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Q&A #110 - Christian Science, the question of whether Jesus is God, and Bible study groups
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
I can't tell you how much
I enjoy and have learned from your website! You have provided and are providing
a huge resource for all Christians, including Christian Scientists. Since I
first read the entire Bible (KJV and a lot of the Amplified along
with it) about 5 years ago, I've realized what a need there is for Christian
Scientists (myself included) to know and understand it better -- also how hard
it is to find commentaries and other reference materials that are not theologically
slanted. Your website has been a huge help, and I have seen an increased interest
in the Bible in our own local church which I feel your work has had an impact
on! (We now have a Bible study group meeting twice a month and are working on
Deuteronomy at the moment.) So, thank you for your ongoing work!
I wanted to mention a situation that we had in our local church a number of years ago. A young man (in his 30s), who had come back to the study of Christian Science after having gone in other directions for a while, joined our church, and was very active for several years. He was enthusiastic, intellectually curious, and was doing some good healing work. He was also married to a Baptist whose father was a Baptist minister, and both his wife and his father-in-law were doing their best to make him see "the error of his ways." At one point he got hung up on how to respond to their insistence that Jesus is God, and began to try to find answers. He contacted The Mother Church in Boston to find someone he could talk to who knew Greek and Hebrew, but was told there wasn't anyone. [!] So he taught himself some Greek and over a period of several months began to turn in the fundamentalist direction, eventually resigning from our church and doing his best to "save" the rest of us. The upshot of all this is that I wish your website had been available for him at the time!
Thanks for your email that touches on some very important issues. I will begin by addressing your second paragraph, then I will respond to your first paragraph.
Dialog - in Greek or English - over whether Jesus is or is not God
I very much understand and appreciate your former church member's theological struggles -- and your compassion towards everyone involved. Being confronted by a Greek-articulate pastor from a denomination that is adamantly opposed to one's own denomination can be very intimidating, even more so if that individual happens to be your father-in-law. The young man's love for his wife and his Christian commitment to a permanent marriage, according to Jesus' undoubtedly authentic instructions (see http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/divorce.htm), also may have played a justifiably large role in his efforts to reach a mutual understanding. It sounds as though that young man was conscientious, diligent, and resourceful in trying to get his wife's and father-in-law's questions answered. Not being convinced to the contrary and maybe not able to get answers to some of his own questions, he felt that his only option was to concede that his wife and father-in-law were right. This, of course, resulted in a huge theological shift and a change of denominations. The good news is that he, his wife, his father-in-law, and your church members remain part of the same church of Christ, whether or not that is recognized by all parties -- and you all are in God's loving care.
Rather than viewing this as a win for one side and a loss for another side, we should consider all participants as dear brothers and sisters in Christ engaged in an ongoing dialog, even if others do not see it that way. Early Christians, even those in the apostolic period of the first century, had far more differences than is generally recognized. They, too, changed allegiances and parted ways. For example, Paul and Barnabas split up (Gal 2:11-14, or Act 15:36-40?), but they remained as part of the same Christian community, the same church of Christ.
The second chapter of Paul's letter to the Galatians gives clear evidence of differences between three of the most significant people of the apostolic period, Jesus' brother James, Simon Peter, and Paul. Yet on some issues there is evidence that they agreed to disagree and respect each other's differences. Unfortunately over the future decades various Christian individuals and/or groups claimed the high ground of being the sole representatives of authentic Christian orthodoxy. Even worse, in order to articulate the difference between themselves, the self-designated orthodox Christians (which each believed they were) labeled others as part of a "denomination" (the first century meaning of the word "heresy") -- rather than part of the real church -- and removed from their own teachings some of the authentic teachings that their "heretic" brothers and sisters had in their teachings. Each group did this. The result was that no group preserved the entire teaching. Scholars today are trying to piece it back together.
Attempts have been made by brave Christians throughout the centuries to reinstate earliest Christian teachings and practices. This includes Peter Waldo; the Anabaptists and their spinoffs, the original Amish and Mennonite; John Wesley; Barton Stone; Thomas and Alexander Campbell; Edward Pusey; and Mary Baker Eddy, to name just a few. Below are listed some resources that provide details regarding (1) efforts to reinstate earliest Christianity, including those efforts labeled and persecuted as heresies by opponents, and (2) modern exploration of what actually constituted earliest Christian teachings and practicesaearly Christianand related background info may be found at:
1. History of efforts to reinstate earliest Christianity, including those efforts labeled and persecuted as heresies by opponents
- Crimes of Perception: An Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, by Leonard George (NY: Paragon House, 1995)
- Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, by Harold O.J.Brown (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988)
- Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity, by Gerd Ludemann (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
- The New Birth of Christianity: Why Religion Persists in a Scientific Age, by Richard A. Nenneman (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992)
- Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 2nd Edition, by Walter Bauer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1996)
- Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today's Evangelical Church in the light of Early Christianity, by David Bercot (Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing, 1999, especially Chapter 17, "The Quest to Restore Early Christianity")
2. Modern exploration of what historically constituted earliest Christian teachings and practices
- Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition, by Everett Ferguson (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1993)
- Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, by Elaine Pagels (NY: Random House, 2003)
- The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998)
- A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, edited by David W. Bercot (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998)
- Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries, Revised Edition - by Everett Ferguson (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1987)
- The Early Church: Origins to the Dawn of the Middle Ages, by E. Glenn Hinson (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996)
- Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition, edited by Everett Ferguson (NY: Garland Publishing, 1998)
- The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels (NY: Random House,1978) - Very interesting and thought-provoking.
- History of Primitive Christianity, by Hans Conzelmann (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1973)
- Introduction to the New Testament, Volume 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity, 2nd Edition - by Helmut Koester (Berlin: Aldine de Gruyter, 2000)
- Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, by Brad D. Ehrman (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003)
- The New Birth of Christianity: Why Religion Persists in a Scientific Age, by Richard A. Nenneman (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, especially "The Early Church" pages 55-82)
- The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, by Brad D. Ehrman (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997)
- The Rise of Christianity, by W.H.C. Frend (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984)
- When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, by Richard E. Rubenstein (NY: Harcourt, 1999)
- The Worship of the Early Church, by Ferdinand Hahn (Fortress Press)
Christians of all denominations have much to learn from each other -- more from the spirit of Christ, the spirit of truth and love, to which they bear living testimony, than from their theological reasoning. In an article, "Love in Action" (http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/love-in-action.htm) I explore a radical and exhilerating commitment to reinstating primitive Chrisitianity, not as a theological treatise but as a way of life, a commitment to practical Christian ministry to the needs of all mankind..
In our study of our Bible, if we do use biblical Greek to explore Jesus' life, his teachings, and his meaning to us in the first century and today, it should be noted that a knowledge of Greek that does not include the nuances of Greek grammatical structures makes one very vulnerable to a misleading word-for-word translation that is far different than the message intended by the original Greek-writing author. This is very much the case with the book of John, which uses highly nuanced Greek language. One should also make sure that if one is dialoging over a New Testament Greek text that all parties are using the United Bible Society's Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition (known as UBS4), which is universally considered by most biblical scholars today as best representing what was the original text of the New Testament.
By the way any Mother Church member who is or has been a military chaplain very likely has studied Hebrew and Greek in seminary. There are many other Mother Church members who also have attended seminary or who have studied biblical Hebrew and/or Greek in other settings who also would be excellent resources. The person with whom the young man reportedly spoke at The Mother Church must have been unaware of the ample qualified resources available who are members of The Mother Church.
It should also be noted that biblical Greek is not a language capable of being meaningfully or even correctly translated into English on a word-for-word basis any more than English is a language that can be correctly translated into other languages on a word-for-word basis. A few web resources that provide more details to help understand these issues are below.
As to the belief that Jesus is God, please refer to the links below. Many critical biblical scholars today have concluded that neither Jesus, his men and women disciples, nor Paul believed that Jesus is God. That trinitarian doctrine was first codified and enforced in the church via Constantine-sponsored Nicene Creed in 325 A.D. Even after that the issue continued to be hotly debated, until such debate ultimately was brutally suppressed.
Bible Study groups
I want to commend your church for having Bible studies twice a month. Mary Baker Eddy, the author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, herself continued to be a very serious student of the Bible, as shown by the large number of biblical research books and Bible versions in her personal library. She not only had them, but used them and made notes in them.
Your local church's having an ongoing Bible study group is very promising. It fills a huge void among Christian Scientists today. Examples in Mrs. Eddy's day of emphasizing biblical study, at least on an individual basis, may be found at http://www.bibletexts.com/manual/biblical-teachings.htm#biblelesson.
In Mrs. Eddy's day quite a few prominent Christian Scientists had been pastors of protestant churches, most were and continued to be very well-read in the Bible before becoming students of Christian Science. Then after the introduction of the Christian Science Bible Lesson in 1888, they became students of that in addition to their other study. (The Christian Science Bible Lessons up through 1898 were based upon the citations from the International Sunday School Lessons, a series that continues to be published and used by mainline Protestant churches today. (More details of this history can be found at http://www.bibletexts.com/bl-ver.htm#4.) Today many students of Christian Science read the weekly Christian Science Quarterly Bible Lesson, and some really study it. Fewer do additional, serious Bible study that does not relate directly to the weekly Bible Lesson or to their own personal needs. Many have never read the Bible from cover-to-cover.
To explore a listing of some of Mrs. Eddy's quite impressive biblical research resources, see http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/biblical-criticism.htm#mbebiblicalresources. For a listing of the many and diverse biblical research books carried in Christian Science Reading Rooms of Mrs. Eddy's day, see http://www.bibletexts.com/workshops/7-bible-resources-in-early-csrr.htm. The two lists are quite noteworthy. The first list shows that Mrs. Eddy used many more biblical research resources than were available in Reading Rooms of her day. Also Reading Rooms of her day also had some very interesting resources that today's Reading Rooms no longer have available, such as 5 different Bible versions, parallel Bibles with up to 3 different versions, and New Testament apocrypha. These were very leading edge resources in Mrs. Eddy's day.
In contrast with most Christian Scientists' current biblical study practices, Bible study groups in evangelical and fundamentalist church communities have become a very significant means of (1) confirming, reinforcing, and deepening their own religious understanding, and of (2) extending their church community into the homes of new or prospective converts. Christian Scientists or other mainline Christians with weak biblical backgrounds are often no match for those educated and motivated in such Bible study groups, and many have been won over to evangelical or fundamentalist theologies.
Unfortunately the theology and politics of the fundamentalism -- not necessarily evangelicalism -- are throwbacks to the theology and politics of the centralized Christian church that Constantine created, but today's fundamentalists have the additional arsenal of voluminous modern works of fundamentalist "scholars" to cite. On the other hand, modern biblical critical scholars at the best seminaries in the world generally disagree greatly with the biblical hermeneutics and theology of fundamentalism. Scholars who have adopted modern biblical criticism (see http://www.bibletexts.com/glossary/biblical-criticism.htm) are reconstructing the original Bible texts, its origin and meaning, and early Christianity by honestly employing quite scientific methods of exploring the Bible and other early Christian writings. They are digging beneath the nearly 2000 years of traditions, ambitions, wars, intrigue, persecutions, and of attempts to destroy all records of Christian teaching differing from the Constantine-created Christianity -- to find the core of early Christian theology and history.
Now, similar to the aforementioned Constantine-created Christianity of the 4th century and after, today's fundamentalists are taught to burn -- at least mentally, and sometime physically -- religious or biblical works that are a threat to "corrupting" their intellectually controlling theology. (In the early 1950's this was reflected in the public book-burnings of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which Fundamentalists of that era believed deviated from the pure Word of God found only in the KJV.)
After the Council of Nicea of 325 not many other groups or literature of the once richly diverse Christianity survived, because any literature that differed with the official theology and politics of the now centralized church authority was hunted down house-to-house and burned. That Contantine-created church was now integrated with, modeled after, and had the authority of the central Roman government. Not only was such literature burned, but those who produced it or who were found with it were hunted down and pursecuted -- and sometimes killed. (That was not exactly the "love your enemies" approach that Jesus advocated.)
There has never been a greater need for what Mrs. Eddy described as "truth-telling" (My 130:12-20). Her reference was to her correcting facts about her life and about Christian Science, but there is an identical need regarding accurately representing the Bible and the teachings, practices, and history of early Christianity. The opportunity of your church's Bible Study group is participate in the challenges Mrs. Eddy offers Christians:
Acquaintance with the original texts, and willingness to give up human beliefs (established by hierarchies, and instigated sometimes by the worst passions of men), open the way for Christian Science to be understood, and make the Bible the chart of life, where the buoys and healing currents of Truth are pointed out. (S&H 24:4)
Fatiguing Bible translations and voluminous commentaries are employed to explain and prop old creeds, and they have the civil and religious arms in their defense; then why should not these be equally extended to support the Christianity that heals the sick? (No 15:7-12)
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer