I’m going to take a stab at responding to “DSH’s” comment at Jon Rowe’s blog. Jon is an immensely bright guy, as DSH seems to be. I pick on his post because it highlights not only some of the central questions for Protestant theologians, but also some of the common misunderstandings of the development of Christianity. My comments are in italics:

Sullivan, in adopting a correspondent’s position, certainly brings the matter into broader relief. But for all the clarity, ambiguity was compounded.

Sullivan has been attacking biblical fundamentalists, which he labels “Christianists.” (He’s been attacking Muslim fundamentalists, too, but less incisively, because it’s not his schtick.) He’s an avowed Roman Catholic, and he dislikes what’s being done by “Christianists” under biblical authority to his sensibility of Christianity. (Disclosure: I’m an atheist, but if I were a Christian, Catholicism — Anglican, Roman, or Eastern — would appeal the most.) So, I empthize with Sullivan: Fundamentalists, IMHO, have totally distorted the Christian message, and if I were a Christian, I’d be pretty upset over what’s being done in its name. But then, Roman Catholicism is not the paradigm of innocence, either. But let’s leave all that behind and just deal with Sullivan’s complaint.

For those who don’t understand what fundamentalism is, here’s a concise description. It subscribes to the belief that the Bible (Hebrew and Christian Scriptures) is the literal, inerrant Word of God. Literally. Some have gone as far to think Jesus spoke King’s English and that the Bible was written in King James’ time. That’s how preposterous some of them are. Fundamentalists believe that everything written in the Bible is literally true, including Balaam’s donkey talking (I won’t dwell on it).

The last paragraph is the only interesting paragraph. Unfortunately, DSH conflates ‘fundamentalism’ with traditional, historical Christianity. If belief in the ‘literal, (whatever that means) inerrant Word of God is what it means to be a fundamentalist, then sign me up. While some fundamentalists (and DSH has hardly told us what this means–belief in the literal truth of the Bible alone does not a fundamentalist make) believe that the King James Bible is the only authoritative version, I cannot think of a single King-James only person who thinks Jesus spoke the Queen’s English. Nevermind that it’s not at all clear what DSH means by the ‘literal truth’ of the Bible (or that fundamentalists are appropriately clear about this, to be fair).

Jesus, of course, wrote nothing. In fact, we’re not really sure who wrote what in the New Testament. Many scholars have noted the significant difference between the synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the proto-evangelist John. The former never claim Jesus as divine; the latter definitely does. It makes for interesting conversation.

The claim that the Synoptics never claim that Jesus is divine is not exactly accurate. It simply depends upon what we mean by the ‘divine’ that Jesus would claim to be–in the Synpotics case (especially Matthew), Jesus’s self-understanding is that he is the fulfillment of what the God of the Old Testament promised to do for Israel. See the work of N.T. Wright on this point.

Then, there is the Pauline gospel. This might strike some as strange, but indeed the letters attributed to Saint Paul (Pauline) have a totally different quality to them from the evangelists. Indeed, it’s almost two totally different messages. But for whatever reason, “Paul’s” epistles were singled out early as the benchmark of Christianity. For perspective, the earliest writings are at least 30 years after J.C., the latest writing maybe 200 years later. So, maybe a few of the authors actually knew J.C., but most did not. No one is really sure. Certainly, Saint Paul had only a derivative experience after J.C.’s resurrection while on the road to Damascus; his acquaintance with J.C. is totally derivative. The so-called “catholic” epistles may actually have been written by J.C.’s disciples, especially James, Peter, and John. Again, no one knows. But textually, the catholic epistles are much closer to the teachings of J.C. than the Pauline.

Ironically, DSH fails to point out that those earliest writings about Jesus have a very high Christology. It is not a later, Johannine invention. And I would love to see in what way Paul’s teachings differ substantially from those of the Gospels. While they may have different theological emphases, such differences are not enough to be considered contradictions.

An important fact: Saint Paul apparently claimed “apostleship” for himself, although technically he doesn’t fit the definition. But unlike the other “apostles,” Paul was an evangelist to the Greeks and Romans. The others largely remained in their Jewish centers. Known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, even though Paul is thoroughly Jewish, his message apparently caught on in Greece and Roman territories, while the “others” remained provincial. This alone is why Paul became such a figurehead.

That and he wrote 2/3 of the New Testament. But I digress.

Enough history/context. The fact is that Christian Scriptures were never a significant issue, until the Reformation. Many of the pre-Reformation Christians mentioned the “apostle’s memoirs” (i.e., Scripture), but they were equally engaged in non-scriptural exegesis.

Here I cannot resist: who? What pre-reformation Christians? Perhaps St. Thomas, who quotes Scripture (Tom–correct me if I’m wrong) more than any other author? Perhaps that pagan author St. Augustine (who also quotes Scripture more than anything else)? And what exactly is the “non-scriptural exegesis”?

Saints Augustine (West) and Chrysostom (East) were the dominant writers, and most writers cited them as often, if not more often, than “scripture” itself. According to the dominant paradigm, Christianity after Christ was totally in the “hands” of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Because it was a “spiritual” awakening, not a deontological one, the Spirit moved over believers to adapt the J.C. message to the particular time and place. Prior to the Reformation, Christianity was “evolving” towards the Kingdom. Therefore, nothing was static, it was constantly being reinvented as the Church (community of believers) evolved through time. While some things became codified and ritualized, the basic thrust was “development.” , one of the greatest Christian tracts was by John Henry Newman (19th C.) known as “The Development of Christian Doctrine.” Process, not stasis, was the the impetus. Thus, to become “locked” onto a certain time and place, while helpful as an anchor, wasIndeedn’t meant for the whole ship afloat. The Church, as protype of the Kingdom, was advancing the cause in each generation. Scripture and the Theologians were “rocks,” but not anchorages. The Church had a mission to fulfill, moving forward, not backward, in time.

While I’ve not read that tract by Newman, I take issue to the claim that Christianity was being “reinvented.” While there was clear development in doctrine, it was a development outward that kept the core ideas (see the Nicene and Apostles Creed) unaltered.

Enter the Reformation. Two men, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, saw a “ship afloat.” The original message had gotten so confused and tangled that these two men decided to go back to the “originals.” For them, the Theologians and other writers did not matter; what mattered was “Scripture.” Only the Divine Word of God could rescue this Titanic. Almost everything else was discarded. The supreme irony is that Christendom, until that point, really hadn’t codifed a “Christian Scripture.” Several councils and synods, not to mention the Theologians, had referred to these texts, but highly ambiguously. Yes, the “apostles’ memoirs” were a critical point of reference, but not the whole ballywack. The Church, after all, was ontological, while “scripture” was derivative. Even more derivative was the Theologians’ commentary. Only within the context of Church did the Gospel and Epistles have any sense, and even then, they might be a point of reference, but the Church was “moving on” toward the Kingdom, while text was a a time-bound thing. “Going back” to the “originals” did not make a lot of sense. The New Covenant was on a mission, viz., the Kingdom. If the originals shed light on it, great; but, don’t get caught in the details for the thrust of history.

I’ve read more Calvin than Luther so I will limit myself to him. If prior theologians “did not matter” for Calvin, then his extensive interaction with Augustine needs explaining. He clearly wants to establish himself as within the historical Christian faith–hence his deriving so much of his theology from Bernard of Clairveaux, a 15th(?) century medieval theolgian. The move back to the originals is not necessarily a rejection of tradition–rather, it is an attempt to make the originals authoritative over tradition. To DSH’s credit, he has picked on the central question of Christian (not only Protestant!) theology: How do we move from text to world? DSH’s analysis of the situation, however, is a bit off–the project in fact ‘makes sense’ and is possible–the historical details and the reality in the text actually can inform our understanding of this world. Theology from Scripture is not a lost discipline.

In defense of Luther and Calvin, the Church really had lost contact with the Gospel. A reformation was definitely in order. But Luther and Calvin did not know how much of “this” or “that” to take outside of the original, so the original (though hardly original) became supreme. But what really was the original? No one really knew. So, Luther and Calvin decided that “Scripture” was the bedrock, and everything else had to be seen through its prism. Problem: No one had exactly defined what “Scripture” was. It wasn’t total confusion, but some “writings” were considered “inspired,” others not. Augstine and Chrysostom had their lists of inspired writings, Rome had its, and others had theirs. Was Jerome’s Latin translation of Hebrew and Greek writings in the 4th C. Scripture, or was it something else? After all this time, and numerous ecumenical councils, no one had defined or delineated what actually was “Christian Scripture.” It was generally agreed that certain writings were inspired, but not much beyond that. Maybe, the Council of Orange in the 4th C. had answered everyone’s question with its list, but no one was certain. (One of the first tasks of the Counter-Reformation Ecumenical Council of Trent in the 15th C. was to give a definitive list.)

I think DSH overstates the confusion about the canon. The lists from the early Church fathers show widespread agreement about the books of the canon–Augustine’s list in City of God is, in fact, exactly what we have in our Bibles today (on memory). The Counter-Reformation addition of books to the canon seems more due to a reinterpretation of tradition and an attempt to establish clearer doctrinal distinctives in response to the Reformation. But prior to that there was no clear discussion because there was very little disagreement (this fact can be demonstrated through the textual transmission of both the Old and New Testaments, where the majority of copies transmitted happen to be those books that are now in our Bible).

So Protestantism was born because the original message had been obscured, and in deciding the locus of J.C.’s teachings, Protestants decided Christian Scripture was the “sole authority” for what is Christianity. Anything “not proveable” by Scripture was to be discarded. Of course, Luther and Calvin had to first decide what constituted “scripture,” and they looked to Jerome’s translation of “inspired writings” as the fulcrum. (The Protestant “Scriptures” differ slightly from the Ancient “Scriptures,” primarily with regard to the Old Testament. Luther had his contempt for James’ epistle, because it didn’t comport with his interpretation of Pauline doctrine, but in the end he simply “marginalized” James’s epistle, rather than excised it.)

This is, as best I can tell, a fair analysis.

Disclaimer: “Fundamentalism” takes different forms. When referring to Christian fundamentalism, it means simply that the Scriptures alone, which are literal and inerrant, are the true Word of God, and everything else can be discarded.

However, “everything else can be discarded” is not quite the Reformer’s view. If that is what constitutes a ‘fundamentalist,’ then count me out. The reformers (it seems) still thought the natural sciences valuable to inform our understanding of the physical world–their intent was simply to keep theology as the “queen of the sciences.”

“Historical” Christians, those whose roots go back to apostolic times, can be fundamentalists, but not in the sense that Sullivan is using it. For most people, “fundamentalism” in Christianity means taking the Bible (Christian Scripture) literally and inerrantly no matter what.

Then three cheers for fundamentalism! And what does “literally” mean again?

I know I’ve already overstayed my welcome, so let me now cut to the chase. Taking a book as “God’s literal and inerrant Word” is just plain silly. And almost all that do this have no idea how, when, where, and why “Scripture” came about. Maybe Muslims believe the Quran fell from the sky, but there’s no question of “human involvement” with regard to Christian Scripture. And, since most of the New Testament writers did not even have direct contact with J.C., nor were they convulsed into paroxysms of divine ecstasy, the human component of Christian Scripture, coupled with its tattered history, makes belief in a written work as “God’s literal and inerrant Word” just a tad bit extreme. “Inspired,” is what mainline Protestants and Catholics believe, but the “gospel” truth which would overthrow science, commonsense, and decency is just a little over the top. Jesus did not speak King’s English, in fact he wrote nothing at all in his native Aramaic, or in any language. Who the other writers are we just really don’t know, but no serious Christian believes that God dictated a book in King’s English to save the world. And, even if one adopts the Protestant disposition toward these writings, “sola scriptura,” that doesn’t entail that everything outside scripture is untrue, rather that what’s written in them is “sufficient” for salvation. That’s hardly the same claim, extraordinary as even that is. Finally, catholics have a singular point that simply cannot be denied in light of the above: Without the ontology of the Church, something as obviously derivative as “scripture” makes no sense at all. It’s only in the context of a believing community that such “inspiration” takes its form and is shared with others. Jews are similarly disposed, for exactly the same reason. That fundamentalists actually think a collection of “inspired” human writings trump everything else, including human experience, is simply untenable. That they do it in “God’s Name” causes a great deal of believers more than a little angst. I’m entirely sympathetic. Sadly, Pentecostal “Christianists” are on the increase, and Rome elected one of its most reactionary Popes. It’s just not a good time be a Christian.

Sadly, DSH slips back into his invective against fundamentalist. His historical analysis was, for the most part, much more careful and well-reasoned. To dismiss inerrancy and the literal interpretation of Scripture (ironically, two doctrines that have the weight of Church tradition on their side) as ‘silly’ is, well, silly. It ignores the excellent work Blomberg, Metzger and others have been doing in explaining the origins and transmission of the New Testament. His most interesting claim is that Scripture is “derivative” from the “ontology of the Church.” It’s interesting because it highlights the curiousity of Protestant views of Scripture, but also their merits: Protestant theology treats the text in an ontological (if I understand DSH) fashion–not only is it the Words of God, but the Word of God. I fail to see why we should privilege the community over the text itself, especially since (according to both Catholics AND Protestants) the community is not the source of the text, but rather the God working in and through the Church. But why not privilege, then, the text itself above the community?

I hope I have been fair to DSH. It has been some time since I have taken on a post this vast and wide-reaching and no doubt I have been too critical. I highlighted the post because I found it interesting, misguided, but also representative of the sort of objections I think are common amongst those who think Christian theology untenable in the 21st century. Such dismissals are, I think, misguided and themselves unfair to the nuances of Christian theology itself. I have attempted to correct the record at some points and have ended with a few questions surrounding the issue of text and community. DSH is correct in picking on this issue and the issue of moving from text to world, but the objections are not insurmountable. It may yet be a great time to be a Christian!

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

5 Comments

  1. I think you did a pretty good job of responding to DSH’s post. I am surprised that I find so much agreement with what you written as well.

    If belief in the ‘literal, (whatever that means) inerrant Word of God is what it means to be a fundamentalist, then sign me up.

    I think he means literal in the sense that God spoke in their ear as the scribes wrote the books. One could ask what is meant by inerrant as well. Is it in the sense that the higher critics and historical critics have basically proven their points, but God has insured that the meaning and lessons He wishes us to derive from the Book are intact, or perhaps has the original work been corrupted in words or syntax by later scribes and so on its’ face it cannot be inerrant?

    The claim that the Synoptics never claim that Jesus is divine is not exactly accurate.

    Agreed. in fact it isn’t even close IMHO. I think like most non Christians he falls into the trap of thinking that all Christians are orthodox and have just finished reading “God in Three Person” by Millard J. Erickson. I think this is to be expected given the rather bold announcement in John1:1-3, which is definitely an out and out Christological statement, but ignores both the statements of Mary’s conception, and the baptism of the Christ by John, which also may be argued as conveying divinity on the Christ, without being overtly Christological. I suppose a similar analogy would be the Roman perspective toward Christians and Jews in the first century AD as a distinction without a difference.

    And I would love to see in what way Paul’s teachings differ substantially from those of the Gospels.

    I think here he is alluding to the legalism of Pauls writing as opposed to the more individualistic approach and perception that many find in the Synoptics. Again I think we are seeing a non believer with an open mind who has probably not felt it necessay to have had to pursue the responses to the high and low critisism that the Bible has undergone.

    What pre-reformation Christians?

    I think he is referring to the Scholastics and the introduction of the full body of Aristolian works from Muslim Spain into Europe.

    The reformers (it seems) still thought the natural sciences valuable to inform our understanding of the physical world–their intent was simply to keep theology as the “queen of the sciences.”

    Herein lies the rub, I think with you and I, since the Aristolian basis for the natural sciences was being refuted by the scientific method, the scientific method began to undermine the theological doctrines that had the same Aristotlian underpinnings as well as the authority of the Church. I am sure that Thomas can probably address the histocity of this issue much better than I.

    Historical” Christians, those whose roots go back to apostolic times, can be fundamentalists, but not in the sense that Sullivan is using it. For most people, “fundamentalism” in Christianity means taking the Bible (Christian Scripture) literally and inerrantly no matter what.

    Then three cheers for fundamentalism! And what does “literally” mean again?

    The problem here is that no two individuals are going to agree on every detail of Scripture, and as has been shown by history, the Protestant movement continues to fracture as more and more differing opinions gain traction over time.

    Sadly, DSH slips back into his invective against fundamentalist.

    I suppose when Christians learn to be Christians first and prefixed Christians later, then we might be able to address this behavior in the non believers against “fundamentalists”. Of course we Christians will have overcome the greatest obstacles by then, our ownselves.

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  2. Apologies for the nested blockquote that didn’t quite pan out. My bad.

    Historical” Christians, those whose roots go back to apostolic times, can be fundamentalists, but not in the sense that Sullivan is using it. For most people, “fundamentalism” in Christianity means taking the Bible (Christian Scripture) literally and inerrantly no matter what.

    Then three cheers for fundamentalism! And what does “literally” mean again?

    The problem here is that no two individuals are going to agree on every detail of Scripture, and as has been shown by history, the Protestant movement continues to fracture as more and more differing opinions gain traction over time.

    Reply

  3. […] I think this will clear up some of the issues regarding contemporary fundamentalist Christian’s views of inerrancy brought up in Mr. Anderson’s response to a comment elsewhere regarding the tenability of fundamentalist belief. […]

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  4. […] At Mere Orthodoxy Matthew has a brilliant essay in response to some criticism of Christianity. […]

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  5. […] I have been somewhat involved in an interesting discussion over at Jon Rowe’s place about the possibility of being a Christian philosopher.  My involvement included this response to an essay by DSH.  Jon has featured DSH’s latest comment in its entirety here.  In essence, DSH contends that being a “Biola philosopher” is a contradiction in terms.  Though my philosophy training is relatively minimal, my Biola credentials are exemplary, which makes me as good a candidate as any to respond.  I accept. Jonathan’s comments are precisly on target. But a careful read of my ad hominem is not “Christian philosopher,” but “Biola philosopher.” Let me explain. Jonathan situates philosophy rightly as a discipline that asks ultimate questions. But the necessary prerequisite to all philosophical is the doubting of all presumptions, even the presumptions of faith. […]

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