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For Tom Hurper, With Gratitute and Sadness

Web posted on March 09, 2017

Hey Jude!

Tom Harpur died last month.

He was a man to whom, despite his unorthodox views, I owe a debt of gratitude.

Tom had some good Plymouth Brethren formation in his youth. Family moved and changed churches (if I remember correctly) and Tom ended up an Anglican. Rhodes Scholar, ordination, eventually a prof at Wycliffe College - which is the "lower" (read "evangelical") of the two Anglican seminaries at U of T. That's where I met him in September 1970.

That was Tom's last year at Wycliffe. His last year, too, as an Anglican minister, after which he became religion editor at the Toronto Star. Tom's views as an evangelical had already begun to shift, but one of his last acts before he left Wycliffe was to rescue my wavering orthodoxy.

I was the last MDiv student who had Tom for a thesis supervisor. Like most of his students, I had little idea of the shift taking place in Tom's mind, nor that this popular prof would within months be resigning his professorship and his ordination.

At our first thesis interview I explained that I had questions about the reliability of the oral tradition that bridged the several decades between the historical Jesus (Tom had not yet rejected Jesus' historicity) and the writing of the New Testament. Tom referred me to Birger Gerhardsson's Memory and Manuscript (1964), and suggested that I explore the New Testament's use of the words "tradition", "deliver", and "receive" (in Greek, of course).

Those words turned out to be technical terms for a rabbinic methodology that transmitted the formal oral tradition with far more reliability than one might have imagined. Kenneth E. Bailey added the other bookend thirty years later with his paper on "Informal Controlled Oral Tradition". (You can google it.) Between them Gerhardsson and Bailey restored my confidence in those ancient texts - and made what may have been the most important contribution to New Testament scholarship of the 20th Century..

I was glad to reconnect with Tom some years ago at a funeral in Meaford, where I thanked him as profusely as the venue allowed for "saving my orthodoxy". He was pleased but, I think, a bit nonplussed.

As we get older, we acquire a more nuanced view of life (Is "nuanced" just a fancy word for "cynical"?) and things that were once certainties turn into "probablies" and "maybes". That happens because we not only know more (or think we do) but know what we know within broader parameters. But as those nuances take shape, we risk (as my mother used to say) throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

That's what seems to have happened with Tom, as his thinking moved on from his relatively tame early work, For Christ's Sake, to his later and thoroughly heterodox work, The Pagan Christ. It happened, too, with the respected United Church evangelist, Charles Templeton, whose testimony ended with the title Farewell to God. It's happened with others, some of whom you know personally. Maybe even with your own kids.

When For Christ's Sake came out, I began a book in response - based on Gerhardsson and the thesis topic that Tom had proposed for me. In view of Tom's title, a friend suggested that I call my response, Well, I'll Be Damned! I mumbled something like "I hope not" and eventually published it as The Sign of Jonah: An Empirical Basis for Christian Faith. I chose that title because that empirical basis, or more correctly the lack of it, is where we failed both Tom and Charles, and your unbelieving kids, and all who have come to feel that the gospel is no longer intellectually tenable.

There is an empirical basis for believing in Jesus. It was front and center in the apostles' preaching. But evangelicals and theological liberals alike have lost sight of it. And in the process we have shortchanged some of the potential leaders God sent us. In fact, much of Christianity today has acquired a decidedly anti-intellectual bent, and is dangerously close to losing the battle for the mind. We can't afford not to address that. Across all denominations. The sooner the better.

As I think of Tom Harpur, and Charles Templeton, and other Christians who have become disillusioned with the gospel - and as I get a bit long in the tooth myself - a line from a hymn I knew years ago keeps coming back to haunt me. (If you recognize it, please tell me where to find it.) It says, "Oh, may I never, never outlive my love to Thee."

Rev Robert Lyon is the assistant at St. Jude, Guelph, a congregation of the Anglican Network in Canada. Robert welcomes your questions and comments, and will be pleased to discuss topics on request. Contact him at Also check out and Rev Robert on Facebook

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