Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The anti-fundamentalist

“Lwt me briefly consider a second individual, the late Robert Funk, the principal organizer of the much-loved and much-hated Jesus Seminar. Funk’s theological orientation is manifest from his last book, Honest to Jesus, which is wholly candid about ‘the aim of the quest,’ which is, to Funk’s mind, ‘to set Jesus free.’ Free him from what? From the ecclesiastical creeds and especially from the beliefs of the conservative churches of North America. Funk turned the historical Jesus into a wrecking ball with which to bash the walls of institutional, creedal Christianity.”

“Whatever the biographical impulses may have been, Funk was a well-known type–the anti-fundamentalist. With this in mind, it is fascinating to follow him as he strolls with us through the Jesus tradition, pointing out what represents Jesus and what does not. The tradition, it goes without saying, often depicts Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, and it regularly presents him as speaking about himself in exalted fashion. The tradition further purports that Jesus thought in terms of the saved and the unsaved, and it frequently has him quoting from and alluding to the Bible. Funk’s historical Jesus, however, is emancipated from all of this. He has no eschatology to speak of, no christology to speak of, and no soteriology (in the traditional sense) to speak of, and he shows little interest in the Bible. Funk exports to the post-Easter period all the sayings and stories that might indicate otherwise.”

“Although I may be entirely mistaken in the matter, I cannot but wonder about the relationship between Funk’s theological preferences and his historical conclusions. Eschatology, christology, soteriology, and the Bible, while at the heart of American fundamentalism, are no part of Funk’s personal theology. Jesus is coming again, the fundamentalist says. Funk denies this. Jesus is Lord, the fundamentalist says. Funk thinks otherwise. Jesus saves, the fundamentalist says. Funk has other roles for Jesus. The Bible tells me so, the fundamentalist says. Funk retorts: Well, maybe it does, but it ‘is a highly uneven and biased record’.”

“Whereas the fundamentalist cites the Bible, Funk instead appeals to the Jesus he has reconstructed, a Jesus who functions to replace the canonical texts, and who in each instance turns out to be Funk’s precursor, not the helpmeet of Funk’s religious opponents. Those elements in the tradition most beloved of conservatives conveniently happen to be, without exception, post-Easter fictions. Funk’s Jesus is on Funk’s side. It seems, a cynic might muse, almost too good to be true.”

“Now I do not contend here that the utility of Funk’s Jesus means that Funk must b e wrong about everything (although, as it happens, I heartily disagree with much that he has to say)…Still, the ease with which Funk’s historical Jesus comes to Funk’s theological assistance inexorably precipitates within me some cynicism.”

“John Dominic Crossan has worried about this matter of personal predilection a great deal because he has been accused of overlaying his own Irish history onto the Jesus tradition. According to some of his critics, Crossan’s ‘interpretation of Jesus as a first-century Galilean peasant resisting Roman imperial injustice in the name of Jewish tradition’ represents the ‘nineteenth-century Irish peasant resisting British imperial injustice in the name of Catholic (or Celtic) tradition.”

“Consider the fact that Funk has labeled Jesus a ‘secular sage’ who was ‘irreligious, irreverent, and impious.’ This novel evaluation, which could arise only in the modern academy, is not very shrewd. It is about as compelling as the legend that Jesus died in Kashmir, or the occasional attempt to turn Jesus into a revolutionary zealot bent on taking up the sword against Caesar. I cannot but surmise that an ideological program–Funk’s desire to use the historical Jesus against institutionalized religion–has distorted perception here,” D. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Eerdmans 2009), 17-20.


  1. I think Robert Funk was one of those scholars who explicitly reflected what's in the heart of many modern scholars, but usually doesn't come out so explicitly. There are some scholars, like Robert Funk and Bart Ehrman, who are less guarded than their colleagues.

    One of the last works Funk published prior to his death was his chapter in The Canon Debate (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), pp. 541-557. It's page after page of criticism of traditional Christianity on a wide range of issues, all under the guise of an article discussing the canon of scripture. Funk has said that one of his reasons for wanting to "reinvent Christianity" is to have a Christianity that would support "protected recreational sex among consenting adults" (U.S. News & World Report, August 4, 1997, p. 55). James White wrote:

    "In 1989 this writer attempted to dialogue with Dr. Robert Funk on a radio program in Phoenix, Arizona, concerning the Jesus Seminar's conclusion that Jesus never intended to return. Funk was painfully clear that such men as F.F. Bruce and Leon Morris are 'fringe scholars' whose opinions have been rejected by 'the guild.' I pointed out that when one defines who is and who is not a scholar, it's quite easy to say 'all scholars agree with us.' All one has to do is say, 'Everyone who disagrees with me is not a scholar.'...This fascinating interview, which included Dr. Funk's insistence that 'fundamentalists' are on a 'witch hunt' and wish to reinstate the 'Inquisition' so that they can 'kill' true scholars, ended with Dr. Funk telling the hosts and the guests (including myself) to 'go to hell' and hanging up on us." (Christian Research Journal, January-March 1998, pp. 51-52)

  2. It's also fascinating to see that Crossan's historical reconstruction of 1C Palestine turns out to be a thinly-veiled allegory for 19C Irish political history!

  3. good and interesting post. steve this is off topic but can you write something about anthropogenic global warming/ al gore's inconvenient truth in a more lengthy way or can you give christian sites that discuss this topic at great length.