Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘New Testament’

The God Who Wasn’t There

In Blogging the New Testament, New Atheism, Religion and Society on September 10, 2012 at 12:27 am

I’ve just spent the last hour watching the documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There. I had watched part of Loose Change on Netflix, and this was one of several films that appeared in my ‘recommended’ queue. (Loose Change, by the way, is very watchable, but you only have to do a brief ‘net search to see that much of it has been debunked. It’s somehow deliciously diabolical to think that 9/11 was all just a huge conspiracy, but the gross mismanagement of the our country during the Bush administration ought to be proof enough that the same team wouldn’t have been capable of such a devious plot). If you’re interested in watching it, you can check it out on Netflix or watch the YouTube version – not sure if it’s legally posted.

While the director and narrator, Brian Flemming raises a few interesting points, this is pretty much a rehash of ideas critical of Christianity that have been floating around for some time. Anyone who’s ever taken a comparative religion or literature class, or who has read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces will be familiar with many of his ideas. Flemming sometimes comes across exactly as his former school superintendent – who appears in the film – would like to portray him; as an adult who is still angry about wrongs committed against him as a kid. I’m pretty sure that Mr. Flemming is preaching to the atheist choir, as his message and methodology are unlikely to convince anyone who isn’t already on his side.

The first ten minutes or so of the film tells the story of Jesus, illustrating it with clips from old films. The intent of this seems to be to make the story appear as ridiculous as possible. However, he uses a pretty neat video trick to make an important point, one that I had never considered before – and I once thought myself a student of the New Testament. He places all the stories he’s just shown on a sort of grid, then crosses out all the ones that the Apostle Paul seems to have not known about – almost all of them.

Jesus died somewhere around 33 AD, and the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Since the Gospel of Mark makes reference to its destruction, it must have been written after 70 AD, and since the other gospels appear have used Mark as a source document, that means that there are about 40 years of silence between Jesus’ death and the writings that describe his life – except, of course, for the writings of Paul.

But therein lies the problem – of the two dozen or so stories about Christ’s life that every modern Christian is familiar with, Paul seems to know about only two or three. In all of his writings, he never mentions the shepherds of Luke 2 who were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, the twelve-year-old Christ in the temple – or most of the other events described in the gospels. In fact, according to Flemming, the only well-known events in Jesus’ life that Paul does refer to are his death, his resurrection, and apocalyptic events surrounding his return.

Flemming’s argument here is that Jesus was mythological, not historical. Paul’s writings are the oldest in the New Testament, pre-dating the gospels, and Paul doesn’t seem to know anything about the historical person who was his contemporary, not even by hearsay. My immediate response to this insight was to look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “Neither did I judge myself as knowing anything among you, except Yeshua The Messiah, even him as he was crucified…” in an entirely new light.

The argument seems to go something like this: in the 1st century AD, there were many stories circulating that were similar to the Jesus story, and pretty much everyone knew they were just allegories or myths. Paul must have erroneously believed the Jesus stories were true, or else he used them to advance a set of doctrines to which he adhered, or he simply made up the whole idea himself. After Paul’s death, the writers of the gospels felt the need to fill in a ‘history’ for the person of Jesus, in order to advance their cause.

Cover of "The God Who Wasn't There"

The God Who Wasn’t There

This Christ Myth Theory, as it’s known, is interesting. I was already aware of the fact that many other religions and myths contemporary to Christ had made many of the same claims – the virgin birth and atoning death included. But I had never given much thought or research to the fact that Paul himself was ignorant of many of the facts of Jesus life. Even when I was a fundamentalist Christian, I had a real problem with the explanation that Satan had created other myths which replicated facts about Jesus in order to lead many astray – especially since some of the so-called Satanic versions pre-dated the real one by sometimes thousands of years. The idea gives way too much prescience to Satan. I still find it difficult, however, to discount the existence of a historical person named Jesus who preached for a few years in Galilee and Judea.

Of course, if you believe Mark’s reference to the temple’s destruction is a prophecy, you can date it immediately after Jesus’ death, and part of the problem goes away. This does not, however, explain why Paul makes so little mention of the events of Jesus’ life.

Another interesting idea is Flemming’s dismissal of moderate Christianity. He sees Holy Wars and the Inquisition as very much in line with the teachings of the Bible, not dangerous aberrations. If one’s immortal soul is in danger – what is there to be moderate about? Unfortunately, he may have a point – which means this blog would be an exercise in futility. A few snippets of an interview with Sam Harris really drives this point home.

A final argument he makes touches on the religious education of children. Religious schools indoctrinate children according to the wishes of their parents – but is this the right thing to do? Children have not yet been schooled in critical thought, and aren’t likely to say to themselves ‘hmm, well that’s one theory’ when presented a viewpoint from an authoritarian figure. And there’s the fear factor as well – question what your teacher is saying, and you might just end up in hell.

I’m intrigued by the assertion that Paul may have been completely unfamiliar with the events of Jesus’ life, and I intend to scour his writings to see if I come to the same conclusion. I don’t think anyone who believes in Jesus will stop doing so due to this film, nor do I think non-Christians will learn much that they didn’t already know. And the final scene of the film is simply juvenile. But, The God Who Wasn’t There is an interesting way to spend an hour.

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What is Prophecy? Part Two

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on June 4, 2012 at 2:25 am

Yesterday, I described my experience and understanding of what prophecy means, and how the churches of my youth understood Paul’s teachings about this spiritual gift. I grew up in Pentecostal churches, and I’m sure many readers with a similar background or current experience worshiping God will be able to relate.

Continuing to look at what Lindsay Harold said about prophecy in her comments on my site, it’s clear to me that she comes from a different Christian background. She felt that I didn’t understand what prophecy really is – which really means that I don’t share her particular point of view. Hundreds of thousands of Charismatic believers understand the scripture as saying that prophecy and revelation go hand in hand; hundreds of thousands of Baptist and Methodist believers would say that prophecy is really nothing more than just preaching. This just re-affirms the circular logic of the faithful:

  • My views are not my opinions – they are what God said in the Bible.
  • If you just take the time to read the Bible, you’ll see how valid my views are.
  • If you read the Bible and don’t come to the same conclusions I do, there something wrong with you.
  • Yes, I realize that there are hundreds if not thousands of different Christian beliefs that all say they base their ideology on the Bible, but their logic is faulty or they are reading it the wrong way.
  • My belief system is the final authority on how the Bible should be read and interpreted, because –
  • My views are not my opinions – they are what God said in the Bible.

Here are some of Lindsay’s other comments – again, very logical on one level, especially if you are already predisposed to believe.

In New Testament times, God was completing His revelation by revealing the mystery of Christ and His atonement and how the church was to function. However, revelation was closed with the completion of the New Testament. (Keep in mind that when Paul was writing, revelation was still going on).

Lindsay’s first sentence does have some grounding in the writings of the NT; however, her second sentence doesn’t. Where in Bible does it say that the time of revelation is closed? Well, nowhere. This idea, however, has been popularized by non-Charismatic pastors, most notably John MacArthur. In his lengthy essay Does God Still Give Revelation?he argues that no new revelation has been given since St. John wrote Revelations. (It’s interesting enough to read all eighteen pages, but if you want to cut to the chase, go to page 14. Or I can give you the super-super abridged version, “No, he doesn’t.”)

But his argument shows an unfamiliarity with how the NT was actually put together. The books were not written in the order that they appear in your Bible today – anyone who can read the notes before each book knows this. MacArthur seems to think that they were. The scriptures he gives are few and pulled at random from a number of texts – not presented in context. And, in fact, second century Christian leaders disagree with him. Justin Martyr and Ireneaus, both writing just after John’s Revelation was supposedly completed, believed that the gift of prophecy – as a modern Charismatic might interpret it – still existed in the church.

In the 1st century church, there was no such thing as a ‘New Testament’; there were only letters written to churches, and stories about the life of Jesus. No one who was writing thought they were establishing a ‘canon’ of scripture that would be considered the entirety of God’s revelation to mankind. They were simply writing down what they thought God had inspired them to write.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospels were not even attributed to the authors we know them by today until late in the 2nd century – 150 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Only in the early 4th century, during the reign of Constantine, would the idea of a book of complete and incontrovertible truth come along. The New Testament then was not so much ‘completed’ as it was assembled  – study the works of Eusebius to see how the books of the NT were chosen from among dozens of popular writings.

God has now given us the complete understanding of His commands and expectations in the Bible. He has revealed Himself to us in its pages. Thus, prophecy today does not consist of telling us new and previously unknown things about God and His commands as it once did. All that will be revealed to us (in this life) has already been revealed.

Believers who subscribe to this point of view often say that in Biblical times, prophecy meant ‘foretelling’, while in modern times, it simply means ‘forth-telling’.

Prophecy today consists of proclaiming the word that God has already revealed (i.e. proclaiming Biblical truths). It doesn’t have to be ONLY quoting scripture, it can also include explanations or rewording to make it more understandable, but there will be nothing fundamentally new because God has already revealed Himself.

In other words, when Paul wrote prophecy, he meant sermon. This really irks me when people who claim that the Bible is so inerrant that to change one tiny phrase would be blasphemous, then try to twist a phrase around when it suits them. Are we supposed to read the Bible as literally as possible? Or is it to be read metaphorically? Most believers say literally, when a literal reading supports their belief system, metaphorically when a literal reading challenges it.

Also, God now indwells the hearts of His people (believers) and speaks to them personally in revealing His personal will for their lives. We do not have prophets between us and God anymore. This more personal plan for individuals is not revelation (revealing God’s nature and commands for mankind), but God does speak to our hearts about His will for our lives and guides us through principles in His word. God can speak to us through the counsel of godly friends, but He does not tell another person things to tell me that I am commanded by God to do. The things I am commanded to do have already been given in His word. The things He has planned for my life particularly, He tells to my heart.

Again, why can’t Christians see the circular reasoning employed here? I know the Bible is true. I know this because God has spoken this truth to my heart. I know that God speaks to men’s hearts because it says so in the Bible.

By the way, it is not necessary to suspend rationality in order to have faith. The opposite of faith is not reason, but sight (check it out for yourself). In other words, we can know truth logically and still have faith in it because we haven’t seen it yet. For example, we Christians have faith that Christ will return for us. We haven’t seen it yet, but we believe it will happen (and we live out our faith by acting according to our belief). We do, however, have good and rational reasons for our faith. God never asked us to simply believe for the sake of believing.

I disagree. I think there are a lot of examples in the Bible where God asks people to believe for the sake of believing. And certainly churches today ask us to buy the whole ball of wax they are selling, no questions asked. I’m supposed to believe in the miraculous, even though no one has ever seen any evidence. I’m supposed to believe the Bible was written exactly the way the church says it was, when scholars since Martin Luther himself have said that this cannot be possible.

Hebrews says that “faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see”. It’s a beautiful scripture, but represents the conundrum of the person of faith who doesn’t want to be seen as irrational. Faith is the assurance that what we hope for but cannot see is true. Faith is irrational. It could be called ‘false hope’.

Also, just because people cannot agree on what the Bible says does not mean that there is no true meaning. There is only one correct interpretation for Scripture. We just understand it either better or worse.

Pull away all the posturing and appeal to reason, and at the end of the day, this is what faith requires. People disagree, but I’m sure I’m right. And everyone else is wrong. I understand better than you do.

In general, though, the main points are pretty clear and most Christians agree on them. Holding up a prophecy (in today’s world, think of prophecy as a sermon or something similar) to God’s word to see if it matches is one very important way of determining if a person is speaking for God.

If it’s so clear and most Christians agree on them – why are there 20 different churches competing for my tithes in even the smallest American town? And it seems obvious to me that if ‘prophecy’ can be twisted around to mean ‘sermon’ – then I can pretty much get any pet idea to ‘match’ God’s word.

What is Prophecy? Part One

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on June 3, 2012 at 4:21 am
Prophet Micha

Prophet Micha

A few days ago, I ended my post commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5 with the following paragraph:

(Paul) ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

In the Pentecostal / Charismatic churches that I grew up in, ‘prophecy’ went something like this: we’d be worshiping God as a group, sometimes through spiritual songs, sometimes just everyone lifting their hands up towards heaven, praying softly. In either event, the emotional level would be very high – some folks might be crying or so involved in prayer as to seem in a trance. There would be a sudden stillness in the group, as if everyone suddenly expected something to happen. The musicians might even ‘sense’ that they should stop playing.

Then, one of two things would happen; someone would speak in tongues, publicly, meant for all to hear, and we’d all wait for someone to interpret the ‘message’ that had been given, or someone would prophecy directly, in English. These spiritual utterances, if you will, were usually fairly general exhortations that made generous use of known scriptural verses. However, sometimes they would include more local or personal instructions, aimed at the group or an individual within the group. This was my understanding of what the New Testament writers meant when they spoke of prophecy – speaking the mind of God to others. Pentecostal / Charismatic folk feel this kind of practice is what occurred in the 1st century church, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 14 and other locations in the NT.

My concern has always been – even as a sincere believer – how Christians are to determine what is truly of God, and what comes from the spirit of the prophet. People can get excited, make mistakes, have a particular point of view they see things through, etc. How can we be sure that people are really speaking for God?

If you’ve been reading the comments on my site, you’ve seen that one sincere Christian, Lindsay Harold, feels she has a good system for separating good prophecy from bad. In short, she thinks good prophecies meet three important criteria:

  • they cannot contradict the scripture
  • they must be rational and sensible
  • they cannot contain new revelation

I think this is a fair summary of her main points – you can read her comments for yourself on my previous post. I said that I thought her answers were well presented and seemed to have some good thoughts behind them, but that her answers really only opened up more questions. My reply addressed her main points in the following way:

  1. Since there are thousands of Christian denominations, all preaching different interpretations of the scripture on Sunday morning, there is no true consensus on what the scripture says; therefore in can be difficult to determine what might contradict the scripture.
  2. The life of faith is not always rational and sensible. Religious people believe in things that cannot be perceived with the five senses or proven through empirical evidence. In the Bible, God has often asked people to do illogical things. He asked Abraham to kill his son, for example. He asked the leper, Namaan, to bathe in the River Jordan if as a cure for his leprosy.
  3. Stipulating that prophets could not reveal anything new about God than had already been revealed seemed to render the gift of prophecy useless – it equates prophecy with quoting scripture. In addition, it would seem to suggest that any denomination outside the Catholic church was in error, for all Protestant sects claim in one way or another that they have a new revelation from God that has been ignored by other denominations before them.

Notice I’m not saying she’s wrong – on the surface, I think any believer could agree with what she writes. I’m just saying there are problems that her answers do not address.

Lindsay responded with a lengthy explanation. I admire the fact that her positions are thoughtful – not like that woman I saw on CNN the other day. But I’m still not really persuaded by her arguments. Below is a ‘conversation’ of sorts about prophecy – her comments are in italics.

I believe you misunderstand what prophecy is. Prophecy is proclaiming the word of God.

I was a fervent believer for two decades. I taught the adult Sunday school class in my church, including the letters to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. I wouldn’t have had the audacity to tell another reflective believer that they misunderstood something in the New Testament; I would have acknowledged that we had a different understanding of God’s word, but I never would have said that they didn’t understand what they read.

This goes back to my original point, which I affirm to be a valid one – American Christianity is highly individualistic in nature. There are nearly as many interpretations of scripture as there are believers; certainly any honest Christian would have to admit that each individual congregation tends to worship God and interpret scripture in a slightly different way.

In the Old Testament, God spoke to His people through prophets who were mouthpieces for God. They told the people what God was saying to them. In many cases, this was new revelation – new information about God’s expectations and commands for the people.

I don’t want to give too much veneration to Old Testament prophets. Let’s first of all assume that the OT is really God’s word – that is was written when it claims it was written, by whom it claims it was written by, etc. – all dubious claims in the light of modern scholarship. But for the sake of argument, lets assume it is what it says it is. There are a lot of ‘prophecies’ that involve murder, genocide, rape, bigamy, and other heinous crimes that would land a man in jail if he followed them. How can we call a man a prophet when he uses his supernatural connections to summon bears out of the woods to kill children – just because they taunted him by calling him ‘old baldy‘?

Lindsay’s post is lengthy – and thank God she differentiates NT from OT prophecy. Since it’s 4am – let me stop here for now and continue this conversation tomorrow or the day after.

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