A virgin birth and “a conjuring trick with bones”?

A Christmas and Easter tradition on social media seems to be to refer back to the infamous Bishop of Durham, Rev Dr David Jenkins who in the 1980s allegedly denied the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus.  I say allegedly because I note that there have been significant attempts to defend Jenkins.  Those defences run along the lines that:

  • He was misquoted or taken out of context.
  • His aim was to encourage people to think more deeply. He was being provocative in order to strengthen faith through questioning
  • He was the victim of an attack by right-wing/Thatcherite media because of his political views.

The last point is fascinating from a historical/cultural perspective because I doubt that even the right-wing media would be too interested in the theological niceties of the debate today.  They would tell a Bishop to stay out of politics if he was seen as too left-wing but wouldn’t care too much about his beliefs.

The other point of historical interest is that Bishop Jenkins was not alone during that period. There was substantial controversy across Anglican, Methodist and Baptist denominations.  A number of Baptist churches left the Baptist Union of Great Britain and often affiliated to conservative evangelical networks such as the FIEC and Grace Baptists because of issues with a prominent leader who was also seen to deny key teachings of the church.  Similarly to the defence of Jenkins, I’ve heard it suggested that he was simply seeking to provoke and was misunderstood too.

In terms of what David Jenkins actually said, it is worth noting that on the virgin birth, his comments were to the effect that God could if he had wanted, have used a miraculous birth through a virgin but probably didn’t. 

On the resurrection, Jenkins is often quoted as referring to is as “a conjuring trick with bones.”  Those defending Jenkins now argue that he was misquoted and in fact said the opposite. He said that “the resurrection was not a conjuring trick with bones.”  However, that’s to miss a crucial point.

If Jenkins had been saying that some people think of the physical, literal resurrection of Jesus as being just a conjuring trick but that isn’t the case, it is something greater than that, then I think we could say that he was misquoted. However, when you look at what Jenkins actually believed, you see something different going on.

In “Free to believe” he wrote that an empty tomb is not required for us to believe in the resurrection. It wouldn’t matter if we one day found the bones of Jesus, the resurrection would still be true.[1]  This gives us an important clue that when Jenkins thought about the resurrection, he wasn’t thinking of it as a literal, bodily event.  In fact, his views were in line with much liberal thinking of that time, that the resurrection wasn’t a single, literal event but rather a series of recorded experiences which together showed the early disciples coming to the conclusion that in some sense, Jesus lived on, that his power and presence were still available in a mystical way, that his mission continued.

So Jenkins was not saying that “the resurrection” was “a conjuring trick with bones” but only if we assume his own definition of resurrection.  He wasn’t defending the physical/literal resurrection from that accusation, it seems that he was in fact the one who had coined that phrase as a pejorative slur against an orthodox interpretation of the Gospels.  For Jenkins, if Jesus had literally walked out of the tomb, then that would have been a conjuring trick but it seems that he and many others didn’t/don’t think that this is what happened.

Instead, they opt to believe in something called a “spiritual resurrection.” By which they simply mean that Jesus somehow lives on in our hearts and minds.  Now, to be honest, such a concept of resurrection is so weak and diluted as to be nothing special at all.  It is no different to saying that any of our loved ones “live on in our hearts” through our fond memories, through their example, through their teaching.  And if that’s all that happened with Jesus, then to be honest, there is no reason why that particularly Jesus should have lived on in memories beyond his immediate group of disciples.

Now, the point is this, Jenkin’s position wasn’t new or unique. He represented a substantial and possibly dominant view within the church at the time.  His basic argument was that a liberal interpretation of Scripture should be treated as orthodox.  I disagree with him. I consider what he said to be false teaching.  I think that surprisingly, the tabloid press accurately identified a wolf.  What confuses me somewhat is why people now don’t seem to be able to see that. Why they are trying to deny that he believed and taught what he so clearly did.

[1] David and Rebecca Jenkins, Free to Believe, 45.

%d bloggers like this: