It was J. Gresham Machen, in Christianity and Liberalism, who commented that thorough-going theological liberalism is actually a different religion from orthodox Christianity. It is, in fact, a different kind of religion.
This observation was borne out in a recent discussion on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? show between Ben Witherington III and Stephen Thornton. Ben is an evangelical biblical scholar, Stephen a retired URC minister of liberal persuasion.
The topic under consideration was the narratives of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Matthew and Luke. Ben affirmed the essential historicity of these narratives, whereas Stephen denied this. In fact, for Stephen, the Gospels in their entirety are works of ‘pious fiction’. The authors never intended their accounts to be read as historical records, but rather as stories that would enable their readers to grasp profound underlying spiritual truths.
The evidence for Stephen’s position, such as it is, is largely negative. No-one today has ever seen or heard a choir of angels, so there is no reason to suppose that anyone in Jesus’ day did. There is no record outside the New Testament of the census recorded by Luke, so that census cannot have actually occurred. Paul (whose letters pre-date the Gospels) shows no interest in the historical aspects of Jesus’ ministry, and so we have to conclude that the ‘historical’ records of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are fictitious. And so on. We have to ask, not “What actually happened?” but “What does it mean?”
Ben was able to offer robust responses to Stephen’s denials, but I won’t go into the details here.
One thing that interests me is that Stephen was happy to use the same kind of language as Ben, and yet mean something completely different by it. He wanted to affirm that the Gospel narratives, though fictitious, teach ‘glorious truth’. He seemed less forthcoming about what that ‘glorious truth’ really is, although he does think that it involves ‘the blind seeing, the deaf hearing’, and so on (in a purely metaphorical sense, of course).
A startling instance of Stephen’s willingness to use the language of Christian orthodoxy in a radically unorthodox way was his use of the word ‘miracle’. Despite his denial of the Gospel miracles, he wanted to affirm his belief in miracles – “I’m a miracle, you’re a miracle, we’re all miracles!” But this is to re-define the word in terms that Humpty Dumpty himself would have been proud of:-
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
But we would want to ask, with Alice:-
‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
According to Cross and Livingstone’s Dictionary of the Christian Church (not exactly a mouthpiece of theological conservatism) the ‘traditional’ view of a miracle is:-
a sensible fact (opus sensible) produced by the special intervention of God for a religious end, transcending the normal order of things usually term the Law of Nature.
It is this ‘transcending’ of ‘the normal order of things’ which belongs to the essence of a miracle, and to extend the term to refer to things like ‘the miracle of life’ is to stretch it well beyond its breaking point.
Similarly, when the discussion turned to the person of Jesus Christ, Ben summarised the historic belief of the Christian church as holding that
Jesus is the divine Son of God who took on flesh and dwelt amongst us.
To which Stephen responded
I can say that, but I mean something entirely different by it.
Yes, that just about sums it up: “entirely different”.
The other thing that interests me about Stephen Thornton’s position is that although he regards his position as ‘Christian’, his view of the historical basis for the Christian faith approaches the scepticism of Richard Carrier. Richard had appeared on the Unbelievable show just one week earlier, and explained his position as a ‘mythicist’ (i.e. one who does not believe that the Jesus of the Gospels actually existed). Stephen and Richard both doubt the essential historicity of the Gospels. Stephen, nevertheless, still finds in these fictitious stories ‘profound truth’, and counts himself a Christian. Richard does not find in these fictious stories comparable truth, and regards himself as an atheist.
Which, I ask you, is the more consistent (and, dare I say it, honest) position?