Saturday, August 02, 2008

Matt 24 watch, 64: A 'Lost Christianities' Course -- Dan Brownism meets Jesus Seminarism in academic robes

A few days ago, I chanced to borrow the just arrived July 2008 PC World Magazine from our local public library.

I was shocked and saddened to see, on p. 53, an advert for a course by a certain Dr Bart D Ehrman -- a professor and chair of Dept of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill -- which is being promoted and distributed on DVDs as an exceptionally instructive course for life-long learners, by The Teaching Company.

The opening remarks in the advert will suffice to bring out why I am so appalled:
In the first centuries after Christ, there was no New Testament. However, books of Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses were widely read, and were fervently followed by groups of early Christians. But they would not be among the books that formed the New Testament.

From the many different scriptures then available, Christians held beliefs that would today would be considered bizarre: that there were two, 12, or as many as 30 gods; that a malicious deity, rather than one true God, created the world; that Christ's death and resurrection had nothing to do with salvation -- others insisted that Christ never died at all . . . [Emphasis added.]
Then, on going to the web site and finding the course page, I found a highly significant change to the opening claim: "In the first centuries after Christ, there was no "official" New Testament." [Emphasis added.]

By that key inserted word hangs a long and very revealing tale indeed.

For, first, it tells the alert and informed reader that what has happened here is that, now that skeptics such as the Jesus Seminar have publicly denigrated the C1 history and NT record of the foundation of the Christian Faith, Gnostic heresies and documents are being treated by at least some professors of Religion as if they are an authentic witness to the origins of our Faith.

That is precisely what noted NT scholar John Wenham warned against:
. . . Conclusions [of many contemporary theologians] are the result of a long process of critical study whereby the authority of parts of the gospel text has been eroded bit by bit till nothing dependable is left. The end result is a downgrading of the canonical gospels which may ultimately put them in the category of Christian romances or merely on a level with the Gnostic gospels [as the Jesus Seminar has done with its The Five Gospels]. This means an abandonment of the belief that the gospel-writers were competent witnesses of the events they relate. But to depart from this belief is to depart from historic Christianity into something quite other . . . [Easter Enigma, 2nd edn (Paternoster, 1996), pp. 11 – 12, emphases, parenthetical notes & link added. Cf. my discussion on a case in point in the Jamaican press several years ago, here.]
But, for instance, as Paul Barnett reports in his now classic Is The New Testament History?, p. 33 ff, if we were to simply look at the first circle of writing Church Fathers, AD 96 - 112 or so: Clement of Rome, Polycarp and Ignatius; we could easily see that twenty-five of twenty-seven of our NT books are cited or alluded to by them, and in a way that makes no doubt that hey were viewed as authoritative, authentic scriptures. Indeed, the two that are omitted, happen to be two of the shortest. And, these documents continue to be cited and recognised as God-breathed writings in an unbroken chain down to our day.

By sharpest contrast, so soon as Gnosticism surfaced as a challenge to the Christian Faith, it was confronted by church leaders as destructive heresy. Indeed, it is said that when Marcion had come to Rome bearing a handsome gift to the church leaders, when they learned of his views, teachings and agenda, they returned the gift!

Further to this, much of what we know about Gnosticism comes from the many refutations written by eminent church leaders.

Worse, yet, we are in our day increasingly aware of the hebraic roots of the Christian Faith; the recent Gabriel stone story being simply illustrative of that. By sharpest contrast Gnosticism is a mish-mash of all sorts of influences, with a strong strain of Greek philosophy, as comes out in the blasphemous concept that the Creator God YHWH is an inferior deity, the demi-urge of some Greek thought, who made what was viewed as the evil material world. Gnostic "salvation" therefore, in simple terms, largely consisted in finding hidden knowledge that allows one to escape the spiritual powers in various realms as one's spirit flees the prison of the body at death.

This utterly contrasts with the publicly proclaimed, resurrection-anchored facts and hopes of the Gospel of salvation:
1CO 15:1 . . . I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

1CO 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

1CO 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

1CO 15:20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep . . . 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
This directly cuts across the web of ideas and themes of Gnosticism, and it comes from the eyewitness lifetime record of the official testimony of the 500+ witnesses of the resurrection, dating to the mid 30's. Indeed, we may note that given the shame and disgrace that attached to a crucified person in pagan thought, and the Jewish view that to be hanged on a tree was a sign of being utterly accursed of God, only the strength of the testimony to and power of the resurrection could have got the Christian faith going in such a cultural matrix.

So, let us note in passing Frank Morison's still unmet, nearly eighty year old challenge to the skeptic:
[N]ow the peculiar thing . . . is that not only did [belief in Jesus' resurrection as in part testified to by the empty tomb] spread to every member of the Party of Jesus of whom we have any trace, but they brought it to Jerusalem and carried it with inconceivable audacity into the most keenly intellectual centre of Judaea . . . and in the face of every impediment which a brilliant and highly organised camarilla could devise. And they won. Within twenty years the claim of these Galilean peasants had disrupted the Jewish Church and impressed itself upon every town on the Eastern littoral of the Mediterranean from Caesarea to Troas. In less than fifty years it had began to threaten the peace of the Roman Empire . . . . Why did it win? . . . . We have to account not only for the enthusiasm of its friends, but for the paralysis of its enemies and for the ever growing stream of new converts . . . When we remember what certain highly placed personages would almost certainly have given to have strangled this movement at its birth but could not - how one desperate expedient after another was adopted to silence the apostles, until that veritable bow of Ulysses, the Great Persecution, was tried and broke in pieces in their hands [the chief persecutor became the leading C1 Missionary/Apostle!] - we begin to realise that behind all these subterfuges and makeshifts there must have been a silent, unanswerable fact. [Who Moved the Stone, (Faber, 1971; nb. orig. pub. 1930), pp. 114 - 115.]
For further instance, we can readily see many challenges to Gnostic-style influences in the prologue to the Gospel of John:
JN 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.

JN 1:3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it . . .
And, in Paul's epistle to the Colossians:
COL 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

COL 1:21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation . . .
In short, the issue is not just one that minority views were suppressed by the dominant clergy of the emerging Roman Catholic Church, as say one would infer from a too trusting read of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

Instead, the Gnostic claims simply were without historical authenticity and were correctly rejected as an oil-water blend of incomaptible and confused claims, only lent a superficial smearing of plausibility by a veneer of Greek ideas, learning and philosophy. So, once the credibility of the NT records was acknowledged, they could not stand. Unsurprisingly, that is precisely why -- now that the C1 records have been hyperskeptically, unjustifiably denigrated in many quarters -- the Gnostic claims are once again surfacing.

Further to this, though, as I searched the Internet, I became very aware of just how much ill-informed opinion and teaching is out there. Even, modern attempts to revive Gnosticism! (Come to think of it, there is a declared Gnostic church near River Road in Bridgetown, Barbados.)

That brings me back to the current initiative: one of the reasons we urgently need to found a solid cyber college that can work with churches, parachurch ministries, UCCF, ISCF etc is to equip Christians across our region to confidently respond in an informed, confident way to the many de-Christianising forces that are just a Google or Yahoo search and a web click or two away. Worse, some such claims are doubtless creeping into our College and even High School classrooms.

We ignore the surging tidal wave from the North at our peril. END


PS: There was a partial dome collapse and 40,000-foot sub-plinian eruption here in Montserrat, over the last week or so, apparently triggered by fresh magma moving up into the dome that has been sitting there for a year and a half or so. We are based several miles north of the danger zone, behind the next mountain edifice, so there is minimal risk. Prayer for wisdom and endurance for Montserrat's long-suffering people and our leaders is of course welcome!


Collin Brendemuehl said...

One of my favorite of your posts. Well done. Have you considered putting some of your better posts into a practical book?

Gordon said...

Hi Colin

Thanks for the kind words. Trust you are fine and that thinks are okay over at EO!

If you go to my reference web site, you will see that several sets of my materials over the years have been structured into course-readers or handbooks.

I am more interested to do course development and course readers than books just now. For, we need to equip our people across this region to be able to understand and respond appropriately to the tidal waves from the North and the East. [Among other things there is very little Caribbean regional market for this sort of stuff [!], but there is a need to equip people. An "unknown" Caribbean voice in the North American market would methinks be a hard sell, too.]

Thanks for the thoughts,