By Rubel Shelly
By its very process of pseudoscholarship and skillful narrative, The Da Vinci Code becomes a stunning metaphor for modern theology as written, taught, and lived by those in many mainline liberal denominations at the beginning of the 21st century.
Anyone who has read the works of modernity’s reinterpreters of the gospel—ranging from Rudolf Bultmann to Marcus Borg, John Macquarrie to Sallie McFague, Hans Küng to John Dominic Crossan, or Edward Schillebeeckx to John Shelby Spong—knows, for example, that the resurrection as an event in history that happened to the physical body of Jesus has been reworked as a subjective event in the experience of the Christian community—and maybe much less than that.
So it is standard fare to distinguish the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” The theology of modernism is essentially secular, and postmodernism permits Jesus to be made into the image of his interpreter at a whim. Whole guilds of biblical scholarship are committed to freeing Christianity from the confining burden of historicity in order to let it soar in the ethereal realm of mythology.
Judgments Conceived Beforehand
Take the much-publicized Jesus Seminar as an example of the difference one’s theological worldview makes. It was founded by Robert Funk in 1985 to determine the authenticity of Jesus’ words as recorded in the four Gospels.
Among the a priori judgments of seminar members are such items as these: Q and possibly an early version of the Gospel of Thomas antedate Mark and constitute “strong documentary evidence” against which the canonical Gospels are to be critiqued; all the miracle stories are false; Jesus was a “traveling sage who traded in wisdom” rather than a would-be religious reformer; Jesus never claimed any distinctive role for himself in the consummation of God’s purposes, and he certainly never claimed to be Israel’s Messiah, much less divine.
By the use of preset criteria (see part 1), it comes as no shock that the Jesus Seminar dismisses 82 percent of the words attributed to the Nazarene in the four Gospels as inauthentic.1 So where does that leave us? The virgin birth becomes a fiction rooted in Greek mythology, and the bodily resurrection is a scientific impossibility. Jesus is nothing more than the proffered mouthpiece of a movement started by Peter and his cohorts in exploiting the memory of a dead man.
In other words, Scripture for the Jesus Seminar is the word of man rather than the Word of God, and Jesus couldn’t save you a seat on a crowded bus—much less at the table of the messianic kingdom of Heaven in which he never believed anyway.
There is certainly nothing about the scientifically acquired Jesus who emerges from this body of expurgated material that explains why either Jewish or Roman authorities would have been disturbed by him—certainly not enough to think he needed to be crucified.
A Nonlaughable Joke
Most professional biblical scholars find the Jesus Seminar a nonlaughable joke. Even though the little band of scholars comprising it offers its judgments as “the assured results of critical scholarship,” such a claim is nothing more than culpable chicanery. Scholars from the major graduate institutions in the United States, England, and Europe are notable for their absence from the roster of 74 Fellows of the Jesus Seminar named in the appendix to its volume of findings summarized above.2
Even in terms of popular-level summaries of the seminar and its goals, writers have been pretty severe. So a national newsmagazine reported:
In his lectures and in a 1996 book, Honest to Jesus, Funk makes clear that he envisions a “reinvention of Christianity” that would supplant traditional Christian theology and practice. . . . This new Christianity, says Funk, would among other things emphasize Jesus as a teacher rather than as a divine being. It would replace the Eucharist with a common meal, emphasize forgiveness and freedom over punishment and piety, and endorse “protected recreational sex among consenting adults.”3
“But that’s unfair!” cries someone. “That is just mudslinging and ad hominem argumentation to imply that the discrediting of Christian Scripture and its story of Jesus is going to lead to promiscuous sex and other forms of behavior the Bible calls ‘immoral.’ It’s like saying a fictional novel such as The Da Vinci Code is going to undermine somebody’s faith!”
My claim is precisely that—on both counts. A fictional novel has in fact hurt the faith of people because of its skillful weaving of false information into an engaging story; it does so with such subtlety that people who do not know history and Scripture are taken aback and their heads sent reeling. A collusion on the part of a few credentialed scholars with an agenda to promote seems to give credibility to those very points; at the very least, their work can be cited by more obvious proselytizers for spurious causes to give them a platform of authority before people who don’t know how to evaluate their conclusions.
A Spurious Proselytizer
Take Bishop John Shelby Spong as an example. He lives and speaks within the walls of institutional Christianity, all the while declaring the fundamental unworthiness of practically all things Christian. He thinks the historic church is built on the false thesis of a personal God who never existed. “Theism was created by frightened self-aware humans to assist them in the task of banking the fires of hysteria brought on by the trauma of self-consciousness, the shock of nonbeing,” he claims. “God, understood theistically, is thus quite clearly a human construct.”4 Theism defined in terms of a personal God who has created all that exists other than himself, and who reveals himself to his creatures, is “a delusion that encourages worshipers to remain in a state of passive dependency” and deserves to die.5
Yet Spong wants to preserve a nontheistic “God-concept” or “God-experience” that he defines in two moves. First, “God is the ultimate source of life” whom one worships “by living fully, by sharing deeply.”6 Second, “God is the ultimate source of love” whom one worships “by loving wastefully, by spreading love frivolously, by giving love away without stopping to count the cost.”7
If this approach to God sounds vaguely familiar as Sigmund Freud’s “illusion” or Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being,” you are correct—and Spong admits as much.8 And if it sounds like this nontheistic God is nondistinctive enough that he can be embraced as easily as Buddha or Krishna as Jesus, you are correct again; Jesus may have been the name by which some came to experience God, “but there will be other doorways for other people.”9
Tracing implications of his nontheistic view of God,10 Spong jettisons any belief in supernatural creation or miracles. He does not believe that Jesus is the earthly incarnation of a personal God whose existence he does not acknowledge. Neither did the historical person named Jesus perform nature miracles or miracles of healing. The virgin birth is myth. There was no physical resurrection on the third day following his death. He did not ascend into Heaven to his Father’s right hand.
Spong does not believe the Bible was produced as the activity of God in human thought and activity; it is the word of man and not the Word of God. Thus the ethical norms taught in the Bible are not matters of divine truth and fixed for all time. He is particularly concerned, as it turns out, to defend the legitimacy of homosexual behavior, and to dismiss the biblical statements against homosexuality by suggesting, among other things, that Paul “may have been a gay male.”11
1Even the popular press has had a field day poking fun at the colored beads used by seminar members to vote their (subjective) sentiments about the words of Jesus. A red bead meant the statement was “authentic,” pink “probably authentic,” gray “probably not authentic,” and black “not authentic.” By this method, only one sentence in the entire Gospel of Mark is granted as being from Jesus (12:17). Neither the Lord’s Prayer nor any of the sayings of Jesus on the cross survives as “authentic” or even “probably authentic.” If the surviving 18 percent of things the seminar is willing to attribute to Jesus were confined to red beads, the percentage would be reduced considerably more. It is fascinating to discover, for example, that the “criterion of dissimilarity” is central to the group’s methodology for discovering sayings that might have been original with Jesus. This guideline holds that a saying should be judged authentic only when it is unlike (i.e., dissimilar to) both what we know to have been in antecedent Jewish tradition and what we find in later Christian teaching. Thus, for example, it is held that Jesus likely did not tell his disciples “Take it; this is my body” or “This is my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:22, 24) for the simple reason that the Christian church uses that liturgical language and thus likely read it back into the Jesus story. Does it strike anyone other than persons with common sense that an artificial device has been created by the Jesus Seminar to insulate Jesus from the movement he founded?
2Robert W. Funk, ed., The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993). The list of “fellows” hardly represents a broad cross section of the leading critical scholars of the Bible. For example, there is not a single member of the New Testament faculty from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Union Theological Seminary, University of Chicago, Vanderbilt, or Catholic University involved in the project. Obviously there are no conservative scholars from any of the evangelical seminaries on the list. While it may even be true that there are individuals on some of the faculties named here who sympathize with or privately endorse the skeptical conclusions of the seminar, perhaps it is their concern for academic reputation that makes them wary of being signatories to its work. Although the introduction to The Five Gospels seeks to leave the impression that the book represents mainstream biblical scholarship that would be attacked only by conservative/fundamentalist Christian groups or individuals lacking academic credentials, as well as by certain “elitist academic critics who deplored the public face of the seminar,” that is simply not true.
3Jeffery L. Sheler, “Bob Funk’s Radical Reformation Roadshow,” U.S. News & World Report (August 4, 1997), 55, 56.
4John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 45.
5Spong, New Christianity, 58, 59.
6Spong, New Christianity, 70.
7Spong, New Christianity, 72.
8Spong, New Christianity, 37ff.
9Spong, New Christianity, 137-138.
10The list of items enumerated as points of Christian theology which Spong rejects is taken directly from Spong, New Christianity, 3-7. Each is named after the formulaic introduction “I do not believe . . .”
11This point is pursued a bit in John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 116ff.
NEXT WEEK: A study of the nature and reliability of biblical data.
Rubel Shelly ministers with the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee.