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Truth and Faith

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  May 24, 2004

Perhaps the most frequent criticism of this article has been the statement that "After all, isn't this a matter of Faith?  Some will believe and some won't."  People tend to think of this as a religious issue, not a matter for factual investigation.

The entire question of the nature of "faith" and its relation to truth and to knowledge, cannot be adequately covered here - it requires a book in itself.  I can only present, here, my general approach to this question.

This Inquiry and the Truth of Christianity

This article does not directly inquire into the truth of Christianity, and therefore does not fall within the realm of apologetics, or the defense of the Christian faith.  It would be more accurately described in these terms as "pre-apologetics."

(Parenthetically, there is a good spin and a bad spin on the idea of "apologetics."  The bad spin is the implication that the "apologist" stakes out a position first, then tries with all his might to defend it.  This simply becomes "lawyer tactics."  The game is to find any argument that supports my position and make the most of it.  Then refute, or simply avoid, all counter-arguments.  The good spin is to say that apologetics tries to give a coherent explanation when asked "Why do you think this (Christianity) is true?", which is only reasonable.) 

Before we can make any kind of meaningful decision about Christianity, we must know what "Christianity" means.  And it seems plausible to me that central to the issue of Christianity is the question about the Claims of Christianity.  And central to the Claims issue is the Metaphorical Gospel Theory question.

And so what is needed is a clear, definite analysis of the New Testament statements and related evidence, as we are trying to do here.  Do the authors of these documents really make the claims that Historic Christianity has always made - about Jesus, and about gospel accounts?

Following the ArgumentFor many people, topics such as the Metaphorical Gospel theory directly affirm or challenge personal convictions, spiritual beliefs, religious commitments.  For some, this theory, if it is true, represents really bad news.  On the other hand, for others, the MG Theory feels like a liberating force from ancient dogmatic attitudes.  But, either way, isn't this simply beside the point?  We should not make the mistake of entrenching ourselves in positions that we want to be true, thinking that this somehow has anything to do with determining what is true. 

This is about Truth.  We should simply use the Socratic approach of "following the argument where it leads."  If the MG Theory, for instance, is true, then so be it.  If not, let's expose it.  Let's examine the evidence, think it through, and let the chips fall where they may. 

Faith and the Gospel

This addresses the concerns of conservative Christians who challenge the whole endeavor of inquiring into "reasons for faith."

From my earliest days in Sunday school, I was taught that "faith" was a good thing.  I was also taught that faith meant believing something.  It was believing something that you wanted to be true (Hebrews 11).  And it was believing something that you didn't know was true.  And, finally, the implication was that the more evidence there was against the thing hoped for, the more faith was required - and, therefore, the more credit you got with God.

This is exactly the definition of "wishful thinking"  and "make believe", isn't it?  One story has the little child giving a definition of faith, "Believing something you know isn't true." 

When I got old enough to think for myself, I just concluded that this was a flaw intrinsic to Christianity.  And I started wondering, "But why should I believe this thing (Christianity) is true, and not something else?"  I was puzzled that the Bible doesn't seem to give people this credit when they choose to believe something else; it wasn't just the process of setting your mind to something you want and believing that it was true that was commended as Faith, there was something more to it. 

And I saw that Jesus, in the gospels, didn't ask people to just believe in him for no reason at all.  He said "If you don't believe in my words, at least believe in my works" (his miracles).  He responded to John the Baptist, who had asked whether he was The One, "The lame walk, the blind are healed, ..."  His character backed up his words.  His power backed up his words.  And, finally, his resurrection backed up his words.

That's all I can say about this here, but I would ask traditional Christians to think about these issues, and perhaps realize that God has provided "many infallible proofs" for us, and it's ok to use our minds and discover them.

Truth and Party Politics

This addresses my own concern about the way both conservatives and liberals appear to approach these matters.

An Outsider's View

I concede that the following is a gross over-simplification and does not apply to everyone.  However, from the outside, I have to point out what I think I see.  I see these issues (to my mind, extremely crucial ones) sometimes treated as matters of Party Politics rather than as matters of Truth.  It sure looks to the outsider as if the scholarly game is to pick your team (based on whatever), and then interpret all the evidence based upon your team's philosophy.  Thus, at its heart this becomes an "us vs. them" contest. 

I well understand the fact that some people arrived at their Christianity by way of religious experience rather than by investigating the New Testament documents themselves, and that they will tend to understand the gospels in light of their other reasons for belief.

I also understand the scholar who has become critical of Historic Christianity and feels that modern thought has in some sense invalidated or refuted it, at least in its traditional form; and s/he is still somehow attracted to Jesus and wants to re-examine it all.  These people will also tend to understand the gospels in light of their new insights.

But this ought not to be!  We cannot say, a priori, "My understanding of Christianity is the right one, and the gospels must agree with me."  Put this baldly, this is obviously false; but I see this attitude again and again. 

A Word about the Tone of the MG Writers

Pursuing this theme, I will comment on the Party Politics tone of the MG writers first, since that's what we are discussing here.  The overwhelming impression given by these writers is that they are the educated ones, the critical thinkers, the smart ones.  They are the ones who are in step with the times, who are presenting the results of modern scholarship to the masses.  

On the other hand, their opponents are old-fashioned, dogmatically bound, ignorant of modern scholarship, unwilling or unable to see the truth.  They cling to their antiquated beliefs in the teeth of clear and convincing evidence.  They only believe what they do because of their prior (misguided) religious convictions.

Nowhere in the writings of the authors I discuss here do I find the slightest indication that people who disagree with them might have a case.  (The only example I can think of is the co-authorship of a Jesus book by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, in which Borg obviously acknowledges Wright's position.) 

They do not say "Now, this is in many ways a difficult issue; there are several cogent arguments that have been raised against my view.  Here's what they are and how I answer them."  In fact, they typically  demonstrate no awareness that there are arguments on the other side.  This is either terribly arrogant, or inexcusably ignorant.  

One of the odd things is that Mark Allan Powell tells me that Borg does introduce his college students to opposing viewpoints:

"I know for a fact that he also tells his students that there are highly respected scholars who disagree with him (in fact, he uses one of my books as a required text, just as I use one of his)."  (Powell, critique of MG 4)

Why does he not do this in his published work?

A Word about the Tone of the Responses

Spong's, Borg's, and Crossan's books are indeed marked with disdain for the "other side."  And more's the pity that their stance has been often been met with equal disdain and invective rather than genuine argument.  That kind of name-calling only makes the situation worse!  

I read several works which offered critiques of these scholars, but I could not find a clear and straightforward, step by step analysis of the issue.  That's what I attempt to do here.

Fact vs. Faith, the Great Reversal

This addresses an extremely interesting phenomenon - the appropriation of "faith."   Consider the claims made by two of the MG scholars (Borg and Spong).

1.  A literal understanding, that is, a belief in the "happenedness" of the gospel story,  is set against meaning and present significance, because it distracts us from the important things (Borg):

"Moreover, when what is said about the canonical Jesus is taken literally and historically, we lose track of the rich metaphorical meanings of the gospel texts.  The gospels become factual reports about past happenings rather than metaphorical narratives of present significance.  (Reading the Bible Again p 191)

But if we focus on the event's "happenedness", we easily become distracted and miss the point.  We then wonder if such a thing could really happen; and if we think it could and did, we then marvel about what Jesus did on a particular day in the past.  But the meaning of this story does not depend upon its "happenedness."  Instead, it is a "sign", as John puts it.  Signs point beyond themselves; to use a play on words, they sign-ify something, and what they sgnify is their significance.  (Reading the Bible Again p 204)

2.  A belief in the the truth of a set of statements about Jesus is set against personal commitment to the risen Christ (Borg):

"Now I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing. The experiences of my mid-thirties led me to realize that God is and that the central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God or believing in the bible or believing in the Christian tradition." (Meeting, p 17)

"Believe did not originally mean believing a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean "to give one's heart to." Believing in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines about him. Rather, it means to give one's heart, one's self at its deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus who is the living Lord " (Meeting J, p 137)

3.  In fact, a belief in the "literal truth" of the gospel words, an adherence to Historic Christianity, is regarded as the exact antithesis of true spiritual experience, encounter with the living Christ, and the doorway to God (Spong):

"Once we lay aside a commitment to the literal truth of the literal words of a biblical text, we discover that there is a way through these words to enter the timeless dimension of eternal love, graceful acceptance, and inclusive community." (Rescuing the Bible, p 127)

"No one seems yet ready to invest the energy that will be required to engage the task of reformulating the Christ story for our day if, indeed, it can be reformulated. Yet that alone, in my opinion, is the pathway to a living Christianity and a living Christ." (Rescuing the Bible, p 36)

"This God calls those who have been divinely created in this God's image to be the persons God created them to be, for in the fullness of humanity the presence of God can still be experienced. A literal view of Holy Scripture will never lead one to this vision." (Rescuing the Bible p 184)

"Literalize John and you will lose this Gospel. For that which is literalized becomes nonsense, while truth that is approached through sign and symbol becomes the very doorway into God. It is a pity that those who seek to defend biblical truth so often fail to comprehend its message. " (Rescuing the Bible p 207)

4.  Those who hold to Historic Christianity are not only missing the point, they are barred from spiritual life.  They are, in fact doomed to (spiritual) death (Spong):

"A title more proper than "liberal" might well be "open" or "realist." They are the ones who know that the heart cannot finally worship what the mind has already rejected. They know what fundamentalists do not seem to know, namely that literalization guarantees death." (Born of a Woman, p 176)

How has this Reversal Come About?

Now, it is simply astounding that the MG scholars have managed not only to lay claim to true faith and relationship with God, but they have somehow snatched these things away from the Christian faith that has existed for two thousand years. 

How was this accomplished?  I've known for a long time that this was going on, but I never saw it so starkly.  These guys are not saying "Hey, we're Christians too."  They saying, to traditional Christianity, "We're Christians, and you're not!"  I pondered this a great deal, and I think that I can lay out a step by step progression, each step a fairly plausible movement from the previous, until the roles are completely reversed.

This tracks only the spiritual rationale, without even adding in the weight of historical criticism.  The latter provides the factual basis of their views, but almost more importantly the progression below provides the religious power.  See what you think.

1.  It used to be the case that Christians believed Jesus really said and did the things attributed to him (including his bodily resurrection) in the gospels.  People who weren't Christians doubted or denied that these things really occurred.  The Christians, precisely because they believed these things were true, put their faith and hope and trust in Jesus of Nazareth as their Risen Lord, set out to follow his teachings, and most important of all came to know him in an experiential way.  They believed that the gospel was true, both factually and spiritually.  Not surprisingly, they were called "believers."

2.  Later, Christianity had become so institutionalized as to be part of the fabric of life.  People such as Kierkegaard (rightly) took nominal Christians to task for giving verbal assent without making the effort to appropriate the gospel spiritually. S.K. pointed out that without this appropriation, mere verbal assent was worthless.  In fact, such assent was only hypocrisy ("play-acting") without the fruit of spiritual commitment and growth.

3.  It was easy to miss the central point of this critique of Christendom.  Rather than realizing that verbal assent without relationship was simply a fraudulent Christianity, verbal assent was seen as "intellectual assent", as if one's core beliefs didn't affect one's behavior.  Thus, a Christianity of the mind (belief that certain things happened) is starting to be set against a Christianity of the heart (appropriation of the gospel message).

4.  It was just a short step to conclude, therefore, that issues of factually are merely secondary - beside the point, irrelevant.  In fact, it is contended that the real believer is one who believes "spiritually", since that's the bottom line, isn't it?  At this point, it doesn't matter whether you belief factually or not, it is the spiritual experience that matters.

5.  And so, what about people who focus on the factuality of the gospel story?  Aren't they distracted from the meaning of the gospel? - which means they are missing the meaning of the gospel, which is bound to negatively impact their spiritual life.

6.  And what if they continue to insist on the importance of factuality?  That is bound to be a perversion of the spiritual gospel, and must be eliminated if possible.

7.  Thus, in our time, we are earnestly told that we must now renounce the model of "belief" in favor of spiritual "relationship"  We discover, finally, that the true believer, the one with faith, the one with spiritual life and entrance to God's throne . . . is the one who believes it is true spiritually, while maintaining that it is false factually.

Like an Expert Wrestler

This is It used to be the case that people who thought that these things really happened were "believers" and those who thought they didn't happen were "unbelievers."  

"Believers" were once people who maintained the spiritual significance of events that happened Now these people are not believers anymore.  Instead, "believers" are precisely those who maintain the spiritual significance of events that didn't happen. 

This situation is like an expert wrestler, who deftly reverses position from the bottom to the top. The unbeliever and the believer appear to have switched roles.