Simon Heans investigates the theology of Professor Borg, his considerable influence among American Episcopalians and his interesting collaboration with Bishop Tom Wright
As the imbroglio that is TEC becomes ever more confused it is not surprising that Archbishop Rowan has turned to Bishop Tom Wright to bring some clarity and order. After all Bishop Tom is a New Testament scholar who has brought just these qualities to an area of academic life not renowned for them. But there is another reason why Tom Wright ought to be involved in this trouble shooting: he knows exactly where the trouble comes from, for he is a good friend of Professor Marcus Borg who is, arguably, its intellectual source.
Nine years ago Tom and Marcus (that is how they style themselves throughout) celebrated their friendship the way academics do: they wrote a book together. It is called The Meaning of Jesus and is arranged so that each can take it in turns to express his views on the hot topics of New Testament studies, and explain where and why he disagrees with the other. They say they want to persuade, even convert, Christians and non-Christians to their views. And over the last twenty years or so, Marcus has been pretty successful in proselytising, notably in TEC circles.
Doubts and beliefs
Marcus was brought up Lutheran, though he does not seem to be now, perhaps because he is married to a TEC priest with whom (according to one of his two websites) he conducts tours of the Holy Land. One wonders why he bothers because he does not believe in the Virgin Birth, the Bodily Resurrection or Christ’s coming again in glory. But then Marcus has a problem generally with the Nicaean Creed: he does not believe it to be true. ‘I do not see it,’ he tells us, ‘as a set of literally true doctrinal statements to which I am supposed to give my intellectual assent.’ And he continues: ‘When I say the creed, I understand myself to be identifying with the community that says these words together.’
But what makes Marcus an important writer are not his doubts, but his beliefs. Like many Episcopalians (and Anglicans here!), he is a liberal believer in Jesus, and it is his liberal beliefs, rather than his doubts, which have been influential.
Marcus believes Jesus was a religious and political liberal – rather like Marcus himself. Jesus was sceptical, even agnostic about his identity – he did not think he was the Messiah let alone the Son of God – but he was ‘a Spirit person’ knowing ‘the immediacy of the sacred in his own experience.’ And Marcus also thinks his healings and exorcisms show Jesus to have been a religious liberal: ‘healing as practised by Jesus and his itinerant followers pointed to an unbrokered relationship to God, apart from institutional mediation.’ As for Jesus’ teaching, Marcus tells us that Jesus taught ‘a subversive and alternative wisdom’ which ‘generated a boundary shattering social vision.’ Jesus was ‘a movement initiator’ whose ‘movement did not move to institutionalization until some time after his death.’
A religion which is undogmatic and individualistic, which sits light towards creeds and ecclesial structures, and which sees itself as engaged in a righteous struggle against ‘a domination system’ is Marcus’ religion – and the religion of ‘the movement’ which appears to have taken over TEC. It is easy to see why the lesbigay agenda has been adopted by ‘the movement.’ Viewed through the ‘lens’ (a favourite term of his) Marcus holds up to the Gospel, it
must seem to be the cause of Jesus himself.
The publisher ’s blurb on the back cover of The Meaning of Jesus calls Marcus a liberal and Tom a traditionalist. They themselves demur: ‘we regard these labels, and similar ones, as quite misleading.’ The publisher’s instinct is absolutely right in Marcus’ case, but I’m not so sure that Tom is a traditionalist.
For example Tom writes: ‘I do not think Jesus ‘knew he was God’ in the sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. He did not sit back and say to himself ‘Well I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!’’ But, leaving aside the regrettable flippancy of tone, that is precisely what the traditionalist does say. Jesus knew he was God as certainly as he knew he was human. As Tom surely accepts, Jesus’ consciousness of himself as the Son of God is the theme of St Mark [see inter alia 1.11 and 12.35–37].
Yet elsewhere in this exchange we find Tom expressing a belief in the divinity of Christ, although the language he chooses is not very traditional: ‘The point, for me, is that I am committed to worshipping Jesus the first century Palestinian Jew; to saying, indeed, that this Jesus…is the messiah of Israel, the Lord of the world, the one I worship.’ So Tom does believe in the Incarnation, for why else would he tell us twice that Jesus is the One he worships? But why does he fight shy of the credal language ‘and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man’? The answer to that question is at the end of the chapter Born of a Virgin? Here Tom opines: ‘If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different.’
Tom’s Christian faith obviously does not have much room for Mary but what is true for Tom is certainly not true of his church. There is much in the Anglican tradition about Mary: from the four Marian feasts in Prayer Book to Mary Grace and Hope which shows Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption to be ‘consonant with Scripture and tradition.’ Does Tom seriously believe that Luke 1 would not be missed by Anglicans? Would he not care if Durham Cathedral choir stopped singing the Magnificat at evensong?
So I am not convinced Tom is a traditionalist, even an Anglican one. But then he is clearly not a liberal like Marcus. So what is he? Well, in the introduction Marcus and Tom say that the opposite of a traditionalist is not a liberal but a revisionist. That is a term which is often used of historians, and both our authors insist their scholarship is historical. It seems to me to describe very well what Tom and Marcus are up to, and why they get on so well together.
I am sure Rowan hopes Tom and Marcus will be an example to Anglicans everywhere. Indeed they themselves write that they ‘hope, and indeed pray, that in this book we will be able to model a way of conducting public Christian disagreement over serious and central issues that will inspire others to try the same sort of thing.’ That pious hope is not of course being fulfilled at the moment. But the reason is not, I would submit, that traditionalists lack the gift of friendship; it is simply that, unlike Tom and Marcus, they refuse to be revisionists where the Christian faith is concerned. ND