At the end of the 19th century, two American families along the West Virginia/Kentucky border, the Hatfields and the McCoys, engaged in a now infamous feud. Twelve members of the families were killed in various instances of violence along with a few bounty hunters. It got to the point where the original source of the feud (an ownership dispute over a pig) didn’t matter. Instead, what mattered was that Hatfields killed McCoys, and McCoys killed Hatfields.
Recently, I helped organize an event involving three panelists geared toward a largely evangelical crowd. The panel consisted of a theological conservative, a theological progressive, and a theological moderate. The purpose of the event was to put the three theological views in dialogue and allow them to interact civilly.
Eventually, the discussion turned to the resurrection of Jesus and whether or not the resurrection of Jesus was truly a “bodily” resurrection. The progressive panelist said that, while he did believe that there was a “bodily” resurrection of Jesus, he wasn’t exactly sure what “bodily” meant. He said that clearly there was some form of a body, but that, in his view, there was a lot of mystery in the resurrection, as well as a lot of mystery in the post-resurrection body of Jesus.
He then recounted a story: back in seminary, his professor had said that if the bones of Jesus were found, then our faith had no merit and Christianity was pointless. The panelist, however, was not positive that he agreed with his professor. For him, there was more mystery in the resurrection. If Jesus’ bones were discovered, he would still be able to make room for faith in the resurrection.
Shortly thereafter, the theological conservative on the panel made it very clear that he disagreed with the progressive– the “bodily” resurrection of Jesus was critical to faith, and without it, Christian faith falls apart. He received cheers from the crowd, the only time in which the crowd participated audibly.
Approximately six months earlier, I was in class at Fuller Theological Seminary, a very evangelical seminary. I was being taught systematic theology by a very evangelical professor. I wrote in a paper that, if the bones of Jesus were to be found, I would have a very difficult time still being a Christian. In essence, I wrote that the resurrection had to be a bodily resurrection. My paper reflected, almost word-for-word, the stance of the conservative panelist mentioned above.
My very evangelical professor took the opportunity to disagree with me on this point. For him, the authority of scripture was greater than any historical discoveries. If Jesus’ bones were indeed found, and they were conclusively, indubitably proven to be Jesus’ bones, my very evangelical professor would still believe the witness of Scripture – he would believe that the earliest followers of Christ were telling the truth when they said “He is risen.” The only thing that would change is that his understanding of what “risen” meant would need to change. The essence of the faith, however, would still stand for him.
My evangelical professor and the progressive panelist had the same position on the resurrection of Jesus. However, when the panelist said it, he was soundly rejected by the evangelical crowd. When my evangelical professor claimed, essentially, the same position, he was embraced by evangelical seminary students as thought-provoking and devoted to the authority of Scripture.
When I heard the crowd cheer the conservative panelist, I wondered to myself – would they have cheered him if he were rebutting the evangelical professor who corrected me? Were they even paying attention to the theological nuance in the various positions? Did they even understand what the progressive panelist was saying?
But, sadly, I doubt that those questions would even matter. The only thing that matters is: Did a progressive say it, or did an evangelical say it? Was he a Hatfield or a McCoy?
There is a difference between theological dialogue, aimed at achieving understanding, and theological feuding. Theological dialogue seeks to enlighten others and encourage those with whom one disagrees. Feuding seeks to win, to end the opposition. Feuding isn’t about theological views – it’s about power. The positions held by each group are actually unimportant. Which clan one belongs to, which label one wears, is all that matters.
Liberals and conservatives have been feuding for decades now. This is a sad state of affairs, because what the world needs is deeper theological understanding – not evangelicals and progressives proving each other wrong.
After decades and decades of violence, the Hatfields and McCoys eventually stopped fighting. There was no official end to the feud. Around the beginning of the 20th century, it sort of just died down. And, looking back on it now, there’s one question I wish I could ask the families: Was there a point to all this?
Jonathan Saur is a candidate for ministry in Los Ranchos Presbytery. He lives in San Juan Capistrano, CA.