December 16, 2017

N.T. Wright, Marcus Borg and A Too Generous Orthodoxy

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time : The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary FaithUPDATE: Joel Hunter has an excellent post regarding the application of Paul’s pastoral approach in I Corinthians 15 to this issue. He also shows how Wright is perceived by the academic left in this very helpful post.

The background of this post is N.T. Wright’s recent interview with the Australian, an interview that’s kept the blogosphere buzzing for a couple of weeks. Wright’s comments about his friend, co-author and debating partner Marcus Borg were guaranteed to animate Wright critics and friends.

“I have friends who I am quite sure are Christians who do not believe in the bodily resurrection,” he says carefully, citing another eminent scholar, American theologian Marcus Borg, co-author with Wright of The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.

“But the view I take of them – and they know this – is that they are very, very muddled. They would probably return the compliment.

“Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately. The philosophical and cultural world he has lived in has made it very, very difficult for him to believe in the bodily resurrection.

“I actually think that’s a major problem and it affects most of whatever else he does, and I think that it means he has all sorts of flaws as a teacher, but I don’t want to say he isn’t a Christian.

“I do think, however, that churches that lose their grip on the bodily resurrection are in deep trouble and that for healthy Christian life individually and corporately, belief in the bodily resurrection is foundational.”

This is the same Wright who has written a Jesus-seminar crushing opus called The Resurrection of the Son of God. Wright’s views on the resurrection as a historical explanation for Christianity can be found here.

Wright and Borg have written a book together that is one of the best books available to both hear the Jesus Seminar case and to understand Wright’s substantial, serious and convincing response. The book makes frequent reference to the friendship between the two men and their mutual affection and respect on a personal level is evident.

I’ve read a considerable amount of Marcus Borg. He’s a brilliant, helpful and interesting scholar, in that he is firmly in the “Jesus Seminar” camp, but he is highly confessional of his own faith journey, and is clearly passionate about Jesus…as he understands him. Like most of the Jesus Seminar, Borg is convinced that conservative Christianity has narrowed the options of possible interpretations of Jesus into a far too narrow box. His book Discovering Jesus Again For The First Time is downright evangelical in its fervor. If one’s image of a “liberal academic” is that of a cool skeptic with no interest in the spiritual dimension of Jesus, Borg doesn’t fit the mold. His interest in Jesus is historical, but it is also highly spiritual and earnest. While those of us within the confessing churches would judge Borg as no more orthodox than a Mormon, he is not an easy person to caricature, and he is a very winsome spokesman for his own version of Jesus as a highly relevant “spiritual guru/wisdom teacher.”

Here are quotes from Borg and Wright taken from a PBS interview featuring both men. They are quite representative of what each has to say. First, quotes from Borg.

PROFESSOR MARCUS BORG: I have learned that the message of Jesus was not about requirements, was not about here is what you must do or believe in order to go to heaven. It was about entering into a relationship to God now in the present–I see in that–wisdom teacher and a social father. And for me as a Christian what Jesus was like as a figure of history is a powerful testimony to the reality of the sacred or the reality of God.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean that one has to believe that Jesus really walked on water, or really multiplied loaves, and so forth. And I think that a literalistic approach to scripture has in the minds of many Christians become a major obstacle. I think I would be willing to say that the teaching of Jesus makes profound religious sense to me, whether Jesus said it or not.

I’ll simply say that I think given my understanding of Christianity there’s all the room in the world for disagreement about whether the resurrection of Jesus involved something happening to his corpse, things like that. I grew up in a tradition which stressed correct belief, and I now see it’s not about correct belief it all. It’s about, you know, being in relationship to that to which all this stuff points.

I think the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but I have no idea if it involves anything happening to his corpse, and, therefore, I have no idea whether it involves an empty tomb, and for me, that doesn’t matter because the central meaning of the Easter experience or the resurrection of Jesus is that His followers continue to experience Him as a living reality, a living presence after His death. So I would have no problem whatsoever with archaeologists finding the corpse of Jesus. For me that would not be a discrediting of the Christian faith or the Christian tradition.

He wanted to tell a story about how besotted God is with us. One would even tell that story that God was willing to give up that which was most precious to God, namely God’s only son, for our sake. And so it becomes a story of the divine lover pursuing us as the beloved of God.

And N.T.Wright.

N. T. WRIGHT, Dean, Lichfield Cathedral: When God became human, he really became human–and he became human that means he belongs in history.

SPOKESMAN: If they don’t believe in a Christ who really did come and, you know, in human form and die for their sins and rise from the dead and offer salvation, what are they basing as their hope?

N. T. WRIGHT: That would be very difficult to say because a lot of those scholars keep their own personal cards quite close to their chest.

When I look at Jesus, I’m looking at the living God, the creator of the universe. That is, of course, a huge idea. But in the New Testament what we see is not a high and mighty God striding through the world this way and that but a young Jewish prophet riding into Jerusalem on a donkey–announcing God’s judgment on the city, having a last meal with his friends, going off to give his life for the life of the world, and believing that in so doing he is again the body of the living and loving God…

All the early sources from quite different angles, they all describe as best they can something very strange involving the transformation into a new mode of physicality–I actually can’t understand what the historian–why the early Church got going and took the shape it did, unless I say that sometime reasonably soon after his death, Jesus of Nazareth was alive again in a new mode of physicality, which transforms, not just resuscitating or abandoning his physical body.

Wright critics- almost all of whom eagerly admit that they have not read or heard Wright’s views on the resurrection in his books and sermons and don’t plan to- have denounced Wright as abandoning the resurrection as an essential of the Christian gospel as required in the confession of a true Christian.

Does this criticism of Wright hold water?

I believe Wright’s sympathetic statements about Borg’s Christianity are understandable to anyone who has read Borg. If anyone in the business of denying the validity of the New Testament and the physical resurrection of Jesus could ever convince you that they are passionate about Jesus as a spiritual model and “God” for them, Borg would be the person. Many evangelicals might wish that Borg would be a hostile skeptic and Wright had the personality of various blogging pit-bulls, but it isn’t going to be. Both men have respect for one another’s scholarship and sincere faith. That Wright would err- and it is an error, no doubt, and a muddled one at that- in pronouncing Borg some kind of Christian doesn’t surprise me. (Were the gnostics some kind of Christians? Are there “unsaved” Christians?)

Wright is frequently a bit over the top with his personal preferences and applications. Of course, so are many significant persons in the history of Christianity. Luther comes to mind. Wright is a historian and a New Testament scholar. His application of his scholarship is not guaranteed to be brilliant, and is often predictably a bit loosey goosey.

The judgement of charity, however, will correct the error, forgive Wright and not denounce Wright as eliminating the resurrection from the Apostle’s Creed. Wright is a brother. His inclusion of Borg as a brother is his own pronouncement, not his recommendation to the church, and I am sure he is quite aware of that difference.

Is there any merit to Wright’s acceptance of Borg as a Christian?

I dialogue with a lot of students who are at unusual places in their own faith journeys. There are many who are unconvinced of the resurrection, but who have some belief in Jesus as a model or teacher. I am consistent and quick to tell them that the Bible specifies that true faith recognized that “God raised him from the dead.” I urge them to remember that baptism is a profession of faith that employs the resurrection as its primary image.

I do not, however, tell them that they are on the wrong path. I make it clear they have not followed the path to the place the New Testament path of faith rests, i.e. in the completed work of the resurrected, glorified mediator. I would not call them believers. I would not call them crass unbelievers either. They have not arrived at true faith, but they have not honestly taken the New Testament teaching about Jesus as the truth to be believed. I would answer as Paul did: What they worship in ignorance, I will proclaim to them.

A major part of Borg’s testimony of his own journey is the narrative of his years in the Lutheran Church. He eventually leaves the church as a skeptic, but then returns as a “believer” in Jesus as he understands him via scholarship and his own spirituality. If one is relating to Borg as a friend, saying “You are not a Christian” is going to mean rejecting not simply Borg’s theology, but his entire journey. I’m not surprised that Wright, a friend and one who hopes to influence Borg back to resurrection faith, errs on the side of acceptance. (Remember, this is the mainlines. It’s a bit weird out there.)

In the end, I Corinthians 15:14 and I Corinthians 15:17 are clear: If Christ is not raised, it all comes tumbling down. The resurrection is of first importance. The absence of the resurrection isn’t being muddled; it’s being wrong. That’s serious, and Wright should make some signal that even in the case of a good friend, he’s clear on the place of the resurrection in history AND in personal faith.

Marcus Borg’s faith is his own personal journey. If I were examining him for baptism, his answers on the resurrection wouldn’t pass my understanding of the New Testament. But if we were working together, I would treat him as one with whom I had a lot in common. Not faith in the resurrection or the fullness of the New Testament’s Gospel, but I would plead with him as a friend, not attack him as an enemy.

Most of the Catholic-bashing fundamentalists I know will, when behind closed doors, admit to believing some Catholics are saved; Mary, rosaries and all. They may be right or wrong. My Baptist upbringing taught that once saved, always saved; so if Borg was ever saved, he still is. That might be right or wrong. I don’t dispense salvation. Neither does N.T. Wright. God gets the last call. Borg is way off base from the N.T. Testament, but Wright errs in hope. If God values friendship as well as truth, there might be some hope for Wright and Borg after all.

Comments

  1. IM, a very well considered piece, which probably means it will get you in a lot of trouble with the usual suspects. 🙂 I would add a couple of points:

    (1) Wright is now a COE Bishop, just 2 or 3 spots behind the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is, at least in England, conwidered part of the Evngelical wing of the Church. As a Bishop, though, he has to be concerned with trying to hold together the broad Church, which includes others like him, some even more conservative, like Stott, liberals like Rowan Williams, and folks who see everything through a Catholic lens, hoping one day for reunion with Rome. Borg’s statement, “I think the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but I have no idea if it involves anything happening to his corpse” is probably as far as many COE liberals, including Williams, would go. What is Wright supposed to do? Well, I guess some would say ” find another church.” Wright, however, has passionately spoken of the unique role of the COE in Great Britain, and the world (particularly in the third world) and isn’t going to leave. He loves his Church, and if God didn’t have a way to use imperfect people and institutions for good, we’d be in a bigger mess than we already are.

    (2) To me, Borg’s statement that quoted above puts him close to the line, but I would rule him in. I think Wright comes as close as you possibly can to “proving” that the resurrection was physical as opposed to some psychological delusion, but he doesn’t claim that the Christ the NT witnesses saw was identical to the pre-crucifixion Christ. There is some disconnect. So, how far is Borg from Wright? However you answer that, Borg is far, far removed from other leading Jesus Seminar types like Fink. I think you imply that, but most of Wright’s critics have no idea of the hyper skepticism that prevails in most religious studies departments and too many seminaries. I had “Christian” religious studies professors who would make Borg look like a raving fundamentalist.

    (3) Borg’s statement “He wanted to tell a story about how besotted God is with us. One would even tell that story that God was willing to give up that which was most precious to God, namely God’s only son, for our sake. And so it becomes a story of the divine lover pursuing us as the beloved of God.” shows me that he might not get it all, but he sure gets a lot of it. Just to drive some folks completley around the bend, that is a powerful and convincing theme of Don Miller’s “Searching for God Knows What.”

  2. If one is relating to Borg as a friend, saying “You are not a Christian” is going to mean rejecting not simply Borg’s theology, but his entire journey. I’m not surprised that Wright, a friend and one who hopes to influence Borg back to resurrection faith, errs on the side of acceptance.

    Amen. It certainly sounds from what your saying that Borg is on a trajectory that has a good chance of bringing him back to orthodoxy.

    I have friends about whom I have had concerns in the past over their theological views, and have sometimes wondered if I ought to confront them more bluntly as having disqualified themselves as “true Christians” by holding such views. But instead I’ve taken opportunities where available to challenge those views and point them to biblical teaching, and prayed for them to come into a fuller understanding of the truth. It’s then wonderful to see, in some cases, that they move gradually into a more orthodox position in which I have very good hopes for their spiritual state. Would that have happened if I’d started hurling anathemas at them?

    I’m not saying all this to suggest that my approach here has been the right one – it’s largely been motivated by my personal cowardice about being direct with people on spiritual matters, the same cowardice that makes me a hopeless evangelist/apologist for the faith, rather than by any “pastoral” wisdom – just that it is one reason for my being sympathetic towards Wright and willing to give him a pass on this one.

    With the Da Vinci Code etc I sometimes find myself thinking, “There are so many *good* reasons to doubt or reject Christianity – why bother with the sort of really *lame* reasons served up by Dan Brown?”. In the same way, there are so many good reasons to disagree with NT Wright on all sorts of issues – why waste time and effort on froth like this interview?

  3. JohnB5200 says:

    Michael,

    You raise an interseting aside at the end of your post.

    If once saved, always saved is true, and I think it is, can someone be saved, believe in the resurrection, then later deny the resurrection? Would not the orthodox answer be that they were never actually saved? Or, if they still are saved, what does that say about how much can we change our minds? About the resurrrection? The divinity of Christ?

    I have sometimes wondered if this type of situation is the Achilles Heel of OSAS? Of course, what would this say about God’s perfect foreknowledge?

  4. Thank you for the charitable post. Would that our TR brethern (and sistren, too) practice a little more charity and a little less judgement.

    But oh the weight they must carry correcting every misplaced jot and tittle of those of us who muddle through our Christian life – seeing through a glass, darkly, as it were – and occasionally stumbling, as we bump into things.

    How sad for them that the light from Calvin’s pen only seems to perfectly illuminate God’s truth for some of us. Do they pray for those of us less enlightened, I wonder?

  5. “Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately.”

    But can you ‘believe in him passionately’ with one side of your mouth and deny His very words about Himself with the other? I certainly pray this gentleman changes his beliefs. One day, whether he believes it or not, he’ll stand face to face with the Resurrected Lord.

  6. Sure. But Borg doesn’t share our view of the New Testament. He doesn’t believe they reflect history, but faith. It’s fine to assert the superiority of our view, but he doesn’t buy our view. He doesn’t love our Jesus. He loves HIS Jesus. Do you think Schweitzer wasn’t a passionate follower of an unresurrected Jesus, as he understood him?

    You can fault anyone for being a heretic who doesn’t share your view of scripture. But what’s the point? I make a pretty bad Muslim. Allah’s really going to get me one of these days.

  7. That’ is the point. It’s not a matter of differing with my view of Scripture. It’s a matter of saying you believe in Jesus but not what Jesus said (not my interpretation of what he said, that’s a different matter).

    The resurrection is core to belief in Christ. Otherwise, it’s like saying you believe in Joan Rivers, but you don’t believe she really had plastic surgery.

  8. UGADAWG47 says:

    It is clear that Borg does not believe in the Jesus of the New Testament. The question is, “Is the Jesus of the New Testament the real Jesus?” I think Wright, as well as many others, have done a good job in presenting an affirmative answer to that question. We have a case here of people starting off from two different presuppositions. One that affirms the reliability of the New Testament narratives and one that denies it. Reaching out to those who deny the reliability of the NT narratives is going to require more work and effort on the part of evangelicals than just saying “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for you life.” It well may require some intellectual effort, which is lacking in much of evangelicalism today because we want “our best purpose driven life now.” Many of us prefer more to be comforted than to be challenged. There are many in the church who have no idea how to defend the accuracy of the New Testament. I think it is time to start learning.

  9. UGADAWG47:

    VERY well said!!

  10. What’s the point of loving and believing passionately in a DEAD Jesus? You might as well as just pick any dead person to be passionate about. The whole point of believing in Jesus is because He’s ALIVE and we will have the opportunity to enjoy Him and glorify Him forever. I’m no Borg or Wright enthusiast … but some things are just common sense.

  11. The majority of people stirred up over this seem remarkably unaware that there are thousands of people who have admiration, etc for a dead or non-Christian Jesus. If all our response to Borg is “Gee. I can’t believe you aren’t an evangelical Christian. Can’t you read the Bible? Duh!” we aren’t listening. Borg doesn’t read the Bible as literally true. He’s like thousands of liberals who see Jesus as admirable, even one about whom a person could be passionate, but not one who was physically raised from the dead.

    Why is this odd? I mean students every week who admire Jesus but don’t believe in the resurrection.

    And as to “what’s the point?” aren’t you just saying “What’s the point of not being an evangelical Bible believer?” Well…ask the millions of people who aren’t! 🙂

  12. I’m not sure I fit the category of one “remarkably unaware” of the thousands of people admiring a dead Jesus. I do fit the categaory of one shocked at the idea that faith in a dead Jesus is a viable, distinctively Christian faith. Your post affirms this as your view as well (i.e., “if Christ is not raised, it all comes tumbling down.”).

    But Borg’s quote from the PBS documentary is so confusing, I can’t tell WHAT he believes about a resurrection. “I think the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but I have no idea if it involves anything happening to his corpse … (it) doesn’t matter because the central meaning of the Easter experience or the resurrection of Jesus is that His followers continue to experience Him as a living reality, a living presence after His death.” As best I can tell, he agrees there was something odd going on, but is not satisfied with the NT passages that seem to go out of their way to affirm the bodily aspect of the resurrection. That’s for another post at another time.

    Yet when I ask “what’s the point?” I am asking what kind of Christian faith … a faith of hope and new life … does passion for a dead Jesus give you? I understand it can give you zeal for life here, in the same way one might live for the teaching of Karl Barth or Jonathan Edwards. But there is no HOPE in that kind of admiration because they are dead. I suppose Borg might say something like, “There was a resurrection; it just wasn’t a bodily resurrection.” Can there be a Christian faith and hope in that kind of resurrection?

    So, it’s not odd to me that Borg and others believe this. It’s odd to me that they have hope … and it would be even more odd to me that they have hope in a dead Jesus, unless they think a non-bodily resurrection can also bring the same kind of Christian hope those of us who profess a bodily resurrection brings.

    I would be interested to read anything Borg has on Lazarus in John 11. John is relentless in his writing to make it a bodily resurrection.

  13. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    My opinion, for what little it’s worth, is that Wright’s call seems unfortunate primarily for his position as bishop. Obviously if he weren’t a bishop and hadn’t just written a massive volume on the resurrection no one would give a rip what he thinks about the professed Christianity of Marcus Borg. So even if I feel Wright made a bad call respective to his public position this call has significance on account of the celebrity of the two people involved. If you want to think your drunk womanizing cousin might still be a Christian or your atheist aunt isn’t completely atheist and still, deep down, believes in the risen Jesus then people aren’t going to rip you up and down the blogosphere. There are going to be Christians who think Bono, for instance, must be or must not be a Christian based solely on whether or not they WANT him to be. This is basically just the same error they’re attributing to Wright and there are passages in Scripture warning us about correcting people in a way that we can avoid falling into the same error.

    And on the family subject, I know of any number of people who aren’t bishops, pastors, or priests, who hope that friends and family are really christians despite any evidence that they don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead. So while I personally find Wright’s equivocation unfortunate given his role as leader I think that if we’re going to scold him in cyberspace we should remember how susceptible we are to the exact same problem.

  14. Michael, this is one of the best posts on the topic that I’ve read.

    I’m quite surprised at how quickly some folk have jumped on Wright, almost as if he himself is denying the resurrection. If we are at all thankful for the defence that his work has given to orthodox Christianity (explicitly in the area of the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection), I would expect us to consider his words – and our response – a little more carefully.

    Nice one.

  15. I wonder if C. S. Lewis’ remarks in the beginning of Mere Christianity might apply here. Particularly how when words have subjective definitions they lose their meaning. Gentleman used to mean landowner – now it means “good” person, which is redundant because we already had words like “good”.

    Perhaps it would be better to call Borg a confused and mistaken Christian, or a bad Christian, or even a heterodoxical or heretical Christian, than to quibble over whether he technically counts as a Christian.