Tag Archives: Marcus Borg

Highs and lows of christology

I’ve been thinking about Jesus lately. It’s probably the sort of thing christians ought to do, but then again I’m not necessarily a very “good” christian, whatever that means. In particular, I’ve been thinking of the aspect of Jesus known as christology. In case you’ve not come across the term before, it’s about how you view Jesus in relation to his qualities as being human and as being God.

A “low” christology tends to emphasise Jesus’ humanity over and above his divinity while a “high” christology tends to see Jesus primarily as God where the ‘incarnate’ is slightly more subdued.

I would hope it’s fair to say that the vast majority of christians subscribe to the idea that Jesus was fully God and fully human. However, it’s also probably fair to say that not everyone (myself included) understands this. It’s a dichotomy close to the heart of the christian faith that becomes harder to understand the more one thinks about it.

The way I tend to go about it is to alternate. As I try to live a life of discipleship, at times it seems to make more sense to think of Jesus primarily human, where the idea of his being God is slightly out of focus in the background. At other times it helps to get an understanding of God through looking at Jesus, which inevitably brings with it a higher christology. Such times tend to ebb and flow, sometimes depending on what teaching we have at my local church, at other times on my own study and musing.

If we look at the gospels, one of the most noticeable differences is between the low relatively low christology of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) and the higher christology of the gospel of John.

In the various evangelical/(ana)baptist/charismatic churches I have been a part of over the years, there is nearly always a real love for John’s gospel above the others. Mark often gets overlooked. It’s possibly in seeking for a sense of balance then that I am drawn to Mark and to seek a fairly low christology.

The highest end of the christology could well be said to be Docetism, an idea condemned as a heresy as it viewed Jesus as God but that he only had the appearance of being human. At the other extreme is Ebionitism which, amongst other things, says that Jesus was merely human and denies that he was one and the same as God.

Perhaps it is our failure to understand the paradox that leads to a suspicion against those who put forward a view that leans more towards one point of view. For example, the late Marcus Borg saw the American evangelical high christology as verging on the docetic and as a result advocated such a low christology that he denied the historicity of the resurrection.

Of late, I’ve been in a season of low christology. But for some reason that seems to be giving way to a higher view. Wherever we are, we can end up unnecessarily disagreeing with those who are at another point of the cycle. The other day I thought of an image of a rope. It’s made up of multiple chords, each of which is made up of other threads, some of which may be frayed or pointing in odd directions but on the whole, the chords spiral round one another and bind together. So it is with different christologies. We may not all point in the same direction all of the time, but given time we move along the timeline of our thread and we all end up winding towards Jesus.

In thinking this through, I couldn’t help but wonder about how we try to tell others about Jesus. My observation is that by and large the Jesus evangelists speak of is the Jesus of high christology. We refer to him as Jesus Christ without ever saying what Christ actually means. This is partly why some (e.g. Tom Wright) refrain from using the term Christ as it has come to be thought of as his surname instead of a royal title signifying his anointing. We refer to Jesus as “Son of God” as though it’s the most natural term to toss around, somehow implying that we fully understand what that means and expecting someone else to be on the same wavelength.

In my opinion, this is an arrogant and unhelpful approach.

Jesus didn’t come into the world declaring himself to be God. Read the gospels; you’ll have to look carefully to be able to construct an argument of Jesus’ divinity. This is where C.S. Lewis’ trilemma is rather unhelpful, as the message that Jesus preached was not “[I am God. Worship me]” or anything like that. The one thing he spoke about more than any other was the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven).

Rather, Jesus appeared as a human. That was how he was first known. I’ve heard preachers say that his earliest disciples dropped what they were doing because they were answering God’s call. I emphatically disagree with that point of view. They didn’t know that Jesus was God. They followed a man, a teacher, someone with a reputation. It was over time spent in Jesus’ company that they come to some level of understanding. Peter’s confession doesn’t appear at the start of any of the gospels. It only comes part way through. Even then, though Jesus affirms that the declaration that he is the Jewish Messiah is the foundation of God’s renewed people, the Church, there still remains much that is unknown or misunderstood. It is only after the resurrection that the pieces start to fall into place and we get the first semblance of a high christology.

So if we try to introduce the world first and foremost to a Jesus of high christology then we are telling the story back to front. It starts with the conclusion and asks for that to be accepted, which is a rather large pill to swallow. It’s no wonder that it is so readily rejected.  It’s not how Jesus introduced himself. If he had, I’m sure the charges of blasphemy would have come far sooner than they did.

To my present understanding, part of the point of Jesus being a human was that he met us at our own level. He trod on the earth entrusted to us, he ate the food we made from it and he defecated it back again. Though he spoke of things of heaven, he drew his analogies from the world around that he saw every day, that he breathed in and out every day for over 30 years. To gloss over this and dive straight into declaring Jesus to be the risen Messiah is like skipping your meat and two veg by going straight for dessert.

If we can get to grips with a thoroughly human Jesus first, then we progress “upwards” and read the Easter narratives in the light of a life of deeds and words. It is right that we follow Jesus but it is hubris to think that there is any novelty in this. The disciples walked this path long before you or I, as have millions of christians across centuries since. Though with such a high footfall, the erosion caused by those who’ve gone a little off the track can make it hard to discern the narrow way.

Only then, if we can put on the glasses of a high christology can we loop back and meet Jesus afresh. It is this cycle that I referred to earlier and why I believe that it is hard to revisit the gospels too many times. There is always something fresh to be found; though of course one must be cautious against seeking novelty if orthodoxy becomes clichéd.

I have a hypothesis about why it is that evangelism is so often stated in terms of a high christology. It is to do with a reaction against the flattening out of the richness and variety of christian belief so that it fits into a neat box called “theism”. Against those who would like to bundle up christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. into this one term, there can be a temptation to go straight for the concept of “God”. But to do so is rather a tough task, not least due to the variety of ways even within just christianity that people speak of God. But we have a trick up our sleeve. If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate and take on board the idea that “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.” (John 14:6-7) then we can point to Jesus. But doing this as a first response asks us to take a conclusion (a high christological view) and asks someone else to use this as their starting point. It may be a quicker answer to a critic but it is not an invitation to join in on a journey of discipleship.

There is a problem with this hypothesis. At present, I’m reading Eusebius’ ‘History of the Church’ and in it there is evidence of a consistent high christology in the first few centuries following Jesus’ resurrection. There is little by way of an expression of low christology. So it might be that evangelism via the high route is simply a tradition that has been in good stead for some 1,700+ years.

There is another problem with my rather idealistic view on introducing Jesus via a low christology. It is this: Jesus lived among, and spoke to, 1st century Jews. He was one himself. Their background, cultural understanding, their worldview if you will, was vastly different to ours. So there are allusions in the gospels which one can understand if you look into such a worldview (and here, the christian world owes a debt of gratitude to historically-minded theologians whose diligent work has shed light on this) but which are easily lost if one approaches the gospels under the misapprehension that they were written for a modern, western audience. Therefore, the message that Jesus taught cannot be fully comprehended without a modicum of education.

While this is no bad thing, it risks reducing christianity to an intellectual exercise. Like the flattening out into mere theism, this would be an equal underrepresentation. Having trod the path from low christology to high christology and back again several times, one gets a glimpse of something more than mere history, more than a binitarian view of Jesus and God the Father. Holding it altogether, bringing life, is the Spirit. And that’s a whole other way of looking at christianity.

Book Review: Jesus by Marcus Borg

Having read with great interest N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God I was keen to look at a similar sort of style of modern academic writing on Jesus but from a different perspective. Wright is known to be no fan of the Jesus Seminar, though I am aware that he has quite a lot of respect for Marcus Borg. So it seemed reasonable that I might start with Borg. I may follow up with some J.D. Crossan (to whom Borg’s volume is dedicated, along with Sarah Crossan) at a later date.

I have earlier written some thoughts based on what I think is his false premise of a dichotomy of two methods of biblical interpretation, so I would encourage you read that post for a more detailed critique of some aspects of this book. He also employs the argument from authority fallacy on a number of occasions, usually when he lacks any credible reason or evidence for holding the views that he does. Again, I have written separately about that here.

Having tied himself up with his methodological straightjacket, it might seem that there is very little that Borg could say about the historical figure of Jesus. Thankfully, he actually disregards much of his own stated approach and does actually engage with some of what the gospels say. His study then becomes more akin to an interpretation of Aesop’s fables. He is not interested in whether or not there is any historical basis but is more keen on what he calls the “more than literal” meaning.

Early in the book, Borg reveals himself as an adoptionist, a position I have thought about for some time, but have ultimately rejected. Borg’s argument is that if Jesus were to be thought of as in any divine before Easter, then you must regard him as Superman, which Borg sees as docetist. But in rejected one heresy, he seems to have embraced another.

He also advocates panentheism (not to be mistaken for a similar, but distinct, idea of pantheism). That is, God is ‘present’ in everything in creation. However, in stating this position, he makes no attempt to answer what I consider to be one of the strongest arguments against it from a christian point of view; that of how to address the question of evil with a panentheistic paradigm. If any of you know writers who address this issue, please do let me know.

In regards to his actual portrayal of Jesus, though it is arguable as to how complete it is, given his take on the historicity of the gospels, what he does have is certainly interesting, thought-provoking and worth taking note of. His overriding theme is that Jesus was a Jewish mystic. To this, he seems to owe a debt of gratitude to the recently departed Geza Vermes, whose work on re-establishing Jesus’ Jewish identity helped undo many years of latent anti-semitism in the church. However, Borg does take care to define what he means by mystic, so as to avoid the wrath of Karl Barth’s dismissal of mysticism as, to paraphrase, “[misty theology leading to schism]”. Rather, Borg argues for what might almost pass a charismatic interpretation of mysticism, whereby Jesus derived his understanding of God more from a personal relationship than from any scriptural basis. Though whilst Trinitarians might see this as stemming from Jesus’ homoousios with God, Borg’s adoptionist stance forbids him from doing similarly.

He makes an excellent point about prophecy that I wish more christians would pay attention to, in that prophecy is not about fortune telling but is about making a sober assessment of the way things are now. As such, it is anachronistic to say that the likes of Isaiah predicted Jesus, but rather that Jesus acted in such a way as to reflect Isaiah. Though again, one notes that Borg readily accepts that Jesus was perceived as a prophet in his time, but when it comes to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which follows immediately in the synoptic accounts), Borg sees this as a later addition and does not relate to the pre-Easter Jesus.

While I have questioned his dismissive approach to the historicity of the gospels, much of what he says about the implications of our discipleship is well worth listening to. But I could not let the review pass without discussing his view on the crucifixion, the resurrection and theology surrounding both. While he acknowledges the historicity of the crucifixion, he openly opposes the idea of it as any kind of penal substitution. Instead he favours the christus victor idea. For my own part, I think this either/or is a false dichotomy and that both/and is a far more helpful way to consider the implications of the crucifixion. In so doing, he makes an interesting statement whereby he tries to frame Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship as supporting Borg’s view that God’s grace needs no sacrifice. In other words, he tries to hijack Bonhoeffer as a supporter of ‘cheap grace’ – the very idea that The Cost of Discipleship was most firmly opposed to.  As for the resurrection, while not denying it completely, Borg is rather dismissive of the need to treat the resurrection as historical. It is then interesting to see what Borg makes of 1 Corinthians 15, the longest discourse on the resurrection in the bible. He ignores most of it, only using an English translation of soma pneumatikon as “spiritual body” to mean something that is not physical. For an in-depth study on this topic, I would refer Borg and any of his readers to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whether you agree with Borg or disagree with him, you have to admit that he’s a good communicator. The book is well written though (and I did mention this to the publishers) the American spelling and grammar mistakes were left in, even though he has a different publisher in the US. There are a few times when he comes across as slightly patronising, but he has made a good effort to make himself understandable to the general reader. This is a book for those who ask the question “Who is this Jesus, anyway?” Some of Borg’s answers I find enlightening, some I think miss the mark. Borg’s is a voice to take note of, though I would add, as a word of caution, not in isolation.

“Many Scholars” and the argument from authority

Having reflected on some of the methodology that Marcus Borg outlines at the start of his book, ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a revolutionary’ I wanted to use another aspect of the book to explore something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: the argument from authority.

I’m guessing most of you are familiar with the basic outline of the argument from authority, but if not you can read a good primer here. There is another manifestation of it which Rational Wiki omits, but which I see from time to time. It is the appeal to “many scholars” or “most scholars” when you wish to convince your readers that you are not a crackpot and have the support of the majority of well-educated men & women.

In reading through Borg’s book, he employs it multiple times when he wishes to push forward an unorthodox idea. An example of this would be his advocacy of the Q hypothesis in the authorship of the synoptic gospels. One of the most insidious things about this argument is that the terms ‘many’ and ‘most’ are used interchangeably. At times, Borg does acknowledge the existence of an alternative point of view, but not always. I wouldn’t mind so much if he actually gave some references, but in citing these many scholars, he fails to name any. Given the nature of the views he espouses, I would suspect that he has in mind his fellow members of the now-defunct Jesus Seminar (pun intented) but one can’t be certain, given the lack of citation.

It brings to mind the motto of the Royal Institution, “Nullus in verba” roughly meaning “nothing on the word of another” or “take nobody’s word for it.” If we were to apply the same of critical thinking that Borg endorses us to, then we must be sceptical about his claim to have the support of many other experts in the field. If they are so numerous, why not name them? In some places in the book, he does provide references, making the inconsistency all the more suspicious. 

Further thoughts

All this does bring to mind some other thoughts I had a while back concerning the argument from authority, its limitations and misuses. In its purest form, it is a logical fallacy, though I would encourage you to look out for times when it may be misapplied.

Whenever I watch the news, I usually notice how ‘expert opinions’ are valued. If there’s a story about the economy, why not have someone who’s job title is “chief economist” take part in an interview? If there’s been a dramatic incident, who better to talk to than an eyewitness? There is good sense in opting for the best informed view, as one might reasonably expect their view to be more reliable than those of the average man or woman plucked off the street. Here, the argument from authority can get a bit blurry. Are we meant to take their word as authoritative or merely informative?

At the same time, applying nullus in verba in all walks of life is not a practical option. It’s an argument I sometimes have with those who take a Dawkinsian view of faith and claim that they don’t use it, though it’s an argument I have grown weary of having over and over again. Let me give an example to illustrate.

One of the first things I do in the mornings is check to see if my train is on time. If I read that there are cancellations or delays I act on trust that the information is more or less correct. I may skip breakfast or otherwise not take as much time as I normally do in getting out of the front door. What I don’t have is the luxury of doing is conductive any great enquiry as to whether the trains are delayed or by how much. I just act on the best information I have. That’s what it means to act on faith. You don’t necessarily settle for not knowing, but you do act on what evidence you do have, even if it’s not complete or conclusive.