I read a title by a theologian or Bible scholar, someone like John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, or Geza Vermes, all scholars who write extensively about the New Testament and about Jesus. Each doubts or outright denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Each in different ways respects Jesus, but none of these or many others think Jesus really, truly rose from the grave into a body that would live eternally. I read the works of these and others, and I get upset. I feel my faith is under attack and I need to defend it.
I think the simple answer is this stuff matters to me. By “stuff,” I mean the Gospel. My life is built upon proclaiming that God is real. God chose Israel as God’s particular people through whom God would reach the world, which had fallen away from God in sin – original sin and perpetual inevitable repetition of sin. God fulfilled all promises to Israel when God came to earth in the form of a human, a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus lived a sinless life, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose from death, ascended, and sent his Sprit to his followers. All who give their lives to Him and spend their lives following him will spend eternity with him in the eternal Kingdom of God, the joining of renewed Heaven and renewed Earth.
I believe all of this. I feel like my choices in life are based on all of this. My future and eternal destiny depend on this. I don’t know who I would be if this were not true. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is essential in my belief. So, when I read a far more schooled writer, like Vermes or Ehrman, and that author questions the core components of my theology, I feel assaulted. If this learned person is right, then who am I? What has my life meant? Have the last 25 years been a waste? I became a Christ-follower at 11. I heard God call me into pastoral ministry at 20. I am now 44. Has my life been a lie?
I don’t think so. But when I read the works from critical scholars that say, no, Jesus wasn’t really raised from death, that is just a spiritual truth, then I have to step back. I want to read honestly. Reading honestly requires that I give consideration to the arguments scholars make. Of course, I find the cases made by N.T. Wright, Mike Licona, Douglas Groothuis and others to be more convincing. But Wright, Licona, and Groothuis believe what I believe. So, am I convinced by them? Or was my mind already made up and they gave me “proofs” that support what the conclusion I would have inevitably drawn anyway. Is their thinking better supported, a wiser analysis of the available evidence, a more logical theology than that of scholars that drift toward heterodoxy, agnosticism, or even atheism?
I don’t know.
Here is what I do know. I know truth is really important. I am no relativist. I am, to a point, a pragmatist when it comes to enforcing ethics, but just because I accept something as a reality (like abortion) does not mean I think it is OK. On abortion, pragmatically, I think it is here to stay as an option for women. Fighting to make it illegal is akin to a hamster on a wheel. The destination will never be reached. Ethically, I believe abortion is murder – the murder of a human being. I believe that to be true and I won’t waver on that belief. Abortion is one of countless issues that demand both unwavering truth and creative pragmatism in how the truth is connected to practice in society. I have built my life on telling the truth (preaching the Gospel).
Along these lines, I appreciate a blog I recently encountered - http://valleygirlapologist.blogspot.com/. I became involved in a minor twitter spat with the author of this blog, and I wish I had handled that differently. I don’t agree with everything she writes but I understand her fierce commitment to the truth. An assault on truth is an assault on Jesus.
It thus makes sense that I would have an emotional reaction when Ehrman or whoever makes such an assault. But pragmatically speaking, emotions don’t help for a couple of reasons.
First, emotions do not help me think clearly. O, Vermes is saying the resurrection didn’t happen! What? The resurrection did not happen? At this point, I am either mad at Vermes and I am retreating to N.T. Wright so I can prove Vermes wrong. Or, I am questioning everything I ever believed. Neither is overly helpful. I need to calm down, breathe deeply, and trust that Vermes is a scholar who is going where his research has taken him. Even if he wrote with an agenda, that’s between him and God. I need to be sophisticated as a reader that I can engage with Vermes or whomever, and realize that my faith is intact. I am not under attack here. I am with someone whose believes differently than me and has written what he or she believes and is giving reasons why. I need to think it all through thoroughly.
Second, I might learn something. My own knowledge of God and of the scriptures and of how theologians reach conclusions might expand and mature. If I can listen to thinkers and hear what they are saying and why they are saying, my own theological reasoning will develop and deepen. If I cannot do this, I will remain irrationally angry. I won’t grow.
My hope in writing what I have here is that I can come to recognize my own emotions as I read theological works. Whether the authors are fundamentalist evangelicals or liberal atheists or adherents to other faiths, I want to be an intelligent, perceptive reader. The eternal fate of the author is between that author and God. My own eternal faith is between God and me. I am responsible to share the Gospel. How I do that, my method, will change and mature, will expand and improve, as I educate myself. So, I want to submit myself to theological education with the names I have mentioned here and many others as my teachers.
If you have thoughts about reading theology, I would love to hear them either in the comments section, on Facebook, or by emailing me directly.