Some Anglican clergy in Australia no longer accept the Christian story. Instead, they regard it as mythical (Cotes, 1997, p. 25). The following are examples of this lack of faith from Cotes’ article.
“True myths” is how she describes the view. What next?
Yet, within the Anglican church in Australia (Sydney diocese) there are committed evangelical scholars who support the authenticity of the biblical revelation (see Barnett 1997, 1999). Barnett (1999) demonstrates “that Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus, became through death, bodily resurrection and ascension the Christ of faith. In our view the Gospels faithfully portray Jesus as the Christ in his historic ministry” (p. 418).
However, according to Cotes, this is what the Anglican clergy believe who contend for the “true myths” of the Bible.
“At least 70 serving priests of the Church of England no longer are willing to pretend that they believe it [the Christmas story in the Gospels] to be true and they have supporters among Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy.”
“They have joined Sea of Faith, an organisation which rejects belief in the traditional Christian story as told in the gospels.”
“Members of Sea of Faith believe instead that `God’ is not a supernatural creator, but a mystical personal experience, a symbol of the highest ideals and aspirations of human beings.”
“The consensus of opinion among most reputable biblical scholars is that the gospel accounts of the Nativity cannot be accepted as historically accurate, and that other explanations can be found for most of the details.”
“The Star of Bethlehem was not in any sense a miracle but a regular astronomical occurrence on which scientifically ignorant people put their own magical interpretation.”
“Yet it’s such a beautifully simple story — surely it must be true?”
“The authors of Mark (the earliest gospel) and John (written at least 100 years after the event)… had no time for sentimentality — or for biography. They were writing theology.”
“Modern scholarship has shown that all the details of the Nativity story can be shown to be the result of theological necessity rather than historical truth. . .”
“Jesus almost certainly was born in Nazareth. . .”
“But even if all the pretty stories people love about Christmas are not true, they don’t necessarily have to be discarded.”
“Myths are very important and the myths surrounding the Christmas story are not just the icing on the cake of the Nativity, nor just as an excuse to indulge sentimental fantasies.”
“They are more than pious fiction, filling the tantalising blanks of a story about which there is no real information.”
“Myths are important because the best of them can be a way of going behind the few facts we have, to suggest ways of seeing than (sic) are different from our modern, purely scientific and biographical approach.”
“The Christmas story is full of images and symbols, rather than verifiable facts, but it’s not necessary for rational Christians to discard them.”
“We can still sing the hymns and worship the Christ Child and tell the stories to our children with a clear conscience, for the stories have their own special kind of truth.”
“The question that Christmas raises is not, `Are the stories true?’ But rather `What do these stories say about God and the link between the physical and the spiritual?'”
“It is not `Who were the Magi and the shepherds?’ but `What do they mean?”
“These are the questions that serious preachers will be examining this Christmas… unhistorical wise men and their improbable ox and ass.”
“The figures at the crib scene are all part of the great imaginative picture of Christmas and behind this structure of imagery is the belief that this unrecorded lowly birth of a child to an obscure carpenter’s wife was, when you consider what developed from it, a decisive moment in history, when something genuinely new began.”
Why don’t they leave the church?
The Anglican creedal statements in the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571, The Church of England, state:
- Concerning the God, the Holy Trinity: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Article I)
- The Word or Son of God: “The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man. . .” (Article II)
Since the creed of the Anglican Church is contrary to the belief of these 70 priests who deny the content the Christmas story, why don’t they leave the church? Surely when one’s beliefs are counter to the church’s fundamental beliefs, it requires integrity to leave the organisation. What other entity in the world would allow its employees to “sell” another product and yet remain within the organisation?
The New Testament is steeped in authentic history]
While these theologically liberal Anglican clergy deny the historical validity of the Christmas event, another Anglican — a historian, exegete, and evangelical theologian, and former Bishop of North Sydney, Dr. Paul Barnett — provides a counter argument:
“The best context in which to locate Jesus is discovered by text-based historical enquiry; sociological analysis, though useful, has significant limitations at this distance. The ‘markers’ of Luke 3:1-2 — John the baptizer, Herod the tetrarch, Annas and Caiaphas the high priests and Pontius Pilate the prefect — form an encircling context for Jesus. Yet Jesus is connected with each of these; they are not merely part of the landscape background. The Jesus of the gospels is tied into his various contexts, whether Galilean or Judean.
“Because the gospels are self-consciously historical, a better way to begin to investigate Jesus is with the gratuitous information found in the letters. From these a rough grid may be established by which to validate or otherwise the gospels’ accounts. The Jesus of the letters, who dies for sins, who is conscious that he is ‘son’ or abba, who prays and who seeks in Scripture the prophecies which he is fulfilling, gives strong affirmation of the integrity of the gospels” (Barnett, 1997, p. 164)
What is happening? “The image of Jesus is being refracted through the spirit of these gentlemen” (M. Kahler in Barnett, 1997, p. 17).
Dr. Paul Barnett, is compelled by the early evidence of Christianity, not as “true myths” (what an oxymoron!), but as genuine history: “I find this logic compelling. The phenomenon of the coming into existence of early Christianity is well attested. Its sudden emergence is as historically secure as any event in Palestine in that century” (Barnett, 1997, p. 19).
Barnett (1999) proceeds to document the “historical secure” event of Christ and Christianity in his 448 pages of documentation and explanation: Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity. He concludes:
“The New Testament writers are not preoccupied with the political and social circumstances of those times; that is a modern concern. Rather, Jesus as the Christ fills the horizons of these writers. Yet their references to the historical circumstances are important, not so much to give a key to unlock a door of understanding that is otherwise closed but to remind us that Jesus was a real person and that his resurrection was historical because it was a bodily resurrection. A Jesus who is disconnected from his times easily becomes a mythical figure, whose incarnation, atonement and resurrection are seen as poetic metaphors.
“Such Gnostic views of Jesus became common a few decades after the New Testament era and for more than a century almost swamped post-apostolic Christianity. In recent times such views have returned with the rise of postmodernism and New Age thinking” (p. 415).
Welcome to Gnostic, postmodern, New Age thinking in modern garb — in the Australian Anglican church! This is the rot that undermined the early church for a century or so after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. I expect that it will do the same to Australia’s Anglican church.
The intrinsic historical nature of Jesus and early Christianity excludes the mythical Jesus of contemporary Anglicanism in Australia (and elsewhere).
Barnett, Paul W. (1997). Jesus and the Logic of History. Leicester, England: Apollos (an imprint of Inter-Varsity Press.
Barnett, Paul (1999). Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Cotes, Alison (1997). “True Myths?” — a full-page article in the “Monitor” section of the Brisbane (Australia) Courier-Mail, Saturday, December 20, 1997.
Titus 1:9 (ESV): “He (the elder/bishop) must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”