Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mattill on Jesus and Jonah

The following is from A. J. Mattill's critique of Lewis's Modern Theology and Biblical Criticisms. My replies are below.

I. Distrusting the Divines as Literary Critics

A. Jonah, John, and Jesus

To defend orthodoxy, Lewis challenges the authority of New Testament experts, “the authority in deference to whom we are asked to give up a huge mass” of age-old beliefs (153) Lewis is “sceptical about this authority” because specialists in New Testament lack “literary judgment”(154). They fail to reconstruct convincingly the genesis of biblical tests: “what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences”(158).

An example of their poor judgment is their classification of the Fourth Gospel as a “spiritual romance,” as “a poem not a history” (154).

Lewis may well be correct in claiming that most, if not all, New Testament scholars are more or less incompetent as literary critics, since they spend their time in detailed study of the New Testament and lack “a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general” (154). Lewis, however, in criticizing the literary acumen of Johannine students, ensnares himself. He accuses them of “crass insensitivity” in judging the Fourth Gospel by the same canons as the book of Jonah, for any competent literary critic could recognize that the former is a history whereas the latter is “a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident” (154).

Lewis here is repeating his earlier assessment of Jonah, when he placed Jonah at the opposite end of a scale of historical writings from the memoirs of David’s court (2 Samuel 9-20, 1 Kings 1-2), Mark, or Acts.[2]

What Lewis fails to note is that Jesus himself regarded Jonah as a historical book, factual and authentic. Jonah was a sign to Jesus’ generation. The men of Nineveh repented at his preaching, and ‘‘as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the big fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-42; 16:1-4, Luke 11:29-32).

If Lewis is correct about the non-historical nature of the book of Jonah, then Jesus lacked literary judgment. And if Jesus cannot be trusted even as a literary critic, how can he be trusted in spiritual matters as Lord and Savior? Lewis can hardly shore up Christian orthodoxy by undercutting Jesus’ authority.

It is, of course, possible that Matthew and Luke err in their reporting of Jesus’ attitude toward Jonah. If so, Matthew and Luke are not the dependable historians Lewis would like them to be. Or it may be that Jonah is a historical book and Jesus, Matthew, and Luke are reliable literary authorities after all. But that would call into question Lewis’s competence as a critic and his distrust of New Testament scholarship.

VR: I don’t see that using Jonah as a type of himself entails a commitment to the historicity of Jonah. I could say “Just as Aslan died for the sins of Edmund, so Christ died for your sins” without committing myself to the real existence of Aslan.

Even if Jesus thought Jonah historical, a kenotic Christology that sees Christ as emptying himself of divine attributes to be human would, of course, limit Christ’s knowledge of literary scholarship. Jesus told fictional stories many times. Does that make him a liar?

Mattill says that if we can’t trust Christ in matters of literary scholarship, we can’t trust him in matters of salvation. Why? Was Jesus’ mission to introduce adequate techniques of literary scholarship? Or did He have better things to do with his time?

It's worthwhile to point out that Blomberg, in the interview that I linked to a few posts back, said that while he was prepared to defend the historical accuracy of John, his belief in the inspired status of John does not require complete historicity and historical accuracy.

And the argument that God does not lie may have problems with it. Jesus always does the right thing. Suppose Jesus were sheltering Jews from the Nazis. If the Nazis came and asked "Are there any Jews here," I believe Jesus would have said no.


Jason Pratt said...

Then again, all things considered, I think it's rather likely that Jesus would have answered them,

"Yes. _I AM_."


(Otherwise, I agree; good answers--to what I think is, for the most part, a pretty fair criticism.)

vaisamar said...

Does anyone know to what commentary of the Fourth Gospel is Lewis alluding when he quotes from it ('spiritual romance', 'a poem not a history')? I am now translating some of Lewis's essays into Romanian.
Many thanks.