UPDATE: 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.
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.