Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Tale of Tom Harpur

Tom Harpur is dead at 87, having crossed over into the other world on January 2 of this year.  Most Americans may not have heard of the Reverend Thomas Harpur, who was more famous in his native Canada than down south.  He was born in Toronto to an evangelical family, studied at the University of Toronto, and at the evangelical Anglican seminary Wycliffe College in that city.  He was ordained a priest in the Anglican diocese of Toronto and served parishes there and later taught Greek and New Testament as a professor at his old Wycliffe College.  Eventually he left the ecclesiastical world for the world of journalism, working as religion editor at the Toronto Star newspaper.  He authored a number of books, ten of which became Canadian best-sellers. 
He is perhaps best known for his controversial book The Pagan Christ, in which he argues that Jesus never existed, but that the New Testament simply retells stories from such ancient civilizations as Egypt which were never meant to be taken as historical, but rather as the mythical allegory of every man’s inner journey.  (Numerous alleged examples are cited to show that the Christ figure is simply another version of Horus.)  The Fathers of the third and fourth centuries were the culprits who popularized the then new and erroneous view that Jesus was a real person and that the Gospels were intended by their authors to be read as history.  The book makes a great show of scholarship, and is smoothly written.  Its notion that the ideas of Judaism and Christianity were drawn from Egyptian religion is dependent upon such old works as those produced by Godfrey Higgins (b. 1771), Gerald Massey (b. 1828) and especially Alvin Kuhn (b. 1880) who Harpur praises as “the most erudite, most eloquent, and most convincing—both intellectually and intuitively—of any modern writer on religion I have encountered in a lifetime dedicated to such matters.  To meet him through his books is to be confronted by a towering polymath whom history has yet to recognize fully in all his brilliance” (p. 9).   Unrecognized indeed.  In fact contemporary Egyptologists have hardly ever heard of these authors.  Kuhn was not an Egyptologist at all, but a high school language teacher with an enthusiasm for Theosophy, someone who self-published most of his books—in other words, a well-educated crank. 
Not surprisingly given his sources, the book contains a number of howlers.  One is told (p. 6) that “the letters KRST appear on Egyptian mummy coffins many centuries BCE and this word, when the vowels are filled in, is really Karast or Krist, signifying Christ”.  In actual fact, Egyptologists tell us, “KRST” is the word for “burial, embalmment, mummify”, which may account for the appearance of the word on a coffin.  One could continue, pointing out that pretty much all the alleged parallels of Christ with Horus are false (there is no evidence, for example, that Horus was virgin-born, was a “fisher of men” or had twelve disciples), but one gets the idea.  As one Egyptologist explained, “Egyptology has the unenviable distinction of being one of those disciplines that almost anyone can lay claim to, and the unfortunate distinction of being probably the one most beleaguered by false prophets”—such the work of men like Kuhn, whom the Egyptologist dismissed as “fringe nonsense”.
Why would someone as brilliant and educated as Harpur (who was a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford) produce such stuff?  One can only guess, of course, but some insight might be gathered from an interview the Reverend Harpur gave in 2011 to the United Church Observer.  In this interview he confesses that during his years of parish ministry he was “thoroughly miserable” because he “felt stifled by the institution [of the Church], by my inability to say what was in the depths of my heart”.  His move from the ecclesiastical realm to that of journalism he describes as “getting out from under the ball and chain of the church”.  There, he said, “such balderdash [is] handed out in churches every Sunday; it’s why I can’t go to church.  It just makes me angry”.  It appears that Harpur experienced a crisis of faith and conscience, and reached the place where he could no longer stand having to say things to parishioners (such the basics of the Christian Faith) that he no longer believed.  His hard about-face and embrace of increasingly radical stances seem to have been an attempt to undo all that he had done, a violent reaction and attempt to run as far as possible in the opposite direction. 
He was very successful in his attempts to denounce the faith in which he was once ordained to preserve and promote.  He had his own radio and television programmes (“Harpur’s Heaven and Hell”) and many best-sellers.  His book The Pagan Christ was turned into a CBC documentary in 2008, which won the Platinum Remi Award at the Houston International Film Festival and the Gold Camera Award at the US International Film and Video Festival in Redondo Beach, California.
What about Tom Harpur now?  Short of a word from the Lord, one can never have precise certainty about the eternal fate of any man.  That said, the Scriptural warnings against apostasy and rejection of Christ must count for something, and perhaps one needn’t be a born gambler to bet that the author of Harpur’s Heaven and Hell is now getting a more uncomfortable view of those realities than he had once thought possible.  One thinks of Screwtape’s reference to “the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords”.  But our guesses about the final fate of this man for whom Christ died have little real value and are ultimately none of our business anyway.  Of somewhat greater value are the lessons that his life of apostasy can teach those of us who are still in via.
One of those lessons involves noting how easily and heartily the world is ready to applaud Christian apostasy.  One can see this with a quick glance at the “customer reviews” section of the Amazon site selling Harpur’s The Pagan Christ.  Some reviewers recognized the book for the nonsense it is.  One said that it “staggers from one huge embarrassing error to another”; another described it as “made up of recycled theories and ideas rooted in the ‘comparative religions’ approach—theories and ideas that were largely rejected in the field 40-50 years ago, and which today are discredited as false and exaggerated”.   But on the whole the reviewers loved it, praising it as “true Christianity”, “an excellent book”, “a book to change lives!”, “a must read!”, “refreshing addition to the thinking man’s library”, “this is a book for all times!”, “earth shaking information”.  A full 70% of reviewers gave it a 4 or 5 star rating out of 5.  As mentioned above, the documentary based on the book won international awards.  Mr. Harpur’s book, like many things he put his journalistic hand to, was wildly successful.
Though it is unlikely you or I will ever be the recipients of such applause and reward, it remains true that the same world stands ready to applaud us should we ever publicly reject the Christian Faith in favour of secularism.  Telling the world it is wrong, sinful, and in need of a Saviour will garner few rewards.  Rewards come more easily one’s way the further one gets from the Christian Faith.  That is why The World has found its place in the list of temptations facing the sturdy Christian soul alongside The Flesh and The Devil.  Its applause can easily turn our heads if we let it.  We must remember the Lord’s warning, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26).
The other lesson we can learn from the tale of Tom Harpur is how gradually is the slide from faith to apostasy.  One does not go to bed a devout and dedicated disciple of Christ and awaken the next morning to find oneself an apostate with an aversion to church-going.  The journey from faith to faithlessness is a long and gradual one—indeed, if the Enemy is doing his job well, so gradual one will hardly notice it.  The temptation, Scripture tells us, is less likely to be in surrendering to a sudden volte-face regarding our faith as in a gradual “drifting away” from it (Hebrews 2:1). The truth is we are never standing still; we are either moving continually towards Christ or away from Him.  The only way to avoid slipping backwards is to run forward.  St. Paul told us this long ago:  “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).  Standing still is not an option, and apostasy will remain a possibility until we ourselves cross over into the other world.  Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Papal Calendar?

Christmas Day and the post-Christmas season usually bring with them a number of things not overwhelming helpful—Boxing Day stampedes, post-Christmas let-down, unwelcome news when stepping on the bathroom scale, and polemical digs about those benighted people using the “papal calendar” instead of “the Church’s Traditional Calendar”—i.e. the Julian calendar.  It can be rather confusing to those outside of Orthodoxy, especially when they have been told that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, thirteen days later than Christians of the West.  When I tell them that many Orthodox celebrate Christmas with other Christians on December 25 and that even those Orthodox who use the Julian calendar also celebrate Christmas on December 25 but just don’t get around to that date until January 7, their eyes tend to glaze over.  I suspect they conclude that we are all a bit crazy, and the mysteries of the Orthodox calendar partake of the same mind-numbing incomprehensibility as our doctrine of the Trinity, so that for us three=1, and December 25=January 7.  In fairness to them, it can be a bit confusing.
            In sorting the thing out, it is important not to let triumphalist rhetoric detach us from the sober facts of history.  For example, contrary to what some fervent advocates of the Julian calendar sometimes say, the Council of Nicea did not in fact mandate the use of the Old Calendar, or in fact any particular civil calendar.  Though it does not show up in the twenty extant canons of that Council, most historians nonetheless assert that the Council did however mandate something regarding the computation of Pascha so that all the Church could fast and feast together.  The history of the Council is complex and those wanting to learn more about its intricacies may read about them here.
          Briefly, the Church eventually decided that Pascha would be held on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.  That of course left the astronomical heavy lifting of determining exactly when the spring equinox fell to others.  Such technicalities and the question of which civil calendar the Church used were not broached by the Council Fathers. The Church calendar was a grid, something to be placed over the civil calendar of the day to tell Christians when to celebrate certain feasts.  It would say, for example, that Christmas must be celebrated on December 25, that Theophany must be celebrated on January 6, and that Transfiguration must be celebrated on August 6.  The question about exactly when December 25, January 6, and August 6 fell were matters for the astronomers producing civil calendars, not for non-astronomical bishops leading their flocks in worship. 
            In the centuries following, it was apparent to all that the civil calendar upon which the Church’s calendar was based was astronomically out of whack and becoming more out of whack with the passing of time and needed to be corrected and made more astronomically accurate.  The job, of course, was one for the universities, and their help was solicited by the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.  A suggestion for correction was made by the University of Salamanca in 1515, which was not acted upon.  In 1577 certain mathematicians were asked to weigh in.  Others also weighed in, including one Christopher Clavius, who argued the technicalities in a door-stopper of a book stretching to 800 pages.  The Pope of the day, Gregory XIII, thought this was the way to go, and mandated the new corrected calendar and system for use in the Roman Church in 1582.
Of course this had no legal weight outside the Roman Church, and it was up to countries to use or not use the new more accurate calendar according to their secular wishes.  Eventually though everyone in Europe and beyond decided that accuracy, even if originating within the Roman Church, was preferable to inaccuracy, and so country after country signed on and began using the calendar for as their civil calendar.  Not surprisingly the Catholic countries signed on first, with Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and the Catholic Low Countries adopting it in 1582.  Bohemia signed on two years later in 1584.  Prussia signed on in 1610, and the Protestant Low Countries came around in 1700.  Protestant Britain adopted it in 1752, followed the next year by Sweden and Finland.  Japan adopted it in 1873, and Egypt in 1875.  China and Albania signed on in 1912, the USSR in 1918, followed by Greece in 1923 and Turkey in 1926.  Of course using the corrected calendar as their civil calendar did not mean also adopting it as a religious one, and Russia (for example) continued to use the old Julian calendar for its church feasts.  Such a bi-calendrical usage introduced a kind of liturgical schizophrenia into life, so that one might place one’s order for Christmas chocolate on December 25 and not actually get around to celebrating and eating the chocolate until the Church’s December 25 which was January 7.  The simple question, “What day is it today?” could no longer be answered until one had some context and knew whether the questioner referred to the day as reckoned in street or in the Church. 
Those who insist that the Orthodox Church must use the Julian calendar as the basis for the Church feasts are unfazed by this.  They point out that there are advantages in using the Julian calendar despite its acknowledged inaccuracies and the confusion it can bring.  Foremost among them is the fact that using the Julian calendar stresses the difference between Orthodoxy and the rest of the Christian world—in other words, that the calendar becomes a symbolic bulwark against an ecumenism which would dissolve Orthodoxy’s purity and make it just another Christian denomination with no more claim to be the true Church than anyone else.   
That is true, and its value should not be dismissed out of hand.  But it should be also acknowledged that one can retain Orthodoxy’s historic claim to be the true Church and resist a false and corrosive ecumenism while still using the new corrected calendar.  It is nonsense to describe the new calendar as “the papal calendar” simply because it originated in the Roman Church, as if using the corrected calendar somehow allies one with the papists.  Staunch Scottish Calvinists have been using that calendar for some time now and there is zero evidence that using it has made them more papal and less Calvinist, Presbyterian, or dour than they were before.  (They may indeed be less Calvinist or dour than before, but that can hardly be laid at the feet of their calendar.  And they are hardly more papal.)  Describing the corrected calendar as “the papal calendar” is like describing German beer as “Lutheran beer” because Germany is filled with Lutherans, or describing the kilt as a “Presbyterian vestment” because Scotland is filled with Presbyterians.  The calendar is used by Protestant Scotland, Shintoist Japan, Muslim Turkey and atheistic China.  The issue is not and never has been the provenance of the calendar, but its intrinsic merits and accuracy.  The corrected calendar is not “papal” in the sense that the Tridentine Mass is papal—i.e. that it is the badge of those pledging loyalty to the bishop of Rome.  Describing it as “papal” is neither sensible nor helpful.
One of course admits that it would be a good thing if the entire Orthodox world were using the same calendar.  But this argument cuts both ways, and is as much an argument for those using the Julian calendar to adopt the new corrected one as vice-versa.  It is true that most of the Orthodox world uses the Julian calendar, but that is simply because one of its autocephalous members (Russia) is so large.  Such things cannot be decided simply by counting heads.
At the present time it seems as if the Orthodox world will have to survive with the use of two calendars, so that it keeps its solar feasts such as Christmas at different times.  (The Paschal cycle with its dates for the Lenten fast and Pascha and Pentecost are pretty much the same throughout the Orthodox world.)  We can easily survive such diversity with the exercise of a little good will.  And surely, such good will is large part of what Christmas is all about?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Born of a Virgin?"

Part of my seasonal reading included a book by Andrew T. Lincoln, entitled, Born of a Virgin?, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans in 2013.  Lincoln is a Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Gloucestershire, and the author of commentaries on Ephesians, Colossians, and the Gospel of John.  Perhaps the title should have alerted me that reading it would also form part of my seasonal literary masochism, but I couldn’t resist.  After all, the glowing endorsements adorning the back cover promised that it was “a groundbreaking book that arrives like a breath of fresh air and allows us to see the familiar with new eyes”.  It turns out that the air wasn’t all that fresh after all, but breathed the same old stale atmosphere of theological liberalism that I had been inhaling all throughout my distant college days.
            There were some good bits that didn’t give me gas.  I especially enjoyed his description and deconstruction of J.D. Tabor’s claim to have “solved” once and for all “the Mystery of Pantera”—i.e. the idea that Jesus’ biological father was a Roman soldier named Pantera who was once stationed in Palestine in the first century and who died and was buried in Germany.  Lincoln demonstrates that Tabor’s dates don’t add up, and that the soldier Pantera would have been either a newborn or no more than ten-years old when he allegedly fathered Mary’s child.  But most of Lincoln’s work left me alternately exasperated or simply wondering why a man as intelligent as Lincoln clearly was would write such stuff.
            His main thesis is that the New Testament contains not only assertions of Christ’s virginal conception, but also another view of Christ’s birth as the fruit of a non-virginal conception.  He finds evidence for this other view in the frequent description of Jesus as “of the seed of David” (e.g. Romans 1:3), which he insists on regarding as evidence that this was intended as a description of the physical means of Christ’s conception—i.e. that it involved the use of Joseph’s sperm.  He further highlights Peter’s description of Jesus as “of the fruit of [David’s] loins in Acts 2:30 as proof that Peter (or perhaps Luke) regarded Jesus as the biological fruit of the loins of David’s descendent Joseph.  He further cites descriptions of Mary and Joseph as “His parents” (Luke 2:41) and of Jesus as “the son of Joseph” (e.g. John 1:45) as examples of an ancient tradition of Jesus’ non-virginal conception. 
He is aware of course that Luke offers a tradition of Christ’s virginal conception in his first two chapters, but contends that Luke leaves the two mutually-contradictory views standing side by side in his Gospel.  For Lincoln, Luke “holds with the earliest Christian formulations that Jesus was of the seed of David and Joseph’s son, but [Luke] also holds that in the light of his resurrection Joseph’s son was vindicated as God’s Son.  To stress that conviction he includes an annunciation story in which the conception of this Son of God is narrated in a fashion similar to that of other figures in the ancient world who were thought to be sons of gods, omitting any participation on the part of a human male.”  This, Lincoln says, was simply one of the “literary conventions of ancient biography”.  In other words, Luke didn’t believe that Christ was virginally conceived, but included the annunciation story of a virginal conception as a way of making a non-historical theological point.  It was just Luke’s bad luck that everyone ever afterward insisted on reading the annunciation as containing the same kind of history as found in the rest of his Gospel.   
But of course Luke himself sets us up for such a literal, historical, and non-legendary reading of his first two chapters.  Luke’s Gospel does not begin with the annunciations to Zachariah and Mary, but with a clear statement that he had researched the whole story and was grounding his narrative upon the testimony of eye-witnesses.  Thus Luke’s Gospel begins:  Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”  It is of a piece with Luke’s famous historical carefulness found in Acts (such as his designation that the rulers of Thessalonica had the title “politarch”). 
These words in Luke 1:1-4 are not the words of someone who is about to treat his readers to a series of concocted legends, “the literary conventions of ancient biography” and then switch back to sober and precise historical reportage with nary a clue that the reader had moved from legend to history, from the heavenly realms of the gods to Palestine in fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:1).  If Luke offered chapters 3-24 as history, we may be sure he intended us to regard chapters 1-2 in the same way.  Lincoln, not surprisingly, finds in the ending of Luke’s Gospel evidence that Luke did not intend to offer history, for Lincoln regards the story of Christ’s Ascension as simply another borrowing from the legends of the gods and ancient worthies such as Romulus.  (Wait for Lincoln’s next book, possibly to be entitled, Ascended into Heaven?)  It seems as if any parallel with pagan mythology can serve to undermine the historicity of Luke’s narrative, despite his plain assertion that he was offering sober history so that “you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
            Of course Lincoln’s whole thesis falls to the ground if Luke did not in fact hold with formulation that Jesus was Joseph’s physical son, and if references to Mary and Joseph as “His parents” were simply the usual way of describing the couple who were raising him, something no more significant than a couple describing their adopted child as their own son or daughter.  It is, I submit, pedantic and perverse to insist that the Messianic title “son of David” or “of the seed of David” must refer to the physical mechanism of generation.  In the first century the Messianic issue was not physical sperm, but legal right to claim participation in the covenant God made to David.  That is why Matthew, who is emphatic that Joseph was not the father of Jesus (Matthew 1:18), was also equally emphatic that he was the “son of David”, sharing Davidic lineage (Matthew 1:20).  Sperm was not the issue; legal lineage was.
            It is when Lincoln expounded at length an alternative non-virginal interpretation of Matthew that I really began to reach for the Gaviscon.  He acknowledged that the “traditional” interpretation of Mary conceiving virginally was one possible way to read the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  But he offered another possible interpretation as well.  In this alternate interpretation, the phrase “found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” did not mean that the Holy Spirit alone was responsible for the pregnancy to the exclusion of human agency.  It simply meant that the Holy Spirit was also involved along with the sexual act, and in support of this he cites divine involvement in the pregnancies of Leah, Rachel and Ruth as proof that “divine causality was never understood as excluding the woman’s intercourse with a man”.  In this reading of the text, the angel tells Joseph that although Mary was pregnant through union with another man, Joseph should marry her anyway, since God is going to use the pregnancy for His own redemptive purposes.  Verse 25, which says “Joseph did not know her [i.e. refrained from sex] until she gave birth to a son”, simply showed how Joseph “remains righteous throughout the whole affair.  He behaves precisely how someone concerned to uphold the law strictly should do”.   In this reading, “The angel does not tell [Joseph] he was wrong in thinking that Mary was pregnant by another man; but does tell him that he was wrong in the conclusion he has drawn from this, namely that he should divorce her”.
            It is an extraordinary reading of the text, for a number of reasons.  A careful look at the text reveals that the sole issue in the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy was her chastity and character—i.e. the question of whether or not she had sex with someone else while betrothed to Joseph.  Given this specific context the statement “that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (v. 20) can only mean that she did not in fact have sex with someone else.  It is eisexegetical in the extreme to read into the verse the idea that she was unchaste, but don’t worry about it; God has it under control.  God’s redemptive purpose was not the issue; Mary’s chastity was.  That is the obvious reason for including verse 25:  it shows that Jesus must have been virginally conceived because Joseph did not touch his wife throughout the entirety of the pregnancy.
            There is much more, of course, but dealing with it even inadequately would take us well beyond what is possible in a blog.  Suffice to say that Lincoln finally lets the shoe drop in his final section, entitled “Tradition, critical loyalty and saying the creed”.  In it he acknowledges that “in the context of the tradition Irenaeus and other pre-modern readers rightly assumed that interpretation of Scripture was a corporate project, taking place within the community of the Church”.  Lincoln goes on to claim that such a process of interpretation is still taking place so that all questions are open ones, and we must therefore now reinterpret the creedal formulation that Christ “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” as meaning only that “only God’s sovereign initiative could ultimately explain [Christ’s] life and that this God was wholly present in his fully human life from its inception”.  He acknowledges that “Irenaeus and his pre-modern readers” (do I detect of whiff of disdain?) interpreted the creedal formulation otherwise and as meaning also that Christ had no human biological father, but we now know better.  Accordingly we must reinterpret the creeds in the same way that we reinterpret the Scriptures they summarize, as mere symbols for generalized truths.
            A truly traditional Orthodox approach will recognize this as a denial of the work of the Holy Spirit through the centuries, and as a counsel of despair.  For who can say whether later on some even more enlightened academics will regard Lincoln and his readers as “pre-modern” and suggest that the view that “only God’s sovereign initiative could ultimately explain Christ’s life” also needs to be reinterpreted?  The corporate project of interpreting the Scriptures and formulating the rule of faith has already been accomplished by the community of faith.  The choice is between the fixed faith of the Church throughout history or the ever-shifting conclusions of liberal academics.
Lincoln ends his volume with the bold and defiant words that to insist on a belief in the virginal conception of Christ involves being “totally resistant to serious engagement with biblical and theological scholarship”.  It is not so.  It only means that one prefers the biblical and theological scholarship of the saints which produced the rule of faith and which has guided the Church for two millennia to the scholarship published lately by Wm. B. Eerdmans today.  I value contemporary scholarship, but I know which of the two to choose when disagreement arises.  But at the end of the day it is not about what I or anyone else thinks, but about how Christ regards him and what Lincoln will say when he finally meets His Mother, the Queen of Heaven.  I suspect from what I have read in Born of a Virgin? that, in the words ascribed to a lesser monarch, she will not be amused.