Tagged: bad theology

Well To Start With, Your Last Theologian Was A Idiot

stooge plumberI’ve spent a little time this summer with contractors and plumbers and concrete guys and appliance repairmen, and by “I’ve spent time with” I mean “I’ve been paying.”

Like most things that aren’t theology, it has reminded me of theology.

There’s a dynamic that occurs whenever you bring in a repairman: He takes a look at the job, figures out the problem, sketches the solution, and estimates the cost. But then another phase of the work, apparently equally necessary, begins: the Cursing of the Previous Contractor(s).

Have you noticed this? It seems like a repairman can’t start working until he has roundly condemned the previous repairman. It’s not enough to say, “I would have done this differently,” or “there are three approaches to this kind of problem, and while I prefer A, this person seems to have chosen C.” No, the previous repairs must be utterly denounced as wrongheaded in conception and bungled in execution. The technician who was here before was a trousered ape, a traitor to the manual arts, a criminal psychopath who tortures houses for fun. What was that mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging chucklehead thinking? What a cheap, shortcut-taking, counterproductive, maladroit hack of a bungler. What a total idiot.

Having directed several moments of ritual hatred toward this absent malefactor, and having performed the proper incantations of vituperation (“Troglodyte! Vivisectionist! Bashi-bazouk!” and “Utter fool! Foreign translation! Stool pigeon! Mountebank!”),  the new handyman turns a sharp corner and begins the phase of Consolation and Hope: NOW you’re in good hands. You’ve chosen the right person now, and from here on in, everything will be reputable, standardized, state of the art, and code compliant.

Photo from Trimitsis Woodworking, who apparently gets it.

Photo from Trimitsis Woodworking, who believe carpenters & plumbers can live in peace.

But here’s the thing. The last contractor said the same thing about the previous one, who said the same thing about the previous one. And it doesn’t take much imagination to predict that at some point in the future, the next contractor will say the same thing about this present contractor, the one currently assuring you that he alone has the words of code-compliance.

The net result of all this retrospective trash-talking is obvious: I grow progressively skeptical of all contractors, all handymen. Apparently there’s an industry-wide strategy of badmouthing each other after the fact. Everyone who follows this strategy wins a few bonus points over previous players, but burns the industry.

And that’s where it starts reminding me of theology, especially the kind of theology geared for public teaching. Some theologians adopt the same rhetorical tone when disagreeing with other theologians or traditions. They don’t say, “well, there are several opinions about that, and what you’re describing is A, while I’m persuaded by C.” They don’t attempt to get inside the mind of the other view, or try to explain sympathetically what previous teachers must have been thinking. Instead they trash the other view, and then assure listeners that NOW they’re getting the real story.

Of course theologians have to teach the truth as they understand it, and that requires refuting errors. I don’t think it helps anyone to pretend nobody’s ever wrong and after all aren’t there four views of everything and who’s to say what’s right with all our modern ideas and products bla bla bla. Truth has edges, and you can’t teach a doctrine without showing the errors that lie beyond the bounds.

But what I’ve learned from this home repairs thing over the years is what it feels like to be on the non-expert side of things. When a contractor starts badmouthing previous contractors, I am rarely growing in my knowledge and understanding of the repairs in question. Sometimes that does happen: a good explanation can show me that the concrete isn’t level, and why that matters, and how hard it will be to fix relative to how easy it would have been to do it right the first time. But the more that explanation shifts its focus from the actual material, and shades off into badmouthing the previous worker, the more it forces me to focus on the personalities involved. When that happens, I as a non-expert have to decide not about the subject matter itself, but about who I like better, and generally I like the person talking to me at the moment. But next year I’ll like the next guy. And eventually I’ll consign all the contractors to the category of “you can’t really actually trust these guys because the next one will refute the current one.”

Theologians and pastors, whether in person or in print, ought to bear this in mind when explaining doctrine. Explain sympathetically what previous teachers or traditions were trying to do (hint: they were usually attempting to construe Scripture, so even if they ended up with some wrong answers you can always start there). Explain doctrines and differences in such a way that your listeners focus their attention on the subject matter rather than the personalities. Because if you make it about you versus the previous craftsman, you’re likely to win the popularity contest. But that’s a temporary victory. You’re also likely to burn the whole industry, and that burn lasts longer.


Karl Bahrdt, Worst Theologian Ever

Today (August 25) is the birthday of Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (1741-1792), a theologian so bad that it is hard to find anything good to say about him. (He liked tolerance. There, I said one good thing about him.) He was, says one encyclopedia, “a caricature of the vulgar rationalism of the eighteenth century.”

A Lutheran preacher’s kid, Bahrdt started studying theology in 1757 in Leipzig, at age sixteen. He became famous for “pranks,” one of which included using Faust’s magic symbols to try to summon demons. Um, that’s what the history books say. These shenanigans led somebody to appoint him as a lecturer on the Bible by age 20. And he kept climbing the academic ladder: a doctorate from Erlangen, a post at Erfurt, a move to Giessen. He had mistresses, saw prostitutes, fathered and abandoned numerous illegitimate children, left his wife, and had creditors always at his heels.

Then in his thirties the books started pouring out: In 1773 he published something called “The Latest Revelation of God, in Letters and Stories.” It was a version of the New Testament, with updated language and modern ideas. Here’s part of Matthew 4:

Jesus traveled through all of Galilee and preached publicly in the synagogue the comforting news of the new religion, into which God invited all of humanity with the promise of eternal life; on doing so, he (in order to acquire the trust of the people) healed all kinds of illnesses and burdens; which in turn spread his name throughout all Syria, so that soon people began to bring all kinds of people afflicted by painful evils, even the ecstatic, the sleepwalkers, the paralytic.

–and a footnote explains that since the Jews believed that when people behaved oddly they had a spirit possessing their organs, “Christ too treated them so.”

When Goethe read it, he wrote a little spoof in which Dr. Bahrdt looks at a Bible and says “Here’s how I would have talked, if I were Christ!”

In 1775, somebody thought this sterling character should be in charge of a boy’s school in Switzerland. Bahrdt brought out a second edition of his New Testament, and it brought him under direct scrutiny of the Imperial Council. By this time, people were finally beginning to suspect he might not be a believer.

By 1778, he was asked for a confession of faith, and what he came up with included precious little beyond lines like “I cannot understand the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ in the way Athanasius explained it” and “I am, as far as my faith is concerned, bound by no man’s authority, but I have the right to test all things.”

By 1780 he was committed to propagating a rationalistic moral system that would replace Christianity. 1787’s System of Moral Religion is bluntly anti-supernatural, and 1790’s Catechism of Natural Religion sounds uncannily contemporary:

Q: What is religion?

A: By religion, we mean not just knowledge of God, but also the way of thinking and the way of acting that is in accordance with this knowledge.

Q: Then who is God?

A: God is a being that is completely unknown to us. I think of a primal origin of all things, or the universe, and of a being who I can also thank for my existence; and this I call God.

Q: How do you know that there is such a being?

A: I do not know; I only believe it.

Q: What is the difference between knowing and believing?

A: We only actually know what we are aware of through our senses.

And so on.

Starting in 1784 and continuing until his death, Bahrdt published a series of “explanations of the plans and purposes of Jesus,” subtitled “in letters to truth-seeking readers.” Running to 3,000 pages, this series is Bahrdt’s contribution to the life-of-Jesus movement. With these, which Albert Schweitzer described as one of “the earliest imaginative lives of Jesus,” Bahrdt reached a new low.

His basic idea, according to Schweitzer’s report, is that there was a secret society, a sort of Essene version of the Freemasons, which used Jesus to spread its work. These Freemasons had been meeting in their lodges and scheming about how to get the Jewish people as a whole to give up their nationalism and their barbaric religious views, and accept a pure, spiritual, masonic form of worship. When the secret members of the Essene Order took young Jesus aside and taught him about Plato and Socrates, Jesus wept. He was so moved by the story of the death of Socrates that he wanted to die like that, too.

This is all in pretty bad taste, but to make matters worse, Bahrdt takes hundreds of pages of fully-scripted dialogue to relate these events. And he has a whole army of invented characters to move the story along (Haram, Shimah, Avel, Limmah, etc.). These guys, highly-placed secret brothers, help Jesus attain the rank of First Degree, and then they follow him around, helping stage-manage the various miracles that Jesus fakes. Of course they fake his death and resurrection, put together a light show to impress Paul, and get the new religion off to a good start.

In 1788 the Prussian minister of religion told all the theology professors that it was time to play nice and stop making fun of Jesus. He issued an Edict on Religion to that effect. Most people would see the words “edict” and “Prussian” in one title and know it’s time to play safe. Bahrdt, to the contrary, published a satire of the edict. That landed him in jail for a year, and he spent the time writing “smutty stories and his autobiography, a mixture of falsehood, hypocrisy, and impudent self-abasement.”

He lived for another couple of years after his release from prison, and died from either mercury poisoning or venereal disease.

And today’s his birthday!

Bultmann and Tillich: Same Birthday, Same Problem

Two of the most influential academic theologians of the twentieth century share today, August 20, as their birthday: Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). What an odd coincidence. I wonder if they ever celebrated it together.

Both men were prolific, and their theological projects were very different: Tillich was above all a theologian of culture, seeking to interpret the symbols with which people address the object of their ultimate concern; Bultmann earned his formidable reputation as a Bible scholar with a command of the history of religions and a facility with all available critical methods.

Both men were cross-disciplinary in ironic ways: Tillich was actually a kind of continental philosopher who believed himself to be a theologian (his Systematic Theology is in fact a systematic Christian ontology, in which Schelling’s concept of being is determinative for every part); while Bultmann was actually a systematic theologian with a definite, Heidegerrian account of saving faith to proclaim, though he thought he was a historical neutestamentlicher doing objectively descriptive work.

There is one meaningful place where their work overlaps: In the absence of Jesus and the presence of Christ. Both of them taught that the actual man Jesus Christ was an artifact of bygone history, with nothing to offer to faith. But they also taught, or I should say they primarily taught, that the whole point of Christianity was an existential encounter with the spiritual presence of Christ in the here and now.

Bultmann and Tillich taught this in different ways, but for essentially the same reasons. Tillich’s account is more striking. He wanted to avoid direct contact between faith and history, to protect saving faith from the dangers of history. One of his close co-workers, Langdon Gilkey, reported that Tillich frequently remarked to his classes: “I do not wish the telephone in my office to ring and to hear from some New Testament colleague: ‘Paulus, our research has now finally removed the object of your ultimate concern; we cannot find your Jesus anywhere.'” Tillich wanted a gospel that could survive the non-existence of the historical Jesus, or even the discovery of his still-dead bones. So he taught that the Christ, which he described as “the New Being,” appears to us principally not in Jesus himself, but in the biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ.

Even if Jesus were a fictional character in an imaginary story called the gospel of Mark, he could bring about salvation, according to Tillich. “Suppose,” said Tillich in 1966, “the bearer of the Spirit had another name than Jesus and did not come from Nazareth, and the New Testament picture of Jesus is essentially a creation of Mark…then Mark was the bearer of the Spirit through whom God has created the Church.”

Bultmann’s account is more complex, but it comes to the same thing. The Christ who saves is the Christ who is preached to you: “”Christ (insofar as he affects us) is the kerygma, because he is the Christ only as the Christ pro me, and as such he encounters me only in the kerygma.” In an insightful analysis of what Bultmann meant by this kind of statement, James Kay has helpfully distinguished among three referents of the term “Jesus Christ:” For Bultmann, the first meaning of “Jesus Christ” (JC1) is a mythic persona described in the New Testament using available gnostic-redeemer categories: a Son of God who descends to save, a Messiah, a God-Man, etc. But the second meaning of “Jesus Christ” (JC2) is the historical figure, a man whose career at a particular time and place the New Testament narrates.

Indeed, the New Testament wants to say that JC1 really is JC2, and there are all kinds of interesting demythologizings and remythologizings to do there. Bultmann’s thought here is very subtle and easily misunderstood, but pursuing it would be a digression. Essentially he thought the New Testament was right to express its faith using mythological categories like JC1, but that we moderns would be wrong perpetuate those outworn mythologies. The most important thing, though, is JC3, the contemporary proclamation of the message about salvation through Jesus. When you hear JC3, you have it all, as you are called out by the wholly other into a field of existential decision: saved.

Is there no necessary connection between JC3 and JC2? No, Bultmann said. There really was a JC2 back in the day, but to look behind the word of JC3 for something like a JC2 who still matters today would be to try to keep knowing Christ “according to the flesh” rather than “according to the Spirit.”

Another question, then: When JC2 died and was buried, did he rise from the dead? What rose from the dead and is present today, said Bultmann, is JC3. So he could say “Jesus Christ rose from the dead,” but he could say it in a way that would be utterly untroubled by the discovery of the bones of the still-dead JC2.

For evangelicals who glory in the fact that Christ is alive and present to us now, it is shocking to see Bultmann and Tillich take that truth and run off in a false direction with it. Their astonishing over-emphasis on a purely spiritual “Christ present to me now” is exposed as the blunder it is when you reflect on the relationship between the present Christ and the historical Christ. Anybody with a solid grasp of the real resurrection and ascension can affirm that the historical Jesus is the same person as the present Jesus. The cavalier dismissal of the historical Jesus (Never existed! Invented by Mark! Still in his grave! Irrelevant for saving faith!) cannot be countenanced.

It is tempting to call the Boys of August 20 a couple of liberals. As a term of abuse or as a warning label, that makes some sense. But as a historically descriptive term, “liberal” is not the right label. Both Bultmann and Tillich were intentionally setting themselves against the classic liberal theology of the late nineteenth century. Liberalism had worked out a different solution to this problem. The great liberals tried to take the historical Jesus (JC2) and stretch his influence all the way down to our time by celebrating the greatness of his personality and exploring the historical forces he had set loose in the world. Jesus is present now, they said in a thousand erudite ways, in roughly the same way other great men of the past are still present. A thinker like Adolf von Harnack could start his book on The Essence of Christianity by saying, “mankind cannot be too often reminded that there was once a man of the name of Socrates. That is true; but still more important is it to remind mankind again and again that a man of the name of Jesus Christ once stood in their midst.”

That groaning sound you hear is JC2 being stretched two millennia to become JC3, still with no real resurrection and ascension in between.

Thus classic liberalism, against which there were many justified reactions: the smart fundamentalism of men like James Orr and J. Gresham Machen, and the neo-orthodoxy of men like Bultmann and Tillich. They all knew classic liberalism was not the same thing as biblical Christianity, and they all sought to overcome it with something that was more in line with the message of Scripture. Tillich and Bultmann, with their neo-orthodox account of the presence of Christ, staked out a position that was better than the view of classic liberalism.

That’s the best thing I can say about their position, even on their birthday.