Eternal verities

I want to present an important distinction that’s been made clearer to me during my reading of N T Wright’s magisterial series Christian Origins and the Question of God. And that is the importance of history to a truly biblical faith.

In the whole series, but particularly in Jesus, the Son of God, Wright is keen to earth Jesus in an actual human life, and his ministry in the actual historical setting of first century Israel, with its authoritative inspired Scriptures (each arising in its own equally local and historical setting), its cultural developments, its politics, its language and its hopes. The fact that Jesus shared all these, and yet spoke new truth from God into them to transform them, makes him a very much more uncomfortable person to be with, but one who truly shows God’s moment-by-moment involvement in his world, and in individual lives.

This is opposed (and Wright often does oppose it) to a timeless Jesus speaking “eternal verities” to be distilled from the messiness and particularity of their original setting. In Wright’s eyes, the liberal quest for such verities, through such varied projects as demythologising the miraculous and reconstructing the “Jesus of Faith” from hypothetical early communities, is a form of gnosticism.

By that he means this. The gnostics held creation in contempt as the work of an inferior demiurge, and the task of the “spiritual” was to escape from its shackles to the true, unchanging realm of the spirit. But this is completely antithetical to the whole thrust of Hebrew religion, which was all about God’s revelation of himself through actual people in the actual world.

That’s why the Bible is disappointingly short on theological and philosophical treatises, and very long on narratives. Even someone like Paul’s most developed theology is set in letters dealing with current problems. The Law, likewise, was God’s way of dealing with the realpolitik of the Exodus people. A true Jew was never someone who had grasped and accepted timeless truths about God, but someone who understood the narrative of God’s salvation, and his own place in it.

Jesus was fundamentally of this mould, and passed it on to the Church, except that he re-interpreted (he didn’t re-invent or downplay) the true meaning of the biblical narrative in terms of himself and, particularly, his death, resurrection and glorification in God’s presence. It’s because his life and passion were the latest in a line of God’s dealings with his people that the reality of the Cross, and reality of the empty tomb, are central to the Faith. Christianity is about God’s intervention in the real world – and so it follows, that he can intervene in our real world and, not least, in our individual real worlds.

Jesus (and after him the New Testament writers) insisted on setting his ministry in the context of Israel’s entire history. He came to fulfil God’s real covenant with Abraham, by reversing Israel’s real exile to Babylon that resulted from their unfaithfulness to the Mosaic covenant of torah that had marked their real rescue from Egypt. He did so as the heir of God’s covenant with the real King David, as the Messiah and Son of Man promised in Daniel and the other prophets as they spoke from God (into real situations of national crisis). He came to effect a greater salvation from a more final judgement than had Noah, and to rescue even the gentiles from the global exile from God’s presence to sin and death that occurred with Adam.

In many of these events Jesus is shown as both their ultimate fulfilment and their purpose: he is the second Adam, the seed of Abraham, the prophet like Moses, the new Exodus, the fulfilment of the Law, the root and branch of David whose kingdom will never end. But the glory of this is that it does not bypass or relativise the real history that had gone before, but underlines its truth and importance. The patterns both originate and culminate in Jesus, but within a true and unfolding history of the world.

Or perhaps, better, the true and unfolding history of Creation – for to have a God whose dealings are all about the real down-and-dirty world, and not timeless truths, is in itself a confirmation of the goodness of the Creation with which God’s self-revelation began. Likewise the fact that the eschatological hope Jesus brought is that of resurrection to new life in that same, albeit renewed, Creation makes the here and now something to be celebrated, rather than downplayed and replaced with abstract spirituality.

Now this seems to be at loggerheads with some major strands of historical Christianity (and to mark its greatest divergence from its Hebrew roots), and particularly with some Catholicism. Much of the allegorising of Scripture that marked, especially, pre-Reformation Catholic teaching seems to have arisen from that desire to see Christianity as eternal – or rather static – and ultimately removed from the hard realities of the world.

I said some good things recently about Conor Cunningham’s book, Darwin’s Pious Idea, but his final chapter seems to fall into its own kind of pious soup, principally because of his desire to show that an historical Adam is unnecessary – and even antithetic – to real faith. I disagree:

It is folly to interpret the Fall or the existence of Adam in either positivistic terms or strictly historical terms, in the sense that there is no Fall before Christ. That is to say, there was but a glimmer of its occurrence, and this glimmer was about only Christ and not about some historical event of the same genus as the Battle of Trafalgar. Moreover before Christ there was neither death nor life nor even sin. For all such concepts find their truth only in the passion of the Christ, and for one simple reason: creation is about Christ, and nothing else.

…according to the Church Fathers, Adam was Christ and Eve was Mary, while paradise is the church and the Fall signals humankind’s redemption in Christ.

Now I find in this the same rather dangerous “how could this not be so?” rhetoric that I find with those evolutionary theodicies of suffering that put the Cross as the centre point of the whole meaning of Creation. Who would want to deny that Christ is the centre of all things? He is the Alpha and the Omega, after all.

But for a start it sits light to even the history of theology. Cunningham says in the same section that the Gnostics were the only believers in original sin of their time, which rides roughshod over Irenaeus’s actual teaching of that very doctrine in a context of anti-gnostic apologetics.

But if one can make the origin of sin – and the ancient biblical account of it – disappear into an ahistoric fog through which one can vaguely discern only Jesus, then all the other biblical landmarks which have been, in spiritual terns, rightly assimilated to the perspective of Jesus are equally to be taken as mere allegories. The Covenant with Abraham, the Captivity and Exodus, the prophetic warnings and the Exile all become neither historic nor fictional, but “eternal verities” orbiting somewhere in the nebulosphere. As, of course, do all the flesh-and-blood believers associated with them, who lived and died in hope of salvation within real lives in space and time, as do we. How dare we dismiss their lives as irrelevant?

Yet this is quite deliberate, once one decides that such epochal events are demeaned by being as real as the Battle of Trafalgar (which was equally concerned, in its own way, with real human and national destinies). This is exactly the same mental process undertaken by the liberal theologians – only in their case, of course, it is Christ himself who is promoted out of the vulgar world of real events in the interest of eternal spiritual truth. A real crucifixion, a resurrection of an animal body … come on, these are just ways in which unsophisticated people saw the transcendental truths of God’s self-giving love. That love, however, seldom seems to give much in the real world of a suffering Jewish nation under Rome, of a faithful minority in Elijah’s time, of an oppressed covenant people in Egypt – or a first representative of the race caught in rebellion in sacred space.

Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus of Nazareth – all can be made into symbols of “eternal verities”, but we don’t gain anything by it, but instead lose the unique revelation of Yahweh as the One who is there (for us), whose material and contingent Creation was good to begin with, is still good, and is to be redeemed to something even better by its maker, the Logos – by whose power “each tree and flower was planned and made”.

As I come to consider things more in this sense of a true-life narrative of the God who steps into history, the story of Adam and Eve, which I suppose is more of a focus in a project like The Hump than, say, the Exodus, appears in a different way.

We ought not to be looking at it as an ahistorical theological analogy for Everyman’s experience of sin (I’ve argued before that such a view is anachronistic anyway). And we shouldn’t be spending overmuch time on what problems it poses for current science (though, of course, anything which reduces the apparent tension is useful). Rather, God’s dealings with those two individuals are only the first in a long line of God’s similar hands-on dealings with people in the real world. Of course the story points to the work of Christ, but not in the sense that Christ is the only truth in the Universe – the whole wonder of the Creation is that he has chosen for there to be other realities in relationship to him. Rather, Adam and Eve’s experience, like the experience of all the other saints and sinners recorded in the great salvation narrative of Scripture, becomes historically significant and important only in him. We, and our small lives, are included in that grand narrative if we are in Christ.

And I think that’s different from merging everything into eternal verities.

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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13 Responses to Eternal verities

  1. Cath Olic says:

    Jon,

    A couple points:
    1)
    “Now this seems to be at loggerheads with some major strands of historical Christianity (and to mark its greatest divergence from its Hebrew roots), and particularly with some Catholicism. Much of the allegorising of Scripture that marked, especially, pre-Reformation Catholic teaching seems to have arisen from that desire to see Christianity as eternal – or rather static – and ultimately removed from the hard realities of the world.”

    I’m not getting this.
    Could you give an example from pre-Reformation Catholic *doctrine* (as opposed to from “some Catholicism”, whatever that means)?

    2)
    In speaking of the gnostics, you say
    “…The Covenant with Abraham, the Captivity and Exodus, the prophetic warnings and the Exile all become neither historic nor fictional, but “eternal verities” orbiting somewhere in the nebulosphere…
    A real crucifixion, a resurrection of an animal body … come on, these are just ways in which unsophisticated people saw the transcendental truths of God’s self-giving love.”

    What about the creation account being merely an allegory for some eternal verity of some “cosmic temple”?

    3)
    In considering the account of Adam and Eve and of the, I think, *traditional* teaching of monogenesis, what do you make of Genesis 3:20:
    “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” ?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi

      (1) Wrong question – doctrine and allegorising of Scripture are quite separate issues. Allegorising was done on the basis of existing doctrine (eg Jonah’s “unbelievable” stay in the fish was really about the Lord’s descent into hell, as in the Creed).

      In fact, where doctrine interfaces closely with philosophy (as in the scholastic theologians), it tends to be expressed in “timeless truths”, which is the point at issue. But it’s a matter of record that the literal truth of Scripture was in the middle ages, until around John Colet’s and Cajetan’s time, considered of little value compared to the allegorical. They were influenced by the same humanistic concern for literal sense that triggered the Reformation.

      In fact Cardinal Cajetan (Luther’s main opponent) receieved considerable criticism within the Catholic Church for what were considered his overly-literal commentaries. The allegorising tradition goes back as far as Origen, who wrote:

      “Who would be so childish as to think that God was like a human gardener and planted a paradise in Eden facing the east, and in it made a real visible tree, so that one could acquire life by eating its fruit with real teeth or, again, could participate in good and evil by eating what he took from the other tree? And if the text says that God walked in the garden in the evening, or Adam hid himself under the tree, I cannot think that anyone would dispute that these things are said in the figurative sense, in an effort to reveal certain mysteries by means of an apparent historical tale and not by something that actually took place. . . . . ”

      (2) The cosmic Temple view is not an allegory, but a literal meaning based on what is known of the genre and the Hebrew (biblical) worldview – cosmic temple allusions to creation predominate throughout Scripture. It’s just not written from a modern scientific worldview (any more than the garden narrative is written from a modern historical worldview, although in my view it is about true historical events).

      However, the creation account is, by definition, non-historical because it is from outside history and began history. For that reason it has to be treated differently. Actually, if I believed the Eden narrative was (as many say) a “second creation account” I wouldn’t be able to treat that historically either. But since it isn’t, I can :-).

      (3) Firstly, we’d agree that “all the living” does not mean “everything that lives”, including amoebas and seaweed, which immediately requires some hermeneutics to ascertain the sense. On monogenesis, it clearly means she’s clearly the mother of all humans…

      …Only that’s not always the way it’s been interpreted. Only this week, researching some other work, I came across one of the mediaeval Catholic writers (can’t remember who, since it wasn’t immediately relevant) whose interpretation was that since Eve actually stands for Mary, and Adam for Jesus, “mother of all living” refers to “mother of the redeemed”, since everybody else isn’t living, but spiritually dead. Just the kind of ahistorical understanding that I’m meaning in this piece.

      However, from my point of view, which is a combination of a recent common ancestry view and the power of cultural inheritance, Eve is as much the mother of the race as Adam is the father, even if she was not the sole living woman of her time.

  2. Cath Olic says:

    Jon,

    Regarding 1), again, there is no such thing as “some Catholicism”. There are only *some* CatholicS who may have views which can differ but still be concordant with Catholic doctrine.

    And I know of no other “strand” of Christianity which is more historical, and more physical, and more visible, and more incarnational, than Catholicism.

    As to Origen, I understand he’s not considered a saint nor a Father of the Church because he held to a heresy – apokatastasis.

    As to Cajetan, although you say he had “overly-literal commentaries”, I’ve read that he was excessively allegorical.
    “Though closely following St. Jerome on the authenticity of the Biblical texts and utilizing the New Testament version and notes of Erasmus, with whom he was on friendly terms, he produced a work whose importance was not overlooked, but whose freedom and wide departure from the Fathers and the theological schools created distrust and alarm. In his critical interpretation, for instance, he ventured an allegorical explanation of the first chapters of Genesis…”
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03145c.htm

    2)
    “However, the creation account is, by definition, non-historical because it is from outside history and began history.”

    I’d say the creation account is *not*, by definition, non-historical.
    Time, as we know it, begins at the first existence of changeable matter. Without change, there is no time. So, history began with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” [Gen 1:1]. Later in history, God made the animals, man, etc.

    3)
    “Firstly, we’d agree that “all the living” does not mean “everything that lives”, including amoebas and seaweed, which immediately requires some hermeneutics to ascertain the sense. On monogenesis, it clearly means she’s clearly the mother of all humans…”

    Agreed.

    “…Only that’s not always the way it’s been interpreted. Only this week, researching some other work, I came across one of the mediaeval Catholic writers…”

    I’m confident you did.
    And I’d agree that there is probably no end to the different interpretations of Scripture through history.

    But I hope we’d also agree that there IS an “end” to Catholic interpretation. That is, if you insist on *certain* interpretations, you can quickly find yourself outside the Church, a non-Catholic.

    “However, from my point of view, which is a combination of a recent common ancestry view and the power of cultural inheritance, Eve is as much the mother of the race as Adam is the father, even if she was not the sole living woman of her time.”

    Do you then think that IF other mothers lived with or before Eve, no human beings now trace their biological heritage to them? That is, all human beings now on earth descend from one and the same woman, “Eve”?

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Yeah I saw that New Advent piece first, and liked it because it supported the position I was trying to prove at the time. But closer examination of his work shows otherwise: it looks as though he was trying to take steps towards more literal interpretation, but was unwilling to go so far as humanists like Erasmus and Calvin in going against previous interpretations.

    His Genesis commentary appears not to be online, but he’s quoted in a few places as implying that there are several possible literal meanings for Gen 1 (which was one debate happening at the time).

    What matters to the case I make here is what was considered acceptable in the 16th century, not what is mainstream now (post Trent) and the more conservative part of the Catholic Church then were OK with allegory, but not with literal meaning. Nevertheless Cajetan was a noted theologian and cardinal, and Leo X picked him to dispute with Luther.

    The biological interpretation I was suggesting for Eve would indeed make all living humans her descendents, but on the other hand, not their sole original female ancestor. Sy Garte has a current piece on his blog that talks simply about the biological principles involved (without any reference to Adam and Eve, or even consideration of them as far as I can see) here.

  4. KJ says:

    At a smaller level, I see a similar problem with the evangelical default search for “principles.” History and context are not denied (in principle!), but they are reserved for doctrinal affirmation and apologetics. But in the “real world” of day-to-day Christian living, the focus of Bible intake–through personal devotions, Group Bible study, sermons, reading of Christian books–is on finding simple and easy transcendent truths that turns the Bible (or the parts we choose to focus on) into something quite modern and domestic.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      I guess some “abstraction” is valid – just been reading Wright on the way Paul addresses all the Corinthians’ issue through the filter of the resurrection. But he did so as as event from a (recent) real context.

      My son-in-law’s up for Christmas and, I’m pleased to say, was getting some teaching along the same lines we both seem to favour from his church about the parallels of the Christmas story with the curent middle-eastern crisis, and hence the need for a more realistic assessment of the first in political and social terms.

      Thinking through such things this year has led me to the thought of the “tea-towel” Bible (based on the average British kids’ nativity play, where the standard head-dress is the tea-towel). Everyone from Abraham to Paul is pictured in the same 19th century bedouin garb even by adults, creating a kind of timeless, ahistorical “Bible” realm inhabited people like us (only dressed up). All kinds of problems with that!

  5. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon, I’m well on my way through another of N.T. Wright’s books: “How God Became King”; which hammers at the same themes you address early in this piece.

    Wright pictures our current (mis)understandings of Jesus as like having a quadraphonic stereo system –a speaker in each corner of the room — but with the volumes on some speakers turned up to the point of deafening distortion that drown out the remaining speakers. So Wright takes up the challenge of helping us get the volumes back into adjustment so that we can hear and appreciate the harmony –the greater truth being delivered to us by the four gospel accounts.

    One of the “speakers” we’ve currently turned up to deafening proportions is the whole question of and answer to Jesus 100% divine and 100% human identity. Wright says that the great creeds spend all their time affirming the birth, the death, resurrection, ascension, and eventual return of Jesus. Never mind that Matthew has 20+ chapters of what is apparently the “unimportant filler” before returning again to the important stuff. In short, the creeds neglect the substantial body of material that the gospel writers were at such pains to share with us. Wright calls this the “all cloak –no body” problem. And he does recognize that the creeds were necessarily hammered out (and rightly so) at the time to counter challenging heresies that were rising and needed to be addressed. But even so, driven today by skeptics, we’ve turned this into *the* question around which to read the gospels which is to miss much of what the gospels have to tell us.

    And the other “deafening speaker” today (from the opposite side) is what wright calls the “all body –no cloak” problem. I.e. there are those (like our Jefferson) who are keen to take up the human aspects of Jesus and his admirable teachings while leaving out all the supernatural parts (the very parts so majored upon in all the creeds). We recognize how that has driven so much historical-critical scholarship of recent centuries, and probably need not say any more about that distortion here. I want to return to the “empty cloak” problem.

    Wright reminds us that Jesus was not bringing an end to the Jewish role in history by supplanting it with a new one (though he certainly is beginning something new!). He is a fulfillment of the very Jewish prophecies, the eternal throne of David, the very hope of the Jewish nation. While the role of Israel is a very sensitive subject today, and no-doubt includes many distortions of its own, it is nevertheless no-good denying this claim so clearly made by all the gospel writers. He came to fulfill promises made to his chosen people: Israel. In fact, Wright made this very startling corrective claim: Jesus should not be seen as the *Christian* messiah. He is the *Jewish* messiah! It is the Jewish promises and prophecies that Jesus is fulfilling, thereby becoming the *Jewish* blessing to all the nations of the world. Once we remember this, the so-called lower christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (as opposed to the so-called *higher* christology of John) are put into a more correct focus where we see that there is high christology beginning in Mark and going all the way through. No Jew of the time would have failed to recognize the claims being made about Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

    Since this echoes so much of what you were writing above, you provoked me to share what I’ve learned from Wright so far in this work. So when you wrote:

    “Jesus (and after him the New Testament writers) insisted on setting his ministry in the context of Israel’s entire history. He came to fulfil God’s real covenant with Abraham, by reversing Israel’s real exile to Babylon …”

    That second sentence is so much where Wright seems to consistently go. And I think he (at least in this book) would have even couched the first sentence in an even stronger way, saying: Jesus ministry *is* and *always was* in the context of Israel’s entire history, and that we’d best not forget that! We may find new settings and contexts for it –which may be a fine and needed activity I would guess, but we can never forget, nor stray from where all four gospel writers have it firmly anchored.

    As we celebrate Jesus’ birth today, may we not neglect to also remember and live out his Kingdom teachings!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for these points Merv – very much what I’ve gleaned from my own reading of Wright, and with which I thoroughly agree.

      I’m sympathetic to it from the start, having been exposed to some Christian Zionism, taken on board the importance of Israel, but rejected Zionism’s failure to understand fully how the New Testament and the Old relate. Leaving the “o” out of God doesn’t take you anywhere near where Jesus or Paul were going!

      PS good to see you guys prioritising the Hump over family Christmas! Happy New year!

  6. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    “good to see you guys prioritising the Hump over family Christmas!”

    Not “prioritising over” so much as making it a part of our holiday relaxation! But with the amount of material you put out on a normal basis, I’m glad you were able to enjoy a day away!

  7. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon, in my eagerness to chime in with the common themes you share here with Wright’s book here on my own desk, I neglected to respond to other parts of your essay that I also find provocative.

    You are generally critical of those who consign past events into some “ahistorical fog” as a means of diminishing any importance tied to the historicity of such events. Surely there could be some distinction drawn between those who wish to assert an alleged non-historical nature of something, and those who are observing that a fog is simply there whether we like it or not, making it challenging for us to see, in any extra-biblical sense anyway, what/how events literally transpired. One could argue that the Biblical account clears away all fog, if we but simply accept it. But the “it” we are supposed to simply accept is itself far from clear as the mere existence of armies of theologians, both past and present, testifies.

    Truth be told, I’m not even solidly aligned with you on the premise that precedes this (that claims of ahistoricity invalidate or leave consequent doctrines untethered in some sort of ‘nebulosphere’ –great word by the way!) We’ve had similar discussions before, and I guess I’ve never fully come around on accepting that the genealogy of an idea must be precisely traced back to the beginnings of …? before an idea can be considered solid, accepted, or established. I don’t know my own genealogy any farther back than a half dozen generations before that disappears into an opaque fog, but I remain just as real and solid as can be. The difference being, nobody is denying that my unknown ancestors had to have historically existed, obviously; but there the difference is. The details and stories of their existence may be lost in fog to me, and to the extent that any such stories survive, they may not be quite right –maybe even totally wrong. But their impact on me (by my possession of their genes if nothing else) survives. I guess what I’m trying to say (and doing so badly) is, I think ahistoricity itself comes in several different flavors; two of which would be the flat-out denial of the thing (like saying that Jesus’ resurrection never happened) or a human (or divine!) [re-]interpretation on the development and unfolding of events (like the Chroniclers’ accounts of Israel’s monarchy). One can be selective about the facts one chooses to relate in order to weave the intended story (which is what ‘history’ inevitably must be according to historian scholars). One can be nefarious about this if one is a salesman of tainted motivations. But if you are one of God’s prophets …

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Merv

      I don’t think we’re wide apart on this. As you say, there is an implied “Bitkofer” story beyond your recorded genealogy, and presumably it’s particular: some individual decided to migrate to America, for significant reasons that affect your history since. My wife’s distant relatives on three continents have a tradition that her family is Huguenot, though their name isn’t in the usual lists.

      Such a history can be remembered in “mythic” terms which are highly selective and, sometimes, distorted – again the difference between a salesman and a prophet matters as to what is stressed.

      It’s also possible to have a valid myth not based on history (Prometheus springs to mind) – but that brings me back to the “timeless truths” idea I had. My principle point was that in the biblical case, the pattern generally is of “mythic truths” – an overarching story worked out through individuals within actual history: Abraham, Moses, David, Nehemiah and, of course, Jesus.

      Regardless of the way the story has been retold, and develops in the telling (I sense allusions to Wright’s descriptions of the development of Israel’s hope in your words!), the story is (in my view) dependent on the historical contingency of the narrative – not a general principle in which the facts don’t matter.

      My second point was that, given that general pattern, Adam is more likely to be another such person, with a key contribution to make to the narrative, rather than only a mythic figure on which toi hang a sin principle, or whatever.

      The third, subsidiary, point was the tendency amongs Evangelicals to accept the history (“Moses was real and there really was an Exodus!”) and then dress him in a tea-towel and ignore what his realness means (a la Wright).

      In other words, I’m by no means pleading for a wooden literalist view of biblical history, but for a historical view in interplay with the prophetic developments of the story (which are also part of the real history).

      Which may or may not clarify things, but I’m still in Christmas mode.

  8. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    “Which may or may not clarify things, but I’m still in Christmas mode.”

    As am I! We’re going on a long road trip to celebrate a “second Christmas” and new year with my wife’s dad and family in Indiana. So after typing this I’ll only be getting intermittent internet access over the next week.

    Thanks for these thoughts that will continue percolating during our long drive. I’ll have a couple of Wright’s books along — finishing up the “How God Became King” that I mentioned and starting another one “The Last Word” —both look to be easy length reads by Wright standards.

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