Laurel and Hardy. Abbott and Costello. Martin and Lewis. Cheech and Chong. The comedy duo is a tradition with a long, distinguished history. In that vein, I give you the latest thing in yucks: Borg and Crossan! The St. Louis Post-Dispatch lets us in on their secret:

When Eden Theological Seminary leaders booked the Borg-and-Crossan Show for the spring convocation, they knew they were inviting two of biblical scholarship’s most controversial rock stars to campus.

To switch the entertainment metaphor, I had no idea that Milli Vanilli (another pair of charlatans whose act fooled people for a while) had gotten back together and gone into academia.

Marcus Borg, professor emeritus at Oregon State University, and John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University, are prolific authors — each, most recently, of a book they published together, “The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.”

All you need to know about this opus you can find in the product description at Amazon:

Borg and Crossan use the best of biblical and historical scholarship to explain the reasons for Paul’s mixed reputation and reveal to us what scholars have known for decades: that the later letters of Paul were created by the early church to dilute Paul’s egalitarian message and transform him into something more “acceptable.” They argue there are actually “Three Pauls” in the New Testament: “The Radical Paul” (of the seven genuine letters), “The Conservative Paul” (of the three disputed epistles), and “The Reactionary Paul” (of the three inauthentic letters). By closely examining this progression of Paul’s letters—from the authentic to the inauthentic—the authors show how the apostle was slowly but steadily “deradicalized” to fit Roman social norms in regards to slavery, patriarchy, and patronage.

I hear that the alternative title they considered was Paul: The Liberal Religion Professor Version, but they weren’t sure it would sell as well. Anyway, back to the story:

Borg and Crossan’s presence nearly doubled the number of registrations for this year’s 75th annual convocation, from the usual 300 or so (at $110 for two days), a number Eden leaders were calling “record breaking.” The response was so overwhelming that students, faculty and staff were forced to watch the lectures on closed-circuit television screens in nearby classrooms.

“A seminary understands itself to be the intellectual center in the life of the church, and during convocation, we gather to think about why faith is important,” Greenhaw said in an interview. Inviting Borg and Crossan to lecture “allowed us to reach an even wider audience to engage each other.”

I’m not sure who it was that was supposed to “engage each other”–atheists and believers? Christians and non-Christians? Those who believe the Christian gospel and those who are making it up as they go along? Whatever. The point is that they brought in two big names, and since Eden is a seminary of the far left of the mainline, they were guaranteed a big audience.

Borg spoke in one lecture Wednesday about the significance and meaning of Jesus’ death, pointing out that Christianity is the only major religion in which the central figure (and some of his most important followers — Peter, Paul, James) were executed by established authority.

Both scholars rejected the common Christian notion of “substitutionary sacrificial atonement” — that Christ died in the place of God’s creation as a substitute payment for human sin. That theology, they said, was first conceived of in the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury, and has nothing to do with the message of the Gospels.

Given that the idea of substitutionary atonement is all over the New Testament (Romans 3:24-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2, 4:10 just for a start, not to mention being one of the primary themes of the Letter to the Hebrews), how can these biblical comedians make this claim? I assume they do so using Jeffersonian exegesis, which is to say that they simply ignore anything that doesn’t fit in with their pre-conceived notions.

Borg and Crossan should also stay away from church history, since it clearly isn’t their forte. Thanks in part to academic ideologues such as Rita Nakashima Brock, it has become a widely believed urban legend that substitutionary thinking originated in the second millenium. To just begin getting an idea of how much of such thinking there was (however unsystematic it might have been), check here; for one example, here’s Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century theologian):

Take, in the next place, the subjection by which you subject the Son to the Father. What, you say, is He not now subject, or must He, if He is God, be subject to God? You are fashioning your argument as if it concerned some robber, or some hostile deity. But look at it in this manner: that as for my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who taketh away the sin of the world; and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ also is called disobedient on my account. But when all things shall be subdued unto Him on the one hand by acknowledgment of Him, and on the other by a reformation, then He Himself also will have fulfilled His submission, bringing me whom He has saved to God. For this, according to my view, is the subjection of Christ; namely, the fulfilling of the Father’s Will.

Anselm was the first to systematize the doctrine of penal substitution, but to say that he was the first to think of it is simply ridiculous.

The Post-Dispatch article goes on:

Borg offered the alternative term “participatory sacrificial atonement,” explaining that Christ willingly gave his life as a gift to God, and died because of his love for others (but not in place of them.)

I have no idea what this means, or what difference it is supposed to make. Usually when one person gives up his life “for others,” those others receive a benefit from that self-sacrifice (the soldier throwing himself on a grenade to protect his fellows, Maximilian Kolbe giving his life in place of the father of a Polish family at Auschwitz). But what Borg suggests is that Christ gave up His life simply as a gesture, one that benefited no one, but which we’re all supposed to be impressed by for some reason. How exactly does it express Christ’s love for anyone for Him to die, but for no one to be saved as a result? I’m still in the same position vis-a-vis God as I was before, and a good man died in the process. And what does it mean to say that “Christ willingly gave his life as a gift to God”? All human beings die. If this human being’s death was no different from any other, what makes it a “gift to God”?

This is muddle-headed academic nonsense at its worst. It would truly be comical, if there weren’t so many current and future preachers who took it so seriously.

(Via MCJ.)