Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Faithless Form Criticism

In a column, entitled “Unbelief Unveiled,” in the March/April 2012 issue of The Layman, a publication of the Presbyterian Lay Committee,  Parker T. Williamson, Editor Emeritus, quotes from sermons by John A. Shuck, a PCUSA minister, the pastor of FPC Elizabethton, TN, and member of the Holston Presbytery:

I preach on the Bible about as much as any other preacher. I don’t preach on it as if it were a book to believe. I don’t find most of it particularly believable, at least in the way that we were supposed to believe it … When I suggest that Jesus in the Gospel of John is a more of a fictional character than an historical figure, and that John is using his creative imagination in creating this story [John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead], it isn’t that I am saying throw out the gospel.

John’s gospel is about Jesus. But the Jesus depicted here is not the historical person. John’s Jesus is an imaginative construction.  The events and the dialogue we just read from chapter 10 are probably not events and dialogue that took place, that someone (i.e. The author we call John) wrote down, but rather, a scene created by some author we call John.

The Bible is not always what it seems. It was created by numerous human authors. Every one of them had an agenda. They created these stories and these images for a variety of reasons.  Reasons that we may never know.

My views on the authorship of the Gospel of John have been challenged and shaped recently by the two-volume work by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., on that gospel in the Anchor Yale Bible Series.   The late Fr. Brown is considered a leading authority on the Gospel of John and 1, 2, and 3 John.   He holds that archaeological discoveries after WW II require a positive reassessment of those writings that, until then, had been significantly discounted by form criticism.  It does not appear to me that Rev. Shuck got the message. 

In the introduction to the work on the gospel, Fr. Brown sets out the theory of a “redactor” whose composition of John’s Gospel progressed through five stages.   I think the following excerpt from his conclusion gives one a sense of the dignified and respectful way that Fr. Brown approaches the subject, and that alone is a sharp contrast to the tone of Rev. Shuck’s remarks.  Furthermore, Fr. Brown describes his view as a theory advanced by a scholar, not as an opinion to be featured from a pulpit by a preacher (pp. xxxviii-xxxix).

To sum up, although we have spelled out this theory of the five stages of the composition of the Gospel at some length, we would stress that in its basic outlines the theory is not really complicated and fits in rather plausibly with what is thought about the composition of the other Gospels.  A distinctive figure in the primitive Church preached and taught about Jesus, using the raw material of a tradition of Jesus’ works and words, but shaping this material to a particular theological cast and expression.  Eventually he gathered the substance of his preaching and teaching into a Gospel, following the traditional pattern of baptism, the ministry, and the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Since he continued to preach and teach after the edition of the Gospel, he subsequently made a second edition of his Gospel, adding more material and adapting the Gospel to answer new problems.  After his death a disciple made a final redaction of the Gospel, incorporating other material that the evangelist had preached and taught, and even some of the material of the evangelist’s co-workers.  A theory of two editions and a final redaction by a disciple would not be extraordinary among the theories of the composition of biblical books – a very similar theory is proposed for the Book of Jeremiah.

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We make no pretense to facile answers to such questions.

There is nothing here in Fr. Brown’s commentary about a “fictional” Jesus, about “creative imagination” or an “imaginative construction.”  Why would John Shuck put the matter in the way that he does, except that he simply does not believe the truth of the Gospel.  And if he does not believe the truth of it, why would he mount a Presbyterian pulpit and “preach” on the subject?

Last Sunday morning before church, I read Fr. Brown’s discussion of the Resurrection.  In certain “general remarks” on that subject, he writes in part (p. 967):

The fact that there is a development within the formulae and also from formulae to narratives [concerning the Resurrection] raises an obvious question about the historicity of the narratives.  In discussing the narratives in general and later in discussing the Johannine narratives in particular, we shall be concerned with isolating the earliest material in these narratives; but we do not think it our task in a commentary to go further and to speculate about whether or not bodily resurrection is possible.  Objections to the possibility of resurrection take their origins in philosophy and science and not in exegesis, which is our task.  (We note, however, that such objections have their force against a crassly physical understanding of the resurrection whereby it is looked on as resuscitation; they are less forceful against the type of sophisticated understanding enunciated by Paul in I Cor xv 42 ff: “It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body.”)  There can be no question that the evangelists themselves thought that Jesus’ body did not remain in the grave but was raised to glory.  Yet, even if by comparative exegesis we trace this idea back to the earliest days, we cannot prove that this Christian understanding corresponded to what really happened.  That is a matter of faith [bold mine].

 That is the problem with Rev. Shuck’s approach, the source of his hubris and skepticism, and what appears to be his complete lack of embarrassment.  There is no faith there.

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