Monday, May 02, 2011

The way and the truth and the life.

John 14v6 is one of those verses I have known all my life:
"Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
This is one of those 'but what does that actually mean?' verses. What does it actually mean for me, here, now? In what way is Jesus 'the way'? In what way is he 'the truth' or 'the life'?

I've been reading (and listening on podcasts) a lot recently about the 'evolution' of the Christian message and how you can track developments in belief from the early writings (letters of Paul), through the early gospel accounts (Mark and 'Q'), how they change in the later synoptics (Matthew and Luke) and how there is another change in belief before the final canonical gospel is written (John), perhaps four or five decades after Paul. Basically, this is all part of the 'synoptic problem'.

Scholarly consensus seems to be that Jesus never spoke many of the words attributed to him in the 4th Gospel. The evidence seems pretty compelling. I am convinced.

So, Jesus never spoke those words. They were put - fictively - into the mouth of Jesus by the writer (or editor) of the 4th gospel, and relate to his interpretation of the message of Jesus, not necessarily going back to anything Jesus himself actually said or did.

So what of 'the truth'? If this statement is fiction, who is the Jesus who is the truth? Certainly not the one described in the 4th gospel.

What about the Jesuses described in the synoptic gospels, are any of them 'the truth'?

Here's the problem, if one of the accounts is blatantly non-historical, is there any reason to believe any of the others are historical? It seems not. The gospels contain the beliefs of their authors (who may represent specific communities) about Jesus, but not necessarily the history of Jesus. The 4th gospel writer put words into the mouth of Jesus to suit his purposes, is it not also likely that the other three did too?

So if there is/was a Jesus who was 'the truth', then he is forever lost to history. Thus the statement that he is the truth is fairly useless to us here and now.

And where does this leave the way and the life?

Pretty much in the same boat.

Where I find myself now is confused (as usual) and coming to the realisation that many of the good things associated with 'the way' (i.e. the Christian life) are not unique to Christianity. Indeed, some aspects of Christian belief might actually be hindering some people having 'life in all its fulness' (John 10v10) rather than promoting it (thinking here - for example - about the ongoing homosexuality debate, which I am not about to go into now).

The more I think about these things, the more baggage I see that can be stripped away from the Christian life to get to the essence of what 'the way' is about. Unfortunately (and I really, really, didn't want to get to the conclusion at the outset, but I can't - in all honesty - escape from it), this leaves me questioning the divinity of Jesus. There is good evidence that there was a man, revered by many, in 1st century Palestine, who preached a message of peace, repentance and simplicity, and who did not believe himself to be God. He was crucified in Jerusalem about 1981 years ago. After his death, his followers began to consider him as messiah, sometime after that they believed he was in some way divine, and eventually they elevated him to full godhood. But believing that was not part of the original 'way'.

The original 'way' was about this:
"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Micah 6v8. Prayer, worship, being a blessing to others, putting others as more important than yourself, investing time in relationships, standing up for the needs of the oppressed, etc., etc. This is 'the way'.

But where, these days, can you practice all that when you're unsure if Jesus is God?


Like a Child said...

I too struggle with removing theological baggage without discarding the whole of the Christian message. While I have no struggles acting justly and mercifully, loving one another, I do struggle with worship and prayer and walking with God/Jesus when I'm not sure if he is real, both emotionally and mentally. Yet, not believing is similarly not an option. The world simply doesn't make sense to me without God (and I feel I have given the atheist point of view enough consideration, yet I reject it each time).

Anonymous said...

To answer your question, I'd say the liberal Anglican churches or the Quakers (not that I know much about the latter).

I think we've been reading/listening to similar stuff but I've reached a different conclusion. I think it's quite likely Jesus was divine (but aren't 100% sure on anything beyond that there is a God) but I do think his followers reached the conclusions they did based on what they knew about him and refining their theology over time rather than just making stuff up. The lectures I listened to made me doubt even further the idea that the Bible is the "literal word of God" and everything in the gospels is 100% accurate historical account but I do think we learn about Jesus from them and I do think the goal of most Christians (even if they don't do a great job) and certainly most theologians is to seek to further understand Jesus and his life rather than to simply bend it to their whim.

Ricky Carvel said...


I listened to all the lectures you recommended. It helped crystallise some of my thoughts on a few issues. Thanks.

But a liberal Anglican church is not the way for me to go. See my previous post 'I believe in the Holy Spirit'. I believe there is a God out there, one who we are able to interact with in 'charismatic' ways. One who heals. But possibly not a trinitarian God. I think the church that would suit me best would be a 'liberal charismatic' church, but I'm not sure that exists.

Like a Child,

For me its not about being sure if God is real, the issue has become one of trying to find out about, and get to know the God who is there. He's not exactly the God the bible tells of. I think Jesus was all about that too and taught an amazing thing - to approach this God as 'Father', not Lord, Master, Supreme Ruler, King, or anything like that, Father.

That doesn't mean Jesus was divine. It means we're as much children of God as he was.

I too reject atheism. God is out there.

Anonymous said...

The Quakers seem to believe very much in the power of the Spirit. Haven't been to one of their meetings yet, want to though.

I think us Protestants can struggle with this more than other traditions because of the huge emphasis on Sola Scripture to the detriment of knowledge passed between believers and through the Spirit. I would say that the evolving theology of the church through history is worth just as much (if not more) than an English Bible translation and equally direct revelation through the Spirit.

With the lectures, as well as listening to them I recommend doing some reading about them. It seems they aren't totally reliable so shouldn't be discounted wholly but not taken wholly as truth either as he sometimes represents minority views in the same way he does academic consensus.

Personally I think we can't ever expect to understand these issues from first principles, we need to have faith in God and in our brothers and sisters in Christ that they wouldn't directly attempt to deceive us (although often do accidentally through misinterpretation).

Thanks again for this blog, it is a great source of encouragement to see someone in the same place (more or less) as myself on some issues.

Marcus Green said...

The problem with listening to theological scholarly debates is that (in my academic experience) scholars are seldom scholarly. They sell you their own line as the acceptable, respectable, scholarly consensus.

Take Anna whatshername. Terrible stuff - well sold.

Gospel scholarship is just a part of this. If you listen to other - very scholarly - stuff - say, NT Wright, or material from that school, you are going to end up in a very different place.

Part of me, when I read your blog, sometimes feels that your natural questioning nature has been sold a pup. Because one side of a debate is reaching your ears; go read Tom Wright's big books - not his little paper back commentaries - and then you'll have a grasp of real academic thinking on Jesus. No, it won't be what you picked up at Sunday School. But if you genuinely want Truth, and want to make your brain work along the way, this is the way to do it.
Vol 1:
Vol 2:
Vol 3:

That should take about a year. But it will demonstrate the wider debate and pull apart some of the assumptions you have been given about what "academic" theology and the history of the Bible is really all about.


Ricky Carvel said...

Anna who? Huh?

Anyway, yes, NT Wright is still on my 'to read' list, although I hadn't thought of going for the magnum opus.

And I have been trying to be balanced in my consumption of books, hence the Bauckham book I reviewed a month or two ago. Although I found that less than convincing.

In all my doubting, however, I am trying very hard not to throw out the baby with the bath water. I've read and listened to some Robert M. Price (check out his 'Bible Geek' podcast on iTunes, it'll probably annoy you, but is frequently fascinating) and he is hyper-critical and defends the 'Christ Myth' hypothesis. I don't go for that.

I am persuaded that Jesus was a real preacher who walked the roads of Galilee and inspired the foundation of a new church. I'm currently wrestling with the issue of did he believe himself to be divine - from the synoptics there is little evidence to suggest that he did. He did not appear to preach himself, but rather a radical way of approaching God. Its his followers or maybe those a generation later who changed the gospel from the gospel of Jesus, to the gospel about Jesus.

What I see, when I read some of these books, is that Christians from 500 years ago would not recognise contemporary Christianity as being part of the same faith as theirs. Similarly, Christians from the early years of the church wouldn't recognise either our forms of Christianity or the 500 year old stuff as being part of the same faith. How much have our beliefs shifted away from what Jesus actually taught? How big is the difference between the early Christians and us? Indeed, how big is the difference between Jesus and the early Church?

I do genuinely want to find out the truth. But I'm no longer happy with the 'apologetic assumption' that the set of beliefs I currently hold, or those that I was raised with are correct. I'm just trying to be objective here...

Marcus Green said...

Take the plunge. There's a kiddies version of NTW - - which is a good overview, but if you want to do it for real, do it for real. There isn't another scholar on the block like him.

Of course modern Christianity is different, because modern society is. And NTW is helpful in pulling some of our misconceptions away, and confusing teh heck out of you with other stuff. BUT -

I'd love to meet up & take you through some synoptics stuff about the self-understanding of Jesus. Only a gentile wouldn't get it. Matthew is my "home base" and whilst I think some of the words we use & concepts we play with are off a little, the truth is far greater than our weak Old Testament-less post-enlightenment Protestant little brains begin to grasp.

I get really mad with blind teachers who foist useless information on genuine seekers such as yourself. They simply either don't know enough of Jesus' world-view to understand what he is saying, or knowing it dismiss it. Matthew is packed full -FULL - of a remarkable sense of identity from Jesus' standpoint; and don't get me started with Matthew being secondary to Mark - it's a good argument, but it's pretty much like arguing apple juice is secondary to orange juice.

Read some NTW. If time is pressing, take the whistle-stop. It's not a bad beginning. But if you are serious, information is power. Go for broke. Stop paddling & piddling, swimming is so much more fun.

Anonymous said...

"How much have our beliefs shifted away from what Jesus actually taught? How big is the difference between the early Christians and us? Indeed, how big is the difference between Jesus and the early Church?"

I'd say very little.

We have the patristics,

We the have the Gallic Rite (Circa 450),

We have the Durham Rite (Circa 650)

The Church believes what the Church prays, virtually unchanged in substance:

Anonymous said...

**The link is specifically to do with the Roman Mass, but can be applied generally to what we know about the development of Christian worship (a great deal)

Tim said...

Hey Ricky

Know where you're at. I was there some years ago confused by the map. Trying to find a way through. Long story short: bye bye Christianity.

Full disclosure, just so you know where I'm coming from now ;-)

I see Marcus touting you tickets to the NT Wright gun show. Go ahead. Take a seat. (Preferably a comfy one: it's a long show.) If you found Bauckham unconvincing, I feel pretty sure I know what conclusion you'll reach on Wright who's of the same ilk but with way more footnotes and oodles more erudition. For all its heft, his famous tome on the resurrection reaches the wholly expected conclusion that everything about the gospel easter narratives is true - even the mega zombie uprising of Matt 27:52-53 which most every other sensible scholar takes as eschatological fiction.

(Not to mention that Wright - for all his supposed scholarly clout - will inevitably back any Evangelical horse in the race simply because of its pedigree. I heard him once endorsing the Alpha course which is the most dumbed-down Charismatic Evangelical indoctrination syllabus going. No one with any intellectual integrity would put money on that pony with its half-truths and simplistic evangelisitic appeals based on the worst sort of prooftexting. But NTW will wave a flag for it because the evangey folks at HTB are his pals.)

I see 6eight bigging up the Patristics. Once more, be my guest: wade as deep as you like into Justin Martyr, Ireneus, Clement, Ignatius, Tertullian, and the gang. See if you can spot a slamdunk argument in favour of the truth of the gospel story that isn't based on dubious allegorising of the Old Testament or glib repetition of a previous authority (yay! apostolic succession settles any dispute!). These guys don't care a fig about the provenance or reliability of the data they're propagating just so long as its approved by the powers of orthodoxy. Also, mind you don't bump your elbows on the generous quantities of pro-Catholic spin-doctoring. It's all about turf wars and political/ecclesiastical power. Just who are these guys so anxiously repudiating? By their own accounts teachers like Marcion whose doctrines are as insane as their own credulous dogma. They say tomato I say tomato. Let's call the whole heresy off.

I too listen to RMP, the Bible Geek, but I don't see the need to embrace Christ mythicism. But unlike you - yet - I decided I could no longer reach the conclusion that Christ was a god, or that there even was a god. A good dose of comparative religion soon showed me the common delusions humanity has entertained and keeps on picking at like a psychological scab.

Keep on doubting...

Anonymous said...

Tim, I politely disagree :)

Ricky, if nothing else, hold on to the spiritual experiences you've had and remember there is a dimension beyond which we can explain with science alone.

Alpha's talks may not be the most scholarly approaches but they are to spark conversation and questions in the groups and questions which continue after Alpha.

Rev Tony B said...

As far as NT Wright is concerned - he's good, very very good, but I don't buy his take on the mass resurrection in Mt.27 - that is clearly midrash; if it had been for real, it would have been in all the Gospels, not just Matthew.

As far as historicity in the Gospels is concerned - well, the pendulum swings. You're quite right about John - none of the so-called words of Jesus are actually his. But that is true of virtually all the Gospel stuff - apart from the occasional Aramaic phrase (talitha koumi, etc) it's all translated into Greek. The big difference between John and the Synoptics is that it is possible to distinguish between narrative style and the style of the speeches in the Synoptics, but not in John. If they'd been writing today, we'd say the Synoptics used direct speech, while John used indirect - John has interpreted the sort of thing Jesus said, rather than recounted his words.

When I was college 30-plus years ago, it was fashionable to dismiss John as having no historical value. Within a few years, it was clear that the pendulum was swinging away from that - there is a great deal of positive historical knowledge in John, but it is painted over by Johannine reflections. There again, all the Gospel-writers do that - they're writing theological reflections on history, rather than history itself. Doesn't mean there's no history in there.

As to Jesus was God, etc - there are layers and layers of doctrine and interpretation, all trying to explain the inexplicable in the language appropriate to the times (the Word became flesh, etc). Our task is to unravel what they said, or if necessary bypass it, to ask why they felt it necessary to say it. Whatever problems we may have with the dogma (and there are a lot of problems with the dogma), it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. God was doing something big through Jesus, however we manage to get our heads around it.

Ricky Carvel said...

OK. NT Wright's Magnum Opus Volume 1, now bought. Stay posted for opinions and comments on it in due course.

Dave said...

The original 'way' was about this: "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Micah 6v8. Prayer, worship, being a blessing to others, putting others as more important than yourself, investing time in relationships, standing up for the needs of the oppressed, etc., etc. This is 'the way'.

But where, these days, can you practice all that when you're unsure if Jesus is God?


In all seriousness, any reason against that option?