EVOLUTIONARY EXPLANATIONS OF THE BIBLE (1

)
A three-part series based in large part, both in form and content, on F.G. Oosterhoff, “Faith and Science in the Reformed Tradition,” 4 (Clarion, March 15, 2002), pp. 134-137, and “Herman Bavinck on Old Testament Criticism,” 1, 2 (Clarion, September 13, 27, 2002), pp. 450-452, 474-477.

F.G. Oosterhoff AN EVOLUTIONARY EXPLANATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT Attacks upon the truth and supernatural origin of the Bible have been made throughout human history since the Fall. We read about them in both the Old Testament and the New. The hostility continued during the early Christian centuries and intensified once more in the modern period, from the eighteenth century onward. The critical theories of recent centuries affect today’s Christians most strongly. Some aspects of its nature, as well as the counter-attack by orthodox scholars, will be the subject of this three-part series. Prominent among the defenders of the biblical faith was the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), on whose arguments I will concentrate. In order not to get lost in details, I limit myself to two Bible-critical approaches that have been especially influential in the recent past and are, although in modified form, still with us today. Both are in tune with the evolutionist worldview that developed in the 19th century. That worldview has a much wider scope than evolution as a scientific theory. It speaks not just of a common origin of life forms (biological evolution), but constitutes what one theologian (Tim Keller) has called an All-Encompassing Theory – one that explains everything we believe and think and do as the result of a developmental process, a straightforward movement from simple to complex. Religion is not excepted. The influence of that evolutionist worldview we can note most clearly in the first of the two critical approaches to which I referred, namely the so-called Wellhausen theory of religious and biblical evolutionism. We will focus on that theory in the present instalment. The Wellhausen thesis Much of modern biblical criticism began in Germany, and the man who developed the evolutionary theory of the Old Testament was also a German, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). This scholar assumed the evolution of all religions but focused on that of Israel. The O.T. faith also, he taught, had developed from simple beginnings to ever-increasing complexity and sophistication. Because in his theory animism and polytheism were more “primitive” than monotheism, Wellhausen concluded that all religions in their early stages had been animistic and polytheistic, and that over time developments had taken place toward monotheism. This again applied to Israel’s faith. The earlier books of the Old Testament, in Wellhausen’s interpretation, assumed the existence of many gods; it was not until a much later period, the eighth century, that prophets arose who proclaimed that there was only one, universal, omnipotent God. To clinch the argument of the evolution of religion, the Wellhausen school pointed to beliefs and religious practices of still existing backward nations. It was done on the assumption that all cultures and religions develop in an identical manner, but at vastly different rates, and that today’s backward nations

were still in the primitive stages of cultural and cultic development. Consequently, the “low” form of religion found among them was similar to humanity’s original religion and therefore served as proof that in advanced cultures religious development had indeed been from low to high, from simple to complex. Other aspects of the Old Testament were similarly interpreted from an evolutionary point of view. A few examples will have to suffice. According to the generally accepted chronology, Abraham and the other patriarchs lived around 2000 to 1700 B. C. The Wellhausen school, however, said that this was far too early a date for civilized individuals (as the Old Testament describes the patriarchs) to have been around. They must therefore be the product of legend or fiction. Israelite history did not really begin until Moses and the Exodus; the entire period before the Exodus was still a time of barbarism. And not even Moses and his contemporaries had fully outgrown their primitive heritage. Theirs was not only an age of belief in a multiplicity of gods, but culturally and ethically also it was still a backward time. The high moral standards as expressed, for example, in the Ten Commandments could not have originated at the time of the Exodus, but must again be moved forward to the eighth century, or even to post-exilic times (that is, to the period following the return of Ezra around 450 B.C.). In short, ethical monotheism – the characteristic that, according to the critics, distinguished Israel’s religion from that of other nations – was a very late development. Criticism of the Wellhausen theory Although Wellhausen’s scheme seemed persuasive to many when first published, it soon appeared that not nearly all of it could stand up under scrutiny. Already during Wellhausen’s lifetime it became clear that many of his data were inaccurate, and also that his presuppositions strongly influenced, and all too often determined, his choice of evidence. As to the idea that the Old Testament teaches polytheism, for example, Wellhausen’s critics pointed out that in his description of the Israelite faith he gave attention only to the religion of the masses, where lapses into paganism were indeed frequent. From the very beginning of Israel’s history, however, there had been people who upheld the Mosaic teachings and the worship of Yahweh, the one and only God, and who attempted to draw the masses away from their apostasy. Their work is mentioned throughout the Old Testament, but because these data did not fit Wellhausen’s framework, they were ignored. Attention was also drawn to the tendency of evolutionists to date customs, rituals, laws, and so on, according to the age of the document in which they found them, all the while overlooking the obvious fact that old material can and does appear in later documents. Another point of criticism was the evolutionists’ assumption that early is necessarily primitive. The realization that the school had been misguided also in this respect was in large part the result of new work in archaeology, ancient history, and the history of religions, although developments in other disciplines played a role as well. Archaeologists and historians uncovered evidence of advanced civilizations in the Middle East, both in Egypt and Mesopotamia (Babylonia and Assyria), which had already existed long before the time of the patriarchs. They also provided historical and archaeological evidence that, as the Old Testament teaches, the patriarchs continued to be in contact with Mesopotamia. The Old Testament portrayal of Abraham, himself of Mesopotamian origin, as a civilized individual was therefore not at all in conflict with the data of secular scholarship.

Evolution or devolution? In his response Bavinck made use of the findings of historians and archaeologists but took his point of departure in the Bible. Throughout he stressed that from Scripture we learn that true knowledge of God was revealed to humanity at the beginning of human history. This knowledge became corrupted as a result of the Fall, and eventually belief in the one universal God made room for polytheism. The confusion of speech at Babel and the dispersion of the nations no doubt aided that development: After the dispersion each ethnic group probably adopted and named its own god. At first monotheism may have continued within each group. But when the knowledge of God declined still further, it can have been only a step for the nations to recognize besides the one national god a plethora of other deities, who would act as intermediaries between humanity and the supreme god. The same development would have taken place in Israel, had not God intervened by his electing grace and special revelation. In short, the Bible teaches not positive religious development but, apart from Israel, religious degeneration. The evolutionary theory of religion, Bavinck argued, was not only unscriptural, it also lacked historical support. He added that this was beginning to be recognized in his days. Many scholars admitted that when theorizing about the origin of humanity, of its language, its religion, its ethics, and so on, they were moving into the area of prehistory, where they had to satisfy themselves with guesses and assumptions. Evolutionists had ignored that fact. They had also been mistaken, Bavinck said, in reasoning by analogy from the religions of modern “primitive” nations to the character of religion in the distant past. The idea that today’s “primitive” peoples and cultures are in every respect closer to the original state of humanity than are more civilized peoples is only an assumption; it has not been proven and cannot be proven. During the many centuries of their existence, the cultures and religions of these backward nations must have undergone at least some change. In fact, as we have seen, the Bible gives us every reason to believe that we encounter among them not simply the absence of positive evolution, but the presence of its opposite, namely devolution and degeneration. The true origin of paganism Bavinck came with additional arguments about the common origin of religions. Many pagan nations, he pointed out, have – like Israel – traditions of a golden age in the distant past, of a lost paradise, and of man being God’s creature and of God’s generation. Many of these traditions also speak of a God who is the cause of all that exists, of an ordered creation, of the struggle of good against evil, of the distinction between truth and falsehood, of immortality, a future judgment, and rewards and punishments in a future life. How can evil produce good? These traditions cannot be explained by theories according to which religion developed from superstition and idolatry. To say that they can be so explained, Bavinck argued, is not only to be in conflict with whatever historical evidence we have, it also goes against common sense and logic. No one can take seriously the suggestion that evil and corruption are the origin of good, or that the lie gives birth to truth. How then can anyone truly believe that idolatry and superstition and the evil practices that so often go with them can have created the true religion? Only a common origin of religions and

pagan memories of an original divine revelation can explain the similarities between pagan traditions and the Bible. And therefore, Bavinck concluded, without belief in God and “without the acknowledgement of his existence, of his revelation, his making himself known to us, one cannot explain the origin and nature of religion.” So much for Bavinck’s arguments with respect to the Wellhausen theory. In the next two instalments I turn to a second Bible-critical theory, namely that of the so-called Babylonian school.1

1

For sources of Bavinck’s reaction to Old Testament biblical criticism see endnote of the second instalment of this series.

EV0LUTIONARY EXPLANATIONS OF THE BIBLE (2)
Second of a three-part series based in large part, both in form and content, on F.G. Oosterhoff, “Faith and Science in the Reformed Tradition,” 4 (Clarion, March 15, 2002), pp. 134-137, and “Herman Bavinck on Old Testament Criticism,” 1, 2 (Clarion, September 13, 27, 2002), pp. 450-452, 474-477.

F.G. Oosterhoff BABYLONIA AND THE OLD TESTAMENT The weaknesses of the Wellhausen approach contributed to the rise of newer critical movements, such as the schools of the history of religions. The critics belonging to these schools did not concern themselves with the origins of religion as such, but tried by means of comparative studies to determine whether religions had influenced each other, and if so, to what extent. In practice this meant that the Old Testament faith was explained, in part or in whole, with reference to the traditions of advanced civilizations surrounding Israel. Not all historians went to the same source. Earlier scholars had looked for influences from Persia, India, and especially Egypt. After the great archaeological discoveries in Mesopotamia, beginning in the 1870s, the focus changed. Following the work of the German scholar Friedrich Delitzsch, theologians now decided that the Old Testament message must have been derived in large part from Babylonian sources. Because this Babylonianism was influential in his days, Bavinck would give much attention to that movement. “Babel and Bible” When the Babylonian school appeared around the year 1900, some very radical views were promoted. In its heydays some of its adherents fully equated Babel und Bibel (to use the German terminology). According to this movement the Old Testament derived not only its accounts of creation and flood from Babylonian myths, but also practically every other aspect of its religion – including the belief in monotheism, the name Yahweh, the account of the Fall, the institution of the Sabbath, the Ten Commandments, and indeed the bulk of the Mosaic law. This radical movement did not last. Before long even unbelieving scholars rejected its extreme conclusions as speculative and unproven. The movement came also under attack for giving insufficient attention to Israel’s relations with Egypt and with various other ethnic groups, such as Hittites and Phoenicians, the peoples of the Syrian-Arabian desert, and the population of Canaan itself. The Canaanite connection was stressed especially when, a decade or so after the First World War, important archaeological discoveries were made at Ugarit, a city located on the Syrian coast just north of Palestine, which had flourished between 1400 and 1200 B.C. The excavations at Ugarit yielded many data about ancient Canaanite traditions and also about links between Israel and Canaanite culture. Important, among other things, was the information on the religion of Baal and Astarte, which, as we can learn from the Bible, influenced Israel more strongly than any Babylonian cult. At the same it became clear, however, that although it had developed a distinct culture of its own, Ugarit had been influenced by Mesopotamia.

Israel and the nations Bavinck died before the discoveries at Ugarit, and although he mentioned Canaanite sources, he concentrated on the original Babylonian theory. I have described both that theory and its negative evaluation by orthodox scholars (a group that included Bavinck) in the series “Genesis 1 in Context” and refer the interested reader to those articles. At this point I concentrate not so much on the negative as on the positive remarks Bavinck addressed at the Babylonian school. Among the facts he appreciated was that the newer critics had discarded the idea that religions develop in isolation. As a result, Israel was no longer seen as an island, separated by a wide ocean from the rest of the world. The critics showed that as a nation and with its religious and cultural life, Israel had connections with its environment. They also showed that it had connections with the distant past. Members of the older historical-critical school (that of Wellhausen and his followers) had assumed that Israelite history had not really begun until the time of Moses, and that its culture and religion had not reached maturity until much later. They had believed that the accounts of creation and paradise and flood, the person and service of Yahweh, the ceremonies and laws, the expectation of a Messiah, and so on, had originated with eighth-century prophets, or even with prophets living in the period after the exile. What they had failed to consider was that these beliefs could be, and in fact were, much older than the documents which described them. By drawing attention to these misconceptions of the Wellhausen school, the Babylonian school served as an important corrective, even though its explanation of Israel’s religion remained unacceptable. Christianity as the fulfilment of paganism In his analysis of Babylonianism Bavinck returned once again to the common origin of all religions. We do not find Babylon behind the Bible, he concluded; rather, we find behind the Bible a very ancient divine revelation, a memory of which still lingered among pagan nations. It was this memory, however corrupted, that explained such parallels with Genesis as can be found in pagan religious mythology. The original revelation had begun at the dawn of human history, proceeded among the descendents of Seth and Shem, and, within the bedding of the covenant with Israel, continued its flow until the fullness of time. The God who revealed himself to Abraham, bidding him to leave Mesopotamia and live in a foreign country, was therefore not a new and strange God. He was the God of old, the Creator of all things. The separation and election of Abraham and Israel were necessary so that the original revelation could be kept pure and reach fulfillment, and so in the end become once more the possession of all nations. The promise became particular for a time, but only so that it could become universal again at a later date. Israel was part of humanity, continued to be connected to it, and was elected not at the expense of but for the sake of the rest of mankind. And therefore a third positive element in the history of religions, Bavinck wrote, was that this school allowed for a common source of religion. Many evolutionists had denied this. According to the Wellhausen school, for example, religions developed separately, and if they happened to have things in common – such as faith in a supernatural power, worship, prayer, sacrifices, the search for redemption, the expectation of a Saviour, the hope of immortality – that was simply coincidence. Many Christian

apologists also denied, at least by implication, a common origin. Rather than discerning elements of truth in pagan religions, they tended to describe the founders of such religions as deceivers and enemies of God, tools of Satan. And it is true that Scripture itself calls paganism idolatry, deception, lies and vanity and darkness, and that it sees in it the working of demonic powers. There is an absolute antithesis between the biblical faith and all pagan religions; the Bible does not leave any doubt on that point. But this absolute antithesis does not, Bavinck believed, force us to deny a common origin of religious traditions among the peoples of the earth. In the earliest phase of its history, he reminds us, humanity consisted of one family. The traditions dating from that early period were long maintained and perhaps reinforced among peoples through trading connections and other means of communication. In addition to these traditions, there is God’s general revelation, and the fact that the nations continue to be under God’s rule and providence. The Holy Spirit has not departed from the world, and therefore Paul could tell the pagan Athenians that he was proclaiming to them the God whom they had worshiped as an unknown God. In this sense, Bavinck believes, Christianity does not only stand in opposition to paganism but is also its fulfillment. Christ is the One who was promised to Israel and to the nations. Abraham was told that in him all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. The essence of Israel’s faith All this confirms, Bavinck added, that the essence of the biblical faith is not to be sought, as is so often assumed, in its ethics and its monotheism. That is part and parcel of the Old Testament faith and is essential to it, but it is not in itself something that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.” Ethical monotheism could conceivably be a characteristic even of a pagan religion. The core of the revelation which came to Israel, and the heart of the religion which responded to that revelation, are to be sought elsewhere. To find them, we must turn to Scripture itself – to the prophets and psalmists, to Jesus and the apostles. They teach us that the central message of divine revelation is not its monotheism, nor is it the moral law, nor the laws of circumcision, the Sabbath, and so on, but the covenant of grace. Not law but Gospel is the essence and summary of the Scriptures of both Old and New Testament. The law came after the promise and was added to show the promise’s necessity. But it was not originally connected with it, and it remains a temporary addition. The promise, however, will not cease. It originated in paradise, was maintained under the Old Covenant, reached its fulfillment in Christ, and extends in the New Testament dispensation to all peoples. That promise, as Bavinck describes it, has three aspects. Firstly, it shows the electing love of God, who in free and sovereign grace chooses Abraham and his offspring and makes them his possession, and who does so in order that the knowledge of God, which was being lost, may be preserved. This covenant relationship is not a “natural” one but has developed in history, on God’s own initiative. It is God who instituted it, and who also states the demand of the covenant. The demand is that Israel be faithful to the covenant by obeying the God of the covenant. The God of Abraham and of Israel is not a natural force, but a person, who asks that the love he has shown to his people be returned, and therefore strictly forbids superstition and idol worship.

Secondly, the promise to Israel shows God’s forgiving grace. God’s enemies are not natural forces like Tiamat and Rahab and Baal, the storms and the oceans and the monsters that inhabit sea and land and air. The force that opposes God arises not in nature but in history, in the world of man. It is the force of sin. Genesis 3 explains the origin of sin, showing that it exists in humanity’s rebellion against God, in its transgression of God’s command, its rejection of his love. The chapters following Genesis 3 trace the continuation of sin and again make manifest that it is a product of the human heart. When the stream of unrighteousness continues also after the flood, God elects Abraham, so that he and his descendants may turn from sin and walk before God in holiness. God’s love and faithfulness God does this because his electing love is at the same time a forgiving love. He does not only call people, he also gives himself to them. He connects himself to his people so closely and mercifully that he takes over their guilt. “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The covenant is built on redemption and forgiveness, and the “walk before God’s face” to which the patriarchs were called is therefore a walk of gratitude. The law came after the promise, was built on the promise, and was promulgated to serve the promise. It was a law not of a covenant of works, but of a covenant of grace. The prophets knew this. They did not – whatever biblical critics may say – introduce a new and higher moral law or invent a new, ethical monotheism. And neither did they tell the people that they had to earn their position as God’s people. They told them that they already were God’s people and that they had to live accordingly. That God forgives sin out of grace, for his own sake, we can know only from the special revelation given to Israel. We would value it more highly, Bavinck says, if we had a deeper sense of guilt. For the forgiving love of God is not “natural,” nor is it cheap. If God forgives sin for his own sake, then he must also himself bring about the atonement; and the ceremonies of the law make clear that there is no atonement without the shedding of blood. In the course of its history Israel had to learn of a suffering that is undergone for the sake of others. And so by degrees was revealed the mystery of an innocent and redeeming suffering, as Isaiah speaks of it in the image of the Lord’s servant, who is wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our sins. Thirdly and finally, the Old Testament Gospel reveals the promise of God’s unchanging faithfulness. The more Israel’s apostasy increases, the more persistent are the prophets in proclaiming that God will not break his covenant and leave his promise unfulfilled. “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:10). The prophets relate Israel’s past, interpret the present, but also look forward to the future: to the fulfillment of the promise in Christ. In days to come, they tell Israel, God will establish a new covenant, one wherein the promise of the old covenant, “I shall be your God and you shall be my people,” will be completely fulfilled. And this, Bavinck concludes, is the content and essence of the Gospel entrusted to Israel. No school of biblical criticism can ever destroy it. Free electing love, free and gracious forgiveness, and free and full communion are the promises which Israel received, and which it proclaimed to the rest of humankind.

In the person of Christ, who is the Son of God and the Son of man, who descended from Abraham and David, and who is the Desire of both Israel and the nations, these promises have been fulfilled.

SOURCES : For Bavinck’s writings on the Wellhausen hypothesis and the Babylonian school of O.T. interpretation, see Gereformeerde
Dogmatiek, 4th ed., I, pp. 286-91; II, pp. 434-39, 490-99; Wijsbegeerte der Openbaring, pp. 65f., 138-70; De Algemeeene Genade, pp. 7-16. (Bavinck’s views on the “elements of truth” in pagan religions are similar to those of Abraham Kuyper; see S.J. Ridderbos, De theologische cultuurbeschouwing van Abraham Kuyper, pp. 98-106.

EVOLUTIONARY EXPLANATIONS OF THE BIBLE (3)
Third of a three-part series based in large part, both in form and content, on F.G. Oosterhoff, “Faith and Science in the Reformed Tradition,” 4 (Clarion, March 15, 2002), pp. 134-137, and “Herman Bavinck on Old Testament Criticism,” 1, 2 (Clarion, September 13, 27, 2002), pp. 450-452, 474-477.

F.G. Oosterhoff DID CHRISTIANITY EVOLVE FROM PAGANISM? The Babylonian school has lost influence since the early 20th century, but its theories have not been abandoned among all biblical critics, nor have they failed to influence the general public. I well remember my experience as an undergraduate when for the first time I had to deal seriously not only with biological evolution but also with evolutionistic interpretations of the Bible and the biblical religion. That is of course many years ago, but students have told me that they still encounter this type of argument, for example in university courses on ancient history and comparative religions. The topic therefore continues to be relevant. So far we have focused only on attempts to explain the Old Testament with reference to evolutionary theories and presumed pagan influences. The same thing happened, however, with respect to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity. These attempts, which I will now briefly describe, are probably better known among us than the Old Testament ones. Pagan expectations of a Saviour As in the case of the Old Testament, the idea that the New Testament also derived from pagan religions can be persuasive on first sight. Anyone who gets acquainted with the theory will agree that there are similarities between pagan religious traditions and the Gospel account. One example is the widespread quest for deliverance among pagans in New Testament times. The Hellenistic age – that is the period beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great just before 300 B.C. – was a time of great insecurity in the Graeco-Roman world, an insecurity that was a result of many years of warfare and political unrest, of extremes in wealth and poverty, widespread slavery, and rapid political, social, and cultural change. Alexander’s conquests, and later the expansion of Rome, had erased ancient boundaries, replaced local governments with foreign and frequently repressive ones, and created a society wherein a variety of cultures, traditions, and religions were thrown together. The magnitude and rapidity of the changes contributed to a feeling that the times were out of joint and that for the world to survive a cosmic renewal was necessary. This conviction explains the fact that throughout the Roman Empire predictions multiplied about the coming of a saviour. For some this saviour would be a divine being; for others he would merely be a political leader. A combination of the two ideas seems to occur in the work of the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.). In one of his poems, the famous Fourth Eclogue, which dates from about 40 B.C., Virgil spoke of the birth of a divine son who would regenerate all things and bring to Rome and the world a golden age of peace and justice. Well into the eighteenth century, Christians believed that Virgil had predicted the coming of Christ. They venerated him, with Balaam (Numbers 23ff.), as a “prophet of the Gentiles” and often called the poem in question the “Messianic Eclogue.” Modern scholars have suggested that Virgil drew on both pagan myths and Old Testament prophecy. In his days many Jews, uprooted since the exile, lived in Rome and spread their religion. The Old Testament

had already been translated into Greek (the Septuagint, ca. 200 B.C.), and Gentiles were becoming acquainted with the messianic expectations of the Jews. As we know from Acts and other N.T. books, several Gentiles in fact had become proselytes. Virgil may therefore well have known about biblical prophecy and used it to give symbolic expression to the longing for a saviour. But he probably also used Old Testament prophecy and pagan myth to glorify a Roman political leader – perhaps Mark Antony, or Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus. To deify political leaders, and to speak of them in messianic terms, was common in his days. From Alexander the Great onward, Hellenistic emperors, influenced by oriental cultures and religions, had demanded and received divine honours. Roman emperors would follow the example. To call a king or emperor soter (saviour) was routine practice in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The mystery religions More important for the Bible-critical scholars than the deification of emperors was the expectation of the coming of a supernatural saviour. Egypt, Greece, and other mid-eastern countries had myths of a god or goddess who died and rose again. Usually these myths formed the basis of nature religions, with the deities symbolizing natural processes such as the setting and rising of the sun, or the progression of the seasons from the death of winter to the renewal of life in the spring. Sometimes, however, the myths were associated with ideas of spiritual and supernatural deliverance. They spoke of a god who died and rose to redeem humanity, who offered delivery from sin, and who won for his followers immortality. The ideas of purification, redemption, regeneration, and unity with the godhead were symbolized by the use of sacraments that paralleled the Christian ones, namely baptism and the celebration of a communal meal. Such beliefs and practices were popularized by the so-called mystery religions, which enjoyed great popularity throughout the Graeco-Roman world in New Testament times. Although the mystery religions often involved the degenerate practices of other pagan cults, in some cases they appear to have led to a more spiritual and ethical type of piety among their adherents. How to explain the similarities? The mushrooming of these mystery religions in New Testament times is indeed striking, and so are the similarities between their teachings and those of Christianity. It is therefore not surprising that biblical critics referred to these findings in order to challenge the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Yet it is not difficult to show that here, too, presuppositions influenced interpretation, and that careful study can prove the historians and theologians in question to have failed to make their point. Bavinck was again among the scholars who engaged in such study and provided arguments. Bavinck admitted the similarities between the New Testament message and many aspects of the mystery religions, but he denied that these religions had influenced the New Testament account. If Christianity had indeed been formed by pagan traditions as transmitted by the mystery religions, he wrote, these traditions would have been influential with Paul, John, and indeed the entire Christian community. But there was no proof whatsoever that this was the case. The faith of the Christian church focused on the person of Christ and was hostile to all pagan religiosity. Its Scripture was the Old Testament. The fact that the New Testament uses terms (such as Saviour, renewal, regeneration, and so on) which were common among the Greeks and Romans was no proof of cultural influence: The authors of the New Testament had no choice but to use the language of their time and culture. The terms did not necessarily have the same meaning as they had for their pagan contemporaries.1 The question still remains how one is then to explain the similarities and parallels. Can they perhaps be seen as a means God used to prepare the way for Christianity? Early Christian authors (such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr) did not think so. They and their contemporaries were convinced that the pagan

sacraments were, in the words of Stephen Neill, “a diabolical parody of the Christian rites, directly inspired by the evil spirits in order to lead the faithful astray. At no time,” Neill writes, “have the fathers a good word to say for the mysteries; never once do they suggest that they were in some way a preparation for the Christian Gospel, or that they expressed in some dim way universal human aspirations to which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the true answer.”2 Christ, the Desire of the Nations The theory that mystery religions depended on Christianity for some of their ideas, rather than the other way around, is well-founded. Commentators in Bavinck’s time already suggested it, and later scholars have made abundantly clear that several of the pagan rites were indeed borrowed from Christianity. Yet there were also practices and beliefs in the Hellenistic cults with similarities to Christianity that clearly pre-dated the New Testament era. The very ancient myth of a dying and rising god is one of them. The explanations offered by the early church, as well as those of the later critics, are therefore insufficient. Nor has it remained the only explanation among Christian scholars. I already referred to the spread of Old Testament teachings (which no doubt included Old Testament references to the promise of a Messiah) by Jews in the dispersion. Another possible source, which Bavinck mentioned, was once again humanity’s collective memory. The promise of a Saviour was contained in God’s earliest revelation, occurring already in Genesis 3:15. Although among the pagans the memories of this original revelation had been sorely corrupted, Bavinck believed that it continued to play a role in pagan religions and expectations. He concluded that “In its most beautiful and noblest expressions [paganism] points to Christianity.” And this, he added, is not surprising, for Christ is not only the Messiah of the Jews, but “the Desire of all Nations.”3

1

Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, I, 290. Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1961, p. 157

2

Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, III, 217. I should add here that later scholars, including C.S. Lewis, have come with somewhat different explanations that also deserve our attention. I may write about them at a later date.

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