A little more than a month ago I attended the Northwest regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The society had invited two guest speakers: Craig Blomberg, a professor at Denver Seminary and Marcus Borg, now professor emeritus at Oregon State. Both are New Testament scholars whose focus is on the gospels and the historical Jesus. Blomberg is an evangelical; Borg is a liberal.
The plenary session at which Blomberg and Borg both delivered papers and dialogued with each other (and the audience in Q &A) was a treat. I was familiar with Blomberg, as he has written a couple of books on the historical reliability of the gospels. I was not as familiar with Borg. His paper was very helpful and articulate, and instructive, both in terms of his ability to succinctly summarize his position with clarity, as well as his forthrightness. I thought it was worth summarizing both, as I went away grateful, but also more convinced than ever that the liberal approach to Jesus is amazingly weak when it comes to logical consistency.
In a nutshell, Borg (and many other liberal scholars would follow suit) views the gospels as a collection of writings that either originate “before Easter” or “after Easter.” The distinction is crucial and is a guiding, though circular, hermeneutic. Pre-Easter material is the stuff that reveals the historical Jesus. Post-Easter material is the stuff that is detached from the historical Jesus in that it derives from what the writers thought about Jesus in religious, or theological, terms. That is, all that material from the gospels that describes Jesus as the son of God, has him doing miracles, the virgin birth, etc. (almost everything supernatural) does not give us the Jesus of history (who Jesus really was). Rather, those are ideas imposed upon the historical Jesus by his followers — what they believed about him.
The approach is obviously circular, but very effective for the liberal position. How do we know the son of God statements are post-Easter? Because they are religious / theological opinion about Jesus, a normal man, but a very important, enlightened one. What do I do with this theological statement about Jesus being virgin born? Embrace it as a post-Easter belief about Jesus, genuinely held by his followers. But why is it post-Easter? Because it’s supernatural.
In other words, there are no objective criteria for dating this or that piece of the gospel as pre- or post- AD30. Rather, that chronological line in the sand derives from one’s presuppositions about supernatural ideas like the incarnation and virgin birth. A simple, easy to use hermeneutical filter that doesn’t force the user to say things like “that passage is just fraudulent” or “that passage doesn’t reflect real Christian teaching.”
What caught some people by surprise in view of all this were other things Borg affirmed that made him sound orthodox. He told us point-blank that he believed in God and that Jesus really did have visions and divine experiences. He accepted them at face value. He also believed that the Bible had divine authority. He even believed Jesus rose from the dead.
Now, to the untrained evangelical ear (and there are a lot of those), this sounds fine. Borg would come across as just like them, affirming things that were important, and not saying that parts of the gospels were just nonsense. And hey, he even says that the gospel writers believed Jesus was the son of God and did miracles. And he was a very gentle, courteous guy to boot. Who would think of picking on this grandfatherly figure who could be your Sunday School teacher?
Well, to the trained hearer, Borg left a lot to be desired. I’ve heard and read enough revisionist Jesus material, and have read enough academic theological literature, to know the real issues were twofold.
First, there is the dichotomy Borg creates between the belief of the biblical writers and “reality” (the historical Jesus). It matters not to Borg what the biblical writer believed — he doesn’t believe it, preferring his historical Jesus instead (created and validated by the subjective hermeneutic noted above).
Second, there is what Borg left unsaid (some of which fortunately came out in Q &A – and Borg is to be commended for his honesty there). It became clear in the Q & A (to anyone still wondering) that all was not what it seemed. For example, Jesus did rise from the dead, but not bodily — he is alive today “with God.” That articulation becomes clearer when one understands how Borg (apparently) thinks of God. Borg was careful to avoid defining God as a personal being. My impression was that, for Borg, God really refers to “the numinous.” This is religion jargon for “that which is not human — and so ‘divine’ — and beyond human experience.” The numinous is something all that people in all religions, from the most polytheistic animistic cultures to devoted Christian monks, have experienced (think “otherworldly / divine encounters / experiences” here). Jesus, like Amazonian shamans, genuinely experienced the numinous through visions and other visitations. This experience of the “Other” is God for Borg. (If it is not, then I would ask him why he didn’t make that explicitly clear in the session.) “May the force be with you. And with you.”
The single most self-defeating thing Borg said (to me) in the session was his comment about interpreting the Bible in context. Readers know that this is important to me. I view it as essential for understanding the biblical content. Borg said that interpreting the NT in its own context “saves us from fairy tale interpretations.” What he meant here is that, we need to interpret the gospels by his pre- and post-Easter hermeneutic. He is arguing that we need to view the gospels in light of their pre- and post-Easter context — their “real” historical context. Never mind again that there is no objective reason behind that dichotomous approach — no Carbon-14, no textual criticism, no paleographical analysis, nada — just a distaste for not having the dichotomy. If there was ever an example of using one’s conclusions to drive one’s argument, this is it. But think about the contextual idea put forth by Borg. Do you realize what he is asking you to do? He’s asking you to interpret an ancient document, produced by a pre-scientific culture that saw the supernatural in everything, with non-supernatural glasses. How is that keeping things in context? Beats me. It seems quite clear that Borg is using his own modern thinking about God (the numinous) to interpret the writings of first century Jews for whom the ideas he finds uncomfortable would be readily embraced. He’s not actually contextualizing the NT on its own terms. He’s viewing the NT in terms of someone (himself, or the “modern man”) who presumes he just knows better.
At any rate, I was glad Borg was there. I’d certainly go hear him again.
At least he is open and up front about his presupposition and how he views the data through this. On a practical level how can one reason with such a person ? seems he’s trying to get you to do what your already doing (read text in context) but has a totally different concept of what that actually entails, i.e your not using his Pre-Post – Easter filter. I dont think it’s possible to read anything without having presuppositions you have to have a first principle to think so we are all guilty of this to different degrees. Kenny Rogers said it best “you got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em” lol . Gambler stuck in your head all day…your welcome…enjoy.:)
“At least he is open and up front about his presupposition and how he views the data through this. ”
With all due respect to Borg, he isn’t. If he were upfront, he would tell it like Mike did: I don’t supernatural stuff so I disbeliev it. Instead he builts this contrapted hermeneutical device of texts being pre- or post-Easter.
Guess what, all the books of the NT are post-Easter, as no one was taking minutes when Jesus walked the land, not to speak of his childhood or before his birth.
It seems to me he is open and upfront about his presuppositions and how he views the data. This is a good practice for everyone from fundamentalist to liberals and everyone in between.
I dont agree with Borg at all that’s the only good thing i see from him, i never made the case for a pre – post easter view so i wont be defending it.
I like how respectful you are in disagreeing with Borg, but in Borg’s defense his pre-Easter/post-Easter dichotomy (or the more standard Jesus of History vrs Christ of Faith) may not just due to anti-supernatural bias. I think someone like Borg would probably reply that the Virgin Birth is absent in our earliest sources (Paul, Q, Mark) and ironically John despite his high Christology, but only in Matthew and Luke and Matthew at least finds a LXX prooftext (and yet puzzling both their genealogies go back to Joseph). Or for son of god, one can trace the evolution of the term from how Jesus uses it for himself twice in Mark, and then 17 times in Matthew, 12 in Luke and 23 in John with John having the most elevated sense of divine sonship (originally “son of god” could denote holy persons, Israel itself, or the davidic king). Indeed, the differences between the Johannine Jesus (who sounds like the narrator and the epistles) and the Synoptics and the teaching that the Spirit will lead the community into all truth (Jn 16:12-15) at least suggest one community did mix Jesus as he had come to be known in the post-Easter community with the Jesus of history. And I think we could say that there are no historical sources without error, so even if one ditches the pre-Easter/post-Easter language would Blomberg judge anything as inauthentic by using the objective criteria (dating the sources, multiple attestation, disimilarity, embarrassment, coherence, historical plausibility, etc.)? You may still be right and Borg wrong on the history and the theology, but just not to have a strawman of Borg.
If one believes that the process of inspiration was guided by the providence of God, observing a “chronology of ideas” or restricting oneself to just one source text are “problems” that aren’t problems — they are irrelevant.
Sorry, but it’s about supernatural / theological presuppositions. I believe in a personal God who is and who acts, and who acted — doing simple things (things I can do, so why can’t God?) like influencing a person to write something down.
“I like how respectful you are in disagreeing with Borg, but in Borgs defense his pre-Easter/post-Easter dichotomy (or the more standard Jesus of History vrs Christ of Faith) may not just due to anti-supernatural bias. I think someone like Borg would probably reply that the Virgin Birth is absent in our earliest sources (Paul, Q, Mark) and ironically John despite his high Christology, but only in Matthew and Luke and Matthew at least finds a LXX prooftext (and yet puzzling both their genealogies go back to Joseph).”
The Virgin Birth is absent in some sources – well, in these sources Jesus’ birth is “absent” as well, so we cannot deduce that he wasn’t born.
“Q” is an early source anyone can consult since it is simply a reconstruction. So don’t mention it.
I see nothing “ironic” about John, who most probably knew other Gospels, remaining silent about Jesus’ birth despite his supposedly “high christology”.
Of course, the genealogies end with Joseph, because it is Joseph as the legal father who is relevant when it comes to Jesus being the “son of David”.
I loved the Jesus’ birth line – shows the obvious fallacy.
“At any rate, I was glad Borg was there. Id certainly go hear him again.”
To give you more juice as to how liberals interpret Scripture?
no – for his honesty and clarity in his positions; that’s always helpful (you don’t have to guess).
Maybe this question is too easy, but I feel that it should be asked anyways… Why do organizations like the ETS associate with unbelievers? Are we to tolerate unrepentant, known apostates in our midst? These liberals seem to deny that Christ came in the flesh. I fully appreciate that we should be familiar with what these people write and say, but my inquiry isn’t about whether or not familiarily with these people is appropriate. My question is whether we should be giving them a stage upon which to showcase their beliefs.
Toleration involves embracing or validating ideas; Blomberg did neither, and neither does ETS. You’d have to create communes to avoid contact with people like Borg (I seem to recall that’s happened before, with usually bad results). Moreover, without communes and censorship of ideas you don’t like, members of your group will get exposed to people like Borg. If you don’t understand what he says, and aren’t guided by people who can process his positions clearly, you are the fish in the barrel at which Borg is shooting.
When I was younger, my faith was nearly obliterated by Marcus Borg, and a lot of the people he rubs shoulders with. I also know another brother who experienced the same grave testing of faith. Praise Jesus he pulled me out of that miry clay.
Thank you for poking a few holes in his bucket. About ten years ago, I would not even have been able to read your critique without sinking back in the mire again.
God bless you Mike. God bless you richly.
I think I’m well-read for a struggling but literate ‘layman’ – I would have missed it, unless I knew the formula beforehand.
without people like you, where would people like me be?
Rudolf Bultman’s careful stripping away of the supernatural, how and why he saw it that way is made so clear by Marcus Borg. Borg makes the liberal approach to reading the bible and doing theology more clear than the old German rationalists ever did. Perhaps Solomon’s insight applies here: there is nothing new under the sun. Things just get revisited and more forcefully proclaimed and believed. Thanks for the fine critique of Borg.