Category Archives: Heresies

John Shelby Spong and the Churches of Christ (Victoria, Australia)

John Shelby Spong 2006 (image courtesy Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear

When I read Merrill Kitchen’s [2] favourable article towards ex-Bishop Spong, in “The Future Church and Bishop John Shelby Spong” [3], I wondered if Kitchen and I were reading the same author. This is only one view by a leader within the Churches of Christ in Australia, but she is in a position of influence — the principal of a theological college of influence in Melbourne, Australia.

I thought I had read an adequate sample of Spong’s views in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Born of a Woman, Resurrection Myth or Reality?, and his latest which he claims will be his last — Spong’s swan song — A New Christianity for a New World. [4] But I was not ready for the sanitised version of Spong in this article. [5]

This is the Spong who rejects fundamental doctrines of the faith, yet Kitchen gave him the honoured status of being “clearly a believer but one who refuses to toe the ecclesiastical line when doctrine and tradition inhibit spiritual growth.” She claims Spong is calling us back to “a New Testament Church style and proclamation.” [6] Really?

A. The nature of Spongian religion

Kitchen rightly asks, “So what does Spong believe?” Yes, he believes the things that Kitchen raised in the article, but he believes much more that tell us what kind of a believer he really is and what his new style of church will look like in the future.

Will it be like the New Testament church (e.g. the Book of Acts and the Epistles) or more like Spong’s own brand of religion? To arrive at her sympathetic understanding of Spong, Kitchen has forgotten to tell us about some of the fundamentals of the faith that have been rejected or redefined by Spong. He sees his “task of seeking to redefine Jesus” as something that he does not take “easily or lightly.” [7]

1.    How is the faith redefined?

He claims he is a Christian, believes God is real and calls Jesus his Lord. Yet he does not define God as a supernatural being. In fact, for him, “Theism is dead, I joyfully proclaim, but God is real.” [8] By theism, he means supernatural Christianity. He believes passionately in God, but this God is not identified with doctrines, creeds, and traditions. [9]

For prayer, he proposes “substitute words” that have been identified down through the centuries “with the mystical disciplines of spiritual development — words such as meditation and contemplation” that will include “centering prayer” and breathing exercises. [10]

He’s against evangelism and missionary enterprises, the latter being “base-born, rejecting, negative, and yes, I would even say evil.” [11] This shocking redefinition of missions as “evil” is associated with his universalism and theory that “we possess neither certainty nor eternal truth.” [12]

 

2. The characteristics of Spong’s new brand of Christianity

The fundamentals are gone. What would cause him to come to conclusions that are so contrary to historic, classical Christianity? He’s all for life and love because they “transcend all boundaries” but

“Exclusive religious propaganda can no longer be sustained. The idea that Jesus is the only way to God or that only those who have been washed in the blood of Christ are ever to be listed among the saved, has become anathema and even dangerous in our shrinking world.” [13]His assumptions are driving his theological agenda: God is not a personal being; he throws out Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. There is no literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead nor a literal star or virgin birth — that’s mythology! There’s no ascension of Jesus Christ and there will be no Second Coming of Christ.

Christ did not found a church. We are not born sinful. The fall into sin by Adam and Eve is mythical. Women are not less human and less holy than men (I agree!). Homosexuals are not morally depraved; the Bible is not the literal word of God and certainly is not inspired. Forget about absolute Christian ethics because “time makes ancient good uncouth.” [14] The colour of one’s skin or ethnic background does not constitute grounds for making one superior or inferior (I agree!).

He repudiates baptism and the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper. “Since the diagnosis (sinful human nature) was wrong, the prescribed cure (atonement) cannot be right.” Since the fall into sin is a wrong diagnosis, baptism “to wash away the effects of a fall into sin that never occurred is inappropriate.” As for the Eucharist, this “reenactment of a sacrifice . . . becomes theological nonsense.” [15]

The supernatural is out. There will be no singing of praises to a theistic deity: “I treat the language of worship like I treat the language of love. It is primitive, excessive, flowery, poetic, evocative. No one really believes it literally.” [16] There will be his ill-defined, mystical “God-experience”. We could do that in a mosque, temple, synagogue, holy place, or ecclesia (his preferred word). There will be no confessing our sins to a “parental judge.” [17] There will be no literalised faith story. It will “never claim that it already possesses truth by divine revelation.” [18]

3. The church of tomorrow

As for the church of tomorrow, will it be a return to the New Testament church style as Kitchen suggests? Hardly!

The ecclesia of the future will be a place for “Catholic and Protestant, orthodox and heretic, liberal and evangelical, Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu” and where worship of this “god” will not be “bounded by our formulas, our creeds, our doctrines, our liturgies, or even our Bible, but still real, infinitely real.” [19] God is not a personal being, not even the highest being but the one he experiences as “the Ground and Source of All Being and therefore the presence that calls me to step beyond every boundary.” [20] This is a rejuvenated liberalism of Paul Tillich.

This new community, the ecclesia, “must be able to allow God and Satan to come together in each of us. It must allow light and darkness to be united. It must bind good and evil into one. It must unite Christ with Anti-Christ, Jesus with Judas, male with female, heterosexual with homosexual.” [21]

This is a church built in cloud cuckoo land – out of the minds of Spong and his friends! It is beyond radical. It is blasphemous!

B. Spong and evangelicals

Spong has a particular aversion to evangelical, Bible-believing Christianity (he calls it fundamentalism). He is not interested in “confronting or challenging those conservative, fundamentalist elements of Christianity that are so prevalent today. Why? He believes they will “die of their own irrelevance” as they cling “to attitudes of the past that are simply withering on the vine.” [22]

He goes to great lengths in denigrating traditional, evangelical Christianity, even to the point of making blasphemous statements such as these: “I am free of the God who was deemed to be incomplete unless constantly receiving our endless praises; the God who required that we acknowledge ourselves as born in sin and therefore as helpless; the God who seemed to delight in punishing sinners; the God who, we were told, gloried in our childlike, groveling dependency. Worshiping that theistic God did not allow us to grow into the new humanity.” [23]

In spite of these blasphemous statements about the Almighty God, Kitchen wants to give him this kind of credit: “. . . He is far from being an atheist and is certainly more than a philosophical humanist. . . Spong’s faith is firmly bonded to the person of Jesus.” [24] But which Jesus? Paul, the Apostle, warned of the one who “comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received” (2 Cor. 11:4, English Standard Version). It is evident from the writings of Spong that he wants nothing to do with the New Testament picture of Jesus Christ, yet Kitchen lauds him as “clearly a believer.” [25] Both Kitchen and Spong have redefined believers, if this is the case.

Spong does not want to deal with conservative, fundamentalist Christianity, and believes that it has no application to life today. He comments that “nowhere is this better seen than when one observes how the word Christian is used in our contemporary world.” [26] This is the pot calling the kettle black! It is Spong who has demolished the Bible’s definition of a Christian.

Among Spong’s 205 items in the bibliography of his latest book, [27] it is not surprising that there is not one that refutes his views or presents a scholarly evangelical perspective. I looked for Don Carson, William Lane Craig, Ben Witherington III., N. T. Wright, J. P. Moreland, Ravi Zacharias, Australia’s Paul Barnett, and other leading defenders of the evangelical faith., but they were absent.

His theological supporters from the Jesus Seminar and other liberals are everywhere – John Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, Michael Goulder, John Hick, John A. T. Robinson, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Don Cupitt. Spongism is one-eyed religion that is intolerant of opposing views, especially those of the “fundamentalists” (evangelicals).

C.    Emptying or growing churches? Spongian religion has a killer instinct.

One of the most damning pieces of evidence against Spong’s views are that the facts do not stack up concerning the demise of supernatural Christianity. What’s the truth about the death of theism? Wherever theological liberalism has taken hold, church numbers have crashed. Based on The Episcopal Church Annual (USA), membership of that dominantly theological liberal denomination, fell from a high of 3.6 million baptised Episcopalians in 1965, to 2.3 million in 1997– a loss of fully one-third of its membership. [28] The average Sunday attendance in the year 1998 was 843,213. [29] Two years later (the year 2000), it had further declined to 839,760. [30] “Mainline [church] membership is down (by nearly 6 million members) since 1965” in the USA. [31]

It is no wonder that the Newark Diocese of the Episcopal Church is talking about the need for church growth. [31a]

Church growth around the world

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett), world-wide“around 17 million people become church members each year through conversion, and some 7 million leave the church.” This leaves an annual net growth of approximately 10 million people. We would love to see more, but this is hard evidence against Spong’s death of theism. [32]

There are some other strong indicators that Jesus is alive and well and the church is growing. In the Ukraine, in the past three years, some 70 new house churches have been planted in Crimea, most in places previously without a church. [33]

In the city of Xinjiang, China, there were 20-30 small churches with about 300 believers in 1994. Through courage, vision and the Lord’s direction, five couples have been used to enable rapid growth. Over a period of three years, the growth has been so strong that there are now almost 500 churches with about 100,000 members in four districts. This growth has so concerned the Government that it has infiltrated the churches, persecuted the believers, and gone on television, accusing the groups of being a cult. [34]

During the last 10 years of the “Decade of Harvest” among the Nigerian Assemblies of God in Africa, there has been extraordinary growth. The church has not only gained 1.2 million new members, but also ordained 5,026 new pastors and planted 4,044 new churches in Nigeria. The emphasis on reaching previously unreached people groups led to 75 churches being planted in areas previously untouched by Christianity. [35]

World-wide, the Pentecostal movement has grown from no adherents in 1906 to approximately 500 million today. Yet Spong has the audacity to say that “Christianity as we have known it increasingly displays signs of rigor mortis.” [36]

There certainly are areas where the Christian church is showing significant decline, especially in the Western world. About 100 years ago, Wales experienced a heaven-sent revival. The proportion of the total Welsh population attending church has declined from 14.6% in 1982 to 8.7% in 1995. [37]

God’s church is being persecuted around the world, but is showing growth internationally. Spong’s thesis is dead in the water. It is his ideology, a la John A. T. Robinson, radical theological liberalism, that kills churches.

The Episcopalians of Spong’s diocese voted with their feet while he was bishop. One report said that

“Spong [had] been the Episcopal Bishop of Newark [New Jersey] since 1976. He has presided over one of the most rapid witherings of any diocese in the Episcopal Church [USA]. The most charitable assessment shows that Newark’s parish membership rolls have evaporated by more than 42 percent. Less charitable accounts put the rate at over 50 percent.” [38]

When we throw out the Scriptures as the standard for theology, where do we go for answers? Here we have a new kind of religion, out of the minds of Spong himself and his friends. Yet Spong thinks his views are the future of faith, a new Christianity for a new world! Welcome to Spongism, “Christianity” with a killer instinct. He is searching “for that elusive truth of God that lies beneath the literal words of that sacred text.” [39] When the up-front words are too offensive to the human mind, instead of reading and interpreting them as any other piece of literature, you invent your own approach. Here, Spong wants to find the meaning behind the text. We shall see that this type of interpretation leads him to accept many things that are politically correct in our secular society — out with the supernatural, no heaven or hell in the afterlife, acceptance of homosexuality, etc.

Yet, Spong is so blind that he cannot admit what his brand of Christianity does to churches:

“Only those whom the traditionalists mistakenly call liberals carry within themselves the seeds of renewal and future life for the religious traditions of yesterday. A title more proper than ‘liberal’ might well be ‘open’ or ‘realist.'” [40]

D.    Is Spongian religion the future of the church?

I have written at length providing some of the evidence, because Kitchen’s article does not give an accurate picture of John Shelby Spong’s world-view. He is not “the future of the church” as the article’s title indicates. His brand of Christianity has a track record – the death of congregations. On Spong’s recent visit to Australia, the then Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth (who at the time of writing this article was Australia’s Governor-General), prevented his speaking in Brisbane Anglican Churches. Instead, the Uniting Church (a merger of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches) accepted him as a speaker.

Paul warned the Corinthians: “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough” (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). Spong is preaching another Jesus to that of the Scriptures. His writings tell us what kind of a believer he is and what kind of a church he wants to see developed in the future. He is not a believer in the Jesus of the Scriptures, nor is his church one aligned with the New Testament.

The Spongian Jesus is not the real Jesus of the New Testament.

1.    Theology does matter

Based on her article, what are the elements of Spongian theology that are part of this new style of church? “Spong is calling people back to a New Testament style of proclamation, which is not a new idea for the movement we call Churches of Christ.” [41] What is a new idea, however, is a prominent representative of a formerly evangelical denomination in Victoria, supporting the heretical teachings of John Shelby Spong.

This is the principal of the Churches of Christ theological college in the state of Victoria, Australia, identifying Spong’s “New Testament style of proclamation” with the Churches of Christ movement. “Is [Spong] a “contemporary heretic who must be silenced” or “does he offer hope to a struggling Church in a post-Christian age?” [42] The tone of Kitchen’s article infers that Spong is offering hope to the church, even the Churches of Christ in Victoria.

    What kind of hope is this?

2.    Spong’s theology and the Churches of Christ

Spong’s theology offers the Churches of Christ (Australia) and any person or denomination the following views: [43]

  • Re-envisioning our concepts of God:
  • God is “a presence at the heart of life, available to everyone and not as the special possession of a religious institution”;
  • God is not an ancient deity who is “distant, apart and above the lives of a sinful humanity”;
  • God is not “the kind of supernatural being who engages in instant gratification, magical wizardry and capricious favouritism”;
  • God is “to be seen and experienced as intimately present in all creation” [Note: This sounds more like monism/Hinduism, than Christianity, to me!]; God’s identity “is revealed when barriers are broken and community is formed”;
  • God’s identity “is revealed when barriers are broken and community is formed”;
  • God is not “a record keeping deity before whom I will appear at the day of judgment to have my eternal destination announced. . . My heart will never worship what my mind has rejected.”
  • Spong has “his doubts about the process of resurrection [of Jesus],” according to Kitchen. Doubts? Hardly!

Spong is straight forward about his views on resurrection. Speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, he wrote:

“It is easy to identify the legendary elements of the resurrection narratives. Angels who descend in earthquakes, speak, and roll back stones; tombs that are empty; apparitions that appear and disappear; rich men who make graves available; thieves who comment from their crosses of pain — these are legends all. Sacred legends, I might add, but legends nonetheless. . . What happened that gave birth to the legendary details [in the New Testament records] that gathered around the moment of Easter? Why did they gather? Hundreds of millions of people have lived and died on this earth — some of them famous, powerful people — and no similar legends gathered around them. Why this one man, at this time, in this place? . . .“The primacy of Galilee [and not Jerusalem for the crucifixion and resurrection] means that all of the appearance narratives that purport to be the physical manifestations of the dead body that somehow was enabled to be revivified and to walk out of a tomb are also legends and myths that cannot be literalized. The risen Jesus did not literally eat fish in Jerusalem. Thomas did not touch the physical wounds. Resurrection may mean many things, but these details are not literally a part of that reality. To affirm Galilee as the primary locale in the experience of Easter is a radical step, but it is nonetheless a step that the Bible itself seems to acknowledge” [44]

This new style of church will mean a re-evaluation of what it means to be the Church. It will

  • not be hierarchical;
  • be honest in its worship;
  • be focussed on real life and not an escape from reality;
  • recognise God’s journeying presence;
  • have a commitment to communality;
  • acknowledge that all who gather at the Lord’s table are ministers and need to function as such [Note: I agree. But why should it be limited to those who gather for the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper? “All are ministers” should apply to all Christian believers. See I Cor. 14:26.];
  • “be a celebration of life in all its complexity.”
  • “rejoice in Scripture, but not be bound by ancient ‘cultic or cultural limitations'”

[Note: How can this church follow Spong in its rejoicing in Scripture when “the biblical texts themselves” have “proved to be quite untrustworthy”? [45]  This must be the mystical God-experience of Spong’s invention that is unrelated to what the text says directly. To understand what Spong is getting at, he speaks of John’s Gospel as “the least literal and the most accurate. . . Literalize John and you will lose this Gospel. For that which is literalized becomes nonsense, while truth that is approached through sign and symbol becomes the very doorway into God.” [46] It’s amazing what conclusions are reached when one throws out the Bible and makes up his own “sign and symbol” religion! What are the limits?].

  • There will be “a mystery and wonder that exceeds the dogmatic assertions of religious formulations.”
  • But “Spong’s faith is firmly bonded to the person of Jesus,” says Kitchen. This Jesus “was a God experience of the reality of that Ground of Being.” Spong claims that “Christpower, written as one word, has become for me a way to describe the Christ life that is the gift of the Spirit, the mark of membership in the Christian community.” [47]

Spong’s own words tell us how deeply he is committed to the value of experience, rather than to the content of the propositional revelation of the Word of God:

“Behind the narrative [of Scripture] is an unnarrated proclamation. Behind the proclamation is an intense life-giving experience. The task of Bible study is to lead believers into truth, a truth that is never captured in mere words but a truth that is real, a truth that when experienced erupts within us in expanding ways, calling us simultaneously deeper and deeper into life, and not coincidentally, deeper and deeper into God. . .“Human life alone could not produce that which we have experienced in Jesus Christ. He is of God, so the Christmas story points to truth, but the words used to describe or capture that truth are not themselves true in any literal sense.” [48]

[Note: This is the existential Christ of theological liberals such as Paul Tillich, John A. T. Robinson, Rudolf Bultmann, etc. It is a redefined Jesus who is radically different to the Jesus of the New Testament.]

  • This new kind of church includes a belief in life after death, but it is an eternity “that lies beyond the limits of my human finitude and in which I can participate.” Elsewhere, Spong is more specific. After five years of study on life after death, this study:
  • “seemed to lead me to no final conclusions. . . I still do not know what to say or how to express my convictions on this subject except with a consuming vagueness.” [49]
  • “I dismiss heaven as a place of reward, and I dismiss hell as a place of punishment. I find neither definition either believable or appealing.” [50]
  • If this kind of theology still makes Spong “clearly a believer,” according to Kitchen, what kind of a believer is he? What will believers in this new style church be like?;
  • Spong “refuses to toe the ecclesiastical line when doctrine and tradition inhibit spiritual growth, or deny the reality of human experience, or discriminate against any person.” [51]

E.    Conclusion

Spongian religion is out of the mind of Spong and his theological ilk. His statements about heaven and hell, in rejecting the orthodox doctrines, are testimony to this fact: “I find neither definition either believable or appealing.” [52] It does not matter what the authoritative Word of God states, it must be “believable and appealing” to Spong for him to accept it. In this writer’s view, this represents theological arrogance and autonomy.

When you invent your own religion, there is no need to listen to the text of Scripture. Therefore, Spongian theology and its counterparts (Tillich, J.A.T. Robinson, Bonhoeffer) can assert:

    1.    “There was no biologically literal virgin birth, no miraculous overcoming of barrenness in the birth of John the Baptist, no angel Gabriel who appeared to Mary, no deaf muteness, no angelic chorus that peopled the heavens to announce Jesus’ birth to hillside shepherds, no journey to Bethlehem, no presentation or purification in Jerusalem, and no childhood temple story.” [53]

2.    Paul, the man from Tarsus, was “a rigidly controlled gay male, I believe, [who] taught the Christian church what the love of God means and what, therefore, Christ means as God’s agent.” [54]

3.    Rationalistic, humanistic, existential views are promoted. The Bible is myth. [55] The mythology of Mark’s Gospel is superseded by today’s knowledge. “We understand what causes wind and wave, epilepsy and deaf muteness in ways that involve no appeal to supernatural forces.” [56]

4.    There’s no need for the supernatural in our modern world. Spong’s language is, “Theism is dead.” [57] But this kind of statement is not original with Spong; it is found in his mentor and friend, John A. T. Robinson [58], who wrote about “the end of theism.” [59] Paul Tillich had spoken of three kinds of theism, one [60] of which “must be transcended because it is irrelevant” and another kind [61] “must be transcended because it is wrong. It is bad theology.” [62]

5.    Autonomous humanistic godlessness reigns. In the preface to his latest book, Spong highlights, thus supporting, the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “God would have us know that we must live as those who manage our lives without God. . . Go is weak and powerless in the world.” [63]

6.    The Bible’s authors are out of date: “They are not in touch with emerging contemporary knowledge.” [64]

7.    If you don’t like what the literal words are saying, make up your own and than claim they are the truth. That’s what Spong has done with the birth narratives of Jesus: “My purpose here [with the birth story] is to see the truth to which these narratives point. Birth narratives tell us nothing about the birth of the person who is featured in those narratives. They do tell us a great deal, however, about the adult life of the one whose birth is being narrated.” [65]

Who said so? Spong did. Reinterpretation according to Spong’s own meaning is the order of the day for his theological inventions. Pity help me if I read his book with the same disdain for literal interpretation.

Since theology matters, Kitchen’s views in support of Spong, if promoted and accepted, will spell the demise of the Churches of Christ if her views are widely accepted. We know it from Spong’s own track record and the record of theological liberalism world-wide.

Pray for the Churches of Christ, Victoria, to return to biblical Christianity!

Endnotes:

2. Merrill Kitchen is the principal of the Churches of Christ Theological College, Mulgrave, Vic., Australia.

3. Merrill Kitchen, “The Future Church and Bishop John Shelby Spong,” The Australian Christian, 28 November 2001, p. 17. This article appeared in the “Theology Matters” feature of the magazine. The Australian Christian is an official Churches of Christ magazine in Australia.

4. John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

5. For ease of reference, I will refer only to his latest book (ibid.), but similar beliefs are documented in his other books that I have read.

6. Kitchen, “The Future Church and Bishop John Shelby Spong,” p. 17.

7. Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, p. 130.

8. Ibid., p. 77.

9. See ibid., pp. 3, 64, 74.

10. Ibid., p. 193.

11. Ibid., p. 178.

12. Ibid., p. 179.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., pp. 2, 6. Elsewhere, Spong writes: “In time the virgin birth account will join Adam and Eve and the story of the cosmic ascension as clearly recognized mythological elements in our faith tradition whose purpose was not to describe a literal event but to capture the transcendent dimensions of God in the earthbound words and concepts of first-century human beings” (John Shelby Spong, Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p. 45).

15. Ibid., p. 124.

16. Ibid., p. 204.

17. Ibid., p. 206.

18. Ibid., p. 214.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., pp. 59-60.

21. Ibid., p. 167.

22. Ibid., p. 12.

23. Ibid., p. 75.

24. Kitchen, “The Future Church and Bishop John Shelby Spong,” p. 17.

25. Ibid.

26. Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, p. 12.

27. A New Christianity for a New World.

28. These figures of decline are based on Louie Crew, “Charting the Episcopal Church. Retrieved on November 4, 2001, from http://newark.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/chartecusa.html, p. 9 (A4 size, printed).

29. Rev. Dr. Leslie P. Fairfield, “Modernist Decline and Biblical Renewal: The Episcopal Church from 1870-2000,” American Anglican Council website, posted January 24, 2001. Retrieved on October 15, 2001, from http://www.americananglican.org/Issues/Issues.dfm?ID-91.  On 6 May 2007, it was available from: http://www.strategicnetwork.org/index.php?loc=kb&view=v&id=3486&fto=1081&

30. Louie Crew, “Growth and Decline in ECUSA Attendance, 1991-2000.” Retrieved on 6 May 2007, from:http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/growthdecline90-00.html. The Episcopalian Church USA has shown “30 years of membership decline and over a million members lost” [The Institute on Religion and Democracy, “Episcopal Action.” Retrieved on 6 May 2007 from: http://www.ird-renew.org/site/pp.asp?c=fvKVLfMVIsG&b=308889.  See also, “Charting the Episcopal Church,” Louie Crew. Retrieved on June 6, 2004, from http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/chartecusa.html.

31. Robert Wuthnow, “Still Toeing the Mainline,” retrieved on November 4, 2001, from http://www.beliefnet.com/story/31/story_3171_1.html. This article states that, “More than 20 million Americans still hold membership in mainline churches. The largest mainline denominations are the United Methodist Church, with 8.7 million members; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with 5.2 million members; the Presbyterian Church (USA), with 2.6 million members; the Episcopal Church, with 2.5 million members; and the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ, each with 1.5 million members.”

31a. The 2003 Diocesan Conference on Church Growth, October 24-25, 2003 – Xavier Center, Convent Station, NJ, retrieved from: http://www.dioceseofnewark.org/churchgrowth/  [26th December 2003]

32. “10M new converts, 32M Christian children per year,” [Source: Justin Long, Assoc. Editor of World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett)]. World-wide statistics plus news from Bulgaria, Chile, Brazil, DAWN Fridayfax 1998 #04. Retrieved on November 4, 2001, from http://www.jesus.org.uk/dawn/1998/dawn9804.html.

33. “Ukraine: 70 new house churches in the Crimea,” DAWN Fridayfax 2001 #24, News from Germany, Ukraine and China. Retrieved on November 4, 2001, from http://www.jesus.org.uk/dawn/2001/dawn24.html.

34. “China: 100,000 new believers in Xinjiang in 3 years,” DAWN Fridayfax 2001 #24, News from Germany, Ukraine and China. Retrieved on November 4, 2001, from http://www.jesus.org.uk/dawn/2001/dawn24.html.

35. “Nigeria: Assemblies of God plant 4,044 new churches in 10 years,” DAWN Fridayfax 2001#3. Retrieved on November 14, 2001, from http://www.jesus.org.uk/dawn/2001/dawn03.html. The source is the AoG news, 3 January 2001.

36. Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, p. 8.

37. “Wales: Church decline generally but slight increase for Anglicans,” Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS), 7 March 1997. Retrieved on November 3, 2001, from www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/acnsarchive/acns1100/acns1153.html. The report went on to say that “the Church in Wales congregations (Anglicans) report that there has been a slight increase in the size of their congregations in the last five years [i.e.. prior to 1997]. The report also found that Churches identifying themselves as Anglo-Catholic or Broad, or Charismatic were growing the most.”

38. “Rescuing Christianity from Bishop Kevorkian,” D. Marty Lasley, review of John Shelby Spong’s, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, for Anglican Voice, posted June 2 1999. Retrieved on 6 May 2007 from: http://listserv.episcopalian.org/wa.exe?A2=ind9906&L=virtuosity&H=1&P=272 (this link was no longer available in Oct 2013, but it is available at: http://listserv.virtueonline.org/pipermail/virtueonline_listserv.virtueonline.org/1999-June/000415.html  (Accessed 15 October 2013).

39. Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, pp. x, xi.

40. Spong, Born of a Woman, p. 176.

41. Kitchen, “The Future Church and Bishop John Shelby Spong,” p. 17 (emphasis added).

42. Ibid.

43. These are based on Kitchen, “The Future Church and Bishop John Shelby Spong,” p. 17.

44. John Shelby Spong, Resurrection Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, pp. 233, 235-236.

45. Ibid., p. 235.

46. John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, p. 207.

47. Ibid., ch. 13, n4, p. 253.

48. Ibid., p. 225.

49. Spong, Resurrection Myth or Reality, p. 287.

50. Ibid., p. 288.

51. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes in the bullet points above are from Kitchen, “The Future Church and Bishop John Shelby Spong,” p. 17.

52. Spong, Resurrection Myth or Reality?, p. 288.

53. Spong, Born of a Woman, pp. 157-158.

54. Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, p. 125.

55. John A. T. Robinson speaks the same kind of language about “the Genesis stories of the Creation and Fall were representations of the deepest truths about man and the universe in the form of myth rather than history, and were non the less valid for that” (Honest to God. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1963, p. 33). Rudolf Bultmann, the demythologiser of the Bible, took a similar line: “There is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age” (Kerygma and Myth, vol. 1, p. 3, in Robinson, ibid., p. 34).

56. Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, p. 143.

57. Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, p. 77.

58. Spong writes that one of the tasks of his book “is to move forward the work begun in the last century by a man who was my mentor and my friend. His name was John Arthur Thomas Robinson” (ibid., p. x).

59. Robinson, Honest to God, p. 39.

60. This is the theism of “the unspecified affirmation of God” (Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1952, p. 182).

61. This is “theological theism. . . It usually develops the so-called arguments for the ‘existence’ of God” (ibid., p. 184). Elsewhere, Tillich rejects the existence of the God proclaimed by orthodoxy: “Ordinary theism has made God a heavenly, completely perfect person who resides above the world and mankind. The protest of atheism against such a highest person is correct. There is no evidence for his existence, nor is he a matter of ultimate concern. . .” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1. Digswell Place: James Nisbet & Co Ltd, 1968, p. 271).

62. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 184.

63. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, dated July 16, 1944. A fuller quote reads: “God would have us know that we must live as those who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. . . Before God and with God we live without God. . . Go is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way in which he is with us to help us.” (in Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, p. ix).

64. Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, p. 9.

65. Ibid., p. 215.

Do you want life or death in the church?

The image “https://i2.wp.com/www.dioceseofnewark.org/nwkseal.jpg?w=625” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Copyright © 2007 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 20 May 2016.

6pointGold-small6pointGold-small6pointGold-small6pointGold-small6pointGold-small6pointGold-small6pointGold-small

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?[1]

3 Wooden Crosses

(image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

1.    Introduction

I have two stories to tell. The first is factually, really true, true! It happened. At the end of this article, hopefully you will understand why I emphasised that this story is factually, true truth. Here’s the true story.

Recently I was talking with a fellow Christian who was devastated by a TV program that he had seen. This show featured some scholars who claimed that the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were myth and could not be trusted as historical documents. My friend was deeply troubled and in a trembling voice said, “I am shocked. My faith has been shaken to the core. I am numb in disbelief. These were scholars speaking and I knew nothing about this. As a Christian, have I been living a fantasy all this time? Is this Christian stuff all a game? Should I eat, drink and be merry? Drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll here I come.”

The second story is fantasy; it’s a myth, but true, nonetheless. Hopefully, you’ll realise the significance of that statement at the end of the article. It goes like this:

My own fantasy is to enter a hall and find high ceilings, lovely chandeliers, walls lined with bookshelves, wines in the alcove, hors d’oeuvres by the windows, and a wide table down the middle of the room with the Bible sitting on it. And there we are, all of us, walking around, sitting at the table, and talking about what we should do with that book. Some rules are in order. Everyone has been invited. Christians have not been excluded, but they are not the ones in charge. All of us are there, and all of our knowledge and expertise is also on the table. There are historians of religion, cultural anthropologists, and political scientists but also politicians, CEOs, and those who work in foreign affairs. The ethnic communities of (any Australian community [3]) are all well represented, as are women, the disenfranchised, the disabled, and all the voiceless who have recently come to speech. Merchants are there, and workers, and the airline pilots. Everyone is present, and everyone gets to talk and ask questions. No one has a corner on what the Bible says. We blow our whistles if anyone starts to pout or preach. What we are trying to figure out is why we thought the Bible so important, whether it is so important, how it has influenced our culture, what we think of the story, whether we should laugh or cry at the “ending,”how it fits or does not fit our current situation, and whether the story should be revised in keeping with our vision of a just sustainable, festive, and multicultural world. Wouldn’t that be something? [4]

This fantasy is the vision that comes from scholar, Burton Mack, with similar views to those of the Jesus Seminar Fellows. His vision is the challenge that faces Christians who believe the Bible to be the Word of God, inspired by God, and a revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Saviour.

[See Appendix B for an outline summary of this section]

2.    My presuppositions

  • I believe the personal God exists;
  • He is the God who created this world, including human beings;
  • He is the God who speaks through general revelation (nature) and special revelation;
  • I approach the Bible as I read any other document of history that is not fiction: I listen to what it says and subject it to the normal rules of understanding any historical document.

Are the criteria of authenticity worthwhile as guides for determining historicity? [11]

D. A. Carson objects: “The criteria that have been established to distinguish between redaction and tradition are for the most part so imprecise as to be not much more than silly” [11a].  I agree, but here they are:

Multiple attestation or forms: This is “information or teaching that appears in more than one of the gospel sources”[12]

  • of Palestinian environment or language. The Greek text of a portion of the gospels seems to reflect a fairly literal translation of a Semitic original or it describes events/concepts distinctive of first century Palestine.[13]
  • of dissimilarity:  “Where the gospels’ portrait of Jesus differs from the typical perspectives both of ancient Jewish belief and of early Christianity, then one may be sure of having authentic Jesus tradition. Because Jesus seemed to stand out so much from his contemporaries and because his first followers so easily deviated from his very demanding requirements, this criterion has appealed to many as most helpful.”[14]

D. A. Carson objects strongly to the criterion of dissimilarity, calling it “the worst of these [criteria]” because

    An authentic teaching of Jesus (it is argued) is one that can be paralleled neither in the early church nor in surrounding Judaism.  This criterion has been ruthlessly shredded in several essays. But it is still defended in some circles.  At best it might produce what is idiosyncratic about jesus’ teaching but it cannot possibly produce what is characteristic about it.  Is any method more than silly that requires that a historical person say something like what is said around him, and that, granted he is the most influential person of all time, so little influence his followers that no thought of theirs may legitimately be traced to him – even when those same followers deliberately make the connection . . ?
         The criterion is hopelessly inadequate for the task assigned it.  Worse, there is an irresistible temptation to reconstruct the teaching of Jesus on the basis of this select material, and the result cannot possibly be other than a massive distortion.
        The criterion of dissimilarity is doubly ridiculous when placed alongside the criterion of coherence.  Unbounded subjectivity [2] must be the result.  Moreover, the other criteria for distinguishing redaction from tradition do not fare much better.[14a]

 

  • of coherence: “Whatever fits well with material authenticated by one of the other three criteria may also be accepted.”[15]

It is, therefore, questionable whether these criteria are of any value since they are created by scholars, many of whom are resistant to the canonical Gospels, and are not developed by deductive reasoning from the biblical text.  I am reluctant to use them because they seem to come with too many trappings linked to the negatives of redaction criticism.  Therefore, this paper does not employ them.

3. The Publicity Machine

There is a new breed of Bible bashers in the world today. These scholars have been in the closets of academic institutions. But no more. They are taking their message to the world through the popular mass media — newspapers, magazines, television, radio, writing their own books at a popular level. They have their message of tearing into the Bible in
Time[16], Newsweek and Life magazines, U.S. News and World Report and newspapers around the world.[17] This version of Jesus was on the front pages of Time and Newsweek magazines, and U.S. News & World Report at Easter time 1996.[18]

The publicity in Australia has been a trickle, but in the U.S., it has become a deluge. It may get that way in Australia, following the SBS TV series during 1999, “From Jesus to Christ.” Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar spoke at the United College (of the Uniting Church), North Parramatta [Sydney, Australia], September 1998.

There was a public forum at St Francis (Anglican) Theological College, Milton, Brisbane, on December 9, 1998, involving Dr Greg Jenks of the Jesus Seminar (of the Drayton Anglican parish, Toowoomba, Qld., Australia), and Dr Paul Barnett, Anglican bishop of North Sydney, defending the orthodox view. The Seminar was titled, “Behind and Beyond the Jesus Seminar: Implications for Christian Discipleship.”  Dr Paul Barnett [18a] is author of the recently revised, Is the New Testament History? As of 2012, Dr. Jenks was on the faculty of St Francis Theological College, Brisbane.

This is a new kind of missionary group that has become very active. These preachers and academics are Bible-bashers of a different kind. As one Christian writer and defender of the faith said, they practice evangelism in reverse… they don’t want you to commit your life to the Christ of the Gospels; they want you to surrender that commitment. And they claim to have history, science and scholarship on their side. They promote themselves under the banner of The Jesus Seminar.[19]

Luke Timothy Johnson has some strong things to say against the Seminar. He is not known as an evangelical (but a Roman Catholic, former Benedictine monk and priest before becoming a biblical scholar)[20], Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.[21], a school not known for its conservative, evangelical views. He says that he wrote his book, The Real Jesus, “to blow the whistle on a form of scholarship I consider misguided and misleading.”[22] Johnson admits, however, that “those whose work I have challenged have not faltered for a moment in their pursuits.”[23] Part of this is related to the mass media frenzy that they have created.

These are some of the newspaper headlines these scholars have grabbed:[24]

  • “Scholars Say Jesus Was Often Misquoted.”[25]
  • “Jesus Didn’t Claim to Be Messiah, Scholars Say.”[26]
  • “Lord’s Prayer Not Jesus’s, Scholars Say.”[27]
  • “Jesus Never Predicted His Return, Scholars Say.”[28]
  • “Jesus Didn’t Promise to Return, Bible Scholars Group Says.”[29]

These samples could be repeated many times over, especially in the USA.[30]

These kinds of headlines do two things: First, they are negatively referring to the traditional Jesus of the Gospels; Second, scholars do this debunking.[31]

When I ask, “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” I am challenging the presuppositions and conclusions of Jesus Seminar Fellows and people of like mind. These are Bible Bashers of a different kind: these are people, mostly scholars, who do not want to take the Bible at face value. When the Bible speaks of supernatural things, it can’t possibly be dealing with historical things. Burton Mack, not of the Jesus Seminar, but with views that are similar, says that the Gospels in our New Testament “are also products of mythic imagination” and one of the “interesting question[s]” for him is “why the gospels are so hard for moderns to recognize as myth.”[32]

Robert Funk, as cofounder of the Jesus Seminar, tells us of one aim: “We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don’t want the real Jesus, they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus.”[33]

There is not a word in the Bible, Old or New Testament, to say that what they contain is myth. These scholars are distorting the Bible’s message; in my opinion, they have become Bible bashers of a new kind.

They claim the Gospels are myth, but that doesn’t matter. You can accept the Jesus of faith in this story, so Christ’s not rising literally from the dead is no bother. He can live in your spirit without that historical stuff back there 2,000 years ago.

There was a public forum at St Francis (Anglican) Theological College, Brisbane, on December 9, 1998, involving Dr Greg Jenks of the Jesus Seminar (of the Drayton Anglican parish, Toowoomba), and Dr Paul Barnett, Anglican bishop of North Sydney, defending the orthodox view. The Seminar was titled, “Behind and Beyond the Jesus Seminar: Implications for Christian Discipleship.” In a letter to the editor in the Anglican newspaper from the Brisbane Diocese, Focus, which promoted this forum, Greg Jenks lets us into the methodology he adopts. He disparaged those who make “the mistake of taking the Bible literally.”[34]

What does the Jesus Seminar think of its critics? According to The Five Gospels, they come from the “skeptical left wing” and the “fundamentalist right.”[35] Yet, evangelical scholar, Dr. Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago (Deerfield, IL.) describes the Seminar in terms of “left wing ideology” that is anti supernatural and engages in circular reasoning.[36] An extremely strong response against the Seminar has come from Howard Clark Kee, “a critical scholar with an international reputation.”[37] He declared that the Seminar was “an academic disgrace.”[38]

What I found very interesting was the scholars’ response to a request to have a discussion on TV in the USA with two evangelicals. Ravi Zacharias, one of the foremost defenders of the faith in the world, “was approached by a major news network [in the USA] to respond to these writings” [of the Jesus Seminar scholars]. Ravi

Suggested that they schedule a discussion between some of these liberal critics, and Don Carson [another leading evangelical scholar] and [Ravi Zacharias]. The network representatives reported back to [Ravi] that they had spent an hour trying to persuade one of the best known authors to agree to even a preliminary dialogue on the program. But the liberal scholar refused, saying he would not go on [the TV program] with an evangelical.[39]What is this saying about the Jesus Seminar’s ability or desire to defend its position publicly against people who are likely to issue a substantial challenge to their conclusions? I would have thought that scholars who were sure of their position and wanted as much mass media exposure as possible, would jump at a TV discussion on a prominent news channel.

If you don’t understand your Bible; if you are not convinced that the Bible consists of solid, historical, reliable documents, you will be hit for a sixer by these theologically liberal scholars who want to “educate the masses” about the REAL Jesus, who we will find, is ANOTHER Jesus. He’s not the Jesus I have come to believe from the Bible and from my personal relationship with him.

Time magazine says, “The scholars are coming out of the closet.”[40] Dr. Julian Hill, a Jesus Seminar participant, says that the Seminar was intended to deal with

“the enormous gap between scholars and the public… Most of the public really doesn’t know what scholars do. They are religiously illiterate.” The intention of the Seminar’s controversial findings, he said, “Is not a deliberate attempt to get at the church; it’s a contribution to religious literacy.”[41]The “Jesus Seminar” is a group of self-described scholars who have determined Jesus probably only said 20%[42] of the quotes attributed to him by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.[43]

4. The Jesus Seminar Approach

“The Seminar employed colored beads dropped into voting boxes in order to permit all members to vote in secret. Beads and boxes turned out to be a fortunate choice for both Fellows and an interested public.”[44]They colour-coded the words of Jesus. About 150 scholars voted on Jesus’ words as red, pink, grey, or black:

This is what they decided. There were two options given:[45]

Option 1:

“red: I would include this item unequivocally in the database for determining who Jesus was.

“pink: I would include this item with reservations (or modifications) in the database.

“gray: I would not include this item in the database, but I might make use of some of the
content in determining who Jesus was.

“black: I would not include this item in the primary database.

Option 2:

“red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.

“pink: Jesus probably said something like this.

“gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.

“black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.”[46]”

One member [of the Seminar] suggested this unofficial but helpful interpretation of the colors:”red: That’s Jesus!

“pink: Sure sounds like Jesus.

“gray: Well, maybe.

“black: There’s been some mistake.”[47]

The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar explained their process:

“Fellows of the Seminar voted, using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words. Dropping colored beads into a box became the trademark of the Seminar and the brunt of attack for many elitist academic critics who deplored the public face of the Seminar.”[48]These scholars say they want “to separate the Jesus of the creeds [the Jesus of faith] from the historical Jesus.”[49] “The scholars concluded that 82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him.”[50]

The only words in the gospel of Mark that are supposed to be authentic are Mark 12 v.17, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” None of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. chapters 5-7) was accepted. Only two words of the Lord’s Prayer were accepted, Our Father.” Nothing in the gospel of John was approved. But the scholars gave credibility to an “apocryphal book of sayings credited to someone named Thomas and used it to confirm or deny Jesus’ words.”[51]

What is even more startling is that the thesis of Funk and Hoover’s book, The Five Gospels, is based on comparing a book, The Gospel of Thomas, that is not credible as a source, with the Bible. It would be like judging the content of the Bible by a Christian novel or some heretical Christian writing.

Courtesy RZIM

One of the world’s leading defenders of the Christian faith, Ravi Zacharias describes the Gospel of Thomas as:

“A brief text found in the 1940s in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, a fragment that has been called the Gospel of Thomas, written in Coptic sometime around the second century. The authors take this small [document] in its random thoughts and with that[,] attacked the biblical gospels as a construct of some people trying to make Jesus what he was not. The methodology they employed is an affront [an insult] to respectable scholarship. One of the ironies of their argument is that the very assumptions they bring to test the authenticity of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would utterly destroy the validity of this so-called Gospel of Thomas before doing any damage to the gospels.”[52]Evangelical scholar, Dr. D. A. (Don) Carson, put it concisely: “The Gospel of Thomas is neither the gospel nor is it by Thomas.” This view is “supported by many scholars, both liberal and conservative. What we have, therefore, gaining the attention of the media is a fringe and radical element.

Courtesy Gospel of Thomas Collection

Don Carson’s view is that “they want their own canon [of Scripture].”[53]  When you put the false canon beside the genuine canon, the false is hard to defend. But it’s the false canon that is gaining the media attention.

God’s authentic, reliable Word determines both history and faith. When the Jesus Seminar has invented fiction to suit themselves, they have made truth appear stranger than fiction.

5. Presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar:[54]

The Jesus Seminar laid its foundation on what the Fellows called “the Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom.”[55] They wanted to view the historical Jesus “through the new lens of historical reason and research rather than through the perspective of theology and traditional creedal formulations.”[56]

These are the seven pillars:

  • First, a “distinction between the historical Jesus, to be uncovered by historical excavation, and the Christ of faith encapsulated in the first creeds [of the early church].”[57]
  • Second, “recognizing the synoptic gospels [Matthew, Mark & Luke] as much closer to the historical Jesus than the Fourth Gospel [of John].”[58]
  • Third, “The recognition of the Gospel of Mark as prior to Matthew and Luke, and the basis for them both.”[59]
  • Fourth, “The identification of the hypothetical source Q [from the German Quelle, meaning ‘source’] as the recognition of the ‘double tradition’ — the material Matthew and Luke have in common beyond their dependence on Mark.”[60]
  • Fifth, “The liberation of the non-eschatological Jesus of the aphorisms and parables from Schweitzer’s eschatological Jesus.”[61]
  • Sixth, “Recognition of the fundamental contrast between the oral culture (in which Jesus was at home) and a print culture (like our own).”[62] Which means: the Real Jesus “will be found in those fragments of tradition that bear the imprint or orality: short, provocative, memorable, oft-repeated phrases, sentences and stories.”[63] So, forget about the supernatural.
  • Seventh,

“That supports the edifice of contemporary gospel scholarship is the reversal that has taken place regarding who bears the burden of proof. It was once assumed that scholars had to prove that details in the synoptic gospels were not historical…. The current assumption is more nearly the opposite..: the gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.”[64]They warn with this “final general rule of evidence: ‘Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”[65]Everyone approaches the Bible with a set of assumptions. Many of the Jesus Seminar’s fiercest critics are evangelical Christians who assume that biblical writings are accurate descriptions of historical events; that the writings are inerrantand were inspired by God (God-breathed).

The Seminar starts with a totally opposite set of fundamental beliefs. Most of its fellows would agree with these statements:

  • Jesus’ message was passed by an oral tradition between 30 and 50 CE; only in the 50s were the first writings made.
  • God did not uniquely inspire the Christian Scriptures; they were composed by men (and perhaps one woman) who promoted their own beliefs, and those of the specific Christian tradition that they belonged to.
  • Beliefs about Jesus and traditions changed and developed extensively between the time of Jesus’ execution and the writing of the first canonical gospel (Mark) circa 70 CE.
  • The authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, in spite of claims to the contrary.
  • In the 4th century CE, the Christian church selected those books for the New Testament canon which:
  • Expressed ideas supportive of the church’s developing theology, and/or
  • were widely accepted and used throughout Christendom.
  • Selection was not necessarily based on historical accuracy.
  • The Jesus Seminar also regards noncanonical writings as worthy of study. These include:
  • The Gospel of Thomas (a gnostic document of 2nd cent.).
  • The Didache (a.k.a. “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles“), a very early Christian instructional manual.
  • Other supposed gospels, other epistles, etc.
  • A tiny, surviving fragment of the Gospel of John has been dated to about 125 CE. But the earliest copies of an entire book from the Christian Scriptures date from about 200 CE. No two are identical. Thus, we can never know precisely what the original copy of any of the books said.
  • The five most important Gospels that are studied (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas) were written by unknown authors, probably with names different than are traditionally assigned.
  • R. W. Funk and the other authors of the book, The Five Gospels[66] wrote: “The Gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.“[67]
  • Many, if not most, of the miracles described in the Gospels did not actually occur. There was no virgin birth no walking on water, no feeding of thousands with a few fish and loaves. Jesus did not bring Lazarus back to life. Jesus’ bodily resurrection, walking through walls, transfiguration, ascension into heaven, etc. are myths. There are no such entities as indwelling demons. Jesus probably healed mental and physical illnesses in the same way that religious healers work today.

Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar makes it very clear what he means by myth and he wants us to see that it is different from a fairy tale in his understanding. He says:

In short, a myth is a story about God and us. As such, myths can be both true and powerful, even though they are symbolic narratives and not straightforward historical reports. Though not literally true, they can be really true; though not factually true.The stories of Jesus’ birth are myths in this sense. Along with most mainline scholars, I do not think these stories report what happened. The virginal conceptions, the star, the wise men, the birth in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn, and so forth are not facts of history. But I think these stories are powerfully true. . .

The stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection contain a mixture of historical memory and mythical narration. The stories of Jesus’ execution are closer to history than the birth stories; he really was crucified under Pontius Pilate around the year 30. . .

But as the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection are told, the authors of the New Testament make use of a number of symbolic motifs to suggest its religious significance [a motif is a main element, idea, feature, etc.(68)].”[69]

So what are these symbolic ideas that myths represent? Borg says that the death and resurrection of Jesus represent “the defeat of the principalities and powers, all those forces of bondage that enslave us.” They can also be “understood as a symbol and embodiment of the path of return to God: we die to an old way of being in order to be born into a new way of being.”[70]

“What happens when the story of Jesus a whole is framed by the stories of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. The story as whole – the completed Christian story – becomes a story about God and us, a myth about God and us… This does not mean, of course, that the historical Jesus was God… The canonical Jesus [the Jesus in the Bible canon of Scripture] discloses what Jesus became in the experience and life of early Christian communities.

“We do not need to choose between [the historical Jesus or the canonical Jesus]… Both disclose what God is like.”[71]

Do you hear what he is saying?

  • The actual birth and resurrection of Jesus are symbols. They didn’t actually happen in history;
  • But that doesn’t matter as they represent our relationship with God.
  • What you read in the Bible (especially the Gospels) about Jesus, is what they early Christian communities wrote back into the Bible. It has noting to do with historical fact. The Gospels are the creation of the Christian church, not that of eyewitnesses who saw and heard Jesus.
  • This is an assertion by these people, not demonstrated from the Gospels or the writings of the early church leaders. This is modern fiction by critical scholars.

6. Questioning their Assumptions?[72]

One of the most important questions you can ask of any point of view (a question almost never asked by the media) is this: Why do they believe it? This allows us to determine whether the reasons lead properly to the conclusions.

Everyone has a starting point. The place the Jesus Seminar begins is carefully concealed from the public at large, but it’s the most critical issue. Why do they claim there is no evidence, say, for the bodily resurrection of Jesus? That is a key question.

Their reasoning goes something like this: It’s impossible for the Gospels to be historically accurate, because they record things that simply can’t happen, like dead people coming alive again and food multiplying  —  miracles don’t happen. We live in a closed universe of natural order, with God (if there is a God) locked out of the system. If miracles can’t happen, then the reports in the New Testament must be fabrications. Therefore, the Gospels are not reliable historical documents.

Further, if miracles can’t happen, then prophecy (a kind of miraculous knowledge) can’t happen. The Gospels report that Jesus prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. Therefore, they could not have been written early, but after the invasion of Titus of Rome in 70 A.D. In addition, eyewitnesses could not have written them, as the early church Fathers claimed.[73]

Notice that the Jesus Seminar doesn’t start with historical evidence; it starts with presuppositions, assumptions that it makes no attempt to prove. This is not history; it’s philosophy, specifically, the philosophy of naturalism.

Robert Funk and the Seminar admit as much: “The gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first century listeners. . .”[74]

The mass media report that the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are based on scientific, historical analysis: the resurrection didn’t happen; the miracles are myths; there is no authentic prophecy in the Bible; the Gospels were written long after the events took place; they were not written by eyewitnesses; the testimony of the early church Fathers can’t be trusted.

This is misleading because the Jesus Seminar doesn’t conclude that the Gospels are inaccurate. That’s where they begin before they’ve looked at one single shred of actual historical evidence. When you start with your conclusions, you’re cheating. You haven’t proved anything at all.

These are people with a mission. Robert Funk, the Seminar’s founder, says, “It is time for us [scholars] to quit the library and study and speak up. . . The Jesus Seminar is a clarion call to enlightenment. It is for those who prefer facts to fancies, history to histrionics, science to superstition.”[75]

This is a strong challenge to evangelicals, depicted here as preferring nice stories to accurate history. Sometimes the best defence is knowing the right questions to ask. These are the ones you need to ask when the Jesus Seminar hits the newsstands.

  • Why are their conclusions their assumptions? That’s cheating!
  • Why don’t they treat the Gospels like any other historical document, or even the Bundaberg News-Mail (my local newspaper) or The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), and leave the burden of proof with the document: Innocent until proven guilty?

7. Who Are the Scholars?

Jesus Seminar describes its start this way:

‘Convened in 1985 by Robert W. Funk the Jesus Seminar has become a lightning rod for international debate about the “historical Jesus” – that is, the real facts about the person to whom various Christian gospels refer. The Seminar’s on-going project has been to evaluate the historical significance of every shred of evidence about Jesus from antiquity (about 30-200 CE). Over the past fifteen years more than 100 scholars from North America & beyond have participated in its semi-annual meetings.”[76]Journalists frequently refer to the 74 “scholars” of the Jesus Seminaras representing the mainstream of biblical scholarship. Being a bona fide scholar, though, means more than just having a higher degree. Generally, a scholar is one who demonstrates a mastery of his discipline and who makes an academic contribution to his field’.[77]

John Dominic Crossan (Courtesy Wikipedia)

By this definition, only fourteen members of the Seminar qualify, including scholars like John Dominic Crossan (pictured at left) and Marcus Borg. Twenty others are recognizable names in the field. One quarter of the group, though, comprises complete unknowns (one is a movie producer), and half of them come from a cluster of three ultra-liberal theological schools: Harvard, Claremont, and Vanderbilt.

Clearly, the Jesus Seminar cannot be viewed as a relevant cross section of academic opinion. This doesn’t mean that their conclusions are false; it means theirs is only one voice of many, viewed even by liberal scholars as suspect and on the extreme fringe. Dr. Gregory Boyd has written a substantial refutation of the Jesus Seminar’s view of Jesus.[78] His view is that “the Jesus Seminar represents an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking. It does not represent mainstream scholarship.”[79]

Luke Johnson says that it is “a small, self-selected association of academics.”[80] “This is not responsible, or even critical, scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade.”[81]

Professor Richard Hays of Duke University (North Carolina) reviewed the book, The Five Gospels, and said that “the case argued by this book would not stand up in any court… Nor does it represent a fair picture of the current state of research on this problem.”[82]

8. What Does the Jesus Seminar Believe?

The Jesus Seminar meets twice a year to dissect biblical passages. Their goal: separate historical fact from mythology. So far, they have rejected as myth the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the virgin birth, all Gospel miracles, and a full 82% of the teachings normally attributed to Jesus — all dismissed as legendary additions with no historical foundation.

An article in the L.A. Times entitled, “Scholars Cite Lack of Resurrection Evidence,” also carried this subtitle: “Controversial Jesus Seminar evaluates New Testament, but members affirm that event’s religious significance does not hinge on the historical record.”[83]

According to this piece, there are two things the Jesus Seminar has to say about the resurrection of Jesus.

First, it never happened. There’s no historical evidence for it.

Second, it doesn’t matter. Christians can still celebrate Easter with its symbolic message of hope and new life.

Robert Funk calls Jesus a “secular sage who satirized the pious and championed the poor.” He then adds, “Jesus was perhaps the first stand-up Jewish comic. Starting a new religion would have been the farthest thing from his mind.”

Isn’t that an odd thing to say about Jesus? Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. He didn’t work miracles. He didn’t give us the greatest teaching in the world. Instead, He was a stand-up comic, according to the founder of the Jesus Seminar.

9. Does Their Bias Make Them Open-minded or Closed-minded?

I agree with philosopher J.P. Moreland that Christian scholars have a point of view, like everyone else. The Christian’s bias should not inform his or her conclusions the same way biases inform the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.

Because people like Robert Funk start with what he calls the “scientific” view that there can be no miracles, their bias arbitrarily eliminates options before the game even gets started. Funk must conclude the Gospels have been tampered with because his philosophy demands it. He can’t consider any evidence for a resurrection because he’s closed his mind to the possibility of miracles.

A Christian is not hindered in this way. The Christian believes in the laws of nature, but is also open to the possibility of God’s intervention. Both are consistent with his worldview. This means he can be faithful to the evidence, unhindered by a metaphysical view that automatically eliminates supernatural options before even viewing the evidence.

The bias of true Christians broadens their categories, making them more open-minded . The believer has a greater chance of discovering truth, because he/she can follow the evidence wherever it leads. The bias of the Jesus Seminar, on the other hand, makes it close-minded and dogmatic. It must also be noted that some evangelicals can also be close-minded as well.

Newspaper articles cast the issue in the opposite way, though. One mentions a dean of a prominent Baptist seminary who says the Seminar’s work is driving a wedge between faith and history among Christians.

What is unfortunate about this representation is that it pits the “historical” and “scientific” analysis of the Jesus Seminar against those poor sods who rely only on “faith.” And since the facts of history are sabotaging the faith of some, Christians are now upset. It’s as if they were saying, “Please don’t tell me these things and confuse me with the facts. It might weaken my faith.” This casts believers as nincompoops, obscurantists who want to cling to fantasy.

But that isn’t the way it is at all. The conclusions of the Jesus Seminar don’t represent facts. Rather, their point of view and research methods are deeply flawed because of their prior commitment to a philosophic position that is already hostile to the events described in the text of the Gospels. It isn’t an issue of historical fact versus religious faith. The facts are actually on the side of the resurrection, not on the side of the wishful thinking of the Jesus Seminar.

10. Are the Gospels reliable history or are they mythic?

The so-called “search for the historic Jesus” is over one hundred years old. Virtually nothing discovered during that time undermines the Gospel accounts. There is no “new evidence” supporting the idea that the miracle-working Son of God was the result of a myth inserted in the Gospel records over a long period of time. To the contrary, recent discoveries have given more credibility to the content of the Gospels themselves. This is why the trend in the last 20 years has been for liberal scholars to become more conservative in their views on the reliability of the Gospels, not less.

Recent finds in archaeology, for example, show us that funerals were conducted differently in Galilee than in Jerusalem, consistent with the details in the Gospels. A person fabricating a story generations after the fact would not know this because of the devastation in Galilee by the Romans in 70 A.D.

This doesn’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but it’s one of a number of things that have been discovered over time that point to the accurate detail of the Gospel accounts. This gives substance to the claim that the writers were eyewitnesses at the time of the events, OR associates of eyewitnesses.

We know the Apostle Paul died during the Neronian persecution of A.D. 64. Paul was still alive at the close of Acts, so Acts must have been written sometime before A.D. 64. Acts was a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, which must have been written earlier still. The book of Mark predates Luke, even by the Jesus Seminar’s reckoning. This pushes Mark’s Gospel into the 50s, just over twenty years after the crucifixion.

It is undisputed that Paul wrote Romans in the mid-50s, yet he proclaims Jesus as the resurrected Son of God in the opening lines of that epistle. Galatians, another uncontested Pauline epistle of the mid-50s, records Paul’s interaction with the principal disciples (Peter and James) at least 14 years earlier (Gal 1:18, cf. 2:1).

The Jesus Seminar claims that the humble sage of Nazareth was transformed into a wonder-working Son of God in the late first and early second century. The epistles, though, record a high Christology within 10 to 20 years of the crucifixion. That simply is not enough time for myth and legend to take hold, especially when so many were still alive to contradict the alleged errors.

There is no good reason to assume the Gospels were fabricated or seriously distorted in the retelling. Time and again the New Testament writers claim to be eyewitnesses to the facts. They give abundant geographic and cultural details not available to writers of the next century. We also now know that it was the habit of Jewish disciples to memorise entire discourses of their rabbi’s teaching.

There’s so much misinformation abroad about accuracy and trustworthiness of  the Bible.  But there’s another problem.

11. Would you follow a mythical Jesus who engaged in symbolic ways of how God and people should relate? Would you follow a Jesus who said he would rise again in three days, did just that, but then you discovered it was only a mythical way of showing darkness vs. light?

Even the members of the Jesus Seminar admit that Jesus was executed on a Roman Cross. But why was He killed? Who would follow this deconstructed Jesus? Who would care if He lived or died?

Leading Jesus scholar John Meier notes that a Jesus who “spent his time spinning parables and Japanese koans . . . or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field . . . would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one.”[84]

In Jesus Under Fire , J.P. Moreland sums up what the Jesus Seminar is asking us to believe based on nothing more than the strength of their philosophical assumptions:

“It requires the assumption that someone, about a generation removed from the events in question, radically transformed the authentic information about Jesus that was circulating at that time, superimposed a body of material four times as large, fabricated almost entirely out of whole cloth, while the church suffered sufficient collective amnesia to accept the transformation as legitimate.”[85]

12. What about the resurrection factor? Does it matter?

The Jesus Seminar wants us to believe that nothing meaningful is surrendered as a result of their analysis. Even though the resurrection is false, they say, it still has significance because of the story it tells.

The Apostle Paul disagreed. “If Christ has not been raised,” he wrote, “your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”[86]

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, but instead was buried in a shallow grave and later dug up and eaten by dogs, as Robert Funk asserts, then Christians have nothing to celebrate. Rather, they should be pitied, according to Paul. Pretty stories not grounded in fact save no one. Only a risen Saviour can defeat death.

I’m with Paul. I pity the Jesus Seminar Fellows who think that we can hold on to some kind of vain, empty, religious confidence when all the facts of history go against us. If that’s true, then you and the Jesus Seminar and I are all still in our sins. That’s not something to celebrate on Easter.

As for me, I’m going to stand with Paul. I’m going to stand with Jesus. I’m going to stand with the resurrection.

13. An Approach to Refuting the Jesus Seminar

          A. You must become a reader

You must develop an understanding of the content of the debate. Read several books on the subject (enemies and friends).

B. Response to: “You Can’t Trust the Gospels. They’re Unreliable” [87]

  • “Without assuming that the Gospels are ‘holy books’ or ‘inerrant,’ they can be shown to be reliable for historical purposes” [see Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ].
  • “Ask the person who rejects the Gospels’ historical reliability, ‘On what basis do you reject their general accuracy?’ If someone favors an unorthodox ‘Gospel’ of Jesus (such as Thomas) over the canonical Gospels, ask why.
  • “If the New Testament is textually flawed, then so is every other work of antiquity. To the contrary, these manuscripts are quite reliable.
  • “Typically, we assume historical documents are reliable unless we have good reason to doubt them. Why should this procedure be reversed — making biblical texts false until proven true?”[88]
  • See my 4 articles, ‘Can you trust the Bible?

C.   Refuting, “Jesus’ Followers Invented the Stories and Sayings of Jesus” [89]

  • Because one writes with an evangelistic, theological or apologetic purpose does not mean the writing is unreliable, e.g.. Read the passion and zeal of writings of Holocaust survivors;
  • “Early Christians didn’t read back into Jesus’ teachings their own issues:

1.    Many of the controversial issues in the epistles are not even mentioned in the Gospels (e.g.. circumcision, tongues, eating meat offered to idols, women in ministry);

2.    Matthew, Mark and Luke offer a portrait of Jesus within one generation of his death.

3.    The Book of Acts was possibly written before Paul’s death about A.D. 64, so the book of Luke was written even earlier;

4.    First century Jews were concerned about accurately preserving tradition;

5.    The Gospels’ simplicity does not reflect a fabrication, .e.g. the women witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection despite their lower status in society, Jesus’ baptism by John, Christ’s ignorance of the time of his second coming, his not doing miracles in some places;

6.    Why invent so many miracles stories, when most Jews expected a political deliverer as Messiah, not a wonder-worker?[90]

 

Suggested Reading

A.    Refuting the Jesus Seminar:

Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History? (rev.) (Aquila Press, Sydney South, Australia, 2003).

Paul W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Apollos/Inter-Varsity Press U.K., 1997).

Paul Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity (InterVarsity Press, USA, 1999).

Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (After Jesus, vol 1) (Eerdmans, USA, 2005).

Paul Barnett, Paul: Missionary of Jesus (After Jesus, vol 2) (Eerdmans, USA, 2008).

Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (After Jesus, vol 3) (Eerdmans, USA, 2009).

John Blanchard, Will the real JESUS please stand up? (Durham, England, Evangelical Press, 1989).

Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Inter-Varsity Press, UK, 1987).

Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A guide to Sources and Methods (Baker Academic, 2002).

—————-, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2002 — for students.

Gregory A. Boyd, Jesus Under Siege (Victor Books, 1995) — for laity.

——————, Cynic, Sage or Son of God. (Victor Books, 1995).

F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Inter-Varsity Press, UK, 1960).

Paul Copan, “True For You, But Not For Me”: Deflating the Slogans That Leave Christians Speechless (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998).

Paul Copan (ed.) Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (debate between William Lane Craig, Christian defender of the faith, and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar) [Baker Books, 1998].

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996).

Gregory Koukl, “The Jesus Seminar Under Fire” (based on his radio show, “Stand to Reason,”) at: http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5380 (retrieved 13 August 2006).

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998).

————, The Case for Faith (Zondervan, 2000).

Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire (Zondervan, 1995).

Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest (InterVarsity, USA, 1997.

Ravi Zacharias 1994, “They Want Their Own Canon,” from the web site, “Just thinking” (Winter 1994), available at: http://www.gospelcom.net/rzim/noindex/jtprint1.php3?jtcode=JT94WRZ  (retrieved 29 March 2004).

B.    Promoting the Jesus Seminar’s Agenda:

Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).

—————, The God We Never Knew (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).

John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

———————–, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).

———————–, The Essential Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).

———————–, Who Killed Jesus? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).

———————–, The Birth of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).

———————–, A Long Way from Tipperary: A Memoir (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels. (Macmillan, 1993).

Lloyd Geering [from New Zealand], “How Did Jesus Become God — and Why?” Available at:
http://www.westarinstitute.org/Periodicals/4R_Articles/Jesus_to_God/jesus_to_god.html (retrieved on 29 March 2005).

Jesus Seminar Forum: http://virtualreligion.net/forum/ (retrieved 29 March 2005).

Jesus Seminar Website: http://www.westarinstitute.org/Jesus_Seminar/jesus_seminar.html (retrieved on 13 May 2000)

Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993)

—————-, Who Wrote the New Testament? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).

B. A. Robinson, “The ‘Jesus Seminar'”, http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jsem.htm  (retrieved 13 May 2000).

Appendix A

Conclusions of the Jesus Seminar[91]

Most Fellows of the Jesus Seminar would probably agree with the following conclusions:

  • The 4 canonical gospels were written chronologically in the order: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John over the interval from about 70 to 110 CE.
  • The Gospel of Mark and there were two independent sources which the authors  used as the basis of their gospels. Both Matthew and Luke also incorporated material from their own sources.
  • The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. It was part of a Gnostic Christian library which was apparently buried during a time of persecution of the Gnostics by Pauline Christians. It contains 73 sayings that are duplicates of those found in the canonical Gospels. It also has 65 sayings (or parts of sayings) that are unique. However, some of these scholars could see GThom as a writing independent of the Gospels.
  • The Gospel of John represents a religious tradition that is independent from the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). They differ so much that either John or the Synoptic Gospels must be largely abandoned in the quest for an understanding of Jesus’ actual sayings and acts. The Jesus Seminar has largely rejected John.
  • Many of Jesus’ followers had previously followed John the Baptist.
  • Jesus rarely spoke of himself in the first person. The many “I am” statements in John originated from the Gospel author, not from Jesus.
  • Jesus did not claim to be Messiah.
  • Jesus is not claim to be God.
  • Jesus did not believe that his execution was necessary in order for those who trust in him as Lord and Saviour would be saved from eternal damnation.
  • Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God had already arrived in 1st century Palestine and was visible in the way that he and his followers treated each other. On the other hand, John the Baptist and Paul viewed the Kingdom as coming at a time in their future, sometime in the 1st century.
  • Jesus probably talked to his followers and preached in Aramaic. The books in the Christian Scriptures are written in Greek. Thus, even those parts of the Gospels that Jesus is believed to have said, are actually translations into Greek of his original words.
  • About 18% of the sayings of Jesus recorded in the 4 canonical Gospels and Thomas rated a red or pink rating (Jesus definitely or probably said it). The remaining passages attributed to Jesus were actually created by the Gospel writers.
  • In Mark, only one saying (Mark 12:14) was given a red rating; many are pink.

Matthew contains many sayings of Jesus which have been rated red or pink. But all of the words attributed to Jesus from the description of the last judgement in Chapter 25 until the end of the Gospel, were rated black (i.e. definitely not said by Jesus).

Luke also contains many pink and red ratings. But all of the sayings attributed to Jesus from his comment that the earth will pass into oblivion within a generation (Luke 21:32) to the end of the Gospel are all rated black.

The Gospel of John was unique among the canonical Gospels: none of the words attributed to Jesus were rated red. There was only one pink passage. One was gray (Jesus did not say this, but it contains ideas similar to his). The vast majority of sayings were rated black.

Appendix B

FOR Power Point use[5]

“We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don’t want the real Jesus; they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus.”[6]

“The narrative gospels are also products of mythic imagination. Jesus is now confronted… with the more interesting question of the reasons why the gospels are so hard for moderns to recognize as myth.[7]

“Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him.”[8]

“The authors [from the Jesus Seminar] seem to have looked into the well of history searching for Jesus and seen their own reflection.”[9]

“What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts. His body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting.”[10]

 

Endnotes:

1. This article was written with considerable assistance from Gregory Koukl, “The Jesus Seminar Under Fire” (based on his radio show, “Stand to Reason,”), at:  http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5380 retrieved 13 August, 2006, “Stand to Reason” at P.O. Box 6568, San Pedro, CA 90734, Email: info@str.org, retrieved from www.str.org (Accessed 13 August 2006).
2. In 2011, I retired as a family and general counsellor and counselling manager, after working the last 17 years full-time in the counselling field in Australia. I am ordained with the Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination, Australia and completed my research PhD in New Testament (University of Pretoria, South Africa) in 2015, with a focus on a dimension of historical Jesus studies.
3. The original said, “Los Angeles County.”
4. Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, 310, emphasis added. Although Mack is not a member of the Jesus Seminar, his theological views are harmonious with that of the Seminar.
5. Interview of Robert Funk, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, with Mary Rourke, “Cross Examination,” Los Angeles Times, 24 February 1994, E1, E5, in Wilkins and Moreland, 2.
6. Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 250.
7. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company (A Polebridge Press Book), 1993, 5.
8. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest (new expanded edition). Downers Grove, Ill. InterVarsity Press, 1997, 9. This was referring to Albert Schweitzer’s comment that he had come to the conclusion that most of these fresh attempts to say what we could really know about the historical Jesus actually told us more about their authors than about the person they sought to describe. The authors seem to have looked into the well of history searching for Jesus and seen their own reflection” (Witherington, 9).
9. John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, 154.
10. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987, 247.
11. Ibid.
11a. D. A. Carson, “Redaction criticism: On the legitimacy and illegitimacy of a literary tool,” in D. A. Carson. and J. D. Woodbridge (eds). Scripture and Truth.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1992, 125.
12. Blomberg, p. 247.
13. Ibid., emphasis added.
14. Ibid., 248.
14a Carson, “Redaction criticism,” 125.
15. e.g.. Richard N. Ostling, “Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple,” Time, 10 January 1994, 38, in Gregory A. Boyd, Jesus Under Siege. Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1985, 137.
16. Boyd, ibid., 12.
17. According to Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, vii.
18. Gregory Koukl of the organisation, “Stand to Reason” and the transcript, “The Jesus Seminar Under Fire,” 1995, 1, emphasis added [29 March 2005].
18a.  Paul Barnett 2003, Is the New Testament History? (rev.), Aquila Press, Sydney South, Australia.
19. Luke Timothy Johnson, rear cover.
20. According to the university’s web page, the school was started by the Methodist Church.
21. Johnson, vii.
22. Ibid.
23. The following newspaper headlines are from Johnson, 20.
24. San Francisco Chronicle, 9 March 1987.
25. San Francisco Chronicle, 18 October, 1987.
26. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 15 October 1988.
27. Atlanta Constitution, 5 March 1989.
28. Los Angeles Times, 5 March 1989.
29. See Johnson, 20.
30. Based on ibid.
31. Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 250.
32. Interview with Mary Rourke, “Cross Examination,” Los Angeles Times, 24 February 1994, E1, E5, in Wilkins and Moreland, 2.
33. “Biblical tyranny?” letter by Fr Greg Jenks, St Matthew’s, Drayton, in “Opinion,” Focus [the Anglican newspaper distributed in Queensland], December 1998, p. 4.
34. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company (A Polebridge Press Book), 1993, 5. I was alerted to this in Johnson, 22.
35. U.S. News & World Report, 1 July 1991, in Johnson, 18.
36. Johnson, 18. I am an Australian family relationships’ counselling manager, doctoral student in biblical studies, an active Christian apologist, and may be contacted at: PO Box 3107, Hervey Bay 4655, Australia.
37. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, 30 March, 1991; see also U.S. News & World Report, 1 July, 1991, in Johnson 18.
38. Ravi Zacharias, “They Want Their Own Canon,” from the web site, “Just thinking,” Available from: http://www.rzim.org/publications/jttran.php?seqid=17 (Accessed 3 April 2003), emphasis added.
39. Ostling, 38.
40. A. Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, “Seminar Examines Jesus’ Words,” Milwaukee Sentinel, 11 December 1993, 8A, in Boyd, Jesus Under Siege, 15.
41. According to the Jesus Seminar, it is 18%. Available at:  http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jsem.htm, (Accessed 13 May 2000); Copyright 1998, 1999, originally written: 1998, July 5; Latest update: 1999, Dec. 8; Author: B.A. Robinson
42. Koukl.
43. Funk, et al., 36.
44. Ibid.
45. Ibid.
46. Ibid.
47. Ibid., 36-37.
48. Ibid., 34.
49. Donald A. Wells, Ph.D., “The Many Quests for the Historical Jesus,” in the website column, “From the Pulpit,” www.mind.net/rvuuf/pages/quests.htm. This essay was originally developed and delivered as a Sunday Service presentation for the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ashland, Oregon, on June 23, 1996, 2.
50. Ibid., 3.
51. The above information from ibid., 3-4.
52. Ravi Zacharias, “They Want Their Own Canon,” from the web site, “Just thinking,” Available from: http://www.rzim.org/publications/jttran.php?seqid=17 (Accessed 3 April 2003), emphasis added.
53. Ibid. emphasis added.
54. Unless otherwise stated, these assumptions are taken from http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jsem.htm, (Accessed 13 May 2000).  Copyright 1998, 1999; Originally written: 1998, July 5; Latest update: 1999, Dec. 8; Author: B.A. Robinson.  The author is a supporter of these assumptions.
55. Funk, et al., 2.
56. Ibid.
57. Ibid., 3.
58. Ibid.
59. Ibid.
60. Ibid.
61. Ibid., 4.
62. Ibid.
63. Ibid.
64. Ibid., 4-5.
65. Ibid., 5.
66. Funk et al.
67. Ibid., 4-5.
68. Noah Webster, Webster’s new Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged). Collins World, 1978, p. 1173.
69. Marcus J. Borg, The God I Never Knew. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 102.
70. Ibid.
71. Ibid., 102-104.
72. This is based on Gregory Koukl.
73. Papias, about A.D. 125 said that “Mark had carefully and accurately recorded Peter’s eyewitness observations.” Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180 said that:

“Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue. . . Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter… Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living in Ephesus in Asia” [Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4, in Lee Strobel,The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House 1998, p. 24).

74. Funk, et al., 5, emphasis added.
75. Robert Funk & Mahlon H. Smith, The Gospel of Mark, Red Letter Edition. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991, pp. xvi- xvii.
76. Jesus Seminar Forum: http://virtualreligion.net/forum/ (Accessed 13 May 2000).
77. A partial list of scholars who have participated or are presently involved with the Jesus Seminar can be found at: http://westarinstitute.org/Fellows/fellows.html (Accessed 13 May 2000).
78. Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic, Sage or Son of God. Wheaton, Illinois: A Bridgepoint Book (Victor Books), 1995.
79. Interview with Gregory Boyd in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, 114.
80. Johnson, 1.
81. Ibid., 26.
82. “The Corrected Jesus,” First Things, May 1994, 43-48, in Johnson, 26.
83. Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1995, in Koukl.
84. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus , vol. 1 New York: Doubleday, 1991, 177, quoted in Wilkins & Moreland, 21.
85. Wilkins and Moreland, 22.
86. 1 Corinthians 15:17-19.
87. From Paul Copan, “True for You, But Not for Me.” Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998, 99.
88. See a more detailed explanation in ibid., ch. 15.
89. Ibid., 105-106.
90. See a more detailed explanation in ibid., ch. 16.
91. http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jsem.htm, retrieved 13 May 2000; Copyright 1998, 1999, originally written: 1998, July 5; Latest update: 1999, Dec. 8; Author: B.A. Robinson.
Copyright (c) 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at 7 October 2015.

Refutation of a heresy of Christ’s incarnation

image

Courtesy of Hendrickson Publishers (2005)

By Spencer D Gear

Was this idea of Jesus’ being fully man and fully God a creation of the church after Christ’s life, death and ascension?

A statement has been made about the divine and human with relation to Jesus. It’s a confusing statement, but it points to a problem in the contemporary doctrine of the person of Christ:

It seems to me that part of the problem is the idea of Jesus being “fully man” and “fully God” simultaneously. But I think some of this is stuff that has come up AFTER Jesus. For example, the Ebionite Christians of the 2nd Century said that Jesus was man, but not God, but the Docetist Christians (same era) said Jesus was fully God, but not a man at all (since, by their thinking, God couldn’t be debaucherized by entering a sinful world.. so Jesus was kind of like a hologram, in today’s terms).. and so to stick these together, they made Jesus “fully God, and fully man”.. and that’s where this confusion comes from.[1]

My response[2] is that Jesus has two natures – fully God and fully man – and this is the orthodox teaching of the New Testament. See the following for biblical support:

The Nestorian heresy

This was as much an issue in the early church as it is today. It was debated at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Nestorian position was found to be unorthodox and his teachings were condemned as heresy.

Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, may not have taught this doctrine himself, but Nestorianism, associated with his name, believed the error that Jesus was two distinct persons, one human and one divine. This doctrine threatens the nature of the atonement. Harold O. J. Brown stated that

Nestorius’ incarnate person was a single person, not two as his critics thought, but he could not convince others that it was so. Consequently he has gone down in history as a great heretic although what he actually believed was reaffirmed at [the Council of] Chalcedon.[3]

The Scriptures do not indicate the human nature of Christ as an independent person. We don’t find in the Bible any teaching such as: “Jesus’ divine nature did this” and “Jesus’ human nature did that” as if they were acting as two separate persons. The NT teaching always speaks of the PERSON of Christ did this or that.

So, the orthodox position is that Jesus was one person who possessed both a human nature and a divine nature.

We can talk of Christ’s human nature, where he ascended to heaven and is no longer in our world (see John 16:28; 17:11; Acts 1:9-11). When speaking of Christ’s divine nature we can say that he is present everywhere: “Where two or three are gathered in my name THERE AM I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20); “I am with you always to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

So we can say that both of these things are true about the PERSON of Christ – he has returned to heaven AND he is also present with us.

We can say that Jesus was about 30 years old (Luke 3:23) if we speak of his human nature, but when speaking of his divine nature, we can say that he eternally existed (see John 1:1-2; 8:58). In his human nature, Jesus became weak and grew tired (see Matt. 4:2; 8:24; Mark 15:21; John 4:6), but we know that in his divine nature, he was omnipotent (Matt. 8:26-27; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3. Therefore, we know that he was omnipotent, but he grew tired.

We see these two natures at work in the situation where Jesus was asleep in the boat and then calmed the wind and the waves (Matt. 8:26-27). It is amazing that this one person was both tired and omnipotent. At time his weak human frailty hid his omnipotence. But we must never lose sight of the fact that Jesus was one person with both human and divine natures.
I find that the only way I can get my head around this teaching that opposes Nestorianism, is to read the Scriptures. Jesus was truly and fully God and truly and fully human – both natures in the one person.

But what about this problem?

It is stated by Jesus, ‘But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (Mark 13:32 ESV). He was speaking of his second coming and Jesus did not know this time. How can this be when he is fully God?

This is why the biblical doctrine of Christology needs to be fully support in understanding that Jesus was one person with two natures. Christ’s lack of knowledge of the time of his return is a clear example of the need to have the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s one person with two natures. Wayne Grudem put it this way:

This ignorance of the time of his return was true of Jesus’ human nature and human consciousness only, for in his divine nature he was certainly omniscient and certainly knew the time when he would return to earth.[4]

Let’s check out Lutheran commentator, R. C. H. Lenski, and his interpretation of Mark 13:32:

The fact that the angels, though they are in heaven, do not know the date and period is no special surprise to us, but the fact that “the Son” should not know day and hour does cause surprise. The term “the Son” is placed alongside of “the Father.” But whereas Jesus thus names himself according to his divine person and nature, what he predicates of himself is something that pertains to his human nature. The Scriptures show that Jesus may be named according to either nature, and yet that something that belongs to the opposite nature may constitute the predicate. Analogous to the expression used here is Acts 3:15: “you killed the Prince of life”; also 1 Cor. 2:8, “crucified the Lord of glory.” In their essential oneness the three persons know all things, but in his humiliation the second person did not use his divine attributes save as he needed them in his mediatorial work. So the divine omniscience was used by Jesus only in this restricted way. That is why here on Mt. Olivet (v. 3) he does not know the date of the end. How the incarnate Son could during his humiliation thus restrict himself in the use of the divine attributes is one of the mysteries of his person; the fact is beyond dispute.[5]

This is the mystery revealed in the NT. Jesus Christ was one person with two natures – human and divine. Lenski has stated it well in his assessment above: “How the incarnate Son could during his humiliation thus restrict himself in the use of the divine attributes is one of the mysteries of his person; the fact is beyond dispute”.

See more of my articles in ‘Truth Challenge’. See also the article, ‘What do Christians believe about the incarnation? Was Jesus really God?

Notes:

[1] Christian Forums #256, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7474786-26/#post58827293 (Accessed 23 October 2011).

[2] Ibid., #257. I was helped in my response by Wayne Grudem 1994. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, pp. 555-562.

[3] Harold O. J. Brown 1984. Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., p. 176. This edition now is available from Hendrickson Publishers (2005).

[4] Grudem, op cit, p. 561. Grudem notes that if you check out the commentaries on Mark 13:32 by John Calvin, H. B. Swete (an Anglican) and R. C. H. Lenski (a Lutheran), you will find that they all attribute this ignorance by Jesus to his human nature and not his divine nature (Grudem 1994:561 n 43).

[5] R. C. H. Lenski 2001. The Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, pp. 590-591. Previously it was published by The Wartburg Press (1946) and assigned in 1961 to Augsburg Publishing House. The Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. edition was printed in March 2001.

 

Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 October 2015.

Flower23Flower23Flower23Flower23Flower23Flower23

Whytehouse Designs