Monday, January 24, 2011

The Gospels as Scripture

More material for a class.  Feedback welcome.
The central part of the Scriptural story, the central part of the Christian story, is when the problem of the story is overcome.  The problem of our story is the alienation of the creation from God, including humanity.  The goal of the story is the reconciliation of humanity and the creation to God.  The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the means by which God brings this reconciliation about.

The Gospels thus stand as the heart of the Bible read as Scripture.  Think of the central part of the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, dead, and buried.  The third day he arose from the dead.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God, the Father, Almighty.  From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”  When we read the Gospels as Scripture, we read them with all these things in mind.  The New Testament letters and Acts may unpack them in terms of doctrine, but the story of the Gospels is the starting point.

It is right for us to read them in this way as Christian Scripture, even though we may also know how to read the Gospels in terms of their original historical-cultural context.  For example, the incarnation—Jesus as God becoming flesh—is only a feature of John’s Gospel.  Only Matthew and Luke tell of Jesus’ virginal conception.  Mark and John do not mention the virgin birth.  From a historical/contextual perspective, we lack sufficient evidence to say whether they knew about it or believed it.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not speak of Jesus as God becoming flesh, as John does.  From a historical/contextual perspective, we lack sufficient evidence to say whether they knew about it or believed it.  Indeed, many Christians prior to the 300s did not read John to say that Jesus was fully God in the same way that God the Father was God.  We find contemporary Jews who used language similar to that of John 1 in relation to the “word” of God (logos), which was above all the rest of the creation as the “firstborn” of all creation, but was still created.  Further, the word for worship in Matthew could be used of human kings (proskyneō).

What the last two paragraphs say is that to read the Gospels as Christian Scripture is to see more in them than they may have originally meant or than we can prove that they meant.  The tools of inductive Bible study require us to read an individual book in its own right, not to see more meaning in the text than is required or justified by what that text actually says, following its own clues.  Inductive Bible study thus can never conclude that Mark or John believed in the virgin birth, for they do not mention it, and we lack sufficient historical evidence to say that Christians at the time commonly did.  But when we read Mark and John as Scripture, we are free to read them with the assumption of the virgin birth.

As Christians, we read the Gospels also with the assumption that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity.  The Nicene Creed (AD381) says that Jesus was “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; Light from Light; true God from true God; begotten, not made; of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.”  These distinctions all reflect debates that took place in the centuries after the New Testament, but Christians ever since have believed them.  For example, at the Council of Nicaea (AD325), they debated whether Christ was of similar substance to God the Father or of the same substance, one substance with the Father.  We have believed as Christians that Christ was fully God like God the Father ever since.

It would be anachronistic to read these positions into the original meaning of John or any other New Testament text.  Christians carried out these debates on the playing field of Scripture, but they were discussing issues that went well beyond anything the historical context of the New Testament books addressed.  No inductive reading of the New Testament books in context will surrender clear answers on these issues.  Indeed, it is possible to argue that we must believe in a Spirit-inspired, unfolding development and progress of understanding in the church in order to arrive at the Nicene Creed.

But it is perfectly legitimate for us to read the Gospels in the light of these later Christian beliefs.  After all, this is the way that we understand the Christian story.  So this is the way we bring the stories of the gospels into our Christian story.  We incorporate the stories of the gospels into the overarching story of Scripture, a unified story we believe the Spirit has inspired the church to see in the words of Scripture.  The Spirit working through the church has provided the glue of a story we experience as seamless and unified.

However, we can also see the historical writing of each Gospel as a moment in salvation history.  Most experts would say that Mark was the first gospel, written perhaps in the late 60s or early 70s.  Historical scholars have hypothesized any number of possibilities—many impossible either to prove or disprove—about how Mark’s material came together.  It currently seems beyond question that we find in Mark what were originally oral traditions, many of which must have circulated widely.

Most experts believe that Matthew and Luke, perhaps in the 70s or 80s, then used Mark as the starting point for their Gospels, both incorporating almost all of Mark into their presentation.[1] A majority—although this issue is more subject to debate—continue to believe that Matthew and Luke also had another common source, mostly a collection of Jesus’ sayings.  It is then thought that the Gospel of John reached its current form last, perhaps some time in the 90s.  Even here, though, some argue that John may have been written in stages.

Many scholarly theories, such as those presumed in the last two paragraphs, can neither be definitely proved or disproved.  There is a sociology to such theories.  Experts “get used to” certain ideas, ideas they may never have fully explored on their own.  They will know the basic case, evidence most people will not know, but they may never have struggled with other possibilities to the level of those who first came up with an idea.  New evidence can also arise.  The point is that scholarly agreements can change, just as scientific theories or historical reconstructions can.

The reading of the Gospels as Scripture is not contingent either on historical reconstruction, nor is it dependent on historical accuracy.  Both the modernist drive to get back to the historical Jesus and the fundamentalist drive to harmonize the content of the Gospels are both equally out of focus.  Certainly there are features of the story that must be historical for the Christian story to be true in its normal, orthodox, historical sense.  Jesus must really have existed.  He must have truly risen from the dead in history.  But even such minimal historicity is enough to support faith in the incarnation. [2]  Our point is not to dispute the historicity of the Gospels, only to point out that Christian faith does not clearly stand or fall on the historicity of the bulk of the Gospels.

The fundamentalist reading of the Gospels is also not necessarily the same as a Christian reading of the Gospels as Scripture.  The fundamentalist reading insists that we be able to fit all the details of the Gospels together as history, while reading the Gospels as Scripture only requires that we read the Gospels in relation to the one story.  It is not that we have any interest in saying that Jesus did not do something in the Gospels or did not say something.  It is only to say that we can read the Gospels as Christian Scripture regardless of these decisions—many of which can neither be proved or disproved from a historical standpoint.

We derive immense truth from the parables without even considering their historicity.  In the same way, reading the Gospels as Scripture is not dependent on historicity.  The problem with the fundamentalist drive to harmonize is that it often requires us to disregard what the Gospels actually say.  We create a “fifth gospel” that differs more from any of the four gospels than any of them actually differ from each other, and all this effort in the name of an idea we have, rather than in the interest of listening to what each individual gospel itself has to say.

Reading the Gospels as Scripture is not dependent on such things.  It need not ignore the kinds of things those who truly are experts have hypothesized or discovered.  But it also must not think that a unified reading of the four Gospels is bound by an inductive reading of each individual text.  We are free to see more in the Gospel texts than they themselves say, while recognizing the writing of each individual Gospel as a moment in God’s never-ending walk with his people, a moment in salvation history.

We believe that the second person of the Trinity came to earth and was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary.  He walked the earth as one of us.  He experienced what we experience.  He was tempted in every way as we are but did not sin.  He did miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, just as we can.  He healed; he cast out demons.  He went to Jerusalem and died to reconcile humanity and the creation to God.  He rose from the dead, and God enthroned him as king of the universe.  He will come again to reconcile all things to God.  When we read the Gospels as Christian Scripture, we read them with this faith in mind.

[1] A minority argues that Matthew was first, with Mark then abridging it and Luke reordering it.

[2] For example, even the virginal conception does not seem essential to Jesus' divinity.  No one miracle, no one healing or exorcism, no one event or saying of Jesus seems essential for Jesus to be divine.  Certainly the Christian story would be anemic without these elements, but we could still believe the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed even if most of the stories of the Gospels were not historical.


Ken Schenck said...

Since this post has created some controversy I wanted to clarify something. The distinctions I am making will be difficult to see and so are prone to misunderstanding. Let me give a small example. Because I believe in the virgin birth, I strongly suspect that Mark and John did know about the virgin birth. What I am pointing out is that you cannot infer this from what they actually say in their gospels. In other words, you will not come to this conclusion by reading Mark or John inductively, on the terms of their texts as they stand.

What I am trying to do here is a little like analyzing a golf swing. We often do just fine with our swing without exactly knowing why. So also, we usually read the Bible just fine as Christian Scripture without fully knowing where the various elements of our readings come from.

I hope that helps.

ElderChild said...

The 1st Day of Creation:

"The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of GOD moved upon the face of the waters." (Gen 1:2)

Then GOD spoke HIS Word into being.......

"Let there be Light"!

And "There was Light".......(Gen 1:3)

And such 'Light' was to be, and is, Eternal!

So it is that Hope is Alive!

Even though this wicked world begins and ends it's day in darkness it is good to realize that the 1st Day of Creation, although begun midst the darkness, ended in 'Light'! (Gen 1:5)

And such 'Light' was not the sun, moon or stars for they were not created until the 4th Day. (Gen 1:14-19)

GOD's Word "Let there be Light" became "The Light which enlightens every man born into the world" and was "the glory The Messiah had with Our Father before the world began".......(John 1:9, 17:5)

LIGHT Begot Light.......

LIKE Begot Like.......

The Messiah, "The Light of the world".......(Jn8:12)

The Messiah, "The beginning of The Creation of GOD".......(Rev1:1, 3:14)

The Messiah, "The Son of The Living GOD".......(John 6:69)

And Our Father, HE "created all things by(of, in and thru) The Messiah".......(Ep3:9)

The 1st Day of Creation.

"And GOD called The Light, Day, and the darkness HE called night. And the evening(darkness) and The Morning(Light) was The 1st Day." (Gen 1:5)

Now if the beginning can not be 'seen' nor understood, then what of the end?

Confusion would reign! And today confusion does reign midst the religious systems of this world, for apart from "The Light" there is only darkness, "the blind leading the blind" ;-(

And the Apostle Paul saw "The Light" that is The Messiah on the road to Damascus:

"At midday, O king, I saw in the way a Light from Heaven, which was above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.

And when we had all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.

And I said, Who are you, Master? And The Messiah said, I am Y'shua(for He spoke in the Hebrew tongue) Whom you are persecuting". (Acts 26:13-15)

GOD's Word "Let there be Light" became "The Light which enlightens every man born into the world", "The Light" that is The Messiah, and was "the glory The Messiah had with Our Father before the world began".......(John 1:9, 17:5)

Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this world and it's systems of religion "for the WHOLE(not just a portion) world is under the control of the evil one", indeed and Truth.......(1John 5:19)

Truth IS, a lie never was and is not.......

Abide in Truth.......