Facing the Real Jesus
In C. S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, the protagonist, a semi-autobiographical Everyman named John, is captured and locked in the dungeon of the Spirit of the Age, a cruel and terrible giant. There he is taught by his Freudian jailers that the deepest, and what he thought holiest, desires of his heart are nothing more than libido-driven wish-fulfillment dreams. After days spent in suicidal despair, he is liberated by Reason, who bargains for his freedom by asking riddles the giant must admit he cannot answer. The influence of the wish-fulfillment doctrine, however, persists even after John leaves the dungeon. He is fully released only after further discourse with Reason, who tells him that the Spirit of the Age wants both to use and not to use argument—in particular, to make out John’s desires as fantasy, while those of the Spirit and his allies are exempted from similar scrutiny. Is it likely, Reason asks John, that the modernists, the Freudians, the worldly romantics, and the debunkers of universal truth wish for the existence of everything that goes with your own dream: God, the moral law, heaven and hell? At that point John sees the audacity and hypocrisy of the ruse and laughs off his remaining chains.
I have wondered if there is an analogy that might be applied to the members of the notorious Jesus Seminar—a traveling band of scholars who, with notable evangelical zeal, claim that Jesus actually said less than 20 percent of what the Gospels attribute to him. The seminarians’ conclusions come as no surprise to those familiar with the mainstream of critical biblical scholarship, in which, for almost two centuries now, the Jesus of the Gospels has been up for grabs, in which doctorates in New Testament are earned by learned expatiation upon why someone other than Jesus put what he did in the mouth of the carpenter from Nazareth and why the real Jesus, the Jesus of history, really couldn’t have said what is attributed to him, and in which major schools of interpretation are built upon the more elaborate and audacious explanations of how an ignorant and credulous Church has misapprehended its own Scriptures. What is notable about the Jesus Seminar is only the publicity—the airing of what has been taught in mainline seminaries for generations but hidden from public view, especially that of the donors, by dense and well-cultivated hedges of prevarication.
One might ask whether people who do these things really wish for Jesus to be, as the Church says he is, God Incarnate—the first line of evasion upon which all the other evasions rest—for if it were so, the most elemental difficulties presented by the Jesus of the Gospels would have to be assumed in the first instance to arise from the mystery of his person rather than the desires of his followers. Rejection of the Incarnation, not concern for scientific integrity, is the first premise of the modernist biblical scholar, for his definition of science requires firm and unrelenting agnosticism about the Incarnation, about the unique presence of God with men in the Person of his Son. Once a scientist comes to believe it, he is identified, to the extent of his belief, as religious, thus unscientific.
On the contrary, only when belief in the Incarnation defines his science can the scientist be a Christian and the Christian be a scientist, for only then has he admitted the first principle that defines and controls all true science. For the scientist, in order to be a scientist, must be first of all interested in—and this means personally committed to, prior to all his researches—Truth—the Absolute manifest in and comprehensible to man: that is to say, he must have a prior belief, at least in philosophical form, in the Incarnation of God. For scholars of the other sort, the Gospels, taken as a whole, not only can be, but can only be, the wish-fulfillment dream of the early Church, a turbulent, contradictory, imaginative vision drawn from the swollen womb of first-century Levantine spirituality. This, or something very much like this, is what is required by science as he defines it.
One wonders, however, whether those who have taken this path would welcome a Jesus to whom all judgment has been committed by God the Father; who condemns false teachers, shaking them over the pit of a hell that really exists; who says that it would be better for a man to have a millstone tied around his neck and be flung into the depths of the sea than to mislead his followers; who certified his words with miracles; and who, after being indicted and killed at the instigation of the religious academy, was vindicated by God in his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of his power. The Jesus Seminar scholars have, with notable faith, committed their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to quite a different set of propositions. We suggest this point is worth considering by those who are tempted to follow them.
—S. M. Hutchens, for the editors
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Facing the Real Jesus” first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.