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Archive for May, 2010

“We imagine that the man Christ Jesus would have been irresistible to us.  Alas! He has never for a moment been beyond misinterpretation.”   – George Steven, Free Church, Scotland, 1917

If we had been contemporaries of Jesus, if we had seen a living and breathing man walking our streets, healing our sick, forgiving our sins, who or what do we think we would have seen – or failed to see?

“… There is no expression, deed, or event that ever happens, which does not immediately take its place in the order of natural events, to be criticized and judged as such” (Steven, The Development of a Christian Soul, p. 67).

Judged, but also misjudged.  There’s no wonder that he who came into the natural order of events as the Son of Man simultaneously evoked and disappointed the racial hopes of his people as long as he lived and breathed.  His fellowship with sinners was counted as sin, his healing was called Satanism, his forgiveness blasphemy.  And more recently, “His meekness has been counted weakness, his gentle speech timidity, his burning words ill-temper, his morality the morality of slaves. …”  (Ibid.)

His love, his eternal truth, his good name (and that of his Father) were all freely offered to his times, an infinite sacrifice to the misinterpretation  and calumny – the disappointment – of the finite.  It was a tribunal to which he submitted in full, with no quarter asked and none given.  Even  in the  matter of everyday appearances – the kind historians crave to know about their subjects.  His place of origin (Nazareth?), family background (common), accent (provincial), apparel (unpretentious), formal training (or lack thereof).  All such knowledge only created, for his accusers, another layer of the unacceptable.

We who believe in Jesus – then as now – believe from a different hermeneutic principle than the one applied by the religious elders of his day (and by the religious historians of our own day).  This hermeneutic of faith allows us to ‘see’ a different Jesus than his critics apprehend – one who flies under (or over) the radar of ‘the historical.’   Even 2000 years of ‘history’ cannot separate the soul from this Jesus of faith.  (to be continued)

“And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders …” (Mk 8:31)

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What’s at stake in the challenge mounted by Mark Goodacre and a few others against the hypothetical Q document?  Q is a major theoretical pillar of modern New Testament source criticism, and we can be sure there is a mass of academic ego on the line, and great stacks of painstaking research and interpretation threatened with obsolescence.  In other words, the discussion isn’t going to happen.  Because those stakes are too high.

Modern criticism is now so heavily invested in the Q-romance of an imagined “lost” gospel containing primitive logia of Jesus that any general acceptance of Goodacre’s argument might cause a crisis in NT hermeneutics.  I believe that the gospels would be just fine in the exchange, but I think it would be a long time before the failed theological ties to the imaginary Q were sorted out, and scholars became adept at re-interpreting this double-tradition as simply that portion of material new to the author of Matthew which Luke also saw warrant to repeat in his own Gospel.

I posted in April and again in early May of my general agreement with Goodacre and with Austin Farrer (1955) and Michael Goulder (1989), that I thought Luke’s dependence on Matthew explained the common material between them better than Q-theory.  With the object of fortifying myself in this regard, I have had Goodacre’s book, The Case Against Q (2002), home from the library since early April.  But I have been distracted by the Johannine passion, Historical Jesus, N. T. Wright, reading Kant, priority of Mark, and other interests.

In a comment I made over at Near Emmaus yesterday, however, I cited my rejection of Q in support of a point I was making about the dating of Matthew.  Well I started to feel the need for some study of the problem in depth, because I didn’t want to be hanging out there with nothing but a personal preference for Luke’s dependence on Matthew.

The last straw came this morning, however, when I sat down with Ernst Fuch’s 1960 Berlin lecture, “Jesus’ Understanding of Time” (Studies of the Historical Jesus, SCM Press, 1964, p.104).  I’ve had Fuchs’ book home only a week, wanting to give the post-Bultmann scholars of the New Quest – and Fuchs in particular – a fair turn.  However, from the first paragraph it became apparent that I could not follow the author’s thesis without possessing an utter faith in the existence of Q (a faith which I don’t have).  After four pages, I put the book down and reached for Goodacre.

I want to nail this argument now, and will post a short review series on The Case Against Q in the near future.

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I found Carl McColman’s great Website of Unknowing last week, and something really wonderful he was saying about belief attracted my attention immediately. Carl was quoting from his first book, Spirituality:

[the word Belief] stems from an Indo-European word, lubh-, which means “to hold dear” or “to like.” … the same ancient root from which love originates. This connection between belief and love suggests that belief has something to do with being in relationship. To believe means to trust and to love. To believe in the Sacred means to love the Sacred — and to be the Sacred’s beloved. To believe in God means to trust, depend on, and rely on God. Belief is not a matter of certainty or lack of doubt. Belief is a matter of emotional openness. Belief grows out of such characteristics of spirituality as willingness and vulnerability.

This is all very well. But what of those beliefs which cannot be transformed into this sense of active love, trust, and embrace?  This attitude of heart and mind which Carl calls belief I have long known as ‘living faith.’  And I’m wondering how far this quality of loving activity which he writes about will aid me in drawing a useful distinction between beliefs which can and cannot be fit objects for faith.

Take for example a belief like that which the creed asks us to hold about the virgin birth of Jesus.  The incarnation itself is clearly a divine gesture whose present meaning and value overcomes my resistance and draws me into an attitude of service and love.  But I can’t say the same thing for the virgin birth.  Belief in Mary’s virginity seems to be more of a statement about the technique of incarnation, a detail that is over, past, and done, and this is beyond my power of response. But if a belief cannot be acted upon, realized, lived into, how can it attain to trust, reliance, love?

Take on the other hand a New Testament concept which we don’t find in the creed – that the risen Lord has bestowed a Spirit of Truth, a divine Comforter, upon the world.  Now this belief about a spirit of adoption which may be apprehended in prayer and in life is something which I may certainly act upon, verify, realize (or not) in contemplation and action. And this has all the hallmarks of a religious concept which can be a proper object of faith – trust, reliance, love. It can be truly “embraced” in more than a merely subjective way.

Anyway, I’m still mulling over the differences.  The original discussion may be found here

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In the next few weeks I hope to be participating in the discussion of Kant with Robert Minto and friends at the Anti-Moderate.  I would call  The Critique of Pure Reason the most important single work in modern philosophy, although it points to the second Critique with enough persistence to be called half of a double work.

Unlike some, I view this book as more of a help to theism than a threat.  Granted, it’s tough on metaphysics and the alleged philosophical ‘proofs’ of God and the soul’s immortality which some theists depend upon.  But my metaphysics does not depend wholly on reason; it looks to subjectivity, value, wisdom, faith, and revelation for the total picture.

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In a previous post I hinted at the tremendous theological depth I saw in a single very simple assumption about Jesus of Nazareth – a very pedestrian, un-theological assumption – that he was able to read and write his mother tongue.

The assumption of a basic functional literacy for Jesus makes a very unspectacular human claim – one which requires no miracle, no mysterious wisdom, no superhuman power.  Literacy was a skill set that was a credible attainment for any first-born Jew of the age (as professor Craig A. Evans has shown – see the earlier post).

The historian might ask, “If Jesus could read and write, why don’t we have any of his writing?”  And I think too many historians hold this question to be an unanswerable proof that Jesus was illiterate.  However, it is just this lack of writing by Jesus that I find so theologically deep when taken in conjunction with a supposition that he could both read and write:  What if the Word of God, when incarnate, had been perfectly able to render his purpose, his idea, his gift, his teaching, his gospel, under the discursive form of an authoritative text – but determined not to do so?  Would this tell us anything about the divine attitude toward textual authority?

Nothing requires us to follow the historians who account for Jesus’ lack of writing by suggesting an illiterate ‘rustic’ teacher (of astonishing wisdom).  For if we choose to see instead a deliberate decision against leaving such a sensitive artifact as an actual text, we may still join the historians in asking, Well indeed, why didn’t such a man leave any writings?   However, by laying aside the picturesque assumption of illiteracy, we open up possibilities which tend to move the discussion away from dependence upon alleged Galilean literacy rates and in the direction of dependence upon divine will and divine wisdom.

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Any good search engine will return thousands of hits for Simon Peter in return for the two words, impetuous apostle.  The same two words will fetch hundreds of Google Books titles dating back over 200 years which include a sketch of Simon Peter’s character along this line.  “Impetuous” is simply the epitome of this Apostle’s reputation, drawn from honest reflection on his behavior as recorded in the Gospels and Acts.

Not many, however, would judge impetuosity, given to headlong plunges, precipitous action, sudden resolves lacking in substantial reserve, as a trait in the character of a truth-seeker.  I think most of us would probably see it as more the spirit of error than the Spirit of Truth.

I think this fact about Peter’s temperament, and its opposition to the frame of mind required for entertaining new or greater truths, are evident at the first Christian Pentecost.  If Acts 2:14-41 preserves the true outline of his Pentecost sermon, I think we must admit that Peter on this auspicious day moves head-first into an error which embarrassed the church for more than a generation.

Peter Preaching at Pentecost - Masolino

By his quotations from Joel and David (Psalms), Peter proclaims “the great and manifest day” of impending doom for all who do not “call on the name of the Lord,” even Jesus of Nazareth, whom God  has raised, and who is now at God’s right hand until his enemies are made his footstool.  If this was Peter’s message, and it cut his listeners to the heart (2:37), we might assume that what led to the ‘conversion’ of about 3000 was a dread of impending retribution for shared guilt in the death of the Messiah.  Is this a gospel?

Not in my view.  Peter’s dire imagery – his fearsome but empty implications that the slain Messiah was to make an imminent return to judge the unrepentant Jews and the world – was in fact simply wrong.  Here we see perhaps the historical root of the error which Paul also taught – the Messiah’s imminent return.  Wrong and wrong.

[Note added May 16:  So much for the “spirit of error.”  I also am a firm believer that Pentecost marked the beginning of a real connection between the Spirit of Truth and the life of the church.  Suffice it for now to say I do not believe this Spirit to function in a manner which protects the church from all error whatsoever.]

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With the blog little over 60 days old I am pleased to have two good pans in the fire, with the series on the Priority of Mark and on John’s historical value for the trials of Jesus .  Meanwhile my earlier topics – the pre-Calvary Gospel, Das Messiasgeheimnis, the indwelling Kingdom, and Jesus’ refusal to be a Text – are simmering on the back burners, and will get more bandwidth soon.

However, I haven’t featured any Peter or Paul, or any Old Testament, and virtually no theology.  So I want to inaugurate my ‘theology’ category, and I believe I have a topic that will lead to a sustained series of posts, both from personal interest and because it is related to so many points of Christian reflection and doctrine in its own right.

So when I can get my ducks in a nice row, I will be looking at the whole NT tradition of Jesus’ prevalent and varied table ministry.  My aim is to unite the theological content inherent in ‘the Lord’s Supper’ with all those many examples of  Jesus’ table fellowship we find before (and after) the Passion meal.  I want to see how far a single theme – God’s unabashed presence and free communion with sinners at table  – may be understood to unify such diverse theological concepts as atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, Eucharist, communion, Christian love, inclusion, prayer, approach to God, and fellowship with God.

In honor of this theological turn, I have established a new banner atop the blog, from Paolo Veronese’s celebrated “Feast at the House of Levi” (Lk 5:27-32/Mk2:14-17).  I look for this really remarkable painting to set a tone that is at once both in this world and not of this world.

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