When I wrote the first post of this series I mentioned that I want to discuss how teachers should introduce the thinking of critical scholarship to their local church. Some might argue that one should never speak of Bauer or Bultmann, Schleiermacher or Schweitzer, or Gunkle, or Ehrman, or Crossan, or Borg. Why introduce skepticism to people who have come to believe the Gospel and who may not have the ability to decipher between strong and weak arguments? Others might note that it is likely that there are people in your congregation who are familiar with these folks and their arguments. There are people in your local church who wrestle with their faith because they’ve seen the recent National Geographic or History Channel presentation that challenges their understanding of Jesus, or the virgin birth, or the resurrection. If you pretend that there is no elephant in the room it is not likely that it will go away, but rather that the person who had unaddressed doubts might disappear from your community.
It is tricky. I understand that pastors do not want to introduce skepticism where there is belief and many do not want to ignore the reality that there are some in the pews who are skeptical with the desire to believe.
With this reality in mind let me ask, how does the local church address claims such as these? (I am aware that one’s answer will differ between the person who is part of a local “Bible” church, a Southern Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a Roman Catholic, as examples, and I welcome these different perspectives.)
– The creation narratives of Genesis 1-2 are near eastern mythology with a Hebraic twist.
– There is no geographical evidence of a global flood such as is presented in the story of Noah and his family.
– Egypt contains no records of anything like the plagues that prepared the way for Israel’s exodus.
– Jericho was far smaller than depicted in the Book of Joshua.
– Most of the Hebrew Bible developed post-exile and it functioned to provide the community with an identity more so than to tell history “as it really happened”.
– The virgin birth was a later development of the church aimed to counter rumors about Jesus’ mother and the identity of his father.
– The resurrection did not happen (at least physically).
– The Gospel of John is useless for studying the historical Jesus because the words of the narrator and the words of Jesus are the same making it impossible to divide fact from fiction.
– Jesus did not think of himself as “god” in any meaningful sense.
– The pastoral epistles were not written by the Apostle Paul.
Whether you affirm some of these ideas presented by scholars, or you deny them for whatever reason, the fact of the matter is that they are not secret. Someone could listen to a few lectures on iTunes this week and come to worship this Sunday with a lot of questions for the pastor. How does the local church address these matters?
Let me open this for discussion. If you are a pastor or lay leader in a local church how have you navigated challenging questions about the Christian faith? For example, if someone in your community wanted to discuss the list above how would you handle their concerns? Would you address these questions in a group setting or do you prefer to deal with them on an individual basis? Are there some of these conclusions that you don’t mind affirming (e.g., there was no global flood) while others that you find to be more important (e.g., the centrality of the resurrection)? Share your thought in the comments!
Pt. II: the concerns of pastors
Pt. III: what do congregations need to know?
I’ve mentioned most of the listed names to an adult study group at one time or another, and addressed a fair number of the above questions. Three things about this–first, I don’t mention somebody unless I feel I have an ok handle on their work. That might seem trivial, but it isn’t. One of the reasons (certainly not the only one, but one) Bultmann became The Great Evil in certain circles is through poor or non-understanding of his writing. There are things to take issue with, of course (though for me, the fact that he views proclamation as geared to force a moment of decision, rather than to actually forgive sins, is the single most problematic aspect of his work–but many of the people who can’t stand him would agree 100% with this approach!), but there are also some things that Bultmann does really well. It’s much easier to handle someone problematic when you actually understand what they’re saying.
Second, I view the questions on that list very differently. Some seem like no-brainers to me, others highly questionable. Of course Egypt contains no records of plagues. And yes, we know the size of Jericho. But the resurrection? Well, we have the recounted stories, nothing else. That hasn’t changed since the event itself. So I don’t see how critical scholarship, beyond reminding us of this fact, can challenge it or actually represents any kind of new (in the broader history of the church) threat. So you not only have to have some ability to deal with the question, but to understand the terms under which it gets asked, and in what way it might be bothering the person asking it. Bart Ehrman recounts that his loss of faith was precipitated not by critical scholarship, but by something that’s simply in the bible– that in Mark 2, Jesus names Abiathar rather than Ahimelech (as in 1 Samuel 21) as the high priest in the story about David. What this means is that teaching is also an exercise of pastoral care–being sensitive to what is asked and why, what the person is looking for and what they actually need. Knowing decent answers to many of these questions isn’t that hard; dealing with this pastoral concern is far trickier.
The third thing then relates to the first two. If one of these questions agitates, unnerves or puts me on the defensive, I probably am not in a position to teach about it yet. First, because I may not have quite the handle on the material that I need (or at least confidence that we can work through the issue), second, because if I’m agitated then I’m not focused on what the people I’m teaching actually need from me. This is especially true for the questions that don’t have obvious answers, e.g., Jesus’ self-perception. If this one puts me on wrong footing, I may not notice that the question itself isn’t all that important; it’s a proxy for, “Who was Jesus, really?” I don’t have the foggiest what Jesus’ internal thought process looked like. I know that he healed with a word and forgave sins, and spoke “as one with authority.” Those are things that God does. Many of the above questions are in some way like this–we don’t answer them merely by stating facts or defeating objections, but by proclaming the faith in a way that goes to the heart of the question.
One major statement mad in the post is worth repeating: “There are people in your local church who wrestle with their faith because they’ve seen the recent National Geographic or History Channel presentation that challenges their understanding of Jesus, or the virgin birth, or the resurrection.” I, myself, was such a congregant for many years; wrestling with the issues that critical scholarship was raising and without an outlet to deal with it. And I wasn’t the only one. Moreover, before critical scholarship clarified the issues (in some respects) I had recognized problems (i.e. resurrection accounts, John’s curious portrait of Jesus etc.) simply through my own study. It never quite helped my “belief” (or doubts for that matter) that “inerrancy” was pounded week in and week out from the pulpit; I had read and knew better. The fact is many of our congregants are wrestling with these issues and for fear of social ostracism they are keeping silent.
As a pastor of my own congregation I decided I would be open about the issues scholarship was raising and I would not force metaphysical doctrines about Biblicism down their throats. We would work through the issues openly and we would do it together. So I started a ‘book of the month’ club and began assigning books by Borg, Crossan, and Enns and clarified that they raised issues about Scripture that we’d have to wrestle with based on the evidence and arguments. I asked them to write reviews on their reading and to make conclusions (anywhere on the spectrum the felt was satisfying) concerning the text. I also have weekly discussions where many of these issues are addressed and discussed forthrightly. I’ve found, as they have, that we don’t have answers but we will often, to our surprise, have a deeper appreciation for the Book[s] that shapes our journey.
Working in a church plant offers a unique challenge and opportunity to address some of these issues. I remember a few weeks after we first started Sunday services it was suggested that we use the Lord’s Prayer in the prayer part of the service. This seemed like a great way to express corporate prayer, praying Scripture, and a classic Christian exercise. I asked if we wanted to use the prayer from Matthew or Luke. I asked this because some people (surprisingly to me) knew the Luke version more than the Matthew version. I wanted everyone to be on the same page during the prayer time so I was asking for clarification on which to use. One of the people who has been in church for many years starting getting upset. They were claiming that there was no difference and we should not teach that there is a difference between the two. The assumption is that if we point out any difference in Scripture would produce skepticism and people would no longer believe Scripture.
I was shocked that someone could be in the church for so long and just blatantly ignore the fact that some Scriptures say things differently. But we took a few minutes to work through what was really at issue.
Adam, you are correct in pointing out that there needs to be scholarly pursuit and pastoral sensitivity. Most times the issues that people present on the surface is not really the issue that is challenging the faith of the individual. I find that if a pastor takes the time to pray and work through the underlying issue then the intellectual question can be addressed with more ease.
Being in a small church makes it easier to address questions like those above on an individual level. The tough challenge is equipping people with good answers and responsible, godly attitudes for themselves and others.
You may an excellent point about being familiar with what a scholar has said before talking about them. There is a lot of demonization out there based on hearsay about this or that person (like those names I mentioned), but most of the people who fear those scholars have not read there work I presume. And your observations about pastoral concern and our own need for humility, clarity, and further study are something we all need to remember. I think that is a huge part of educating in a church context: being a real, concerned human who lives life with the people we teach rather than merely dispensing information. Great thoughts.
Absolutely, there are people who are wrestling with a lot of doubts and questions who don’t speak about them because they fear judgment. We need to create a safe place for these questions. Even churches with strongly set traditions can be gracious and provide room for member to grow and think aloud. I think the book of the month club idea is brilliant.
I imagine a church plant would create a lot of unique opportunities. One of the great things about it is that the ethos of the church is being formed. A more established church may have a hush-hush culture about these kinds of questions. By creating a place where people see that it is OK to ask, “What about….” I think there is an opportunity there to be the type of church many people need. As you note, we’d be surprise how much about our faith is merely assumed. Many people have become biblically illiterate not knowing the very Scriptures of which they speak so highly.
My local church does educate like this. Our preacher works his tail off researching then gives the assembly the things he’s read. That’s where I got started on various current theological writings like NT Wright, Bauckham, Walton, Longman, etc.
Over the years I’ve faced most these objections (I used to have a close atheist friend who forced me to answer Bart Ehrman’s, Hitchens’ various objections) and had to do a lot of my own research to find confidence for my own self.
It’s been fun and scary at times honestly. I think all churches should have a small library and encourage their youth to read up and if there was 1 book I’d recommend to all believers, it would be this:
“The Destruction of Jerusalem”. Nothing comparable to it in my studies. It won’t answer a single one of the above questions, it did bolster my faith like nothing I ever saw and it had definitely wavered. Then you’re patiently waiting for all these various faith challenges to be answered.
The danger here, is that one becomes like Christ by studying Christ, while another becomes like Barth by studying Barth (Schweitzer, Bultmann, whoever).
Also, folks who have found an expert to listen to (with lots of fancy credentials no less), are less apt to seek the Holy Ghost. That someone has spent much time studying theology (even to the point of being considered an authority on the matter) doesn’t increase their chances of being either correct or true (even in comparison to the amateur). We even see this very thing in Saul/Paul.
In fact, I personally know a professional theologian (with a PHD even) who’s frequently published books on Christian theology and articles (even in Christian theological journals), on subjects such as redemption and Christiology though he himself is a disbelieving ‘Jew’.
Because he is well cited, I know he is influential, even amongst other so-called experts, but with respect to understanding Christ, I’m sceptical of his ‘insight’.
That’s not to say introducing theologians (to the flock) can’t be used to facilitate discussion about theological issues.
We always have to cross the thoughts of our research neighbors with the scriptural references, even when they’re confessional. However, I’ve come to believe that this century might have an explosion of insight as exegetes take advantage of research capabilities and theology.
Bernard Lonergan preached that, form a synthesis of all the theological capaibilities.
Some of the above questions will stump a lot of preachers I’ve known and we just can’t have that in the info age. For example, consider this one, it’s true:
“The creation narratives of Genesis 1-2 are near eastern mythology with a Hebraic twist”.
“In the Beginning we Misunderstood” is an awesome book on this subject and after reading it you will see it makes imminent good logic the author did use Egyptian cosmology mainly( cause that’s what 400 years of being a slave in Egypt will do for you, acquaint one with Egyptian ideas intimately and they would not have had a clue if God had given the author “real scientific facts”) and you’ll see how God used the Egyptian base to re-educate His people away from the Egyptian gods/thinking into Yahweh reverence and respect.
There’s a great dialectic going on there we do not see unless we study the Egyptian( and a small bit of Babylonian) religious stuff and then see how the author pretty much tears down reverence for Marduk and Ptah and elevates Yahweh. It’s eye opening, it removes the nonsense some of us have arguing against science and in fact is proof the Jews must have spent quite some time in Egypt learning Egyptian stuff intimately.
is the destruction of jerusalem you refer to by holford?
i am not a scholar, but when people refer to the similarities of Bible stories with local myth, and point to these similarities as evidence that the Bible was just fiction, as the local legends were, i like to ask them to look at not just how the stories bear similiarities, but how they are different. what makes the hebraic versions unique? we also should consider that the Bible versions may have even preceded the mythical versions. in oral traditions it is a bit tough to pin down actual dates of authorship. no, make that nearly impossible. we cannot speak with true certainty of the origins of any of these ideas or stories that were passed down before being recorded by hand.
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