Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Marcus Borg's message

Last night at a gathering, Marcus Borg said (twice), “Jesus trumps the Bible.”

This is an extraordinarily irresponsible thing for a scholar and leader in the church to say. It can’t be said often enough: we have no access to knowledge of Jesus except through the Bible and its interpretation. There is no record of him outside the Bible until years after his death. The only way to understanding who he was is through the witness of the New Testament apostles. Therefore to suggest that he “trumps the Bible” is to suggest that we can cut loose from the Scriptures and construct a Jesus according to the perspectives of our own time. It has been shown over and over again that attempts to construct a “historical Jesus” or “real Jesus” apart from the faith-based witness of Scripture end in failure because such attempts are grounded, not in the text, but in the bias of those who undertake them.

Borg talks constantly of the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus.” Again, this often-heard distinction is based on a false assumption. We have no access to the pre-Easter Jesus. Every single word of testimony to him in the New Testament is refracted through the Resurrection. Therefore, any attempt to reconstruct a Jesus before anyone knew he would be raised from the dead are doomed to fail, because such projects, again, will always reflect the personal agenda of the interpreter.

Like it or not, therefore, we must rely upon the Scripture as our only witness to Jesus. There is no other witness. (see note 1) In all of Borg’s remarks last night, he scarcely alluded to the Bible. His passion, he said, was “to get rid of stumbling blocks like ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ literalism.” This was not a message directed to anyone in his audience, since there was no literalist present (unless he would count yours truly as a “soft” literalist—he probably would). The fact is that very few people in his audience read or study the Bible at all, whether literally or not. This is one of the greatest obstacles in the path of the church today.

Borg’s use of the term “stumbling block” (Greek skandalon—offense, hindrance, obstacle, cause of ruin) to denote the attitudes he wants to remove was interesting. The only stumbling blocks in the New Testament are 1) Jesus himself, and 2) the gospel message about Jesus. He is referred to many times as the stumbling block or “stone of stumbling.” He himself is the one who causes offense. (see note 2)

The work of the church to understand and receive the Lord Jesus Christ is continually to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, and to debate and discuss its meaning in every generation—through preaching, teaching, and small-group Bible studies. This has always been and always will be our responsibility, our privilege, and our unique access to the gifts of God through his “living and active” Word (Hebrews 4:12).

Footnote 1: Of course the living witness of Christians is essential. We serve a living Lord, not an inert book. But since Jesus is himself the Word of God, the link between his living presence and the verbal testimony is indissoluble.
Footnote 2: Borg’s presentation of Jesus seems sometimes indistinguishable from a sentimental reconstruction of St. Francis, whom he seems to regard as equal to Christ himself. Most churchgoers know almost nothing about St. Francis except that he blessed animals. His commitment to a life of poverty and chastity does not seem to have had any impact on those who put statues of him in their gardens.