Orthodox America

  “Whom do men say that I am?”

     About ten years ago a Hollywood producer wanted to make a film about the life of the Prophet Mohammad. Furious Moslems in this country--an extremely small minority of our citizenry (there are about the same number of Moslems as Orthodox Christians)--protested because the film would show the physical face of their prophet--something forbidden by the Islamic canon. The producer, respecting their religious sensitivities, shot the film in such a way that the face of Mohammed was never shown. I thought at the time: how sad that we Christians never seem to object when Biblical film extravaganzas distort or misrepresent the Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel of Redemption.


Sound and Fury

    In recent arcades Hollywood and Broadway have each contributed renditions of 'the Greatest Story Ever Told'. Naturally, the overriding concern here has been box office ratings rather than any faithfulness to the subject. But even such theological hokum as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Godspell" met with little audible criticism among Christians, some of whom applauded these shows for making Jesus Christ more "accessible" to the common man. This same premise was used by director Martin Scorsese in his controversial new film, "The Last Temptation of Christ." Here, however, the story-line is such a grotesque perversion of the New Testament that many Christians are finding that they cannot and must not keep silent. Indeed,. the film has unleashed a furious storm of objection in many Christian quarters. And it's refreshing to see offended Christians finally speaking out--however much the media have tried to portray them as Ignorant fanatics and bigots, it is especially inspiring to see, on the television news, Orthodox Christians carrying icons of the Saviour while demonstrating outside theaters showing "The Last Temptation."


A Great Temptation

    Let me say at the outset that I have not seen this film, nor do I intend to do so. I have read enough articles and reviews of the film--both pro and con-to know that I would only pollute my soul in doing so. Sadly, the deep-seated American phobia against censorship and our society's veneration of tolerance (often held to be a measure of enlightenment) have conned many otherwise straight-thinking Christians into seeing a film whose blasphemous and obscene content newspaper and TV "peeks" have made perfectly clear to anyone with a pulse. For those still "curious," suffice it to say that several Orthodox jurisdictions (including the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad) have condemned the film, the Roman Catholic Church has listed it as "morally objectionable," and numerous Protestant groups have also spoken out. One might add that the movie is based upon the 1955 novel of the same name by the excommunicated Greek Orthodox layman Nikos Kamntgakis whose countrymen were so outraged by his blasphemy that he was forbidden burial on Greek soil!

    Alexander Kalomiros once said that the perversion of human thought--especially about God--was accomplished by the Devil precisely by means of theology. "He," the Evil One, "first introduced a slight alteration in theology which, once it was accepted, he managed to increase more and more" until the theology of the Christian West became less and less recognizable ("The River of Fire," 1980). We see a prime example of this in "The Last Temptation."

    Scorscse--a Roman Catholic--has said that he wanted to portray as fully as possible the "humanity" of Christ, which "was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15), in order that the "victory" of His Divine nature (which, in the film, Christ isn’t even sure He possesses!) over sin would be all the more complete. Thus, the Lord is shown being tempted in many ways, especially against chastity. But the director goes far beyond simple temptation, for he shows the Lord having graphic sexual fantasies such as were condemned by the Saviour Himself--for "whosoever [even] looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." Since Scripture tells us that Christ, although "tempted as we are," was "without sin," such sinful fantasies are blasphemous.

     This illustration is sufficient to demonstrate the warranted use of the "Poison" label on the film. And there is really no need to discuss its content in further derail. We shall instead turn to examine the recent TIME magazine cover story, "Who Was Jesus?" (August 15, 1988) which was written in response to this "startling new film," "The Last Temptation." 

And it came to pass, as He was alone praying, His disciples were with Him; and He asked them, saying: Whom say the people that I am? They answering saying, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias: and others say, that one of the old prophets is risen again. He said unto them, But whom say ye that I am? Peter answering said, The Christ of God. (Luke 9:18-20)

     The TIME article, "Who Was Jesus?" is thought provoking and surprisingly comprehensive for a popular journal. The writers say that "If the furor surrounding [the film] proves one thing, it is that in any era, seismic emotions are involved when people probe the nature of the man who is worshipped as God by well over a billion souls." The article then gives a fair overview of "the search for the historical Jesus" through Biblical scholarship in the last 100 years, showing how different "schools" have arrived at different "Christs": the "itinerant sage," the "hellenistic cynic," an "apocalyptic prophet" or an "inspired rabbi," and, of course, the "classic Jesus."


"Higher Criticism”

    The "historical-critical method" or "higher criticism'' school of Biblical scholarship began in Germany in the 19th century and has now spread throughout nearly all Christian denominations, Orthodox Christianity being the moat prominent exception. This school of thought has several variations, but is based on two main assumptions 1)that the historic Christ is "embedded" in an account so greatly embroidered by the Gospel writers that He must be "ferreted out" and set free of the "myths" that surround Him, and 2) the only way to study Scripture is a "scientific method" that begins and (usually) ends in skepticism.

    Since miracles and the supernatural are outside the provenance of science, the first thing such scholars do is to remove all miracles, all claims to divinity, all heavenly or angelic visitations, etc. Others try to explain Christ's miracles by ascribing them to hypnosis --something "science" is more comfortable with. Since "science" also knows nothing of divine inspiration, the "higher critics" proceed on the basis that the writers and compilers of the Scriptures were fallible men, capable of error and, especially in the case of the New Testament, were essentially public relations agents for Christ, exaggerating or even making things up in order to "sell their product" to the ancient world.

    Although, TIME says, new evidence is bringing many skeptics back to "a renewed acceptance of much of what the New Testament postulates about Jesus and His teaching"--that "the Jesus available to us in the Gospels was the Jesus of history"--the two main assumptions upon which the “historical-critical method" is based absolutely reflect the myths and "fashions" of our own time--a dangerous thing at best, but predicated on still another of our cherished modern myths: that we can know and understand today far more than our ancestors ever did or could.

    From an Orthodox standpoint it is very clear that "higher criticism" has had much to do with secularizing the West, for it helped to shift the focus from theology and spirituality to sociology and anthropology--after all, if you can never be quite certain which of the Lord's, recorded words were "really" spoken by Him, then why believe in the message of Redemption at all? Why change one's life? Why even repent? And, most critical of all, why should one come to terms with Jesus Christ as the Living God?

    TIME says that a few Biblical scholars--silent for too long--are now saying that this so-called "scientific'' approach is "wrong-minded from the very start. Any approach that begins by rejecting the miraculous and the supernatural 'has no hope of coming to terms with the texts....Science must stick to its own field of competence'." To which pious believers can only sigh: "Amen."


History Testifies

    One should ask: how is it that these modem schools of Biblical criticism never gained a foothold in the Orthodox Church? The three-fold answer, although simple, is very important if we are to understand the present controversy.

    First, Orthodox Christians are vitally concerned about the truth of Scriptures. Christianity is not, after all, only one of several philosophies or worldviews, such as Hinduism is, but rests upon the foundation of an historic experience--something that really happened in time. In a nutshell, either Christ rose from the dead or He did not, in which case, as St. Paul says, our "faith is in vain."

    But the Orthodox approach to the question of "historicity" is quite different from that of Western Christian churches; it takes into account the fact that for the first three centuries after Christ there was no one book that Christians called the "Bible." Numerous copies of various Scriptures were in existence, circulated widely, and were read in the Divine Services of the early Church. It wasn't until there began to be many spurious and questionable "Scriptures" that the Orthodox Church--assembled in Council (Hippo, 393 A.D.) and guided by the Holy Spirit--established the inspired Canon of Scripture as we know it today. No one at that time (or until Martin Luther in the 16th century) doubted the authenticity of the Bible Canon. This was because the Saviour's Life, Passion, and Resurrection had been such a monumental, supernatural, and cosmic "explosion" into human history. Neither Jewish nor Gentile critics in the first centuries denied that Jesus Christ had really lived and had in some mysterious way started a remarkable "movement.'' If they had any slightest reason to doubt that Christ had actually lived upon the earth, they would surely have said so!

    What the "higher critics" never take into consideration is the question of witnesses - the thousands who had known the Saviour, walked with Him, listened to His message, and saw Him after His Resurrection --some of whom wrote down what they saw and heard. The testimony of witnesses is often the only "evidence'' anyone has for any event in history. No one doubts the testimony of those who were present and signed their names to the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence, even though written evidence is the only proof we have that those great events actually occurred. Yet the "higher critics" are quick to impugn the equally valid witnesses of Scripture. They call their method "Scientific" but it obviously isn't.

    Secondly, when great disputes arose in the early Church, they were focused not on whether or not Christ was "real," or whether He rose from the dead; rather, those -controversies had to do with His wondrous and mysterious Nature and Being. This was linked to a certain view of man's nature and psychology, of the Godhead itself, as well as the Ancestral Sin of Adam and Eve and the work of salvation. In those days, Christians were concerned about the "union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature," as St. Athanasius the Great put it--all those questions which, in fact, "higher criticism" avoids or eliminates altogether.

    In fact, a point not made in the TIME article is that the "historical-critical method" of Biblical study dismisses the central issue of WHO CHRIST SAID HE WAS. Unable or unwilling to confront the idea of the Incarnation, most critics schooled in this method simply assign the Lord's comments about being the Son of God, the Messiah, etc., to a delusion, or to the "wishful thinking" of the Gospel writers, or to later scribes.

    Logic and human experience tell us that there really are only three possible ways of understanding the Christ of Scripture, none of which depends upon a "historical critical method": either 1) Christ was deluded and a mad-man--in which case we need not trouble about Him at all; 2) He was a liar--another reason to dismiss Him; or 3) He ,was Who He says He is --and all the rest is impious if not blasphemous nit-picking.

    Thirdly, the Church knew from the very beginning that faith does not rest only on Scripture (the Sola Scriptura of Martin Luther and the other Protestant Reformers), but rather on the testimony of the Christ-founded Church herself, to which the Saviour had given the "power of the keys." In other words, the verification of Scripture comes directly from the Church's witnesses, the Apostles themselves --not the other way around. The inspired Scriptures were (and are) seen as an important part of the Church's Tradition--but only one part, the others being the oral tradition (the paradosis of St. Paul--cf. 1 Cor. 11:2; II Thess. 2:15), the writings of the Holy Fathers, the Lives of the Saints (beginning with the quite extensive and authentic Lives of the Holy Apostles), and dogmatic hymnody or the Divine Services. All of these exist in complete harmony, not contradicting one another in any slightest way. Therefore, whatever Scripture did not make clear, or only hinted at, the other parts of Sacred Tradition "filled in" or explained, and vice-versa, thus providing the Faith's extraordinary "fullness," a fullness utterly lacking outside the Orthodox Church.

    Schools of Biblical criticism developed in the West, especially among the Protestants, precisely because everything else had already been thrown out, there was nothing left to focus on but the sacred words of Scripture, and this was a critical mistake, leading first to the boldness of Martin Luther--certainly an ancestor of "higher criticism"--who literally threw out several books of the Old Testament and questioned the authenticity of some in the New-because they didn't agree with his "version" of the Faith. Thus, it's no coincidence that "higher criticism'' arose only among the heterodox, who had already deprived themselves of the Holy Spirit.

    This, then, is the present environment for Biblical study outside the Church, an environment filled with soulless and faithless exercises that give stones instead of bread to the spiritually starving and makes possible such blasphemies as "The Last Temptation of Christ" without regard for the sensitivities of believers in the traditional, "historic" Saviour. It is this, the theological pluralism of the West, which insists on "the widest possible doctrinal diversity''" --another aspect of hydra-headed ecumenism--that encourages a film-maker to depict the Lord making love to Mary Magdalene, yet respects the Islamic ban on showing the face of Mohammed!

    One writer has well pointed out that "not one recognized religious leader, not Moses, Paul, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, etc., has ever claimed to be God; that is, with the exception of Jesus Christ. Christ is the only religious leader who has ever claimed to be deity and the only individual ever who has convinced a great portion of the world that He is God.'' [1]

And let them know that Thy name is Lord; Thou alone art Most High over all the earth. (Ps 82:17)

    As the TIME writers conclude: "One major lesson in the ruckus [over the film] is that believers do care about the historical Jesus." There are even some non-believers who are questioning this kind of film. In fact, for some individuals this controversy may actually serve a positive end. Except for occasional news reports about the Shroud of Turin, Jesus Christ has seldom received so much attention, has rarely been the object of so much general interest and discussion. And in the midst of all this "ruckus" some may find themselves searching to answer the question: "Who then IS this man?" and discovering the need to come to terms with Jesus Christ as the Living God.

Father Alexey Young


[1] Thomas Schultz. quoted in volume I of Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972; useful to anyone interested in a scholarly yet easy to read refutation of the "higher criticism" school of Biblical scholarship.

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