Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rejecting Political and Religious Spectrums, Part 2 of 2

On tossing out the evangelical spectrum: Part 2

by Roger Olson
January 27, 2012 
Types of evangelical theology: replacing the “spectrum”

In part one of this series I talked about the limitations of attempting to place every theologian somewhere on a spectrum defined by “right,” “middle,” and “left.” It’s a habit of evangelical theologians that’s hard to break. That spectrum was originally tied to modernity. Theologians to the “left” were those who accommodated to modernity; those to the right rejected modernity; those in the middle worked with some kind of synthesis of moderate adjustment to modernity where necessary while remaining faithful to the “received evangelical heritage” of Protestant orthodoxy.

One problem with that spectrum is its use of modernity as the norm; it assumes that every theologian is somehow responding to modernity—with either rejection or accommodation or moderate acknowledgment within basic faithfulness to orthodoxy. Not all theologians (I used Hauerwas as an example) are responding to modernity. Holding fast to that spectrum can end up with some very strange anomalies. Some postmodern theologians reject modernity without affirming orthodoxy. Where would they be on the spectrum?

Contemporary evangelicals have migrated toward a somewhat altered spectrum. On this one theologians are located along it based on perceived adherence to or willingness to revise the “received evangelical tradition.” This was clearly the spectrum Millard Erickson was using in The Evangelical Left. For him, as for many others like him, an evangelical is “left” on the spectrum to the extent he or she revises traditional evangelical doctrinal and ethical commitments and “right” to the extent he or she holds fast to them. One problem with that is, of course, what happens to the extreme “right” of the spectrum? Who goes there? Erickson and others like him claim to occupy the center of the spectrum (of course). But if “left” is revision of the received evangelical tradition and “right” is faithful adherence to it, that distorts the spectrum. It only has a middle (the right) and a left!

Of course, what actually happens is that self-identified evangelical moderates, centrists, like Erickson place fundamentalists off to their “right” on the spectrum. But if the middle is faithful adherence to the evangelical tradition and left is revision of it, what causes someone to be placed to the right of the middle? If strict, faithful adherence to the evangelical tradition is the middle, then what’s to the right of the middle? Fundamentalist think they outdo the moderates in holding fast to the received evangelical tradition—as it was sometime in the distant past, anyway (e.g., young earth creationism). That’s why, with this spectrum, fundamentalists can rightly claim to be the middle and even Erickson, who is not a young earth creationist and is an egalitarian who believes in women’s ordination, is “left.”

Also, where does someone like Donald Bloesch belong on that spectrum? Or Kevin Vanhoozer? Or Alister McGrath? Or any number of evangelicals who are simply not concerned with defending some preconceived “received evangelical tradition” but are also not concerned with revising doctrines?

There are multiple problems with those “right to middle to left” spectrums. I have come to think that the main purpose of the evangelical spectrum is political. Administrators of evangelical institutions (colleges, universities, seminaries, publishers, etc.) are not always theologians or able to take the time to investigate for themselves candidates’ theologies, so they rely on someone they trust to tell them “where the person belongs on the evangelical spectrum.” “To the left” is usually the death sentence for being hired or getting tenure. There’s one notorious case I am very familiar with where a candidate for tenure at an evangelical seminary was denied it simply because a well-known evangelical theologian told the seminary’s administration the person is “postmodern.” In fact, the person is an expert on postmodernism, much more than the theologian who caused him to not get tenure! And he is not a relativist or cognitive nihilist or radical pragmatist or any of the things the seminary’s administrators probably think “postmodern” means.

I‘ve been in this game (viz., the evangelical subculture and its habits) for a long time. I’ve taught at three evangelical universities. (Not everyone at those universities calls themselves “evangelical” but they all clearly are in the broad sense of the word.) I’ve been editor of a leading evangelical scholarly journal supported by fifty (mostly) evangelical colleges. I’ve been an editor of a major evangelical magazine for years. I’ve worked with several evangelical book publishers. I was chairman of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion for two years. All that is to say I think I know this subculture very well, almost as well as anyone. What I have observed is that many, perhaps most, executives of evangelical organizations have someone they consider “safe” to advise them about hiring and tenure decisions. That person (or two or three persons) can blackball a candidate very easily simply by saying he or she is “to the left” on the evangelical spectrum (or something to that effect). Of course, the person saying that is “to the left” of someone else on that same spectrum! But evangelical administrators too often don’t stop to question it; they just take the well-known, influential, “safe” evangelical theologian’s word for it and the candidate never knows why he or she didn’t get hired.

While admitting that we (evangelicals) are addicted to the spectrums—the first one for the broader theological world and the second one for “us”—I am increasingly uncomfortable with them. They simply suffer too many anomalies and abuses. They are too simplistic and easy to manipulate. They make it too easy not to engage seriously with someone’s theology. I observed this with my friend Stan Grenz-inerrancy! The whole reason he was labeled “left” was his post-foundationalist epistemology which, contrary to critics, did not lead him into “cultural relativism” (a stupid claim).

My preferred alternative to these spectrums is for people to seriously engage with others’ theologies and not take the easy way out by simply relying on someone they trust to tell them where they are on the evangelical spectrum. I’m enough of a realist, however, to know that’s not likely to happen. But I urge it anyway.

I have an alternative model in mind for “placing” evangelical thinkers (theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers of religion, etc.) in relation to each other: a colorful mosaic. From a distance a colorful mosaic looks like one color, but the closer you get the more clearly the different shades of color begin to appear. Compared with the larger theological world, evangelical theology appears relatively monochrome. For example, if you attend the annual national meeting of the American Academy of Religion, as I did in San Francisco in November and have at its various locations for about twenty-five years, the evangelicals in attendance appear relatively homogenous theologically.

I’ll use an imaginary illustration. Imagine a large panel of religious scholars who call themselves “Christians.” It includes: a black theologian, a feminist theologian, a radical postmodern theologian, a process theologian, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, a revisionist Roman Catholic theologian, a Tridentine Roman Catholic theologian, a narrative theologian, and a “Christian atheist.” (I have specific people in mind for each category and I know they attend the AAR, so this panel could happen!) What do they all have in common? Only that they are human beings, religious scholars and self-identified Christians. Even from a distance the differences stand out in stark relief.

Now imagine a panel of evangelical theologians—a fundamentalist, a postconservative, a confessionalist, a “generic evangelical” (those are the four found in the recently published book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism). Add any well-known, self-identified evangelical thinker to the panel. Compared with the first panel, this one will appear homogenous from a distance. (I’m asking you to imagine here that theological orientations are like colors.) These theologians have much more in common than those on the first panel. They are human beings, religious scholars, self-identified evangelical Christians, biblicists (in some sense), conversionists, believers that salvation is only through Jesus Christ and his cross, and activists (in the sense of believing in evangelism). Sure, there are distinct differences in the details, but if someone walked in to a large room with the first panel they would see, even from a distance, contrasting colors. If someone walked into a large room with the second panel they would see, from a distance, a mosaic of colors, but it would be difficult to distinguish them without getting very close.

The second mosaic, the evangelical one, is like some of those you see in hotel room bathrooms. Often there’s a mosaic of tiles in the bathtub/shower enclosure. It might just be a stripe of shiny, colored tiles going around the middle of the enclosure. From a distance it looks like one color, but when you get close up you see subtle differences. One tile is more purple than the tile two or three down from it that is more green, etc.

Compared with the larger religious academy, including its “Christian” theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers of religion, etc., this evangelical world of scholars is like that almost but not quite monochrome stripe of tiles.

A close inspection of the evangelical mosaic reveals differences: paleo-orthodox, postconservative (not anti-conservative) or progressive, fundamentalist, Pentecostal, dispensationalist, high federal Calvinist, charismatic, Third Wave, emergent, Pietist, etc. If you put your face right up to the mosaic these differences seem very striking, but if you step back and look at it the differences pale in comparison with what the tiles have in common and in comparison with the splash of bright colors in the “mainline” mosaic.

And, of course, some tiles have some of two or three colors in them. One tile is simply purple and another one is simply green. (But to keep the analogy going, they’re both muted, not terribly bright, so that from a distance they don’t look all that different.) But most tiles are some mixture of both or of two other colors.

The mosaic of evangelical theologies is like that second one. There’s no “right” or “left” or “middle.” There’s just (limited) variety. Using this model, an evangelical administrator will pick up the individual “tile” (a candidate for hiring or tenure) and put it up to the whole mosaic and say either “Yes, I see this color there. This tile’s coloring fits the mosaic. There are others like it” OR “No, this bright pink tile is nothing like those in the mosaic; it doesn’t fit at all.” Of course, this assumes the administrator has taken the time and trouble to learn about the evangelical mosaic and that’s one of the flaws in my alternative model. However, I will argue that a person should not be the administrator of a trans-denominational evangelical organization without knowing evangelical history and theology, unity and diversity.

Now, of course, IF the evangelical organization is tied to a specific denomination or confessional tradition, the administrator will have to use two mosaics—the larger evangelical one and that of his or her own denomination or confessional tradition. But that’s why administrators get paid the big money! They’re expected to know a lot. It seems like evidence of little knowledge and poor judgment ability when an administrator has the old spectrum in his head (or in that of his favorite evangelical theological advisor’s head) and uses it to make these decisions.

Of course, I think it would be a good idea for an administrator to have people who advise him or her on these personnel matters, but such people should not have an axe to grind.

I hope by now you’ve caught on to my main motive for arguing against the old spectrum approach. It has become a political tool among evangelicals. When open theism first appeared among evangelicals, some self-identified “conservative evangelicals” (read “safe”) labeled it “liberal” or “left” on the evangelical spectrum. And yet some of its most prominent proponents were anything but “liberal.” One was and is charismatic or New Wave and believes strongly in real spiritual beings, demons and angels, who are engaged in spiritual warfare invisible to us (most of the time). Liberal? Left? I strongly believe his critics’ attempt to place him and other open theists on the “left” end of the spectrum was nothing more than a political ploy to marginalize him and them and set them up for being fired from their teaching positions. At least the early reactions by self-identified “conservative evangelicals” to open theism was simplistic. It didn’t engage with what they were really saying but caricatured their views (“ignorant God”). One critic of open theism told me it’s wrong because it’s not traditional. He happened to be a five point Calvinist teaching in a seminary that had never had a five point Calvinist on its faculty before him!

I digress, but this is my blog, so…

The whole controversy over open theism changed my life forever.

I heard and read blatant dishonesty, conscious, knowing distortion, mean-spiritedness and overt attempts to destroy people’s reputations and careers—all on the side of open theism’s critics. (I’m NOT saying all critics participated in this!) One self-identified conservative evangelical theologian publicly accused open theists of “worshiping the goddess of novelty.” Others equated open theism with process theology. One publicly called open theists “Socinians.” One wrote that open theists “admit” to being influenced by process theology, but the open theist book he cited to support that said the opposite! I was myself sucked into this maelstrom of controversy and threatened with being fired just for being open to open theism and defending my open theist friends. Lies were published about me. One critic of open theism published an article attributing a quote to me I never said or wrote. (There was no chance this was a matter of confusion; the quote was fabricated.) Several claimed publicly that I was an open theist when I knew they knew I was not. When I wrote to them they wouldn’t answer me. This was a witch hunt among evangelicals and I truly believe its main motive was to take over evangelical institutions. (To a very great extent it was a reprise of the inerrancy controversy launched by The Battle for the Bible in 1976.) I see the villains in that controversy (and I’m NOT saying all critics of open theism were villains) as having gained the upper hand with evangelical institutional leaders. They created enough fear, even if only of controversy, that they would only hire people they thought the pot-stirring heresy hunters would approve of or at least not exclaim “J’accuse!” over.

I see the old evangelical spectrum as little more than a tool in such theological-political warfare. Since the mid-1990s I have not known what someone means when they say an evangelical theologian is “left” or “liberal-leaning.” I know for a fact it often means nothing more than “I disagree with him [or her].” But if you get enough influential people to say it sufficiently loudly and create enough fear of “creeping liberalism” it can ruin careers and do real damage to families and institutions.

Differences between Evolutionary Creationism and Darwinian Scientific Naturalism

by R.E. Slater
January 30, 2012

Here is a short premier on competing theistic systems within the evolutionary system itself....

The Christian position of Evolutionary Creationism separates itself apart from the atheistic/agnostic position of Darwinism, sometimes called Scientific Naturalism.

Evolutionary Creationism accepts natural selection but understands that a Creator-God has been intricately involved within this process. Both the positions of Classic & Relational Theism (see this blog's sidebars for further discussions on these subjects) also agree with this assessment, however, the older theological doctrine of Classic Theism was developed at a time when evolutionary science was little understood and thus the church taught of a God who created immediately (or instantaneously) - without utilizing any of the processes of the sun and moon, stars and earth, time and energy, indeterminacy and event. In counterposition to this biblically imposed ideology, Relational Theism taught of a mediated creation that used the elements of "time and process" that is commonly accepted by evolutionary science today. This latter view is only now being accomodated by the contemporary Church because of its variant traditional heritages and past, older dogmas.

(As an aside, it should be further noted that Relational Theism is Classic Theism's updated, postmodern twin, without the panentheistic base of a Process Theology that accompanies it. And that there are elements of process theology that are true biblically but cannot simply be held captive by process theology's non-classic theistic base. This is the difference between substantive and pervasive elements better discussed here - Seeking a Postmodern Redefinition of Classic Theism).

Darwinism, on the other hand, claims no knowledge of God's involvement. In fact, it is either doubtful (agnostic), if not down right skeptical (atheistic) of God's existence and mediation. Holding then to a belief in the position of a non-Creator God while questioning the very fact that creation itself is proof of an eternal Creator-God's existence and mediation. Whereas the Christian position sees creation and affirms that it is from God, sustained by God, and directed by God, both in the ages past as will be true of the ages to come (which curiously may have been Darwin's personal view against the scientific system that was spawned by his followers). Thus, Naturalistic science is no less a belief system than its Christian-science twin (cf, Alvin Plantinga's similarly declared observation this past fall re: Emergent Christianity and a Calvinistic Philosopher's Assertion for Theism and Evolution).

Thus, within the commonly accepted scientific theories of evolution are two variant belief-systems. One Christian, and the other, agnostic, or atheistic. One is described as Evolutionary Creationism (the older term is Theistic Evolution) and the other described as Darwinism or ("scientific") Naturalism. Each sees the same evidence but arrives at differing conclusions and juxtaposed epistemologies.

Further, Evolutionary Creationism understands God to have used time-and-process to mediate creation whereas Classic Theism's Immediate-Creationism model, made popular amongst conservative churches and organizations today, see creation as unmediated by time-and-process through subjectively-derived models. However, it is important to note that both systems are theistically-based as opposed to Darwinism's agnostic/atheistic Scientific Naturalism model.

Consequently, it is important to understand that not-all-evolutionists are unbelievers nor are all-believers anti-evolutionists. Within both theistic and anti-theistic systems stand scientific propositions at odds with one another ideologically (or is it philosophically?). Each sees the same systems but each sees it differently from the other.

Lastly, (i) modernistic Christianity's more popular Evangelic position of Immediate Creation should then allow their disbelieving brothers and sisters the position of evolution without deeming (or demeaning) those brethren as mere anti-theists. This would not be true on the basis of Relational Theism.

Secondly, (ii) one could further argue that the concept of Evolutionary Creationism would be more rightly accreted towards the Christian understanding of evolution than the bald label of Darwinism, or Scientific Naturalism, carrying with them their own epistemologies of scientific and social import. (Such as that of Social Darwinism which gave birth to Marxism, that gave birth to Fascism, Arianism, Nazism, Leninism, Stalinism, and the garden variety of inhumanly practiced communisms observed from China to Latin America during the days after WWII) ... It's no wonder than than the term "evolution" gets a bad rap because of popularly discredited associations and inflammatory usages.

In conclusion, I've listed below just a few articles that we've reviewed this past year to help in further delineating the much misunderstood Christian position of Evolutionary Creationism.

R.E. Slater
January 30, 2012

God's Role in Creation

Image for: What role could God have in evolution?

Is God Just Playing Dice?

Evolution: Is God Just Playing Dice?

How Could God Create Through Evolution?

How Could God Create Through Evolution?: A Look at Theodicy, Part 1

    For Even More Information

Go to the "Science" sidebars -->


No sooner had I published the article above when I stumbled across the following video and discussion below that dovetails brilliantly with the our observations made above, so that I must share these added insights as well. And making me to finally believe that what I've been sensing for awhile (and I'll use an evolutionary example this time by way of illustration) that just as homo sapien man entered into the genetic charts en masse as a population, so too will emergent Christianity enter into the mainstream of contemporary Christianity en masse, no matter its size and proportions.  Why? Because as I am writing here on this blog I am finding many others writing on the same and similar topics on other blogs and websites.... And with the same, or similar, sentiments as myself, each having similar concerns and criticisms that have been largely ignored or unwanted by our more conservative religious brethren. And each of us isolated from the other, yet each of us perceiving the needs of the church in similar ways. It gives me pause to actually be witnessing God's active leadership to His Church during our present day-and-age. Even when - from within, and without - and while defying various and sundry forces opposed against it, in repression and persecution. Yet still it grows. Praise God for His faithfulness to His people.

R.E. Slater
January 30, 2012

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

From Kurt Willems
[This is the] first video blog I’ve made in a couple years… with the
exception of the Compassion Water Video. I hope the fact that it is
only 3 mins and ask a direct question keeps you interested!


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Creationism chases people out of church

by Fred Clark
January 21, 2012

"Ken Ham is slowly killing the American church," writes Joel Watch at Unsettled Christianity.

Kurt Willems agrees, posting a video at his Pangea blog in which he says “Preaching Against Evolution in Evangelical Churches Creates Atheists.”

I’d qualify Willems’ statement a bit. Preaching against evolution in evangelical churches doesn’t create atheists — it creates not-evangelicals. They were told that if evolution were true, then their faith would be a lie. And then they learned that evolution is true. Some of them may go on to become atheists. Others may go on to become Episcopalians. But some just stagger on for years with little identity other than not-evangelical.

But the basic point both Watch and Willems are making is an important one. The creationism of Ken Ham and Al Mohler is not true and therefore belief in it is not sustainable. I’ve made this argument quite a bit, as in “The Bible vs. The Facts?” where I wrote:
When Christian teachers like Mohler insist that the non-negotiable tenets of the faith include beliefs that can be and have been proven false, they set their followers up for inexorable crisis and calamity. It turns Christians into ex-Christians with industrial efficiency.
Or see “Hold on to the good” or “The walls came tumbling down.”

I’ve written about this a lot because I’ve met so many people over the years whose Christian faith was chained to some idea of young-earth creationism that dragged it down like a millstone.

And yet the more people are driven from the church by the unsustainable, unbelievable lies of creationists, the more desperately the creationists cling to those lies and insist on their centrality to the faith.

Roger Olson recently posted an essay from Michael Clawson that I think offers some insight into why the collapse of creationism is making its proponents ever-more vehement. In “Young, Restless and Fundamentalist: Neo-fundamentalism Among American Evangelicals,” Clawson argues that the anti-science defensiveness of late 20th-century “neo-fundamentalists” echoes the laager mentality of their early 20th-century ancestors:
Some conservative evangelicals are reacting to the contemporary influences of postmodernity in much the same way that the original fundamentalists did towards the influences of modernity a century ago — namely through hostility towards the broader culture, retrenchment around certain theological doctrines, and conflict with, or separatism from others within a more broadly defined evangelicalism.

… The driving force behind neo-fundamentalism, as with historic fundamentalism, is a “remnant mentality.” Neo-fundamentalists believe they alone are remaining true to the fullness of the gospel and orthodox faith while the rest of the evangelical church is in grave, near-apocalyptic danger of theological drift, moral laxity, and compromise with a postmodern culture – a culture which they see as being characterized by a skepticism towards Enlightenment conceptions of “absolute truth,” a pluralistic blending of diverse beliefs, values, and cultures, and a suspicion of hierarchies and traditional sources of authority. 
Because of this hostility toward postmodern ways of thinking, neo-fundamentalists have little tolerance for diversity of opinions among evangelicals on any issues they perceive as essential doctrines – which are most of them – as opposed to the broader evangelical movement which historically has allowed for a much wider range of disagreement on disputable matters. Neo-fundamentalists thus respond to the challenges of a postmodern culture by narrowing the boundaries of what they consider genuinely evangelical and orthodox Christianity, and rejecting those who maintain a more open stance.
Clawson’s description of this “neo-fundamentalism” is particularly interested in light of the fatal flaw that Watch, Willems and I all identify in the links above. Creationism, like all forms of this neo-fundamentalism, is championed as a militant defense of the church against the world. Yet in practice, creationism drives people out of the church.

It has the opposite effect from the one these neo-fundies are hoping for.

Clawson mentions John Piper, Al Mohler and Mark Driscoll as prominent examples of this neo-fundie “remnant mentality.” For an illustration of this, check out the poster promoting Mark Driscoll’s latest book, highlighted by Hemant Mehta and vorjack of Unreasonable Faith.

The poster emphasizes hierarchical gender relationships, suggesting that this is an essential belief if the church is to survive in the big scary postmodern world. It concludes by saying:
My grandchildren will worship the same God as me, because my children will worship the same God as me.
Vorjack’s cheerfully atheist response:
My grandfather was raised Southern Baptist.
My father was raised Southern Baptist.
… Hi.
It’s not just that the neo-fundie project doesn’t work, but that it’s counter-productive — that it accelerates the problem it imagines it is addressing. By emphasizing untenable doctrines like creationism or the divine right of husbands, and by insisting that these are central, requisite beliefs, the neo-fundies are chasing people out of the church.

See also:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reacting to the Virgin Birth of Mary and the Virgin Conception of Jesus

Of Myth and Science

I have included two articles below that focus on the Virgin Birth of Mary's child Jesus. One from a respected theologian/bishop's viewpoint and the other from a respected scientist-turned-priest viewpoint. Both British. Both believers and servants of God. And each giving their separate arguments for-and-against the Virgin Birth while making no personal claim of disbelief over Mary's exceptional conception. Rather, they wish to affirm their belief despite the lack of supporting scientific evidence.

N.T. Wright starts things off with a "nay-and-yeah" look at this topic's debatable arguments and then proceeds to tick these arguments off one-by-one while creating a larger biblical context for Jesus' immaculate conception and birth. In contrast, John Polkinghorne immediately dives in discussing the scientific difficulties and improbabilities of such a birth. Which is a true statement. Science does not understand this event even though he himself believes it still to be a true, historical event, regardless of science's inabilities to discover the nature of the event. And so do we affirm the virgin birth of Jesus.

But Dr. Polkinghorne then initiates a secondary discussion about the nature of literary "myth" that I found less-than-helpful within his scientific analysis. In fact, it makes me think that a separate article on "Ancient Myth as a Literary Type" should be created to address the many crucial implications brought about by this subject's shaded overtones and misdirections. Or at least how I perceived them to be misdirecting without actually knowing the position of Polkinghorne himself. We all make grammatical mistakes and shaded inferences that on any other day we may wish to take back. I think that we should allow this of our good priest and simply look then at something that he let slip on that particular day or related passages in his book....

Dr. John Polkinghorne's asserts that scientific evidence cannot support the Virgin Birth and thus declares this immaculate birth to be scientifically impossible, but not improbable. To which we can all agree. Yes, science cannot explain this act of God. Then N.T. Wright describes this event by distinguishing whether it was a miracle suspending all natural scientific laws, or as a miraculous intervention of God to Mary herself. To which I might ask, "Is there a difference?" According to Wright there may be, but its beyond my powers of perception to distinguish at present the difference between miracle and God-event. However, it is substantively true that science at its current level of prowess has yet been able to explain this miracle/God-event like many of the other miracles/God-events found within the Bible.

Dr. Polkinghorne continues then upon an alternate explanation that I find to have little appeal... that is, that we should regard this Gospel story of the Virgin Birth as an enacted myth. Now lest I accuse my brother in Christ of factually declaring Jesus' birth as a myth (which he doesn't) as we understand myths today, perhaps I should allow him the point of view that though he considers it a myth, he actually means that its a literary myth that is not a fanciful myth but an historically true myth that has a true historical story behind it. My guess is that is what Dr. Polkinghorne really meant. However, to an outside listener who has heard this statement uncritically and mistakenly believes it to mean something more akin to the popular perception of myth, then we have a problem of communication. Is it fanciful and historically untrue? Or is it descriptive and historically true? Consequently, we as Christians should be more clear with the use of our words by not confusing an already difficult topic with extended hyperbole, whether intentional or not.

So then, regardless of Polkinghorne's theological stance, my argument rests upon the fact that its probable to stretch the ancient Near-Eastern myth paradigm expansively to cover many unexplained events to the ancient mindset. Sometimes uncritically and at other times critically, when science is unable to explain “the unexplainable.” My concern then is that we may be back-filling the definition of myth "as a poetic form of language that has cultural historical context" into a newer postmodern definition of a "superstitious category bearing dubious historicity or truth." Like the old argument that the bible stories are just that, stories, so one might say that many bible stories are mythic and do not mandate necessary belief structures to follow Jesus. The term "myth" then becomes a convenient article of convention that makes the bible stories more magical than true as we begin to delineated between fused enacted myths in the guise of co-opted human language.

And this concerns me. As example, I think the biblical creation story in Genesis 1-3 is more beautifully told in poetic mythic structure that is both true, and has an historical cultural context to it, than as a cold, sterile scientific account.... And I might pose the additional question, "How might the creation story be otherwise told or described?!" Even today as modern, scientifically-based men and women I think that we would have a very difficult time explaining God's creative handiwork if we were to observe it first hand. Both factually and scientifically without resorting to some kind of mythic poetic structure to make the transfer to the human mind and heart. Which causes me to find the mythic literary structural form more helpful than not when interspersed throughout the biblical narratives making its incredible stories more vivid and culturally relative. But not necessarily fanciful. Nor untrue. Instead it conveys intense, descriptive imagery which is intelligible without demanding that event, or cause, to be fully understood other than as a God-event or as a miracle. An event/miracle which then allows God to reveal something about Himself and His will to man that we need to know. A revelation that is as potent to modern man today as it was to ancient man in years past.

Consider ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese myths that attempt to explain creation's origins and man's interaction with nature. They are attempts to convey unexplainable events, fears, and anxities, that were passed down verbally with minimal loss of translation through the use of songs, ballads, poems and chants, among other forms of communication. Consider also the ancient Near-Eastern Sumerian, Babylonia, Assyrian and Jewish accounts of creation, a world-wide flood, and ancient man's interaction with natural cause and effect. Some are fanciful but others are real attempts to account for oral lores founded upon legitimate historical events. It is our duty then to discern their historic mythic import... whether true, false, or in another category altogether. Science can only help with this effort so far, but at a certain point it cannot. So then we look at such passages anthropologically, linguistically, narratively, sociologically, epistemologically, and etc, and etc. Trying to assay all the varied meanings of the biblical text, and in this case, to ascertain what the Creator God is trying to tell us using this literary forms and paradigms. Which, by way of example, NT Wright does a brilliant job on in his summary effort below explaining the import of Jesus' virgin birth.

And though I expect someday to find a science that can perhaps better explain biblical miracles and God-events, I do not necessitate it, nor require it, of science in its present forms today. Though advance as a human discipline, it has a long ways to go, and till then we must be content with God’s handiwork as it has been historically conveyed to us. While at the same time not audaciously perceiving every such literary type to fall under the umbrella of “fanciful myth.” It confuses the literary types with inspecific assertions. It also questions the ancient mindset in its oral – and later, written – histories through shaded overtones and nuanced linguistical meanings. We need better clarity herein when speaking to the Bible's literary types known as myths.

Consequently, I respect Dr. Polkinghorne, but renown scientists, no less than renown philosophers, do not necessary make for the best theological re-interpreters of biblical events, even though their trained minds are more perceptive to some areas of study than many of our own. And yet, this does not release us, as biblicists (or as theologians) from listening to Christianity’s grand proponents and delving into their mindsets to discover substantive thoughts and insights, including scientific viability. And thus, my argument does not rest upon personages or their rhetoric, but upon the usages of idiom and imaginative re-expressions of our cultural heritage of faith and worship. I think it to be wise to be more specific with our language and less indistinct with our insinuations.

R.E. Slater
January 27, 2012

Legends surround the birth and childhood of many figures who afterwards become important.
But by comparison with other legends about other figures, the gospels' accounts of Jesus look restrained.

Suspending Scepticism:
History and the Virgin Birth

N.T. Wright
December 28, 2011

Jesus' birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants. Christmas looms large in our culture, outshining even Easter in the popular mind.

Yet without Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 we would know nothing about it. Paul's gospel includes Jesus' Davidic descent (Rom. 1:3), but apart from that could exist without mention of his birth. One can be justified by faith with no knowledge of it. Likewise, John's wonderful theological edifice has no need of it: God's glory is revealed not in the manger; but on the cross.

If you try to express any New Testament theology without Jesus' death and resurrection, you will find it cannot be done. "Man shall live for evermore," says the song, "because of Christmas Day." No, replies the New Testament; because of Calvary, Easter and Pentecost.

Nevertheless, the birth stories have become a test case in various controversies. If you believe in miracles, you believe in Jesus' miraculous birth; if you don't, you don't. Both sides turn the question into a shibboleth, not for its own sake but to find out who's in and who's out.

The problem is that "miracle," as used in these controversies, is not a biblical category. The God of the Bible is not a normally [nominally] absent God who sometimes "intervenes." This God is always present and active, often surprisingly so.

Likewise, if you believe the Bible is "true," you will believe the birth stories; if you don't, you won't. Again, the birth stories are insignificant in themselves; they function as a test for beliefs about the Bible.

The birth stories have also functioned as a test case for views of sexuality. Some believers in the virginal conception align this with a low view of sexuality and a high view of perpetual virginity. They believe the story not because of what it says about Jesus, but because of what it says about sex - namely, that it's something God wouldn't want to get mixed up in. This, too, has its mirror image: those who cannot imagine anything good about abstinence insist that Mary must have been sexually active.

More significantly, the birth stories have played a role within different views of the incarnation. Those who have emphasized Jesus' divinity have sometimes made the virginal conception central. Those who have emphasized Jesus' humanity have often felt that the virginal conception would mark him off from the rest of us.

None of these arguments bears much relation to what either Matthew or Luke actually says. But before we turn to them, two more preliminary remarks.

First, we are of course speaking of the virginal conception of Jesus, not, strictly, of the "virgin birth." Even if I come to believe in the former; the latter would remain a different sort of thing altogether. Neither, of course, should be confused with the "immaculate conception," a Roman Catholic dogma about the conception not of Jesus, but of Mary.

Second, some things must be put in a "suspense account" - in Marcus Borg's happy phrase - while others are sorted out. The birth narratives have no impact on my reconstruction of Jesus' public agendas and his mind-set as he went to the cross.

There might just be a case for saying that if his birth was as Matthew and Luke describe it, and if Mary had told him about it, my argument about Jesus' vocation to do and be what in scripture YHWH does-and-is might look slightly different. But as a historian I cannot use the birth stories within an argument about the rest of the gospel narratives.

I can, however, run the process the other way. Because I am convinced that the creator God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and because I am convinced that Jesus was and is the embodiment of this God, Israel's God, my worldview is forced to reactivate various things in the suspense account, the birth narratives included.

There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in post-Enlightenment metaphysics. The "closed continuum" of cause and effect is a modernist myth. The God who does not "intervene" from outside but is always present and active within the world, sometimes shockingly, may well have been thus active on this occasion.

It is all very well to get on one's high metaphysical horse and insist that God cannot behave like this, but we do not know that ahead of time. Nor will the high moral horse do any better insisting that God ought not to do things like this, because they send the wrong message about sexuality or because divine parentage gave Jesus an unfair start over the rest of us. Such positions produce a cartoon picture: the mouse draws itself up to its full height, puts its paws on its hips and gives the elephant a good dressing down.

The stories in question are complex and controversial. I simply highlight certain features.

Matthew's story, told from Joseph's point of view, reminds one of various biblical birth stories, such as that of Samson in Judges 13. Matthew's whole hook is about the scriptures being fulfilled in Jesus. The angel, the dream, the command not to be afraid, the righteous couple doing what they are told-all is familiar.

Like Samson, the promised and provided child has a dangerous public future: here, the true king of the Jews is born under the nose of the wicked king, Herod. This is a major theme in Matthew's Gospel. His picture of Jesus' messiahship has both feet on the ground of first-century realpolitik.

Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfils at least three biblical themes:
  1. He brings Israel into the promised land ("Jesus" is the Greek for "Joshua");
  2. As Immanuel, he embodies God's presence with his people (Isaiah 7:14, quoted in 1:23);
  3. As the new David, he is the Messiah born at Bethlehem (2:5, fulfilling Micah 5:1-3).
In the genealogy [of Matthew], Jesus is the point toward which Israel's long covenant history has been leading, particularly its puzzling and tragic latter phase. Matthew agrees with his Jewish contemporaries that the exile was the last significant event before Jesus; when the angel says that Jesus will "save his people from their sins" (1:21), liberation from exile is in view. Jesus, David's true descendant, will fulfil the Abrahamic covenant by undoing the exile and all that it means.

Well-known problems abound. Why does the genealogy finish with Joseph if Matthew is going to say that he wasn't Jesus' father after all? This cannot have been a problem for Matthew or he would hardly have followed the genealogy so closely with the story of the virginal conception. It was enough that Jesus was born into the Davidic family; adoption brought legitimacy.

Further, anyone can say that Matthew made it all up to fulfil Isaiah 7:14 ("the virgin shall conceive"). Since Luke doesn't quote the same passage, though, the argument looks thin. Is Bethlehem mentioned only, perhaps, because of Micah 5:2-4?

Again, Luke doesn't quote the same passage, but still gets Mary to Bethlehem for the birth. Some have questioned whether Herod would really have behaved in the way described in Matthew 2; the answer, from any reader of Josephus, would be a firm yes.

One can investigate, as many have, whether there really was a star. One can challenge the flight into Egypt as simply a back-projection from a fanciful reading of Hosea 11:1. These are the natural probing questions of the historian.

As with most ancient history, of course, we cannot verify independently that which is reported only in one source. If that gives grounds for ruling it out, however, most of ancient history goes with it.

Let us by all means be suspicious, but let us not be paranoid. Just because I've had a nightmare doesn't mean that there aren't burglars in the house. Just because Matthew says that something fulfilled scripture doesn't mean it didn't happen.

What then about his central claim, the virginal conception itself, dropped almost casually into the narrative, with no flourish of trumpets? Some have argued, of course, that there is instead a flourish of trumpets: Matthew has taken care to draw our attention to the peculiarities (to put it no stronger) of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Batlisheba, presumably in order to warn us that something even stranger is coming; or perhaps to enable us, when the news is announced, to connect it with God's strange way of operating in the past. He is hardly likely on this occasion, however, to have made up the story of Mary's being with child by the Holy Spirit in order to "fulfil'" this theme.

What about Luke, who tells the story from Mary's point of view? His setting is just as Jewish as Matthew's, with verbal and narrative allusions to, and echoes of, the Septuagint. Like Matthew, he insists that with this story Israel's history is reaching its God-ordained climax. But his emphasis, unlike Matthew's, is on the very Jewish point that this birth is a direct challenge to the pagan power: in other words, to Caesar.

This fits with Luke's whole emphasis: the (very Jewish) gospel is for the whole world, of which Jesus is now the Lord. Israel's god is the king of the world; now, Jesus is the king of the world.

Attention has focused on the census in Luke 2:2 - whether it took place and could have involved people travelling to their ancestral homes. But Luke's point has been missed. The census was the time of the great revolt - the rebellion of Judas the Galilean, which Luke not only knows about but allows Gamaliel to compare with Jesus and his movement (Acts 5:37).

Luke is deliberately aligning Jesus with the Jewish kingdom-movements, the revolutions which declared that there would be "no king but God."

The census is not, of course, the only query that people have raised about Luke's birth stories. Jesus' birth at Bethlehem seems to have been a puzzle to Luke, which he explains by the census, rather than something he invents for other reasons. The fact that Luke does not mention the wise men, nor Matthew the shepherds, is not a reason for doubting either; this sort of thing crops up in ancient historical sources all the time.

Of course, legends surround the birth and childhood of many figures who afterwards become important. As historians we have no reason to say that this did not happen in the case of Jesus, and some reasons to say that it did. But by comparison with other legends about other figures, Matthew and Luke look, after all, quite restrained.

Except, of course, in the matter where the real interest centres. Matthew and Luke declare unambiguously that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. What are we to make of this?

It will not do to say that we know the laws of nature and that Joseph, Mary, the early church and the evangelists did not. Mary and Joseph hadn't seen diagrams of Fallopian tubes, but that doesn't mean they didn't know where babies came from. Hence Mary's question to Gabriel (in Luke), and Joseph's determination to break the engagement (in Matthew).

Nor can we say that if we believe this story we should believe all the other similar ones in the ancient world as well. Of course, the argument "miracles are possible therefore virginal conception is possible, therefore Jesus' virginal conception may well be true," also commits one to saying, "therefore Augustus's virginal conception may well be true." But that is not my argument.

My argument, rather, works in three stages.

First, the position I have reached about the resurrection and incarnation of Jesus opens the door to reconsidering what we would otherwise probably dismiss. "Miracle," in the sense of divine intervention "from outside," is not in question.

What matters is the powerful, mysterious presence of the God of Israel, the creator God, bringing Israel's story to its climax by doing a new thing, bringing the story of creation to its height by a new creation from the womb of the old. Whether or not it happened, this is what it would mean if it did.

Second, there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this?

The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modelled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk - unless they at least believed the stories to be literally true?

Third, if the evangelists believed them to be true, when and by whom were they invented, if by the time of Matthew and Luke two such different, yet so compatible, stories were in circulation?

Did whoever started this hare running mean it in a nonliteral sense, using virginal conception as a metaphor for something else? What was that "something else"? An embroidered border, presumably, around the belief that Jesus was divine. But that belief was a Jewish belief expressed in classic Jewish God-language; while the only models for virginal conception are the nakedly pagan stories of Alexander, Augustus and others.

We would have to suppose that, within the first fifty years of Christianity a double move took place: from an early, very Jewish, high Christology, to a sudden paganization, and back to a very Jewish storytelling again. The evangelists would then have thoroughly deconstructed their own deep intentions, suggesting that the climax of YHWH's purpose for Israel took place through a pagan-style miraculous birth.

To put it another way: What would have to have happened, granted the sceptic's position, for the story to have taken the shape it did? To answer this, I must indulge in some speculative tradition-history. (Bear with me in a little foolishness.)

This is how it would look: Christians came to believe that Jesus was in some sense divine. Someone who shared this faith broke thoroughly with Jewish precedents and invented the story of a pagan-style virginal conception. Some Christians failed to realize that this was historicized metaphor, and retold it as though it were historical. Matthew and Luke, assuming historicity, drew independently upon this astonishing fabrication, set it (though in quite different ways) within a thoroughly Jewish context, and wove it in quite different ways into their respective narratives.

And all this happened within, more or less, fifty years. Possible? Yes, of course. Most things are possible in history. Likely? No.

Smoke without fire does, of course, happen quite often in the real world. But this smoke, in that world, without fire? This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage. Difficult - unless, of course, you believe in miracles, which most people who disbelieve the virginal conception don't.

Maybe, after all, it is the theory of the contemporary sceptic that is metaphor historicized. The modernist belief that history is a closed continuum of cause and effect is projected onto the screen of the early church, producing a myth (specifically, a tradition-historical reconstruction which sustains and legitimates the original belief so strongly that its proponents come to believe it actually happened).*

This foolishness is, of course, a way of saying that no "proof" is possible either way. No one can prove, historically, that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. No one can prove, historically, that she wasn't. Science studies the repeatable; history bumps its nose against the unrepeatable.

If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different.

But since they do, and since for quite other reasons I have come to believe that the God of Israel, the world's Creator, was personally and fully revealed in and as Jesus of Nazareth, I hold open my historical judgment and say: If that's what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object?

Formerly Anglican Bishop of Durham, in 2010 the Rt Revd Dr N.T. Wright was appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is one of the world's most distinguished and influential New Testament scholars. Among his many books are The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), Surprised by Hope (2007) and Virtue Reborn (2010).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 Why Would a Scientist Believe the Virgin Birth?
January 27, 2012

Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Many of our disagreements, especially the most heated discussions of science and faith arise because we respect and wrestle with scripture as inspired by God. As Paul tells Timothy, the scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. They are not to be taken lightly.

For those who were not raised in the church however, or who have for any one of a number of reasons become distrustful of the reliability of the scriptures, the questions are quite different. Scripture relates some pretty incredible events and stories – from Exodus with the story of parting of the Red Sea to the Gospels with the virgin birth and the resurrection – to name just a few. Why should intelligent educated person in secular, modern or postmodern, enlightened, Western society take these seriously on any level? Dr. John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible can provide some useful insights here – whether one agrees with him across the board or disagrees with some of his conclusions. In the book he isn’t dogmatic or defensive about about scripture, rather he is explaining why he, as a scientist, scholar, and Christian, takes scripture seriously. Both faith and reason play a role in his approach to scripture.

How would you address doubts from a nonbeliever about the incredible events in scripture?

How do you reconcile a belief in these events yourself?

Chapters five and six of Testing Scripture look at Israel’s Bible and at the Gospels. Israel’s Bible consists of many forms of literature. Dr. Polkinghorne mentions myth telling deep truth in the form of symbolic story, history, law, wisdom writings, apocalypse, and more. Most of the text was edited and shaped in post-exilic Israel. But this does not mean that it was fabricated with no roots or history. In fact Dr. Polkinghorne finds it difficult to believe that most of the material is not rooted in sources that date far earlier. He sees this in Genesis 14 with Melchizedek of Salem (not a text that would be constructed in a post-exilic history) and in the book of Judges to give just two examples. The origins of these passages must lie in very ancient texts. Within the historical conventions of the time Israel’s Bible records the history of God’s revelation of himself through his particular relationship with his chosen nation.

Even the Exodus, dismissed by many scholars as impossible, Dr. Polkinghorne sees as rooted in history. The text has been elaborated and shaped for theological and national impact for sure. In particular Dr. Polkinghorne feels that numbers have been exaggerated as is common in ancient texts   [acutally, the Hebrew term has been scribed with a typo in it making the number larger than it is - res]. But this reshaping does not undercut the historical roots of the incident or the importance of this event as God’s revelation of his divine nature through his relationship with his people.

The Gospels likewise record a reliable history. Within the historical conventions of their time they tell the gospel; the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the good news of God’s work in the world. Dr. Polkinghorne works through a number of different episodes and events as he describes his reasons for taking the Gospels seriously. One of the most interesting, though, is the one he leaves for last.
I have left till last what are among the best-known and best-loved narratives in the Gospels: the stories of the birth of Jesus. We find them only in Matthew 1.18-2.12 and Luke 2.1-20. John, after his timeless Prologue, and Mark, without any preliminaries, both start with the encounters between John the Baptist and Jesus at the beginning of the public ministry. We are so used to conflating the two gospel accounts that it is only when we read them carefully and separately that we become aware of how different they are. Luke seems to tell the story very much from the point of view of Mary, and the visitors to the newborn Jesus are the humble shepherds. Matthew seems to see things much more from Joseph’s perspective, and his visitors are the magi.… Luke gives us a very specific dating of the birth in relation to a Roman census, but there are severe scholarly difficulties in reconciling this with Matthew’s (plausible) statement that it took place during the reign of Herod the Great. A principle concern of both narratives is to explain why, if Mary’s home was at Nazareth, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as Messianic prophecy required. I do not doubt that there is historical truth preserved in the birth stories, but establishing its exact content is not an easy task. (p. 67-68)
As with some of the other stories in the gospels and in other parts of scripture there are discrepancies that can be difficult to reconcile and harmonize. There is no strong reason, however, to doubt a historical root, down to and including the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

The Virgin Birth. The conception of Jesus is a different issue. Matthew 1:18 relates the claim:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph responds to Mary’s pregnancy by planning to divorce her and an angel in a dream reiterates the claim “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.“ Luke 1:34-35 records Mary’s response when told she would conceive and give birth to a son, the Messiah.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
The very idea of a miraculous conception, that a virgin conceived and bore a son, hits a nerve in our secular Western society – both modern and postmodern. How can an intelligent, educated, experienced person believe in a virgin birth? Dr. Polkinghorne gives his reasoning:
Luke, very explicitly in his story of the Annunciation (1.34-35), and Matthew, more obliquely (1.18), both assert the virginal conception of Jesus. Christian tradition has attached great significance to this, often rather inaccurately calling it the ‘virgin birth’. Yet in the New Testament it seems nowhere as widely significant as the Resurrection. Paul is content to simply lay stress on Jesus’ solidarity with humanity: ‘God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law’ (Galatians 4.4). The theological importance of the virginal conception lies in its lending emphasis to the presence of a total divine initiative in the coming of Jesus, even if this truth is much more frequently expressed by the New Testament writers simply in the language of his having been sent. Jesus was not opportunistically co-opted for God’s purpose when he was found to be suitable, but he was part of that purpose from the start. The virginal conception is a powerful myth, and I believe that in the religion of the Incarnation the power of story fuses with the power of a true story, so that the great Christian myths are enacted myths. On this basis, I find myself able to believe in the virgin birth, even if the motivating evidence is less extensive than for the belief in the Resurrection. (p. 68-69)
One of the most important criterion for thinking through the incredible claims in scripture is God’s interaction with his creatures rather than his intervention in his creation. The miracles ring true when they enhance our understanding of the interaction of God with his people in divine self-revelation. The virginal conception is part of the Incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. The magnificent early Christian hymns quoted by Paul in Col 1.15-20 and Phil 2.6-11 catch the essence of this enacted myth as well.

It makes no sense to try to defend the virginal conception, the resurrection, or any of the other signs or miracles related in the New Testament, separate from the story of the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s Messiah. In the context of God’s mission within his creation the miracles make sense. Separate from this they will never make sense.

What do you think? Do Dr. Polkinghorne’s reasons for believing in the virgin birth make sense?

Why do you believe in the virgin birth? Or if you don’t, why not?

What arguments are persuasive on this, or any other “difficult to believe” event?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
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