Model Theology: An Introduction to Post-Modern Explanation

by Robert C. Brow


Chapter 10

 Criticism and the Gospels

For our final chapter I expose a clash of models which affects my very life. Every Sunday what I preach from the Gospels depends on a model which conflicts head on with the model used by large numbers of outstanding New Testament scholars. For me this is a very personal question of truth and credibililty. Do I have a right to preach the good news of Jesus from the canonical Gospels as written, or should I adopt a model which questions the very basis of what I preach?

 In February and March 1996 there was an online debate called Jesus 2000. Three scholars debated what historians could say as historians concerning the life of Jesus. In the first salvo John Dominic Crossan very honestly stated his own assumptions. He declared that the Gospel accounts of the arrest and crucifixion are hopelessly contradictory. He also wanted to include in his historical investigation the non- canonical gospels. And by the end of the debate he had reconstructed a picture of the life and message of Jesus which is totally different from the account given in the Gospels.

 I also know that many other bits of information about Jesus were floating around because Luke begins his Gospel by saying so (Luke 1:1-4). John's gospel tells us precisely what was included or excluded in its rhetorical intent (John 20:30,31). And the model I use as a preacher requires me to preach from the four Gospels on the assumption that in their final canonical form they reveal exactly the good news I have to preach about the coming of the Son of God into his own world. So when I find apparent contradictions I remind myself that in any law court reliable witnesses give a variety of impressions of what happened. So I assume that each Gospel writer collects items from different angles in a very rich tapestry of events.

 Evidently the model used by Crossan and other historians is fundamentally different from the model gospel preachers use. A historian begins by questioning all available sources of information for the events he wants to describe. He or she then uses critical methods to decide what might be the facts for a reconstruction of what really happened. And it is significant that Crossan admits by the end of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), that even his historical work is "only reconstruction" (p. 426). I admit that my sermons every Sunday are also a reconstruction of some part of the life and teachings of Jesus. What is at issue between his model and mine is on what basis the reconstruction should be done.

 The dividing line or interface between the work of New Testament scholars and Gospel preachers like me is the canonical text of the four Gospels as written in their final form. From that dividing line the discipline of historical scholarship goes backwards to delve into the sources and documents and see how they might have been influenced by the complex interplay of the social situation.

 From the same dividing line Christian theology emerges and gives us the explanatory models that undergird our preaching. The vast majority of Christian preachers throughout the world use the Theistic model which is outlined in the Apostles' Creed. We also assume that we can derive the Theistic facts of the Apostles' Creed directly from the four canonical Gospels in their final form.

 Having set up this dividing line, sparks begin to fly when a Gospel preacher like me thinks a New Testament scholar is moving out of the sphere of his or her competence to tell me that instead of Theism we should be preaching something else.

 For example I had no objection to Bishop John Robinson doing scholarly work, but as soon as he tried to tell me in Honest to God (1963), that Christians should now begin preaching a model which I call Modified Monism (see God of Many Names chapter 3) I thought the honest thing for him to do was declare himself a Hindu. Similarly I admired the work of Bultmann in his very careful study of the NT text, but when I thought Bultmann was telling me to dump Christian Theism and preach Heidegger's Existentialism I also wanted to tell him to stick to his competence. I may have misunderstood Bultmann, but the fact remains that the Apostles' Creed is a Theistic statement based on the obvious Theism of the Gospels, and if any scholar wants me to preach something else he is deliberately clashing with my model.

 What then can a Gospel preacher like me say about Crossan's reconstruction of Jesus as "a Peasant Jewish Cynic" (his own words in The Historical Jesus [1991], p.421) ? I am not a historian so there is nothing much I can say about his historical method. What I can say is that his "Peasant Jewish Cynic" is not the Theistic Jesus of the four Gospels, or the Theistic Jesus of the Apostles' Creed which I preach every Sunday.

 In contrasting the two models the key point as issue seems to be how the word historical is used. We all agree that Jesus was the product of the historical process. There were genes, baby talk and language learning, village life, parents, weddings, rabbis, Pharisee, Sadducees, Essenes, Roman occupying forces, etc. That is one meaning of the Historical Jesus. In that sense Jesus was fully man, and was in all points tempted as we are (Hebrews 2:17-18, 4:15)..

 Secondly the term historical can be used in the sense of a believer's historical reconstruction. I was suddenly converted from atheism through an InterVarsity meeting my first week at University, the next day I bought my first Bible, and I immediately encountered Jesus from the Canonical Texts of the Four Gospels. I soon began to view the Gospels as the four historical reconstructions of the life and teachings of His Son that God had appointed for me to live by.

 Two years later I began NT studies, and I had to learn a third sense of word historical. The premises for the historical reconstruction of the Gospels which I learned in the Cambridge University Theological Faculty were fairly obvious. Virgins never conceive, men never walk on water, the congenitally blind can never receive sight, bodies drained of blood never rise from the dead in a new form, nor do they ascend to heaven, and there is no way the historical Jesus who died in AD 30 could make his advent to come and terminate the Jewish religious establishment in AD 70.

 Based on those premises I learned how to reject Matthew 1 and Luke 1 as historical accounts of the incarnation and explain how they can still be viewed as true myths. In that model the miracles are pious embellishments, the resurrection of Jesus is early Christian faith in his continuing influence, and Jesus was obviously mistaken about his parousia and reign. Having learned this third sense of the word historical, I still chose to adopt the second sense and preach the Gospels in the way they changed my life.

 Is a dialogue ever possible between a scholar using the method and premises of the third sense of historical and of a preacher like me using the the second sense of the term historical? A basic principle of Model theology is that dialogue is only possible if both parties are willing to understand the other's model, and grasp how the facts depend on the model that is used. The models will result in a totally different reconstruction.

 I agree that Crossan's historical model might yield the kind of reconstruction he offers in The Historical Jesus (1991). Would he be willing to try out a historical reconstruction on the basis of quite different premises? The hypothetical method is used in the writing of space fiction. Could he imagine what would happen if there was a Trinitarian loving God who created our world like an Artist creating a masterpiece? And what if we imagine one of the three persons coming into his own creation by taking birth from a virgin, living a human life for thirty years and by the power of the Holy Spirit working miracles. He was then crucified and died, and the Holy Spirit raised him with the kind of body that I expect to have in heaven. And that ascended Son of God now reigns among the nations. The first sign of his reign was in the events of the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the new Christian churches mushrooming all over the known world. Another sign was that He arranged for the four Gospels to collect exactly what He wanted the whole world to read and preach about His own life and teachings. And astonishingly all branches of the worlwide Christian Church accept those Gospels and none other as canonical.

 I would have to keep pointing out that he does not have to agree with any of these premises, any more than I have to agree with his premises. I only ask him to imagine, as in reading in space fiction, what difference my pemises would make to a historical reconstruction from the Gospels. I think the responsible historian might then be able to agree with me that if such a scenario was possible, and had actually occured, then the four accounts of the life of Jesus in the Gospels would not only be astonishingly great literature but also four factual accounts of the incarnation, life, resurrection and ascension of such a person.

 If he could imaginatively enter into my model by engaging in such a historical reconstruction, and I also fully understood his model of historical reconstruction, then we would be at the first stage of creative and responsible dialogue. Both of us would understand the other's way of arriving at a reconstruction. That does not mean either that he is forced to be a Trinitarian Theist or I have to preach Jesus on Sundays as a mere "Peasant, Jewish Cynic." Once you have clarified the models the philosophical problem disappears (an idea I learned from Wittgenstein), but with clarity the differences also become razor sharp.