Visions of Daniel
is not Really Christian at All
This paper originally appeared in Ecumenical Trends, 1997, Volume 26, pages 114-122, under the title “Christian (read: Fundamentalist): A Case for Mistaken Identity.” This paper also appears as Chapter 13 of my Sex and the Sacred.
Without doubt, religion is the strongest opponent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Scratch the surface of almost any argument, and underneath you find religion. Senator Rick Santorum's comments in May, 2003, about the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of all sodomy laws were downright insulting—and shamefully uninformed. He claimed to be voicing Catholic teaching. In fact, his knowledge of Catholicism was also shamefully uninformed, but his private religious beliefs were the basis of his legal opinion, nonetheless. Religion rules even in the U. S. Senate.
Surely, the most cited anti-gay argument is that “the Bible condemns homosexuality.” Of course, the Bible does not, but religious belief continues to provide cover for personal prejudice; and widespread ignorance—about the Bible and about homosexuality—makes that cover almost impenetrable.
There is need to address that religious bias directly. Under the name of “Christianity,” preaching corrodes the sensitive souls of gay and lesbian people and inspires hostility against them. Their spiritual health requires rejection of the supposedly Christian claims. Chapter Fourteen projects a positive picture of authentic Christianity, which includes lesbians and gays and all people of good will. But first, this chapter takes a negative tack. It clears the field by challenging outright the Christian status of Biblical Literalism or Biblical Fundamentalism. Nonetheless, even here, the overall goal is positive: to clarify what true Christianity is and to protect “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
The Identity Theft of Christianity
What is “Christian”? It has never been easy to answer this question, and recent developments further muddle the discussion.
The word Christian has taken on a new meaning. Propagated on the religious air waves and on the street corners of the Bible Belt, U.S.A., this new meaning now passes unquestioned in the media at large. Christian means Fundamentalist—just as surely as Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist refer to other denominations.
Of course, terms like Fundamentalist Christian or Christian Right can suggest some nuance. But deliberately clouding the matter again, Fundamentalism has stealthily tried to soften its image by associating itself with the more moderate umbrella-term Evangelical —although much evangelicalism is itself just Fundamentalism by another name. And by organizing the “Catholic Alliance,” the Christian Coalition has even tried to incorporate conservative Catholics—despite the fact that they are followers of the “Antichrist” (that is, the pope), according to widespread Fundamentalist opinion.
Through it all, this fact remains: Fundamentalists have seized the generic term Christian and turned it into the name of their denomination. And no one has raised an objection! In fact, for whatever reason, it took me ten years to find a publisher for this paper. The ecumenical movement's welcome goal was to bring the Christian churches together. But this movement has had one negative effect: It made talk of heresy impolite, so no one would raise the issue.
To profess to be Christian today is to identify as a Fundamentalist. Many who were baptized, bred, and will be buried as faithful members of traditional Christian churches no longer qualify as Christian. The vast majority of believers in a two-thousand year old religion can no longer acknowledge their religious commitments. If they say without qualification, "I am a Christian," they appear to adhere to a reactionary, twentieth-century, minority movement. This significant religious and social phenomenon should not go unnoticed.
Nor should it go unchallenged.
Confusion around the very name Christian does call for clarification. What does Christian mean, anyway? Attention to Biblical Fundamentalism provides a remarkably useful approach to this question.
On the one hand, despite the scandal-provoked decline of biblical televangelism in the late 1980s, Fundamentalism quickly recovered, regrouped, and still stands firm. Its domination in the South is mind-boggling. Its control over the Southern Baptist Convention is now secure. The Christian Right stunningly captured the 1996 Republican platform committee, and with the installation of George W. Bush in the White House in 2000, this religious movement came to enjoy unprecedented political clout. For example, this movement is likely to receive millions of federal dollars to support its religious agenda if Mr. Bush's “faith-based initiative” goes into effect. And already the Religious Right's inane crusade for sexual abstinence is now official American policy around the globe.
Besides, fundamentalist-like trends are evident in other denominations—for example, renewed emphasis on the Bible in the United Methodist Church, intensified insistence on institutional loyalty in Roman Catholicism, backlash against women priests and bishops and against the gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in the Episcopal and Anglican Churches, and the growth of cross-denominational movements like Campus Crusade and Promise Keepers. So when the meaning of Christian is in question, Fundamentalism is an angle worth considering.
On the other hand, the mainline churches are often at odds with Fundamentalism. They take a more moderate stance on sex education in the schools, evolutionary theory and other scientific conclusions, the role of women in family and society, opposition to abortion, acceptance of lesbian and gay relationships, the rights of workers, the needs of the poor, openness to immigrants, and concern for the environment. While Biblical Fundamentalism asserts that the U.S.A. is a “Christian” nation and aims to make it so, the mainline churches respect the relationships among a range of religions and secular agencies. While Fundamentalism maintains a remarkable clarity about who is a sinner and who is not, the mainline churches acknowledge the complexity of ethical matters and respect differences in conscience among people of good will.
Can Fundamentalist teaching and the teachings of other churches really both be Christian? The answer I give here is a firm No. This answer is a two-edged sword. It not only disqualifies Biblical Fundamentalism's core belief as incompatible with Christianity. In clarifying the essence of Christianity, it also calls all the churches to purify themselves of fundamentalist-like elements. This answer calls all who claim the name Christian to new fidelity to their heritage.
A Matter of Theology
Biblical Fundamentalism touts superior morality as the hallmark of its “Christianity,” but ethics is not ultimately telling. Not only Fundamentalists but all Christians hold love for others and concern for the common good as basic values. Indeed, in their own way Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam all foster compassion. Christianity has no monopoly on honest and virtuous living. Therefore, no ethical commitments ultimately distinguish Fundamentalists from Christians or Christianity from other religions.
Not even acknowledgment of Jesus as an important religious leader is distinctive of Christianity. Although not all would see Jesus as God or call him “Lord and Savior,” what spiritually attuned person would object to following him or deny that his way is saving?
Focus on ethics or on Jesus will not do. A deeper analysis is needed. It must attend to underlying assumptions, to differing theologies.
In the present case the key theological issue is Fundamentalism's approach to the Bible. The principal line of division among the many Christian churches is no longer the line between Catholics and Protestants. Differences between those groups have begun to blur. Today, more and more obviously, the split appears to be between the groups who claim to read the Bible literally and those who allow an “historical-critical” reading of the Bible. The key issue is differing ways of interpreting the Bible.
The literal reading insists that the meaning of a text is what anyone reading it today—and often only in the King James Version—would understand the text to say. In contrast, the historical-critical method insists that the primary meaning of a text is what it originally meant and that current implications of the text must depend on the original meaning.
Most mainline Christian churches today—Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist—officially accept an historical-critical reading of the Bible, and these churches share significant consensus on their interpretations of the texts. In contrast, insistence on a supposed literal reading is a divergent position. Fundamentalist literalism appears to be the alternative stance or, in traditional terms, a heresy.
I do not direct this judgment about Biblical Fundamentalism against individual believers. Without question, there are good people in the Fundamentalist movement, people doing, as best they can, what they believe to be right.
Nor do I want to belittle the powerful spiritual experience and the needed discipline that Fundamentalism has brought to many people. Religious conversion that brings wholesome meaning and purpose to life must always to be respected. Still, people convert to many things, so in itself a religious-conversion experience is no guarantee of Christianity.
Nor do I criticize here the goals that motivate the Fundamentalist movement. I agree that contemporary society is sick in many ways. In the face of an ever more fragmented society, somehow we do need to restore honesty, justice, love, and mercy as guiding virtues. Of course, what this restoration means in practice is highly debatable. I doubt that my ideal society would look like that of the Fundamentalists.
Nor am I judging the tactics by which different groups might hope to achieve those goals. My concern here is theological, not political.
My intention is only this: to analyze the theoretical core of the Fundamentalist movement—its belief about the Bible—and to compare it with long-standing Christian tradition. Mine is a theological enterprise. Its conclusions pertain to Biblical Fundamentalism as a creed, not necessarily to Fundamentalism as a lived religion.
Every religion shows a significant difference between what is officially professed and what is actually believed and lived. No doubt, the Christian tradition influences Fundamentalist believers more than their official position acknowledges, and, in fact, the Bible is not the sole source of their faith. However, my analysis here concerns only the core tenet of Fundamentalism, its supposed unswerving reliance on the Bible.
Literal Interpretation and Reliance on the Bible Alone
Fundamentalism includes a wide swath of “Bible religions.” Many of them reject the name Fundamentalist, but they all tend toward Fundamentalism to some degree. Oftentimes they reject the name only for political reasons: because it now has a negative connotation; but they are fundamentalist in all their doings. Here I take Biblical Fundamentalism to mean that approach to religion that claims to rest on the Bible as its sole foundation and insists that the Bible is free from error (“inerrant”), is inspired verbally by God, and is to be read literally.
The last item is the critical one: literal interpretation of the Bible. Only it distinguishes Fundamentalism from the Christian Churches. Reliance on the Bible alone might appear to be another distinguishing characteristic, but it is not. The option for a literal interpretation of the Bible already excludes openness to anything outside the Bible—like centuries of Christian experience, insight, and teaching. Literal interpretation and reliance on the Bible alone—these go hand in hand. Both express one and the same underlying attitude: a disregard for history.
The historical-critical approach to the Bible acknowledges that ancient Israel and the early Church produced the biblical texts. Accordingly, this approach sanely insists that these texts cannot be correctly understood apart from the historical experiences of Israel and the early Church. That is to say, in the very formation of the biblical texts, the ongoing experience of the People of God has been integral to Christianity from the beginning. Attending to that experience, the historical-critical approach takes the early history of Christianity very seriously.
In contrast, the principle of literal interpretation implies that somehow the Bible was handed to the Church ready-made, as it were. So the experience of the Church during its formative period or at any period in history becomes irrelevant for determining what Christianity is and ought to be. Only the written word in the Bible, as it now stands, counts.
Considerations such as these are at the heart of the matter. One's approach to biblical interpretation is the focal issue. The Bible-alone issue merely repeats the literal-interpretation issue in another form. They are two sides of the same coin.
Likewise, belief in verbal inspiration and biblical inerrancy is not central. Many commentators point to belief in biblical inerrancy as the defining feature of Fundamentalism. But it is not. As Jerry Falwell explains, “To Fundamentalists, the inerrancy of Scripture is ultimately linked to the legitimacy and authority of the Bible.” Similarly, according to James Barr, commitment to “the traditional Christian message based squarely on the Bible” is what ultimately drives Fundamentalism. These statements show that Fundamentalism is religion based on the Bible as it reads, period. And we are again back to literal interpretation of the Bible.
Besides, the Christian churches would not want to deny the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, so they do not really differ from Fundamentalism on these points. Of course, the Christian churches do differ from Fundamentalism and among themselves about the nature of inspiration and inerrancy.
For example, at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Roman Catholicism solemnly reaffirmed its belief that the Scriptures are “written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” so “they have God as their author.” And the Bible teaches “firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” Here is a clear insistence on verbal inspiration and inerrancy.
However, the Catholic understanding of these matters is quite different from the Fundamentalist. Catholicism would apply an historical-critical analysis to determine what exactly God meant to teach through the Bible, whereas Fundamentalism would look to the literal word. Thus, for example, for Catholicism the Genesis account of creation is not in conflict with contemporary scientific accounts—simply because Catholicism, unlike Fundamentalism, does not take the biblical account to be a literal geological or biological statement. For the Catholic mind, the Bible teaches without error that God is the Creator of the world, and without conflict, the sciences help explain how God's creation functions and unfolds.
So the disagreement is not about the inerrancy of the Bible. Rather, disagreement is about determining what the Bible inerrantly teaches. The issue is interpretation of the Bible. The problem with Fundamentalism is its insistence on a literal reading.
Taking History Seriously
I propose three theological arguments that all conclude that Fundamentalism is not Christian. The first argument deals with the historical nature of Judaism and Christianity.
Judaism and Christianity are historical religions. That is, they are based on actual past occurrences; they claim to revolve around historical facts. These religions are not just a set of nice ideas, not just a philosophy of life.
Throughout the Hebrew and the Christian Testaments, this belief is clear: God is at work in history. Abraham's choice as father of a nation, Israel's release from Egypt in the Exodus, the fall of Jerusalem and the captives' later return to Jerusalem, all are understood to be the work of God. Christianity takes this belief to its limit: In Jesus Christ, God actually lived and died among us and rose from the dead unto our salvation. According to the Jewish and Christian understanding of the matter, we encounter God in human history.
The Bible, then, is the record of encounters with God in history. Inspired by God and inerrant in the message it conveys, the Bible is our means of learning about how God works among us. Belief in God's action in past history implies that God is still active also in our own history. Fundamentalism would agree up to this point.
However, if we take seriously this belief in God's work in history, certain implications follow. Above all, we cannot know God without knowing the history of God's saving deeds. To understand God's work at any particular time and, thus, to understand what was written about God in any biblical passage, we must understand the historical situation that the passage expresses and out of which it emerged. We cannot really understand God's real action in real history as recounted in a real historical document, the Bible, unless we know the history of that time, the historical authors who wrote the document, their purpose in writing, the language they used, the literary form of the texts, the cultural presuppositions the authors had, the questions the authors were addressing, and so on.
In brief, we must first determine what the biblical text intended to convey in its own time and place before we can understand what the Bible teaches as God's action in that particular instance. And only by understanding God's modus operandi in the biblical instances are we then able to discern God's action in our own case. All this is to say, only an historical-critical reading of the Bible provides an understanding of God's Word that is consistent with an historical religion.
The alternative approach, a literal reading of the Bible, does not work. It clashes with the historical nature of Christianity. To suppose that God's Word in the biblical text is simply what that text means to me today, regardless of the history that produced that text, is to obscure the reality of God's intervention in real history. For if I can understand the meaning of a biblical text without understanding its historical context or the cultural nuances of its language, then the historical and cultural circumstances must be irrelevant. And if they are, you cannot claim that God really spoke in human history.
The literal approach makes the biblical text float above history, free from the in's and out's of human living, free from the qualities of all, real, human experience. All human experience is historical. All human experience unfolds in a particular place and at a particular time, and these differ from other places and times. A literal approach to the Bible presumes a God who is not really involved with humankind, not really involved in history. If, supposedly, you can read and understand the Bible without knowing anything about where those texts were written or why or by whom or to whom, you have effectively ripped the text out of its original context. You are claiming that the Bible is immune to history, that the Bible is free from any historical or cultural considerations, that the history of the text does not matter.
In sum, the main difficulty with Fundamentalist insistence on literal interpretation of the Bible is that it implicitly denies the historical nature of Christianity—but history is essential to Christianity. Fundamentalism turns Christianity into an eternal fable whereas Christianity is really about particular people and specific places and unique events in history.
Fundamentalism might object that it does not ignore history but does attend to all the history that the Bible itself reports. But restricting attention to the Bible itself is not attending to its formation and cultural context. Rather, such practice sequesters the Bible from the historical influences that shaped it. Such practice assumes that the Bible exists apart from any interaction with the ordinary comings and goings of the human race. Such practice presumes that only what is written in the Bible is real or worth noting. So such practice is a denial of history, and it imagines a Bible that is untouched by any history.
“God's Word” as Political Ideology
The same point can be made in another way. My second argument shows that the literal reading of the Bible turns religion into a totalitarian regime centered on a rigid set of ideas that are immune to question and shut off from any possible deeper understanding. Such religion leaves no room for growth, change, development, progress. Such static religion forbids that God could do new things as history advances. Such religion puts restrictions on even the Lord of history. Such religion imposes an end to history; it cancels history from the equation. So such religion cannot be Christian.
In one sense it is obvious that Biblical Fundamentalism does acknowledge God's action in history: God is involved in history today and precisely through the Fundamentalist movement itself. In going political, Fundamentalism reversed its founding emphasis on the relationship of the individual soul with God, and few religious movements in recent history have been as politically active as late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Fundamentalism. But the end result of Fundamentalist politics is a human program for social reform, not necessarily divine involvement in history.
To suppose that the Bible can be correctly understood apart from its historical and cultural context is to suppose that the Bible is some eternal formulation, come down pristine and pure directly from heaven. Then historical and cultural considerations about the formation of the Bible are irrelevant. Only one form of divine involvement in history remains: God's supposed inspiration of the Bible-reader today.
But on this basis, anyone can claim divine authority for any personal interpretation, and the text can be said to mean whatever anyone feeling inspired takes it to mean. Of course, the inspirational use of the Scriptures has long standing in the Christian tradition, and such use of the Bible is more or less innocuous—as long as it is limited to private devotion. But when used to determine a publicly proclaimed biblical message, this approach is dangerous. It includes no objective criteria to determine what God's Word in any particular biblical passage actually is. Then, supposedly, my opinion is God's opinion! My personal predilections automatically get a divine stamp of approval. Applied consistently, this approach would result in rampant relativism—the notion that anything goes—which is one of the very threats Fundamentalism was to oppose.
Of course, in practice, personal interpretation of the Bible carries little weight. Groups of believers usually hold some consensus about what the texts mean for them. Individual preference is not the ultimate criterion. There is little room for individuality in Fundamentalism.
But then, what determines the consensus? It usually depends on some preacher. So the Bible come to mean whatever any persuasive preacher takes it to mean. The result is the same, but now one individual controls a multitude. Such religion easily gets kooky. The Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, provide a sad case in point, which even Fundamentalists decried.
Still, one could insist that a whole generation holding the same opinion could not be wrong. Perhaps not, but then again, how does one judge? Whole societies have been wrong in the past. The massacring Crusades in Europe and the Holy Land were wrong. The Reformation's Wars of Religion were wrong. The Inquisition's tortures in Spain were wrong. American slavery was wrong. Nazi Germany was wrong. The destruction of the World Trade Center was wrong.
Times change. In a new situation the same biblical texts read literally take on a different meaning. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's” has very different implications depending on who happens to be Caesar at any point in history.
Then must the former generation, who responded to the texts otherwise, be judged wrong, and is the new generation now right? Or does one just forget about other generations and their interpretations of the biblical texts? Does one ignore all history and simply claim that one's own generation is certainly in direct communication with God?
If so, we are again lost in complete relativism. The text means whatever people of any age decide it means, and there is no way whatever to judge the interpretation. Rather than challenging each generation to question itself and grow more God-like, the biblical word now merely supports the status quo—the status quo of the powers that be in that particular age.
Despite the warnings of both Jesus (Matthew 23:1-27; Luke 11:39- 52) and Paul (2 Corinthians 3:6), a dead letter that kills supplants the transforming spirit of God's word that gives life. The Bible becomes a book of political ideology, and a totalitarian regime reigns in the name of God.
To be oblivious to the demands of truth and justice in a changing world is not even humanly acceptable. All the more so, then, it cannot be of God nor be Christian. But precisely such oblivion is the logical implication of Fundamentalism's basic principle. How, then, could Fundamentalism be Christian?
The Essence of Christianity
The suggestion is that Biblical Fundamentalism's principle of literal interpretation of the Scriptures is incompatible with the basic Jewish and Christian insistence on human history as the arena of God's self-revelation to humankind. Before presenting my third argument, in this section I take a detour. I want to recall how essential historicity is to Christianity. To make the point, I will rely on the early Christian councils, which originally defined classical Christian orthodoxy. Of course, nowadays not everybody holds firmly to those ancient councils. As I said, it is difficult to say anymore what Christian really means. Thus, those who are uneasy with early Christian conciliar decrees might propose a different rendition. Nonetheless, I build my case on the ancient Christian councils, and I propose the following account.
The essence of Christianity is its insistence on the possibility of some union of the human and the divine, that is to say, some coincidence between the historical and the eternal. Now, in contrast, many would say that the essence of Christianity is love. In fact, these two suggestions fit together. Christianity is essentially about love because, above all, the God of Christianity is a God of love. God's love is evident within the Divine Trinity Itself in the outpouring of Self that results from the Father in the Son and the Holy Spirit; and God's love is evident, further, in God's plan to share even divine life with humankind and to incorporate humankind into the inner-Trinitarian life of God. There is no reason under the sun that human beings, mere creatures, should ever become one with God, yet this very prospect is at the heart of Christian belief. As John 3:16 phrased the matter, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that all…might have eternal life.” Therefore, to say that the essence of Christianity regards the union of humanity and divinity is not to deny that the essence of Christianity is love; rather, it is only to specify how God's overwhelming love unfolds, namely, by calling humans to love in kind—thus, John 17:21 has Jesus pray “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us.” In Christianity, universal love and human deification coincide; they are different aspects of one and the same thing.
The marvel that Christianity proclaims is that God and humankind could become one. Christianity accounts for this possibility through its unique belief in the divine Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. Trinitarian theology is essential to the Christian understanding of how human beings could ever share in divine life. (Chapter Ten presents more detail on classical trinitarian theology.) Human deification is inextricably trinitarian. But it is not only trinitarian; it is also inextricably historical—because it is about human beings. Any depreciation of the historical also upsets the delicate balance in question here. These issues lie at the heart of Christianity.
According to the Christian understanding, God the Eternally-Begotten surrendered all divine prerogatives and became human, like us in all things but sin. His was a real human life, lived out through personal free choices day by day amidst the uncertainty of human history, just as is any of our lives. Chapter Nine discusses Jesus' human experience.
But because of who he was, the Eternally Begotten of God, and because of his fidelity even unto death, Jesus was raised from the dead. In his human state he now shared in the divine glory that was his as divine before the world began. He, a human being, was deified. That is, his created human spirit was raised to its fullest possible ideal fulfillment: With a human mind he now understood everything about everything, and with a human heart he now loved everything that is lovable. As human, Jesus now shared in qualities proper only to God.
Then, through the saving mission of the Holy Spirit, other humans may follow that same path to deification, which Jesus opened for us and in his own case introduced as an accomplished fact into human history. Now others may become deified like Jesus and, thus, share the life of the Eternal Parent.
Through such an understanding of Jesus, Christian belief explains the possibility of human deification. Without blurring the difference between humanity and divinity, Christianity presents a coherent account of human participation in divine qualities. Christianity envisages a marriage between historical human reality and eternal divine life. A surface comparison with other World Religions suggests that this vision is distinctive to Christianity.
In contrast, Buddhism is not even theist. And on the other hand, though in practice Buddhism is stunningly down-to-earth, its formal teaching has little appreciation for historical reality. For Buddhism the world is not real; it is illusion.
Judaism is theist, and it does value history as God's good creation. Yet Judaism so exalts the Lord God of history that it would never countenance a union of the historical human with the transcendent—if also immanent—divine.
Islam, influenced by the Jewish tradition, also affirms the value of historical reality and, influenced by Christianity, believes in a heavenly paradise. But Islam rejects the Christian Trinity, so the Muslim paradise is a rapturous state of sensuous beauty and pleasure; it is not a state of participation in divinity. One attains that paradise by strict submission to Allah, as known through the teachings of Mohammed in the Koran. Islam does not believe in human deification.
Finally, Hinduism does conceive the deification of human beings, but this is no great achievement, for Hinduism is unclear about the difference between the human soul and divinity in the first place. The classic maxims of Hinduism make this very point: “That thou art,” that is, you are Ultimate Reality; and “Atman is Brahman,” that is, the human soul is God. The Hindu state of divine fulfillment is simply the recovery of what one has been all along, and one recovers that state precisely by freeing oneself from involvement in this world. Hinduism, like Buddhism to which it is related, depreciates this world and obscures the reality of history.
So with Judaism, Christianity affirms the reality of divinity, the reality of historical humanity, and the inviolable difference between the two. But in addition Christianity holds three distinctive, essential, and interlocking doctrines: a Trinitarian God, the redemptive mission of the Son (Incarnation and Redemption), and the sanctifying mission of the Holy Spirit (Grace). With these doctrines only Christianity provides a coherent account of the union of the human and the divine: Human deification, the consummate expression of God's love, is the essence of Christianity.
Viewed against this sketch of world religions, Biblical Fundamentalism is like Islam. Also a Religion of the Book, Fundamentalism leads one to its paradise, heaven, by faithful adherence to the divine prophet, Jesus, and his teaching as recorded in the Bible. Again, Fundamentalism is like Hinduism in that it does allow participation in divine life but precisely by downplaying the reality of history. Finally, of course, the distinctiveness of Fundamentalism is that, like Christianity, it claims Jesus Christ as its central and founding figure.
However, if what I have presented is correct, Biblical Fundamentalism can hardly be Christian. In claiming revelation from God unconditioned by history, Fundamentalism releases the tension between the historical/human and the eternal/divine. Thus, Fundamentalism surrenders the essence of Christianity. Fundamentalism breaks the connection between the human and the divine.
Hinduism and Buddhism grew out of common roots, Christianity grew out of Judaism, and Islam emerged in contrast to both Judaism and Christianity. I argue that Biblical Fundamentalism is now branching off from Christianity to constitute still another separate religion. Fundamentalism is not Christian.
A Lesson from the Council of Nicaea
Again assuming classical Christian doctrine as the norm, I offer a third argument to confirm my conclusion about Biblical Fundamentalism. The divinity of Jesus Christ is one of the fundamentals of Christianity. A religion that cannot maintain the divinity of Jesus cannot be Christian. But Fundamentalism, limited to its own principles, cannot maintain the divinity of Jesus. So Fundamentalism cannot be Christian.
Consider that argument in detail. The divinity of Jesus was first clarified at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., as noted in Chapter Nine. Arius, a priest of Alexandria, had been teaching that Jesus, the Word and Son of God, was a creature, not God. Arius allowed that the Word was the greatest of creatures and the first of creatures. He even allowed that the Word was created before all time and was God's instrument in the creation and salvation of the world. Because of his preeminent status, the Word, Jesus Christ, is called Son of God, Word of the Father, Firstborn, Lord, and all the rest. But, in fact, the Son is not God, but a creature.
Under the leadership of Athanasius, the Council of Nicaea responded to Arius's teaching and condemned it. The Council's teaching is enshrined in what is now called the Nicene Creed, that statement of faith still proclaimed in the Christian churches. The intent of the Council was to clarify, once and for all, that the one Lord, Jesus Christ, is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten [of the Father] but not a creature, one in substance with the Father.” This conciliar statement is a direct response to Arius: Though generated from the Father, the Son is not a creature but is of the same substance as the Father, God even as the Father is God.
Two issues are relevant here. First, this clarification about Jesus' divinity emerged some two-hundred twenty-five years after the close of the biblical era. Until Nicaea there was no precise account of Jesus' divine status—simply because the question had never yet been raised. Arius's contribution to Christian history was to pose that question in a way that was precise and unavoidable: What is the Word, God or a creature? Arius's question provoked a major crisis in the church, and even Nicaea's decree sparked a debate that lasted for half a century and nearly destroyed the church.
Evidently, before Nicaea the fact of Jesus' divinity was not as clear as people imagine. Evidently, on the basis of the Bible alone there is room for debate about Jesus' status as divine. In fact, Arius was able to account for all the biblical passages, in the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, that were usually applied to Jesus. He delighted in proving his position from the Scriptures. Therefore, on the basis of the Bible alone, Arianism is a defensible position.
It follows that Fundamentalism, which claims to rely only on the Scriptures, cannot maintain the divinity of Jesus. For the Scriptures can be read to teach either that Jesus was merely a supreme creature or that Jesus was, indeed, divine. But which he is, is not discernible on the basis of the Scriptures alone. The bishops at the Council of Nicaea knew this fact. By the time the Council of Nicaea was over, the whole Christian world knew it.
Now enters the second point. Some of the bishops at Nicaea argued that the Council's teaching should be made only in terms already used in the Bible. The Bible, they said, was sufficient to express Christian belief. These bishops did not carry the day!
Others argued that if only biblical terms were used, Arius's argument could not be answered. Arius posed his question in terms that the Bible never used. Biblical terms could not address his question, and if his question were not addressed, Christianity would be undone. So the Council chose a technical, non-biblical term to counter Arius's teaching: homoousios, the term translated "one in substance." The intent was that the Only-Begotten is divine even as the Eternal Parent is divine.
The implication is blatant. The same event that first secured Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus is the very event that also proves the impossibility of basing Christianity on the Scriptures alone.
Of course, not everyone holds firmly to the Nicene Creed. There are Christians today who do not believe literally that Jesus was God. But whether or not Jesus really was God is not the issue here. In The Transcended Christian I explain my personal take on this question. I believe that whether Jesus was literally God or not should make no difference in practice. The requirement of wholesome human living, the meaning of love, compassion, and justice in this world, does not depend on Jesus' being God or not. So in practice, the question of Jesus' divinity is moot. The question is not worth arguing over. What matters is that we live as best we know how, and that “best” should be the same for believers and non-believers alike. As I argued in the first half of this book, even belief in God is not essential to good living and profound spirituality. We are to do our best and let God take care of the rest. It is not up to us to understand the intricacies of the Trinity and the Incarnation and Redemption. Nor should we spend our lives spinning our wheels in debate over other metaphysical questions—about which, as I explain in Spirituality for Our Global Community, we could never have a secure answer anyway. There is no way of proving or disproving religious claims about metaphysical matters—including the assertions of the Nicene Creed.
My argument here does not depend on whether Jesus was really God. The important point is that Fundamentalism insists Jesus was God. Others may question this belief in the divinity of Jesus, but Fundamentalism stands on it. Moreover, Fundamentalism insists that this belief is essential to Christianity. I am simply pointing out that, on the basis of the Bible alone, Fundamentalism cannot sustain this belief.
In the face of the Council of Nicaea, Biblical Fundamentalism should have to admit either that it is not Christian or that it does not adhere strictly to the Bible alone.
On the one hand, if Fundamentalism wants to continue affirming the divinity of Jesus, it must admit it is reading the New Testament in light of the subsequent Council of Nicaea. In this case Fundamentalism will also have to admit that it is abandoning its claim to simple appeal to the Bible alone.
By the same token, with the rest of Christianity, Fundamentalism will have affirmed that, in addition to the Bible, post-biblical Christian tradition is determinative of Christianity. Fundamentalism will have accepted historicity as essential to Christianity, and Fundamentalism will have clarified its Christian identity.
On the other hand, if Fundamentalism wants to continue insisting that it rests strictly and solely on the Bible, it must admit that it cannot securely maintain the divinity of Jesus Christ and that, as a movement, it is a failure—because the divinity of Jesus is one of the fundamentals that the movement originally proposed to maintain.
On the basis of its literal reliance on the Bible alone, Fundamentalism is unable to sustain its claim that Jesus is divine. Undoubtedly, it will continue making that claim, nonetheless. Then it must admit the opposite and equally devastating shortcoming: It cannot present a truly human Jesus.
Reading the Scriptures “literally”—that is, on the unacknowledged presupposition of Nicaea—and strapped especially by the Gospel of John, which presents a other-worldly Jesus, Fundamentalism presents a Jesus who is more a Superman than a real human being, a celestial visitor living among us but hardly one of us. A Jesus who knows in detail the full course of his life and of the whole world and who can invoke divine power to extricate himself from any situation at will is hardly, as Hebrews 2: 17 puts it, “like us in all things.” He is freed from the limitations of humanity and avoids the vicissitudes of history.
Fundamentalism has become the willing but unwitting curator of a problem that had plagued Christian orthodoxy until recently. Now, relying on historical-critical method, the Christian churches can understand the Gospels, including John, not as factual reports on the historical Jesus himself, but rather as evocative expressions of Christian faith about Jesus. Beneath such expressions of faith, Christian scripture scholars can uncover the truly human Jesus while at the same time preserving Christian faith about Jesus' divinity and showing reasonable grounds for such faith. I treated this matter in detail in my The Same Jesus: A Contemporary Christology, and Chapter Nine of this book [Sex and the Sacred] includes some of that detail.
In contrast, Fundamentalism is left with an unsustainable claim of Jesus' divinity and with an unhuman Jesus, as well. Strict Fundamentalism does not seem able to preserve the essential core of Christianity.
The connection between Arianism and Biblical Fundamentalism is profound. One of Arius's chief concerns was to preserve the transcendence of God. That is to say, Arius did not believe God could or should really become involved in the created world. So Arius denied the divinity of the Only-Begotten-of-God, insisting that God created and saved the world through the mediation of a creature, Jesus Christ.
Similarly, Fundamentalism's refusal to admit the historicity of the Bible preserves its God from being really involved in human history. And by a weird twist of ideas that without acknowledged basis presupposes the divinity of Jesus, that same depreciation of historicity this time keeps Jesus from being a real human being. Here the error is not Arianism, but docetism or, at best, a form of monophysitism, both ancient Christian heresies.
At this point—and surely for the non-theologian—these analyses may appear to be a tangle of ideas, all running off in different directions. In fact, this tangle of ideas merely reflects the incoherent core of Fundamentalist teachings and addresses some of them in their ever-shifting focus. One of the ways Biblical Fundamentalism maintains its mesmerizing control over people is to keep them always guessing. There is always another biblical passage to consult, always another Bible class to take, always a new preacher to hear, always another angle to consider, and always another reason for guilt and self-doubt—all geared to keeping people from ever trusting their own best judgment. Taking Luther and Calvin to their extreme conclusions, Bible religions place no trust in “depraved humanity”; they have no regard for historical beings. Thus, logical coherence and reasonableness are not hallmarks of Fundamentalism.
Indeed, if one is sure of possessing God's literal word of truth, it makes good sense not to be concerned about making good sense. With Tertullian one can exclaim, "I believe because it is absurd." But concern about reasonableness raises still another area of discussion, the relationship of faith and reason. Revealingly, this new concern is essentially related to the possible coincidence of the human and the divine: Can what we know through our human minds ever square with the truth that God knows? Can human understanding ever be true even in the eyes of God? Can human science ever have anything to contribute to religion? Fundamentalism would say, “No. Our human judgment is too corrupted by sin to ever lead us to the truth.” In so responding, Fundamentalism denies the human possibility of knowing anything except by blind faith. So write off all human science! Abandon all scholarship! Away with all human achievement! But this terrifying prospect is not the explicit concern of this chapter. Chapter Fourteen does discuss the possibility of reasonable religious faith.
Implications for all of Christianity
My analysis is complete, and my conclusion is clear: The theological core of Biblical Fundamentalism is incompatible with Christianity; literalist Bible religion is simply not Christian. I still need to spell out some far-reaching implications.
I have pushed emphasis on history to the limit here. Such emphasis in Christianity is new, a mere nineteenth-century development. In fact, Fundamentalism arose precisely to counter this emphasis. Nonetheless, this recency does not invalidate this emphasis. Doctrine does develop. My theological analysis of the Fundamentalist principle highlights a heretofore under-appreciated aspect of Christianity: historicity. This aspect lies at the core.
No appeal to ethical standards ultimately distinguishes Christianity from other religions. The difference is theological. The difference is belief in the coincidence of the eternal/divine and the historical/human. Christianity presents an account of this coincidence that leaves both elements integral. It is precisely the new emphasis on historicity that preserves the integrity of the human element. The effect of such emphasis is appears repeatedly: in recent accounts of a very human historical Jesus (as elaborated in Chapter Nine); in the current emergence of “incarnational” or holistic Christian spirituality; in the opening of Christianity to the truth embodied in other world religions; and in my analysis of Biblical Fundamentalism.
Thus, from this discussion, first possible only in the late twentieth century, there emerges a renewed understanding of the essence of Christianity—and none too soon: Sharing a shrinking planet with other great religions, Christianity cannot afford to remain unclear about its distinctive identity. Moreover, increasingly faced with the challenging findings of the natural and social sciences, for the sake of world peace Christianity needs to champion the coincidence of things human and divine. In a word, the essence of Christianity is, seen from the divine side, deification, or seen from the human side, incarnationalism. Humanity is destined to share in divinity just as, in Christ, God shared in humanity. Elucidation of this matter represents a present-day advance in Christian self-understanding.
Because keen historical awareness is recent, strains of fundamentalist mentality continue to survive within all the Christian churches—for example, in ahistorical dogmatism or papism in Roman Catholicism, in over-emphasis on the Bible in Protestant churches, in the search for security in popular piety, and in ethical rigidity on sexual matters in all the Christian communions. Nonetheless, Fundamentalism cannot claim, on that basis, still to be Christian.
As history progresses, the meaning of Christianity gets clarified. Then the Christian tradition leaves behind formerly accepted views now recognized as inadequate. If strains of fundamentalist thinking do survive within the Christian churches, none of these churches claims immunity to history as a basic premise, but Fundamentalism does. Whatever fundamentalist mentality remains in the Christian churches is an accident of history, not a deliberate choice. It is precisely the explicit claim to ahistoricism, its deliberate choice to ignore history, that renders Biblical Fundamentalism incompatible with Christianity.
By the same token, however, it is now also clear that wherever any form of history-denying fundamentalism occurs, even within a Christian communion, it cannot be Christian. The current advance in Christian self-understanding challenges all the churches and calls for a painful purification of the religion. So, as suggested above, the line of division no longer falls between Protestant and Catholic but cuts through the churches and lies between historical-minded Christianity and ahistorical fundamentalism.
One is not Christian simply by belonging to a religious organization that somehow traces its roots back to Jesus; nor merely by accepting the Bible, the Hebrew and the Christian testaments, as God's word; nor even by proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
Belief in the real Jesus and in the real Bible, historical realities, entails belief also in God's involvement in real history through the Holy Spirit. So beyond conversion to Jesus, God, Bible, and Church, Christianity calls for further conversion—conversion to ever on-going conversion, conversion to open-ended growth and unexpected outcomes, conversion that lets God be truly active and creative in history. Christian belief in human deification requires commitment to the unending transformation of the human situation into forms ever more worthy of God. From this point of view, Chapter Twelve's advocacy of gay marriage appears to be thoroughly and genuinely Christian.
Rejection of the historicity that is essential to Christianity disqualifies Biblical Fundamentalism as truly Christian. To a large extent this same rejection can also explain why Fundamentalism often does not stand with the Christian communions on many political or ethical issues.
Though such political and ethical considerations are not ultimately telling, they often do reflect the essential difference between Biblical Fundamentalism and Christianity. They reveal in Fundamentalism an ahistorical idealism that fails to take seriously the intricacies, vicissitudes, and inherent messiness of human life. Thus, people may often be right in pointing to those political and ethical differences as setting Fundamentalists apart. And Fundamentalism may often be right in claiming distinction in these practical matters. But Fundamentalism is wrong in claiming that such distinction makes it Christian. Precisely the opposite is the case.
It is now perfectly clear—as it has always been somehow understood—that historicity is an essential facet of Christianity. This understanding disqualifies Fundamentalism's claim to be Christian. By the same token, this understanding specifies the meaning of the name Christian applied to any of the churches. Christian implies on-going movement toward a state of affairs that is worthy of both God and humanity, for ultimately the two must coincide. Committed to the divine-human one, Jesus Christ, and presuming the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Christianity means commitment to the ever unfolding expression of the divine within the worldly realm, unto a fulfillment wherein God is all in all.
I arrived at that conclusion by delving deeply into Christianity. However, the ultimate fulfillment that Christianity projects is similar to what other religions, in their own way, would also envisage. True Christianity is not at odds with other religions or with the human race. As the next chapter explains, true Christianity opens onto a truly global community. And, of course, that global community and ultimate spiritual fulfillment include gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people and their relationships—despite what people like Senator Rich Santorum might happen to think.