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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Harpur Easter Heresy

Tom Harpur recently published an article in The Toronto Star entitled "Jesus is the medium who became the essential message". Unfortunately, this newspaper (much like The Straits Times) and many others, does not keep its articles online for more than a few days at most. An attempt to locate it online today three days after its first appearance led me to a subscription page. I have before me the print edition.

In a nutshell: the piece is inadequate and plain wrong not just from the perspective of a Christian who reads the Bible, but also from one who cares about proper hermeneutics and logical argumentation. I don't claim to be perfectly right in the following critique, since I came to think a lot more seriously on the topic of the Trinity only recently, and am not a properly trained Bible scholar. But I am confident that I am not wresting Scripture to my purposes.

Let me first lay out Harpur's main theses (all heretical, by the way). He basically charges that Jesus is not the Son of God (and certainly not God himself), denies the doctrine and truth of the Trinity, and asserts that the idea of the divinity of Jesus was a turn towards idolatry in the late third, fourth and fifth centuries. (The ignorant) orthodox Christians today and in the past are therefore sadly mistaken, misled, gulled into believing a heresy that has, unfortunately, led to "terrible, bloody consequences down the ages, particularly in relationships with...Judaism and Islam." In his view, apparently, if one has really read the Bible has and understood it correctly (as he thinks he has), one's eyes will be open to the fact that "Christianity is guilty of a staggering act of idolatry--one which, ironically, the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels would have utterly repudiated."

I shall try to do a brief critique of some of his points as they appear in his article, and then go into further detail about his two primary 'evidences' for asserting that Jesus is not God: (1) the testimony of the Gospels and of the apostolic epistles; and (2) the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity at the 5th century Council of Chalcedon (i.e., that the divinity of Christ was thus a late development that strayed from the earlier, more authentic faith).

Harpur begins grandly, condescendingly, smugly:
Everybody, religious or not, talks about the Ten Commandments as though he or she knows what they are but, in actual fact, very few could list them apart from not killing, not stealing, and not committing adultery.
This is "unfortunate", Harpur continues, because the other commandments are just as important; and the first is the greatest of them all: to have "no other gods before" God, Yahweh (Exodus 20:1).

Harpur does not neglect to ask the reader to "note in passing that this passage acknowledges that there are other gods to be worshipped." This is a careless if not naive reading of the expression "other gods". The reference to "other gods", as made clear by many passages, is more properly taken to mean "other (supposed) gods". Just to cite a few verses: we have Psalm 135 in which the psalmist proclaims "For I know that the Lord is great, and that our God is above all gods," and clarifies this reference to other supposed gods with the following: "The idols [gods] of the nations are but silver and gold, the work of man's hands". That is to say, that these "gods" aren't really gods at all: they do not even have breath in their mouths! (See also Psalm 115:2-8 which contains the same idea in very similar language) In fact, read on in Exodus 20 (where the 10 commandments are listed), and you'll soon see God commanding that humans "shall not make for" themselves "gods of silver or gods of gold" (v. 23). Elijah's challenge to the worshippers of Baal is another clear and instructive example: hypothetically, "if... Baal [is God], follow him." (1 Kings 18:21) Surely Elijah's faith is not wavering here. Again, in vv. 24 and 25, he calls the Baal worshippers to "call on the name of your god". Simply put, the use of the words "other gods" in no way necessarily means that one concedes the existence of many gods.

Anyway, Harpur's highlighting of the first commandment leads up to his main charge that Christians are guilty of idolatry, in having another god, Jesus, in place of God the Father. He claims that Jesus was just a "first century peasant man...whose historicity is now in serious dispute". What evidence does he cite for this serious claim? Nothing more than "(see, for example, The Jesus Myth by G. A. Wells). But I'm going to let this slide because it basically cuts against the rest of his arguments. If the historicity of Jesus is in doubt, then it is moot to argue that in fact, Jesus did not teach that he is God. If anyone is interested, he or she can read the very scholarly The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig L. Blomberg (Amazon.com)

Harpur then (the nerve of him) contends that Jesus of the Gospels would have agreed with him. One is tempted to go--huh? with eyes wide open with incredulity. He says:
After all, when challenged by his enemies to cite the greatest commandment in the Torah, he (Mt. 22:37) promptly replied it was: Love the God with all of one's heart, soul and mind--and of one's neighbour as oneself.
Ok, maybe Harpur meant something like this: if Jesus understood himself to be God, He would have told the man to worship Him in more direct terms instead. Since he didn't, he did not understand himself to be God. But this is a rather suspicious move. By the same logic, if God Himself were to have said the same thing (as He in fact commanded Moses to teach the children of Israel in Deut 6:5), Harpur would have to conclude that God Himself did not understand himself to be God!

He then continues to misread Jesus' words to bolster his case. In Mark 10:17, a wealthy young man comes to Jesus and asks him "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus does not, as Harpur writes, instantly tell the young man off. Instead, He asks (and one can reasonably imagine a gentle questioning, prodding tone here), "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." (v. 18) Is Jesus saying here that he is not God? Not only is it far from obvious that he's doing so, his question in no way suggests that he cannot be properly called "good" (that is, recognised as God). Jesus' question is more accurately understood as "Recognising Me only as a teacher (not God), why do you call me that which is God's alone?" Again, Harpur's presupposition that Jesus is not God has led him to go for a simplistic reading that conveniently serves his cause.

Harpur continues on the same thread, asserting that the Gospels always portray Jesus in total subordination to God--never equality: "Nowhere does he [Jesus] ever categorically claim to be God." Actually, the first assertion (taken correctly) is true enough. The Gospels is always portraying Jesus as being obedient to the will of the Father (e.g., Luke 22:42 "...not my will, but yours be done..."). But that in itself is not evidence that Jesus is subordinate to God in the sense that He is not also equally God.

In any case, there is ample scripture where the divinity of Jesus is implicitly or explicitly claimed: Just to name a few, we have Matthew 11:27--"... no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son"; Mark 2:5-11 where Jesus asserts his divinity by answering the silent charge of blasphemy (for, "who can forgive sins but God alone?") with "Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven'; or to say, 'Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk'?" (See also Matt 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:18-26) We also see Jesus saying in John 10:30 that He "and the Father are one." And when Jesus asks Peter who he thought He was, and Peter answered "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus does not disagree but instead commends him, saying, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:16-17) And in John 5:18, Jesus' claim to Sonship is taken as a claim to equality with God--"For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He was... calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God." Let us not forget that this was the very reason the high priest gave when he ordered that Jesus was to be sentenced to death for blasphemy (Matthew 26:63-68).

The first three verses of the Gospel of John proclaims: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” If this is not clear textual evidence of the divinity of Christ, I don't know what is.

The apostles likewise (contrary to Harpur's claim that "Jesus is always totally subordinate to God" in the Pauline epistles-) present in their letters to the churches in equally unambiguous terms that Jesus is God Himself, a third and equal member of the Trinity. To cite just a small handful of many like passages: "Who, although He [Jesus] existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped..." (Philippians 2:6); "every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:11); "But of the Son He [Godd] says, 'Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever… Thou, Lord, in the beginning didst lay the foundation of the earth…'" (Hebrews 1:8a, 10a).

Not happy to simply charge that Jesus is not God, Harpur moves on to accuse Christians who celebrate Easter with the singing of hymns of being mistaken, probably just out of plain ignorance. He makes it a point to insist that Jesus' resurrection is not, as Christians supposedly believe and as "many Easter hymns wrongly clarion", his own work. Rather, "God [the Father] raised him from the dead". I believe he's mistaken about orthodox Christian teaching here. We do agree that it was God who raised Jesus (also divine and equal with God the Father) from the dead, and a survey of the hymns would probably show that no effort has been made to deny that wonderful truth. (Surely Harpur can't be faulting any particular hymn for not including all the doctrines in the Bible? In any case, he does not bother to name even one of these "many" allegedly mistaken hymns) But wait: Harpur further writes that Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 15:44 that Jesus' resurrection was not physical but spiritual. He would do well to carefully reread and reconsiderthis verse in its context. Importantly, consider that Jesus' resurrected body was was clearly physical (he was seen, touched; he ate, etc.) and yet clearly unique in having the crucifixion wounds still obvious, and being a body that could permeate matter (He came through a closed and locked door): that His resurrected body was not physically like ours in its entirety, and obviously "spiritual" in some sense, does not mean that it was merely spirit with nothing physical. And by the way, the first half of this same chapter makes clear that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is of central importance to the gospel and the Christian faith:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” (3-4)
...and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised… and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” (14-15, 17)
Does Tom Harpur not have the Bible in its entirety, or has one in which all these passages are sadly missing? My bafflement is genuine, though I should know that the Bible does tell us not to be surprised that there would be heresies afoot, and people who will refuse to read His Word for what it is. In the words of Isaac Watts, "is this vile world a friend of grace, to help me on to God?"

Harpur's use of Scripture is indeed mind-boggling. Scattered throughout his article are references (or supposed 'prooftexts' to bolster his point) from both the old and the new testaments, such as Exodus 20:1, Matthew 22:37, Mark 10:17, and the "Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul". Yet, for all his quoting of Scripture which implicitly suggests his belief that they stand as good, even credible evidence anyhow (for his present purposes anyway), he is sloppy in his use of them. Furthermore, he closes ranks with those who outrightly deny Scripture its divine inspiration and truth: with feminist Elaine Pagels who holds that "we have been left with only the story and the position of the winning side" (i.e., God is an impotent communicator, and/or not God of the Scriptures), and with Judaists and Muslims who deny the clear testimony of the Bible (especially the New Testament) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The question is: why use Scripture when you do not even recognise its authority, or even its reliability as God's Word? Admittedly, one could either be of the position that the Bible is indeed God's Word, making the issue one of interpretation; or hold that the Bible is not God's Word, in which case the above question is somewhat irrelevant. I do not know for sure what Harpur's position is regards the inspiration of Scripture. (This is the first time I've heard his name) I just keep getting the impression that he somehow wants to contend for the Scriptures as they should be properly read--and by implication (even if not a necessary or strone one) that they are of some worth as God's Word. (See, for example, his claim that "Christianity took a tragic and fateful turn toward idolatry in the late third, fourth and fifth centuries.") Yet he clearly neglects important passages in Scripture and misreads those he cites. In the apt and appropriately strong words of the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson, "they that deny Christ to be God, must greatly wrest, or else deny the Scripture to be the Word of God." Most probably though, I am just plainly mistaken about Harpur's larger theology and view of the Bible. He probably denies Scripture to be the Word of God: no bafflement here then.

As for Harpur's argument that the Trinity, and the divinity of Christ was a late development that strayed from the true and earlier faith, we have to note first of all that the formulation of the doctrines in the Chalcedonian Council is simply no argument or necessary evidence for the lateness (and/or falsehood) of the same. Let us understand the historical context of the convening, and the conclusions of, this Council. There were a variety of positions and heresies existing during the first few centuries AD, some of which affirmed or emphasized the deity of Christ to the denial of his humanity (e.g. Apollinarius, Alexandrian school), and others which denied or obscured it in preference to His humanity (e.g. Antiochian school). Thus, it is not clear at all that Christ's deity was somehow recognised or established only by the 5th century Chalcedonian Council, as suggested by Harpur. In fact, the Creed of Nicea of 325 AD and the two other ecumenical councils leading up to Chacedon all affirmed that Christ was of the same essence as God the Father.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the Gospels and the Epistles in the New Testament all predate any of the abovementioned councils. As I have tried to show above, the balance of scripture indeed teaches the divinity of Christ--and also for the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Denying the truth of scripture, reading it carelessly is another thing altogether.

In conclusion, let me quote from Fred Zaspel in his article “The Formulation of the Trinity in the Thought of Benjamin B. Warfield,” published in The Gospel Witness (November 2004), p. 12:
For [the late Princeton theologian] Warfield, all "subordinationist passages" in the Scriptures have in view the attending doctrines of the covenant of redemption, the incarnation, humiliation, and the two natures of Christ. In his powerful conclusion of the matter:

"Certainly in such circumstances it were thoroughly illegitimate to press such passages to suggest any subordination for the Son or the Spirit which would in any manner impair that complete identity with the Father in Being and that complete equality with the Father in powers which are constantly presupposed, and frequently emphatically, though only incidentally, asserted for them throughout the whole fabric of the New Testament."
One may feel hard-pressed to choose between the trivialising of Easter by the predominance of Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs, or the downright insult to and denial of its main message--or maybe not. At least the bunnies and those who sell them don't claim to be theologians.

To echo the words of apostle John in the last verse of the gospel which bears his name, there are also many other things that can be said here, but we must for the moment defer to the constraints of time and space.

--the excerpt of a response from a certain Rev. Ralph Garbe to Tom Harpur's article printed in The Toronto Star: "It is the height of cynicism that Tom Harpur wishes 'a happy Easter to you all' (which includes me) after he thoroughly denounces the faith of orthodox Christian believers in the divinity of Christ. ... I find Harpur's article offensive and its appearance in the Star at Easter... entitrely inappropriate. Easter is much more than a symbol of immortality, as Harpur claims. It is about God who does not stand aloof from our struggles but who, in the person of Jesus Christ, immerses himself in our life and in selfless love sacrifices himself to forgive us and give us new life."

I'm thinking of sending in a response too to the Star. A much shorter one, which I hope they won't edit to the point of misrepresentation in the event that I do send it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

free book: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/cbmw/rbmw/

check out chapter commenting on Trinity: "Chapter 5: Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16"

3:50 PM  
Blogger The Rational Neurotic said...

isn't it funny that some people claim the bible to be non-existance except in print as just another book and then try to use it to defeat the purpose of the Word in the first place? I mean, if one 'hate' Jesus or if one 'cannot be bothered' with Jesus, then one in that manner sublimely believes in the existance of the Lord. Then if one believes that Jesus is NOT the Lord, then how can you use His words to prove that Jesus is not Lord? isn't it a paradox in itself? Wouldn't his words be not reliable in the first place?

funny how some people have the need to defeat the existance of Jesus and God.. to the point that they are running in circles themselves and using a bubble to prove it.


6:12 AM  
Blogger Elaine Loy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Elaine Loy said...

Dear Anonymous, a belated thanks for directing me to a free book that's really worth a read! I've looked at Chapter 5 and have found it to confirm and expand my understanding of the Nicene Creed with regard to subordinationism and equality among the members of the divine Trinity. Amen also to the comments on how mistaken the feminists mentioned in the chapter are, when they often cannot, or refuse to see, that a subordination in ROLE does not necessitate inferiority in BEING. Reminds me of what Paul says of mockers: "it escapes their notice [or, they willingly neglect to recognise]" the truth (2 Peter 3:5, NASB). On a separate issue of the sexes, I have also found John Frame's essay (Chap. 12) to be interesting and useful. I like his two main conclusions, concisely expressed: "All human beings [whether male or female] are under authority, both divine and human. Their submission to authority, as well as their authority itself, images God." Thanks again! If you know of other such "free books"... :)

7:35 PM  
Blogger Elaine Loy said...

Hi rationalneurotic, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think that when non-believers in the divine inspiration (and inerrancy) of the Bible use the Bible to show that it is not the word of God, they do so by trying to show how it contains errors (of, e.g., scientific, historical facts) and discrepancies, inconsistencies, contradictions (e.g. how one part of the Bible says X but another supposedly says not-X; or where a certain character A is said to be engaged in a certain action B in one part of the OT, but another part has character C performing that same action B instead). If the skeptical critic is right in his allegations, and can demonstrate that there are indeed such errors in the Bible, then he has successfully refuted the divine character of the Book. No one, however, has to my knowledge (or those of my betters throughout the ages) has managed to conclusively do that. Many of the so-called errors and discrepancies (e.g. often claimed by non-believing archaeologists) are really only “alleged”, and not actually errors that can be proven to be so. One infamous fallacy that non-believing archaeologists like to use is the argument from silence.
If one believes that Jesus is not who He says He is, one would desire to show how Jesus’ words and actions as recorded in the Gospels do not add up to what he claims, either, again, by errors of fact or by inconsistencies, contradictions. This is, again, terribly difficult to maintain. I like C. S. Lewis’ clear presentation in his Mere Christianity of the famed Trilemma: If you accept that Jesus is a good moral teacher (as many would, apparently), you are left only with three logical options: 1) that he is a liar, even the devil himself; 2) that he is a lunatic; or 3) that He is God. The first is not a real option, as if it is true, then he cannot be, as you believed, a good teacher (a contradiction of sorts). The second is not quite believable at all, if one looks closely at His words and actions and see how coherent, sensible, sensitive, and purposeful they always are (again, like 1, a lunatic cannot be properly called a good moral teacher, except in a Very Perverse way perhaps). 1 and 2 end in a dilemma, and one is left with option 3. Jesus’ words, actions and many claims to be God Himself, only make sense if He is indeed who He says He is. This trilemma, of course, has its limitations as a ‘proof’ that Jesus is Lord, most glaringly of which is that it works only for those who would say: I believe that Jesus was a good moral teacher, but that he is not God. Arguments and “evidences” for our biblical God have their place in our world and sometimes in the prodding of sinners’ hearts towards God. (I’m reminded of what Lewis says of the use of philosophy in his address “The Weight of Glory”: good philosophy must exist, if for nothing else, because bad philosophy exists) In the final analysis, however, where it matters—the salvation of human souls–it is the gracious work of God in the heart of the individual, regenerating and causing faith in him/her.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read Tom Harpur's "The Pagan Christ". He made a good case there. Have an open mind. The current teaching based much on blind faith had lost many of his sheep. Trying to find the truth may not be bad, it may bring those lost souls back to the fold.

10:41 AM  

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