Christian Theology and the Bible
By: Nadir Aqeel
Sources of Christian Theology
Bible is the basic source of Christian Theology. This is a position to which the Christian opinion has now crystallised. This does not however mean that other sources like a) Tradition, b) Reason and c) Religious Experience have had a minor role in the formation of Christian dogma, which together with d) the Bible constitute the sum total of theological sources.
However, for the time being, let us confine ourselves to the Bible; other sources would be examined separately. Now if we turn to the Bible, we must examine its authenticity first. This is important because the Christian world takes the Bible as the Word of God and believes in the inerrancy of the Bible.
Muslim Position on Authenticity of the Bible
Let me explain the Muslim position first on the meaning and significance of the scripture. Muslims understand that the Bible was a collection of books revealed to prophets and messengers of God. These books were however subjected to human interpolations in history. Interpolation includes insertion, deletion and corruption of biblical texts. The textual corruption was so extensive and massive, that the Bible no more remained a reliable and authentic source of knowledge regarding the original teachings of those prophets and messengers. This is not to deny that the Bible does not contain any truth. This is far from true. Rather, the Muslims believe that a lot of the original content is still available in biblical pages. Yet, the corruption in the text has left the biblical literature unworthy of theological reconstruction.
Significance of Reliable Sources of Religious Knowledge
Religion is an extremely important issue. Correct religious knowledge is the cornerstone of religious belief and action. One cannot be careless and negligent in religious matters. Religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam teach that correct faith and action leads to eternal bliss and a way of life based on erroneous belief and action leads to eternal punishment. Religion, thus, is not restricted to our names and identities in this world. It governs our destinies. It is therefore imperative to be extremely cautious in this matter. We should base our faith on a definitely reliable source. Bible does not qualify for that.
This is no more a sensational position - at least not after the appearance of the Holy Qur’an. Muslims, from the very beginning, believed that the Bible was not capable of giving us the correct picture of what God demands of men. Europe however learnt this later when the academic works of Muslim scholars became available to them. The Muslim scholars in Spain openly challenged the authenticity of the Bible and the marked impact of Muslim position on the Western world can be observed in history soon after. Now, even among Christians, a large number of scholars agree that the Bible is not a reliable document.
Nature and Extent of Biblical Corruption
The Bible is replete with errors and inconsistencies. These inconsistencies are not confined to words, letters and punctuation. We know that a number of biblical books are disputed between the Protestants and the Catholics. There are books that are believed by the Catholics to be inspired whereas the Protestants do not agree. This scale of difference cannot be ignored by saying that there is a difference in readings and pronunciations. Authors of most of the books of the Bible are enshrouded in mist. Some of these books were written centuries after the Prophets to whom they are attributed. In other cases the same incident is presented in two or more divergent versions which are irreconcilable. A number of books of the Bible were apparently lost in the mill of history and just could not reach us.
Has Corruption Affected the Doctrinal Content of the Bible?
Sometimes I hear people say that even if the biblical literature has been corrupted, it still provides a valuable basis for salvation. They argue that there has been textual corruption in the Bible, but somehow the corruption has not affected the real significance of its message. To such a naïve suggestion I can only wonder. How can a document still be reliable, when it has been shown to be false and incorrect on hundreds of occasions? This would mean that no historical document can be termed as unreliable because it may, after all, contain an element of truth also! Such elements of truth are there in the Bible too. Nobody thinks that the original books of the Prophets were exterminated and were rewritten afresh, without leaving an iota of truth in their contents. Massive biblical corruption is a fact and this does not exclude the possibility of truth in it. Rather, it contains a lot of divine guidance and historical truth. Yet, the extent of corruption makes it only a secondary source of truth, which we cannot believe outright, unless it is corroborated by other sources.
Biblical corruption is not confined to minor and peripheral issues, it has indeed affected the basic doctrines of Christianity also. It is incorrect to say that the corruption of the biblical text has left the bible unaffected, insofar as its doctrinal content is concerned.
Christian Theology and the Bible
Now we come to the doctrines of Christianity based on this unreliable document. Obviously, no theology, worthy of ensuring human salvation, can be built on a text that was mercilessly, callously and, on many occasions, intentionally tampered with. Such an attempt, to construct a coherent and reliable theology on biblical foundations, is bound to remain unfruitful and meaningless. It is likely to precipitate mind boggling mysteries rather than sound rational doctrines. This is exactly what we expect to find in the Christian dogma.
Although there is a sharp disagreement among the Christians as to what is the bare minimum in terms of the doctrines that one must uphold, if he is to be considered a Christian, yet I would attempt to discuss the most commonly professed Christian beliefs.
How Should a Scripture Support its Central Themes?
Before attempting to discuss Christian doctrines with reference to the Bible, we have to first decide as to in what forms should the fundamental doctrines be found in a scripture. For example, the fundamental beliefs in Islam are Belief in one God, Belief in Messengers of God, and Belief in the Day of Judgement. Now if one takes up a copy of the Holy Qur’an, he will find them mentioned on almost every page or on every other page. There has never been any debate whether Qur’an preaches Monotheism or not - whether it reminds us of the Day of Judgement or not! An ordinary Muslim conveniently proclaims his beliefs using only the words of the Holy Qur’an. The Muslim beliefs are explicitly and categorically stated, more than once, in their Scripture. So, like any other faith, the Christian doctrines should be perfectly rooted in the scripture and should rise from the scripture naturally even to a neutral reader. It should not require the hair splitting efforts of thousands of brilliant scholars working for two thousand years to show that at best a few allusions to their beliefs are indeed found in the Bible! But unfortunately, exactly this picture emerges when we study the Bible and the history of development of Christian theology. Most of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are not found in the Bible as they are professed by the Christians.
Secondly, if at all allusions to these doctrines are traced in the Bible, we must see whether they are in red letters or not; whether such fundamental doctrines are presented as central themes or found only in foot notes to the book or in distant digressions from the main theme. Unfortunately, the fundamental Christian doctrines are not found as central themes in the Bible. Therefore when Christian scholars tried to articulate their beliefs, they did not select passages from the Bible, they tried to do that through Creeds and Councils, and even that happened centuries after Christ (sws). These articulations were not based on the Bible, they were based on extra-biblical terminology and phrases coined by their scholars.
Now we turn to the most important Christian doctrines.
The doctrine of Original Sin, the way it is professed by the Christian community, is nowhere stated in the Bible. You may be surprised, but the fact is that the phrase ‘Original Sin’ is as alien to the Bible as Pentium-III is alien to Shakespeare. On the other hand, the Bible contains verses that refute the concept of original sin. For example see Ezekiel 18, which asserts:
The soul who sins is the one who will die. . . But suppose this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things. . . He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people.
Yet you ask: ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him. (Ezekiel 18:4-20)
In case of trinity, the Bible does not contain any statement saying: ‘God the father is God. Jesus Christ the son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. And that they are three persons of God but put together, these three persons are not three Gods but only One.’
On the other hand, monotheism, as professed by the Jews and the Muslims, occurs in the Bible on numerous occasions.
He asked him: ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’
‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ (Mark 12:28-29)
Christ as the Unique Son of God
The Christians hold that Jesus (sws) is the unique son of God. No doubt Jesus (sws) is termed in the Bible as Son of Adam and as Son of God also. But the Christian scholars have been reading more than what this expression actually says. All righteous people are sons of God according to the Bible. In the Psalms, God tells David (sws):
‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’. (2:7)
Do our Christian friends build the same theological system around David (sws) also? No, because they know what the word means. It only signifies divine love and blessings on the righteous. And indeed Jesus (sws) was a righteous person. That is all this expression means.
Crucifixion, Resurrection and Atonement
On Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (sws), the NT is quite expressive. These events have been graphically described in the Gospels. However, it is a tampered document that holds this substance. And, the testimony of each Gospel differs with the other on a number of details. That redemption and salvation through Christ (sws) is the basic contention and other doctrines tend to support this.
But it may be understood clearly, that to a Christian, it is not crucifixion or resurrection or divinity of Christ (sws) that matters in its own right. These doctrines are preludes to the doctrine of Atonement. To the Christians, Jesus Christ (sws) was crucified as the Son of God, and made to suffer, and resurrected, so that he may Redeem us and Atone for our sin - the sin that had afflicted Adam and had deprived us of the ability to be good.
Patristic Fathers like Saint Augustine were sensitive on other doctrines in the face of mounting dissenting views, because they thought that it would make Redemption impossible. For instance while condemning Arianism, Athanasius argued that if Jesus (sws) was not fully God, Redemption would become impossible because a creature cannot redeem other creatures. In his book ‘Against the Arians’ his argument runs either like this:
No creature can redeem another creature. According to Arian, Jesus Christ is a creature. Therefore, according to Arius, Jesus Christ cannot redeem humanity.
Or like this:
Only God can redeem. Jesus Christ redeems. Therefore, Jesus Christ is God.
This brings out the centrality of the doctrine of Redemption and Atonement in Christian theology. That the problem of redemption figures in the earliest stages of Christianity during the Apostolic Age is shown by the debates held between Paul and other Apostles. In Pauline letters, the main thrust remains on Redemption. It is important to understand why the problems of Salvation and Redemption engaged the Apostles in such an involving manner. There are two obvious reasons for Redemption to have occupied such an important place in Semitic history:
The OT did not approve of Atonement (Ezekiel Ch.18) and thus promised Salvation on following the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) and the Law of Moses (sws). But the Jews had mischievously played with the Divine wish by two methods. One that they romanticised the idea of a group of people being ‘selected by God’ - a title reserved apparently for Israelites only - which was later added to the scripture by the Jews during the historical development of the OT. Secondly, in the matter of the Law, the Jews had adopted a literal view, and while following the words, often ignored the purpose and spirit of the Law. To both of these, Jesus Christ (sws) revolted strongly, and criticized the tendency of the Jews to revere the Law and ignore its spirit. To Christ (sws), the Law was not being practiced in its true spirit among the Jews. Any one can understand from the NT that Jesus (sws) emphasised correct belief, correct intention and correct action towards this end. For the Apostles, the problem was simple - to believe in what Jesus (sws) had preached. Obviously, the central theme of Jesus (sws) was redemption through correct belief and action. So the Apostles could not be oblivious to the centrality of Redemption.
Ordinary Redemption is a simple idea, hinging on correct belief and action. It is so simple that almost all societies have believed in it and throughout the ages it remained a simple concept to comprehend. In Christianity, it turned into a brain-teasing theorem because of the way it was employed to bring in a number of other Neo-Platonic concepts. Paul interpreted the Gospel, to gradually show that redemption could not be attained through the Law alone. He must have made use of the scathing criticism of Jesus Christ (sws) on the Jewish attitude and the way the Law was abused by them. By destroying the sanctity and even the need of the Law, Paul invited the immediate question: In the absence of the Law, how are we supposed to achieve salvation? To this question Paul replied that through living in Jesus (sws) we can achieve salvation, because Christ suffered for us and with his death on the cross died the original sin, and we were liberated from sin. But this liberation can only be bought by subscribing to Trinity, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (sws). As we can see in this mode of argument, the Original Sin, Trinity, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Atonement are all brought in, to replace the vacuum created by the elimination of the Law. So, redemption remains a theme central to Pauline views, although he shifts the basis of redemption from the Law (correct action and belief) to a parallel basis - his philosophy of Atonement.
This means that the Pauline argument, to which the Church subscribes, progresses from Salvation to the Divinity of Christ (sws). It is the Pauline wish to provide scriptural basis to this view that makes him plead Trinity, Divinity and Atonement. These do not naturally grow out of the NT.
So the crucifixion and resurrection only matter so far as they take us to Atonement. Otherwise the concept of God being crucified and tortured on the cross would be too radical to bear. If that is the case, we have to look for the doctrine for Atonement in the Bible -- and I assure you, it would be like searching for a needle in the hay stalk. You will never find it.
Whence Christian Theology?
In the end, I would like to address an obvious query. If the Bible is devoid of support for the fundamental doctrines, why did Christian theology develop on these lines.
History tells us that, unfortunately, Jesus (sws) had not yet gathered sufficient following before he was removed from the world by God’s grace. With few followers, the Good News had not been compiled, recorded and circulated. Even before such an attempt could be made, Saint Paul joins the apostles and comes up with a Neo-Platonic interpretation of the message of Jesus (sws) and pleads freedom from the Law. (The ideas of Pantheism had remained prevalent in Alexandria due to the influence of the Jew mystic Philo which were later to be articulated and perfected as a philosophical system by Ammonias Saccas and Plotinus.) Paul is strongly opposed by the Apostles in the beginning, but Saint Barnabas facilitates his entry into the Apostolic group. Even then, after a short time, we see that Paul is opposed by Barnabas and also by Peter. Peter and Barnabas vanish from the Acts of Apostles after the fifteenth chapter and are heard of no more. It appears that the abilities of Paul to win a large following among the Gentiles paves the way for the smooth acceptance of his views in Asia Minor and around the Mediterranean coast. Very soon, the truth taught by Jesus (sws) is lost in the vociferous proclamations of Pauline theology. With the passage of time, the New Testament which largely consists of Pauline letters is made the basis of theology developed by the early Christians of the first and second centuries. Pauline letters actually reinterpreted the message of Jesus Christ (sws) to make it appear what it is today. Even today, possibly the most convincing and explicit evidence for Christian doctrine would be found in Pauline letters and epistles, and not in the red lettered verses of the Gospels.