Friday, July 29, 2016

Is Inerrancy a Heresy? Part 2

From the May 2013 E-Block.
For Part 2 of our look at Rodger Cragun's The Ultimate Heresy (TUH), which claims that the doctrine of inerrancy is heretical, we first look at examples in which he supposes he has shown that what is found in the text is incompatible with inerrancy. As we have noted last time, however, while what Cragun presents would cause problems for a hyper-fundamentalist view of inerrancy, it would have little bearing on a contextualized understanding of the doctrine. He also presents far fewer arguments than I expected him to provide -- in fact, what he offers amounts to three broad arguments:
Jesus broadened or sometimes placed restrictions on the law. This shows that he didn't consider it inerrant.

Cragun offers multiple examples of how Jesus either broadened or narrowed the OT law, but Cragun could have saved himself the trouble, and spared the reader pages of irrelevant examples. As we have noted in numerous contexts, the OT law was didactic, which means that it was never meant to be understood as a wooden, "follow to the letter", procedural handbook. Within that context, the adjustments made by Jesus (and rabbis, as Cragun notes) to the OT law are within the proper bounds of understanding that law as inerrant. 

That Cragun fails to understand the didactic nature of the law is shown when he complains that, e.g., Deut. 22:13-22 does not consider that an unmarried girl might have a ruptured hymen for reasons other than that she had sexual intercourse before marriage. A didactic code leaves it to the discretion of local judges and officials to make such determinations.

The NT misuses OT texts like Is. 7:14 as prophecies of Jesus.

Yet again, Cragun unwittingly imitates the worst sort of atheist critic with this charge, and also unwittingly adopts his own fundamentalist hermeneutic of the text. As we have also pointed out in numerous venues, the NT's use of the OT is perfectly in accord with Jewish exegetical methods of the period, in which a text like Is. 7:14 is not seen as a prophecy of the future, but in which present events are seen as a re-enactment of Is. 7:14. That means that the NT is not using texts like Is. 7:14 "out of context," because the idea is that only that single verse is being re-enacted.

There were a lot of different ideas about what should be in the canon.

Again, like some of the worst atheists, Cragun appeals to "specter of diversity" arguments as though they have any relevance or merit, which they do not. All they would mean is that humans may not have recognized the contours of what was inspired as inerrant but not that the texts themselves weren’t inerrant. The contours of the canon would have no bearing on the matter, whether the text was inerrant or not.
And that, oddly enough, is all Cragun has to offer before he once again returns to the prior non sequitur routine e.g., "inerrancy is a heresy because it has led to divisions." He also offers what he presents as a survey of the historical development of inerrancy as a doctrine, but even if it is 100% correct (and it may well be), it would still be a non sequitur to raise it as though it had any bearing on the truth of the matter.
In contrast to the above, I would raise a point of agreement with Cragun. I would agree that 2 Tim. 3:16 would not really bear the exegetical weight put on it by some inerrantist commentators. Cragun spends a great deal of time on this verse, but as far as my views are concerned, all that he offers is moot. We will close with a look at places where Cragun professes to find "loud dissent" with inerrancy within the text of the Bible itself. His first example, which he alleges to be "most decisive and destructive," fails to produce anything but another massive non sequitur. He notes that in Acts, after his vision of a sheet from heaven, Peter acknowledged he was wrong about something; namely, Gentiles in the Kingdom. From this Cragun concludes that he has demonstrated that Peter "could be in error." Oh? By that rubric, if I find one mistake in Cragun's text, we have thereby proved that he could never produce any text without errors -- no matter how short it is, or no matter what the conditions are. Indeed, by that logic, even if he writes "2 and 2 is four" he is immediately under suspicion of error. Cragun's error is again typical of the "all or nothing" mentality of the very fundamentalism he decries.
Cragun's next argument is that because some prophets like Jonah were able to resist their prophetic call, they were only human. What bearing this has, again, on inerrancy, and on specific conditions associated with producing an inerrant text, is hard to say, but it would once again place Cragun under suspicion, even if he told us the sky was blue.
Third, Cragun points out that some pagans, like Balaam, were inspired. Yet again, we're not sure what the point is. Apparently, Cragun thinks the only way someone could produce an inerrant text is if they were being inerrant on everything 24/7. I know of no one, not even a fundamentalist, who believes such a thing.
Fourth, Cragun delivers some arguments against a mechanical view of inspiration. Since I don't hold to such a view, there is nothing for me to address, though there may be something there requiring an address by some fringe fundamentalists.
Fifth, Cragun argues that church fathers did not "idolize" the Scriptures, but that is not really the point. What he needs to show is that the church fathers thought Scripture erred. As it is, he can come no closer to this than e.g., Jerome discussing problems in the text (such as Matthew referring to the "thirty pieces of silver" passage in Zechariah -- an issue, by the way, that is easily resolved under Jewish exegetical and citation procedures). Although Jerome discusses the problem, he does not say, "this is an error." What Jerome does do is suppose that e.g., Matthew might be charged with "falsehood" for such things as adding, "I say unto thee" to the translation of "Talitha cumi." But as Cragun admits, this sort of thing comes more of Jerome's perceived neurotic compulsion for detail than from any real problem.

Thus concludes our look at Cragun, and all in all, he could have spared us the trouble of what amounted to his own exercise in neurotic compulsion.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Is Satan in Is. 14 and Ezekiel 28?

For this week I've got an entry from my e-book answering Mark Fairley's FUEL Project.
I’ll have to be fair here. The idea that Satan’s “biography” is told in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 isn’t some sort of fringe position. Many serious scholars think it is correct, and I won’t take anything away from them on that account; however, many serious scholars also doubt the identification, and for good reasons. The first and most obvious problem is that this identification of the figures in Isaiah and Ezekiel was first made in the 3rd and 4th century AD, by early Christian writers and notably not by Jews of the Biblical era. Of course, this doesn’t automatically mean it is wrong, but it does place a greater burden of proof on those who say that Satan is in mind in those passages.

The passage in Ezekiel is more detailed, and is most often used to support the interpretation of the one in Isaiah, and as such dealing with Ezekiel will address the matter sufficiently. Let’s run through Ezekiel a bit at a time, and we’ll do it from the perspective of anyone who sees all of Ezekiel 28 as referring to Satan, as well as addressing any points unique to Fairley’s report.

Son of man, take up a lamentation upon the king of Tyrus, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty.

This portion, by itself, is not determinative. Ancient kings were regarded as the repositories of wisdom, so that’s no reason to identify the person in this passage as anyone but the king of Tyre.  What about the beauty of this figure? The king of Tyre possessed significant honor as the leader of one of the wealthiest nations in the ancient world. So, you can be pretty sure he decked himself out appropriately. So, there is no reason to read Satan into this text.

Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created. 
Here’s where some Satan identifiers get really cooking. Generally, they say that since the literal king of Tyre could not have been in the Garden of Eden, this must be alluding to someone who actually was there. But, that’s not at all the case. Eden for Ezekiel is a type of, or analogus to, the wealthy city of Tyre. The city was a sort of a virtual "paradise" for its residents and for the king of Tyre. In other words, the point is that the luxurious city of Tyre is like Eden in terms of being a comfortable paradise.

What about the stones? That could be either a representation of Tyre’s wealth, or else an allusion to the king of Tyre also being a priest, as part of his office. Like Israel’s priests, the pagan priests often wore jewels as part of their outfits.

Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. 

This passage makes the strongest case for an equation with Satan, since Satan was a cherub, or angel. But the reference to the ruler of Tyre as a "cherub" no more means an actual cherub is in view, than it means a real dragon is in view in the next chapter about Pharaoh (29:3). In reality, cherubs were a key symbol of Phoenician and Tyrian iconography, which means that the ruler of Tyre would also be properly described in terms of a cherub. It’s sort of like the way Americans in the early 20th century described Teddy Roosevelt as a bull moose. Cherubs were Tyre’s “mascots”.

What about the references to a holy mountain and stones of fire? Those represent a puzzle with any interpretation we offer. Those who suggest Satan is the subject are compelled to suggest a vivid anthropomorphism, because obviously, a spirit being is not walking on an actual mountain or among actual stones. On the other hand, if this is the literal king of Tyre, then this could be another allusion to an Edenic paradise, but only from a version of the story the residents of Tyre would be familiar with. The fiery stones, for example, would relate to a story in the pagan Gilgamesh Epic of a garden in which fruit and leaves took the form of jewels. That would be an appropriate image to use of Eden when addressing a pagan king. 

Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee. By the multitude of thy merchandise they have filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned: therefore I will cast thee as profane out of the mountain of God: and I will destroy thee, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire.

In terms of our report so far, this repeats images from above and suggests nothing new, although it is an area where Fairley tries a little too hard to strain Satan out of the account. 

If this passage does refer to trade or merchandise, then we have a perfect match for the king of Tyre, which was one of the leading trade cities in the ancient world. In Fairley's view, however, the word we translate here as “merchandise” or “trading” is mistranslated. Rather, he says it means to go up and down as an agitator, or to slander. 

That won’t work for a couple of reasons. First the Hebrew word for “merchandise” (rekullah) is used just four times in the Old Testament. All four uses are in Ezekiel, and two of those uses make it quite clear that the word has to do with commercial traffic (26:12, 28:5), not agitation or slander:

And they shall make a spoil of thy riches, and make a prey of thy merchandise: and they shall break down thy walls, and destroy thy pleasant houses: and they shall lay thy stones and thy timber and thy dust in the midst of the water. By thy great wisdom and by thy traffick hast thou increased thy riches, and thine heart is lifted up because of thy riches...

A related verb refers several times to what are obviously commercial merchants (1 Kings 10:15, Neh. 3:32, Ez. 27:3, 13, several times in Ez. 27) So, where does Fairley get this idea that it means “campaigning” or slandering?
Fairley doesn’t give his source for this, so I can’t say and will not guess. I did find the same claim repeated in an article by Richard Davidson, and nowhere else except another article by Davidson. That means it’s likely the original source for Fairley’s claim, even if not the direct source. [Richard M. Davidson, "Cosmic Metanarrative for the Coming Millennium," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 11 (2000) 1-2:108]

In his articles, Davidson tells us that while studying, he came to a “startling and exciting discovery” that the verb related to the word in Ezekiel means, to go about, while the noun derivative means “slanderer” or “talebearer.” Now in fact, that is true. The related word is used in Ezekiel 22:9:

In thee are men that carry tales to shed blood: and in thee they eat upon the mountains: in the midst of thee they commit lewdness.

However, this does nothing to bring the same meaning to the other form of the word used in Ezekiel 28. It is clear that the original root of the word refers to “carrying” or “travelling around.” That’s why we get words from it that refer to both merchants and talebearers: Both are “carrying” something. That in turn means that the only reason to assume that what the figure in Ezekiel 28 “carries around” is slander is because we assume, in the first place, that it must be Satan that Ezekiel is talking about. Unfortunately, that won’t work, both because of the contrary meaning found in the two other clear uses of the same word by Ezekiel, as well as the frequent references to material trade in the prior chapter (Ezekiel 27).

The reality is that serious scholars don’t buy this reading of Ezekiel 28:16, and even those who do think Satan is to be found in Ezekiel 28 are compelled to suggest "a shift of focus back and forth" between the king of Tyre and Satan throughout the chapter.  

Fairley tries for a variation on this, seeking to make a distinction between the “prince” of Tyre (28:2) and the “king” of Tyre (28:12), whom he sees as different personages i.e., the first to be a human, the second being Satan. But that doesn’t work either. The word used in verse 2 is a broad one. Though often translated “prince,” it doesn’t carry our connotation of one who is the son of a king. It simply means a leader or ruler, in generic terms. In fact, there are places where it used to designate someone who is obviously a king (1 Sam. 13:12-13, 25:30; 2 Sam 5:2, 1 Kings 14:7). So, those two words will not serve to get two different personages out of Ezekiel 28.

Another point made by Fairley is that the same word used in Ezekiel 28:16 is also found in Leviticus 19:16, where it is translated “talebearer.” But, that’s not the same word at all. It’s what Davidson called the noun derivative, which is also found in Ezekiel 22:9.

Now let's pick up where we last left off with Ezekiel. 

Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground, I will lay thee before kings, that they may behold thee. Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffic; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee. All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more.

There's little new here. It may be noted that there is little chance that a spirit being will be brought to literal ashes, or will be seen by people. A king, of course, won't likely be made literally ashes either. Saying you’ll turn someone to “ashes” would reflect a kind of “trash talk" that was used by kings in the Ancient Near East when they went to war.

So, here’s the bottom line. Finding Satan in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 is an excellent exercise in midrashic typology, but in terms of actual justification from the intent of the text, there is little that can be found. So, while it may well be that Satan fell because of pride, Isaiah 14 isn’t a reason to think so; and while it may be that he used to be in charge of music in heaven, Ezekiel 28 isn’t evidence of that.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Hitler and "Positive Christianity"

For postings today I'm providing a copy of the first chapter of my e-book Hitler's Christianity, which is nearing its third birthday.
Chapter 1 -- Positive Christianity: Doctrines and Background
The fundamental core of our case is that Hitler and Nazi leaders adhered to a cult system called “Positive Christianity.” By defining Positive Christianity as a cult, we are arguing that its beliefs lie outside the mainstream of orthodox Christianity, to the extent that it would be incorrect to define Hitler as a Christian, or to place the blame for Nazi atrocities on the Christian faith as a religion and as a philosophy.
Cults and Heresies
The first step in this process is to ask: What is a cult? The word “cult” today holds sinister connotations of dark-robed figures slitting lizards’ throats in the moonlight, or of murderous, charismatic leaders brainwashing followers into self-immolation. “Cult” brings to mind pictures of the Branch Davidians resisting to the death the forces of the United States Government; or of the followers of the Hale-Bopp comet cult lying dead under purple sheets after ingesting poisoned rice pudding, or of the followers of Jim Jones consuming cyanide-laced punch in the jungles of Guyana. But, from a strictly theological perspective, “cult” can refer to any religious group that is a deviation, or offshoot, from some other major religious group, and which holds to a new or unusual belief or practice that either rejects, or openly contradicts, the beliefs of the parent group. To that extent, it is no longer truly part of the parent group, and becomes properly defined as a new group in its own right.
A related word in this context, which we will also apply to Positive Christianity, is heresy. Broadly speaking, a heresy is any doctrine that is at odds with what is accepted by the mainstream of a parent religious body. Thus, formally, “cult” refers to the group which deviates from the norm, while “heresy” defines the doctrines that cause that group to be deviants from the norm.
Arguably, then, the defining of a group as a cult, or of a belief as a heresy, is a matter of the degree of deviation from a mainstream view: The more radically a splinter group departs from the beliefs and practices of its parent group, the more appropriate it becomes to define the splinter group as a cult, or their beliefs as heresies.
With that, we may now ask: In what way did Positive Christianity deviate from the mainstream of doctrine and enter into heresy? What of its deviations make it sufficient to classify it as a cult?
There are three areas in which Positive Christianity differed significantly from orthodox Christian viewpoints.
Deviation #1: A Bowdlerized Bible
The Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, is widely recognized as the "handbook" of the Christian faith. There are, of course, a range of opinions about its exact role in the Christian life. Some regard it as the inerrant word of God, inspired by God Himself. Some regard it as a human record, but still authoritative in terms of being the key source for Christian doctrine. Some say that its canon is lacking and could stand to add a few books; a few others say there is a book or two that is not as qualified as the others, or could stand to be removed.
Despite these variations in opinion, however, it is generally recognized that there is a certain extent to which one can go that ends up outside the pale of what is historically and theologically called "Christian." A Buddhist who rejects the authority of the Bible, and sees in it nothing more than perhaps a mishmash of history, moral teachings, and the words of sometimes-mistaken men, is certainly not qualified to be called a Christian on those terms. Muslims who regard the Bible as authoritative but corrupted, and in need of the corrections and clarifications offered by the Quran, also cannot be regarded as Christians.
Moving closer to the center of the circle, definitions get harder to apply. Groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, or David Koresh's Branch Davidians, are overwhelmingly denied the title of “Christian” in good measure because they declare that the Biblical record has been either corrupted or badly misunderstood, so that they believe it necessary for there to be supplemental revelation, provided either by another inspired book, or some prophetic revelation. These groups may also boldly declare that they are indeed Christians, and may become quite offended when told that this is not the case. Alternatively, a group may declare that it is they who are the true Christians, and it is others in the mainstream church who are not! [xy]
([xy] I am particularly familiar with this issue where it concerns Mormonism, and attempts by Mormon apologists to claim the title "Christian" for themselves. See on this point, for example, Daniel Peterson and Stephen Ricks, Offenders for a Word (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1998).
The irony in this is particularly strong, since Joseph Smith himself reported that during his “First Vision” of God and Jesus, he asked them which church he ought to join, and was told that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof’ ”. (History of Joseph Smith, 1:19.) Even more strongly, third Mormon President John Taylor (1808-1887) said, “We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsense...the devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century.” (Journal of Discourses 6:167). To that extent, the modern Mormon quest to be called "Christian" departs considerably from the original teachings of Mormonism's founders.
The diversion of Mormonism here noted is of some relevance, since, as we will see, adherents to Positive Christianity also declared themselves to be restoring a more original and authentic form of the Christian faith. Thus, one of the most important reasons they can be denied the title of “Christian” and deemed a cult, is that they denied that title to everyone else, thereby indicating that they were a separate group.)
It is beyond our present scope to discuss these other groups listed, but it is clear that with respect to the Bible and its utility, there is a line of demarcation beyond which one cannot pass and still be acceptably termed "Christian." All that said, where does “Positive Christianity" fit on this spectrum?
The Positive Christian “Canon”
The two divisions of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are regarded as closed collections, or canons, to which nothing can be justifiably added, or appropriately taken away. It is considered a standard hallmark of a Christian cult to in some way change or redefine the contours of these canons, either by claiming that some new revelation has been provided which further defines, or else updates, the prior canon, or else by subtracting from that canon.
Within this understanding, it is not necessary, as a critic might suppose, to debate whether or not the canon of the Bible was the result of divine intervention. Even if the canon had been assembled by completely natural means, it remains the defining “constitution” of the Christian faith. Thus, by definition, any group that performs surgery on the canon is defining itself as “outside” the Christian faith.
Positive Christianity defined itself in terms of a particularly radical form of canonical surgery, one that amounted to removing no less than three quarters of the Bible from the Christian canon, and as much as ninety percent of it, depending on individual variations. The minimum surgery consisted of the complete excision of the Old Testament from the Bible, as a document that was “too Jewish” for their tastes, and at a maximum, disposing of the letters of Paul, who was frequently named as a Jewish “corrupter” of the authentic Christian faith.
In this respect, Positive Christianity imitates a movement widely recognized as heretical by the Christian mainstream. The removal of the Old Testament, as well as select New Testament material, mirrors the actions of the second-century Marcionite heresy, which rejected Jewish influences on the Christian faith. Like the Positive Christians, Marcion rejected the entirety of the Old Testament from his canon. Unlike the Positive Christians, however, his trimming of the New Testament involved keeping Paul rather than rejecting him (all except for the Pastoral letters: 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), and rejecting every Gospel except an abridged version of Luke.
At the same time, the New Testament itself rejects such forced distinctions between itself and the message of the Old Testament. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament clearly quoted and alluded to the Old Testament as historically authoritative, and with great appreciation. They also clearly saw in Jesus an imitation of Old Testament themes and prophecy.
There can therefore be little doubt that on this accounting alone, that of a radically bowdlerized canon, Positive Christianity must be counted as a pseudo-Christian cult.
Deviation #2: A De-Judaized Jesus
If the Bible is Christianity's handbook, then Jesus is Christianity's central figure. No one would say a Muslim qualified as a Christian, not only because of their rejection of the Christian canon as God’s complete revelation, but also in good measure because of their quite different take on who Jesus was, and what he did (or rather, did not do). Any person whose portrait of Jesus departs in some substantial way from the Christian view, also cannot be regarded as a Christian.
Since the Positive Christians rejected the Old Testament for being a Jewish document, and rejected Paul as a Jewish corrupter of Christianity, it will not be surprising to learn that they also made an effort to redefine Jesus. In mainstream Christianity, Jesus is a Jew – a member of a specific ethnic group, born into that group in accordance with promises related in the Old Testament covenant, concerning a coming Messiah. In order to make Jesus acceptable for their anti-Semitic viewpoints, the Positive Christians redefined the ethnicity of Jesus, turning him into an Aryan (a member of the Nazi “master race”) or a Nordic.
Other religions and groups have claimed Jesus and reinvented him into a person that all would presumably agree are not "Christian." One of my favorite examples of this is a book titled The Elvis-Jesus Mystery, by Cinda Godfrey. This amazing book declares that Elvis Presley was the "same soul" as Jesus (and as Adam, for good measure!). I cannot imagine even the most insensate critic arguing that this represents a genuinely "Christian" point of view.
The Jesus of Positive Christianity was perhaps not as radical as Godfrey's. It was, however, a logical extension of their views on the Bible. As Positive Christianity divorced Christianity from the Bible's Jewish elements, it also divorced Jesus from his Jewish heritage.
Physical Parameters
The question that may arise now is, "Is Positive Christianity's Jesus truly radical enough to disqualify it as a bona fide Christian sect?" For arguably, one can believe, for example, that Jesus had red or brown hair, or was 6 feet tall rather than 5 feet tall, and not endanger being classified as a Christian.
Hair color and height, however, are not essential to Jesus' identity as broker of the Christian covenant. On the other hand, Jesus' status as the divine Son of Man, and as incarnate hypostatic Wisdom (that is, as a member of the Trinity) have been widely recognized as being essential to his identity. Groups that deny such doctrines, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, have been discounted as not being within the Christian fold since the Nicaea Council condemned the heresies of the Arians (i.e., the Jehovah's Witnesses of that day).
Is Jesus' Jewishness no more important than his hair color? Given Jesus’ professions to be intrinsically linked to the messianic promises of the Old Testament, and similar sentiments by the authors of the other New Testament books, it is clear that to turn Jesus into an Aryan, and deny his Jewishness, is to deny a fundamental fact of Christianity. It is also contrary to clear New Testament professions giving Jesus Jewish or Davidic ancestry (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 2:11, 3:23-28; Romans 1:3; 2 Timothy 2:8; Hebrews 7:14; Rev. 5:5, 22:16). Jewishness was intrinsic to Jesus' self-identity, and denial of Jesus' Jewishness, as part of the package of "Positive Christianity," puts it outside the pale of historic and theological Christianity.
The nature of this deviance should be properly understood. Critics may charge that many depictions of Jesus in our churches make him out to be a white Anglo-Saxon, sometimes with perfectly “Nordic” blue eyes and blond hair. But this is not done in order to de-Judaize Jesus. Rather, it is because many modern Christians are not aware that Jews of the first century had dark complexions and dark hair. Pictures of Jesus as a typical “white guy” are designed based on the assumption that the Jews of the first century were also “white guys”, and not in order to deny that they were Jews.
Deviation #3: Indifference to Doctrine
The final deviation of Positive Christianity concerns a focus on orthopraxy (right practice) at the expense of orthodoxy (right doctrine or belief). To be a Christian (or a member of any religious group) requires correct adherence to a certain prescribed set of beliefs. Orthodoxy is used to describe one who holds the correct set of beliefs for their spiritual tradition.
In contrast, orthopraxy is used to refer to the rules of conduct that one must adhere to in order to live as a member of a group. Within Islam, for example, there are five pillars, or obligations, each faithful Muslim must perform to be considered faithful to Islam: belief (meaning, orthodoxy), worship, charitable giving, periodic fasting, and a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime. Any Muslim who deviates from this set of duties, without valid justification (e.g., not having the resources to make a trip to Mecca), are regarded as less than faithful to their beliefs.
Within Christianity, New Testament moral admonitions (particularly the Sermon on the Mount) are regarded as guidelines for Christian behavior. Those who deviate from these guidelines are regarded as either failing to represent orthodoxy (their beliefs), or may, in some cases, be regarded as displaying evidence of not holding right beliefs at all. Of course, this is reckoned as a matter of degree, not as a binary equation; a momentary lapse in orthopraxy is not immediately regarded as a sign of failure to be a member of the group. Positive Christianity strongly emphasized works and action. However, in terms of doctrine, it might be well to say that Positive Christianity not only failed to encourage the formulation of doctrine but it ignored doctrine to the point of annihilation. One searches in vain for any comment by leading Nazis on key doctrinal issues like the atonement, the Trinity, or original sin. Steigmann-Gall elaborates on this point, noting of Nazi commentators, [HR86] "[r]arely did they elaborate on doctrinal questions. Seldom did these party members discuss their thinking on original sin, the resurrection of Christ, or the communion of the saints." Though they believed they were following Christian ethics, and though they could accept Christian dogmas and gain inspiration from the Gospels and from Jesus, "In general...most of them were less concerned with the doctrine of Christianity than with its political ideology." He further states:
Positive Christianity was not an attempt to make a complete religious system with a dogma or ritual of its own: It was never formalized into a faith to which anyone could convert. Rather, this was primarily a social and political worldview meant to emphasize those qualities of Christianity that could end sectarianism. [HR84] Beyond this, Nazi commentators "said little or nothing about the Augsburg Confession or other signifiers of theological orthodoxy", and were "generally unconcerned with dogma." Stegmann-Gall goes on to say that in spite of this, they "adhered to basic precepts of Christian doctrine, most importantly the divinity of Christ as the son of God." [HR49-50] Nevertheless, this seeming “saving grace” is insufficient to detract from the lack of focus on orthodoxy in Positive Christian writings, especially given the reason for this lack of focus on doctrine.
Positive Christianity: In the Background

Just prior to the Nazi era, and even outside of Germany, the phrase “positive Christianity” was used to define a form of Christianity in which the believer was encouraged to act upon their beliefs, instead of merely being content to believe intellectually. A 1897 British journal, The Cambrian, in an article titled, “Prof. Richard T. Ely on Christianity”, says:
Positive Christianity having eyes and ears perceives wretched social conditions all about us. It knows what vile tenements signify and is aware of the enormous extent of the housing problem. Positive Christianity sees degraded childhood and lost opportunities on every side. Positive Christianity remembers that blindness is sin, that neglect is sin. “Inasmuch as ye did it not,” is the condemnation of negative Christianity.
Ely’s concern was that “professed Christianity” become “real Christianity” by action. Similar sentiments can be found in other sources of the same period, using the phrase, “positive Christianity.” [xp]
([xp] For example, Charles Abram Ellwood, The Reconstruction of Religion: A Sociological View (MacMillan: 1922) and Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind (A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1907). No doubt unaware of the Nazi connotations of the phrase “positive Christianity”, some modern writers have revived it to refer to the practice of Christianity with a “positive attitude.” For example, Zig Ziglar, Confessions of a Happy Christian (Pelican: 1978).)
There is certainly nothing innately wrong with encouraging orthopraxy. Calling believers to action is part of any healthy system of faith. However, the Positive Christians of the Nazi movement took this a step further, where Orthopraxy was emphasized to the point that orthodoxy was deemed irrelevant. Cults and heresies, under normal circumstances, are termed as such in part because of incorrect doctrine. How much more so should a group be classified as a cult for dispensing with doctrine altogether?
Why Ignore It?
Ely’s expression of “positive Christianity” had as its purpose a call to action on the part of those who professed Christian belief. Certainly, the Nazi adherents to their form of Positive Christianity would argue that such was their purpose as well. However, there was much more to it, and much that was designed to aid the Nazis in achieving a Germany unified under their banner. [HR51] "[O]ne of the very purposes of positive Christianity...was to bridge the religious divide by making no specific references to a particular confessional bias." Germany of this era was characterized by a significant population divide between Catholics (who were approximately one third of the population) and Protestants, who were themselves divided into over two dozen denominations. Positive Christianity, a Christianity of action that had no use for dogma, was intended to appeal to "the commonalities that joined Protestants and Catholics," stop sectarianism, and unify the nation under the Nazi banner.
For this reason, it is not surprising that little or no effort was made to lay out any detailed theology or dogma under Positive Christianity. [HR52] A "generalized and rather diffuse notion of simple Christianity" was best suited for achieving unity, by minimizing potential differences of opinion. Those who advocated Positive Christianity "were particularly unsuccessful in laying out any idea of what the new faith would actually look like; what its dogmas, creeds, or institutions might be, aside from a de facto appropriation of aspects of Protestantism." There was also no evidence that, "they made any particular effort to do so."
Pre-Nazi Positive Christianity
The roots of the German incarnation of Positive Christianity go back into history much farther than the Third Reich, and indeed, into the time even before Hitler’s birth. Part of the genesis of Positive Christianity was a hypertrophic German nationalism (a subject we will discuss further in Chapter 5), and its reaction to the practice of ultra-Montanism – a Catholic orientation which placed a strong emphasis on the powers of the Pope.
An early opponent of ultra-Montanism in Germany was Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), a [CRN20-1] “famed Munich theologian” who viewed ultra-Montanism as “both anti-German and almost pathologically destructive.” Von Döllinger claimed that “God had given Germans in particular the world historical task of reinterpreting Catholic theology for the dawning modern age, and he called on German Catholics to shed the yoke of ultra-Montanism and to assume their predestined role as ‘teachers of all the nations.’ ” In this view, he took for granted the superiority of German “national spirit,” and his views typified a nationalist reaction to ultra-Montanism.
Von Döllinger was not a “positive Christian” in the Nazi sense. However, he was a reactionary against ultra-Montanism, and [CRN33] other Catholic opponents of ultra-Montanism in Munich found their solution in Positive Christianity. At the time, the phrase was “so commonplace in prewar Reform Catholic circles as to require little explication.” It is not difficult to find examples of its use twenty years and more before the Nazis used it in their platform. In these earlier contexts, it was associated with German nationalism, anti-Semitism, and a strong emphasis on moral purity.
There are also indications of the three distinctives we have listed, at this early stage. [CRN37] For example, the cover of the April 1902 issue of the journal Renaissance, featured a “blending of Nordic-Aryan imagery and explicitly Catholic visual references” (including the figure of a muscular titan) and also “visually reinforced the primacy of the New Testament, which is illuminated specifically by the torch of the titan, over the (Jewish) Old Testament, which is pushed far to the margins of the image.” A tablet of the Ten Commandments is also featured toppling off into the void.
Positive Christianity’s “John the Baptist”?
As we move into the time of the Nazi Party itself, there is a leading figure in the Positive Christian movement who can be found to have definitive ties to the Party. [CRN1] In 1918, a Bavarian Catholic, Franz Schrönghamer Heimdal, authored a book titled The Coming Reich, which laid out plans for “the ecumenical yet distinctly Catholic-oriented spiritual rebuilding of Germany.” The spirit of German hyper-nationalism infected Heimdal’s work (e.g., he was unashamedly anti-Semitic, contrasting the purity of Christ with the “materialist spirit” of the Jews). He also [CRN53] claimed that “Catholic revelation and Nordic legend were in perfect God-ordained harmony, and elsewhere, [CRN71] in a 1919 Christmas devotional written for the newspaper that would become the Nazi Party’s unofficial publication, declared that only in Christ could the Germanic spirit “find its fullest expression.” Heimdal’s radical ideas extended even into the physical realm, anticipating another aspect of the future Nazi program: He [CRN2] foresaw Christians bonded in a racial community that was to be maintained via eugenics.
The three distinctives of Positive Christianity are plainly evident in Heimdal’s work. The promise of a bowdlerized Bible is clear in that he saw the heroism of Jesus foreshadowed in the ancient Nordic saga Edda, which he supposed might even be divinely inspired, at least to extent that the [CRN54] “inferior” Old Testament was inspired. A de-Judaized Jesus is already present in his writings: He [CRN56] claimed that Jesus was a “Galilean Aryan from Nazareth whose racial identity stock stood in stark contrast to the racially inferior Jews of Jerusalem.” Finally, the emphasis on orthopraxy [CRN72] is made clear in that the central theme offered in his 1919 Christmas devotional was, “common good before individual interest” a sentiment reflected nearly word for word in Point 24 of the Nazi Party program.
The similarities between Heimdal’s views and Nazi “Positive Christianity” were so obvious that, fifteen years later, in 1933, Heimdal had the courage to openly claim that his book had played a role in the founding of the Nazi movement. In this [CRN74], Heimdal’s estimate of his influence is certainly “overblown,” since the same ideas he promulgated were already widespread in Munich at the time. His claim of direct influence, however, does have a “kernel of truth” to it, to the extent that he was to some degree involved in Nazi affairs, and had the attention of people in the Nazi Party. In 1920 [CRN3] he was the leading writer for the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper, when it was the “unofficial organ” of Nazi movement. He also had two other books that were widely discussed among the early Nazis (in 1918, and 1919), and The Coming Reich earned the praise of Deitrich Eckart, an influential “mover and shaker” in the early Nazi movement, who we will discuss further in Chapter 3. Perhaps, Heimdal’s influence is best summed up by Hastings: He [CRN80] offered the “first programmatic religious statement from a Nazi member following the articulation of Positive Christianity.”
The earliest history of Positive Christianity as a Nazi phenomenon closes with a peculiar note. After his failed 1923 beerhall putsch, Adolf Hitler was compelled to serve time in prison. Prior to his sentence, Positive Christianity among the Nazis was associated with persons who, like Hitler himself, maintained a spiritually tenuous connection to Roman Catholicism. After Hitler’s release from prison, in 1925, there was a re-founding of the Nazi movement, and from then on, as a reaction to growing anti-Catholic sentiment, the [CRN144] Catholic orientation of Positive Christianity was replaced with a Protestant orientation. So it was that after February 1925 [CRN157], aside from occasional references to Positive Christianity and the heroism of Christ, “Hitler was no longer portrayed either as a believing Catholic or as an energetic advocate of Christianity.” From then on, Positive Christianity would become more greatly associated with Protestantism, and the denominational gauntlet would be taken up by a group called the German Christians, whose story will be further told in Chapter 6. For now, we will turn to discussion of the individual religious beliefs of leading Nazi figures, which will first require a diversion to deflate an all too common myth – that of Hitler and other leading Nazis as practitioners of the occult.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Is Inerrancy a Heresy?

From the July 2013 E-Block.
A reader requested that we examine the book The Ultimate Heresy by Rodger Cragun, which we will do in two installments over the next two issues. The peculiar stance of this book is that the concept of Biblical inerrancy is a heresy. Cragun, not surprisingly, has more than a few problems with his approach and overall theory.
First, Cragun spends an inordinate amount of time -- about half of the book -- showing from the Bible itself that the Bible is never called "the Word of God, " and showing that the phrase, when used, refers to something else, like a single specific prophecy.
Really now.
For those who may have missed it, I discovered that without Cragun's help some time ago:

The Bible as "Word of God." KNM has insisted that Skeptics have "always" as their "underlining (sic) issue" whether the Bible is the Word of God. I have replied that this is not my own focus in argument; I concern myself rather with whether the Bible's contents are true, logical, or practical. If it is on all counts, then it being the "Word of God" is simply, as it were, a cherry on top, but contributes nothing new in utilitarian terms.
A relevant observation here is that designating the Bible to be the "Word of God" is itself a post-Biblical phenomenon. An apostle or prophet who heard that phrase would not have thought of a book, but rather, of the transcendant thoughts and words of YHWH. It could certainly have not meant the whole Bible prior to its completion and compilation, and when the phrase “word of God” is used in the Bible, it always means some specific prophetic utterance, or some message (like the Gospel).
This would of course include what is within the contents of the Bible; but as well, "Word of God" implies a universality of application that simply is not true of much of the text. In precise terms, for example, the book of Zephaniah could be said to report the words of God TO Zephaniah concerning judgment on specific nations. As I have noted many times, this is symptomatic of modern Sunday School lessons that strive mightily to make even books like Leviticus applicable to modern life -- which is a mistake.
In that respect, while we may not necessarily find it fruitful to abandon "Word of God" as a designation for the Bible as a whole, and I would not advocate doing so because of the confusion it would cause at this late date, it does represent an anachronism that should be clarified. In a proper technical sense, the collection we call the Bible represents two collections of covenant documents, and so "Old Testament" and "New Testament" are actually more precise and helpful than "Word of God".
And so, as I have told KNM, the concern should not be, "is the Bible the Word of God." More than that, it should not even be whether it is "from God," but rather, the more basic questions of whether it is true, logical, practical, and so on as applicable. The former way is a carryover, I suspect, of the work of well-meaning evangelists and teachers (like Billy Graham) who were accustomed to being able to invoke the Bible as "the Word of God" and get immediate respect and authority. It worked well for a time, but it no longer does. But if we show that the Bible is true, then one is able to open the door to the possibility that God’s messages have in some way been transmitted in the text as a medium.
To illustrate, one might say that this posting is the “word of JPH” or “from JPH.” But the truth of the post does not in any way depend on it being MY word, as opposed to that of, say, Tekton ministry associates like Nick Peters or “Punkish." If you decide my "word" here is true -- you can worry about whether it is from me later...or even not at all, if you choose.  

Not that any of this matters, since it is hard to see what point Cragun thinks he is proving in the first place. While some modern preachers may use the shorthand phrase, "the Word of God," to refer to the Bible, only an infantile Christian would fail to see that to use this as an argument that the Bible is the Word of God is circular reasoning. Thus, in essence, Cragun spends about half his book knocking down an exceptionally infantile argument.
A far better "argument" for inerrancy -- though more of a common sense notion than an actual argument -- would be a syllogism Cragun presents all too briefly:
  • God is perfect.
  • What God thinks is perfect.
  • From that which God thinks He reveals to people.
  • What He reveals to people must therefore be perfect.

  • Unfortunately, Cragun doesn't deal with this syllogism except to dismiss it as, "Aristotelian logic." The last I checked, though, logic did not function only in Aristotle's presence. Nor did the Hebrews have their own brand of logic proffered by someone else. Notions like cause and effect were not inoperable in ancient Israel. So, what Cragun thinks is the point in his citing of "Aristotelian logic" is hard to say.

  • In the end, Cragun's screed against inerrancy is a straw man. Even if the Bible was not inspired, it contains multiple truth claims that would remain to be evaluated and argued for or against. As we shall see next issue, however, arguing the virtues of individual passages is precisely one of the most difficult tasks for Cragun, and to that extent he is also using the shortcut of the designation of the Bible as the "Word of God" in much the same way as the fundamentalists he so decries.

    Another aspect of Cragun's case amounts to this, if I may dare to frame it in Aristotelian terms:

  • The Bible contains X horrible thing, and also some of these horrible things hurt my feelings or offend me.
  • Therefore the Bible is not inerrant.

  • Here again, however, robust failure is Cragun's chief methodology. The second half of the book contains many more examples than the first half, so we will save coverage of particulars for next issue. For now, let it only be said that in each case, Cragun ironically reads the Bible just like the very inerrantists he decries -- devoid of context and definition.
    We might also note an error from earlier in the book, one that exemplifies Cragun's ineptness as a researcher. In one place, Cragun makes the naive statement that, "Some of the bloodiest humanity's conflicts have been religious." [1] Really? In reality, religion has been behind very, very few wars. It was certainly not behind any of the major wars of the 20th century. Here, Cragun is like the ignorant stockbroker in Crichton's Timeline who has to be told that the Hundred Years' War wasn't religious, because everyone at the time was Catholic, and Protestants hadn't invented themselves yet.
    We should also mention another variation on Cragun's theme, which goes to the heart of why he thinks inerrancy is a heresy. Basically, he believes that inerrancy has caused people to enforce the Bible's horrible teachings, and indicates that if it were not for inerrancy, we wouldn't be doing intolerant things like opposing gay marriage. He also, rather foolishly, blames inerrancy for the creation of many divisions in the church. In this, Cragun has fallen for the naive approach of blaming the instrument for the acts of the person using the instrument. It does not occur to him that even a believer in an errant Bible can deem the Bible authoritative on select points. After all, even Cragun himself uses the Bible in an authoritative way to argue that it does not call itself "the Word of God." And so, Cragun's designation of inerrancy as a "heresy," even if correct, would be nothing more than a simple-minded band-aid solution that would shift, not erase, the problem that he alleges is occurring.
    A final point for this round is that Cragun tackles the sort of "inerrancy" that is also devoid of context, which we have previously condemned from authors as notable as Dr. Norman Geisler. How he would handle a more informed and contextualized rendition of inerrancy is difficult to say. The one thing we can say is that he is apparently too busy being offended to bother to look for alternatives.

    We will continue with Part 2 at another time in the very near future.