Linguistic Docetism – Part 1

by | Aug 5, 2022

Linguistic Docetism – Part 1

Thomas Aquinas had argued for a two-tiered view of Church and State, in which the Pope had supreme authority in matters of religion and the emperor had supreme authority in matters of state. The Protestants adapted this argument to the New Testament itself, functionally saying that it was all a literalistic dictation of the Holy Spirit, that must be accepted, as is, with childlike faith, despite all the arguments from the outside. The Bible had supreme authority in matters of religion, and science had supreme authority in all other disciplines. But there were other arguments that were tunneling under this wall of separation. Arguments that seriously challenged the integrity of the writers of the New Testament materials.

Modern biblical criticism, at least since Albert Schweitzer’s, The Quest For The Historical Jesus, has concluded that the historical Jesus is essentially unrecoverable. It has been argued (and not refuted) that the historical Jesus has become so shrouded with myth, embellishments and religious propaganda, that the historical data concerning this prophet from Nazareth that emerges from the literature of this time has no more historical significance than the Shroud of Turin. Any theology made up from this material will be pure religious existentialism. You simply make a leap of faith and subscribe to a made-up system of beliefs.

Instead of digging in and defending the historical, literary integrity of the New Testament, religious conservatives, which form the backbone of today’s religious establishment, inexplicably retreated to an even more defensive position, just as Søren Kierkegaard’s religious existentialism was becoming more and more popular. Now, not only is the Bible protected against scientific literary criticism; the entire Christian system, including its spirituality, becomes an unverifiable “leap of faith” as Dr Francis Schaeffer in his work so perceptively understood and persuasively demonstrated.

The Standard Model had vigorously maintained that every word in the Bible is “inspired” and “inerrant” but no one ever knew what that meant. As the Church came to embrace religious existentialism more and more, each group within Christendom was simply making up their own catholic orthodoxy, which could not be challenged by science at any level. For that matter, each catholic orthodoxy – as an unverifiable religious existentialism must be, was isolated in its own hermetically sealed silo in which ecumenical dialogue was essentially impossible. Each religious system simply claimed that theirs’ was the right religious existentialism – that theirs’ was the one and only inspired and inerrant existentialism that can be derived from this inspired and inerrant material. Ironically, some of these existentially based systems are, in many places, very tenuously connected to the actual content – and even to the very language of the men who wrote the New Testament materials.

There is, therefore, a very strange connection between modern (secular) Biblical criticism and conservative Biblical criticism. The higher critics maintain that the New Testament was written by unknowable authors, possessed of unknowable cultural biases far beyond their control, to produce an unknowable religious protagonist that is completely decoupled from history. Likewise, conservative Biblical criticism, with its a priori ideas about inspiration and infallibility, has produced a New Testament dictated by a divine process far beyond the control of similarly unknowable authors, to produce a religious protagonist that is also completely decoupled from history and can only be known through an existential experience.

Secular theologians have been ridiculed for producing the Marxist Christ, the Feminist Christ, the Social Justice Christ, and so on. But this is no more ridiculous than the multiplicity of Christs found in Christendom – the TULIP Christ, the Anglo-Catholic Christ, the Baptist Christ or the Pentecostal Christ, to name a few. And all these existentialisms are irreconcilable and unchallengeable. Just as secular critics believe that the New Testament was produced by blind historical forces that can only be deconstructed by modern, specially enlightened scholars, so conservative critics believe that the New Testament was produced by authors blind to a process of divine dictation, which can only be properly understood by specially enlightened scholars working from within their respective theological systems.

Therefore, in an attempt to protect the authority of the New Testament from the depredations of modern Biblical critics, defenders of the authority and inspiration of the Bible produced a book so holy, so divine, that it could not be understood by the ordinary man. Matters concerning form, structure, sources and all other mere literary considerations became irrelevant if this literature was essentially dictated by the spirit of God himself. Just as the Pope was once made immune to political criticism, so the Bible, and in particular, the New Testament, was made immune to ordinary literary criticism – even by its own people. And just as was once prevalent in Roman Catholicism, the Bible was open to “private interpretation” only if used as grist for one’s own private spirituality, but it was not open to “private interpretation” when it came to questioning the Standard Model.

In the early years of Christianity, a heresy arose called Docetism. This theory argued that Jesus Christ was so holy, so divine, that his human nature was illusory. He did not get tired. He did not experience pain. He only seemed to have a physical body, which seemed to die – but he did not. You see the connection? If the New Testament has been dictated by a Spirit who can only be known existentially, then the objective integrity and authority of the New Testament is a mirage. If the literary integrity of the New Testament cannot be scientifically established, then its divine authority cannot be scientifically established either.

There is, therefore, a stalemate. On one side, modern secular literary criticism, which simply cannot accept the divinity of Jesus Christ, has discovered that he can no longer be found in ordinary history; hence the interminable quest for the historical Jesus. On the other side, conservative Biblical criticism, which liberated the New Testament from the canons of ordinary literature, has spawned a multiplicity of theological christs, which seem very tenuously connected with the ordinary Apostolic conversation about what they actually saw and heard. The humanity of Jesus of Nazareth is indeed lost in this process. But the humanity of the authors who wrote about him is also lost. For example, to speak of any author having an editorial agenda, a unique form, or a personal style directly contradicts the assumption that the New Testament was functionally dictated by the Holy Spirit. This is a form of linguistic docetism which is so complete that the humanity of Jesus and of his apostles has been completely washed away. (to be continued)