January 22, 2015

Marcus Borg and the sometimes theological wrongness of liberal Christianity

I can agree with a liberal critical scholar of Christianity like the just-deceased Marcus Borg, when he, or others like him, note that early Christianity (by early, I mean, before 200 CE) had nowhere near one agreed-upon reason as for why Jesus was crucified. And, beyond that, of course, had no one agreed-upon understanding of Jesus' metaphysical relationship to god, and how such relationship connected to his crucifixion.

However, sometimes, the likes of Borg doth critically protest too much. Like this:
“The notion of Jesus’ death as a substitute for our sins was not found in the first 1000 years of Christianity.”


Although it does not have a line-for-line spelling out, I'd argue that, say, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed does:

he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate
Now, it's true that, technically, it doesn't say why he was crucified.

In that point of the Creed, that is.

It makes it pretty clear, earlier on:

who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven
Our salvation from "what"? Erm, sin? 

And, how? Crucifixion.

OK, there, we're at least at the point of having to discuss theories of why he was crucified. And, I think any reasonably neutral mind, knowing the Tanakh/Old Testament sacrificial system, would think that the idea of a penalty-paying death, an "atonement," is a reasonable interpretation of the theology of that creed.

And, of course, that's long before the end of the first 1,000 years of Christianity.

The only question is, who was holding the theological bank ledger of guilt? To whom was this penalty-paying death due/

Now, one could read that as being described by the "ransom" theory of atonement, discussed here at Wikipedia with other atonement theories, and call Borg technically right, in noting that it wasn't until Anselm that a full-blown atonement theory was articulated.

However, as far as the "why Jesus had to die," there's no significant difference between the "ransom" and "substitute" theories. Certainly not, for the average Christian layperson.

As Wikipedia notes, both theories are grounded on the idea of human sinfulness causing collective human indebtedness; the only difference is, is that difference owed to Yahweh or Satan? And, the "ransom" view goes back to Irenaeus, who technically is pre-200.

No, actually, it goes back to two of the three Synoptics. Here's Matthew 20:28, which is paralleled by Mark 10:45:

Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Again, the Gospeler doesn't say to whom Jesus' life was a ransom, but he does say that it was a ransom, right down to the word!

So Borg is half right — if read narrowly, and with a connotative understanding of "substitute" only.

But, in reality, he's wrong.

Things like this were key to why, when I was leaving the conservative wing of Lutheranism, I realized I couldn't stop at the liberal wing.

Sure, the Borgs of the world may be right, even if we don't go all the way to John Crossan territory, in that Jesus was "actually" a Jewish social reform leader, and maybe even a social resistance leader.

But, a guy named Paul "hijacked" that idea, if you want to put it bluntly. And, by the time of Irenaeus, the majority of Christians was trying to work out what Jesus death meant in light of Paul first, Synoptic Gospels second, and Gospel of John third (albeit, perhaps it first in certain threads of what became Eastern Orthodoxy). 

By Constantinople, the idea of Jesus' death as a penalty payment of some sort, and worth infinite value because he was also infinite God, was the "orthodox" view. So, it was seen as a payment to Satan rather than to God; it was still a payment.

And, when people think, as Christian laypeople, about "substitution" or "atonement," they're thinking first about the payment. It's only much lower, if at all, if they're asking the "to whom" question.

Recognizing that liberal Christianity couldn't fully deal with the rise of Christianity if Jesus were just a social reform leader, and that it didn't deal so well with the Pauline "hijacking," either, is part of why I moved on past liberal Christianity. 

To take Acts 15 as representative of movements, not individuals: Why did Paul win (with a sidebar from John), Peter wind up semi-incorporated into Paul, and James and his Ebionites sidelined? We know that latter happened, and we suspect (rogue interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls aside) that it happened because of the rise of Paul, and even more a second rise along with the Pastoral Epistles.

But, why that second rise? There have been, after all, a lot more "failed" religions than "successful" ones.

If Jesus as social crusader was that successful, why did Paul feel the need to hijack this idea of Christianity? And, if it were not, why did he think this was the best budding away from the rootstock of Judaism into which to graft (punning on Romans) his take on Jesus?

Liberal Christianity, in its academic version, it seems tries to tap-dance around the Pauline success at times, and thus tap-dance around his basic doctrines, and then their interpretations from Irenaeus on to the Council of Constantinople.

It wasn't the only reason, but it was a reason.


This statement by Borg, from that same link:
Jesus matters for Christians because he was for us the decisive disclosure of God.
Ahh, process or depth theology. Shouldn't it be capitalized as "Decisive Disclosure," like "Ground of Being"? What does that even mean? 

In reality, not a lot.

This is also why, in both critical and conservative Christianity, systematic theology is supposed to be a separate field from exegesis.

None of this is to deny that Borg was among scholars who has pushed for reinterpreting Jesus as a crusader for social reform, and just what he was challenging, including looking at Jesus' parables and sayings in a new, fresh light.

In that sense, yes, maybe he did get a lot of people to look at Jesus again for the first time, as noted here.

But, he never explained how the Jesus as perhaps accurately construed by the Jesus Seminar got trumped by Jesus the dying-rising Savior God.

That said, this is not the first time I've talked about liberal Christianity's wrongness. In the past, I mentioned that liberal Christianity, as well as even secularists, were wrong in claiming there's nothing outrightly anti-gay in the Old Testament, and making an even stronger claim to that end about the New Testament.

Final note. For anybody who claims there's one "pure" version of any or all of the great global religions, this blog post shows just how wrong you are about Christianity.

For Islam, considering the Sunni-Shi'ite split pretty much hardened by 75 years after Muhammad's death, you're wrong there.

And in Buddhism, assuming a historical Siddhartha Gautama, the forerunner of the Theravada-Mahayana split had started within a century of his death.

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