Saturday, June 1, 2013

Response to 'The Once and Future Scriptures' - Part 3


Following my responses to Chapters 1 and 2 of “The Once and Future Scriptures – Exploring the Role of the Bible in the Contemporary Church” (OFS), here is my response to Chapter 3, “Wisdom as well as Facts” by Steven Ogden, Principal of St Francis Theological College and an adjunct Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University.

Same disclaimers and qualifications as before.


Reading through these essays, the one question that nags at my thoughts is the question of agenda. Why has the Archbishop published this book at this particular time, and what response does he want of the Anglican Church in Queensland?

OFS addresses serious challenges to the Christian community, particularly in the context of its relationship with the Bible, which aligns with the Bible’s own admonition to “…make a defense (apologia/ απολογια) to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence … ” (1 Peter 3:15)

Notably, Peter’s admonition opens with the directive to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts”. In other words, the apologia of the Church is spoken from the perspective of faith - not just any faith, but an essentially Christian faith that believes in Christ as Lord.

In my interactions with various religious groups, a persistent meme is the question of who is a Christian. Various solutions are put forward, depending on the proponent’s agenda (usually, the proponent wants to justify his or her claim to be a Christian). In this milieu, and on my reflection of the Bible and the history of the Christian Church, my solution is this; a Christian is someone who worships Jesus Christ.

I mean worship in the broad sense, as in admire, try to emulate, concern one-self with, obsess over. In this sense, people can “worship” political visionaries, football players, music stars or soap opera celebrities; Elvis Presley worshippers build shrines to Elvis Presley in their homes; Margaret Thatcher worshippers devour all books Margaret Thatcher; Apple worshippers despise Microsoft, Google, Samsung or any of the competition (and the competition-worshippers do the same to Apple); and so on.

I also mean it the narrow sense that we hold Jesus higher than everything and everyone else, and offer to him only that which ought to be offered to The One God, after the First and Second of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:3-6).

In my reading of OFS, my concern is that its relationship with Christ-as-Lord is tenuous, ethereal and possibly antagonistic. Rather than expounding orthodox understandings of Christ-as-Lord, the agenda of OFS is the overt promotion of Progressive Theology, which has (in my understanding of it) distinctively un-Christian trajectories.

The major difference I see between Progressive Theology and Orthodox Christianity is to do with the locus of truth. Orthodox Christians see the locus of truth in the person of Jesus Christ, who, they believe, is the “way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Progressive Theology sees the locus of truth in the experience of the individual, particularly those individuals whose thinking has been shaped by the academy and science. At a personal level, the Christian sees God in Christ, whereas the Progressive looks for God in his or her own soul. Viewed in these terms, Progressive Theology is actually a modern form of Gnosticism, as commentators like Ralph Bowles have observed.  (see Ralph Bowles’ important qualification on the timing of his review at the foot of this blog)

It seems that Progressives regard Christ-as-Lord as incomprehensible dogma because it cannot be empirically proven within the framework of modern science and thought. Even so, Progressive Christians seem to retain some reverence of Christ, though he may be diminished to a Christ-idea that has no basis in “true”, “historic” persons or events.

I cannot help but draw parallels with other religious movements (Islam, Mormonism, Universalism etc.) that have similarly tried to co-opt Jesus to their movements on their own terms, but ultimately fail because, to do so, they must ignore what he says about himself. Progressives get round this by saying that Jesus didn’t say those things about himself – they were retrojected onto him after the event by an act of sustained, corporate hero-worship by the primitive Christians.

These movements like Jesus because he is a good man, but they refuse to worship him, which brings me to my definition of what makes a Christian.

So, why is OFS being promoted to the Church by the Archbishop? Is it an apologia to the Church on behalf of its critics, or from the Church on behalf of its advocates? Does the Archbishop wish to dissolve the boundaries/skin of Christianity such that questions to and from no longer have meaning? If so, how can we retain our identity and shape as the body of Christ? If he is simply tossing Synod a bone to chew on, I respectfully suggest that he should listen more closely to Christ’s commandment to Peter to give the Church something more than something to exercise its jaws upon, but to feed it (John 21:15-19).


Steven Ogden subscribes to Progressive Theology, but he wishes to moderate its extremes to make it less antagonistic to Orthodox Christianity. The moderation Ogden proposes is to make room for the experience of the believing community in evaluating the truthfulness of things such as Holy Scripture.

Ogden uses two passages to explore the relationship between facts and wisdom; the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Prologue to John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18). Progressives, he says, have been too hasty in dismissing these passages as having no value because they cannot be empirically proven. He argues that these passages can be regarded as having truth in them because they serve a utility function for the community of believers.

Ogden’s essay includes many inflammatory statements. He defers from stating his own position on them (whether he believes them or not), which leaves readers like me with the tricky task of inferring his evaluation of them. It appears to me that he is reluctant to dismiss the Bible as having no value, which is why he recoils from the Progressive extreme that regards it as untrue. However, he has no place for Christian dogma and distances Jesus from the New Testament by aligning with secular (atheist?) critics such as Burton L Mack. Mack and his colleagues subscribe to the notion that the early Church “talked up” the divinity of Christ and attributed much myth to him in a sustained, corporate act of hero-worship.

Ogden’s post-modern stance is illustrated in his description of an argument between two German theologians - Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and Karl Rahner (1904-1984) - as “old”. From this perspective, then, the New Testament (circa 48-110) might appear as nothing more than a fossil relic of an unenlightened era that has some usefulness today because it makes believers feel good about themselves.



Currently, there is a battle in the public square over the authority of Scripture. My concern with this controversy is that tie and energy are misspent in an unwinnable war. As a result, and in the name of truth, truth has become a casualty. I say “public square” because the debate is more nuanced in the ivory towers of biblical scholarship, than in public jousting, media events and meretricious sound bites. However, to illustrate the character of this polemic, let me make a stark contrast between the antagonists.

In one corner is Christian fundamentalism. In general, fundamentalists can be characterized by a particular view of truth, where truth is universal, absolute, identifiable, and in their possession. In this context, and in circular fashion the Bible is used selectively to support truth claims, which are used in turn to bolster the epistemological authority of the Bible or the ecclesial authority of the Bible teacher. In the other corner, there are exponents of what could broadly be described as progressive biblical scholarship. In general, the progressives can be characterized by a particular view of truth, where the epistemological value of a biblical text is carefully measured on the basis of historical method and corresponding empirical evidence. If a story cannot be empirically substantiated, it is not true. Truth here is context-specific, relative, identifiable and in their possession. (Pages 44-45)
Footnote 2: In Australia, a ‘conservative evangelical’ is not necessarily a fundamentalist. The difference hinges largely on epistemology.


As far as this is an observation of the current “battle” I don’t object.

I baulk at Ogden’s insistence of empirical evidence, because nearly all of the miracles of the NT cannot be demonstrated empirically (how do you demonstrate that Jesus walked on water?). Ogden’s inference is that because these events cannot be replicated by modern science, they cannot be historical.

Sadly, Ogden’s footnote is about the sum of the attention he gives to the “conservative evangelical” position. That’s a major blunder for a work that is intended to address the whole of the Anglican Communion in Queensland.

Ogden quotes Mack on the Incarnation

... the importance of Jesus “as a thinker and teacher can certainly be granted and even greatly enhanced once we allow the thought that Jesus was not a god incarnate, but a real historical person”. (Page 55 from Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament)


Mack misses the implications of the incarnation entirely, which is that the man, Jesus, is and was both fully and wholly God and a fully and wholly a real historical human being. Not, it must be stressed, a super-human or demi-god.

Ogden on the Prologue to the Gospel of John

Nevertheless “the Word” in the text does not relate directly to the Jesus of history. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation itself, even in its earliest forms, cannot be subjected fruitfully to the scrutiny of historiography. Therefore, on epistemological grounds, the prologue can be dismissed as liturgical refinement or theological invention. (page 44)


Ogden’s exegesis is preposterous. How he can read the Prologue and not follow John’s trail from the Divine Logos to the human Jesus is beyond me. His position on the value of the Prologue is as presuppositional and dogmatic as any fundamentalist.

Ogden on Progressive Theology

So I want to make a few modest suggestions as to how the progressive position may prosper. (Page 45)

Ogden on Tillich and Rahner

… For [Tillich], the reality of the ‘Christ-event’ was actualized by faith through human participation; it was not captive to the particulars of historical research. (page 46)

… Rahner accepted the general findings of modern scientific exegesis about the life of Jesus. (Page 47)

… In brief, Tillich and Rahner had a commitment to the importance of history and considered the results of New Testament exegesis important. They had a macro-view of history as God’s medium of self-diclosure. But this raises a problem, in that, while they thought it was important for Christology to be grounded in exegetical findings, they did not feel bound to them. (page 47)


Ogden’s semantics lose me. The best I can make of this is that Ogden generally endorses the positions of Tillich and Rahner, but by not being bound to “exegetical findings”, they are at liberty to create their own imaginary Christs.

Ogden on history

In some theologically conservative circles, the assumption has been made that recourse to history will remedy deficiencies in theological knowledge; that is, if there is a credibility gap (e.g. the resurrection) then a piece of historical evidence might address it (e.g. the empty tomb). In other cases, an over-reliance on history can be seen to undermine the credibility of orthodox beliefs; this is, if history can explain everything, then there is no room for faith (e.g. miracle stories dismissed).

Ogden quoting Richard Rorty

Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot. (page 50 from Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity).


Rorty aligns with my own Model Theory (that I have developed independently) in that the models we use to describe the prototype are always less than the prototype. We might differ on semantics; I think that the prototype is always true (or right), whereas Rorty sees truth as a property that we project onto the prototype.

Ogden on experience

Experience is hard to define. It can be expressed in and shaped by language (page 51).


I agree that words do more than simply convey our thoughts and experiences to others – they actually shape and form those thoughts and experiences. This becomes evident in translation processes, in which a thought expressed in the original language has no equivalent in the translated language. In these cases, word-proxies or approximations are used. Language gives form to experience. I wonder if this is a legitimate extension to the Biblical claims of the agency of the Word in creation (cf Gen 1:3 etc and John 1:1-3).

See also Matthew 6:22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” This isn’t a statement of the biological function of the eyes, or how to maintain yourself in a healthy physical state. Its more about what we choose to look at or how we look at it, especially our experiences. The language we use to express these experiences actually affects our spiritual, corporate health.

Ogden on the Incarnation

… historical evidence is scarce for major Christological themes (cf the Incarnation). However, there is the experience of the early church as found in Scripture and tradition. This does not mean, however, that just because a disciple, a gospel writer or an early theologian thinks something is true, that it is true. (Page 52)


Yes, but the Christian has already determined that his or her perspective of truth is to be calibrated against the Incarnation. It is what Christian Dogma is all about.

Ogden on epistemological authority

…Further, by experience, I am not talking about the lone (male) heroes of the faith. So, experience may include the ancient authority figures, from Paul to Augustine and beyond, but real epistemological clout comes from contemporary corporate, intersubjective experience. (page 52)


In other words, we tend to trust our immediate experiences. Psychologists would call these the emotional cues on which we base our seemingly “rational” decisions (thus rendering these decisions mostly “irrational” even when we think they are not).

Ogden on certainty

… the quest for certainty is fraught with difficulties and there is always an element of doubt. (page 52).


Does Ogden think that the walk of faith is a quest for certainty? I think of faith as something that informs my decisions in the context of uncertainty. True, we seek certainty, but, being incapable of reaching it, we have to live by faith. Perhaps that is what Ogden means, but he seems to hide his understanding behind his semantics.

Ogden on the expectation of finding a grand narrative

This represents a shift in expectations from the ambitious modern expectation of establishing a comprehensive fail-safe epistemological system (cf. grand narratives) to a cumulative process that canvasses incremental and collaborative increases in knowledge (cf. wisdom).(page 53)


Ogden recoils from the modernist expectation that a grand narrative can be discovered. What happened to God, who is the ultimate grand narrative? To be fair, he is critiquing modern expectations, and recognizes that faith is not the poor substitute for certainty that modernism supposes it is.

Ogden on knowledge

Epistemology is related to the idea of establishing new knowledge, which is true knowledge. If epistemology is narrowly defined in empirical terms, however, then a text like John’s prologue has little or no value. (Page 56)


Isn’t “old” knowledge true as well? Ogden’s semantics lose me here.
Note that Ogden is arguing against extreme Progressive Theology because, presumably, he sees value in John’s prologue that he does not want to lose to it.

Ogden’s conclusions

Consider the bottom line and assume the parable does not come from the lips of Jesus, but emerges from an early church community. So, the parable expresses the shared memory of a faith community. Its placement in the gospel presents the figure of Jesus as a messenger and model for a new way of living. Through the experience of the reign of God, which for them was proclaimed and embodied by the historical Jesus, there is potential for transformation. In other words, it is about new perceptions leading to new experiences. In and by itself, the parable does not constitute a complete or unambiguous truth statement. But this faith community bears witness to the historical Jesus as a source of transformation, because its shared memory has been enshrined in and enlivened by the narrative context. The story is an existential expression of that witness. Presuming we are no longer captive to modernity’s bifurcation of the material and the spiritual, there is wisdom here. Moreover, the elder son’s response not only emphasizes the complexity and ambiguity of human relationships, but it serves to underline the importance of the transformative experience.

John 1:1-18 is a complex example, but like the parable, truth has to do with the wisdom of a particular faith community. This involves the concrete, critical, and corporate reflection on experience, which finds new life in narrative form. Unlike the parable, however, John’s prologue is making a claim about the person of Jesus. Ironically, the fact that the prologue is arguably based on an early hymn, using ancient tropes to interpret the significance of Jesus, serves to underline the wisdom-making process. So where does history come in? Certainly the historical Jesus did not write the prologue and the prologue is not a historical description of Jesus of Nazareth. But this does reflect the wisdom-making processes of a historic faith community, which is grounded in the memory of a historic figure, and given new life in a living narrative tradition.

In many Churches, John’s prologue is read on Christmas Eve during the service of lessons and carols, or on Christmas Day. It is a remarkable corporate experience. It does not prove the doctrine of the Incarnation, but it rings true with the faith community.

In that inspired reading-in-community, the faithful feel, apprehend, even claim that the historical Jesus has contemporary existential significance. In and of itself, the text is not a historical fact. However, that this reading-in-community has power for real people is a fact that deserves to be part of the epistemological equation. This is not the same as saying, because a faith community believes something, it is true. It is saying, however, that just as experience has a role in contemporary liturgy or an early Church hymn, it also has a role in contemporary biblical interpretation. Today, there are many within and without the Church, who want to know the facts. This is important. But we must take the next step and open the doors for wisdom. (Page 58-59)


I contend the assertion that Jesus did not say, or author the parable of the prodigal son. There is no empirical evidence that he did not. Ogden dogmatically asserts that this passage was retrojected onto the Christ-figure by the early Church as a way of providing itself with an identity or self-understanding. His concern is about how this process of projection can retain any sort of value for the contemporary church within the framework of Progressive Theology. I suggest that his difficulties would be resolved by understanding the Church as being a product and custodian of the parable, rather than its producer.

On the Prologue to the Gospel of John, Ogden seems to allow for all possibilities except that it should be believed. The only statement of Ogden’s that I find myself in agreement with is that Jesus did not write it. The Prologue is Dogma, and it has profound implications on how we understand the cosmos. Further, without it, the remainder of the Gospel of John lacks coherence and meaning, and for this reason alone, it deserves better treatment than the Progressives seem willing to give it.

No, the Prologue does not prove the doctrine of the Incarnation by empirical demonstration, but it does assert it as revelation. Remarkably, Ogden does not say how it “rings true for the faith community”; perhaps he thinks it is a beneficial delusion. This appears to me to be his failure to comprehend the idea that it rings true because we accept its truthfulness by faith, and that we have some understanding of the implications of the Incarnation on our present circumstances (whereas Mack does not). Notwithstanding the truth or untruth of the Prologue, it is Christian dogma, which returns me, yet again, to the agenda for publishing OFS.

Ralph Bowles' FB message 2 July 2013

A clarification: Recently I posted links to three articles in my blog, containing a review of a book. I understand from a friend that others have concluded that the timing and matter of these posts was related to our upcoming Diocesan Synod. In fact this is not so. I was asked my opinion of the book/course last year, so I looked into it and wrote a review in January. I have been considering what to do with it for months, and it occurred to me the other week to publish it on my blog, and link it to Twitter and Facebook for the interest of others. This was my decision without consultation with anyone, taken without thinking about Synod at all. Any relation to other issues at Synod is coincidental, or providential, depending on your theology.

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