A History of God

  Eight years ago, a former nun named Karen Armstrong wrote an unlikely bestseller called A History of God. The book purported to tell readers how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have "shaped and altered the conception of God." Now that book has been turned into a television show -- one that, like the book, manages to get some very important questions very wrong. The Arts & Entertainment network's presentation of "A History of God" didn't feature a single evangelical or conservative Catholic scholar. Instead, viewers got the story of Christianity from people famous for their rejection of Christian orthodoxy -- people like Princeton's Elaine Pagels. Viewers were told that the Christian belief in the divinity of Christ was something essentially invented by the fourth-century church. Viewers were assured that "Jesus never claimed to be God." Nor, for that matter, did St. Paul believe in Jesus' divinity. This is not only contrary to traditional Christian teaching, it also runs contrary to a lot of contemporary scholarship -- especially the kind that approaches the subject matter with an open mind. Take the statement "Jesus never claimed to be God." Even liberal scholars agree that Jesus called himself the "Son of Man." The phrase comes from Daniel 7 in which the prophet describes one come down from heaven, and who is given "authority, glory and sovereign power." His is an "everlasting dominion that will not pass away . . . " [7:14]. As scholars note, by the first century, the phrase had messianic, divine connotations -- overtones that Jesus would have been aware of when he used that expression. But Armstrong disregards this usage, and turns Jesus' use of the phrase into an expression of his own mortality. This kind of disregard for the straightforward and the obvious is also at work in her claim that St. Paul didn't teach Jesus' divinity. In at least three of his epistles, Paul refers to what scholars call the "cosmic Christ." Scholars agree that the most famous of these passages, found in Philippians 2, is based on an ancient hymn -- one that predates the letter to the Philippians. In other words, less than two decades after Jesus' resurrection, Christians all over the known world were already singing hymns about his divinity -- contrary to what the A&E TV viewers were told. The exact definition of Jesus' relationship to the Father wasn't finalized until the fourth and fifth centuries. But this was simply a refinement of -- and not a departure from -- what the first-century Church believed about Jesus. What programs like "A History of God" don't acknowledge is that the Scriptures remain the very best source for information about Jesus and the early church. Archeology and other scholarship haven't discredited this essential text; on the contrary, each new discovery has helped confirm its trustworthiness. It's those who posit a Christianity other than what we read in the New Testament who are ignoring the evidence, and not the believers. This week, I'll be telling you about other ways in which archeology and biblical scholarship are confirming the words of Scripture. These are stories you need to hear because the best history of God is still the one with sixty-six divinely-inspired books. For further reference: Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1997. Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.  


Chuck Colson


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