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Jesus A New Vision - Marcus Borg
(Continued from Earlier Article)

Critique by John Miles

Dear Friends,

Last week I reviewed Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg's new book, "Jesus A New Vision". As you recall, in the book Borg denies the historical grounding of the gospel. In history, Jesus was not the son of God, he did not die an atoning death, he did not raise from the dead, and he is not unique. As troubling as Borg's conclusions are more troubling is the constant praise he has received in the church. His books are widely read in seminary, it is praised in national Methodist publications. Most troubling a Methodist Bishop, C. Joseph Sprague of the Northern Illinois Conference spoke glowingly of Borg's ideas. In a book review of Borg's "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time" Sprague affirms Borg's basic premise that the Gospels are not historical. Sprague states with Borg that Jesus did not think of himself as the Son of God. It was the church that made Jesus the messiah. After recieving criticism, Sprague responded in a letter in the local UMC paper. I have attached that letter to the end of my newsletter this week. I hope you will take the time to read. It it is amazing. Sprague seems to embrace the same Christ of the spirit that Borg embraces. How did we get to the point where our colleges, seminaries, and at least one of our Bishops no longer believes in a Jesus of history?

Why do these heretical notions go unchallenged or are even supported in our church?

First, on a positive side we are as Methodist's very tolerant. This is one of our greatest strength. We are a broad umbrella church with lots of different competing ideas. That is a great strength. However, it has become our greatest weakness. We have become so tolerant we no longer know what is intolerable. If we can not even agree on the nature of Christ then we are indeed in trouble.

Second, as long as I can remember the focus of our church has been on the denomination and not on Christ. Say what you will about Jesus just don't be disloyal to the denomination. I first saw this as a young pastor. A group of us found out that the children at the Methodist Children's Home in Little Rock were not going to church on Sunday. We though that was ridiculous. We attempted, at Annual Conference, to require church attendance. The powers that be in the conference were incensed at our suggestion. They said the government would not let them require chapel worship and the resolution was defeated. It was at that moment I realized our church had other priorities than Christ.

Third, we have lived so long under the radical pluralism of our culture that it has become our basic doctrine in the church as well. No one in our denomination has the right to suggest that they are right and others are wrong. We are lost in a theological swamp without a map and compass. Our doctrines and Scriptures are matters of personal interpretation. If you do not agree with them just bring up experience and reason.

Finally, it seems obvious to me that many pastors agree with Bishop Sprague and Borg. Many of our leaders especially in seminaries no longer believe the gospel stories to be historically true. I can not tell you how sad and depressed that makes me.

It seems obvious to me that we have no message if we have no Christ of history. I wish it were so obvious to our leaders.

As the theologian Clark Pinnock writes, "In the long term, I am sure that Jesus as attested by the four Gospels will stand and reduced portraits of him emanating from the halls of a skeptical academy will be forgotten. However, the short term is the span of our brief life and people can be harmed by widely circulated lies, even if of a temporary duration.'

Next week I will discuss the "great lie" of Borg and Bishop Sprague.

Your brother,

John Miles.


Letter by Bishop Sprague in the Northern Illinois Conference Reporter:

Prior to Christmas, I reviewed the remarkable little book, "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time" by Marcus Borg. The review was part of the "Books Between Bites" program held at Batvia United Methodist Church. Orchestrated by Lee Moorehead, a retired clergy, this monthly gathering draws between 200-300 people during the lunch period to hear authors discuss their own works, or to hear persons like myself review the cutting-edge works of other writers.

I was only to glad to agree to wok with Lee, a respected colleague and treasured friend. And I was excited to review the Borg book. I believe its 137 pages speak volumes of biblical and theological truth for searching minds and trouble hearts, many of whom have written off the institutional church while seeking to assuage a deep theological thirst.

This book is not for everyone: especially those who find meaning, guidance and strength in an orthodox approach to faith and its understanding. I have found, though, that it touches deep chords of resonance for searching pilgrims who desperately want to make intellectual sense of a faith stance they either have or desire to embrace. This was clearly what happened for some at the Batavia UMC Gathering.

Subsequent newspaper accounts of my review have raised questions for some of our faithful, however. "What did the Bishop mean when he reportedly said thus and so?" "Why would he favorably review a book from and active participant in the infamous Jesus Seminar?" "What does this new Bishop believe?" My responses follow. (The statement in parentheses are my additions.)

Borg says: "We have all met Jesus before . Most of us first met him when we were children" (Those images, childish even infantile, if not updated, leave adults either intellectually confused or serve as a door by which to exit the church.)

I agree: We have too many adults with a childhood picture of Jesus that does not square with life. Too many sensitive, searching young adults have left the fold because no one dared to tell them about the difference between poetry and prose, gospel and history. Scientific fact and truth-seeking myth. Shame on us!

Borg writes: "The Gospels are the Church's memories of the historical Jesus (as against a day-to-day eyewitness account) transformed by the (church) community's experience and reflection in the decade after Easter: They therefore tell us what those early Christian Communities had come to believe about Jesus." They are not, first and foremost, reports of the ministry itself"

I agree: New Testament scholarship has been clear about this for nearly 200 years. The shame is that too few preachers who knew the reality well have had the courage or energy to help the laity see this truth and the wonderful affirmation it contains about the power of the Risen Christ's life giving presence in the early Church. We need not protect the laity for reality!

Borg emphatically states: "An image of the Christian life shaped by this image of Jesus (compassionate seeker of spiritual depth) would have the same two focal points; a relationship to the Spirit of God and the embodiment of compassion in the world"

I agree: Jesus does not need defenders or admirers, but followers: especially those who, like him, dare in God's name to practice random acts of kindness, not to get something but to give everything. I claim the spirituality and compassion of Jesus for the North Illinois Conference!

Borg concludes his book, which I encourage you to read for yourself, with these words: "Belief in Jesus does not mean believe doctrines about him. Rather, it means to give one's heart, one's self at the deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus who is the living Lord."

"Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one's heart to Jesus is the movement from secondhand religion to firsthand religion, from having heard about Jesus with the hearing of the ear to being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ. For ultimately, Jesus is not simply a figure of the past, but a figure of the present. Meeting that Jesus- the living Jesus who comes to us even now -will be like meeting Jesus again for the first time."

I agree: We United Methodists' have too much secondhand religion that, like old shoes, is comfortable. But those same old shoes do not equip us to walk the long, hard, wonderful road to discipleship to which we have been called in today's world.

You need not agree with the theology of either Borg or the Bishop, but for Christ's sake, the Church's sake, and your soul's sake, put on the solid shoes of understanding, undergirded with soulful depth that you might be a pilgrim on the way.


Part 2 (continued)

Dear Friends,

I need to clarify something I said from last week. Several years ago a group of pastors failed in an effort to insist that our children in the Children's Home attend church on Sunday mornings. Since that time, the Children's Home has instituted a policy that our children do attend a United Methodist Church each Sunday. I am grateful to Robert Regnier for that step and I apologize for the impression I gave that our children were not currently attending church.

I wrote last week that I wanted to address the great lie of Marcus Borg and Bishop Sprague. This lie is that so called modern scholarship has determined that the four gospels are not historical. In the letter I shared last week Sprague writes,

"Borg writes: "The Gospels are the Church's memories of the historical Jesus (as against a day-to-day eyewitness account) transformed by the (church) community's experience and reflection in the decade after Easter: They therefore tell us what those early Christian Communities had come to believe about Jesus." They are not, first and foremost, reports of the ministry itself"

I agree: New Testament scholarship has been clear about this for nearly 200 years. The shame is that too few preachers who knew the reality well have had the courage or energy to help the laity see this truth and the wonderful affirmation it contains about the power of the Risen Christ's life giving presence in the early Church. We need not protect the laity for reality."

This is simply not the case. There are plenty of biblical scholars current and past who do argue for the basic historical value of the gospels. Only a small branch of modern liberal Protestantism has ever questioned their value as historical records and even within those ranks there has been strong debate.

N. T. Wright a biblical scholar from Worcester College, Oxford has completed two of a five-volume work on the New Testament. Wright is clearly one of the finest New Testament scholars in the world today. In his first volume, "The New Testament and The People of God" Wright responds to this notion of the non-historical nature of the Gospels:

"Second, therefore, the fact that the evangelists believed themselves to be bringing the story of Israel to its great climax, the turning-point from which at last the long history of the world would change course, means inescapably that they believed themselves to be writing (what we call) history, the history of Jesus. This was not something they might conceivably have been doing as it were on the side, while doing something else as their real concern. History was where Israel's god must act to redeem his people. This whole Jewish creational monotheistic tradition revolts against the idea that when the decisive event happens it should be a non-event, or that the significance should consist not in events in the external world but in principles or other timeless things that can be deduced from them. Jewish monotheism has been said in recent years, illegitimately in my view, as an argument against an early high christlogy. What it really cuts against at this point is the dualism that separates Israel's god from his world as though he were not its creator and redeemer. If we are to think Jewishly, and to see the evangelists as doings so too, we cannot but conclude that they intended to refer to Jesus and his historical ministry." Pg.397

Wright, along with a multitude of other credible New Testament scholars, has refuted the notion that the New Testament was fundamentally a spiritual fiction of the early church. Of course Borg and Sprague may choose to disagree with this accessment. However, to suggest that there is a consenus among scholars is dishonest.

Bishop Sprague calls on us as pastors to tell the truth. I agree. The truth is that United Methodist clergy took a vow to uphold the doctrines of the church. If they no longer believe those doctrines, they should find a church that they can agree with, I would suggest the Unitarian Universalists. Their ideas mess perfectly with those of Borg, Sprague and company.

Your Brother,

John.


John Miles is:
  • an Elder in the North Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
  • is currently pastor of Heber Springs United Methodist Church
  • is a graduate of Hendrix College and Perkins School of Theology
  • is on the Board of the Confessing Movement of Arkansas and is active in Walk to Emmaus and Kairos Prison Ministry
  • In 1997 his church won the large church of the year award for the North Arkansas Annual Conference

John Miles also publishes a weekly E-mail newsletter on issues facing the United Methodist Church. If you would like to recieve that E-mail write smiles@intellinet.com


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