Sunday, October 30, 2011


Fleming Rutledge, one might expect if you've ever read any of her preaching, is no fan of Marcus Borg. And especially she is not a fan of a catchphrase he has taken up: "Jesus trumps the Bible." Now it may occur to you that she is criticizing this out of context, but, well, let's have it in his own words:
And because Christians find the primary revelation of God in a person and not in a book, Jesus is more central than the Bible. Jesus trumps the bible; when they disagree, Jesus wins. Yet, of course, we know about him primarily through the Bible, and in particular through the New Testament. (The Heart of Christianity, p. 81)
He then appeals to the central modernist paradigm, for the next section of the book begins with an exposition of images of God, taking for granted that a traditionalist image is unacceptable:
The first reason that a historical-metaphorical approach matters is that an earlier image of Jesus and the image of the Christian life that goes with it have become unpersuasive to millions of people in the last century. (p. 81)
And that leads right to the issue I invariably have at this point: why and how should we care about their disbelief?

Here I and Rutledge take a slight divergence, though I think it is one of emphasis rather than a difference of opinion. Her reaction to hearing Borg speak focuses on the problem of actually constructing this alternate image, particularly on the distinction Borg makes between a pre- and post-Easter Jesus. She is absolutely right in denying this distinction, and her grounds for that denial is spot on-- and really, right up the alley that Borg is trying to argue. We don't have any pre-Easter documents about Jesus, not unless you want to work with the Old Testament, which I'm pretty sure contains a lot of the material that Jesus is supposed to trump (and I'll bet that Paul's exposition of sexual morality is another). The gospels, though, are emphatically post-Easter documents, and it is they that we go to for word of the pre-Easter Jesus. Thus we see that Jesus through post-Easter eyes; the texts themselves work against such a separation.

But it seems to me that beyond this, the key phrase is towards the end of the first section I quoted: "we know about him primarily through the Bible." Phrased that way, it carries the implication that there is some other source. But what is that source? Well, there is the church, but given his devaluation of tradition I would say that her teachings aren't what he had in mind. Borg, at least in this book, takes a while to tip his hand, but several pages later, having stumbled over the Chalcedonian problem of the natures of Christ with giving it a mention, he finally get to his new authority, in analyzing the messianic titles and language of Jesus:
First, this language is post-Easter. A strong majority of mainline scholars think it unlikely that Jesus said these things about himself; he probably did not speak of himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, the Light of the World, and so forth. Rather, this is the voice of the community in the years and decades after Easter. (pp. 86-87)
A quick check in an online bible search discloses that Jesus does say exactly that he is the Son of God and the Light of the World, so clearly we must conclude from this that the wisdom of the scholars, some of the scholars at least, is greater than the text of the Bible. I don't think much of this, and neither does Rutledge: "It has been shown over and over again that attempts to construct a “historical Jesus” or “real Jesus” apart from the faith-based witness of Scripture end in failure because such attempts are grounded, not in the text, but in the bias of those who undertake them." Indeed, that qualifier "mainline" is necessary because a survey shows a distinct lack of consensus on the matter: one could indeed assume that Borg identifies the mainline precisely in its agreement with this thesis.

If an unexamined life isn't worth living (an exaggeration, I would say), then unexamined scholarship is worse than worthless. It's impossible for me to read the "mainline" material and not come away with the conclusion that it's largely worthless because it begs the question. It already knows that Jesus cannot be a miracle worker, cannot be aware (somehow) of his divinity, cannot indeed be divinely born of a virgin. OK, so where's the proof of all these "cannots"? Well, Borg, at least in close proximity to the passages I've quoted, doesn't say, but one gets the sense that the scriptural God is distasteful. But like all good modernists, he fails to put his own predilections on the spot. If the problem with traditional Christianity is that it doesn't "work" for everybody (and within it's own schema, that's not a problem ), the problem with the modernists is that they won't admit that their scheme doesn't work for everyone either, and that the traditionalist scheme does work for probably the majority of Christendom. The relativism that they try to paper over this with doesn't wash: they really believe that the traditional teachings are wrong for everyone. So the big issue in this is really the whole problem of doubt, the unexamined and taken-for-granted doubt that is at the root of the modernist program. It is that doubt which is the true teaching of the moderns, and it is a teaching that does not move me, for I do not doubt, not on their terms.


Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for an outstanding posting that exposes the unstated bias of liberal modernist approaches to Jesus and the Bible.

Your comments about doubt at the end remind me of something that Fr. Matt Gunter once posted on his blog:

"Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts are just excuses to avoid the implications of believing."

C. Wingate said...

Even more so I would commend his recommendation that you should [b]e skeptical of your own skepticism. In this age doubt is wrapped in a largely fallacious mantle of cool rationality, when it is really as emotional as any other feeling, and capable of a deep and nasty bitterness.

Jonathan said...

Excellent. Thank you. I quite enjoy turning the firehose of "the hermeneutic of suspicion" on its inventors!