Posts Tagged ‘Pope Benedict XVI’

I’m supposed to care about the new pope because…?

March 16, 2013

I guess I’m supposed to care—given the eruption of Facebook posts from fellow Methodist clergy this week—but I’m in Roger Olson’s camp, and I’m glad he said it: I’m mostly indifferent. What does the bishop of Rome have to do with me and my ministry?

(Actually, Benedict XVI had more influence over me than his long-serving predecessor because I read and thoroughly enjoyed his book on the infancy narratives of Jesus.)

As Olson said, many Protestants look to the pope as “some kind of universal Christian cheerleader and spokesman.” Why? I recognize him as a brother in Christ, but he has no authority over me. If I wanted a Christian leader to have that kind of authority over me, guess what? I’d become Roman Catholic! In the meantime, ask me what I think about papal infallibility—not to mention some of the other doctrines of the church that these supposedly infallible popes dogmatized!

I know it’s politically incorrect for clergy to say something negative about fellow Christians (unless they’re Southern Baptist or run Chick-Fil-A), but have you read John Wesley or the Articles of Religion that he adapted from the Church of England? We’re supposed to disagree with Catholics! I miss the days when we Protestants could actually protest a little bit and not view the Protestant Reformation as an irredeemably tragic event. We don’t have to act like we’re one big happy family. I’m not Roman Catholic because I believe that the Roman Catholic Church gets it wrong in many important ways, especially in regards to the authority of scripture.

By all means, let’s get together as Protestants and Catholics and talk about our differences and work to resolve them, where possible. But for heaven’s sake, theology matters! Let’s not act like it doesn’t.

Of course, maybe I’m wrong about all that, but no one should be surprised that I believe these things, right?

Olson wonders why there has been so much media attention given to the election of the pope over the past two cycles, but that’s easy: there’s a lot more media to give it attention. Cable news has to fill its airwaves with something.

I like this point from Olson:

What I would like to know is why the mass media make so much of the election of a new pope? They say he leads 1.2 billion Catholics. Well, I seriously doubt both “lead” and the number. How do they count Catholics? If it’s anything like the way the Southern Baptist Convention counts Southern Baptists, well, I’m doubtful of the number. (The SBC counts me as a Southern Baptist! I’ve never been one.)

I suspect that millions of Latin Americans are counted as Catholics just because they were baptized into the church even though they attend Pentecostal churches. The same is true, I believe, in places like the Philippines and many other traditionally Catholic  countries.

I offer my congratulations to my Catholic friends, but please don’t expect me to celebrate. I’m emotionally and spiritually indifferent about it—as I should be. I worry about Protestants who invest tremendous emotional and spiritual interest in the papacy.

About Bart Ehrman’s Newsweek cover story

December 19, 2012

newsweekcoverIt must be either Christmas or Easter, because one of the major newsweeklies is featuring New Testament historian Bart Ehrman in its pages. You know Ehrman—the former self-described fundamentalist-turned-agnostic. Several years ago, he was the go-to Bible guy for the New Atheist movement. His defection from the ranks of Christian believers gave him extra credibility in their eyes. (Never mind that traffic on that particular highway flows in both directions.)

Still, Ehrman proved to be an unreliable witness for the prosecution. For example, his book-length defense this year of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth (a proposition, by the way, doubted by no serious historian) rankled many erstwhile skeptic friends. And, truth be told, he doesn’t say anything about the virgin birth in Newsweek that any mainline Protestant seminarian isn’t exposed to in the first semester of New Testament class. There’s nothing new or startling here—only a rehash of 200 years of modernist thinking.

Heck, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Ehrman was just another friendly liberal Christian, like so many others in academia. For him, the virgin birth is pious legend communicating theological rather than historical truth—you know, if you go for that sort of thing.

On the other hand, how else is Ehrman going to come across in Newsweek? The editors must imagine that they have more than a handful of Christian readers, and heaven knows they need all of them they can get!

What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.

I’m no historian or Bible scholar, but I spot a couple of problems with Ehrman’s point of view. First is his insistence that evidence within the Bible itself doesn’t count—that we need independent corroboration. This is a double-standard. Modern historians who study the ancient world accept single-sourced evidence all the time. From what I’ve read, if we required independent corroboration before we believed anything in the ancient past, we would have to be skeptical of much of what we otherwise take for granted.

Besides, except for Mary herself—who we know for sure was a member of the early church—who else could have possibly witnessed the Annunciation and reported what happened? Were those shepherds abiding in the fields supposed to call the New York Times or something?

Also, to what end would the early church invent a virgin birth account? The premise behind the so-called “pious legend” theory is that Matthew and Luke (or the people behind their traditions) invented the Christmas story in order to sell the idea that Jesus was the Son of God—that they were adding an extra layer of divinity to Jesus to really hammer home the point. Look—here’s a rather literal way in which Jesus is God’s Son: God impregnated Mary!

To which I say: As if!

As if people living in the first century were really gullible. As if the ancients didn’t know the facts of life. As if they didn’t know that babies were only conceived by a human father. The premise behind the pious legend theory is obviously wrong. Why else does Matthew report that Joseph wanted to divorce Mary? Because this naive first-century carpenter of course had no trouble believing his fiancée when she told him about her pregnancy? Hardly! The New Testament writers knew that they weren’t helping their cause by including a difficult-to-believe story about Mary’s conceiving a child without a human father. Moreover, given that the Church could have arrived at most of its theological commitments about Jesus without the virgin birth (both the Gospel of Mark and John have no Christmas story, and Paul makes only a passing reference to it), why introduce a new problem into the story unless—oh, yeah—you happen to believe it’s true?

No, what’s beneath Ehrman’s point of view, I fear, is the chronological snobbery that people in the ancient world were dummies, and now we know better. I don’t buy it.

But Ehrman isn’t a believer, so what else is he going to think? What about those of us who are believers? Is it really so difficult to believe in the virgin birth? As with most miracles in the Bible, if we already believe that a good God created this universe—which requires a rather large intervention in the physical world (without which, obviously, there would be no physical world)—is it really so much harder to believe that God intervened in Mary’s life in this way? If so, why?

In his wonderful new book on the first Christmas, Pope Benedict puts his finger on the answer. Regarding the virgin birth and the resurrection, he writes:

These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter belong to him?

Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing the the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive—with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments—the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb—are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ has has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.[†]

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 56-7.

The priority of God’s forgiveness

December 12, 2012

Jesus_of_Nazareth_The_Infancy_NarrativesWhat exactly is salvation?

It is primarily reconciliation with God, from whom, apart from Christ’s atoning work, we are estranged because of our sin.

Although my words are a bit more polished now, this is the essentially the same answer I would have given as a Southern Baptist teenager. Isn’t that funny—even after 16 years of being Methodist, several Disciple Bible studies, a Master’s degree from a mainline Protestant seminary, and a whole lot of reading and studying? It’s still the same answer! What a relief!

Do you think my definition is too simplistic? Does it leave too much out? Then let me point you to an unexpected ally: Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI. As part of his powerful little book about the first Christmas, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, he reflects on the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1:21: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

While the “lofty theological task” of forgiving sins immediately identifies Jesus with God, who alone forgives sins,

this definition of the Messiah’s mission could also appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation… Certainly it does not match the immediate expectations of Messianic salvation nurtured by men who felt oppressed not so much by their sins as by their sufferings, their lack of freedom, the wretched conditions of their existence.[1]

I’m glad he said this! As a preacher, I worry that we twenty-first-century Americans, like first-century Jews, don’t feel especially oppressed by our sins. Meanwhile, I’m the wet blanket, reminding people that they are, indeed, sinners. In fact, our sinfulness is the main problem that God needed to solve by sending his Son.

And sometimes I worry: Does this message sell? I don’t know, but it’s the only message I’ve got.

Benedict goes on to relate this understanding of salvation to the four men in the gospels who lower a paralyzed friend through the roof of a crowded home in order for Jesus to heal him. They expect, of course, physical healing. Instead, Jesus pronounces his sins forgiven and seems happy to leave it at that.

This was the last thing they were concerned about. The paralytic needed to be able to walk, not to be delivered from his sins. The scribes criticized the theological presumption of Jesus’ words: the sick man and those around him were disappointed, because Jesus had apparently overlooked the man’s real need.

On the contrary, Benedict writes, Jesus is doing precisely what the angel told Joseph he would do. Jesus goes on to heal the man physically, but only as a demonstration of his authority to forgive sins. “[T]he priority of forgiveness for sins as the foundation of all true healing is clearly maintained.”[2]

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.[3]

1. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 42-43.

2. Ibid., 44.

3. Ibid.

Does the Pope really hate Christmas?

November 26, 2012

The DeLorean dashboard from “Back to the Future”

There was a scene in the 1985 movie Back to the Future in which Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown demonstrates to Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly how easy it is to time-travel in his tricked-out DeLorean. You just punch in the “destination date” on the dashboard and away you go. At one point, Doc Brown tells McFly that he can even go back and observe first Christmas, whose coordinates he types in as “DEC 25 0000.” (Or did he put “0001,” I can’t remember. There was no year zero. The calendar starts in year 1.)

Even as a 15 year-old, I rolled my eyes. Hollywood! The first Christmas didn’t take place, as far as anyone knows, on December 25, nor did it take place in the year AD 1, never mind AD 0, which doesn’t exist. Even my old NIV Study Bible, if memory serves, said that the birth of Christ took place around 6 B.C. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and the Massacre of the Innocents included all male children under 2, implying that Herod thought Christ’s birth had taken place within the past two years.

Does it matter that we got the date wrong? No. Does it have any bearing whatsoever on the historicity of Jesus or the Virgin Birth? No. Is it controversial to say that Christ wasn’t born on December 25, 1? No.

The Church set the date to begin with. We’ve known for a long time that the Church got it wrong. And the fact that Christmas corresponds to the winter solstice is uncontroversial (unless you’re one of these people).

With this in mind, I’m confused about the news coverage regarding the Pope’s new book on Christmas, including this overheated lede from CNN:

(CNN) — It’s Christmas, but not as you know it: a new book released this week by Pope Benedict XVI looks at the early life of Jesus — and debunks several myths about how the Nativity unfolded.

In “Jesus of Nazareth — The Infancy Narratives,” the pope says the Christian calendar is actually based on a blunder by a sixth century monk, who Benedict says was several years off in his calculation of Jesus’ birth date.

According to the pope’s research, there is also no evidence in the Gospels that the cattle and other animals traditionally pictured gathered around the manger were actually present.

“According to the pope’s research”? Please! The pope is an accomplished scholar and theologian, but he hardly needed to do any primary research to come up with this. None of this is new. And none of this is controversial. We were taught in seminary that animals weren’t a part of the manger scene until St. Francis in the 13th century.

Regardless, the news media are wrong to use the word “myth” to describe these things. It isn’t a “myth” that Jesus was born on December 25 or that there were donkeys, sheep, cows, or camels at the manger; it’s a tradition. Nor is it a myth that Jesus was born in the year 1; it’s a mistake, long since corrected.

In clarifying these issues for the public, Pope Benedict is merely sticking to what the Bible tells us. As a Protestant, I can only say a hearty “Amen”!