How the Critics Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is now part of the annual Christmas scene. Dr. Seuss in his usual entertaining way portrays the Grinch who really believes he can eliminate Christmas by stealing everything that goes along with Christmas. But the Grinch is totally dumbfounded with the results. Instead of mourning his theft, all the Whos in Whoville celebrate Christmas anyway by holding hands in the large circle singing Christmas carols. (To be true to Dr. Seuss, he writes of happy sounds coming out of Whoville.) The meaning? Dr. Seuss conveys the irrepressible nature of Christmas - something that cannot be destroyed or eliminated.

Sadly, modern Grinches really exist – and some in unexpected places. One would think that all schools of theology would be great defenders and disseminators of biblical teaching – such as the birth of Christ; however, such is not the case. For three decades Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was professor of New Testament studies at the University of Marburg in Germany, and his form critical approach to the Bible is still influential in some theological circles. Dr. Bultmann taught that anything supernatural contained in the New Testament must be purged because it has no relevance to our modern, scientific society since it was written by a pre-scientific early Church. To be blunt, Bultmann argued that the New Testament is largely an invention of the early Church – a kind of pious fraud based on oral traditions badly contaminated with supernaturalism. So, he called for a demythologizing of the New Testament. Consequently, the birth of Christ for him was only mythological much like imaginary stories of Greek gods. Is not this Grinch-like in character? After eliminating all of the supernatural surrounding Jesus’ birth, what is left? Did Bultmann and his ilk really steal Christmas?

Who are we to believe: Bultmann who lived twenty centuries after the Gospel writer Luke – or Luke who claimed to have gathered his material from eye-witnesses? Listen to what Luke had to say for himself: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke 1:1-4.

Frankly, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to believe someone who was a contemporary of the events and diligently researched their veracity? In order to write the story of Jesus’ birth recorded in the first two chapters of his Gospel, Luke no doubt interviewed eyewitnesses such as Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna. What could be more authentic and historical than that?

Why do form critics such a Rudolf Bultmann fail to accept the straightforward testimony of Luke and the other New Testament writers? Professors like Bultmann are steeped in New Testament study and are well-aware of Luke’s assertions. However, their a priori philosophical assumptions which preclude any supernaturalism have completely clouded their minds so that they cannot make common sense judgments about the New Testament text. They cannot believe what is plainly asserted by those who were there.

An example of this mindset is Dr. Robert W. Funk, Ph. D. Vanderbuilt, (1926-2005), who organized the Jesus Seminar – wildly popularized by the media. He brought together various scholars of his persuasion to attempt to demythologize the Gospels, i.e. to decide what sayings of Jesus might be authentic, i.e. not tainted with the supernatural. Less than 20% made the grade, and the entire Gospel of John was disqualified. It is not difficult to imagine Jesus Seminar conclusions when you understand Dr. Funk’s preconceived ideas: “We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine. Jesus’ divinity goes together with the old theistic way of thinking about God. The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus.” (quoted by Dr. Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D Harvard, in Unmasking the Jesus Seminar, www.markdroberts.com),

Peter’s testimony directly contradicts the conclusions of form critics who believe it is their job to demythologize the New Testament and purge it of supernaturalism: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16. And listen to the Apostle John: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaimed concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” 1 John 1:1-4.

Again, are we to believe the guesses of form critics twenty centuries after New Testament events, or are we to believe those who were there as eyewitnesses? Form critics cannot steal Christmas. It is too deeply embedded in the historical accounts of Apostles and Gospel writers. Rudolf Bultmann and those like him may patronize those of us who are convinced of Luke’s testimony of Christ’s birth -- and may pat us on the head as ignorant children who know nothing of the great “science” of form criticism. But is it not much more reasonable to accept the eyewitness testimony of contemporary biblical writers?

At Christmastime we will still hold hands in a huge circle just like the Whos in Whoville, and we will still joyfully sing Christmas carols about our Savior’s birth. We will still read the Christmas story as found in Matthew chapters 1-2 and Luke chapters 1-2, and we will still rejoice that this history has been preserved for us at great cost and diligence so that we can still hear and believe the angel’s message to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”, Luke 2:10-11.