2006-04-27

On Tolerance, Scripture, Historicity, and Truth

A friend wrote this to me tonight:

Great program on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air segment on NPR today.  The guest was Bart Urman (sp?), author of Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, the early followers of Jesus and New Testament and Gnostic Gospels historian and authority at University of North Carolina.  He spoke a lot about The Da Vince Code as well as the Gospel of Judas and other relatively recently discovered Christian writings... At the very end of the program he had a great couple of statements about the importance of today’s Christian realizing the diversity that even the early Christian church exemplified.  He sounded mightily Episcopalian, though I’m wary of religious academics tenured at state universities.  

Thanks!  Actually, I heard 5 minutes of it while going to Sr Hi Bible Study tonight, and one of the students also heard it.  He brought it up at Bible Study.  So, we talked about aspects of it tonight.  Must've been something God wanted me to be aware of and talk about!  I also heard the tolerance message at the end of it as well... And it brings me to a subject I have been wanting to write about for a while, so I am going to write about it if you don’t mind ;-)

My feelings about the tolerance part is paradoxical. I have just enough conservative Evangelical in me (as well as open-minded liberal), that I am both wary of, and sympathetic to, such calls for tolerance. Going to a liberal mainline seminary has taught me that for many future pastors and academics the core of Christianity is not Christ and his work, but a politically correct tolerance of anyone, as long as they have no firm opinions on anything. As soon as someone has firm opinions and is willing to identify something as "right" and something as "wrong", they are labeled as a "fundy" and excluded from "polite" conversation.  In such a climate a theological conservative has to know the presuppositions and arguments better than anyone else to even get a hearing.

Now, I have been on the other side as well. In the camp of the modern-day Pharisees who have everything in Christianity so hyper-defined that if one does not "tow the party line" on everything from sexual ethics to political affiliation to the exact nature of Christ's second coming, then you are labeled as a damned liberal and a pagan in Christian clothes.

Both positions are absurd- and truth be known- both are heretical fundamentalisms in their own right. They are both utterly intolerant to anyone who does not "tow the party line" (and if there is one positive thing about Bible-thumpers- at least they are honest about their intolerance). So, after four years of mainline liberal seminary, when I hear a tolerance message like the one at the end of the interview, I am just jaded enough to hear:

"Since the early Church had a plurality of voices and confusion about who Jesus was, then so should we. After all, the assured results of "objective historical criticism" of the Bible tells us there probably was no real Jesus to speak of. Just a misunderstood prophet that was transformed into a risen Savior by second and third generation followers who really had no idea who he was, and who forged canonical Gospels bearing the names of legendary disciples to prove their points.  And those followers were real meanies: they used the power of their positions in Church to squeeze out dissenting voices and enforce an intolerant orthodoxy. We would all be happier if we could go back to the early days and believe anything we wanted about Jesus without anyone telling us we are wrong. After all, truth is relative to each person, and there is no such thing as absolute truth."

I know that is jaded and unfair, especially since I only heard 5 minutes of it, but after it is crammed down your throat all the time you come to expect it, and either (a) accept it uncritically, or (b) criticize it at every step. As far as Truth goes, the "right" would assert that Truth is absolute, and absolutely knowable. The "left" would assert that Truth is relative, and there is no such thing as having a firm grasp on "the Truth". I think both sides have valid concerns, and I would say that Truth is absolute, but is known relative to the vantage point of the person observing the Truth. We can have a firm grasp of THE Truth, but must realize that we can see that Truth from multiple perspectives.

As a result, and through a consideration of the actual facts surrounding the composition of the New Testament and the Archaeological support for it, I believe that the canonical Gospels are not only our best source for understanding Christ, but also substantially factually reliable. Furthermore, I think that the most plausible explanation for their authorship is that they were written by eye-witnesses, or someone recording eye-witness preaching (even the Gospel of John). I think that, with some exceptions, the early Church Fathers and Mothers had access to traditions, documents, and evidence we no longer have access to, and that it is much more plausible that they were right about who wrote the N.T. and when.  It makes more sense than to believe that German, French, British, or American scholars are right, who were raised in Post-Enlightenment culture that largely denies miracles and the possibility of revelation, living 1800-2000 years after the events, not speaking the language or living in the culture of the early Church, and not having access to the source the Early Church had.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I am also very wary of conservatives who believe the Bible is flawless and completely without error in theology, history, and science.  This turns the Bible into a book of trivia one can use to avoid learning from science and history. It makes people read the Bible to "prove" or "disprove" it, rather than to read it to learn how to know, love, and follow Jesus by the power of His Spirit. For example, the Gospels disagree on whether or not Jesus allowed his disciples to carry a staff with them on their preaching mission (cf. Matthew 10:10; Mark 6:8; Luke 9:3). Conservatives do verbal and logical gymnastics to try and "prove" that the Bible is not contradicting itself here (which it is). Liberals take passages like this and say things like: "Since the Bible is not reliable in the details, it is just a book written by humans and is thus as fallible as anyone's thinking about God and Christ. Our 'reconstructed' modern Jesus is just as true as the Jesus of the early Church, and possibly moreso, because we are 'enlightened' and 'modern'!"

Both seem to miss the point entirely. In the case of this one passage, the central meaning is that Jesus sends out the disciples (and by logical extension, us) with nothing to rely on except Him. It is at the level of meaning that God speaks to us in Scripture, even through its outward blemishes, just as God speaks to us through Jesus despite his outward blemishes.  Just as it would be silly to not listen to Jesus because he may have had crooked teeth, blemishes, or messed up hair, so it is silly to deny that God speaks through Scripture just because it has discrepancies in the details. Likewise, just as it would be absurd to assume that in order for Jesus to be God Incarnate, he had to have perfect teeth, hair, and skin, it is also absurd to assume that the Bible has to be factually inerrant to accurately convey the meaning, purpose and plan behind God revealing Godself to us in Christ.

This is not to say that meaning and purpose are not tied in some ways to whether or not the events actually happened the way Scripture says they did.  Some lessons are tied to whether or not they actually happened in real history, and some are not. For instance, the meaning of the Proverbs are not tied at all to actual history because of their literary genre. The Story of Jonah can teach us the same lesson (God loves all, wants us to reach out to all, and will badger us until we do it) whether or not Jonah actually lived, or if it was an inventive short story developed by Jews in Exile. On the other hand, in order for the meaning of the Exodus to be valid, it would depend on whether or not God really did lead the Jews out of Egypt. Now, the actual way the events played out may not have to be exactly like the Biblical account, but there would have had to be a historical exodus of some kind.

Likewise, the stories of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon convey meanings because they are based on real historical figures. They need to have really existed, and really done something like what the Biblical story says, in order to be meaningful. Yet, it does not matter whether or not the Biblical stories are more like newspaper reports (which they probably aren't), or more like historically-based fiction such as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (which they probably are). The same meanings and life-lessons are true whether or not these stories are literally true, or "amped up" by a dramatic re-telling.

And, when the factual accuracy of a historical event is crucial to its meaning, the Bible is very explicit about it by giving lists of historical conditions and eye-witnesses.  This occurs in the Gospels.  There are witness names, place names, and historical markers all over the place. Particularly, the historicity of Christ's physical resurrection is stressed and testified to (see the end of Matthew, Luke, John, and 1Corinthians 15). Now, it may not matter to the meaning whether or not Jesus said "take a staff" or "take no staff" when he sent out his disciples (see above), but it does matter intensely whether or not the resurrection is factually true. If it isn't "our preaching is in vain and so is your faith"! (see 1Co 15). The point is, when historicity is essential to the point of the story, the Bible makes it explicit. But, most of the time, the truth and meaning of the Bible is only loosely tied to historical accuracy.

To bring this full circle: I believe that we should be tolerant about different perspectives on Truth, but not about different truths. There is a historical person of Jesus who is the Christ of faith, and the canonical New Testament shows us what he was (and is) really about. These books really, historically, have an overwhelming probability of being written by those who actually knew Jesus. Other gospels that were not accepted by the early Church were denied for good reason. They had an overwhelming probability of being written by people who were fakes and who never really knew Jesus, and they usually proclaim a completely "different Jesus" (which St. Paul warned us about: 2Co 11:4). This is definitely the case with the "Gospel of Judas", which I have read and researched.

There is one reality, one Truth, of Jesus Christ. Matthew gives us his perspective on him, and Mark his perspective.  Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and the other NT writers give their perspectives on this same Jesus. And yet, their portraits can be harmonized, like how percussion, strings, and winds can be harmonized to play the same symphony. But, most of the "revisionist" portraits of Jesus found in non-canonical "gospels" are simply playing a different piece of music altogether. I have read many of them. There can be no harmony there because there is no centrally agreed-on Jesus.

At some stage I think that if tolerance is going to become love, it has to be honest about issues of truth. It has to stand up and say: "I am tolerant of your views, and enjoy dialogue, but what you are saying is simply a non-Christian option. We are not talking about the same Jesus, or the same religion. I will happily speak to you about it, but I will not pretend this is a conversation between Christians, just so I don’t hurt anyone's feelings. This is a conversation between a Christian and someone who is not."

The same Divinely Inspired Book that says "love your neighbor as yourself", also says "do not bear false witness". The "left" emphasizes the former to the exclusion of the latter in a pretended "tolerance". The "right" emphasizes the latter at the expense of the former in a very real intolerance. I think a good followers of Christ (and good Anglicans) we have to emphasize both without loosing either. Go via media!
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.