Karen Armstrong’s Dim View of Christianity

Case for GodIn a post near the beginning of this series I summarized Armstong’s views of Jesus Christ and Christianity. Go back and read that post if you need to. In this post I’m going to touch about my concerns with her presentation here.

One Sided Unknowning is Actually A Special Case of Knowing

First, I note that for someone whose whole religious practice is built on “unknowing” that there doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of “unknowing” when it comes to Jesus Christ. She is completely certain that He only taught that he was a non-unique son of God in the same sense that we all are. She is completely certain that He was not ‘bodily resurrected’ but that rather people just saw visions of Him. She is completely certain that He would have been in favor of self-emptying and her apophatic method. No other possibility is considered or discussed at all.

This ‘certainty’ that Armstrong easily asserts when necessary brings up a larger issues: Theological Liberals of the Armstrong variety seem to only believe in their beliefs when it’s convenient. Unknowing is only exalted right up to the point that it encourages their own beliefs. If it ever doesn’t, then ‘certainty’ becomes okay after all. Likewise, ‘not having the final word about God’ is only true if you mean everyone else but Armstrong-like Liberals. They really do have the final word on several subjects, namely all the ones they care about and that their religious beliefs are anchored on. So in this sense, they aren’t really different from their ‘conservative’ counterparts. Armstrong really does act as if she believes she gets the ‘final say’ when it comes to Jesus Christ.

Misrepresenting the Evidence

At times I was left with the impression that the truth just didn’t matter to Armstrong. More on this in my final post. But consider just a few points about her interpretation of Jesus Christ.

Consider her use of the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus found in Luke 24:13-25. To Armstrong the fact that Jesus ‘vanishes’ is evidence that the resurrection was Jesus was just an aspiration in the disciples’ minds. But she never even bothers to mention this passage from Luke:

Luke 24:39

39 Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

To be frank, how did she miss this?

Suggesting that Luke taught that Jesus was not literally resurrected via the story of the road to Emmaus while failing to address Luke 24:39 is so bad it can’t even be considered bad scholarship.

Consider also this quote from Armstrong:

Even though Paul and the evangelists all called Jesus ‘son of God,’ they were not making divine claims for him. They would have been quite shocked by this idea. (p. 85)

Really? How about this quote from Paul that she does references, but out of context:

Romans 1:4

4 And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead:

Armstrong would have us believe, coupled with all the rest of Paul’s teachings, that Paul was making no special Divine claims for Jesus and would be ‘quite shocked’ at the idea. Yet, here he is making that very claim.

It strains credulity beyond reason the sorts of claims she is making here.

Did Jesus Become the Son of God at His Resurrection?

Now consider Armstrong’s interpretation of Romans 1:4. This verse has two possible interpretations due to the vagueness of language. The most natural way to read it within the context of Christian beliefs is that through the resurrection, God proved Jesus was uniquely His Son since no other person had ever been resurrected. The way Armstrong and other Theological Liberals choose to read it is that it wasn’t until the resurrection that Jesus became the Son of God. TT, a liberal scholar on the Bloggernacle, once told me (and I quote) “…[to derive the traditional interpretation as suggested by believing scholar Pannenberg] you have to add in the idea that Jesus declared to be Son of God while alive, a claim that Paul no where makes, in order to come to the conclusion that that is what Paul is saying. So, yes, if you add in stuff that the text doesn’t say, the alternative interpretation would be acceptable.” [1]

But whoa there TT and Armstrong. This is the only reference period in Paul to Jesus being “the Son of God” in those words. So TT might as well just said that since there are no other references within Paul to Jesus becoming the Son of God until after the resurrection we should read it as meaning the resurrection declared Jesus as already Son of God. So this argument has no value one way or the other. It equally supports both views. In other words, both intrepretations are worthy of scholarly discussion and leaving one of the two out is a case of stacking the deck in favor of your personal bias.

What if Romans 1:4 Was Missing from the Bible?

I have thought about this for a while and I have a further thought I want to share. Lets, just for a moment, assume that Romans (or at least Romans chapter 1) didn’t happen to survive to this day. We would then have no references to Jesus being the Son of God in Paul at all. I have no doubt that TT, Armstrong, and the Liberal Theologians would then insist this lack of any references had to mean that Paul didn’t believe Jesus to be the Son of God at all. They would have no problem ignoring all of Paul’s teachings about salvation only through Jesus, his insistence of the resurrection of Jesus being the center of the religion, etc. None of that would have mattered. The only thing that would have mattered was that no references existed where Paul said Jesus was “the son of God” in those words. Sadly, I confess I would have agreed with them. This example demonstrates the danger of making arguments from silence like this. It seems apparent that the early Christians did believe Jesus was the Son of God (even the liberal interpretation claims this for His post resurrection) yet for some reason did not like to state it in those words too often. That seems to be why Paul makes deeply divine claims for Jesus throughout yet only one reference to Him being “The Son of God” happened to survive.

Yet, because Romans did happen to survive to today, we know Paul did believe Jesus to be the Son of God (for our purposes at the moment, it doesn’t matter when Paul believed this happened.) It is, as it were, a fluke of nature that we happen to know this. So instead the Liberals interpret this verse in such a way that it’s contrary to traditional Christian doctrine at least. Are you really surprised?

And why doesn’t Christian tradition play an evidential role here? Granted, it’s hardly proof. There is always the possibility that Christian traditions have changed since the original teachings. Heck, Mormonism is based on this idea that things changed drastically. But consider that the Liberal position is actually one of no evidence at all. They have a single quote in Romans 1:4. That quote can be read as completely aligned with the traditional (and ancient) Christian view of the mortal Jesus already being the Son of God, or it can be read counter to it. There is absolutely not a single other reference in existence to the idea that Jesus only became the Son of God at His resurrection. None at all. This reference is their only ‘evidence.’

Yet, rationally, it’s not evidence at all because we have no way of knowing that it wasn’t just teaching the traditional Christian view of Jesus here. Given this ‘lack of evidence’ I would suggest that ‘tradition’ isn’t such a bad guide in deciding how to read this verse. Or at least it’s better than intentionally reading it contrary to nearly contemporary documents (i.e. the Gospels) because that allows one to undermine a competing belief system.

In fact, this is a real life example of what I, in a past post, called an information free narrative fallacy. Only the illusion of information exists in Armstrong’s (and the Liberal) view of Romans 1:4.

Did Jesus Teach He Had No Unique Parentage?

Armstrong’s use of Matt 7:11 as a proof text that Jesus considered His relationship with the Father to be the same as His disciples relationship with the Father. But Consider:

John 20:17

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

In this verse, Jesus intentionally makes a separation between Himself and His disciples. It is never “our Father” but “My Father and Your Father.” How much should we read into this? I don’t know. How much should we trust John’s account since Liberal pretty much dismiss it entirely? I don’t know. But I would insist that it’s not ‘of no relevance at all.’ John might represent a later tradition on this, or may this tradition hadn’t changed since the beginning. But Matt 7:11 can be read either way. So it’s not evidence of one view over the other on this point of doctrine. Yet Armstrong uses it as if it’s evidence for her view. This is yet another real life example of an information free narrative fallacy.

For that matter, how are we to read Matthew 10:32

32 Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.

33 But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

Or consider Matthew 11:27

27 All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.

Is this really just Jesus claiming He is only a Son of God in the same sense that we all are? It sure does not fit well with Armstrong’s assumption that Jesus only taught standard Rabbinical teachings nor with her belief that the disciples would have been shocked at assertions of Divinity about Jesus.

Based on these examples, how much faith should we place on Armstrong’s other treatments of history throughout her book?

Why Does Armstrong Reject The Teachings of the Bible So Strongly?

Given Armstrong’s strong insistence that no one has the final say about God and that unknowing is a virtue, why does she promptly ignore her own virtues when it comes to Jesus Christ and Christianity?

I’d like to suggest that it’s because the teaching of the Bible are fundamentally at odds with Liberal Theology as envisioned by Armstrong. Read this quote from Paul in context of our discussion so far:

Romans 15:17

 17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.

It teaches of a literal bodily resurrection rather than orthopraxy that finds ‘ultimate meaning’ through ritual. It says we will live again rather than merely saying we can learn to ‘die well.’

The Bible is so full of literalism in an ancient text – contrary to her entire thesis – that it really must be dismissed out of hand for her point to not fail. Failing that, she essentially stacks what little evidence she can interpret into it and ignores the mound against her. Then she leaves her reader with a false impression that the matter is settled.

Many of you probably sense my general frustration with Armstrong throughout. I honestly feel that even if she is right that there is no literal God and no literal resurrection and religion is just a useful way to order one’s life and learn to deal with the horrors therein, I still can’t accept the level of misrepresentation in her book from start to finish. But this bring me to the subject of my final post on Karen Armstrong: how does Armstrong look at / interpret the concept of “truth”? This will be the subject of my next post.


[1] TT actually adds a second point: “The passages discuss two different geneaologies, one ‘according to the flesh,’ and another ‘according to the spirit of holiness.’ For the second, the text says that he was declared to be of that lineage by the resurrection.”

I confess, even if I accept TT’s interpretation here, I have no idea why this point favors one intrepretation over the other since the traditional point of view allows for Jesus to have two lineages as well. In any case, I include this for full disclosure of the whole argument made. Both sides are free to intrepret this verse as they see fit, of course.

2 thoughts on “Karen Armstrong’s Dim View of Christianity

  1. Thanks for the discussion, Bruce. I’ve read other Armstrong books, but not this one — I’ll have to go find a copy.

  2. Bruce, I seem to recall a General Conference just a few days ago where a lot of these issues where addressed at length. 🙂

    In any case, I am enjoying these posts. Thanks.

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