Apologetics and the Biblical Christ by Avery Dulles
S.J., Woodstock Papers: Occasional Essays for Theology, No. 6, Newman Press, 1971.
Apologetics is endangered when too much is ascribed to its office, it seems clear. A likely result seems to be a reaction to the hubris in which the whole endeavor is rejected altogether. A more effective and less theatric endeavor for Christ is in the path between the two. Avery Dulles, now a Cardinal in the Catholic Church, and still a frequent contributor to the first class periodical First Things (my favorite magazine) now in his 80s, wrote this helpful and astute overview of apologetics in 1971 yet I found it helpful in elucidating key aspects of modern Biblical scholarship. The clarity of definitions is helpful and the historical account of historicist apologetics and the critique of them I think would be helpful to anyone seeking a better grasp of how to think of the Bible in its relationship to modern scholarship.
I am afraid that time has passed and memory of the specifics is already receding after reading this book but I want to at least call to my rough mind some of the few praiseworthy things I have been made aware of through reading it. I appreciate Dulles concise and clear coverage of the history, nature of, dangers and virtues and viability of certain kinds of apologetics. A large point of the book is to reject historicist apologetics and point to possible paths for apologetics. Dulles defines historicist apologetics as apologetics which placed unquestioning confidence in the powers of the scientific historical method to defend the rational basis of the Christian faith. His first chapter is devoted to explaining what the apologetics of historicism has been. He notes in it that even in the Victorian era religious thinkers like Kierkegaard and Newman “protested that history, considered as a purely scientific discipline, could not impose a definite religious interpretation of the person of Jesus.” I pause for a moment on this: here the scientific methodology by being given ascendancy strips history of the certainty and militates against the discernment of metanarrative. It has a limiting, curbing nature to it.
Dulles notes two major charges which had been raised against historicist apologetics in recent times: 1) misunderstanding the limits of history and 2) misconstruing the nature of the biblical sources. On the first he writes the following: “Academic history, it is clear, cannot be the final judge in matters of religion. It does not pretend to be able to pronounce on matters of philosophical truth, aesthetic, ethical , or religious values. The object of technical history is simply the phenomenal past- past events, that is, as they appeared in their spatiotemporal relationships. The ultimate interpretation of the source and significance of such events cannot be achieved by historical research alone. Even to say that the phenomenal past can be recovered by history is to risk exaggeration.” (p. 12).
Dulles goes on to make the following interesting point: “Let us assume, however, that the historical method could establish with overwhelming verisimilitude a definite picture concerning what Jesus had said and done. Would it follow then that history could tell us whether He was really the Messiah and the Son of God? A moment’s reflection will suffice to answer in the negative. At its ideal best, scientific history, conducted according to the norms of the historical-critical school, can put us in the same situation as the original spectators. We have no reason to believe that Jesus’ contemporaries found it easy to believe. Their faith did not issue more or less automatically from what they saw and heard.” (p. 13-14).
In the second chapter of the book, Dulles addresses the topic of the Gospels and scientific history. He addresses the issue of the Synoptic Gospels and “endless list of discrepancies among [them] in reporting the same events.” Examples are the different versions of the Our Father, and the Beatitudes. Dulles writes:
“Divergences of this nature, as Fr. O’Keefe has said, ‘serve to counteract any naïve understanding of the Gospels as some sort of photographic representation of the life of Christ… The Gospels have a freedom in the order of the facts, in their presentation, in their very redaction of the words of Christ, which shows that their authors did not feel bound to the repetition of a definitive formula’ (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 21 . 173 f.). Matthew and Luke do not, to be sure, radically innovate. We never find them inventing, so to speak out of whole cloth. But these minor changes which they do introduce should makes us cautious in assuming that in any given instance we know exactly what we should have seen or heard if we had been on the spot. What is here said of the Synoptics applies a fortiori to John, whose testimony is not greatly esteemed by positivistic historians.” (p.25)
John Calvin noted the same long ago:
“We know that the Evangelists were not very exact as to the order of dates, or even in detailing minutely everything that Christ said or did” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 1, Calvin’s Commentaries 16 (repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 216. )
“The Gospels likewise provide “history” in the minimal sense of stories about an actual human being who lived at a particular time and place not all that far distant from the time of their authors. That they are not “accurate” in many of the ways a modern historian would try to be is not a recent discovery. Calvin took it for granted that their authors rearranged details- the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, combined sayings originally delivered at different times. His doctrine of ‘accommodation’ allowed that God speaks to human beings in ways we can understand, [Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.11.13; ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:462-63.] and that might mean expressing a spiritual truth in terms of the worldview that would make sense to a scientifically primitive people: ‘He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.’ [Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King, Calvin’s Commentaries 1 (repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 79] …One reason that the Reformers and their successors recognized such freedom with detail is that they knew the Bible so much better than we do and were therefore aware of the smallest discrepancies.” – William C. Placher, The Triune God, p. 54-55. Calvin wrote: “Pious and modest readers ought to be satisfied with having a brief summary of the doctrine of Christ placed before their eyes, collected out of his many and various discourses.” (Calvin, Harmony of the Evangelists, 1: 259.
It is nice to see John Calvin and a Catholic scholar who is now a Cardinal of the Catholic Church agreeing, if unknowingly.
“Most Biblical scholars would now hold that the tradition is faithful without being servile; it transmitted the words and deeds of Jesus with such adaptions as were required to render them intelligible and significant for a different generation living in a different environment.” (p. 26)
Dulles the technical skill and range of knowledge needed in the task of historical criticism, which includes a knowledge of archeology, philology, textual criticism, and comparative religion. He remarks that the task is not a proper field for amateurs and notes that certitude is a rare and precious jewel in it.
He ends the chapter by concluding that the quarrel over the historical value of the Gospels cannot be settled by the techniques of history itself. The conflict, as far as pure history is involved, between the believer and the unbeliever, is irreducible. To overcome the opposition, he directs us to transfer the debate to some other ground.
In the third section, entitled “The Gospels As Confessional Documents”, Dulles elaborates on what he means by moving the debate to other ground, and he asserts this is grounded in the very nature of the Gospel. The Gospels do not aim to transmit a photograph of Jesus as He might have appeared to detached observers. Rather, it is a portrait of Jesus as understood by the believing church. The portrait is an appeal to faith and adoration and an invitation to join the Church in her devout confession. There is no escaping the deadlock on the plane of academic history, Dulles argues, but by moving to the terrain of religious concern we may hope to find a solution.
“Once we have grasped the spiritual nature of their mission, we can easily see why the apostles and Evangelists write as they do. It would be utterly inappropriate for them to offer documentary poofs and hold themselves to the rules of judicial evidence. They can afford to be frankly partisan and to be careless of points of chronology, geography, and descriptive detail.” P. 36.
Dulles avers that there are however, excellent reasons for judging the evangelical portrait of Jesus as credible. First, the New Testament unquestionably reflects the way Jesus was understood by his immediate band of followers. There are many theologies in the New Testament but only one faith. Second, the New Testament faith about Jesus is proclaimed with the stoutest conviction. Third, the New Testament doctrine about Christ is utterly novel. Nothing in the Jewish tradition would have predisposed them to accept what they now proclaimed and they would have shrunk in horror from it before becoming Christians- paying divine honors to a man! One can extend this to also say that nothing in the Hellenic society around them also prepared them for this. Gresham Machen’s The Origin of Paul’s Religion goes into detail about numerous theories that were raised about how the Christian religion could have been derived from Jewish sources (other than the Old Testament) and pagan cults and shows how everyone of them was problematic and how the most likely answer was that Paul’s religion had its origin in the love of the resurrected Christ. Fourth, the apostles themselves were transformed into new men by the news they bore. Fifth, the intrinsic qualities of the Christian message is not the type easily fabricated by the ingenuity of the wise.
In the fifth section, entitled “The Resurrection: History and Confession”, Dulles seeks to demonstrate the difference between the historicist apologetic, which he debunks, and the and the confessional apologetic, which he proposes. The historicist apologetic, he writes, may be boiled down to the following syllogism: “The Gospels are reliable historical sources; moreover, they affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus; therefore, the bodily resurrection occurred.” p. 45. Dulles writes that there is much that is good in the historical critical approach that should be retained but to treat the whole problem with the presupposition that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts is to oversimplify the problem out of existence. “It is to demand concessions which no adversary, or well-informed believer, will grant.”
Sources for example on the appearances of Christ after the resurrection were considered when Dulles was writing (I don’t know the case now) by many to have been from relatively late material. ( I am uncomfortable with this point until I know the reasoning behind such positions better and am not inclined to yield benefit of the doubt on it.) The three Gospel accounts of the appearances are “widely discrepant”. Dulles goes into more detail about this and there are some difficult things to reconcile about this if one is trying for a photographic representation of events. Have you ever tried to compare the different accounts of the appearances side by side? There are difficulties and scholars have ruminated on many angles of these and he mentions some of the most prominent of these points apparently.
Also, there is a difficulty relating to literary genre. “Some of the incidents are narrated in the concise, simple style characteristic of old, traditional material. But other episodes, such as Luke’s account of the journey to Emmaus and the Johannine version of the lakeside apparition, are told with such consummate artistry as to suggest the hand of a skilled litterateur. History can perform an invaluable service for apologetics by removing many of the preposterous conjectures and constructs (Again, Machen’s book is an example of how this may be done). But history can only bring us to the point where opinion divides similar to the way men in Jesus’ day were divided about his miracles. Scientific history may allow us to deny that anyone has the right to deny the resurrection occurred based on it but those adhering to it may not necessarily affirm that anyone in the name of “pure” (scientific) history could affirm that it happened. Dulles further discusses the passages of the post resurrection appearance and how it appears a tradition in the early Church that to percieve the risen jesus required something more than the normal use of one’s eyes and ears. Think of the road to Emmaus and how the disciples did not recognize Jesus at first. Think of Mary Magdalene mistaking him for a gardener. “At the Sea of Tiberias it was reserved for the beloved disciple to perceive and to declare, “It is the Lord.” The other disciples did not apprehend Him so clearly. Otherwise it would hardly be written of them that they did not dare to ask Him: ‘Who art thou?’ (Jn 21:12).”
This point makes sense to me. As it says in Proverbs, “Lean not on your own understanding but in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your path straight.” It is not merely a rational step to believe. The whole is enveloped. And it is not merely a self-awareness or perfection of self-discipline. It is a new birth into believing awareness of God with us. We cannot therefore isolate apprehension of the resurrection from its doctrinal aspect. Dulles quotes Fr. Levie:
“If we bracket the doctrinal aspect, if we deny to dogma and theology any right to intervene in our apologetics, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in April of the year 30 of the Christian era becomes an unintelligible fact, unthinkable to the human mind, since it would be meaningless and contrary to all ordinary likelihood. As a profane historian, I will have no choice except to reduce the documents which seem to favor it to the framework of the verisimilitude to which I am accustomed…If my reconstruction runs up against serious improbabilities, they will seem to me more tolerable than a resurrection in which I can see no meaning.”
This reminds me, oddly enough of a Rumi poem, for the parallel imagery to our Lord’s reference to being born again, though granted it is an appropriation from Rumi’s original sense:
“If anyone were to say to an embryo in the womb, “Outside is a world well-ordered,
a pleasant earth, broad and long, wherein are a thousand delights and many things to eat;
Mountains and seas and plains, fragrant orchards, gardens and sown fields,
A sky lofty and full of light, sunshine and moonbeams and innumerable stars;
its wonders are beyond description: why dost thou say, drinking blood, in this dungeon of filth and pain?’-
The embryo, being what it is, would turn away in utter disbelief; for the blind have no imagination…”
(frm. A poem called “The Unregenerate” in Selected Poems of Rumi trans. By Reynold Nicholson).
We must be born again, and being born again, we must look and see with faith, and not merely with profane science. Reason and education can not save us. Only God can.
In the final section entitled “The Divinity of Christ: History and Confession” Dulles makes similar points about investigation of the claim of Jesus’ divinity. “If it was not clear, even to Jesus’ intimates, that He was more than a national saviour, it may well be asked how a modern reader, by recapturing the words and actions of jesus in His earthly life, could find a clear presentation of His divinity. As a factual historian, I suggest, he cannot hope o rise notably above the level achieved by Jesus’ own disciples.” Dulles continues, though, by asserting that this does not mean that academic history is useless. It can indeed establish the great verisimilitude that Jesus did in numerous ways indicate that His origin was more than human. Further, the rapidity with which the early church came to believe dogmatically that He was the Lord, the Adonai of the Old Testament, can be established with a robust strength of exegesis. A fine example of the logic along this lines is the following:
In many of the regions of the empire it was quite possible to deify a private citizen. but itn at least one nation it was impossible, and that was among the Jews. They adored Yahweh, the one God, the transcendent and ineffable God, whose image they did not portray, whose name they did not pronounce, who was separated from every human creature by abyss upon abyss. To associate with yahweh any kind of man at all would have been a sacrilege and a supreme abomination. The Jews honored the emperor but they let themselves be cut to pieces rather than profess even in a whisper that the emperor was a god; and they would also have let themselves be cut to pieces if they had been obliged by to say the same thing about Moses himself. And would the first Christian whose voice we hear, a Hebrew son of the Hebrews [St. Paul], associate a man with Yahweh in the most natural manner in the world? This is a miracle I refuse to accept." -P.-L. Couchoud qtd. in Le mystere de Jesus (Paris: Rieder, 1926, p. 84), which is qtd. in Apologetics and the Biblical Christ, by Avery Dulles (now a Cardinal in the Catholic church), 1971, p. 70.
Certainly in saying that understanding and seeing Christ for who He is requires more than mere sight and that we should not lean on our own reason we need not and we should not say that reason and logic is to be thereby abandoned, abused and despised. We need men like Couchoud to manifest the logic of it. Dulles puts it succinctly:
“There can be no question of framing arguments, whether deductive or inductive, which rigorously prove the divinity of Christ. Syllogisms can have rhetorical and expository value, but they do not really capture the dynamism by which the mind arrives at the recognition of Christ’s godhead. “ p. 72.
Dulles ends in a quite Catholic way by concluding that in the end there is only one sign of credibility: “the whole Christ in His Church”.