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Is Christianity 'true'?

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 14 November 2014


Every now and again there is published an article about Christianity that proclaims, shock, horror, that the gospels are not true, indeed much of it is a "pious fraud" Such an article has recently been published in On Line Opinion by Brian Morris. Much of what he has to say has been around for a long time and has resulted from the advent of historical literary critic of the bible that arose in the late nineteenth century.

For example, the Wellhausen, or documentary hypothesis was introduced in 1876 and is still a respected work to our day. Briefly, it shows that the first five books of the bible had their origin in independent sources that were combined by a redactor.

Similar critical analysis of the New Testament is current in contemporary biblical studies. It is no mystery that the authorship of the gospels is unknown and that Paul probably did not write all of the epistles bearing his name.

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This raised the question about whether the bible is "true". Much of it is certainly not true if the model of truth is that entertained by modern historiography that searches and sifts evidence in order to ascertain what actually happened. I have argued previously that Scripture is more a case of preaching or of theological explication by the means of narrative, than an accurate account of what happened. To expect the latter is to impose a modern understanding of history on ancient documents whose concern lies elsewhere.

It is true that we do not know who the parents of Jesus were or where he was born. It is probably true that he was an itinerant preacher who got into trouble with the Temple authorities, was framed and crucified. Some of the accounts of miraculous activity served theological purposes and others were attempts to provide proof of the status of Jesus according to the understanding of the time. Does this make the Bible a lie and destroy its authority?

Pablo Picasso is famous for saying that: "Art is a lie that tells the truth". We might also say that the whole of Scripture is a lie that tells the truth. This is similar to the way that modern novels are completely made up stories that take us on a path of recognition and exposes the truth of the human condition. Unlike a novel the bible has some connection to historical events even though that connection is sometimes very tentative indeed.

Similarly, in the visual arts, and this is closer to Picasso's concerns, a painting does more than represent only the visible world. His painting the Weeping Woman (NGV) presents us with a grossly distorted face but screams at us about grief. Similarly, the representation of Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus is obviously a made up tail told in the gospel according to Luke. It is a lie of sorts, even a pious fraud. But it points away from itself as historical reality to another unseen reality that this Jesus is the Son of God and hence part of the triune nature of God. It also enthrones Mary as the model of faith and is why so many Italian churches are called Santa Maria… This short story need not have been an historically accurate depiction to spin so much deep theological truth.

It is usual for critics of Christianity to assume that we are all fundamentalists i.e that we are all biblical literalists and that we all believe that God is a supernatural person who can interfere in physical causation. If we protest that we are not fundamentalists then it is assumed that we have betrayed the faith. Shock, horror, scandal! My advice to such critics is to read some contemporary main-stream theology or talk to someone who has.

Brian Morris assures us at the end of his silly article that the sky will not fall in if we lose the ancient man-made religions and he provides as evidence of this the spread of secularism. But where did our civilization come from? We may ask with Monty Python; "What have the Romans ever done for us?" a similar question: "What have Christians ever done for us?"

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Well, let me see, there are a few things. It is proclaimed in Genesis that God made man in His own image. This means that all people bear the image of God and are thus sacred. Surely this is the origin of our modern understanding of equality.

We have inherited the Judeo/Christian concept of time being linear, being directed towards an end (telos). While the other cultures of the world lived with a circular understanding of time, Jews and Christians knew that they were on a journey to a prized destination.

This means that the future need not be a repeat of the past but new things are to be expected. This applies to the study of theology and to belief. Research degrees are granted to theology students all over the world. Theology is not a completed subject and belief is subject to change. We cannot believe in the same was as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther or Calvin. While we must listen to these theologians and recognise that they are important in the tradition, we do not have to believe in the same way as they believed. Our situation has changed, it is not possible, for example, to accept a simple faith in the providence of God.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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