The Importance of Keeping Up on New Testament Scholarship

bible picFor a while I have been posting on this and other Facebook religion pages about what has been uncovered about the first two centuries of the Christian movement by biblical scholars. Before the work of sub-groupings of the Society for Biblical Literature- the so-called ‘empire’ and ‘meals’ groups-, we had known very little about that period. We have the New Testament writings but they give very little context for knowing about the world in which they are set and of the nature of the first gatherings of the followers of Jesus. If you look at the Outline on my blog, Subversive Church, you will see how far I’ve gotten to date.

However, attempting to keep up on what has been happening in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, has distracted me from pursuing a blog designed, of course for the UMC, but framed for the broader church. I have thus decided to use my older blog, Net Prophets, to speak to Methodists. I’m not sure how ‘united’ we still are. Those who are members of this Facebook page need little reminding of what occurred at the recent Special General Conference- the adoption of the divisive Traditionalist Plan. What I want to point out is that those who developed this plan are seemingly ‘traditional’ only back to fourth century history. I believe that knowing what happened before then could give us a new ‘Way Forward’.

To give an example of what I am writing about, I want to refer you to an article from March 20, 2019 in the Institute on Religion and Democracy blog ‘Juicy Ecumenism’. It is by a retired UMC bishop, Timothy Whitaker.

Whitaker’s intent is to compare the failings of liberalism/progressivism due to following modernism. Over against that he wants to spell out what he see as the true orthodox faith. He does this by means of calling his readers attention to biblical scholarship. As I’m doing the same, you would think I might be cheering him on. However, significantly, not only is the man a scholar from almost a century ago, but he is a schismatic Reformed one, not Wesleyan. His name is John Gresham Machen; his book is “Christianity & Liberalism” and was published in 1923. It is easiest to refer to his Wikipedia page to see how he first left Princeton to form a new seminary and left the Northern Presbyterian Church to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The title of his book shows his religious perspective- you are either liberal or you are Christian.

Bishop Whitaker writes an 8000 word blog based on Machen’s book, covering the topics of doctrine, God and Man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, the Church, and finishes with Observations. I will not try to match his length. I will deal primarily with what I see as the Achilles heel of his thought. It is the same weakness that lies at the heart of the so-called Traditionalist Plan at General Conference. It is the fiction, nay the illusion, that there is a (singular) Christian tradition. The latest biblical scholarship lays bare that, from the first century there have been not Tradition but traditions. An example of this is found in “In the Beginning Was the Meal” by Hal Taussig, a UMC minister, seminary professor, and biblical scholar. My copy is 6000 miles away so I cannot quote it. He writes about the purported Master Narrative of Christian history, which claims that Jesus taught the Apostles who taught the Church Fathers, who taught the Bishops, who have overseen and preserved the one truth and practice until the present day.

What does our Methodist bishop conclude is the true Christianity following a schismatic Reformed biblical scholar of just short of a century ago? It certainly is not found in the liberal/progressive movement: “many progressives are anxious to profess their allegiance to the authority of scripture and doctrines of the church, but their profession of orthodoxy is belied by key interpretations which convert the meaning of scripture and doctrine which have been characteristic of Christianity from the beginning.”

“Machen first contrasts the approach of Christianity and liberalism regarding doctrine.” Paul’s primary concern was with doctrine. “Moreover, it is evident that all of the early Christians agreed with Paul’s message, as 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 make clear.” I’m not sure how our bishop comes to that conclusion. He is relying on the letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, which seems to be a hotbed of problems and differences when you actually read the letter instead of lifting a quote to prove one’s point. Paul no sooner begins the letter when he is complaining about the opposite of unity and following his directions. “10 I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

No, Bishop, it is not evident that the”early Christians agreed”.

The current biblical scholarship, which I am relying upon, posits that the original agreement among early Christians is read back into the first century from what existed only by the fourth century, the age of Constantine, church councils, and creeds. (See, Raymond E. Brown’s “The Churches the Apostles Left Behind”)

“Liberals may concede that the primitive church did have this view, but they contend that we should get back to the “simple, non-doctrinal religion” of Jesus himself. They propose that Christianity consists of following the teaching of Jesus rather than making some assent to a creed.” 

I’ll have to agree with him. Liberals tend to see Jesus teaching us a “way of life”, the kingdom of God. I’ll also have to say that there is not unanimity among the liberals about the nature of the Kingdom. We can’t even agree if we should refer to it as kingdom or kin-dom, or the realm of God…

However, what Bishop Whitaker fails to point out is that there are over 1000 different Protestant denominations in the U S alone. They may say that creeds are held by all. If so, why is there not only a single Protestant denomination. The only way the illusion of unity in belief can be sustained is by calling those who don’t agree with you ‘heretics’ or ‘liberals’ or ‘seed of Satan’. Some term must be found to sustain the illusion that all true Christians (us) agree in doctrine.

Our bishop would not find he was accepted in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that his author Machen founded. If they did not reject him for not following the Westminster Confession of 1643, they would do so for not believing predestination, because our bishop follows the Arminianism of John Wesley, I would presume. And to top it off, Rev. Whitaker would have to disavow the episcopal consecration he received from Methodism.

They were not all of one mind in Wesley’s day either. One priest of the Church of England wrote some doggerel about an action of John Wesley:

“How easily are bishops made/ by man or woman’s whim/
Wesley, his hands on Coke has laid/ but WHO laid hands on him.”

Who was this priest to insult John Wesley? His name was Charles, Charles Wesley, the brother of John. If you believe the brothers sorted things out and were finally of one mind, then explain to me why is the church on City Road, London called Wesley’s Chapel? Shouldn’t that be Wesleys’ Chapel? Only John is buried there. Charles is buried miles to the west in the graveyard of Marylebone Chapel, Church of England.

Except for what Luke claims in chapter 2 of the book of Acts, “all who believed” were not “of one mind”. It is true today, in Machen’s time, in Wesley’s time, in the days of Nicaea, and in the first centuries. A bit of study history including biblical scholarship, reason at work, plus a bit of humility,  will disavow one of the idea of ”Tradition”. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be “traditions”.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Keeping Up on New Testament Scholarship

  1. Interesting stuff, Bud. I’ve read a bit of Biblical scholarship, and not only do I find it intrinsically fascinating, but I agree that it is so important in order to inform our faith–to provide context in order to understand sacred writings and what was happening in the early days of the movement. There are a couple of books that I’ve perused by prominent Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich (How Buddhism Began and What the Buddha Thought) and in them he explains that so much of modern Buddhist theology is based upon commentaries on Buddhist writings that were written 500-1000 years after the Buddha died. The people who wrote these commentaries (the most prominent one being Buddhaghosa) knew little of the historical and religious context informing the words and actions of the Historical Buddha. Gombrich contends that a lot of what the Historical Buddha was doing was speaking in metaphor, and using language that made sense to people who had grown up in a society informed by Indian Vedas and Jainism. The commentarians, not really understanding this background, had a tendency to literalize a lot of the Buddha’s sayings, or at least misinterpret them, and those views have come to prevail down to the present day. In reading Gombrich’s arguments I was struck by the similarity to what I have learned from reading New Testament scholarship regarding the origins of Christianity.

  2. I disagree. I think Christians are quite steeped (they think) in their NT, when it’s OT literacy that needs to get dusted off and learned. You simply cannot “get” what’s going on in the first century without understanding the nuances the readers of those letters and documents would have had. And–no. People at Nicea might have been one minded–but they were only 300 of 1800 existing assemblies so in actual fact they were the sell-outs who went to Constantine hoping for a state paycheck.

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