VALLEY FORGE, Pa. (BP)–How did Christianity begin?
For centuries, the answer to that question was taken for granted, but the popularity of revisionist history like Dan Brown’s novel, “The da Vinci Code,” is causing the world’s largest society of evangelical scholars to once again defend Scripture against attacks on its truthfulness.
“Christianity in the Early Centuries” will be the theme of the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting Nov. 16-18 in Valley Forge, Pa. Society leaders chose the topic to refute what Edwin Yamauchi, the conference’s program chair, called “disinformation” about exactly how the church came to be.
Also on the agenda for the society will be a proposal to accept as part of its bylaws the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a document drafted nearly three decades ago by a large group of leading evangelical scholars. The society’s executive committee will recommend adopting the Chicago Statement in order to clarify the group’s stance on Scripture.
The need for clarification arose in the context of a debate within the society in the last few years over “open theism,” which, among other things, denies that God has exhaustive knowledge of future events. Some in the society espouse open theism while claiming to hold to biblical inerrancy, while others -– including one of the few surviving founding members of the organization -– claim that open theism and inerrancy are incompatible views.
A LOOK AT HISTORY
According to historic Christian orthodoxy, Jesus Christ gave servant authority over His people to a group of 12 men, called in the Bible “apostles,” who then preached the Gospel of salvation solely in Christ wherever they went, raising up new believers and planting churches. That is the view offered by the biblical Gospels, the Book of Acts, the letters of Paul and the letters of other apostles.
Unfortunately, according to Craig Blaising, ETS president and provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, “the public is less knowledgeable about Scripture and therefore more susceptible to the different views that are now being put out.”
The views to which Blaising refers are primarily advanced through Brown’s bestselling novel, The da Vinci Code. In it, Brown writes about a mysterious society that has kept a dangerous secret for thousands of years –- namely that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, the two had a child together and the line of Jesus continues to the modern day.
Such views, said Andreas Köstenberger, professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, have broad appeal, an appeal that will only increase when a movie based on the book, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, debuts during the 2006 summer movie season.
“At the heart of his book is a conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theories, no matter how implausible, always resonate with popular imagination,” Köstenberger said. “Dan Brown also cleverly plotted the making of a bestseller by including all the right ingredients, from legendary characters such as Leonardo da Vinci to the Louvre, Harvard, secret societies, and so on. Finally, it has to be admitted that the book is fairly well-written and fast-paced and that it is hard to put down.
“I think that a lot of us would have an easier time dealing with the book if the author had made it clear from the beginning that it is a work of fiction rather than fact,” Kostenberger said. “As it is, Brown does the very opposite, stating on page one of the Da Vinci Code that everything in the book is factual, a claim that is demonstrably false, not only with regard to the Bible and early church history, but also with regard to art history and other information included in the book.”
In the book, da Vinci is a member of the secret society and has placed a hidden message within his masterpieces that contains the “real story” of Christianity.
While Brown’s conspiracy theory may play to a popular audience, the view that early Christianity was essentially a power struggle between different sects is nothing new. Walter Bauer, an influential Greek scholar, posited in the mid-20th century that orthodox Christianity arose as a result of figures like Peter and Paul winning a church-wide power struggle with competing viewpoints, particularly those represented by the “Gnostic gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas, manuscripts of which were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.
The hypothesis goes that the Bible which Christians now read was a result not of revealed truth from Christ through the Holy Spirit to His apostles but, rather, of a patriarchal clan led by Peter who effectively “edited out” other viewpoints.
“From this,” Kostenberger said, “it is only a small step to the assertion that the early church suppressed the notion of Jesus’ union with Mary Magdalene or that the [Roman] Emperor Constantine created today’s Christian canon at the Council of Nicea largely in order to consolidate his own political power base, as Dan Brown does in The da Vinci Code.”
There are scholars today, such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, who have trumpeted the Gnostic gospels as worthy of attention alongside the true canonical Gospels. The only problem with these views, Köstenberger said, is that they don’t match reality.
“Even a casual look at, and comparison of, the canonical Gospels with their Gnostic counterparts reveals that they are separated by vast theological differences,” he said. “This, of course, is why the early church, not the Council of Nicea, included Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into the Christian canon in the first place but rejected the Gnostic Gospels that are in any case largely parasitic on the canonical Gospels.”
Blaising added that scholars like Pagels and Ehrman have a particular social agenda that is driving their scholarship.
“They are trying to promote a view of early Christianity that is pluralistic and diverse, in order to drive an agenda of pluralism and diversity in modern Christianity,” he said.
Yamauchi added that many evangelical scholars, including Dallas Seminary scholar Darrell Bock, have written books critiquing not only Brown’s novel but also the scholarly work by Pagels and Ehrman.
Köstenberger said he hopes the conference will serve as a reminder to evangelical scholars to engage in defending the truth of Christianity. Four plenary speakers will address early Christianity during the conference, as will a number of papers and essays that will be presented.
“I believe it will be an opportunity for conservative scholars who are committed to biblical inerrancy to provide more accurate and reliable assessments of the biblical and historical data,” he said. “This way, evangelicals will have a greater voice in the public discussion of those issues, which, incidentally, is one of the positive factors in the success of The da Vinci Code. Certainly there will be plenty of opportunity when the movie is released in May ’06.”
Blaising and Köstenberger agreed that this debate really comes down to the truthfulness of Scripture; did the church begin as the Bible says it did, or in some other way? Blaising said that in combating this kind of revisionist history, “evangelicals need to do what they have always done and support the authenticity of the New Testament documents.”
Blaising noted that at last year’s meeting, members of the Evangelical Theological Society “overwhelmingly” approved a resolution stating that the Chicago Statement accurately represents what the society means by biblical inerrancy. The group was formed over a half century ago as a confessional society, based on two key doctrines: the inerrancy of Scripture and belief in the Trinity. All members are required to sign a doctrinal statement every year affirming their belief in the two.
Roger Nicole, a founding member of the society, several years ago brought charges against society members and “open theists” Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, saying that in their books they had not affirmed inerrancy and should therefore be removed from the group.
However, the society voted not to remove the two members, because even though the majority agreed with Nicole’s assessment, a significant minority claimed that the definition of inerrancy in the doctrinal statement is not specific enough.
Out of that issue, Blaising said, arose the need to clarify what inerrancy means. The Chicago Statement affirms that meaning, he said.
Bruce Ware, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a vocal opponent of the open theism movement, said adoption of the Chicago Statement is a wise move, and that open theism still remains a problem for those who hold to inerrancy, as Southern Baptist scholars do.
“The adoption of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy will help ETS in many ways, by formalizing the standard understanding of inerrancy already accepted and embraced by the vast majority of its members,” Ware said.“Whether this move has the potential of dealing better with issues like open theism is yet to be seen. I don’t deny that some of the questions raised over the past years might be addressed better by this move, but others would remain highly problematic and not solved by this move, I believe.”
This year, the ETS executive committee will propose that the group adopt the Chicago Statement into its bylaws, which would be a stronger affirmation than last year’s resolution vote, he said. That vote will happen at next year’s meeting.
Assuming the Chicago Statement is adopted, Blaising declined to speculate whether open theists would then be subject to further disciplinary action. For that to happen, a society member would have to bring the matter before the entire group, as Nicole did several years ago.
“I’m not trying to send a signal that it will happen, nor am I trying to send a signal that it won’t happen,” he said. “To many people, the issue of Pinnock and Sanders has already been addressed.”