Linguistic Docetism – Part 2

by | Aug 18, 2022

In the conservative linguistic docetism noted in Part 1, higher literary matters, such as the inter-literary relationship between the actual authors who wrote the New Testament have become irrelevant. Because the authors themselves have become irrelevant. This might explain why, when I went to seminary, I found practically no interest in solving ordinary literary problems like “the Synoptic problem.” Yet solving this problem seemed absolutely essential in deriving basic features of the perspective of each of the Synoptic authors, without which we can know very little, specifically, about his editorial agenda, without which we cannot know much about his specific commentary about what he has seen and heard (or researched) concerning the historical figure of Jesus Christ.

The Synoptic problem is simply this: the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are so similar in content, that there is an undeniable literary relationship between them; that is, someone was the source and the other two were followers of some kind. And this itself proves that these accounts were not independently written and certainly not independently dictated by a divine spirit. This does not, of course, prove that these materials are not being providentially orchestrated into a special, authoritative revelation to man, but it does demonstrate that if such divine orchestration can be proved, it must be proved at a much higher literary level.

But in the conservative scheme of mechanical dictation, such matters are irrelevant. The authors are simply the means, or the medium, by which this divine literature was deposited in the world of men – who are left to “interpret” this material into a personal existentialism as they will. And like a surrogate mother, who has no genetic relationship with the baby that she carries for another couple, so too these authors have no genetic relationship with the sentences that they have written, as in a séance, under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

In this titanic modern struggle concerning the integrity and the authority of the New Testament, it must be said that if there is a God anything like the God portrayed in the Bible, he needs no defense. And if the men of the New Testament were telling the truth about what they heard and saw concerning Jesus Christ, they need no hyper-mechanical dictation theory to protect the integrity of their accounts. If, on the one hand, you try to deconstruct the Jesus Christ that they portray, you will deconstruct history itself; that is, using such a subversive methodology, all historical research will become unstable, and all issues of history will descend into unresolvable controversy. If on the other hand, you try to deconstruct the ordinary literary sinews of the New Testament, you will necessarily destroy its divine sinews and Jesus Christ will also become similarly unintelligible.

But what if we avoided both of these extremes? What if we simply assumed that the men who wrote the New Testament were men of integrity who were telling us what they heard and what they saw? What if we assumed that the New Testament – and the Old, for that matter, were, by the providence and sovereignty of God, put together using the ordinary canons of human literature – to create an extraordinary revelation from God to men? What would this kind of literary approach look like – an approach that was not motivated, from the outset, to deconstruct the divinity of Jesus Christ, or that was not motivated, from the outset, to protect his divinity?

One of the first things that we would see is that there are not only literary connections between these apostolic authors; there are theological connections as well. Other scholars have seen them, why can’t we? Especially since we now have powerful computers at our disposal that can compare the actual words and phrases that each author used and we can see firsthand how such ideas might be being shared among the apostolic community even as this material was being written.

This opens up an exciting new research prospect. If the ideas of these men were influencing one another, then this makes the entire New Testament project a much more unitary thing – it is an apostolic conversation – not only with its readership, but amongst the apostolic authors themselves. This would give us a coherent and stable literary and theological framework that we have never had before. Yet in the three seminaries I attended prior to my ordination, this phenomenon was never mentioned. No textbook in my program ever mentioned that the writers of the New Testament could be influencing each other theologically.

And this absence of commentary concerning such a significant aspect of what would be called “higher criticism” follows logically from a mechanized theory of dictation, or near dictation, that functionally washes out the human element of an incarnate, divine word. And it also follows logically that if there is no human corpus that would give structure to a specific, special divine revelation, then the resulting data would resemble a divine stream of consciousness that you must either drink from directly, as do radical cults, many “sola scriptura” Protestants and many other Charismatic Christians, or you must provide creedal forms and theological systems into which it can be poured, stored, organized and used, as needed for religious purposes, as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and the Reformed have done in their extensive catechisms and confessions. But in either case, if higher literary concerns are simply jettisoned, then the only unity that comes with this literary form is the arbitrary fact that the New Testament materials, which have all congealed as an unvetted historical accident, have all been bound together, along with the Jewish scriptures, into a single volume called “The Holy Bible.”

Therefore, in an attempt to protect the authority of the New Testament, the theory of mechanized inspiration has functionally destroyed it. What is left is a disembodied stream of written materials that one famed scholar claimed was God ‘lisping in human language.’ And these theological systems, whether they be Roman, Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Charismatic or cultic were produced to correct this lisp.

But imagine a special revelation, given by God, that was firmly moored to ordinary structures of human literature. Imagine that the structures themselves are part of what has been given. In our search for meaning, what if we did not stop at the string of inspired words, as in the “plenary inspiration” theory? What if we extended the scope of our search such that the entire Apostolic corpus, as it is nested into its space-time sitz im leben, was the final integration for every word, every sentence, every spoken and unspoken dialogue; ideas explicit or implicit, ambiguous or clear; every figure of speech, all satire, all irony, and all pathos; that which is laid between the lines, and that which is firmly posited above the lines; every harmony and even every dissonance – all orchestrated by divine superintendence to achieve symphonic clarity, coherence and precision of every part?

Even the way in which this corpus is conceived – its growth from preliminary or partial apprehension of that which is being revealed, to a fuller and robust and confident comprehension – this very process itself – would yield meaning. Because no body of literature stands as an abstraction, divorced from its sitz im leben. This means that even the drama of the post-ascension, apostolic church partakes of the very substance of the historical Christ. In this sense, the act of writing the story is part of the story itself. And the ongoing response to Christ of players like Peter and Paul is just as much a part of the story.

This is the system that we should be looking for. Is it fully divine? Yes, it is. Is it fully human? Yes, it is. It is a special incarnation of the spirit of God into the ordinary literature of men. The word became flesh and now dwells among us as a body of literature. And any literary criticism of that revelation must pertain to the whole body, the corpus, with all its complex, human, literary relationships. It must be corpus criticism. If we do not fully confront the human nature of the New Testament, we cannot discover its divine nature. If we minimize the divinity or the humanity of the New Testament, whatever the motive, we will produce an alternative history, an alternative theology and an alternative Christ.

For the world to have lost sight of the historical Jesus is a tragedy of enormous proportions. But if the Church herself has functionally entombed Corpus Christi in an impregnable literary vault, protected from the depredations of modern science, the true, historical Christ will also be protected from ordinary interaction with his own sheep. Because if you set up a competing, defective system that does not do justice to the full reality of how the spirit became literary flesh and even now dwells among us, you will restrict access to the spirit and the body of Jesus Christ. This is what the dictation theory and its variants have done. The irony here is that this is the very opposite of what the Church is supposed to do. This is the opposite of what the Church intended to do. As Bishops and priests and pastors and educators, our job is to make Jesus Christ more accessible to the people, not less.