Yesterday, today and forever

I’ve remarked before on how uncommon it now is to find straightforward Evangelical teaching on evangelical websites, especially in the US. Nearly everyone wants to distance themselves from biblical inerrancy, probably through wishing to distance themselves from Fundamentalism and crude literalism. I think this is because, as I mentioned in the post linked above, on that side of the Atlantic (and because England catches a cold when America sneezes to an increasing extent over here) “Evangelical” has ceased to mean “united to Christ by faith in the Evangelical doctrine of the Reformation”. Instead it implies only “believing one has a personal relationship with Jesus”.
Although the novel doctrine of scriptural errancy arose from critical scholarship, the evangelical high ground is usually maintained when such things are discussed by recourse to the claim that we get our doctrine from the living Christ, not from the dead word. I think that’s just a restatement of the broad church slogan of a century ago: “Christ unites, doctrine divides.” The Bible, it is said, is only the words of humans in some (limited) way inspired by God, and so is not to be relied on. What matters is what we are taught directly by Christ living in us by his Spirit.

Those who follow things in more depth might explain how the New Testament arose in terms of the assumptions of critical scholarship (assumptions, which I believe to be entirely unsupported by history and spurious, if I’m to lay my cards on the table). And those assumptions are that the early Church wasn’t interested in history, but in the life of the Spirit. A prophet deemed to be speaking by the Spirit might proclaim a new story, or teaching, of Jesus. It would be accepted into the tradition uncritically, and so eventually might find its way into our Bible. For this reason, even evangelical commentaries are full of discussions about the sitz im leben (life situation) within the Church where a particular pericope arose, in order to distinguish what is sub-apostolic from what is “authentically dominical”.

At this point the thoughtful reader might, validly, ask a question. If we believe that Christ living in us can lead us to discern truth, why do we not believe that these early Christians, living their life of the Spirit a lot closer to the apostolic source, were equally able to discern it? Are we saying, unlike the liberal scholars, that the New Testament was not written by true Christians believing they were directed by the living Christ, but by charlatans inventing legends and morality arbitrarily to suit their own agendas?

Well, that would be too harsh, would be the reply. These Christians were truly indwelt by Christ, but like all humans (we’re still undecided about Jesus himself, here, in the light of kenotic theology…) were prone to error. Because of this a great deal of error is in the New Testament. We do not have there what Jesus did and said, but what is represented to us as his words and deeds.

And what accounts for the error? Well (is the claim) it’s the cultural conditioning of the early Christians. We’ll leave aside the cultural conditioning of Jesus, which is still a minority position, though in the ascendent in TE circles, it appears. Much of the early Church was Jewish, and carried across a misplaced belief that the tanakh was the pure word of God, evidently failing to appreciate that Jesus didn’t share that belief. That’s why we can know that Jesus’s teaching endorsing the Old Testament isn’t authentic. Gentile Christians were skewed by the teachings of the Church, which of course bore little resemblance to those of Jesus himself, which had unaccountably disappeared under the pile of prophetic accretions within a decade of the resurrection. In particular, most were influenced by the teaching of Paul, whose reinvented Christianity we now know to cut straight across that of Jesus. And all that is before we take account of Greek philosophy, ancient science, diaspora inter-testamental Judaism, half-retained pagan beliefs and so on. What is amazing is that anything of Christ remains in Scripture at all.

How does one distinguish the truth from the error? Strangely enough, as I have suggested above, all the theological effort still seems directed to what can be shown to be historically authentic, whereas the “living Christ teaches us” doctrine surely ought rather to be looking for “what the early Church really did get from Jesus by prophetic revelation.” In practice, the average forum contributor will take a different tack: they discern the truth and error in the Bible by trusting that the living Christ in them is leading them the truth. For example, “I know in my heart that the loving Jesus would never condemn anyone to hell. Therefore Mark 14.21 must have been falsely attributed to Jesus.”

Again, you might thoughtfully ask what it is about Christians today that prevents their being misled by cultural prejudices just as they say the biblical writers were. How can we know that our own opinion on Mark 14.21 is more reliable than Mark’s? Well, if people are pressed on issues like this, or ethical matters like homosexual practice, they will tend to answer that we now have the benefit of scientific research and critical scholarship, the first confirming our own position, and the second disconfirming the biblical position. It won’t escape you, I trust, that this is just another way of saying, “I am unquestioningly conditioned by my culture.” Just as the first century believers were, it is said, thoroughly products of their time, so are we – only in actual fact we lack the insight to question why it is that the living Jesus doesn’t put us at odds with our culture as the early Church (history shows) was with theirs, to the point of persecution.

But there’s a further, even more disturbing, conclusion to be drawn. If the difference between a first century understanding of gospel teaching (including, of course, the meaning of the saving acts of Jesus) and our own is the difference in our cultural conditioning, then it cannot be because the indwelling, living Lord is teaching us better than he did the early disciples. Unless, that is, “the Spirit of Christ” is just a synonym for “western science and critical scholarship”.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Yesterday, today and forever

  1. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,
    I have not had the exposure to evangelical tradition(s) that you have, and my outlook has been to mainly criticise the institutions (Catholic and Orthodox) in the west and east, because as organisations, they seem to have considered themselves more important than the Gospel. However I see from many of your posts and columns that you may feel the Protestant/ evangelical lot have their share of problems.

    I have developed a view that a background to the essential elements of Christianity is required these days, with emphasis on why Christ is the resurrection and the life; no-one could come to the Father accept through the Son. Christians are totally dependent on Christ, and forgiveness and cleansing of their sins is by the blood of Christ. This dependence shows the relationship between those called by God to faith in Christ, and is the ‘practical’ side of Salvation. This relationship calls for the one-ness within Christian life, Christian thought, and Christian belief in the One-True-God. In this way, a dialogue may be established concerning God, life, faith, and so on. The Christian dialogue would result from revelation within freedom. Such a dialogue (prayer) should be considered possible by virtue of the fact that the meaning of God’s name is contained within the revelation of the goodness of life and this life is sustained through faith in Christ.

    Faith is part of the dialogue and meaning of God. Faith becomes God-substantiating within the goodness of life and to reason for human beings and our daily life. Faith in Christ as the redeemer results from the Holy Spirit which is poured from God into the hearts and souls of those called by God. The ‘reason’ for this is God’s love for humanity, and this has been shown by the fact that God so loved humanity that he gave his only begotten son, so that those who have faith in him would have everlasting life (which is another way of meaning that such people would not intentionally live in sin, as this would contradict the Grace of God). This faith is grounded in the Law of God in that we desire to achieve the righteousness of Christ – since we know we may fail, we seek God’s mercy and hope to receive it because of the sacrifice of Christ. This is way beyond this odd kenosis some speak of. Christ became human for our sake and because of God’s mercy – not to find justification before sinful human beings. It also shows the value that God places on human beings and wills that our souls should be saved.

    Faith also provides the impetus for action in life. It is not a passive state constructed intellectually for ‘immortality’. Hope is part of faith, since hope is required prior to action. Pre-determined outcomes are not required, since hope would be unnecessary. Faith in Christ as a solid foundation provides the essential ingredient to ensure that action is not considered, or thought, to be futile. Revelation is ‘out-of-the-world’, so faith, hope, and God’s love, are from God (not from the world). These are shown in the Bible to be the fruits of the Holy Spirit, as are all Godly attributes, which now become part of the attributes of those saved through faith in Jesus Christ by the grace of God.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    GD

    My immediate reaction was to say I could find little or nothing to disagree with in your presentation, taking into account differences of expression from different personal and tradition backgrounds. But then I thought to ask, “Why is there so much agreement, when I often read so much from Christians that troubles me?” (as my blog shows!).

    It seemed as I read it again that there was barely a sentence that doesn’t reflect Biblical teaching closely. And that’s interesting as it suggests that the oft-repeated idea that people will reach completely different conclusions from the Bible because it is so open-ended or self-contradictory needn’t be the case.

    There you are from an Orthodox background, I assume (from your first paragraph) examining that critically in the light of Scripture, and here’s me across the world from what is broadly an Anglican-Evangelical background, testing that by the same criterion.

    And whilst I’m sure we could find much to disagree on in interpretation, if we chose, I find I could sign up to pretty well everything you’ve written, and agree that it decribes the core truths of the faith. Now, is that coincidence, or could it possibly be that the Bible and the Spirit speak with a consistent voice to those who are prepared to listen? Wouldn’t that be a radical idea…

  3. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Yes the areas of agreement that I have noticed between us are in all of the essential areas of the Christian faith (as I have stated previously). I have received a similar response to yours from a prominent and knowledgeable Jesuit, so that I may say that Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican/ evangelical backgrounds do not make any significant differences when we speak of the faith in Christ.

    I confess that I cannot fully comprehend why Christianity is split into so many denominations. A useful ‘History of Christianity’ I read some time ago suggested that the divisions may have a lot to do with changes in the past due to politics and wars (or perhaps a combination of these and disagreements regarding some doctrinal points).

    Yet when I see the comments and opinions in places such as the BioLogos forum and Uncommon Descent, I get the impression that differences are just about all that may matter to some people.

    Your idea is not all that radical – I remember reading in Acts the Apostles had various opinions on the Law and yet they found it possible to agree and support Paul. Having an opinion is not the same as seeking differences and division – it is the Spirit that guides us (or some of us?!).

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    GD

    All kinds of reasons for division, I guess: most simple is the heretic who likes his own ideas. Then there are times when a main church becomes corrupt and reform fails and some leave. Maybe original is prompted to reform, but perhaps only partly, or by then those who left have burned their boats. The originals resent and suspect the breakaways and vice versa. The faithful in both camps prefer to be with the heretics in their own tradition than take on someone else’s heretics … and so it goes.

    What’s amazing is that the Lord planned forward enough to see it all and describe it in parables like the wheat and tares, and so on. And also that it’s possible to have real fellowship across historic divisions. There is a catholic, orthodox and evangelical faith that will outlast all the ones with capital letters. As a Baptist I used to know said, “There won’t be a single Catholic in heaven. Or a Baptist. Or an Anglican. There will just be Christians.”

    However, that remark could be misconstrued to sideline apostolic truth, so don’t take it too seriously!

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