Contemporary Challenges to Jesus (3 of 3)
Dr. Mark Bailey: Welcome to DTS Dialogue: Issues of God in Culture. I am your host Dr. Mark Bailey and I have the privilege of serving as president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Today we have the opportunity to discuss contemporary challenges to the biblical accounts of Jesus.
Now what are some of the other alternative forms of religious life in the first few centuries, besides Gnosticism that would relate to some of these questions we have been raising?
Dr. Darrell Bock: Well you do have what you generally call Docetism, which is the idea that Jesus appeared to be human but really was divine. So one of the more exaggerated forms of this is Jesus walks on the beach and he doesn't leave any sand prints in the sand, which is pretty hard to do. If you have ever walked in sand, you are sinking if you have any weight. So that's pretty impressive. So that's certainly one view that's out there.
You also have the Ebionites who were Jewish Christians who didn't really believe in the deity of Christ and tried to be as absolutely Jewish as they could. And as far as I know, they are the only group -- and this is important -- they are the only group in the first few centuries who tried to argue that Jesus wasn't a transcendent figure of some kind.
That's interesting because critics today who use this material, want to see a kind of evolutionary development in the understanding of Jesus that takes him from being a human figure in his own teaching and in his own mind, with the early church putting on all the transcendence on top of him coming later.
Well, the bulk of the movements that grew out of Christianity didn't go there. I mean, only the Ebionites and the reason that the Ebionites didn't go there is because they were excessively attached to the Shema, that there is only one God. And so they couldn't reconcile in their minds how Jesus could be God and the God of Israel could be God at the same time. So that's what prevented them from it.
But everybody else -- everybody else saw a transcendent Jesus who responded to him. And so to ask that question of what is around Jesus is important because in all that variety, everyone is recognizing he is transcendent. The debate becomes well what kind of a transcendent figure is he?
Mark: In Luke's record of the life of Christ, in his growth statement where he says that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature in favor with God and man, there is almost an anticipation of many of the arguments against either the humanity or the deity of Christ.
It's almost an anticipation of what's going to get challenged. Could he grow in knowledge? Did he really become human and did he grow in what he knew? At the same time, did he have a physical body? And so those, whether it is Apollinarianism, the Ebionites that you mentioned, Gnostics -- Luke really anticipated with that statement and they wrestled with how do you put all of that together.
Darrell: And it takes centuries to sort that all out because what happened is is that there were different permutations on the table about how exactly is the human related to the divine. I think in fact we don't entirely understand that today. There is an element of mystery when the divine touches the human so closely that we can't entirely explain.
Now we have tried to articulate it theologically in a way that gives some level of clarity. But you never completely break through the mystery aspect of the person of Jesus Christ. He is that deep.
Mark: Let me ask a more methodological, practical question. What's the advantage of these kinds of issues as opposed to the disadvantages that we often think with regard to Christianity? What kind of advantages does this popular program like the Discovery Channel, like The Da Vinci Code, even like the Passion of the Christ film, what advantage does this give us as believers to speak into our current culture? Stephen?
Dr. Stephen Bramer: I'll tell you what. Our society is talking about Jesus. And we can expect almost every Easter and almost every Christmas for there to be some special on television that is going to cause people to start talking about our Savior. And it gives us the opportunity to engage them in conversation, to bring them to the Scriptures.
And I think another thing it does is it causes a little bit of hesitation among some believers who don't really know the Word when they hear some of these things and it drives them to a better Bible study. They want to get in. They really do want to know one.
So it gives us the opportunity both to reach outside the Church and it gives us the opportunity challenge our people in the Church and get some good answers so when they are standing around the water cooler and someone mentions, "What's so special about the Jesus tomb?" that they really have something to say and they can speak intelligently to the person and direct them to the Scriptures.
Mark: Let me ask each of you one question before our final question. Stephen, if you could say something to our pastors who are listening to this, those who are working with believers in a church context within the church, in the light of what we have just talked about, in the light of what you have just said, what would you encourage those pastors to do to help equip their people for these kinds of conversations?
Stephen: I think pastors need to make sure their people are in the Word of God. But they also need to be reading the newspaper and watching the documentaries and bringing that into the conversation. Not so that the people in church become expert in all of these, but so they are not caught with their mouth open wondering, "Does the Scripture have anything to say to it?"
In class I often practice what I call the inoculation approach -- and I don't want to have it misunderstood -- but I want to speak to the students and bring these conversations to the students so that when they get out of seminary they're not saying, "Well, this was never discussed at DTS."
Now I don't have time in class to do a full-blown exposition of all of these. And I think pastors can't spend their whole sermon talking about the documentary. But I think by bringing it into the sermon and by bringing it into their Bible studies, there is a proper application and a Scripture to the culture of the day. And Christians then come to understand that there is something true about Scripture and that we don't need to be embarrassed about it.
God can defend himself and his Word is true.
Mark: Dwight L. Moody used to have a statement that the way that you show that a stick is crooked is not to just examine the crookedness of the stick but to lay a straight stick alongside of it. And I think having the canon of Scripture, the rule of Scripture, well laid out and well taught and well memorized and well studied, well rehearsed and well preached is one of the best ways to prepare believers to know what isn't biblical in what seems to be a bit crooked from that straight.
Darrell, you bring to our conversation and incredible expertise in interfacing with the media those outside the church. What advice would you have for our front-line people, not at the church community but those Christians who then leave that church community and find themselves in much more neutral and at times even controversial situations? How do you help prepare that person for conversations at the water cooler?
Darrell: Well, it's a complementary approach to what Steve was suggesting. On the one hand you want to have the word. But on the other hand you want to have the -- you want to understand the world to which that Word spoke and to which the Word speaks.
And that means having a little bit of understanding about how other people put this kind of package together so that you can then take a look at that. And so it means sometimes saying, "OK, if I didn't believe that the Bible is the Word of God, OK, how would I think about this?" And then think through that scenario. And actually I think church leaders need to help people do this.
You know, Jesus has kind of come into primetime, and we need to help people think through how Jesus is being presented in primetime, and what the mindset is often times in primetime, and then ask ourselves how do we help people come from where they are to appreciate the uniqueness of Jesus?
There's a part of the experience of Jesus that is unprecedented. You're asking people to think completely differently about Him than you do any other human being you've ever encountered, or will ever encounter. So it is an unusual category. Let's acknowledge that at the start. Then, let's ask how do we bring people along to see that?
Sometimes this background information, this little touch of history, and most pastors are very fascinated with history. That's part of what's pulled them in to doing what they do. That will help them to give a context for what Jesus is saying, and how what Jesus is saying is unusual, and even the ancient people of the time who encountered him recognized that what Jesus was saying was a little bit unusual.
So then you come into the media situation and you're able -- or in the water cooler situation -- and someone raises the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Judas, or Gnostic Christianity or whatever -- what I call conversation stoppers, if you don't know anything about it. You're talking about Jesus, they throw it out, "What about those gospels that never made it into the Bible that possibly should have?" You know. [mimics brakes sound] end of discussion, because you don't know anything about it.
On the other hand, if you know a little something about Gnostic Christianity, it doesn't need to be much, you're able to then engage. I remember a conversation I had with a dear old man at Elmbrook College, in Illinois. I had just given a speech on the historical Jesus, and he came up to me and was saying, "These Gnostic gospels are really fascinating. They're great. Did you know they elevate the role of women?" I looked at him, and I said, "Have you ever read the Gospel of Thomas?" And he said, "Well yeah, I've glanced at it."
I said, "Do you know about the Gospel of Thomas saying in 1:14?" He said, "No." I said, "Well, in that text, Jesus says that unless a female becomes a male, she cannot enter into the kingdom of God. How pro-female is that text?" He looked at me, and kind of chuckled, and said, "Does it really say that?" I said, "Yeah, it really says that."
Well that wasn't a conversation stopper; that was a conversation turner. And our conversation changed direction as a result of that. That's just knowing one little piece of material, a strategic piece of material. And if you know where the key points are, and if pastors can find where the key points are, they can help their people redirect these conversations without shaking a finger at someone because a lot of people who are asking these questions are asking them very honestly, very sincerely.
The questions need to be treated with some level of respect, because all they're doing is parroting what they're hearing out there in the culture, that's coming from people who often are well documented as being scholars, or whatever. So they have no reason to think anything differently than what they're asking in many ways.
Mark: Pastors need to know, people need to know. As a final question, for both of you, what would be some resources that you would suggest for someone that wants to wrestle with these contemporary issues of Christianity?
Stephen: There's a number of internet sites, and I think Bible.org is just one of the best ones. You can go there. Darrell has a blog on Bible.org, as well as other material on there. Probe Ministries, here from Dallas, has a good website that you can go to. Usually when you go to a view of those "solid ones", they have links to other places. That gets you the latest, up-to-date information.
If you wait for the book to come out, it's usually six months or a year later, and your people are asking the question this Sunday, not six months from now. So to go to a couple of these websites that you can trust and are edited websites, I think are extremely helpful.
Darrell: I think this is an example of where things have changed. When the tomb thing came out, I was traveling the country at one point, people would come up to me and say, "What book can I read to get up to speed on this?" To which the answer is, "You can't read a book to get up to speed on this; the book hadn't been written yet. This just got released."
So then the question is where are you going to go? You're going to go to watch this thing get vetted, publicly, on the web. That's where it's going to get vetted. I also think that sometimes it's helpful to go to sites where you actually see the case argued out by the person who's holding it on the other side. This is where websites like Beliefnet.com are very helpful, because they cover everything. They cover Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, the whole shooting match. They even cover Pilate, which I thought was "Pilate."
Anyway, in the process of doing that, they give you articles written by people coming out of those spaces, so you can see how someone who holds to that faith argues for it, thinks about it, and in some cases, in these controversial areas, they will have point/counterpoint arguments where you will see both sides interacting with each other on something. So sometimes that can be a helpful way to get your hands around what the issues are as well. Christianity Today has a nice site, and really there's not a lack of information out there.
The difficulty with going to the web is that sometimes you can't know simply by going to a site, where the site itself is coming from. Sorting out the truthfulness of that site, or the quality of that site, or its perspective, can sometimes be difficult. But if you go to some of the ones that Steve mentioned, like Bible.org, that can give you an orientation point. But it's going to be the web, at least for the first six months, that's going to get you started.
For some of the other stuff, there is stuff that's written. Dan Wallace has written a book with a couple of guys called Reinventing Jesus that's a good primer in some of this stuff. Some of the stuff that I've done, both with relationship to The Da Vinci Code and The Missing Gospels, is another one. We've got one coming out this year, Dan and I together, are doing one called Dethroning Jesus -- the title may make you nervous -- but really it's about six ideas that have made the best seller list in the last five years about Jesus, all of which we think are wrong.
We work through them, one at a time. Many of the things that you now see usually touch on one of these six areas. So hopefully that book will cover a multitude of sins, in terms of what's being said about Jesus in the public square.
Mark: That's great. I think it's important to finish with a council from Peter. He writes to the early church. He says, "Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled. But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone" -- that's pretty inclusive -- "to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you. Yet with gentleness, and reference. Keep a good conscience so in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame."
I think the heartbeat with which we interface with some of the detractors and attackers will be one of the ways that we can represent Christ well, and gain a hearing, gain an audience, stand for truth. At the same time, we do it with gentleness, we do it with respect, as you men have said.
Stephen, Darrell, thank you for spending the time with us. Jesus in Primetime, that reminds me. Dallas Theological Seminary and the Center for Christian Leadership here is going to sponsor a "Jesus in Primetime" event on our campus in the city.
Stay tuned to our website. Stay tuned to the information on the DTS website for the Christian Leadership Center. Dr. Bock and a number of others who are involved in media interaction will be presenters on that day.
Jesus is in primetime. How will we take advantage of the opportunity? Let's pray we do it well. God Bless You.
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