Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Jesus Trumps the Bible"

According to the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, that's what Biblical scholar and Jesus Seminar fellow Marcus Borg said twice at a recent gathering. On her blog Generous Orthodoxy, Rutledge responds by briefly exposing the false dichotomies that prop up Borg's claim:

This is an extraordinarily irresponsible thing for a scholar and leader in the church to say. It can’t be said often enough: we have no access to knowledge of Jesus except through the Bible and its interpretation. There is no record of him outside the Bible until years after his death. The only way to understanding who he was is through the witness of the New Testament apostles. Therefore to suggest that he “trumps the Bible” is to suggest that we can cut loose from the Scriptures and construct a Jesus according to the perspectives of our own time. It has been shown over and over again that attempts to construct a “historical Jesus” or “real Jesus” apart from the faith-based witness of Scripture end in failure because such attempts are grounded, not in the text, but in the bias of those who undertake them.

Borg talks constantly of the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus.” Again, this often-heard distinction is based on a false assumption. We have no access to the pre-Easter Jesus. Every single word of testimony to him in the New Testament is refracted through the Resurrection. Therefore, any attempt to reconstruct a Jesus before anyone knew he would be raised from the dead are doomed to fail, because such projects, again, will always reflect the personal agenda of the interpreter.

Like it or not, therefore, we must rely upon the Scripture as our only witness to Jesus. There is no other witness.

Read it all.

Citing Rutledge's blog posting, C. Wingate at Tune: Kings Lynn also offers a critical perspective on Borg's claim that Jesus trumps the Bible. Along the way, Wingate exposes the unstated bias of liberal modernist approaches to Jesus and the Bible by writing:

If an unexamined life isn't worth living (an exaggeration, I would say), then unexamined scholarship is worse than worthless. It's impossible for me to read the "mainline" material and not come away with the conclusion that it's largely worthless because it begs the question. It already knows that Jesus cannot be a miracle worker, cannot be aware (somehow) of his divinity, cannot indeed be divinely born of a virgin. OK, so where's the proof of all these "cannots"? Well, Borg, at least in close proximity to the passages I've quoted, doesn't say, but one gets the sense that the scriptural God is distasteful. But like all good modernists, he fails to put his own predilections on the spot. If the problem with traditional Christianity is that it doesn't "work" for everybody (and within it's own schema, that's not a problem ), the problem with the modernists is that they won't admit that their scheme doesn't work for everyone either, and that the traditionalist scheme does work for probably the majority of Christendom. The relativism that they try to paper over this with doesn't wash: they really believe that the traditional teachings are wrong for everyone. So the big issue in this is really the whole problem of doubt, the unexamined and taken-for-granted doubt that is at the root of the modernist program. It is that doubt which is the true teaching of the moderns, and it is a teaching that does not move me, for I do not doubt, not on their terms.

Read it all.

Folks like Borg do a good job of feeding the doubt and skepticism of those who distrust orthodox Christian teaching about Jesus and Holy Scripture. And in doing so, they open space for setting aside the authority of traditional Church teaching on pretty much any subject in ways that allow for the individual's preferences to trump the Church's faith and practice. In addition to Rutledge and Wingate's criticisms of this "project" as articulated by Borg, we also do well to keep in mind something that Fr. Matt Gunter noted a while back on his blog Into the Expectation:

"Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts are just excuses to avoid the implications of believing."


Kurt said...

I agree that it becomes a matter of interpretation, doesn’t it? I consider myself a modern Anglo Catholic, so I’m at the liberal end of the theological spectrum. What does Dr. Borg mean by “Jesus trumps the Bible”? If he means that as Christians we should see Christ in those around us, and that seeking to love and serve them is more important than abstract Scripture verses, I might agree. I would also agree if by “Jesus trumps the Bible” he means that receiving Holy Communion regularly is more important than studying Scripure in the abstract. But, am I simply projecting my subjective interpretation of his slogan? What do folks think?

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

The Underground Pewster said...

I have read "Jesus trumps Bible" as to mean that the Jesus that we are led by the Spirit to see (which of course erodes faith into belief in the Jesus of our own creation) trumps the Jesus of the scripture and of scriptural interpretation and traditional theology.

This folk thinks Borg just wants to sell books.

The Underground Pewster said...

I should have used a lower case "s" for the spirit to which I was referring.

Robert F said...

The New Testament canon is the only witness we have to who Jesus was. Without it, not only would we not know if the Jesus we believe in is in continuity with the Jesus the Apostles preached, but the practices of Baptism and Holy Communion would lose their meaningfulness and wither away, because they would be separated from their root. It is the Jesus of the New Testament that makes these practices Christian sacraments. Without him, they would be "abstract" and lifeless.