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Why Has God
Incarnate Suddenly Become Mythical?
by John Warwick Montgomery
An excerpt from Perspectives on Evangelical Theology
Christianity has been about for quite some time now, and during its history of almost two millennia it has consistently proclaimed, in the superb phraseology of the Nicene Creed, that its Lord Jesus Christ is
the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead: whose kingdom shall have no end.
This confession expresses what C.S. Lewis felicitously termed "mere Christianity": that which all Christians everywhere have believed. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant branches of Christendom, whatever their differences, have remained united on the common teaching of the ecumenical creeds (Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian) that for man's salvation God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. This universal confession has endeavored to mirror faithfully the testimony of those who were closest to Christ Himself:
We have not followed cunningly devised fables [Gk., mythoi] when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty (II Peter 1: 16).
Remarkably, however, 1977 saw the publication of an influential volume by a team of seven British theologians, one of them the chairman of the Church of England's Doctrinal Commission, expressly arguing, contra the apostolic witness, that God's incarnation in Christ is mythical. Indeed, The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick, takes a position from within the church which differs in no material respect from that of such contemporary secular detractors of incarnational Christianity as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Why, we might well ask, has this sudden onslaught against incarnational Christology come about? One might expect that a radical denial of the two-millennia-old central teaching of the church militant would require at very least the discovery of new and better documentation concerning Jesus-documentation that would show the fallaciousness of the eyewitness portrait that has been the church's heritate. However, no such historical discovery preceded the advent of John Hick's book. Is the explanation simply cultural, the logical consequence of the death-of-God theologies of the sixties and the secular Christianity of the seventies, and these in turn the inevitable product of the humanistic climate of opinion of our time? Occasionally, the contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate seem to attribute their denials of the incarnation to such factors, as in the following (typically Bult-mannian) passage:
The Christians of the early church lived in a world in which supernatural causation was accepted without question, and divine or spiritual visitants were not unexpected. Such assumptions, however, have become foreign to our situation. In the Western world, both popular culture and the culture of the intelligentsia has come to be dominated by the human and natural sciences to such an extent that supernatural causation or intervention in the affairs of this world has become, for the majority of people, simply incredible.
But such an explanation-though it might have seemed adequate in the Newtonian-Humean eighteenth century, or in the technological-evolutionary-progressivistic nineteenth century-hardly suffices today. We live in an open, relativistic, Einsteinian age, whose cosmological options include antimatter, black holes, and time flips (to say nothing of close encounters of the third kind). This decade has witnessed a tremendous revival of interest in parapsychology and the occult; and not merely a willingness but a veritable passion to believe in the supernatural has displayed itself in both healthy forms (the current evangelical revival) and its very opposite (Jim Jones' Guyana cult). Our epoch is simultaneously characterized by anti-supernaturalism and the quest for Immanuel (God with us); the question before us is why the authors of The myth of God Incarnate should have opted for the one and ignored the other.
THE INCARNATION LOSES TO DOCUMENTARY CRITICISM
The decisive factor that leads John Hick and his associates to reject historic incarnational theology is their willingness to accept the full implications of modern New Testament criticism. Historical-critical method treats the New Testament documents as incapable of yielding a reliable, objective portrait of Christ; since (in this view) the biblical picture of Jesus is essentially a product of the faith-conceptions of the early church, the modern Christian-though he has heretofore hesitated at such a radical but consistent step-has every right to develop his own revised Christology in accord with his personal needs. A humanistic, anthropocentric critical method applied to the New Testament now reveals a humanistic, anthropocentric Jesus.
The following catena of typical passages from The Myth Of God Incarnate will show how form criticism in its twin varieties, Redaktionsgestchichte and Traditionsgeschichte, underlies the book's fundamental theme, namely, that the incarnation must be regarded not as history but as myth.
There is not one christology in the New Testament, there are many. By now it has almost become common knowledge that if you look at the New Testament writings from any point nearer than a distant mountain, you can distinguish a number of different pictures of Christ. In fact you will find that each writer has his own and you may even decide that one of them, Paul, shifted his viewpoint within the writings which expose his mind to us.
If we start from where we are, as Christians of our own day, we begin amidst the confusion and uncertainty which assail us when we try to speak about Jesus, the historical individual who lived in Galilee in the first third of the first century of the Christian era. For New Testament scholarship has shown how fragmentary and ambiguous are the data available to us as we try to look back across nineteen and a half centuries, and at the same time how large and variable is the contribution of the imagination to our "pictures" of Jesus...And each of these different "pictures" can appeal to some element among the various strands of New Testament tradition.
In the opening of the gospel Luke follows Matthew in a virginal conception story, and both of them are then faced with the problem of what to do with the older Davidic sonship tradition. Matthew's solution is to fabricate a bogus genealogy back to David and Abraham, with legal paternity only in the final link with Joseph. Luke follows him, but has it both ways by extending the line on the father's side back to God also.
The metaphysical uniqueness of Jesus, as traditionally taught, has always been taken to have carried with it a unique moral perfection....It is impossible to justify any such claim on purely historical grounds, however wide the net for evidence is cast. So far as the gospels are concerned, the material in them is too scanty, and too largely selected and organized with reference to other considerations, to provide the necessary evidence.
The force of such arguments in The Myth of God Incarnate is quite plain: at minimum, objective historical testimony would be required to justify belief in a de facto incarnation; the New Testament documents-when subjected to historical-critical method-offer no such objective portrait of Jesus, but rather present diverse Christologies reflecting the varied faith-experiences of the early church; the modern churchman, therefore, is not obligated to maintain a traditional incarnational Christology if his own faith-experience and contemporary orientation point in other, more personally meaningful directions.
EVANGELICALS AND FORM CRITICISM
The evangelical community is duly horrified over the collapse of historic, biblical Christology in The Myth of God Incarnate. However, with isolated exceptions, evangelicalism has not taken a decisive stand against the employment of the form critical techniques which underlie its Christological conclusions. Indeed, these techniques are being positively promoted by some evangelical scholars as an aid to faith. Institutionally, the most active promotion is being carried on by Christ Seminary-Seminex-the breakaway theological school from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. At Seminex, historical-critical method is advocated as part of that institution's efforts to move beyond an inerrancy view of Scripture. But even among scholars who adhere to the inerrancy of the Bible, form critical technique finds advocates. Thus Grant R. Osborne is actively encouraging evangelicals to embrace historical-critical methodologies. In my recent work, Faith Founded on Fact, I briefly treated Osborne's approach; here I want to carry the analysis a bit further and relate it to the Christological issues under immediate discussion.
In the Spring, 1976, issue of the Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Osborne defended an evangelical use of Redaktionsgeschichte in his article, "Redaction Criticism and the Great Commission." There he argued that in the case of Matthew 28: 19, "it seems most likely that at some point the tradition or Matthew expanded an original monadic formula." Such redaction should not surprise us, for "the evangelists did not attempt to give us ipsissima verba but rather sought to interpret Jesus' words for their audiences. In other words, they wished to make Jesus' teachings meaningful to their own sitz im Leben rather than to present them unedited. Relevancy triumphed over verbal exactness."
A more recent article by Osborne in the Evangelical Theological Society Journal offers an evangelical rehabilitation of "tradition criticism" (June, 1978: "The Evangelical and Traditionsgeschichte"). Osborne begins by critiquing what he calls "the negative criteria" for establishing the genuine underlying core of Jesus' life and teachings; he then goes on to give "a positive approach" in which virtually the same criteria appear in milder form. Thus:
Pericopae that are not characteristic of either Judiasm or the later Church may be regarded as trustworthy. Earlier we pointed out the limitations of this method, but with those in mind this still yields the most certain results from a critical standpoint...Features that could not survive in the primitive setting unless they were genuine may well be an indication of authenticity....If there is no satisfactory Sitz im Leben for an episode, it is traditional and perhaps even authentic. For example, the sayings on Jewish particularism (e.g., Matt. 10: 6; 15: 24) would not fit the later Church....If given in language and containing emphases not characteristic of the author, the passage is traditional....Aramaic or Palestinian features may well indicate an early origin....Features that occur in more than one independent tradition may also be trustworthy.
Osborne is aware that the employment of such redaction- and tradition-criticism has cast a pall of doubt over the reliability of the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament. Nevertheless he assures his evangelical readers that this need not be the case. Why? Simply because the evangelical will regard the redaction and the formation of the tradition as guaranteed to be inerrantly true by the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture.
Others, who unlike Osborne do not adhere to the orthodox doctrine of Biblical inspiration, appeal to the Holy Spirit in an even more disquieting way. For them "the Spirit" becomes a deus ex machina, supporting very different Christological understandings. "The Spirit" led Thomas Altizer through the redacted New Testament documents to his "fully kenotic Christ." More important for our present purposes, the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate likewise appeal to spirit and experience for the new Christology they arrive at on the basis of the "assured results" of contemporary form criticism. Leslie Houlden writes:
If we have reservations about what we have called the creedal approach, not simply because formulas of the past become obsolete but fundamentally because such a use of language is improper concerning God, then we may be led to formulate the christological question thus: what must I say about Jesus when as a result of him, by innumerable routes, I have been brought to that experience of God which has been my lot and privilege? The resulting answer may be far from traditional words, but it will avoid the obstruction of technicality, it will have a refreshing realism, it will reach out towards spirituality.
And in the "Final Comment" to the volume, Don Culpitt declares:
I acknowledge the limitations of our critical-historical knowledge of Jesus. However, the core of a religion does not lie in the biography or personality of the founder, but in the specifically religious values to which, according to tradition, he bore witness. By these values I mean possible determinations of the human spirit whereby it relates itself to the ultimate goal of existence, such as are embodied in the injunction to "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand."
This cluster of "principles of Spirit" is at the center of the tradition, and I believe it to be contingently the case that Jesus proclaimed them, though it is not strictly necessary to prove it by the critical method. Precisely because they command us to die to the self, to the world which is passing away and so on, they assert the possibility of transcending relativity. As principles of transcendence they are the only non-relativistic criterion of the subsequent development of the tradition.
In history, a man proclaimed the possibility of transcending history; and we, in history also, can verify his claim in practice.
THE INCOMPATIBILITY OF HIGHER CRITICISM AND HIGH CRISTOLOGY
Claims to an "experimential" or "spiritual" stabilizing factor for form-critical conclusions necessarily leave the objective life and words of Jesus in darkness and obscurity, since one can never be sure when the text is representing Jesus Himself and when it is merely reflecting the diverse faith-experiences of early Christian communities. Redaction- and tradition-criticism open the door wide to all manner of subjectivistic reformulations of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The classic Christology of the ecumenical creeds is based upon the existence of an objectively veridical portrait of the Christ in the New Testament, and it is that very portrait which form criticism puts in doubt.
The answer to The Myth of God Incarnate therefore requires a frontal, non-compromising attack on higher critical technique. Evangelicals should not shrink from that task, for much of the groundwork has already been laid. C.S. Lewis, literary scholar, demonstrated in his essay, "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," that the assumptions of form criticism are hopelessly subjectivistic and its application overwhelmingly dubious even in the realms of modern and contemporary literature. German theologian Gerhard Maier has recently produced a long-needed critique titled, appropriately, The End of the Historical-Critical Method. Of particular value is Humphrey Palmer's study, The Logic of Gospel Criticism, which keenly identifies many of the devastating flaws in form-critical reasoning. Here are some typical examples of Palmer's conclusions:
In the complete absence of comparative material, and the wide range of informed opinion about the methods of composition, its occasion and its purpose, a decision about what is to count as establishing a Gospel source is very difficult....In the gospels, each division produces a difficult grouping. Squinting through his microscope, the critic sees only a reflection of his eye.
If we are ready to believe next to nothing about Jesus, but almost anything about the early Church, the classification into "forms" is required only to add a spice of scholarship and variety....Were the first Christians adept at thinking up stories-of-Jesus to suit a situation in their Church? Form-critics do not show this, but take it for granted in all their reasonings. These reasonings do, however, show how adept form-critics are at thinking up early-Church-situations to suit stories of Jesus.
Guessing at traditions behind the gospels is a fascinating occupation. For public discussion of the subject to be profitable, reasons must be given why some guesses should be preferred to others. The classification of story-forms, though interesting in itself, has not produced any new reasons of this sort.
It seems unlikely that the disciples were clever enough to invent all those world-shaking ideas and simple enough to attribute them all to someone else....Nor can we proceed by listing as Jesus' all the revolutionary doctrines, and leaving the rest to be filled in by his disciples, for such a list may only reflect our idea of what is basic, seminal, or revolutionary.
Jesus presumably spoke Aramaic. The gospels appear to have been composed in Greek. We may therefore ask, for each story or doctrine, to which background it belongs. This question has turned out less simple than it looked, for there are Semitic turns of phrase in Koine Greek, and Palestine was under Greek rule until the time of the Maccabees. No one can prove that Jesus spoke no Greek. Ideas cannot, in consequence, be affiliated simply by the language in which they are expressed.
Statistical work can improve our judgments of style. They remain judgments, and so "subjective." New Testament writings are too short and specialized for judgments of style, with or without numbers, to carry much weight in decisions about authorship.
In sum, evangelical theology has nothing to gain but everything to lose should it attempt to baptize historical-critical method. That method by its very nature generates unwarranted doubt concerning the objective reliability of the biblical records, and doubtful biblical records necessarily mean a doubtful Christology, for all we know of Christ comes from Scripture. If we would effectively proclaim to our age "the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death," we had better stick closer to Scripture. Expounding John 1: 2 in the year 1537, Luther put it this way:
We have not invented this text about the eternal Godhead of Christ. By the special grace of God it has come down to us and will, I dare say, remain despite all heretics-many of whom will yet try their prowess on it-and will continue to the end of the world.
1. Used by permission of Baker Book House Company, copyright 1979. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.
2. At the request of the publisher, this chapter from the book Perspectives on Evangelical Theology will be removed from our website on March 5, 2000.
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