Sunday, May 9, 2010

Critic or Theologian: the Fine Line

It's a common complaint among Christians that theologians wander far away from traditional Christianity. I know an elderly pastor who often refers to modernists as "those awful Germans" (obviously Tillich, Niebuhr and Bultmann). Lay Christians think they, like King Agrippa thought of Paul, have let their great learning drive them mad. They have spent so much time reading books they have proven that up is down and black is white. Theologians who reject the idea of a personal God like Paul Tillich and Bishop Sponge don't improve the image of modern theologians among Christians. I know there are people who have accused them of being secret atheists infiltrating the ranks of Christians or perhaps sleeper agents clinging to their traditional upbringing but unaware of their true beliefs. In some of these cases, like Tillich and Sponge, these accusations are somewhat justified. It comes to a point where your concept of God is so far removed from what the traditional church has been saying you must ask yourself if you can really be called a Christian anymore.

There's another way theologians have similar views to critics, even orthodox theologians --yes even the early church fathers! I was watching the debate between Richard Carrier and William Lane Craig on the reality of Jesus' resurrection the other day the other day (for those who don't know Dr. Carrier supports the negative view, Dr. Craig the positive view) and something struck me as funny while watching Dr. Carrier's opening statement. Dr. Carrier seeks to prove the historical unreliability of the resurrection by showing that the gospels are myth. In doing so he points out reoccurring themes in the events one gospel will portray and shows parallels that exist within the Old Testament. You can see his opening statement here:

(Watch between around 1:20 and 5:05)

*Note* Audio only comes out of the left speaker in this video. Also, the debate is interesting and it's worth taking the time to watch the whole thing on youtube.

So for a second lets forget that Dr. Carrier is a major critic of Christianity and focus on some of his main points.
1. Mark has a reoccurring theme of inversion of expectation in Mark: Barrabas, "Son of the Father," is released while the true Son of the Father is crucified. Simon Peter, Jesus' disciple, abandons him while Simon the stranger carries his cross. The male disciples desert Jesus while the women go to the tomb and are the first to see it empty. James and John ask to be at Jesus' right and left hand, but those who really end up at Jesus right and left hands are the criminals he is crucified with.
2. Elements in the gospel narrative come directly from the Old Testament: Psalm 22 describes the crucifixion narrative, but also Genesis, Ecclesiastes and Psalm 24.

Don't these seem like things a theologian would say? No theologian sees the gospels as simple objective statements of fact. They all see a greater story to the events, it's what they do. Rather than being proof that the gospels should be categorized as myth, theologians seem to interpret gospel metanarrative as part of God's plan or perhaps some kind of information inclusion bias in the evangelist. Also, every Christian would fully cop to events in the gospels coming from the Old Testament. In this case, what skeptics call "myth," theologians call "prophecy." Setting their conclusions aside, is there a fundamental difference between what Dr. Carrier does and what the average theologian does?

What are some things that theologians actually say about the gospels?
1. Dr. Craig, in response to Dr. Carrier, references the theologian Robert Gundry as saying that, contrary to Carrier's assertion that Mark is about overcoming expectations, Mark is about fulfilling expectations. Instead of asserting that the gospel is a simple historical report, his response still acknowledges that there is a metanarrative that is evident in the events Mark described that coincidence cannot account for.
2. Bishop (soon to be retired) N. T. Wright says that the gospels tell the story of a suffering servant messiah taken from Isaiah (playing right into Richard Carrier's hands he notes the Old Testament allusion as well as a metanarrative). Jesus contemporary kinsmen saw the messiah as royalty and the idea of a sufferer was distinct from this messiah. The sufferer would either be another person who suffered and not the messiah or be a sufferer because he was the messiah and he caused Israel's enemies to suffer. In a passage from Simply Christian Wright offers a barrage of Isaiah themes repeating in the gospels:
Isaiah was by no means the only text upon which Jesus drew for his sense of vocation, which we must assume he had thrashed out in thought and prayer over some considerable time. But it is in Isaiah, particularly the central section, that we find that combination of themes--God's coming kingdom, the renewal of creation expressed not least in remarkable healings, the power of God's 'word' to save and restore, the ultimate victory over all the 'Babylons' of the world, and the figure of the Servant itself--which we find again so strikingly in the gospels.

It seems odd to me, being a believer, in watching this debate I found that I agreed with the basics of a lot of what Dr. Carrier said in his opening statement. Am I a closet skeptic? I believe there are recurring themes in the gospels. I believe these things are not mere coincidence. I believe that the evangelists were inspired heavily by the Old Testament. And...
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

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