n this link we will cover the controversies within Christianity surrounding what its scholars term the historicity of Jesus Christ. In short, Christian scholars are attempting to determine which parts of the New Testament truly describe Jesus, the man, a real figure of history, and which parts fall under the category sometimes referred to as the pious embellishments of the Gospel writers.
Tthe current debate within Christianity
parallels the threats coming from outside Christianity to at least three of
the following doctrines:
1. That Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of mankind
2. That Jesus Christ rose from the dead as a sign of his power over death in his capacity as the God, the Son
3. That Jesus Christ ascended into heaven
4. That Jesus Christ will return in the last days to set up the long-awaited Christian Kingdom of God
The debate over Jesus as a simple human being versus Jesus as the Son of God, or God Himself, is occurring both inside and outside of Christianity. The commonality between the debates inside and the debates outside of Christianity is that both are rooted in the subject of Jesus’ divinity or lack thereof.
John Shelby Spong, otherwise known as Jack Spong, is a controversial Episcopalian priest.. Spong and other Christian revisionist scholars are characterized by mainstream Christians as radicals.
Spong’s 1998 book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, is extremely popular. Spong’s views are fairly well summarized in the following quotes. (To read his entire call for a new Reformation of the Church, click here).
“The [Protestant] Reformation was not an attempt to reformulate the Christian faith for a new era. It was rather a battle over issues of Church order. The time had not arrived in which Christians would be required to rethink the basic and identifying marks of Christianity itself.”
Then he goes on to present his call for a Reformation of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity (emphasis is ours):
“It is my conviction that such a moment is facing the Christian world today. The very heart and soul of Christianity will be the content of this reformation. The debate which has been building for centuries has now erupted into public view. All the past ecclesiastical efforts to keep it at bay or deny its reality have surely failed and will continue to do so. The need for a new theological reformation began when Copernicus and Galileo removed this planet from its previous supposed location at the center of the universe, where human life was thought to bask under the constant attention of a humanly defined parental deity. That revolution in thought produced an angle of vision radically different from the one in which the Bible was written and through which the primary theological tenets of the Christian faith were formed...”
“My sense is that history has come to a point where only one thing will save this venerable faith tradition at this critical time in Christian history, and that is a new Reformation far more radical than Christianity has ever before known and that this Reformation must deal with the very substance of that faith. This Reformation will recognize that the pre-modern concepts in which Christianity has traditionally been carried will never again speak to the post-modern world we now inhabit. This Reformation will be about the very life and death of Christianity. Because it goes to the heart of how Christianity is to be understood, it will dwarf in intensity the Reformation of the 16th century. It will not be concerned about authority, ecclesiastical polity, valid ordinations and valid sacraments. It will be rather a Reformation that will examine the very nature of the Christian faith itself. It will ask whether or not this ancient religious system can be refocused and re-articulated so as to continue living in this increasingly non-religious world...”
“I will publish this challenge to Christianity in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognized Christian leaders of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically. The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:
1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation [from death] occurring inside human history.
8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.”
The next example comes from the Daily News, a British newspaper:
“More than half of England’s Anglican Bishops say that Christians are not obliged to believe that Jesus Christ was God, according to a survey published today. The poll of 31 of England’s 39 bishops shows that many of them think that Christ’s miracles, the virgin birth and the resurrection might not have happened exactly as described in the Bible. Only 11 of the bishops insisted that Christians must regard Christ as both God and man, while 19 said it was sufficient to regard Jesus as ‘God’s supreme agent’”
Even Christian clerics and scholars within the powerful sister-church of the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, have been challenging the traditional Christian doctrines. Professor Thomas Sheehan is considered a brilliant scholar of Catholicism/Christianity. He views Jesus Christ as a prophet of God who came to end religion, not create religious institutions. Dr. Sheehan, who wrote the book, The First Coming, said the following at a public, 1987 colloquium in Chicago:
“Most Catholics were taught that the Gospels provided something like that, something like a film, a literal historical record of what Jesus actually said and did from his birth in Bethlehem, to his preaching, crucifixion, Resurrection, and ascension into the clouds.
“But not any more. Nowadays in an academic setting like this, no one is scandalized when Roman Catholic biblical scholars tell them that Jesus was probably not born in Bethlehem, was not visited by three wise men, did not get lost in the temple, that he did not say that he was God, that he did not physically come back to life on Easter Sunday morning three days after he died, and that his dramatic ascension into heaven, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, was not an historical event.” (To read the full text of Sheehan’s response, click here)
Sheehan says (emphasis ours):
“Fifth, who did Jesus claim to be? Negatively, we may say with certainty, that he made no claims to be God’s son. Very few Gospel sayings in which Jesus calls himself the Son have much chance of being authentic. The only one which we may be sure of is the one where he says, ‘I do not know anything about the end of the world.’”
“What historical data, since that is what we are looking for, do we have about Easter Sunday? What about the Resurrection? Negatively, we must say that the Gospel narratives of Easter are not records of historical events...”
“…The word ‘resurrection’ is metaphoric. The Greek verb to resurrect someone means to wake them up from sleep. Transposed in the New Testament, resurrection means to awaken someone from the sleep of death, the ultimate night, and to bring them into the day of the Lord. Now that is not an event in space and time. It does not mean coming back to life like Lazarus. Rather, it means that who you are is definitely rescued by God and validated in his presence, with no commitment at all to the preternatural physics of how that happened.”
Regarding the purpose of Jesus’ advent, Sheehan states:
“In any case, the parousia or definitive coming of God among humankind, which Jesus proclaimed, had already begun, according to him. Now this does in fact mean the end of religious mediation, because it means the fulfillment and therefore surpassing of religion with the presence of God.
“‘The bridegroom is with them,’ we read in Mark. The phrase, ‘the end of religion,’ affirms the perfecting of the human relation to God in an intimacy and an immediacy that always remains mystery. That is why Saint John can say, again in the Book of Revelation, ‘I saw no temple in the city, because the Lord God and the Lamb are its temple.’ That I maintain was the passionate excitement of Jesus’ message: not more religion, or a different religion, or a better religion, or the true and perfect religion, but no religion. In the Kingdom of heaven, there are no sacraments, no priests, no Scriptures, no rituals, no hierarchy, no Codes of Canon Law.”
Sheehan openly admits that Christian scholars have hidden this opinion regarding Christ as human, Christ as prophet, from the ordinary Christians (the laity), and he called it a scandal:
“Nonetheless, there is a scandal about Catholic exegesis, a threefold scandal, I think. First of all, it is a scandal that so little of this exegetical information has reached down to the laity in the pews. Just the other day, believe it or not, one of my colleagues, one of the brightest members of the faculty, I think, told me and allowed me to tell you that up until very recently, he actually thought that for Christians the Resurrection of Jesus meant that he came back to life in the sense of being reanimated and resuscitated on Easter Sunday morning.
“A second and greater scandal is that the news apparently has not reached even some Catholic theologians, so that at some universities (not at Loyola) they still teach pre-Copernican Theology courses that insist on the historicity of the events described in the Easter narratives, or otherwise fudge the matter a bit.”
“Make no mistake: there is widespread and passionate interest in this issue, even among those uninitiated in the higher mysteries of gospel scholarship. The religious establishment has not allowed the intelligence of high scholarship to pass through pastors and priests to a hungry laity, and the radio and TV counterparts of educated clergy have traded in platitudes and pieties and played on the ignorance of the uninformed. A rude and rancorous awakening lies ahead.”
“If he [Jesus] were to return today, as he was alive once, would he recognize in Christianity the fulfillment of his message? I think the answer is, ‘No.’ Not as an institution—who wants to do away with the institution? Not I. But I am talking about the christological affirmations”
“There are many interpretations of the meaning of Jesus. There are official Roman Catholic interpretations, based not simply on historical data in the New Testament, but on two thousand years of official teaching, official statements, and development of doctrine. There are also Protestant and Jewish and Islamic interpretations, and yet even Marxist ones. Jesus is now a public text disseminated into a plurality of interpretations.”
So, in summary, we have presented three examples—all current—from
three different Christian congregations: the Episcopalians (John Shelby Spong
), the Catholics (Dr. Thomas Sheehan
), and the bishops of the Anglican church. This demonstrates that, at this very
moment in history, there exists a huge struggle within Christianity, and there
is no longer unanimity of opinion regarding the nature of Jesus Christ or the
fundamental teachings of Christianity. (For more elaboration, see Saving