Letter to North American Christian Church
Let’s Seek Truth by Asking the Right Questions
Copyright 2010 by Howard Pepper
There is a pressing issue for Christians in North America which gets little attention. Yet it is key to so much else. To address it deeply will be to truly transform the way following Jesus is lived out. It will add integrity and the kind of leadership the secular world will respond to. The issue is truth-seeking.
We often, and rightly, revisit Paul’s poetic expression of the big three of “faith, hope and love.” They together rest on a crucial foundation – truth. Repeatedly the New Testament couples and elevates grace and truth. Even most non-Christians can site the Gospel quote, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Beyond being known for love, the Church wants everyone to seek and find the truth. Faith and hope, to be valid, must discern falsehood and illusion, and build upon truth.
Now, “finding Jesus” or “knowing” him is not synonymous with finding truth… Which conception of Jesus is one finding? And which is then fleshed out for oneself in detail? And what of the complex tapestry of doctrines, key ones of which are often in question among faithful believers?
In many years in Evangelical churches, higher education and ministries, I have seen and participated in meticulous seeking for truth and deeper meaning within the biblical texts. However, what I have notably not seen is a broader search for truth and serious dealing with evidence about the creation of those texts, their genre, dating, and authorship, on which much of interpretative truth depends; little dogged exploration of what was going on with the earliest Jesus-followers and the generation or two after them, when the texts of the New Testament were being written. We, the broader culture as well as the Church, have mostly just accepted “received” views of the way the relatively few disciples of Jesus multiplied, expanded outward, and accomplished their transition out of their native Judaism; or, as Gentiles, interacted with their particular roots and surroundings.
Yet these accepted-without-question views are often at odds with the picture presented in the New Testament itself…. Almost between the lines—but not always so—one sees a contentious, jockeying set of groups of an unknown number. The picture is, purposely on the part of Luke in Acts, very sketchy and incomplete. He and Paul both allude to Messianic or Christian groups besides the Jerusalem “Church” and those founded by Paul, seemingly many of them with various founders, and not at all unified in doctrine or vision. Extrabiblical documents of a period probably overlapping New Testament composition, and certainly just after, confirm this and add some detail, though far from what historians would like. So asking the right questions of the biblical texts is vital.
We cannot pretend to gain a clear grasp of what the Gospel was to all these pre-Christian and Christian groups. But the truth is more than worth seeking. Views of salvation, among other important issues, varied, it is clear. We also see, before the last of the canonized works, that there was already competition in defining a set of beliefs that would belong to each group, each no doubt claiming The Truth and vilifying the others. This is subtle in the Gospels, but on the surface in Paul and some of the other epistles. Perhaps a good question for today is, “Will we now find a way to create cooperative, love-driven ministries in a more non-dogmatic, non-coercive, non-political way than the forced uniformity first created for Christian groups by the combined efforts of Church (Eusebius, prominently) and State (Constantine, initially)?”
Our centuries of looking the other way rather than facing these diversity data starting in the New Testament itself, and other evident points such as the struggle to graft new concepts of sacrifice, deity and salvation somehow onto Israel’s epic and ritual laws, have lulled the present Church into thinking that we know adequately how a post-resurrection dispersed, confused group of disciples spawned a movement and community life that would eventually coalesce into “Christendom.”
We do not. We do know they (many, besides the canonical authors) exercised great creativity, and worked quickly, with enthusiasm.
Even most liberal New Testament scholars and theologians have failed to look in the right places and ways to help Christians really understand what happened, why and how. They’ve largely failed to see that while Jesus must have been inspiring, as to “revealed” theology, his followers were at least as innovative.
The often-misplaced emphases and questionable, unimportant speculations of recent decades about just who Jesus was and what he said, have understandably been unimpressive to much of the Church. That while the advances of biblical scholarship overall are valuable indeed. Still, with a sort of collusion from even “skeptical” scholars, an amazing, often-unhealthy and unexamined mystique has remained in place and strengthened over the centuries as to the nature and power of the Bible—one I appeal to the Church to re-examine, for the benefit of everyone.
A special uniqueness has been assumed in what has been taken as divine revelation, expressed by biblical authors. The question is, “Just how is Christianity unique?” Is it “uniquely unique” among religions, or does it substantially share, in its progressive creation, the same basic dynamics of development of other religions? (Answering this requires some serious truth-seeking via disciplines such as history of religions, comparative religion and comparative mythology, cultural anthropology, Classics, literary criticism, etc.)
If the North American Church is to pursue truth wherever it may lead, isn’t it necessary to educate through, and keep re-asking many additional questions? Here are just a few of the crucial ones:
“What is the nature (or genre) of the literature we find in the Bible?” (That is, book by book.)
Particularly, as to the Gospels, “Are they primarily biography, history, polemics, apologetics, narrative, or what?”
If some combination (likely), “What are the implications for how we should sort out and understand their various aspects? What will that do to the nature of the ‘truth claims’ traditionally made much of by the Church?”
“Is the decades-long emphasis on ‘historical’ evidences for the Resurrection a legitimate pursuit or a confused and disorienting endeavor?”
“Why not treat the many difficult-to-reconcile variations among Gospel Resurrection accounts, and broader Gospel account conflicts, in a fresh way?… Along with potentially legitimate (and historically copious) efforts to reconcile or ‘harmonize’ these conflicts to avoid admitting any real contradictions, why not explore what these differences point to, perhaps why they are there? What may they indicate about how one Gospel author used the work of another or a non-canonical source, but had perhaps theological or social reasons to present a different picture with different implications… a picture that may purposely have been redrawn, not a chance or mere literary variation?”
“Is there evidence of a progressive development of narratives about Jesus and his followers? If so, for what purpose; to what end? What dynamics drove the process? Is this the mark of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps of human social interests and processes, or some combination?”
Answering these questions will be challenging indeed… even the attempt… but it does not necessarily imply or lead to a “loss of faith” in the deepest sense. A departure from the form of faith one has held, probably. But doesn’t that go on, regardless, in any searching, growing person?