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Deconstructing Jesus: Separating Fact from Fiction

July 26, 2016
Deconstructing Jesus: Separating Fact from Fiction

By Rollin Grams, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament

These are exciting days in Jesus studies. Much is being written on the historical Jesus, and intriguing studies in New Testament Christology have recently been published. Yet some of the works making it to print are intentionally trying to deconstruct the Jesus of orthodox Christianity. This article intends to address a few such challenges while recommending recent publications worth reading.

Deconstructing the Jesus of faith has been around in Modernist and now Postmodernist forms for some time. Herman Reimarus’s
Apology or Defence of the Rational Worshippers of God (1778) argued that Jesus was a pious Jew who called people to repentance and got himself killed in Jerusalem. His disciples then decided to steal His body and claim that He had risen from the dead so that they would not have to go back to work. Secrecy, conspiracy and scandal are not new to studies on Jesus. For those denying Jesus’ resurrection, such theories are standard fare (cf. Mt. 28.11-15).

Deconstructive Postmodernist scholars, however, seem willing to float theories primarily for the results they produce. The game is to construct alternative scenarios and see what happens: move Gnosticism into the 1st century, argue for different dates of manuscripts, imagine that Jesus’ tomb has been discovered, and so forth. New theories— ones touting secrets, conspiracies, and scandals—also sell well, as authors, publishers and bookshops have discovered. A number of works, such as those by Bart Ehrman, are aimed at undergraduates to unsettle their faith. His titles promote hype around secrecy, conspiracy and scandal, using words like “lost,” “battles,” “betrayer,” “misquoting Jesus” and “Bible fails.”

Consider how one deconstructs Jesus in a Postmodern age. First, argue that orthodox Christianity is less credible and perhaps even later than certain heresies because there were contending views on Jesus from the start. It is, of course, quite true that from the very beginning there were any number of responses to Jesus. The idea that Christianity first had a solid, orthodox trunk and only afterwards developed branches reaching out in heretical directions is clearly false. But the correct picture is not of an upside-down tree, with branches in all directions at the beginning and then a particular branch emerging from the mix asorthodoxy. There was a “normative Christianity” from the beginning. 

Five lines of argument are worth considering:

1. Orthodox churches in the 2nd century could trace their lineage back to their apostolic foundations (cf.Tertullian, Prescriptions Against Heresies; Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus (Eusebius,H.E. 5.24.2-7)).

2. Our canonical Gospels present the testimony of eyewitnesses.

3. Normative New Testament Christology is built out of its Jewish, especially Old Testament, roots.

4. Orthodox Christian tradition was preserved with due care for accuracy. Consider the important role of teachers in the community, the likely memorization of sayings of Jesus, the role of eyewitnesses in the community and the community’s high value of accurate memories of Jesus. Also consider the importance placed on apostolic custodians of the Church’s tradition, the assumption by New Testament authors that the churches knew traditions about Jesus, the Gospels’ historical interests in their choice of the genre of biography, the tendency to check prophecy with tradition and the control that a community exercised on the right telling of a story.

5. The early Church held a high Christology (e.g., Jesus seen as divine) from as early as we can tell. It did not develop from low (e.g., Jesus seen merely as a prophet) to high Christology over the rest of the 1st century. The evolutionary view is inherent in the title of Maurice Casey’s book, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God. Key 20th century works assumed it: Wilhelm Bousset’s Kurios Christos, John Hick’s Myth of God Incarnate and James Dunn’s Christology in the Making. 

Recently, however, strong challenges to this evolutionary view have appeared. Larry Hurtado notes that the earliest Church’s devotion to and worship of Jesus testify to its high Christology. Richard Bauckham argues that the earliest Church held a high Christology through its interpretation of the Old Testament. Gordon Fee argues exegetically that the New Testament’s earliest author, Paul, consistently held to a high Christology that was already in
the Church tradition. And Sean McDonough of Gordon-Conwell argues that the often neglected miracles of Jesus explain the early Church’s view that he was the agent of creation.

A second way to deconstruct Jesus is to rearrange the evidence from primary sources. What if one could argue that 2nd century Gnostic sources were either from the early 1st century or that they represent an early version of Christianity? What if the 200 or so verses that Matthew and Luke have in common, called ‘Q’, were taken as a complete perspective on Jesus held by a community, and then one focused on what was not in this imaginary document—Jesus’ death and resurrection! What if the Gospel of Thomas was actually written around AD 50—before the canonical Gospels? One essential feature of Postmodernist deconstruction is to see truth as communally (or locally) constructed. So, why not put forward 2nd
century Gnostic works, even if one does not subscribe to such views oneself, as an equally true or even preferabler epresentation of Jesus?

All this requires some discussion of the dating of documents. Consider, for example, the date of the Gospel of Thomas. Craig Evans has argued rather convincingly that the GT should be dated after AD 170, over against the view that it predates the canonical Gospels, as key scholars in the “Jesus Seminar” have maintained. Two of Evans’ arguments might be noted. First, to state the obvious, the GT quotes or alludes to various New Testament works, including the four Gospels! One must assume that there was an earlier version of the GT—but we have no such document. Second, the GT’s units of Jesus’ sayings are linked by Syrian catch words, and it often depends on Tatian’s Syrian Diatessaron, which was compiled around AD 170. It is surely a late 2nd century, Syrian work that shows Gnostic influences—hardly an early, reliable source for the historical Jesus.

A third way to deconstruct Jesus comes through archaeology. We should expect that archaeology will continue to provide us with further helpful discoveries to assess events in the Scriptures, including those in Jesus’ time. There is a lot more digging still to do in Israel! Yet archaeology’s revelation of “secrets from the earth” can also play into the deconstructive agenda. Some speculationis relatively innocuous, such as the discovery of a cave supposedly used by John the Baptist in Suba in 1999. Other speculation intends to deconstruct Christian faith, such as the claim that Jesus’ ossuary (bone box) has been discovered, along with family members, in a tomb in Talpiot. Judaism practiced a two-stage burial of the dead: an initial burial over the first year until only the bones were left, and then a second burial of the bones in a stone box. If Jesus’ bone box were to be discovered, that would be the end of Easter for most of us. Numerous problems with such a view have ably been pointed out by Craig Evans and Ben Witherington.

In conclusion, the peculiar arguments in recent deconstructions of Jesus are not simply the rehashing of views met already in Reimarus in the 18th
century as the Enlightenment was coming to a close. They come in new packaging for a consumerist, iconoclastic age, but also with new arguments. Yet more credible analyses of Jesus in the light of ancient texts and archaeology are providing us with exciting evidence about Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of all creation.

Dr. Rollin G. Grams is Associate Professor of New Testament and Director of the Robert C. Cooley Center for Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus. He served for many years as a missionary in theological education in Kenya, Ethiopia, Croatia and Singapore, and lectured and tutored at the Oxford (England) Centre for Mission Studies. He iscurrently a lecturer/doctoral program supervisor at a seminary in Prague, and SIM-USA theological education coordinator. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University.

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Pastoral Burnout: A More Common Problem Than You Might Think

July 21, 2016
Pastoral Burnout: A More Common Problem Than You Might Think

By Kenneth L. Swetland, Ph.D.
Senior Professor of Ministry

While burnout is not a common experience of pastors (although some observers think it is on the increase), it is by no means completely absent either. In my involvement for the last seven years with Gordon-Conwell’s Oasis ministry, a counseling support ministry for our alumni, I have observed what seems to be a growing phenomenon that I call “general malaise.” Sometimes it is manifest as depression or anxiety; but more often it is simply a weariness of the soul, wondering if what one is doing is effective, or matters. From this soul weariness, it’s a short step to burnout.

When we speak of burnout, we usually refer to being extremely tired and in need of a few days of rest in order to rebound with our usual energy and vision. But, when the medical community refers to burnout, it is a physical and emotional phenomenon that takes six to 12 months of rest to recover from. I know whereof I speak.

It was 50 years ago when I was a pastor in Rockport, MA, and had just completed my first year of ministry. On a beautiful June Saturday in 1965, I decided to get in shape in one day after a winter of little exercise, and had a vigorous bicycle ride up and down the hills of the town. When I sat down for lunch, suddenly I could not speak (except in gibberish), and this was followed quickly by loss of vision and paralysis down one side. I was rushed to the hospital where I spent a number of days at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.

The initial diagnosis was that I had experienced a stroke, but the usual tests did not confirm this. One of the top neurologists at Mass General would bring the interns around to see me and ask them for their diagnosis. When they said “stroke,” he called attention to the test results that did not confirm a stroke. They were silent and did not know how to properly diagnosis me. After a few days, however, the doctor came to visit me and revealed that he did not know what the problem was either!

This doctor thought I had a “stress-induced stroke” due to the heavy physical exercise of the bike ride, and that if my body could be rested suffciently, I would recover. Further, he pointed out that he thought I was carrying the burden of the church myself when that was really God’s job. “There is a God, and you are not God,” he said. His analysis was right. Although I believed firmly in the sovereignty of God, I was behaving as though if anything good were to happen in the church, it was up to me to make it happen.

So, the doctor prescribed a pill to make me sleep 12 hours a night, and another one to wake me up in the morning, thinking that if the body was suffciently rested, full function would return. Fortunately, the paralysis had gone away in a day or so after the initial episode, but speech and vision were slow in returning. After several weeks, I slowly began to re-engage in pastoral work, but it took about a year to completely recover. My doctor today said what happened 50 years ago was likely what is now referred to as a “neurological migraine variant,” rather than a “stress-induced stroke.” The cause was the same—not pacing myself, but behaving as though I were God, thereby pulling my body under stress that resulted in a physical breakdown.

In his classic book The Stress of Life, Canadian medical doctor and researcher Hans Selye describes what stress and burnout are. His research indicates that ev-eryone has a “baseline” and a “threshold” in dealing with life. Defining stress as “the nonspecific response of the body when any demand is made on it,” he focuses on the physical responses of the body when we hit the thresh-old too often without returning to our baseline. Calling it the “General Adaptation Syndrome,“ Selye says that there is a natural “alarm phase” which is triggered whenever we get close to the threshold in dealing with the stuff of life. This sets up a physical process (interaction of the brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, norepineph-rine and melatonin) that is automatic and brings the body back to the baseline (called the “resistance phase”). If this is not done, then the “breakdown phase” begins.

Some people have high thresholds for handling stress; others have low ones. And, unless we stay within our natural God-given parameters, we can push our bodies into the burnout phase. That’s what happened to me 50 years ago.

The primary cause for burnout is unrealistic expectations, both those we place on ourselves, and those we allow others to place on us. Living into these expectations, which are often unconscious, results in burnout by exhausting the body’s natural defense line of knowing that “too much is too much.” Overwork without suffcient rest is the result. (It should be noted that being under-challenged can also contribute to high stress, with the result being what is dubbed “rust out.” But this is also attributed to inner stress.)

Here are the classic signs of approaching burnout:

- Cognitive function slows down: We are not able to think clearly for long periods of time; the mind just seems to be mush.

- Sense of helplessness and hopelessness: the sense that “nothing will work,” a loss of hope. This thinking is the single most debilitating factor in battling stress.

- Regression to a more comfortable behavior experienced in the past: We often ignore important tasks, and are indifferent to significant relationships.

- Become locked into destructive patterns of thinking and behaving: A spiral downward.

- Depression: mild to moderate, often unrecognized.

- Physical illness (not attributed to a “medical” condition): colds, ulcers, headaches, backaches, nausea, weakened resistance system, etc.

The characteristics of people who are susceptible to burnout are those who:

- Over plan, perhaps reflecting a fear of not having enough to say or do;

- Have multiple thoughts and actions simultaneously;

- Have a high need to succeed (as the individual defines it for himself/herself);

- Have a desire to be recognized (often masked in surface humility);

- Easily feel guilty when there is no real cause for it;

- Are inordinately impatient with interruptions or delays; overextend in taking on more responsibilities than their threshold will allow;

- Have a sense of time urgency (“This must be done now!”);

- Exhibit an excessive competitive drive (“I must be the best!”);

- And have a tendency to be a workaholic.

If there is “bunching” of the symptoms, it is time to take stock of one’s way of dealing with life. Studies suggest that there are only two ways of dealing with stress in order to avoid burnout. One has to do with deliberate efforts to reduce stressors by recognizing that the threshold is being pushed and making a conscious decision to “cut back.” This works best when perspective and counsel from others is engaged. Making a decision to “cut back” is not easy, but it can and must be done.

The second way of avoiding burnout is increasing one’s tolerance level for handling stress. Here are the common, and proven, methods for doing this:

- Maintain an active devotional life: Read and reflect on Scripture, practice regular prayer, trust God in all things, even those that are frustrating or baffling.

- Hold fast to your original call from God. Trust God to continue to lead you.

- Take a sabbattical if needed: Time away from regular duties can be restorative in experiencing renewed vision and energy for the work of ministry.

- Deliberately seek out a “soul friend,” one with whom you can be totally honest and who can be a means of support in talking about your inner life and tasks of ministry.

- Work to secure a happy home life for you, your spouse and children. Family problems often contribute to high stress.

- Eat a healthy diet in order to maintain good health.

- Maintain purity of mind in selections of recreational reading, movies, TV, etc.

- Be intentional about taking a Sabbath day in doing things that restore the soul.Learn to laugh and enjoy life. “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22).

- Have one or two hobbies that bring enjoyment and a change of focus from daily tasks, and be disciplined in pursuing the hobbies appropriately.

- Learn how to deal with conflict and do not avoid it when it happens. 

This is not an exhaustive list, and in many ways is “what your mother taught you.” But research shows that practicing these behaviors can help to ward off burnout. The words of Richard Baxter in his classic work,The Reformed Pastor (1656), are relevant: “If you are burnt to the snuff [the end of the candle], you will go out with a stink.”

And, Robert Murray McCheyne, the early 19th century Scottish pastor who died at age 30, said to a dear friend as McCheyne lay on his deathbed, having “burnt himself to the snuff,” “The Lord gave me a message to deliver and a horse to deliver it with [by which he meant his body, not a literal horse], but, alas, I have killed the horse and can no longer deliver the message.” Burnout can be avoided. It must be avoided. Not doing so exacts a high price.

Dr. Kenneth L. Swetland is Senior Professor of Ministry. Since joining Gordon-Conwell in 1972, he has served in a number of capacities, including Professor of Ministry, Academic Dean and Campus Pastoral Counselor. Now working part-time, he counsels pastors through the seminary’s Oasis program and has taught in a D.Min track. He has been a pastor and chaplain in various New England churches, and a psychotherapist for several counseling centers on Boston’s North Shore. He is ordained in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference 

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Our Creative God

July 21, 2016
Our Creative God

By Tim Laniak, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and former Dean of the Charlotte Campus

Let me begin this brief (and therefore audacious) refection on God’s creativity with a short summary of what the Bible says regarding creation. Genesis leads with a bold idea that only Yahweh is the Creator— He alone created everything in this world. In the context of rival worldviews, this likely constituted a polemic against any claims to the contrary. Nothing else is to be worshipped because, after all, everything except God is derivative. Genesis 1 describes God’s creative acts as issuing from a divine word. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible,” (Heb. 11:3). A succession of powerful, life-creating words is at the heart of the panoramic description of creation.

Genesis 1 is also characterized by order, and perhaps more to the point, ordering. God orchestrates the creation in a succession of days, beginning with the domains for all things and then the respective inhabitants of each domain. The puzzle pieces fall into place, one by one, until the humans are created and given a sacred, royal trust to rule over God’s world. Genesis 2, the “zoom lens” view of the sixth day, provides a different angle of vision on our Creator God. He creates a world that is, in all of its diversity, pleasurably beautiful. This may already be hinted at in the simple words, “it was very good,” repeated in Genesis 1. Chapter 2 goes even further to stir the senses. The trees are, “pleasing to the eye and good for food.” You can virtually hear the bubbling streams that led from Eden to the four great rivers. You can smell the “aromatic resin” and perhaps catch a glimpse of shimmering gold and onyx.

Adam takes the invitation to name the various animals that are living with him safely in this stunning paradise. And then God creates Eve to join Adam in their shameless, naked enjoyment of God’s created world—an expansive garden of delightful differentiation of life forms, sizes, colors, textures and elements. Think of the garden described lyric after lyric in the Song of Songs. Who wouldn’t, while looking and smelling and tasting in this exotic garden, admire the creative mind behind it all?

That gives you a sense of what a fairly quick read of Genesis 1 and 2 says. Taking the rest of the Bible (and a bit of Ancient Near Eastern background) into account, you can also recognize some implicit analogies about this Creator God. Before I mention them, let me assure you that I’m not trying to turn God into a human. That’s the last thing the biblical creation account allows for! But the Bible does engage in what we call “anthropomorphisms.” That is, we are invited to think about God in terms of human qualities and roles. This is a massive accommodation to us created beings, but one that graciously makes an invisible God more understandable and more accessible.

First, God is the Divine Architect who fashions the world according to his predetermined design. In the prophets and wisdom literature we hear about God “laying the foundations of the earth.” He asks Job if he was there when he “marked off the earth’s foundations” and “stretched a measuring line across it.” Job wasn’t there when the footings were set and the cornerstone was laid “while the morning stars sang together and the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:4-9; cf. Prov. 8:27-31). The heavens were filled with the sounds of astonishment and delight when the Architect took what was in his mind and made it visible in space.

God is the Divine King who chose to create and order a kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not just a New Testament concept. It is a notion of life the way God intended, grounded in this initial design. His Sabbath rest hints of “sitting down” on his throne in a cosmic realm over which He alone reigns— a realm where all his enemies are “under his feet.”

God is also the Divine Craftsman who “makes” (‘asah) and “forms” (yatsar) things that he calls into being. Forming Adam from the ground (‘adamah), in particular, is the result of God “getting his hands dirty.” And Eve’s creation equally engages God in an intimate, personal way. He, literally, “built” her from a rib taken from Adam. We are, as humans, a mix of divine breath and the dust of the earth. God continues to create each one of us and to “form” every day of our lives (Ps. 139:13-17).

It isn’t hard to spot the Divine Gardener at work in Paradise. “The Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed” (Gen. 2:8). God brought Adam and Eve into the creative project that he had begun. They would oversee and contribute to the fertile productivity of this garden. This was not only the organic environment where they would work. Eden was a covenantal farm, with one tree that brought perpetual life and another tree that brought an end to that life.

Finally, God the Divine Father is here in Eden as the spiritual parent of the first humans. You find a hint of that when the same language of “image and likeness” is used as Adam has his own son, Seth. Luke will later trace the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam, “the son of God.” Sonship is perhaps as “creative” as any analogy. Reproduction is the most direct way that any person contributes to the creation of another.

Have you forgotten just how creative God is? Look around at the world he created. Do you see the fingerprints of a master Architect? A sovereign King? An engaged Craftsman? An imaginative Gardener? Your eternal Father? I certainly hope so!

Dr. Tim Laniak (M.Div.’89) is Professor of Old Testament and former Dean of the Charlotte Campus. He has served as a missionary in 15 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; as the Director of the International Fellowship House in Boston; and as a welfare housing manager for elderly immigrants in Brookline, Massachusetts. For more insight on topics addressed in this article, see his book Finding the Lost Images of God (Zondervan, 2012).

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Weep with Those Who Weep

July 11, 2016
Weep with Those Who Weep

By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics

Last week the tragic murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile unleashed a wave of distress, anger and fear. The trauma continued as five Dallas civil servants were killed with seven others maimed by a vengeful sniper. Our hearts go out to the numerous families suffering and mourning the loss of loved ones as a result of these violent and senseless actions. Clearly as a society we have much work to do in balancing social justice and order.

This past weekend, many of you led and participated in prayer vigils, sensitive dialogues and communal worship experiences where you prayed for the families who are in mourning and prayed for peace and justice across the country. In times like these it can be challenging to make sense of the anxiety that is sweeping the land. As leaders who have accepted God’s challenge to “think theologically, engage globally and live biblically,” I encourage you to pray, engage in meaningful dialogue and to continue to lead God's people in communal worship seeking shalom.

As a seminary, we remain committed to encouraging opportunities for formal and informal dialogue within our diverse and inclusive campuses as we continue to train leaders for the 21st century Church. To that end, over the coming months you will hear about our new Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience (ISBCE) which will lead conversations on race relations and racial reconciliation, one of ISBCE’s goals. Led by Drs. Emmett G. Price III and Patrick Smith, the ISBCE will further empower our comprehensive training for seminarians and our robust resources for prospective and current students as well as graduates.

Please continue to pray for those who are mourning and suffering, and for the Church as it seeks to comfort, bring hope and embody justice in this time of turbulence and great loss.

Dennis P. Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics

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