Faith Seeking Understanding
Apologia: The Journal of the Wellington Christian Aplogetics Society (Inc.) Volume 1-2000.
is the journal of the Wellington [New Zealand] Christian Apologetics Society (Inc). No issues were published in either 1998 or 1999 but this comprehensive issue was published early in the year 2000 with the overall title "Focus on James Veitch". The President of the Society and also the Journal editor, David Lane, may be known to readers as the scourge of John Spong during his 1997 visit. The next issue of the Journal will "focus of John Spong". Their website is at www.christian-apologetics.org
It is perhaps significant that the motto "Fides quarens intellectum" [faith seeking understanding] appears on the cover. It is usually attributed to Anselm (1033-1109) and may be justifiably applied to the writings of Jim Veitch—particularly his The Birth of Jesus: History or Myth? (St Andrew's Trust for the Study of Religion and Society 1997) which is specifially attacked in this issue of the Journal. But, to be fair, we should also apply it to the overall motive of the attackers. So different are the “understandings” of Veitch and his critics that we can observe that Christian faith looks no nearer finding consensus.
The Editorial takes the opportunity to lash out at the "so-called" Jesus Seminar, of which Jim Veitch is a Fellow. The epithet, "so-called", characterises the Editor's dislike of The Jesus Seminar. But, at this point his main target is Veitch's approval of a novel (Two Thousand Years Later: A Novel by Peter Longley) which supports Veitch's theory of Jesus' being the result of Mary having been raped by a Roman soldier. Veitch is criticised, not so much for this sordid speculation but for his rejection of the literal "Virginal conception of Christ as taught in the Scriptures and by the Church".
A glance at the Society's Statement of Belief inside the front cover shows their acceptance of, inter alia, "inerrancy of the Bible"; "the full divinity and humanity of the Son"; "the universal guilt [note that this is not just a propensity for sin—you’re guilty!] of mankind since the Fall"; "the sacrificial death on the Cross (as Representative, Substitute, Victor etc.) of the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God"; "the bodily ... resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead understood to be an actual event ...". So, it is easy to displease the Society, as indeed Veitch "and his mentor Lloyd Geering" have done ... and often.
The Editorial touches on what this reviewer takes to be a central problem of traditional Christianity —but from the opposite pole from which Veitch, and members of the Sea of Faith, might approach it. How can ordained clergy (of whom Veitch is one) continue to preach and draw a stipend while departing from "the faith once delivered to the saints"? Their Editor observes: "Financially suckled by their churches, such ministers, hucksters of so-called "modernity" [post-Modernity would be more appropriate!] lack the backbone to abandon the Church and its teachings and go and join the Skeptics Society ..."
It is perhaps a measure of his lack of appreciation of the views of Veitch and members of the SoF that the Editor cannot credit them with a sincere attempt to develop Christianity in directions that embody new understandings resulting from, not only Biblical scholarship but also from the human sciences such as psychology, sociology and anthropology.
The remainder of the Editorial is given over to explaining that "our purpose in putting together this issue ... dealing with Rev. Dr. Jim Veitch's booklet is to address some of the many errors of fact, faulty presuppositions, flawed reasoning and unscholarly conclusions [which] it contains."
A biographical article about Jim Veitch follows. Apart from the odd sniping comment (the reference again to Lloyd Geering as Veitch's "mentor" seems to be offered in that spirit) it is a useful background piece.
Criticism, in the academic sense, starts with the article In Critique of "The Birth of Jesus: History or Myth?" by James Veitch by Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum Th.M., Ph.D., President, Ariel Ministries, Tustin, California.
In his first paragraph he raises a criticism that re-appears several times in this Journal; that Veitch's footnotes quote the writings of "other liberal theologians" rather than "actual historical documents". There are 71 footnote (actually endnotes) which account for 11 of the 28 pages. Given their smaller typeface they would account for more than 40% of the text of booklet. It must be left to the reader to decide whether this is a fair criticism, given that the purpose of a footnote is only sometimes to demonstrate that the main text is "true". Often a footnote is an amplification of the main text or is an interesting tangent.
More to the point, the second paragraph notes that Veitch "writes his article with certain presuppositions that he accepts as fact", as though Veitch were the only one who did. The Journal's "presuppositions" as set out in their Statement of Belief and, as one would expect, Veitch's do not coincide.
Fruchtenbaum grapples with the distinction between "myth" and "history" with "myth" coming out the loser ("only myths"). This is similar to the way that myth, as a category of expression, loses out badly in the hands of the tabloid press. One would hope that a "Th.M" and "Ph.D" had a more sensitive appreciation of the inter-relationship of myth and history. He rightly discerns though, that in Veitch's account of myth, a story involving supernatural agents or events automatically consigns it to "myth". Of course that doesn’t always preclude an historical substrate—only its evaluation need be mythical.
The remaining disagreements that Fruchtenbaum has with Veitch can be, perhaps simplistically, accounted for by his accepting the Gospels at face value: that they are accurate, objective accounts of what happened. It is, of course, the thesis of The Jesus Seminar, Jim Veitch and many others that this has been adequately demonstrated not to be the case. Whatever value the Gospels have, it does not lie in their historical authenticity.
There follows a critique by Rev. Dr. George Duggan S.M. After teaching philosophy and acting as rector of a university hall and Marist tertianship, Dr. Duggan is living in retirement at St. Patrick's College, Wellington from where he frequently writes Letters to the Editor of Wellington's "Evening Post" newspaper.
He is unimpressed, almost explosively so, by Veitch’s booklet. "Although the text is buttressed by footnotes to give the semblance of a scholarly work, [the lack of footnotes might also have been a ground for disapproval!] it is incredibly shoddy." Dr. Duggan himself adopts the practice that Jim Veitch was accused of by the Editor. Duggan too quotes his favourite sources (Stanley Jaki; Martin Gengel; B. F. Westcott; Riccioti; W.M. Ramsay; E. Meyer; A.N. Sherwin-White; W.H.C. Frend; William Barclay; John Chapman; W.R. Farmer; A.H.N. Green-Armytage; Renan; C.H. Dodd; Peter F. Ellis; John A.T. Robinson; J. W. Wenham; C.C. Torrey; ... and more). Argument must surely consist in more than stacking quotations and paraphrases.
Like Fruchtenbaum's dismissal of "myth", Duggan disvalues "metaphor" and will not let Veitch get away with "God is the metaphor ...". To Duggan, "metaphor" appears as "no more than a figure of speech": not what Veitch meant by metaphor at all. It was therefore inevitable that Duggan would insist on miracles (as God's intervention) over against Veitch's requirement to put aside the miraculous elements of the Gospel stories. Central to much of The Jesus Seminar's tentative conclusions (their methodology precludes setting things in concrete) is that Jesus neither claimed Messiahship nor set up an ongoing church organisation. They (and Veitch) derive that from their scholarship, the details of which are beyond the scope of this review. Duggan's response is to quote the Gospels, accepting them at face value. This is, of course, consistent with the Statement of Beliefs of the Society but it is the end of any dialogue between the Society and anybody who doubts the face-value authenticity of the NT material. In passing, one has to wonder how many Christians would identify with the sternly literalistic apologetics of this Society. According to Duggan, "rationalist exegesis of the New Testament ... is a parasitic growth ..."
Neither does Duggan separate out the contribution made by the Apostle Paul to the growing Jesus Christ story. It all goes in one supposedly homogenous and coherent story— Epistles and Gospels—ignoring the scholarship that shows the spin-doctoring of the Gospel writers and the Cosmic Christ fantasy of Paul. And, of course, Veitch and Duggan could not agree on the literalness of the virgin birth, or even on which Gospel came first: Mark (Veitch) or Matthew (Duggan), or on the dating of NT books.
Duggan ends with a tasteless assertion that such scholarship as Veitch, and many others are engaged in, is a form of corruption.
By contrast, Dr. Derek Tovey's response is of much milder tone. He sees the book as suffering from its provenance—it was a lecture with footnotes added later—leading, he says, to some over-simplification.
In developing his argument, Tovey observes "we cannot read back into the New Testament later Chalcedonian formulations". This reviewer's discomfort with the Journal arises mostly from that quarter. It does seem that Apologia's standpoint is that of a matured view of Jesus—his teachings and his times—that would not have been available in the first century. It like reading the last page of the novel first, then starting on page one with a headful of developed outcomes.
But Tovey's "style" is mid-way between that of Veitch and that of the Society—at least he admits of the possibility of debate over the gospel "records". He argues persuasively that not only is arriving at the historical truth difficult because of the paucity of material but that, on the way, our own preference guide us is what evidence seems more or less credible. But this is, mercifully, a far cry from Dr. Duggan's biblical literalism.
A very short response follows, by Chris Marshall, PhD, Head of NT Studies, Bible College of New Zealand. He accuses Veitch of unreasonable optimism over the objectivity of "history" and suggests that his (Veitch's) reading "is itself driven by an ideological agenda—to meet the intellectual needs of modern skeptical Europeans."
Rev. Dr. Paul Trebilco, Associate Professor of NT Studies at the University of Otago is the last contributor directly addressing Veitch's book. He finds much of the booklet "interesting and helpful". He comes nearest to agreeing with Veitch: "if belief in Jesus' divinity involved completely overlaying the historical Jesus with something that was totally alien to him, then Veitch has a point."
This is Spong's point too, when he talks of the "interpretive framework of the first century" and The Jesus Seminar's distinction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus. Trebilco puts the debate into the correct arena—not, as with Duggan, simple conformity with the NT record, but to what degree the NT writers were (in their own minds) being literal and to what degree they were expressing in reverential terms their admiration for the man who had changed their lives. Or, more accurately if you allow Veitch's point than none of the Gospel's was written by the disciples whose names they bear, for the man who had inspired 40 to 70 years of fruitful reflection before his story came to be written down for a series of specialised readerships.
Another supporting item, not in the section dealing with Veitch, is what this reviewer can only describe as a defiantly literalistic account of The Bodily Resurrection and Ascension of ther Lord Jesus Christ by Dr. Stephen J. Scott-Pearson. The atmosphere is a long way from the carefully considered phraseology of Tovey and Trebilco.
This contrast, not to be mistaken for genuine debate, is a good example of the disarray that "mainline" Christians find themselves in. Do they, with Lane, Duggan and Scott-Pearson, bid the Rock of Ages cleave for them so that they can have an assured toe-hold on eternity, or do they, with Tovey and Trebilco (even if timidly in comparison with Veitch, Geering, Cupitt, Funk and Spong) engage their intellects and seek understanding for their faith—even at the cost of uncertainty?