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Some Reflections on C. S. Lewisʼ “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”

C.S. Lewis Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism

By Dr. A. J Mattill, Jr. [with additions by Edward T. Babinski]

[This article originally appeared without additions in The Journal of Faith and Thought, Spring, 1985, a publication that was distributed at Montclair State College, Montclair, New Jersey, and sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Montclair, N.J.]

I. Destructive Divines

In this address to priests of the Church of England, C. S. Lewis charges that “the undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism.”[1] On this point Lewis is absolutely correct. New Testament scholars do deserve the major blame (or credit?) for this work of demolition. As we reflect on Lewisʼs remarks, we shall see precisely how the destructive divines undermine “the old orthodoxy.”

II. Distrusting the Divines as Literary Critics

A. Jonah, John, and Jesus

To defend orthodoxy, Lewis challenges the authority of New Testament experts, “the authority in deference to whom we are asked to give up a huge mass” of age-old beliefs (153) Lewis is “sceptical about this authority” because specialists in New Testament lack “literary judgment”(154). They fail to reconstruct convincingly the genesis of biblical tests: “what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences”(158).

An example of their poor judgment is their classification of the Fourth Gospel as a “spiritual romance,” as “a poem not a history” (154).

Lewis may well be correct in claiming that most, if not all, New Testament scholars are more or less incompetent as literary critics, since they spend their time in detailed study of the New Testament and lack “a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general” (154). Lewis, however, in criticizing the literary acumen of Johannine students, ensnares himself. He accuses them of “crass insensitivity” in judging the Fourth Gospel by the same canons as the book of Jonah, for any competent literary critic could recognize that the former is a history whereas the latter is “a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident” (154).

Lewis here is repeating his earlier assessment of Jonah, when he placed Jonah at the opposite end of a scale of historical writings from the memoirs of Davidʼs court (2 Samuel 9-20, 1 Kings 1-2), Mark, or Acts.[2]

What Lewis fails to note is that Jesus himself regarded Jonah as a historical book, factual and authentic. Jonah was a sign to Jesus’ generation. The men of Nineveh repented at his preaching, and ‘‘as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the big fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-42; 16:1-4, Luke 11:29-32).

If Lewis is correct about the non-historical nature of the book of Jonah, then Jesus lacked literary judgment. And if Jesus cannot be trusted even as a literary critic, how can he be trusted in spiritual matters as Lord and Savior? Lewis can hardly shore up Christian orthodoxy by undercutting Jesus’ authority.

It is, of course, possible that Matthew and Luke err in their reporting of Jesus’ attitude toward Jonah. If so, Matthew and Luke are not the dependable historians Lewis would like them to be. Or it may be that Jonah is a historical book and Jesus, Matthew, and Luke are reliable literary authorities after all. But that would call into question Lewisʼs competence as a critic and his distrust of New Testament scholarship.

B. Messiah and Megalomania

Furthermore, Lewis seems unaware of the fact that the more trust one puts in the Fourth Gospelʼs portrait of Jesus the more difficult it is to defend the sanity of Jesus. Thus psychologists have found that the megalomania of Johnʼs Jesus mounts ceaselessly, for he is continually occupied with his ego, openly proclaiming his messianic dignity (John 6:29,35,38,40,47-58; 7:38; 8:12, 11:25-26; 14:6,13-14). By way of contrast, the Jesus of the Synoptics keeps his messiahship a secret (Mark 9:9, etc.). Thus the combined Jesus of all four gospels sometimes proclaims himself as Messiah and sometimes refrains from doing so, which is conduct like that of paranoids (see also below, C.12).

Further, Johnʼs Jesus speaks in an affected and unnatural manner, and has ideas of persecution and moods of depression. John 7:16-20 shows Jesus’ idea of persecution: he reproaches his hearers for seeking his life, who in turn accuse him of being possessed: “You have a demon! Who seeks to kill you?” And sometimes Jesus was liable to groundless moodiness: “Now my soul has become troubled” (12:27). And according to John 12:28-29, Jesus heard a voice from heaven proclaiming his coming glorification—a typical example of an illusion.

Addressing these texts, Albert Schweitzer was able to defend Jesus’ sanity only by discarding the Fourth Gospel as a source for the historical Jesus.[3]

C. The Spiritual Gospel and the Synoptics

Even if Lewis is correct in classifying the Fourth Gospel as something other than a “spiritual romance,” it is hardly the “reportage…pretty close up to the facts” that he thinks it is” (“Modern Theology,” 155), for it is too different from the Synoptics in style, chronology, theology, and omissions and additions to be straight history. Thus already about A.D. 230 Clement of Alexandria labeled John, probably more truly than anyone before or since, “a spiritual gospel,” to suggest that John is more interested in the spiritual or mystical or theological meaning of Jesus’ words and the events of his life than in Lewisʼs close-up reportage. John concentrates more on religious truths than on historical facts.

But so far as the defense of Christian faith is concerned, the crucial matter is not that of correctly identifying the genre of the Fourth Gospel but that of whether John can be reconciled with the Synoptics. Critical investigators find this reconciliation difficult in the extreme, if not impossible.[4]

Lewis fails to notice that “the spiritual gospel” contradicts the Synoptics in numerous ways:

  1. Jesus does not tell a single parable in the entire Gospel of John. But according to the earlier three Gospels Jesus spoke to the people in parable upon parable. Also compare the earlier Gospel of Luke that mentions a parable about “Lazarus, a poor beggar” who dies and goes to Abrahamʼs bosom and a rich man suffering in Hades begs that Lazarus be raised from the death and sent back to warn others but this Lazarus is not allowed to go because “they wonʼt believe even if someone is raised from the dead.” Compare that parable about a beggar named Lazarus who does not return from the dead with the later version in the Gospel of John about a real person named “Lazarus,” who is not a beggar this time, but himself a wealthy man who IS raised from the dead in a spectacular miracle at the end of Gospel of John that is found nowhere in the previous Gospels. The author of the Gospel of John even moves the “turning-of-the-tables-in-the-Temple” episode to the beginning of his new Gospel, to make room for his new story about the “raising of Lazarus” at its end, and to suggest that it was this new miracle that made the Pharisees determined to get rid of Jesus instead of the “turning of tables” episode as told in the earlier three Gospels.—E.T.B.

  2. Whereas the account of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:9 (cf. 1:4 and 10:18) leaves open the suspicion that John was greater than Jesus and that Jesus was sinful, John 1:29-34 and 3:26 eliminate these suspicions.

  3. Matthew 11:2-6 and Luke 7:18-23 agree that John the Baptist wavers in faith in Jesus as Messiah; but according to the Fourth Gospel (1:16, 29-34 and 3:27-30) John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as Messiah from first to last—even calling him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

  4. According to the Synoptics, Jesus began his ministry only after John the Baptist had been imprisoned (Matthew 4:12, Mark 1:14, Luke 3:18-20), whereas according to the Fourth Gospel their ministries overlapped (3:22-30; 4:1-2), John the Baptist was not yet in prison when Jesus’ ministry began.

  5. According to Matthew 11:14, 17:13, and Mark 9:13, John the Baptist is Elijah, whereas John 1:21 denies this identification.

  6. In the Synoptics, Jesus visits Jerusalem only once, for a week, at the end of his life (Matthew 21-27, Mark 11-15, Luke 19-23), whereas in John Jesus makes four visits to Jerusalem (2:13, 5:1, 7114, 12:12), the last one being a stay of some six months up to his crucifixion. Thus in the Synoptics the main scene of Jesus’ ministry is in Galilee, whereas in John the main scene is in Judea and Jerusalem, with only occasional withdrawals to Galilee (John 2:1-12, 4:35-5:1, 6:1-7:14).

  7. According to Matthew (15:21-29, 16:13-20) and Mark (7:24-31, 8:27-30) Jesus makes two journeys to the North (Tyre and Sidon, and Caesarea-Philippi), whereas in Luke and John he makes no northern excursions.

  8. In the Synoptics there is only one Passover (Matthew 26:1; Mark 14:1; Luke 22:1), giving Jesus a ministry of about one year, whereas in John there are three, possibly four, Passovers (2:13; 5:17; 6:4; 11:55), giving Jesus a two-or- three-year ministry or more.

  9. In the Synoptics, Jesus cleanses the temple at the close of his ministry (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48), in John, at the beginning (2:13-22). And according to Matthew 21, Jesus cleanses the temple on Palm Sunday, according to Mark 11, on Palm Monday.

  10. In Mark 11:18 (and possibly Luke 19:47) Jesus’ cleansing of the temple motivates the Jewish authorities to kill Jesus, whereas in John 11:53 the motivation stems from Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, and the cleansing of the temple in John 2:13-22 has nothing to do with the final plot of the Jews.

  11. The Synoptics date Jesus’ crucifixion on the day of the Passover (Matthew 26:171 Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7), whereas John places it on the day before the Passover, and at a different hour of the day (John 13:1,29; 18:28; 19:14,31,42). [Biblical scholars suspect that the reason for changing the day and hour of Jesus’ death in the last written Gospel was to suit the theological notion of its author that Jesus was “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” a notion the author preached early in his Gospel, putting it into the mouth of John the Baptist—and bringing it up again at the moment of Jesus’ death. Therefore he altered Jesus’ day and hour of execution so it would coincide with the day and hour the Passover lambs were being slain. Unfortunately, having altered the day (and hour) to try and make a theological point, the Johnnine author never concerned himself with the fact that Passover lambs were not slain for “sin.” The animal in the Hebrew Bible that did have the “sins of the people” placed on it was not a lamb at all, but a goat—neither was the goat slain but kept alive in order to carry away the sins of the people into the wilderness, i.e., the “scape goat.” I guess for the author of the Fourth Gospel, the lamb illustration was “close enough.”—E.T.B.]

  12. The Jesus of the Synoptics is a charismatic healer-exorcist and end-time Suffering Servant who suspects or perhaps believes himself destined to return as the Son of Man to inaugurate the supernatural kingdom of God (especially Matthew 10:23; Mark 10:18), whereas in the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the Son-of-Man-Logos incarnate on earth, the God-Man who exorcises no demons but who proclaims a sacramental, mystical, physical, churchly, eschatological doctrine of redemption. Itʼs “sacramental” because baptism and the Lordʼs Supper produce “the new birth;” itʼs “mystical” because these sacraments produce “union” with God and Christ (“we shall be one”); itʼs “physical” because these sacraments are physical means that produce a physical effect, the glorification of the flesh to make the flesh capable of resurrection; itʼs “churchly” because these sacraments must be administered by the church, for only in the church can the Spirit unite with the elements to produce salvation; and itʼs “eschatological” because these sacraments produce the resurrection of the flesh.

  13. The necessity of being “born again” is something found only in the last written Gospel, John, and portrayed as a teaching delivered “at night” to a single person in John chapter 3, while everyone who doubts it is “damned already.” [sic]

    Whereas according to the Synoptic Gospels Jesus spoke openly during the day to whomever asked him “how to inherit eternal life,” and placed obedience to inter-personal commandments, such as honoring oneʼs parents, and not stealing from other people, first and foremost on the list of “how to inherit eternal life,” i.e., rather than saying “ye must be born again.” Jesus also repeated as another Hebrew teacher had before him, that the whole of the law and the prophets could be summed up as “love God and your neighbor as yourself.” The Synoptic Gospel even agree that Jesus taught people to pray to God for direct forgiveness as in the “Our Father,” and that Jesus stressed the necessity of works above all, that being the basis of the separation of the “sheep and the goats” in the “final judgment” parable in Luke, and the basis of the teachings in the “Sermon on the Mount” as well. —E.T.B.

  14. In the Synoptics, especially in Mark (1:11, 25, 34, 441 9:9, etc.), Jesus keeps his Messiahship a secret so that as late as his entry into Jerusalem the multitudes hail him as a prophet (Matthew 21:10), whereas in the Fouth Gospel Jesus proclaims himself and is proclaimed and recognized as Messiah right from the first (1:16,29-34,41,45,49,51; 2:11,18; 3:13-30; 4:25-26,42; 5:18-47; 6:25-69; 7:28-29; 9:37; 10:25-26,30-36). [And only in the Fourth Gospel is John the Baptist portrayed declaring Jesus to be “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” right from the first.—E.T.B.]

  15. Jesus’ concern for Israel as depicted in Matthew 10:5-6 and 15:24 is unknown to the Johannine Christ (John 5:45-471 8:31-47). Instead, more than sixty times the word(s) “Jews” and/or “The Jews,” are used to depict Jesus’ enemies, even by Jesus himself. [Since Jesus himself was a “Jew” the repeated use of such an eminently broad term makes greater sense if it was not spoken by the historical Jesus, but was a phrase that began coming up more often only after Jesus’ death, at a time when a rift continued to grow between Christian communities and “The Jews.”—E.T.B.]

  16. During the Lukan Pentecost (Luke 24:491 Acts 2:1-4) the Spirit comes directly upon the disciples without their having to be baptized, whereas in the Johannine Pentecost (John 20:19-23) the Spirit does not communicate himself directly but only as the second stage of Jesus’ baptism of the apostles—The foot-washing of the apostles by Jesus (John 13) being the first stage.

  17. In the Synoptics Jesus administers the elements at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26 29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-26), whereas in John the Spirit comes only after the Ascension (John 7:31-39; 16:7) and therefore Jesus cannot distribute the elements, for the purposes of the elements is to convey the Spirit.

  18. In the Synoptics Jesus is under the Law (Matthew 5:17-20) and observes the Passover Meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7), whereas Jesus in John is not under the Law and therefore does not partake in the Passover Meal (John 13:1). Accordingly, Johnʼs Jesus refers to “your Law” (John 8:17; 10:34; cf. 7:19; 18:31) and “their Law” (15:25).

  19. According to Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, Jesus during his lifetime gives the apostles authority to bind and loose (= forgive sins). Whereas in John 20:23 the authority to forgive sins can be conferred upon them only after they have been properly enlightened by the Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection.

Whether or not New Testament scholars lack “literary judgment,” the fact remains that they have succeeded brilliantly in delineating the differences and contradictions between John and the Synoptics. We can readily see how devastating this criticism is to “Christian orthodoxy” when we recall that orthodoxyʼs picture of Christ is based largely on the Fourth Gospel.

D. Church and Canon

There is an important part of literary criticism which Lewis neglects, perhaps because he does not really distrust the divines at this point, namely the question of authorship: Who wrote the books of the Bible?

As Lewis must have known, critical scholarship rejects the traditional authorship of many of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament canon, and has been even more successful in setting aside the traditional authorship of numerous Old Testament books. Whereas the church has claimed that the Bible was written by some forty amanuenses of God, with one viewpoint, we can now quip that the Bible was written by some four hundred authors and redactors with four hundred different points of view. The church, on the other hand, has claimed inspired prudence in choosing aright the books of the canon as books really written by the authoritative persons whose names they bear.[5]

But the churchʼs claim to special inspiration in forming the canon is obviously endangered if the church erred in even one instance. And if the church made as many mistakes as scholarship indicates, then the churchʼs claim to inspired prudence in selecting the books of the canon is thoroughly shattered.

And what becomes of the “old orthodoxy” or of any form of Christianity without an infallible canon and without an infallible church which determined the canon in the first place? [Let alone the further claims made by each church to be able to systematically interpret all such books in the most unquestionable and inspired fashion.—E.T.B.]

III. Distrusting the Divines on Miracles

A. Straining at Gnats

Lewis distrusts the destructive divines not only because they are incompetent literary critics but also because they constantly operate on the principle that “the miraculous does not occur” (“Modern Theology,” 158) and therefore they reject as unhistorical all passages which narrate miracles. Even more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection,” they strain “at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes” (153).

This latter charge is certainly true of John Knox, whom Lewis does not mention. Knox affirms the resurrection of Jesus as a “special act of God,” but places it in “an altogether different category” from the miracles recorded of Jesus’ earthly career. “Speaking broadly,” Knox would say “that they did not” happen. For one thing, “the element of the miraculous grows in bulk and importance as one moves from our earlier sources to our later. Paulʼs letters, our earliest literary sources, say nothing of any miracles in the earthly life.” But in the Synoptics we find an abundance of miracles: healing powers, calming the sea, walking on water, multiplying loaves and fishes, raising the dead, and supernatural portents attending Jesus’ birth and death. But the miracles of the Fourth Gospel “are greater and vastly more impressive.”[6]

Lewisʼs logic is superior to that of Knox. If there is a God of miracles who is committed to Jesus’ mission and acted mightily to raise him from the dead when Jesus was really graveyard dead, why should we strain at the lesser miracles recorded in the Gospels?

Yet we should note that this inconsistency among liberal biblical scholars arises not only from a skepticism about, or even denial of, lesser miracles, but it also grows out of the nature of our sources, which do display a suspicious growth of the miraculous from early to later sources. But when liberals discard the smaller miracles they reject large portions of the gospel records and thus make the gospels unreliable as sources for the ministry of Jesus. And if the accounts of lesser miracles cannot be trusted, then there is no sufficient reason to trust the accounts of the super-miracle of Jesus’ resurrection.

B. Jonah and Joshua

Lewis, of course, is also correct in finding that many liberal exegetes assume that miracles do not occur. Yet Lewis himself has no easy time with miracles. In his Miracles, he sidesteps the question of Old Testament miracles, except for a footnote on p. 139, where he apparently ranks them on a kind of continuum from early myth to later history, culminating in the New Testament “where truth has become completely historical.”

As we have mentioned, Lewis places Jonah at the opposite end of the scale from the historical memoirs of Davidʼs court. Thus Lewis would seem to be rejecting the miraculous aspects of the Johan story. At least he displays none of the robust faith of the parson who preached that God could have made a hotel in the “whale” for Johan had he so desired. And Lewis should tell us why he strains at the Jonah miracles when Jesus himself accepted them at face value.

We may presume that Lewis would also deny the miracle of the sunʼs standing still (Joshua 10). Here again Lewis is of little faith as compared to a devout lady in the first church I served. She said that if she could not believe that the sun stood still she would have to give up her Christian faith. At the time her view seemed extreme to me, but now I admit that the line between questionable and non-questionable miracles is never easy to agree upon one you begin to question one miraculous tale in the Bible. If an almighty God cannot stay the course of the sun when he chooses, what makes Lewis think God can work any of the biblical miracles, especially the raising of Lazarus and Jesus?

In short, it is not only “destructive divines” who balk at swallowing every miracle whole, Lewis himself affirmed the miracles of Jesus but doubted or denied certain miracles of the Old Testament. Nor to my knowledge did Lewis plumb to any great degree the miracles of the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12), the resurrection of the bodies of “many saints” (Matthew 27:52-53), or the miracles in Acts (except to admit late in his life that he doubted the literal truth of the story in Acts in which Peter allegedly acts with Godʼs miraculous power and judgment to strike dead two church members, a husband and wife, for having lied about not withholding all of their earthly possessions from the church. In that case and in other equally grotesque accounts in both testaments, Lewis argued that the doctrine of the “goodness of God” must take precedence over any notion of the “inerrancy of Scripture.” How liberal of him.

C. Supernatural Short Circuits

When we behold Lewisʼs labored defense of Jesus’ miracles, we can better understand why liberal theologians deny even Jesus’ miracles. According to Lewis, the account in John 2:1-11 of Jesus’ turning the water into wine is, contrary to liberal criticism, no parable but a miracle “meant perfectly literally, for this refers to something which, if it happened, was well within the reach of our senses and our language” (Miracles, 81; “Modern Theology,” 152).

Lewis reasons as follows: This miracle 1s not isolated from other divine acts. God does what he has always been doing, making wine. God is always turning water into wine, “by creating a vegetable organism that can turn water, soil, and sunlight into a juice which will, under proper conditions, become wine.” At Cana, “God, now incarnate, short circuits the process: makes wine in a moment: uses earthenware jars instead of vegetable fibers to hold the water. But he uses them to do what He is always doing. The miracle consists in the short cut” (Miracles, 141).

In this way Lewis believes he has established the credibility of this and other miracles of Jesus by showing their “fitness” to nature—they are “invasions” of a supernatural Power, but they are not arbitrary invasions by an alien god. Rather they are appropriate invasions by the sovereign God of nature (Miracles, 62, 137).

But for me, and many modern people, it is precisely these outside “invasions,” “interruptions,” and “short circuitings” of the usual course of nature that are so difficult to accept, no matter how appropriate Lewis may find them to be, for nature appears to do “all things spontaneously of herself without the meddling of the gods.”[7]

And it is not too clear just what Lewisʼs argument from “fitness” proves. When has nature of herself made wine? Nature of course produces grapes, but without Lewisʼs “proper conditions” (= human intervention) she makes no wine, much less the highest quality wine, as at Cana, and year after year, as regularly as the rising and setting of the sun.

Think of the supernatural short circuits involved at Cana: instant wine without grapes: no time or effort needed to grow the grapes, or dry them, or crush them, or strain out the juice from stems, seeds, and pulp, or ferment the juice for several weeks. What a display of heavenly power!

And even if such short circuiting is credible, Lewis overlooks Johnʼs own clues that the narrative is not cold reporting. In the words of so conservative a commentator as William Barclay, “no wedding party on earth could drink one hundred and eighty gallons of wine”—which to Barclay means that “no need on earth can exhaust the grace of Christ.”[8]

Suspicion is also cast upon the historicity of the miracle at Cana by the fact that it is found only in the Fourth Gospel—surely a mighty work of this magnitude would have been remembered in other traditions as well.

And not only is the miracle peculiar to John. Of Jesus’ seven miracles in the Fourth Gospel, only this one has no parallel in the Synoptics. This story is really the Christian counterpart to the pagan legends of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who at his annual festival in his temple of Elis filled three empty kettles with wine—no water needed—and on the fifth of January wine instead of water gushed from a spring in his temple at Andros. If we believe Jesus’ miracle, why should we not believe Dionysusʼs? Both are “within the reach of our senses and our language,” and both are appropriate to nature, to use Lewisʼs criteria of credibility.

IV. Eschatology and Evolution

A. Eschatological Errors

If literary criticism and the denial of miracles are devastating to Christianity, how much more so is the study of the New Testamentʼs teaching on “last things.” Here more clearly than anywhere else we see the truth of Lewisʼs charge that New Testament scholarship is largely responsible for destroying Christian faith.[9]

A large segment of New Testament specialists is convinced that the people of the New Testament believed they were living in the last century, not the first. Jesus’ title, “Messiah,” means “inaugurator of the end.” Thus Jesus came preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15, similarly Mark 9:1, 13:30, Matthew 10:23, 23:29-36; Luke 12:49-50).

But if Jesus held such beliefs, as Lewis himself admits that Jesus did,[10] then Jesus was mistaken on the all-important matter of last things. Moreover, he made solemn promises he failed to keep. And according to the standard of Deuteronomy 18:22, Jesus would be a false prophet, since that which he spoke in the name of the Lord did not come to pass.

Even if Christianity is a way of life based on Jesus’ ethical teachings, the apocalyptic approach to the New Testament has destroyed that basis by showing how Jesus’ teachings were applicable primarily for the short interval before the final judgment of the world, rather than suited primarily as a code of conduct for all ages.

And if Jesus erred on last things and on ethics, he may also have been wrong about God and providence and salvation.[11]

The apocalyptic approach to the New Testament also contends that one reason Luke wrote Luke-Acts was to help fulfill the end-time program so that the kingdom could come. The kingdom could not come until the gospel had been preached to all nations (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:6-8) and thus Luke wrote to promote Paulʼs Gentile mission to usher in the kingdom. Some years ago I read a paper to a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in which I sought to prove Lukeʼs imminent expectation and his purpose of bringing about the end by promoting the world mission. There was another professor there who had just finished reading his paper on John, in which he rather freely relocated verses in that Gospel. And yet in spite of his liberalism in this respect he was some what shocked at my thesis, asking, “What does this do to our faith?”

My answer now is, “It stretches it to the breaking point.” And Lewis would no doubt agree. Paul also believed he was living at a time when the end was about to come (I Corinthians 10:11). He was convinced that since Jesus for some unexplained reason did not bear the full mass of the predestined amount of suffering, then he, Paul, would make up what was lacking in this suffering and then the end would come (Colossians 1:24).

As the Christian historian and apologist, Paul Johnson, admitted, “The whole of Jesus’ work implied that the apocalypse was imminent; some of his sayings were quite explicit on the point… The prima facie view of the Jesus mission was that it was an immediate prelude to a Last Judgment. Hence the urgency of the Pentecostal task, an urgency which Paul shared throughout his life [‘…brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly…’ 2 Thes 3:1], so that his final hope was to carry the good news, while there was still time, to Spain—for him, ‘the ends of the earth.’” [12]

It is highly probable that Jesus, Luke, and Paul thought of their work as fulfilling the conditions for the soon coming final judgment (just as some pre-Christian Jewish sects also believed and prayed for, as attested to in passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls and also Josephus). But their predictions shattered like a melon on the rock of historical events. Instead of the kingdom came the church.

As the Catholic historian Han Kung admitted, “According to the Gospels, the man from Nazareth virtually never used the word ‘church.’ There are no sayings of Jesus spoken in public that programmatically call for a community of the elect and for the founding of a church. Biblical critics are agreed on this point: Jesus did not proclaim a church, nor did he proclaim himself, but the kingdom of God. Governed by the awareness of living in an end time, Jesus wanted to announce Godʼs imminent kingdom.” [13]

Many passages indicate how pervasive this imminent expectation was throughout the New Testament. See for instance the Bible verses listed in Dr. James D. Taborʼs “New Testament Texts on the Immanence of the End”
Apocalyptic Studies, Dr. James D. Tabor
And in “The Lowdown on Godʼs Showdown” by Edward T. Babinski
The Lowdown on Godʼs Showdown
As well as the discussion of “The historical Jesus” in the many published works and recorded lectures (available from The Teaching Company) of Dr. Bart Ehrman.
The Teaching Company:Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Dr. Tabor also points out, “In the [end-times chapters of the gospels], Mk 13, Mat 24, and Lk 21, Jesus connects the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple to the more general ‘signs of the end of the age’: false prophets, war and disruptions, earthquakes, famines, pestilence, persecution, and a world-wide proclamation of his message… The scheme is very tightly connected, and Jesus declares at the end that “this generation shall not pass away until all these thing are fulfilled” [Mk 13:30]. [14] To which may be added these observations of Dr. Strauss: “Not only does Mark in 13:24 [a parallel to Matthew 24:29], by the words, ‘in those days, after that tribulation,’ place the [‘coming of the Son of Man’] in uninterrupted chronological succession with [the tribulation connected with the destruction of Jerusalem]; but also, shortly after the [coming of the Son of Man] is discussed in each of the narratives, we find the assurance that all this will be witnessed by the existing generation.” [15] I have myself pointed out that the eutheos of Matthew 24:29 should be translated “immediately” as elsewhere [in the New Testament] and means that at once after the tribulation connected with the destruction of Jerusalem there were to occur cosmic disasters and the coming of the Son of Man to write the finis to the world drama. [16]
In short, “destructive divines” have discovered that New Testament writers looked forward to the personal return of Christ in their own generation and that the nearness of Jesus’ return was the regulative idea in their lives.[17]

The implications of this miscalculation are enormous. If the apostles and others were mistaken as to the immediacy of the end, then they may have been mistaken about Jesus’ messiahship, on which that expectation was founded. [There were indeed no less than 10 known messianic claimants in the first century—so apocalyptic expectations ran high for some first century Jewish sects, like “the Egyptian” whom Josephus says led ten thousand or more people into the desert to await the final judgment; and others who tried to expel Roman rule via rebellion, expecting God to lend a supernatural hand.—E.T.B.]

There were even some Jewish Christians in the times of the earliest churches who denied that Jesus had risen, for, they reasoned, the resurrection appearances were only subjective, and the new age which was supposed to begin with Jesus’ resurrection had not materialized. So they believed that Jesus would rise like other people when the final resurrection takes place.

This overview, achieved by New Testament scholars in the realm of first century apocalypticism leaves little doubt that Lewis, largely for other reasons, correctly assessed that “the undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism” (“Modern Theology,” 153).

B. Adam and Jesus

But we cannot lay all the blame (or credit?) upon Lewisʼs destructive divines. Their work has been reinforced by experts in other fields, especially in the sciences and comparative religion, who have shown that Adam and Eve were not historical persons and that the Fall of Genesis 3 was not a historical event.[18]

In this connection we are reminded of Augustine (354-430), who shrewdly observed that the whole Christian religion may be summed up in the actions of two men, Adam and Jesus, the one to ruin us, the other to save us.[19]

And since the fall and curse of Genesis 3 are not events which actually happened, we cannot explain why people and animals suffer so much in a divinely created world. As a result, the Christian belief in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God suffers shipwreck. And that means it is allover for Christianity and other theistic religions. Hence the divines, with assistance from other researchers, have been even more destructive than Lewis feared.

V. Hoping against Hope

Lewis concludes his address with the hope that “the whole thing will blow over” (“Modern Theology,” 162) .But, as we have seen by probes into several areas, modern theology and biblical criticism have done their work of demolition too well to “blow over.” Contrary to Lewis, we can never “stick to mere textual criticism of the old sort, Lachmannʼs sort” (“Modern Theology,” 163).

In fact, Lewis himself is too badly infected with skeptical higher criticism to turn back the hands of time to the days of Karl Lachmann (1793-1851). Lewis declares he is no fundamentalist (163), he admits that the Bible “may no doubt contain errors” (155), he, as we have seen, regards Jonah and Job as unhistorical (154) J he doubts, denies, or overlooks many biblical miracles, and he finds Jesus mistaken about the nearness of the end.

Lewis, in other words, is on the slippery slope sliding toward the he warns priests against.[20]

VI. Unringing the Bell

To sum up: We have granted that there is much truth in Lewisʼs critique of “modern theology and biblical criticism.” Biblical scholars, especially New Testament critics, have indeed undermined Christianity. They may, as a whole, not be fully competent in every department of literary criticism. They often do strain at the gnats of Jesus’ own miracles and yet swallow the camel of Jesus’ resurrection. And many biblical theologians do assume that miracles do not occur.

But the fact that Lewis often speaks truth does not mean that he has succeeded in undoing the destructive work of the divines, for that destruction lies in areas not effectively touched by Lewisʼs arguments: John and the Synoptics, authorship, the credibility of miracles, eschatology, and evolution.

If Lewisʼs successors want to save Christianity they will have to reconcile John and the Synoptics, restore the traditional authorship of the biblical books, make credible the divine “short circuits,” explain away the eschatological errors of the New Testament, resurrect Adam as a historical figure, and restore Jesus as a credible end-time prophet. Then we can have a Christian orthodoxy based upon the actions of Adam and Jesus.

And beyond all that, if Lewisʼs disciples have slid as far down the slippery slope as Lewis had, they will need to show us how to put on the brakes to avoid sliding to the bottom of complete apostasy.

In my estimate, however, the destructive divines, with assistance from discerning thinkers in other fields, have done their work so convincingly that the chances of the needed restoration of Christianity are as small as the chances of unringing the bell or of reconstructing the pig out of the sausage.

Now we know, if we know anything, that evolution dissolves the historical Adam and apocalyptic dissolves the historical Jesus. Hence the entire Christian system collapses, for there was none to ruin us, none to save us. [Or to cite Benjamin Franklinʼs succinct summation, “Original sin makes as little sense as imputed righteousness.”—E.T.B.]


End Notes

  1. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1980), p. 53. Further references to this work will appear parenthetically in the text.

  2. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947), p. 139.

  3. Schweitzer, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, E.T., Charles R. Joy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1913, 1948).

  4. See especially Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul, E.T., William Montgomery (New York: Henry Holt, 1931), pp. 334-75, and Hans Windisch, Johannes und die synoptiker (Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 12, Leipzig, 1926).

  5. The present situation is epitomized by recent studies of the Fourth Gospel. In 1907 the papal Biblical Commission declared that the Apostle John and no other was the author of this gospel. Now the stress is on a number of sources and traditions from various stages of theological development. At least one Roman Catholic scholar finds that there were four phases of Johannine Christianity with four competing Christologies, four conflicting eschatologies, four opposing communities, and three contradictory gospels, each claiming to present the only true meaning of Jesus and his message. See Mat till, “Johannine Communities behind the Fourth Gospel: Georg Richterʼs Analysis,” Theological Studies 38 (1977) : 294-315.

  6. Knox, On the Meaning of christ (New York: Scribnerʼs, 1947), pp. 74-83.

  7. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book 2.1090.

  8. Barclay, John (Daily Study Bible, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), Vol. I, p. 89.

  9. See G. H. P. Thompson, “Ephesians 3:13 and 2 Timothy 2:10 in the Light of Colossians 1:24,” The Expository Times 71 (1959-60) : 187-89, Mattill, Jesus and the Last Things (Gordo, AL: Flatwoods Free Press, 1983), and Mattill, Luke and the Last Things (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1979).

  10. Lewis, The Worldʼs Last Night (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, n.d.), pp. 98-99, where he admits that Jesus was mistaken and attributes it to the limits imposed by the Incarnation. But how many other mistakes did Jesus make because of these limits?

  11. Lewis in Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1953, pp. 40-41,48) argues that “Jesus was (and is) God” on the basis of the “liar-lunatic-lord” argument. Robert M. Price has successfully refuted this argument in his paper, “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord”-A False Trilemma (Auberry, CA: Society of Evangelical Agnostics, 1978). I would add that Jesus as a mystic living on the radiant summit of cosmic consciousness could announce he was the light of the world, one with the Father, and that anyone who had seen him had seen the Father (John 8:12; 10:30; 14:91). Yet as a good Jew he knew he was a man and not God (Mark 10:18). See Mattill, Jesus and the Last Things, p. 38, and Mat till, “God Incarnate: Myth or Truth?”, Perspectives in Religious Studies 7 (1980):227-36.

  12. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Atheneum, 1979), p.38.

  13. Hans Kung, The Catholic Church: A Short History

  14. James D. Tabor, “The Future,” What the Bible Really Says, eds. Morton Smith and R. Joseph Hoffman (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989), p. 48.

  15. David F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, chapter 115, “The Discourses of Jesus on His Second Advent. Criticism of the Different Interpretations.”

  16. A.J. Mattill Jr., “A Zoo-Full of Monsters,” The Journal of Faith and Thought (Montclair, N.J.: First Baptist Church of Montclair), Vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 1986), p. 16.

  17. One attempt to save face by inerrantist Christian apologists is to reinterpret “this generation” as “that generation,” i.e., to say that Jesus was addressing a much later generation, not his own. But, this explanation is also unacceptable. Jesus used the phrase “this generation” many times, unmistakably in reference to his contemporaries. It does not refer to people born two thousand years hence: It shall be required of this generation… [Lk 11:51]
    The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation… [Mat 12:41 = Lk 11:32]
    This is an evil generation… [Lk 11:29]
    This adulterous and sinful generation… [Mk 8:38]
    That upon you [the Pharisees] may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth. Truly, I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. [Mat 23:35-36]
    The final verse listed above is nearly identical to “Truly, I say to you, this generation shall not pass away until all these things take place,” so there is no doubt which “generation” Jesus was addressing. As one moderate evangelical Christian theologian, Dewey M. Beegle, has reminded Hal Lindsey fans:
    “If Jesus was referring to a distant future, the least he could have done was to say “that generation” and thus give his hearers a clue that the events he was discussing would occur in some future generation, not theirs. But ‘this’ is close to ‘that,’ and so [Hal Lindsey fans] just add a little filler. Cover things from this end and do not worry too much about how the disciples and early Christians understood things. [Dewey M. Beegle, Prophecy and Prediction (Ann Arbor, MI: Pryor Pettengill, 1978), pp. 212-213.]
    Even the Evangelical Christian scholar, F. F. Bruce, admitted:
    “The phrase ‘this generation’ is found too often on Jesus’ lips in this literal sense for us to suppose that it suddenly takes on a different meaning in the saying we are now examining. Moreover, if the generation of the end-time had been intended, ‘that generation’ would have been a more natural way of referring to it than ‘this generation.’” F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 227. Some Christian apologists point out that the word translated “generation” is derived from a Greek word whose root means “race.” So, Jesus may have been saying that “this race” shall not pass away until all these things take place. But there is no point in Jesus addressing either the human race or the Jewish race since in neither case is there any hint in the Bible that either “race” may cease to exist before the end of the world. What point would there be in such a vague prediction? It would be like saying, “At some time in the indefinite future all these things will take place.” It should also be noted that when the full word, not merely its root, is focused upon, Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrichʼs Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament cites not a single instance where the word means, “race.” And in the language that Jesus and his apostles were raised upon, Hebrew and Aramaic, there is not the least possibility of confusion between “generation” and “race.”
    Lastly, as A.J. Mattill Jr. has ascertained:
    “Of the 38 appearances of the word in the New Testament all have the temporal meaning, primarily that of ‘contemporaries.’ Our check of every instance in the New Testament verifies Olshausenʼs contention that the word is not used once in the New Testament in the sense of ‘race.’” [A.J. Mattill Jr., Luke and the Last Things (Dillsboro, NC: Western Carolina Press, 1979)]

  18. Mattill, What the Churches Wonʼt Tell You: The Seven Mighty Blows (Gordo, AL: Flatwoods Free Press [check the web for latest edition available, regularly updated], Mattill, A Religious Odyssey (Tuscaloosa: The Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, 1977); Mattill, “Abstract of Ingersol1 Attacks the Bible,” The American Rationalist 29 (Sept.-Oct. 19841:43; and Mattill, “Three Cheers for the Creationists!” Free Inquiry 21 (Spring 19821: 17-18.

  19. Augustine, On Original Sin 24.

  20. On the slide from belief in biblical inerrancy to agnosticism, see Mattill, “The Bible and the Battle of Faith,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 5 (19781: 54-58. DR. A. J. MATTILL, JR.ʼs other publications are available from Flatwoods Free Press)

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