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Warranted Christian Belief
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B. Tensions with Traditional Christianity

There has been a history of substantial tension between HBC and traditional Christians. Thus David Strauss in 1835: “Nay, if we would be candid with ourselves, that which was once sacred history for the Christian believer is, for the enlightened portion of our contemporaries, only fable.” Of course the unenlightened faithful were not so unenlightened that they failed to notice this feature of biblical criticism. Writing ten years after the publication of Strauss’s book, William Pringle complains, “In Germany, Biblical criticism is almost a national pursuit. . . . Unhappily, [the critics] were but too frequently employed in maintaining the most dangerous errors, in opposing every inspired statement which the mind of man is unable fully to comprehend, in divesting religion of its spiritual and heavenly character, and in undermining the whole fabric of revealed truth.”490490   “Translator’s Preface,” Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 16, tr. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. vi. Pringle’s preface is dated at Auchterarder, January 4, 1845.

Perhaps among Pringle’s complaints were the following. First, practitioners of HBC tend to treat the Bible as a set of separate books rather than a unified communication from God. Thus they tend to reject the idea that Old Testament passages can be properly understood as making reference to Jesus Christ or to events in his life: “Critical scholars rule out clairvoyance as an explanation axiomatically. Instead of holding that the Old Testament predicts events in the life of Jesus, critical scholars of the New Testament say that each Gospel writer sought to exploit Old Testament passages in order to bolster his case for the messianic and dominical claims of Jesus or of the church on his behalf.”491491   Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism, p. 9. Of course clairvoyance isn’t at issue at all: the question is really whether the Scripture has one principal author, namely, God. If it does, then it doesn’t require clairvoyance on the part of a human author for a passage from a given time to refer to something that happens much later. All that is required is God’s omniscience. More generally, Brevard Childs: “For many decades the usual way of initiating entering students in the Bible was slowly to dismantle the church’s traditional teachings regarding scripture by applying the acids of criticism.”492492   The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. xvii.

Second, following Ernst Troeltsch, HBC tends to discount miracle stories, taking it as axiomatic that miracles don’t and didn’t really happen or, at any rate, claiming that the proper method for HBC can’t admit miracles as either evidence or conclusions. Perhaps Jesus effected cures of some psychosomatic disorders, but nothing that modern medical science can’t explain. Many employing this method propose that Jesus never thought of himself as divine, or as the (or a) Messiah, or as capable of forgiving sin493493   “The crisis grows out of the fact now freely admitted by both Protestant and Catholic theologians and exegetes: that as far as can be discerned from the available historical data, Jesus of Nazareth did not think he was divine [and] did not assert any of the messianic claims that the New Testament attributes to him” (Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming [New York: Random House, 1986], p. 9).—let alone as having died and then risen from the dead. “The Historical Jesus researchers,” says Luke Timothy Johnson, “insist that the ‘real Jesus’ must be found in the facts of his life before his death. The resurrection is, when considered at all, seen in terms of visionary experience, or as a continuation of an ‘empowerment’ that began before Jesus’ death. Whether made explicit or not, the operative premise is that there is no ‘real Jesus’ after his death.”494494   The Real Jesus, p. 144.

Those who follow these methods sometimes produce quite remarkable accounts—and accounts remarkably different from traditional Christian understanding. According to Barbara Thiering’s Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls,495495   San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992. for example, Jesus was buried in a cave; he didn’t actually die and was revived by the magician Simon Magus, whereupon he married Mary Magdalene, settled down, fathered three children, was divorced, and finally died in Rome. According to Morton Smith, Jesus was a practicing homosexual and conjurer.496496   Jesus the Magician (New York: Harper and Row, 1978). According to German scripture scholar Gerd Lüdemann: the resurrection is “an empty formula that must be rejected by anyone holding a scientific world view.”497497   What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995). G. A. Wells goes so far as to claim that our name ‘Jesus’, as it turns up in the Bible, is empty; like ‘Santa Claus’, it doesn’t trace back to or denote anyone at all.498498   “The Historicity of Jesus,” in Jesus in History and Myth, ed. R. Joseph Hoffman and Gerald A. Larue (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1986), pp. 27ff. John Allegro apparently thinks there was no such person as Jesus of Nazareth; Christianity began as a hoax designed to fool the Romans and preserve the cult of a certain hallucinogenic mushroom (Amanita muscaria). Still, the name ‘Christ’ isn’t empty: it is really a name of that mushroom.499499   The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970). As engaging a claim as any is that Jesus, while neither merely legendary, nor actually a mushroom, was, in fact, an atheist, the first Christian atheist.500500   Sheehan, The First Coming. And even if we set aside the lunatic fringe, Van Harvey is correct: “So far as the biblical historian is concerned . . . there is scarcely a popularly held traditional belief about Jesus that is not regarded with considerable skepticism.”501501   NTS, p. 193.


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