Archive for category Theology
“Hell is the absence of God”. This is a pithy definition that many Christians find attractive. It shoves under the rug any suggestion that God might have created Hell as a place of eternal torment and punishment for human disobedience. Since God will not force us to love ‘him’, we must make the choice ourselves, or so it goes. And what Christian would not choose the presence of God in Heaven? If God is omnipresent, if “he” is everywhere, then his absence is ‘no where’. Hell is the last death, annihilation. This makes the bitter pill of damnation a bit easier to swallow.
But Jesus is suggesting something else, that God is not in Heaven but may actually spend a lot of time in Hell. Many of his followers readily choose to spend time in Hell, living with and helping those who cannot escape, at least not on their own. Classic examples are Father Damien, Dorothy Day, Albert Schweitzer, Corrie ten Boom, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. Thousands, if not millions, of others, have forfeited comfortable Sunday church meetings, choir practice and Bible study to devote their time and energy in the service of the sick, the poor and the imprisoned. This is where they find God. This is where they lead others to God. Not through pseudo-evangelical proselytizing about Hell and Heaven. Not through fear and intimidation, but through self-sacrifice and love.
The other day I suggested that, to many Evangelicals, both progressive and fundamentalist, if you took away Hell you would take away their vision of Jesus. Hell may even be a more important tenet of the Christian faith than Jesus, because without Hell what is there for Jesus to save us from?
But maybe there’s another way to look at Hell, a way that is not so doctrinaire but more holistic. Maybe the closest we can get to God is in Hell, though not by reflecting on our own pain but through focusing on the pain of others. No gains or rewards, no divine pats on the back. Just encountering the beauty and presence of God in some of the vilest and most horrifying cesspits of the world. Why else would anyone willingly live their lives with those people, in those places? A love of God that I can only imagine.
Perhaps this points us to what Heaven ( or more accurately, the Kingdom of God ) might look like. It’s not a place where we go when we die and it’s not a return of the mythical Garden of Eden. It’s not something God gives to us for being good, but a world that we must earn by working towards eliminating our man-made Hells. Of course, the chances of this happening does not look good, but some amazing people are busy making it happen, one piece at a time.
At that time Jesus and his disciples entered a prosperous land. Hearing of his arrival, many of the people came to hear him speak. Thousands gathered around him.
” I bring you good news. God loves you, all of you. You have no need to fear or worry. Eternal life is yours. Peace and happiness are at hand. “
The crowd began to murmur. They didn’t understand what he was saying.
“How is this possible? How do we get this eternal life you speak of ?” they asked.
Smiling, Jesus spread his arms wide. “Just follow me. I am living this life right now. I have come to share with you the Way of eternal life and how to be in tune with God. You may hear all kinds of people on television pitching their self-help programs, but there is good reason there are so many of them. They don’t work. Not for long. But follow me and I can assure you of eternal life.
” OK, so what’s the catch? How much does this cost? What kind of sacrifices do I have to make?” a man asked.
“There is no catch” said Jesus. “This life is free. No fees. No purchase necessary. No sacrifice.”
“Alright”, another shouted. “Tell us. What is this secret?”
“Simple” said Jesus. “Love each other as much as you love yourself and love God with all your heart. The only way to love God is to love others.”
“How do we do that?” someone asked
“Always put the needs of others before your own” Jesus said. ” Visit the sick and imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Take in the homeless. And -very importantly – forgive everyone, especially your enemies.”
“That’s crazy!” someone shouted. “We don’t live in some sort of dream world. We have families to take care of – we can’t just bring bums and vagrants into our homes!”
“I have to worry about my kid’s college tuition!” another shouted “I can’t buy clothes for a bunch of slackers. Let ‘em get jobs and buy their own.”
A woman stood up, shaking her fist. “What kind of fuzzy-wuzzy crap is this? Love your enemies?! I guess you expect us to love all those elitist god-haters that want to destroy this great nation? You just want us to open our arms to foreign heathens as they pour into our country, taking our jobs, speaking their own languages, praying to the wrong gods and plotting violent revolution? You’re just a sissy wing-nut that hates his own country!”
The angry crowd turned their backs and began to leave, grumbling and shaking their heads. Nervously, Jesus glanced around. Looking up, he smiled and suddenly jumped on a nearby boulder, waving his arms frantically.
“Wait! Wait!” he cried. “There is another way! A better way! Come back. Give me another chance.”
Most ignored him but some turned back. “This better be good”, they said. They sat down on the grass and waited.
Jesus sat down in the middle of them. ” OK, the other stuff was good, but that was only half the story. This is the real deal. You see, there are these two places called Heaven and Hell….
Posted by Christian Beyer in Bible, biblical literalism, Calvinism, Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Crime and Punishment, Culture, Current Events, damnation, Emerging Church, Ethics, Evil, Faith, Fundamentalism, God, Gospel, grace, Heaven and Hell, Hell, Heresy, Heterodoxy, Jesus, Justice, Morality, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, reformed church, Religion, Religious Right, Religious Tolerance, sacrifice, salvation, Sin, Spirituality, Substitutionary Atonement, Theology, Universalism on March 10, 2011
As long as I can remember my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is there.” This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine. Though she didn’t know it, this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy that says all of us, even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing: Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.
Not long ago Rob Bell was in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics) because his recent book, “Love Wins”, suggested that no one goes to Hell. He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.
The ensuing progressive Christian defense of Bell was great. Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine obscures a lot of the Gospel message. But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.
Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable. Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation. Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God. As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.
I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality, Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus. Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?
No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in. Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18
I have my fair share of physical troubles, almost all the result of entering middle age after a lifetime of unhealthy living. Not that my living was particularly hedonistic or any worse than most Americans, but when you are dealt a certain genetic hand you need to be a bit more careful than I’ve been.
Anyway, it’s not that I am ill or remotely disabled. Just the poster boy for metabolic syndrome. I’m never in any real pain and suffer no problems with mobility, but for some time now my doctors have called me a “high risk” for….some bad stuff, I guess. Just like over half of the Americans out there who are over 50. So I keep popping my pills, watch what I eat (kind of ) and tend not to worry. Too much.
But last week was somewhat trying. Persistent head aches, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness. And my BP was going crazy, higher than it ever had been before. Being the alarmist hypochondriac that I am, I prepared myself for inevitable admission to the O.R. for major chest surgery…or worse. As it turned out, my doctor only had to play her voodoo shell-game with my prescriptions and things are looking a lot better. For now.
My point here is not to whine about my health or my ailments. I just wanted to set the stage for my thoughts of last week, particularly some of those about God. Because I really, really had to work hard to keep myself from praying.
I was disturbingly aware of a desire to ask God to protect me from whatever might be coming my way physically. I really wanted to revisit my old penchant for asking God to extricate me from whatever predicament I found myself in and I desperately wanted to recapture the opportunity of asking God to cure me.
But I hadn’t believed in those types of prayer for some time now and I knew that it would be wrong to allow myself a little relapse into what I now believe is religious superstition. Why would God deign to reach down inside of me and fix the relatively minor physical problems that I am troubled with? When there are so many millions who are really suffering, from hungry children to the mentally institutionalized to severe burn victims to the paraplegics whose prayers for healing have apparently not been heard? I don’t think God would fix my problems. I am not sure that God even could.
I did pray, though not in that way. Instead I prayed prayers of thanks, that I made it this far, with the wonderful people I have known and loved. My wife, my children, my friends, family and students. I was still tempted to ask for another 50 years (or 30 or 20 or 10 or even 5). But I didn’t. Instead I prayed for peace and for courage, for acceptance of whatever might come. Surprisingly, my prayers were answered, almost immediately.
If I had prayed for physical healing or a change in my material circumstances, I would still be waiting for the that big shoe to drop. Playing the long odds against the house, yet holding out hope for something ‘miraculous’ to take place. Anticipation. Unneeded anxiety. And if the cards looked good this time, if it seemed as if God had answered my prayers, this too would pass. Until I met the next low hanging branch on the path. A relentless cycle of beseeching, worry, thanksgiving and then more worry. This was my old pattern.
Over the years I’ve seen some friends die. A few were young, tragically young. Most were pretty “old” I guess. A lot of them were in their eighties. My Dad is in his eighties and he’s been struggling a bit. The thing is, if we are lucky, we will get old and die. Sometimes it looks easy, more often it can be painful. But I’ve seen that it can also be peaceful. Should we be wasting what time we do have by asking to live longer? “ Please, just a little bit more of this good stuff “ (even if it looks as if there isn’t enough “good stuff” to go around for everybody). Where’s the peace in that?
I like it better this way. I’m not asking too much from God and God’s not asking too much from me. I just have to resist asking for the deck to be loaded in my favor. Instead, maybe God could provide me a with just a little help playing the hand I’ve already been dealt.
The Bible is a collection of diverse ancient Hebrew writings by many authors who never intended their works to be collected between the bindings of a book. It is full of spiritual stories, poems, myths, biographies and various historical accounts. It may or may not include recorded attempts at predicting the future. Wisdom and beauty abound within its pages and the reading of this book has helped millions of people, in many spiritual ways, to encounter God. By this definition alone, it is a sacred book. But as St. Paul once said, the scriptures are useful for instructing a person in the ways of God, implying that they are only some of the tools at our disposal and not the sole repository of spiritual wisdom.
The common thread that runs through this assortment of writings is how a particular group of people interacted with their God over a very long time, in ways that were both moral and immoral. Inspired by a sense of wonder, the authors attempted to understand God’s nature, God’s will and how, why and if God works in their lives, often depicting God as speaking and acting within the natural world.
The second, smaller part of the Bible concerns Jesus of Nazareth, his life, crucifixion and resurrection. It also includes his teachings and the teachings of some of his disciples. These teachings have undoubtedly inspired generations of people to live lives of peace, mercy and love while at the same time championing justice. At the same time, different interpretations have helped others to rationalize behavior not so commendable.
The Bible had no release date, there was no publishing date. At some point, around 1700-1800 years ago, powerful religious men decided what Jewish scriptures would be included in what we call the Canon and the Apocrypha. Everything else (probably more than what was included) was discarded or destroyed, though some of these manuscripts survive today. Throughout its history the Bible has been translated in different ways and there have been a few cases where it has been altered to serve a religious agenda, but these were rare occurrences. There has always been a very active, and often heated, debate over what many portions of the Bible actually mean.
The Bible may, or may not, be relevant to us today. The stories and poems and letters within have been used as a guide for morality, compassion and self sacrifice. They have also been used to justify genocide, torture, slavery, misogyny, bigotry and war. If God has spoken through the Bible then some have certainly heard the voice of Satan as well.
Although a great work of historical literature and sacred to millions, it has no magical qualities or powers. It needs to be interpreted contextually, framed within the time and circumstances of the people who populate it, lest whatever lessons it might contain remain hidden. It is undeniably a very, very important book. It is certainly a great book, one of the world’s greatest. But it is not the GOOD book any more than it is a bad book. In the end, with all that it has to offer, it is still…just…a…book.
Posted by Christian Beyer in Bible, biblical literalism, Christianity, Emerging Church, Evangelism, Faith, Fundamentalism, God, Gospel, Heresy, Heterodoxy, History, Jesus, Orthodoxy, Religion, Religious Right, Religious Tolerance, salvation, Spirituality, Substitutionary Atonement, Theology, tolerance on January 28, 2011
Over on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of the members has (hopefully) started a thread by asking this question:
How do Christians define Christians? What makes you or not a Christian?
I often come across the argument that “said person is not a real Christian”, many tend to use this argument to exclude particulars who happen to shame the religion calling themselves part of it, or act in the name of it.
I think it would be interesting to see, how does every one define it, is it simply believing in a higher authority?. Is it taking every literal word of the bible?. Is it following the “reasonable” aspects of the bible?
Now, so far, only one person has given an answer, and it is one that I suspect the majority of American Christians would agree with:
A Christian is somebody who believes that Christ died on the Cross and shed his blood as the ultimate atonement(replacement for the blood sacrifice of the Old Testament law) for the sins of mankind. They believe that Christ is who He said He is. ie, The Son of God, and therefore God Himself. The concept of the Trinity applies here. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was the product of the immaculate conception. Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Isaiah 53:3-7 is an example, among others of the prophesy.
The first chapter of John in the New testament, gives a good representation of what Christians believe about Christ.
To be saved (ie a Christian), is nothing more then the realization that man is born into sin, and the acceptance and acknowledgment of the free gift of eternal life(made possible because of Christ sacrifice on the Cross), that is offered to mankind, should they(exhibit their “free will”) except it. It is nothing more then Gods grace being demonstrated through mans faith.
If all of the above needs to be believed in order to be a Christian, then I guess I am not one. Of course, for many reasons I think the above definition, although perhaps “orthodox”, is incorrect.
Over on Ric Booth’s blog there is an interesting conversation taking place about a new organization that John Shore is spear-heading called ThruWAy Christians, particularly their controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians. The stated goal of ThruWAy Christians is to provide moderate Christians with a new forum. As it says on their website: “If you find conservative Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive Christianity too theologically tenuous, you’re probably a ThruWay Christian.” Which means that, though I agree with much of the content of their founding document, my theology is much too “tenuous” (something which I am sure the Conservative Christians could accuse the ThruWay people).
Surprisingly, I don’t believe my theology is any weaker than theirs or any one else. It’s different to be sure. Maybe not as orthodox as they would like. And like Christianity, it is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that it is “flimsy, insubstantial or lacking in strength”. This is a charge that the orthodox have always levied at those who had the audacity to question theological authority.
The good folks over at ThruWAy Christian are not really challenging conservative Christian theological authority, though. They are only challenging the conservative interpretations of certain scriptures that they believe lead to intolerant and mean spirited attitudes and behavior. But I would suggest that the overarching theology that both the moderates and the conservatives still hold in common ( much of which has been condensed by the commenter from the WSJ blog and jives with the first line of ThruWay’s creed ) is actually what drives this intolerance. And has for centuries.
I ‘ve found that it is nearly impossible for Christian moderates to engage Fundamentalists in any meaningful dialog that might result in a change of perception on the part of either, so I’ve given up on it myself. If this is the goal of the folks at ThruWAy, well then, have at it. But if they would be open-minded enough to engage some Christians whose convictions are not quite as solid, substantial or strong as theirs then perhaps they might find that ‘progressive’ is not such a bad word after all.
Thank goodness Christians are mono-theistic and don’t have to mess around with all those Hindu gods. That would be way too complicated. Fortunately for us, God, coming to Earth as his only son Jesus, revealed his true nature, so that there would be no confusion or disagreement on the subject. Whew! Now if we could just get this simple message out there…
I know there must be others…..
1 .God is a perfect God.
2. He made the world and everything in it, including us.
3. But he made it imperfect.
4. But he still loves his creation.
5. God is also an angry God who is easily offended
6. From the beginning, we are all depraved and have offended God.
7. And though he loves us, God is also just and demands punishment for the wicked (which is all of us).
8. Since God is infinite then our offense against him is infinite (even though we are finite – don’t worry about the math) and we can never pay our way out of our predicament.
9. So we deserve God’s justice, which, unfortunately, is to send us to suffer in Hell for all eternity. Even babies. For our own good. Because he loves us. (It’s a mystery, don’t ask why. Who do you think you are, anyway? God?)
10. Because he loves us he must be fair to us. After all, he is just. Since we really chose Hell for our ultimate destination (always read the fine print) if he cut us any slack then he would not be respecting our choices. And what kind of love is that?
11. But God is also a sensitive God.
12. And God is Love. He told us so.
13. He doesn’t want to send any of us to hell – it saddens him. Especially the babies.
14. But our sin still requires some sort of sacrifice, preferably a blood sacrifice, to balance the books. Because God is really, really just. He demands perfect justice because he has no choice but to do so, even if he is omnipotent. He’s so perfect he just can’t look the other way. Some one has to pay the bill.
15. Except that, since we are imperfect, sacrificing our puny selves would be an imperfect sacrifice to a perfect God to pay off an infinite bill. You can see the problem there.
16. But he finds a loop hole in his own set of laws. ( He should’ve seen that coming.)
17. And decides to send Jesus, his only “Son”, to Earth as a man and have him die in order to pay the price for our sins. This is called Grace.
18. Since Jesus is without sin, only he can possibly be worthy of being sacrificed in our place. Since he’s perfect then his sacrifice was perfect and pleasing to God.
19. But…what kind of God would sacrifice his only Son? And be pleased by it? That’s not very nice. And not too just, either, since Jesus is innocent.
20. Ah ha! We forget that Jesus is also God! So in effect, when God sacrifices Jesus he also sacrifices himself. It’s like God picked up the tab himself. Which, you have to admit, is pretty nifty. Now that God/Jesus has paid the bill we don’t owe anything! This is called forgiveness.
21. But how can this be? How can Jesus and the Father both be God at the same time?
22. So somebody found out that God was Binitarian – one God who is also two persons. Tricky, but somewhat conceivable.
23. Except Jesus talked about God’s spirit like it was another person, not just a thing. (He does, doesn’t he?) And if Jesus is now God he must be omniscient so this “holy spirit” must be another person, too. But what kind of person?
24. So we added the Holy Spirit (Ghost) to the Holy Binity to create the Holy Trinity. More tricky and not so easily conceivable.
25. But God (or someone) said that everyone must believe that God consists of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit or they cannot follow Jesus. No exceptions. Everyone else can just go to Hell.
There, now. Simple. Anyone have any problems with that?
(Disclaimer: the thoughts expressed above are not the author’s but those of what many consider to be orthodox authority. If they had been real thoughts you would have been advised to seek shelter in the nearest basement and tune into your local Trinity Broadcasting Network for further instructions.)
I’ve long looked at the four Gospels as being complimentary to each other. One evangelist filling in the gaps that were, for whatever reason. left by another. Recently, I took a closer look at the differences between the four passion narratives and it no longer appears that this is the case. Mark was the first Gospel to be written and the vast majority of scholars understand that Matthew and Luke both based their gospel largely on Mark’s. But it is clear that Luke significantly changed Mark’s account. It’s not like he just added to it, filling in the gaps, but he changed the story in such a way that, if they both didn’t use Jesus’ name, you might think that he and Mark are talking about two different men.
Mark’s Jesus is quiet and if anything, despairing. He does not respond to those who taunt him, not even those (2?) crucified along side him. Before he dies he forlornly cries out to God, asking why he has been forsaken.
For the most part, Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion remains true to Mark’s account.
Luke’s Jesus, on the other hand, is much more talkative and seems to be much more positive about and more in control of his circumstances. Jesus is taunted by only one of the two crucified and he assures the other one a place in paradise. He asks God to forgive his killers and does not cry out in despair as he does in Mark and Matthew. Instead he appears unafraid of death and offers his spirit to God .
And John’s Gospel does not mention any dialogue between Jesus and the thieves. His Jesus does not cry in despair or vocally assign his spirit to God (though it is implied) nor does he ask forgiveness of his tormentors. Instead he concentrates on the future well being of his mother and that of an unnamed disciple. Most importantly, his last words seem to underscore the cosmic significance of his death ( or do they?).
I’m not questioning the authenticity of any of these accounts. But what do we mean by authenticity? That the scriptures must be factual representations of actual events? If so, then how do we account for where they differ? Did Jesus say all of these things (as the famous ” 7 things that Jesus said on the Cross” quiz would suggest)? If so, then why are all of them not found together in at least one Gospel? If not, then why would one author (or later scribe) remove or add something to another’s earlier account? I don’t think there is any way we can read these four accounts and not see that this is precisely what happened. But what were their motives? What, if anything, do these observations mean to us? Is it a good thing or not that these changes in the text, though at times seemingly slight, may decidedly alter the way in which we perceive Christ, perhaps in ways that were never intended?
Does a devotion to biblical literalism, a zealous misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura, require that someone ignore the obvious? If we can force ourselves to deny the scripturally obvious in order to comply with ‘orthodoxy’ then perhaps we can also force ourselves to deny (or overlook) the essence of scriptural truth.
Perhaps it is too late for us to cut to the chase , too difficult to critically edit the various Jesus movies that are playing in each of our minds, where in each film Jesus is portrayed differently: the tough Christ, the loving Christ, the Christ who climbs on Rocks. Angry Jesus, sad Jesus, suffering Jesus, baby Jesus, the Jesus who loves little children. Warrior Christ, peaceful Christ, Buddha Christ, liberal Christ, Super Christ, American Christ. Vindicator Jesus, savior Jesus, Jesus the blood sacrifice. Max von Sydow, Jeffrey Hunter or Jim Caveziel? Jesus as man, as God or as the Son of God. Which Jesus died for you?
There is an old Evangelical tee-shirt that mimics the Coca Cola logo and reads: “Jesus-The Real Thing”. How certain can we be that our Jesus is “the real thing”? Or should we be so confident? Perhaps certainty is part of the problem.
Probably the most famous example of someone tampering with the Christian scriptures is the so-called Johannine Comma:
For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth:the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. (1 John 5: 7-8, NKJV)
The first line was later removed from most modern bible translations so that we typically find just the following:
For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. (John 5: 7-8, NIV)
According to notes in the NIV Study Bible the questionable line was added to the Latin Vulgate Bible and is not found in any Greek manuscript prior to the sixteenth century. The implication is that some scribe or scribes of the Roman Catholic church added it. Which they did, and for an obvious reason: this was the only line ever found in any Bible that directly points to the idea of a Triune God. The scripture was altered by Church authority to bolster a difficult-to-comprehend doctrine.
The reason this line was found in any Greek manuscripts after the 16th century was because Erasmus added it to later editions of his Greek New Testament, the first ever compiled. At first Erasmus didn’t include the Comma, as it wasn’t in any of the Greek texts he found, either. Under immense pressure from Church authorities he agreed to put the Comma “back in”. Additionally, Erasmus couldn’t find complete Greek manuscripts for certain other scriptures (particularly Revelations) so in those cases he merely translated the Vulgate’s Latin “back” into Greek, errors and all.
(Remember that the New Testament scriptures were originally written in Greek and it wasn’t until Pope Damasus ordered Jerome to produce a Rome-sanctioned Latin bible in the fourth century BCE that a single authoritative church-wide book ever existed. But even Jerome’s earliest Vulgate (common) Bible didn’t have the Comma: it was added later.)
This is the kind of thing that many Protestants came to expect of the Roman Catholic Church, with the Magisterium’s disdain for Sola Scriptura. Except, as you can see with the above scriptural quotes, the King James (as well as the New King James) version of the Bible still include the Comma. And most modern Protestant versions of the Bible (with a few notable exceptions) rely upon Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, which is largely derived from the Vulgate. These collective works are known as the Textus Receptus (a term bible scholars use to describe any Greek text that is not based on the best, oldest or most verifiable manuscripts but on Erasmus’ work instead.)
But scriptural manipulations by ‘orthodox’ authorities don’t end there. In John 5 there is the story of Jesus encountering the crippled man at the healing springs of Bethsaida. Apparently he has waited 38 years to be lowered into the water and be cured. Why so long? Well, he says, every time an opportunity arises, the water is no longer “stirred”. Which is a little confusing: what is this man talking about? What does he mean by ‘stirred’ waters. At some point someone took it upon himself to solve this mystery for us, even though he made it up in order to do so. You won’t find it in most Protestant bibles but you will find it in the trusty old (and New) King James:
For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.
(John 5: 4, King James Version)
Even though many still love the King James (and it is easier on the ear – compare its version of Ecclesiastes with the competition’s) many more will concede that it has quite a few issues. But it is not the only bible that does. Which, along with all the other textual changes and scribal errors (and there are many more), poses some serious challenges to anyone who believes that the Bible is the innerant, infallible Word of God, that must be taken literally in order for us to understand God and the universe.
Take the problem we have with 1 Timothy 3:16, which for most of the Church’s history (and in many bibles today) has read like this:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.
But in the early 18th century bible scholar J.J. Wettstein, upon examining the Greek manuscript this verse derives from, found that one of the word’s had been changed to read “God” when it originally said something like “who”. This altered verse is one of the few, if not the only, explicit statements of Jesus’ divinity found in the Bible. The verse originally read more like this:
Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
Who was revealed in flesh,
vindicated by the spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
Which speaks more about the mystery of who Jesus was and not the absolute assertion that he was God. By pointing this out (among other questions about scriptural accuracy) Wettstein was shunned from his religious and academic community. And even though this information has been well known for nearly 300 years many bible publishers refuse to make the necessary changes. What type of faith do we have when we need to fall back upon spurious scripture for our religious security?
It seems to me that, all affirmations of Sola Scriptura aside, Protestants have more devotion to non-biblical “tradition” than they would like to believe. I mean, sola which scriptura, for Pete(r)’s sake?
(Thanks to Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” as the source for most of the above material.)