Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Source Materials and the Christian Revelation

Source Materials and the Christian Revelation


 Borg refers to the synoptic gospels as “a developing tradition,” “a mixture of history remembered and history metaphorised” (p. 4).  To this Wright does not object, even as for Borg, a much smaller core falls within the category of history as lived than it does for Wright.  Particularly important for Borg is the sharp distinction between the Jesus of history that can be established, to the extent that it can by historical methodologies, and that of the early Christian community, which placed pivotal texts into the mouth of the New Testament Jesus.  For Borg, it is exceedingly unlikely that Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world” (p. 5).  Rather, this was a metaphor used by the early church to signify that the risen Christ could be compared to light even as this begs the broader issue as to what the vision of “light” actually referred.  There are two issues in play. 

The first is the imagery of the risen Christ in the gospel of John in which the metaphor of light is but one symbol in a constellation of images in which the Word became flesh and lived among us.  Thus, Christ was also the living water, the bread of life, and nothing less than God’s son through whom no man comes to the father except through Him; elsewhere, the true vine.  All of this imagery is grounded in the overarching belief announced in the prologue that in the beginning was the Word and that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  However metaphorical John’s language was, there was something very literal in the key claim that unless one is born again into the light of Christ “one cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5b).  That claim is that in Christ the very “image of the invisible God” is manifest in whom “all the fullness should dwell” (Col 1: 15, 18).  This, in turn raises the issue of who Jesus was and his self-defined purpose, for which Borg posits a significant difference between the pre and post Easter vision; namely in the former the Christological attributes do not pertain, even that of Israel’s Messiah, which Borg, unlike Wright rejects as an authentic self-perception of the historical personage.

 The “lenses” through which Borg constructs his interpretation of Jesus are those of critical historical scholarship and cultural analysis, which he defines as “foundational” (pp. 8-9).  Borg was raised in a traditional orthodox Protestant setting, which had a profound influence on his early Christian nurturance.  His university training introduced him to the depth and richness of the secular intellectual world to which he gravitated for some considerable time.  In the process he became a scholar of the “historical Jesus” through which he grounded his intellectual identity and at least to some degree something of his core being.  This required a rejection of what he viewed as the simplifications of his early faith in which the Jesus of history and the New Testament were synonymous figures.  Borg ultimately came to a rediscovery of the experiential reality of the Christian revelation as depicted in the New Testament, grounded radically in faith for those who are willing, if not compelled to stake their identity on the Christian vision. 
In terms of the New Testament claims, “this is the Jesus who is for us” (p. 218) which Borg (2001) is quick to point out, is not synonymous with any universal contention that Christ is the full embodiment of God in human flesh.  Rather, “the gospels…are Christianity’s primal narratives” because “these are the most important stories we (italics added) know, and we know them to be decisively true” (p. 218).  How Borg defines decisiveness is uncertain, but based on what he has written it can only be surmised that he means something less that Christ is the full embodiment of God in human flesh as an ontological statement having universal significance.  If he only means decisive for Christians, there is some question begging to consider, namely, in what sense and on what basis.  Notwithstanding the insurmountable gap between the search and fulfillment, the issue of ultimate truth is a matter that requires addressing.  Otherwise, the faith that he proclaims is at bottom an existential one that has no foundation beyond that collectively experienced by the Christian community over the centuries based on a mythological founding claim that points to something beyond itself toward an undefined universal significance working through, but transcendent of culture and language.

 In this respect, Christianity has no more and no less truth claims than other religion in which all the great faiths represent various communal pathways to the holy, an inexpressible holiness devoid, in the final analysis, of much specific content.  Thus on Borg’s (1999) reading, Christianity is but “one of the world’s great religions[,]… one cultural-linguistic response to the experience of the sacred,” an experience that transcends verbal description and dogma in which words are but pointers to the ineffable.  Consequently, Christianity as one pathway to the holy is in principle, no more or less true than Buddhism in which even the concept of God is but a pointer to that which can only but transcend verbal description. 

 For Borg, language and historical analysis as fallible referents to that which ultimately transcends their boundaries are fundamentally dissimilar epistemological categories than faith which requires a radically different way of seeing. When one pushes on Borg’s assumptions, the divergence is so radical, in fact that, however profound in scope, the Bible and all to which it refers, is ultimately a metaphorized discourse which points beyond the text, to, perhaps, the god beyond the god as described in the Old and New Testaments. Thus, while there are invariable relationships between the two; the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are radically divergent in substantially key respects.  On Borg’s account, the risen Christ, too, is ultimately a cipher, a profound one, to be sure for the ineffable in which in other religious traditions other symbols will equally do in their opening different dimensions of the holy. The exclusivism of Christianity is, therefore relativized in the pluralism of a global reality in which there are various, if not many pathways to the truth.  What that truth is remains highly underdeveloped in Borg’s theology.


As he notes, Wright is subject to criticism both from secular historians and from certain streams of evangelical and reformed theology.  Secular academics have grounds to chide Wright for allowing the presuppositions of faith to influence his interpretation of early Christianity.  Biblical theologians, on the other hand, may have concerns about the wisdom of Wright’s extensive reliance on the discipline of history in firming up a stance that is ultimately based on faith.  Wright acknowledges that in certain fundamental respects faith and historical studies are far from completely reconcilable.  Nonetheless, he draws extensively on history as a penultimate resource of major proportions, which provides an embodiment to faith in solid human experience that would otherwise be lacking. 

 One of Wright’s more proximate concerns is the influence of dualism in contemporary intellectual history in which religious faith as an epistemological category has no grounds of legitimacy in the secular academy.  The ghettoization operates in both ways to the extent that theologians cloister themselves by placing a ring around faith which is not subject to rational argument as defined by the rigorous, though ultimately limited categories of secular scholarship.  Wright seeks to reconcile the two in order to escape both the “attic (faith divorced from history) and the “dungeon (history divorced from faith,” p. 16).  Through his massive research project, Wright has found a great deal of symmetry between historical reconstruction and the claims of the gospels and the letters of Paul, which he elaborates upon to some degree in The Meanings of Jesus.  This is a primary difference with Borg, who also seeks reconciliation, at least at a certain level, between the claims of secular scholarship and those of faith.  Nonetheless, Borg points to the radical divergences between academic research on the historical Jesus and his existentialist discovery of Jesus anew.  Because he lacks an epistemological basis for a more direct embrace of the biblical narrative, for Borg, faith claims can only be but interpreted mythologically.  Based on Borg’s epistemology, any reconciliation with the thought world of modern scholarship needs to take into account this grounding point in which beliefs as beliefs are not subject in themselves to critical scholarly investigation.

Viewing faith without history and history without faith as barren, the relationship between the two for Wright is dialectical, namely, “a no-holds barred history on the one hand and a no-holds barred faith on the other” (p. 18). Their mutual power is that each speaks from the vantage-point of their own unique idiom whether in convergence or in opposition to one another.  Even over interpretative problems of a highly obdurate nature, Wright has sometimes “found that by living with the problem, turning it this way and that…, faith has been able to discover not just that the new, and initially surprising historical evidence, was capable of being accommodated.”  Even more, “by looking at the challenge from all angles,” including epistemologies opened up by faith, that “historical evidence was as well if not better interpreted within a different framework” (p. 17) than that provided by liberal (religious or secular) academic scholarship.  Thus for Wright the study of history has confirmed some of the deepest claims of faith even in the awareness that faith, in the final analysis, cannot be squared by historical consciousness and evidence.  This is a reality Wright notes, but which he underplays.

 In approaching Wright’s historical methodology let us note what he critiques as well as hat for which he advocates.  Namely, his target is nothing less than the mainstream orthodoxies of historical biblical criticism, particularly the “belief that isolated fragments of Jesus material circulated, and developed, in the early church divorced from narrative frameworks” (p. 23), as reflected, for example, in form and redaction criticism.  The problem with much of this scholarship, according to Wright, is its limited evidentiary basis in which methodology presupposes key assumptions, particularly a wide gulf between the historical Jesus and his first followers, and the traditions of the early church as reflected in the gospel texts. 

Specifically, there is not sufficient evidence to know definitively all that much to distinguish accurately between original events and later retrojections. Thus, without knowing the narrative framework in which the fragmentary texts (pericopes) were initially embedded, making definitive statements about whether they were early or late is at best problematic.  Wright proposes another approach, which is more fleshed out in his larger writings; namely, starting with what we know and building systematically toward reasoned, evidentiary-based conclusions and filling in the gaps as much as possible.  A key starting point for Wright is the knowledge we do have of Jesus, mostly from the New Testament that he “was a Jewish prophet announcing the kingdom of God.”  On that, argues Wright, we are on much more solid ground than “what we know about the history of traditions that led up to the gospels as we have them” (p. 23).  Based on this grounding framework the method that Wright proposes is “to draw in more and more of the evidence within a growing hypothesis about Jesus himself and Christian writings, including the writing of the gospels” (italics in original) (p. 23).

  That hypothesis is that the historical Jesus of Nazareth self understood himself to be Israel’s Messiah, his earliest followers perceived him as such, and both acted accordingly.  Closely related is Wright’s assumption that the Resurrection motif was very early, and moreover, that the evidence is stronger that the depiction of the empty tomb and the resurrection sightings as described in the gospels, actually happened than arguments to the contrary which seek to dismiss these phenomena as a fabrication of the “post Easter” early church.  Based on these hypotheses, Wright, in his various books has sought to work through the following expanding set of questions through “the scientific method of hypothesis and verification” (p. 22):

  • What can be known about Jesus?
  • Where does he belong in the world of his day (the world of Greek-Roman antiquity and of first-century Judaism in particular)?
  • What were his aims, and to what extent did he accomplish them?
  • What caused him to meet an early death?
  • Why did a movement claiming allegiance to him spring up shortly after his death, taking a shape that was both like and significantly unlike other movements of the time? (p. 19).
As a “big picture” Christian historian, Wright (2002a) argues that focusing on these more fundamental questions, as the basis to guide the search for increasing knowledge, will cumulatively provide a clearer and more important picture of Jesus than currently available through much of mainline liberal critical scholarship.  It is this critically realist scientific approach that Wright (2002b, p. 12) posits against the Jesus Seminar, in which Borg and Dominick Crossan have been leading lights, in the radical gulf they presuppose in the juxtaposition between the time of the historical Jesus and the rise of the early church.  Of course, Wright, himself, has his own presuppositions and Borg and Crossan have marshaled more than a little evidence on behalf of their scholarship.  Consequently, Wright might be a little less than fair in his broad brushed critique of the liberal biblical scholarship extending back to the late 19h century.  Nonetheless, on the historical Jesus and the rise of the early church, his cumulative research is substantial.  Moreover, he offers the tantalizing prospect that there may be considerably more congruence between the historical figure of Jesus and the Christ of faith even as he is not always appreciative as he might of the persistent gulf between the two. 

This may be both a source of enlightenment and a profound source of temptation in seeking to know God, ultimately through history instead of faith, particularly on the matter of the Resurrection of Christ where Wright is most susceptible of conflating the two.  To reiterate, I said, a temptation.  While there is need to work against any polarity between the attic of faith without history and the dungeon of history without faith, there may be less need for integration than simply for further light in our looking in a mirror, dimly in the ongoing pilgrimage in which our meat is nothing more and nothing less than the daily manna provided to us.  This, at its best, is what Wright, as a highly committed historian and Christian, is searching for, which, to be fair, is the motivation of Borg, as well, even as they have taken some different pathways along the journey.

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