In the weeks leading up to Greer Heard, we are posting Q&A’s we did with the speakers of this year’s Greer Heard forum. Our fourth piece is with Dale Martin. We want to provide these Q&A’s so that you are able to access the information presented at Greer Heard easier, as well as giving you a chance to see a piece of the person behind the ideas.
Steve: Dale, tell me where your from and a little about your hometown.
Dale: I’m from Baytown, Texas, a little bit across the border from Louisiana, about 30 miles east of Houston between Houston and Beaumont. The high school in the town I grew up in was Robert E. Lee High School where the mascot was the Fighting Lee Ganders. When I was old enough to go to high school, they built another high school named after Ross Sterling, an old Texas politician. I played in the band; I sang in the choir; I was in the theatre; I did a lot of plays. I came from a kind of theatrical family. To this day, my brother and my sister and even my parents have been active in the Baytown Little Theatre as amateur theatre people. That explains my teaching style because I come across as a bit of a ham. I often say, and don’t tell anybody back home this, I come from one of the ugliest towns on earth. It is surrounded by an Exxon refinery. I was eager to get out of town. I lived there from birth to being eighteen. Then I went off to college and wanted to move somewhere that was prettier to live in, but ended up moving to Abilene, Texas. I grew up in Church of Christ and we thought all Southern Baptists were going to Hell because they weren’t conservative enough.
Steve: What are you going to assert at Greer Heard this year and what will Michael Bird and friends say to your position?
Dale: My main message is to try to explain that different kind of truth statements are only true in certain kinds of discourse. This is very Augustinian. If I say to you, “Would you close for me?” Outside of any kind of context, you would have no idea what I mean by that. If we were in an operating room and I said that, then you would know that I mean one thing and we would both know what that means. It means you would close the wound and stitch it up. I could say the same thing to you in a law court and that would mean “Would you close the argument for me?” Not only is a statement not true or false outside of its context, even the meaning of a statement is different in different contexts. I am going to talk to about etymology and history. It is one thing to establish something that is a historical event, but that has to be done by the rules of modern historiography or it is not going to get any kind of traction. It is totally different to say something is truth as a theological statement. I am going to be talking about the resurrection accounts of Jesus. Who saw Jesus, when, where, and what in the four Gospels and Paul. I am basically going to say that people who try to establish a doctrinal theological truth by historical arguments are missing the mark.
I start off by saying Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God is not a theological book. It didn’t attempt to be a theological book; it is a historical book. So he plays by the rules of modern historiography to say that Christology developed over the first four hundred years of Christianity and that there are parts of our Christianity that did not think Jesus to be divine or took him to be divine in a later sense. Those are historical arguments. When Michael Bird says they are going to write a counter book called How God became Jesus, that by definition is not a historical argument. You can’t talk about God in modern historiography. God is not an actor in modern historiography. What I mean by that is, you may believe that the North beat the South in the Civil War, or if you’re from the South you may not believe it, because God caused it to happen. The North won because of divine intervention. If you write a book with that as your historical thesis, you will not get tenure at any reputable university. God is not acceptable as a cause or actor within modern historiography. Simply to say, “God became Jesus,” is a fine theological point that is true theologically if you are a Christian and you believe in the incarnation. It is not only not true historically, it is also nonsense historically. I am going to try to illustrate by focusing on the resurrection appearance account. An account can be perfectly legitimate and true when put forth as a piece of history, but that has nothing to do with its theological truth. Also, something can be theologically true, but makes no sense as a historical statement; much less can it be proven true as a historical statement.
The problem with Michael Bird and his cohort is that they don’t keep these two discourses separate enough. They could respond several different ways. They could say that in their book they don’t try to prove the existence of God historically, but are trying to prove that the earliest believers in Jesus already believed he was divine and worshipped him even in his lifetime. And that is something you can discuss historically. I think that they think that Bart Ehrman is doing bad historiography and exegesis. I think that Bart has the better case. They use certain kinds of texts to prove a very early Christology of Jesus as fully divine even the same as God the God of Israel or God the Father, I just don’t think they’re being very good historians. I don’t believe you need history to back up a theological truth in the first place. That’s what I am going to try to demonstrate when I talk about the resurrection account. By the end of my talk I’ll be saying that we Christians can confess our faith in Jesus and ourselves and that we don’t need to support that by historiography, nor can we support that through historiography if we are practicing history correctly.
This huge book that I just finished is about the whole theology of the New Testament movement in the 19th and 20th century was mis-minded and confused. If you try to confirm fully orthodox, robust Christian doctrine just reading the New Testament as a historical source, you’re either going to end up with bad history or bad theology or both. Something like the doctrine of the Trinity, you can’t find that in the New Testament if you’re going to be a good historical critic. You can find it if you read the New Testament allegorically, but we are all taught in seminary these days not to read it allegorically. My book is trying to show that it is fine to be a believer, but if you think you’re backing up your doctrine by historical criticism, then you’re using bad historical criticism or bad doctrine.