...are the ones that make the biggest difference


The Great Resurrection Debate

Sunday night was the Great Resurrection Debate between retired Episcopal Bishop John Sselby Spong and Dr. William Lane Craig. We started off with some technical problems and so missed the introduction by moderator David Aikman, but had everything sorted out in time for the actual debate.

Dr. Craig began the debate with a lengthy discussion of the facts surrounding the resurrection and the biblical accounts. According to Lane, scholars have dated the Gospel of Mark's original source to within 7 years of the crucifixion and Paul's account to within 5. The resurrection is also independently verified in the Gospel accounts, which used different original source materials, and in early church documents like the Acts of the Apostles. Other indicators that the resurrection was likely not invented:

1) there was no Jewish messianic expectation of a dying messiah
2) due to the manner of His death, Jesus would likely have been considered a heretic by Old Testament standards
3) the Old Testament does not speak of a resurrection prior to the eschaton
4) the huge changes in thought, theology and individual lives indicate something BIG happened to precipitate the shift

In Dr. Craig's opinion, no naturalistic theory explains all of these points, leaving an empty tomb as the only real possibility.

Bishop Spong started off on the wrong foot when he began describing his own upbringing in a "fundamentalist" church. He then quickly intermingled the terms "fundamentalists" and "evangelicals", showing a complete ignorance of the large differences between these two groups. Bishop Spong continued by stating that he rejected biblical literalism, and instead, views biblical language as poetic and mythic. He acknowledged that something did happen on Easter morning, or rather, that something happened as a result of Jesus' life & death, and called the resurrection both "myth and reality." However, it was not literal, but a "life-changing energy" and the changes it wrought in the lives of Jesus' followers point to the "reality of the resurrection experience." This experience - which he did not fully elaborate on at any point during the evening - is the source of the endeavor to explain the unlimited divine in limited human language. It is an effort capture the divine reality, and since our language is not up to the task, the biblical authors were forced into using "expansive language", which is how we wound up with the accounts of a physical resurrection though it did not actually occur this way. Spong continued in this vein - the accounts of earthquakes, darkness, the tearing of the curtain in the temple, etc - are all poetic attempts by "people so transformed by the power of the living God they had to invent human language" to express themselves. Bishop Spong then pointed out the variations in the resurrection accounts and disputed Dr. Craig's dating of the Gospels. Claiming much later dates (Mark in the 70's, Matthew in the 80's and Luke possibly as late as the 90's), Spong suggests that the true accounts of the earliest witnesses were distorted by those far removed from the actual events. He claims Paul's account of his vision of Jesus shows a non-physical apparition and claims the physical details "later added" by Matthew, Luke & John are false accretions. Spong ended his opening statement by claiming "we must open the Bible to scholarship...to new understandings." And that we shouldn't try to "twist 21st century minds into 1st century pretzels."

The rest of the debate focused on dating the sources, the genre of the Gospels and who had the greater scholarly support, with Spong claiming that Dr. Craig's "evangelical scholars have no standing in academia" and implied their scholarly opinions were the result of their faith. Ironically, he claimed the Jesus Seminar scholars, of whom he is a member, are not similarly biased by their atheistic or naturalisic assumptions. Overall, I think Dr. Craig came out on top, but could have done far better in rebutting Bishop Spong's arguments.

Take this argument, for instance. Spong bases his late dating of Mark, in part, on the Jesus' description of Himself as the "new temple." Spong claims the Apostles could not have conceived of Jesus as the new temple unless the old was already gone. Therefore, the Gospel had to be written (and the words put into Jesus' mouth) after the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. The problems with this argument, are to me anyways, fairly obvious. If you believe in a personal, omnipotent, omniscient God, then we need not take any naturalistic explanation of this particular passage seriously, for such a prediction is clearly within such a Being's capabilities. Spong's argument only makes sense from a materialistic/atheistic viewpoint, and belies his claims to believe in any kind of God, theistic or otherwise. Further, Spong claimed not that Jesus was the Son of God but was rather a exemplar of "living life fully, loving wastefully and being all you can be." Spong stated he wants to be a disciple of this Christ, not because His death & resurrection were salvific, but because this Christ shows us how to live fully, etc. But once again, we are confronted with a problem - if the Gospel accounts are midrash and largely fictional, as Spong himself claimed, then we have no way of knowing if Jesus actually lived fully, loved wastefully or lived to His full potential. All of that could be poetic exaggeration, if not outright fiction. Craig could have showed the incoherency of Spong's theological constructs by pointing out this contradiction.

From the debate, it is clear why Spong has lost his prominence as a (heretical) public figure - his arguments just don't wash. Some were based on out-dated physics; he recounted an anecdote in which Carl Sagan told him that if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light, He would have not left our galaxy yet. Spong seems to think this argument proves the account is fictional, though he does not take into account the possibility of other dimensions - a necessity in string theory which is the next contender for a grand unified theory. Spong repeated several times that "people of the 21st century trip over 1st century language" or sentiments to that effect, however, a sizeable chunk of the American population are born-again, evangelical Christians who have no problem with this "1st century language." Further add to that orthodox Catholics & mainliners, not to mention Eastern Orthodox, and a huge percentage of 21st century folks buy that 1st century language with no ill effects. Spong's intellectual elitism has no grip because it is based on the phantom of the "disaffected modern believer" who just can't accept that something said 2000 years ago just might be relevant today. A majority of "21st century people" think otherwise.


Doug said...

Thanks for the report on this. I have to say, I'm glad I didn't see or hear this debate. It would have frustrated me to no end!

rev-ed said...

Usually these debates are so structured that when you debate someone like Spong you have to pick and choose which ridiculous ideas to take on. There's just not enough time to counter everything, especially as "out there" as Spong gets.

I enjoy Craig's style and intellect, but I get too frustrated with debate structure to get much pleasure out of watching.

basil said...

The problem occurs when one posits the false dilemma between accepting Scriptural language as mythopoetical and accepting Scriptural events as historical. Bp. Spong taints a serious integration of literary criticism with orthodox faith by making his outrageous beliefs appear inescapable for rational, 21st century people. He also paints too broadly to say that all Scriptural language is mythopoetic. Some is, but some Scriptural language falls into other genres entirely. When I read Spong (I have been fortunate enough never to see him in person), I find that he starts out sounding like Eastern Orthodox writers that I love and then ends up sounding like some bad parody of Star Wars. Except he's serious; that's what's so outrageous.