysis, is subordinate—faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
There is another sense in which history is at work in the contemporary understanding of religious studies as an academic discipline. Not only Christianity, but all the world’s religions originated in a specific time and place. Those that have endured, moreover, have evolved through culture and history, which invariably shapes their emergent manifestations. These obvious truths have shaped the study of religion in such academic disciplines as sociology, history, and anthropology primarily through a comparative approach which eliminates the religious itself or even theology as legitimate sources of knowledge in their own right. These assumptions are grounded in a secularized world view that posits the religious in the realm of “belief,” beyond rational knowledge or communication. This “self-evident” secularized world view is not only pervasive within the academy but within large sectors of western culture.
Any revitalization of mainline Protestantism will need to grapple with these academic norms and the broader cultural paradigms which reinforce them on their own terms, while radically challenging the hegemony of secularization, based on its own articulated framework that God is in Christ reconciling the world. This counterclaim needs to be made on grounds that in principle can be defended academically and in a manner that resonates within the context of common public discourse in which the religious is neither privileged nor marginalized. The challenge of bringing the religious to the public square in a manner that honors and defends its own core assumptions without magisterially imposing them on those who do not accept them or deliberately marginalizing them for that matter as ipso facto, out of bounds, will require a subtle combination of courage and discernment. Mainline 20th century theology has made a major contribution in seeking to correlate religious categories within the context of modern cultural and intellectual presuppositions.
That, in itself, is important work, but only half the story. The other part is to interrogate the world through the theological presuppositions of what C.S. Lewis (1980) refers to as “mere Christianity” and to make the religious as intellectually viable as other academic disciplines. Without this shift, the category of God acting in history revealed through Scripture cannot be credibly posited even as a plausible hypothesis, a scandal which Christian scholarship needs to bring to the academy in light of other truth claims that mightily press on its own. Without this prospect studies of the historical Jesus can only be but stymied by secular presuppositions taken as axiomatic in which historicism itself; that is, culture, is viewed as the “center of value” of human meaning. The presupposition with which I am countering is not simply another belief, but at the very least, a truth claim in relationship to human experience, even as its articulation cannot be but inevitably flawed. It is this particular scandal which radical Christianity is compelled to defend with all the subtlety, depth, and humility that its advocates can muster without which the very basis of faith, short of some syncretistic substitution, disintegrates. However the many issues surrounding the historical Jesus are worked out in the scholarly literature, to the extent that the belief that the called Christian community, the body of Christ “as The Israel of God” (Gal: 6:16b) is repressed as a serious hypothesis of God acting within history, such studies can only be but invariably flawed.
One of the major consequences of the scholarship on the historical Jesus over the past 125 years, or so is the emphasis on the constructed nature of Jesus as a literary artifact of the early church, which, while grounded in some history, is viewed as an ideal portrait with ideological intent. This has resulted in much skepticism, particularly in mainline congregations of the basic assumptions of the New Testament, which has generated considerable fundamentalist and evangelical reaction in the insistence in many quarters of both a biblical literalism and a claim of scriptural inerrancy. This reaction, in turn, is categorically rejected in some rather different ways within liberal and neo-orthodox Protestantism. Borg’s embrace of faith without history has its own problems, particularly when linked to his pluralistic assumptions that religious traditions are metaphorical expressions for truths that are ultimately inexpressible through language. This denies the fundamental claim that Christ is the Incarnation of God in human flesh without remainder or qualification, the core presupposition of orthodox Christianity. Seeking to turn a century of scholarship on its head Wright rejects the notion of a great divide between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. In his massive project spanning several thick books Wright seeks to demonstrate that there is much more continuity than generally assumed between what historical evidence discloses and the claims of the gospels and the letters of Paul. In their respective ways, Borg and Wright have done much to deepen the discussion on the relationship between faith and history.
Still, on both sides of the equation, problems abound. Concerns with Borg’s analysis have been noted. The issue I take with Wright is not whether God acts in and through history, but how. The issue might be less problematic if in fact, Wright’s major contentions could be definitively proven. Even there the temptation would remain of drawing on history too much to substantiate Christianity rather than relying on faith itself as the substance of things hoped for. On this grounding point as the ultimate basis for belief, history and other naturalistic modes of knowledge, such as science and philosophy provide supplemental resources, more or less reliable, as well as more or less essential, in any given context. The particularities of the debate between Borg and Wright, in their more substantive work, as well as Crossan, are beyond my expertise to examine on their merits. The point for this discussion is that what history giveth, history can also taketh.
The question posed rhetorically to Wright is the location of faith if Borg and Crossan are even partially correct in their core assumptions, particularly on their interpretations of the resurrection narratives. Wright very well may be correct in his postulation that the resurrection accounts given in the gospels have a substantive basis in what really happened, and he has agued well against scholarly perspectives which reject this view. However, even he acknowledges that our knowledge of the period between 33-40 is very scant, in which historians really cannot say for sure, what happened around the events surrounding the stories of the empty tomb and the resurrection sightings. Wright also accepts the view of the New Testament as a developing tradition in which God is the ultimate actor, not only in, but through history as well. Historical analysis is useful, and perhaps essential if Christianity is to move out of the catacombs. Nonetheless, such knowledge as its study can provide remains limited in terms of the fundamental matters of faith. Are there surer sources?
I build, in the final analysis, on J.I. Packer, Lesslie Newbigin, Gabriel Fackre, and others, who, in their different ways, maintain that the ultimate source of reliability is the revelation of God as witnessed to throughout the entire Bible through its many gernres. Any such appropriation of this truth claim, which requires the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to come existentially alive, necessitates subtle interpretation and critical exegesis with the support of tradition, common and critical sense, and all the tools of modern scholarship that may be available. These resources, I argue, are ministerial to the magisterial grounding point of biblical revelation. Following Packer (1993), it is “God unchanging” which provides the critical linchpin in linking history and faith as revealed most fully in and through the Bible. Packer notes the wide historical gulf between the biblical era and our own in which the Bible may be viewed as “intensely interesting,” while “seem[ing] very far away.” As Packer states, from the perspective of history and culture the Bible “belongs to that world not to this world.” (italics in original) (p. 76).
This distance between the biblical world and our own reinforces among many churchgoers and ministers a spectral view of the Bible as largely irrelevant to the conditions and issues confronting the modern world in which, at best, its “stories” provide a paradigmatic glimpse into the profound recesses of the human condition. As indicated in the approach to Bible study offered by Walter Wink and others, and implicit in Borg, this is far from unimportant work. However, it remains insufficient for a more fully-orbed appreciation of the Bible to emerge in the mainline congregations without which there remains something fundamentally askew. Namely, the gap between then and now creates a severe problem in which the core revelatory text of the Christian faith can be simultaneously an indispensable resource and profound source of alienation.
What means does Packer propose to transcend this undeniable source of historical and cultural remoteness? His core argument is that the link between the biblical text and us is not to be found at the level of history and culture. Rather, “the link is God himself” (p. 76). For it is “God who does not change in the least particular” (p. 77) even if our understanding of him does. Stated otherwise, that which bridges the gulf between history and culture “is the truth of God’s immutability” (italics in original) (p. 77). This immutability refers to God as revealed through the course of the biblical text, what Fackre (1997) refers to as “an overarching narrative [from creation to consummation] that renders the identity of the Christian God.” From this vantagepoint “Jesus Christ,” revealed most fully in and through the New Testament, is “the interpretive key to the whole narrative” (p. 5).
It is this hermeneutical dynamic via the work of the Holy Spirit through fallible, finite, historically conditioned human beings that bridges the gap; God speaking in and through the text from the initial writers to readers across the centuries and from cultures of origin to cultures of reception around the world. It is this biblical text through which God “condescends to use human language” (Packer, 2000, p. 45) that Packer and others view as utterly trustworthy, however opaque our own understanding remains. The Word revealed through inspiration, meditation, faith unrelenting in the midst even of the most profound questioning, and ultimately grace, is the surer grounding of Christian belief; one upon which in my view, mainline revitalization vitally depends (Robinson, 2006). History, philosophy, science, and other interpretative modalities in search of knowledge often can and need to be drawn upon in a supplementary manner. It is, however, to a return to and a rediscovery of a richer theology of Scripture which I am advocating as a central pathway to mainline renewal. The substance of this argument, that in the final analysis, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8), however much theological reflection in response to the dynamics of cultural and historical change may induce and require a great deal of amplification and justification is carried out in the remainder of this book.
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