The Jesus Seminar: The Slippery Slope to Heresy

Craig Branch

Any relativizing of Scripture, not only undermines "the faith once and for all delivered," but will inevitably, if not corrected, lead to blatant heresy. This is true regardless of one's religious background. Those who lose faith in the Bible ultimately and naturally lose their other Christian beliefs as well. Having lost the rudder of a trustworthy Bible, they usually drift toward cultic doctrine. This is most tragic in the case of individuals and churches who were once committed to an orthodox course.

Discernment ministries like Watchman Fellowship are involved in the ongoing work of counter-cult apologetics. Historically, this work has been mostly concerned with the doctrinal implications of cultbeliefs with some adjunct attention to cult methodology. A common characteristic of cult leadership and development is a deficient or twisted view of Scripture, normally expressed as possessing extra-Biblical authority.

Satan's subtle attack on the authority of God's word began with the first Adam in the garden as he questioned, "Yea, hath God said" (Genesis 3:1). Having succeeded, he tried the same tactic against the second Adam, Jesus Christ, in the wilderness. This time he tried to twist Scripture to tempt Jesus. Yet Jesus answered every time with the authoritative Word of God (Luke 4:10-12).

Cults and Scripture Twisting

The New Testament describes the distinguishing characteristics of a pseudo-Christian cult. Doctrinally,cultism is described as "damnable heresies" (2 Peter 2:1). Significantly the Bible indicates that many false teachers will actually have their beginning in orthodoxy, but will depart from the faith, twist the Scripture, produce false arguments, introduce fatal heresies, and end up presenting a different Jesus and a different gospel (Acts 20:28-31; 2 Peter 2:1-5; 3:16; 2 Corinthians 11:3-5, 13-15).

Jesus initially warned against those who call themselves Christian but are false teachers, describing them as wolves in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15). Or did He? Today there are a growing number who call themselves Christian teachers (or "scholars") who challenge that statement. Recently the media began promoting this new brand of "Christian scholars" who claim Jesus never warned of "wolves in sheep's clothing." Further, they insist that Jesus never said 82% of the other sayings the New Testament attributes to Him.

These "scholars" maintain that the New Testament was a product of later men humanly developing doctrine as they attempted to carve out a new religion (Christianity Today, 25 April 1994, p. 30).

Who are these false teachers?

These are not Mormon scholars from Brigham Young University or Jehovah's Witnesses from the Watchtower's New World Translation Committee. It is a group of academicians calling themselves the Jesus Seminar. These scholars represent the latest incarnation of liberalism, modernism, and neo-orthodoxy, in many cases hatched in the churches and seminaries of mainline Christian denominations. The Jesus Seminar is not really novel. It is little more that warmed over nineteenth century German rationalism.

What is new is the amount of press coverage these notions are receiving. In effect the media's coverage of the Jesus Seminar has taken these liberal ideas out of the seminary and university classrooms and placed them into America's shopping malls and living rooms. Folks who have never heard of Rudolph Bultmann or Friedrich Schleirmacher are inviting them into their homes in the guise of the latest Christian scholarship.

"Thus Saith the Lord" or "Hath God Said?"

The gradual shift from the inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of Scripture to the current state has been a complex historical process. The results of this digression has been a measurable degeneration and apostasy in many mainline Christian churches. Membership in these churches has significantly declined and American culture has shifted from a Judeo-Christian base to a humanistic, New Age, relativistic one, with increasing moral decline.

The growth of heterodoxy (heresy) grows best under certain conditions which enhance the mutations. The foundational departure creating a toxic dump for the growth of the weeds of this apostasy began over a hundred and fifty years ago in the early nineteenth century.

Social Darwinism's influence spread into many academic areas, including many seminaries. The rationalism of the Enlightenment began to dominate New Testament scholarship, especially in Germany. Evolution and scientism naturally challenged Biblical accounts of creation, miracles, and the supernatural (Christianity Through the Centuries, Cairns, p. 426).

German scholastics Wellhausen and Graf posited a theory that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses but evolved and was compiled from four different sources or traditions due to stylistic and content differences present.

This theory plus the philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant greatly influenced the direction of liberalism and the science of textual criticism (Ibid., pp. 410-412). The area of textual criticism that has become mainstream in liberalism and neo-orthodoxy is called the historical-critical method.

The historical-critical method uses several approaches. Literary (source) criticismform criticism, andredaction criticism are the most popular (see extended definitions in the Glossary of Liberal Theological Terms).

A primary example of this approach can be seen in what the liberals term "the Synoptic Problem." Some theologians see a problem in the fact that the Matthew, Mark, and Luke texts in the gospels have a number of very similar and some different accounts in them.

The assumption is that they either copied each other or from an unnamed, undiscovered text (i.e., the mysterious, phantom "Q" document), or that some editors (redactors) compiled oral stories much later and attributed them to the disciples (Is There a Synoptic Problem?, p. 10). Many speculations that books of the Bible were written much later than claimed, or that there were many mythological events recorded in the Bible, were destroyed with a multitude of archeological discoveries verifying the historicity, as well as many thousands of manuscript discoveries dating very close to the original autographs of the New Testament.

In summary, the basic principles of the liberal historical-critical theory is the presupposition or a prioriassumption that supernatural revelation from God as objective propositional truths is inconceivable to the critical intellect. God is excluded from consideration from the start. Biblical accounts are assumed to contain only man's evolving thoughts about God. Therefore God's word cannot be understood apart from careful use of hypothetical constructs of "scientific" critical approaches (Historical Criticism of the Bible, pp. 84-85).

The Jesus Seminar

For the past seven years, the popular press has been feeding the minds of the world sensationalistic progress reports of the "Jesus Seminar." The Jesus Seminar is the product of Robert Funk and the Westar Institute in California. Co-chaired by the liberal Catholic scholar John Crossan, the Jesus Seminar is composed of 77 "scholars," who according to Funk represent "a unique collaborative effort by scholars from a wide array of fields and academic institutions, experts in New Testament, archaeology, Greek language, ancient culture, who came to a consensus, free of ecclesiastical constraints and religious control concerning the search for the authentic words of Jesus" (The Lutheran Witness, April 1994, p. 3).

Amidst much fanfare, their efforts have culminated in the production of a book called The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. Self-promoted as the "Scholar's Version," it purports to provide readers with the words that Jesus did say, written in red, the words He possibly said in pink, the doubtful in gray; and the black for certainly unauthentic (Birmingham Post-Herald, 26 February 1994, p. C4).

This alleged consensus indicates that out of 503 sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, only 31 were authentic, 200 were possibly authentic and the rest were doubtful (30%) or completely unauthentic (24%) (Birmingham News, 18 March 1991, p. 28).

Incredibly, they claim that no verse in John is authentic, with the sole exception of John 4:44, which rates pink.

The admitted publicity-seeking showmen have been aided and abetted by the press with headlines all across American papers like, "Most of Jesus' words ghostwritten," "Jesus probably didn't recite Lord's Prayer, Scholars say," "Some Scholars say Christianity should expand settled texts," "Gospels not Jesus' words," "Group rules out 80% of Jesus' words," "Scholars hammering out new Bible, more debate." Unfortunately, The Five Gospels was heralded by a feature story on National Public Radio and John Crossan appeared on The Larry King Show (First Things, May 1994, p. 43).

The Gospel of Thomas

The "fifth" gospel the Jesus Seminar is promoting is the Gospel of Thomas, although they also state that the hypothetical "Q" source should be included (Washington Post, 19 February 1994, p. A1). The participants in the Jesus Seminar followed the historical-critical (theological) approach to voting on the sayings of Jesus which begins on the faulty presuppositions of literaryform and redaction theories (seeGlossary).

The claim of this "scholarship" is that "whether Jesus actually said something or not does not touch the question of faith claims about Jesus as being true or not." So says Lutheran (ELCA) seminar participant, Dr. Arland Jacobson (Vine and Branches, Spring 1994, p. 1).

This is an amazingly naive statement, but consistent with a liberal existentialist view. More realistic (although equally incorrect) are co-chair John Crossan's views as he concludes that Jesus never claimed deity and the later followers' deification of Him was "akin to the worship of Augustus Caesar." Also, this historical-critical approach concludes that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, His burial and resurrection were "pure fiction" and "wishful thinking." Crossan believes that the body of Jesus was probably just consumed by dogs (Ibid.).

Seminar member Dr. Marcus Borg of Oregon State University stated of Jesus, "We're making him aBuddha-like figure, not just another philosopher but a really big one" (Ibid.).

Responding to Scholars

After criticism by the evangelical community began, seminar members defended their approach, "But it is the scholarship that is being taught in seminaries to future ministers. It is not some far-out brand of scholarship that doesn't represent a pretty wide scholarly consensus" (Ibid.). The answer to this is that they are only telling a half-truth. Yes, most liberal arts college religion departments and many mainline seminaries are victims of the liberal and neo-orthodox movements. But to say that this means that it isn't "far-out," or that the seminar represents a "wide scholarly consensus" is badly misleading.

Dr. Richard Hays, New Testament professor at Duke Divinity School (certainly not the bastion of conservatism) has written a very strong critical analysis of the Jesus Seminar and its product, The Five Gospels. He writes that the seminar was "sponsored by not one of the major scholarly societies such as the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas or the Society of Biblical Literature." Also, he observes that "This self-selected group, though it includes several fine scholars, does not represent a balanced cross section of scholarly opinion. Furthermore, the criteria for judgment that are employed are highly questionable" (First Things, May 1994, p. 44).

Dr. D.A. Carson, New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, notes that "one of the most striking features of the press releases of (Funk's) Westar Institute" is that "the words "scholars" and "scholarly" are almost always attached to the opinions of the Jesus Seminar and detached from (the opinions of) all others" (Christianity Today, 25 April 1994, p. 30). Carson writes that the "doctrinal redaction criticism" approach is "repeatedly criticized."

Carson states that to say Jesus, a first century Jewish man must not sound like his disciples or contemporaries, that his sayings must by nature be idiosyncratic; or to say that Jesus' sayings must not sound like the older churches views, "is to assume that the most influential man in history never said anything that the church believed, cherished and passed on is blatantly reductionistic" (Ibid., p. 32).

Carson, whose Ph.D. is from Cambridge University and who is a member of every prestigious, scholarly society including the Evangelical Theological Society concludes, "for all its scholarly pretension, the Jesus Seminar is not addressing scholars. It is open grab for the popular mind, for the mass media" (Ibid., p. 33).

Joel Belz, editor of World magazine, observes that a review of the sayings attributed to Jesus and the ones which are not reveal how "loaded the project was" with "social engineers" with a doctrinal, not theological social agenda (World, 25 December 1993, p. 3).

Dr. Jacob Neusner, professor of religion studies at the University of South Florida "refers to the Jesus Seminar as `the greatest scholarly hoax since the Piltdown Man'" (The Lutheran Witness, April 1994, p. 5). The great Oxford University scholar N.T. Wright deems the seminar's findings a "freshman mistake" and notes that recent books denying the Biblical accounts of Christ as well as the Jesus Seminar have no credible explanation as to the willingness of obviously sane, reasonable, and extremely ethical disciples and followers of Christ to be willing to die for the cause based on the resurrection of Jesus (Christianity Today, 13 September 1993, pp. 22-26).

Bruce Schuchard, Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Union Theological Seminary, writes that "the Jesus Seminar `findings' are nothing new. What is new is all the attention they've gotten. For one thing, not all scholars entertain such pessimistic views of the historical reliability of the Scriptures."

He concludes answering a rhetorical question; can we believe in what Jesus said in John 2:19 and the Scriptures' reporting of the event of the historical resurrection? "Absolutely! And so we too, shall rise from the dead and live eternally in paradise, just as He was raised and lives and reigns in glory for ever and ever!" (op. cit., The Lutheran Witness). Is the Jesus Seminar satisfied and done? No, Westar's Funk has now called for a Canon Council to meet jointly with the Jesus Seminar over several years to "discuss whether the Book of Revelation should be retained as part of the New Testament, in view of the recent tragic events in Waco, Texas, and the rising abuse of the last book of the New Testament" (Christianity Today, 25 April 1994, p. 33).

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