Thursday, May 22, 2014

Martin Hengel: Modern theological pluralism “projects itself onto early Christianity”

Martin Hengel (1926-2009) was a Lutheran scholar, to whom even Pope Benedict claims to be indebted. Hengel specialized in the early period of Rabbinic Judaism including early Christianity and the origins of Christianity. His magnum opus Judaism and Hellenism (1969) changed the course of New Testament studies by demonstrating that the Judaism out of which Christianity evolved had been deeply influenced by Hellenism.

He also argued for the existence in Jerusalem of a sizable community of Greek-speaking Jews (possibly 15 per cent of the population) which had its own synagogue and schools, and from which a group converted to Christianity. This group, he believed, continued to worship in Greek.

While Hengel was responsible for a radically different approach to the New Testament, his conclusions supported a basically conservative view of the Christian Faith in general, and of Christology in particular. He was certainly no fundamentalist. But he could be scathing about the subjectivity of many who apply modern methods of literary criticism to the Biblical text.

His book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) is a good entry point to his work.

Earliest Christian history : history, literature, and theology : essays from the Tyndale Fellowship in honour of Martin Hengel (edited by Michael F. Bird and Jason Maston), contains Hengel’s essay “Confessing and Confession”, (translated by Daniel Johansson). This paragraph on unity and diversity in the early Church, is a salutary comment on the approach of modern theological pluralists:

“Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (1 Corinthians 15:11). This succinct sentence contradicts the assumption so common today that in early Christianity there was not one fundamental confession of the faith which united all, but all kinds of kerygmas, not one Gospel, but many Christologies contradicting each other, and many churches whose teaching and living were quite disjoined, so that one must speak of a chaos at the beginning of the early Church. The Pauline letters in particular show that the opposite is true. In order to justify itself, modern theological pluralism here projects itself onto early Christianity against the clear statements of the texts. There were of course – considerable – differences in the preaching of individual apostles and missionaries, even contradictions and conflicts. I just remind [you] of the struggle at the apostolic council, the later incident at Antioch, and, what I believe, the permanent conflict between Peter and Paul. There are also, for example, considerable theological opposition between Romans and Galatians on the one hand and the Letter of James on the other. Nevertheless, all early Christian writings agree that eschatological salvation is effected through Christ, the Kyrios, his death and his resurrection. Only on this foundation, the attachment to the one Kyrios, was an agreement such as the one Paul depicts in Galatians 2:1-10 at all possible, and in Galatians 2:15ff. he assumes that Peter too acknowledges justification by faith alone and not through works of the law.


Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see:

Samuel Stuart Maynes

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