The following article is reproduced from the Global Journal of Classical Theology Vol. 4, No. 1 (Feb 2004)

Why Liberals Didn’t Understand Passion Play 2000

by Craig A. Parton

Praise be to God that one Kaspar Schisler eluded the vigilant tower guards of the Bavarian village of Oberammergau in 1632 and entered the town by stealth at night. Up to that very moment the village had avoided the Black Death that had come on the heels of the Thirty Year’s War, which had been ravaging Europe since 1618.

Schisler brought with him that providential night an uninvited guest—the Black Death. He died just days later. Soon the death count in the sleepy village had risen to 84 and counting before the people of Oberammergau gathered en masse at the village church and vowed at the altar that, if God Almighty should spare them, they would every 10 years put on the “Play of the Suffering Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.” As an act of pure grace towards unseen generations to come, the town was spared. The first Passion Play was performed in 1634 at the cemetery of the town church and upon the graves of Kaspar Schisler and the other victims of the Plague.

The Passion Play has now gone forward uninterrupted for over 350 years. Interestingly, the only blights on that record occurred in 1770 and 1940—the first due to the 18th century rationalism of the pagan Bavarian Prince who forbade “superstitious Jewish myths” from being performed, and the second because of the results of a superstitious German pagan from Munich who pursued a more deeply pernicious humanistic myth concerning Judaism.

This past August my wife and I journeyed to this small Bavarian hamlet of 5,000 souls for the 40th presentation of the Suffering Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. There we witnessed the participation of over 2000 of the villagers of Oberammergau in the presentation of the core and center of Christian faith. In the process we were reminded of the following truths:

Liberal theology, with its Higher Critical approach to Scripture, is utterly hostile to the core and center of Christian faith—i.e. “the Suffering Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Liberal theologians were hard at work trying to get those who attended Passion Play 2000 to listen to their voice rather than to the simple words of the Gospels uttered at Oberammergau by wood-carvers, housewives, and children. Ominously I noted in reading the literature given to us the night before the Passion Play that the “major innovation” for this presentation was the appointment of a “theological advisor.” This “advisor” is a quintessential liberal—a professional at the fuzzification of the clear Biblical text and its import. The advisor noted in his extensive prologue to the Play (which, by the way, is the first thing one reads in the booklet which contains the text of the Play) the following “liberalisms,” none of which I submit would have been solid enough to sustain the Passion Play for over 350 years:

“Tragedy and misunderstanding may have been involved when the High Priest and a few religious and political leaders—who were actually no villains—came to be convinced that Jesus must die.”

Jesus “wanted people to open themselves to the transcendent.”

“In the passion of Jesus, we are called to focus on the most fundamental drama of humanity, a conflict that is repeated throughout history—in the life of the individual, in the life of society, in the life of the Church: alienation from the will of the Eternal One, from divine friendship towards humans. This alienation attacks people again and again.”

“The production 2000, therefore, is not intended to offer a detailed historical account, but ... should emphasize the existential spiritual themes of the Play.”

“He [Jesus] died because he would not refrain from calling the religious leaders of his time hypocrites, rapacious wolves in sheeps’ clothing, blindmen leading the blind; because he accused them of having turned the temple of God into a den of thieves, and of having murdered the prophets whom God sent to them. He died because he fought for his God and for his Jewish faith.”

And of course the final very modern obligatory mantra of “mea culpa” that Christians are to engage in for the past sins of their forefathers:

“But this is also the story of a man whose followers, the Christians, brought unbelievable suffering into the world. Their religious zeal recoiled from no act of violence, and left a bloody trail through the centuries. Millions of Jews—the people who shared the faith of Jesus—died in the 20th century. They had to die because the church, and yes, the Passion Play for centuries sowed the seeds of anti-Semitism, of Jew hating. The Nazis harvested a well fertilized field.”

Thus according to this esteemed theologian from Munich, the villagers of Oberammergau are actually responsible for the Holocaust. And you had thought that the Messiah of the simple Gospels had come in His passion to save the “Jew first, and then the Greek.”

Again and again through history one sees liberals commit the most fundamental error in all scholarship. They refuse to deal with primary source material but begin instead with the premise that such material is the product of editing and can only be “discovered” through a process of demythologizing in order to get at the existential core.

Theological Liberalism and Higher Criticism do not do the work of scholarship by working with primary eyewitness documents. Instead, they are acts of philosophy and autobiography masquerading as scholarship.

Why is this necessarily the case? Because liberal theology and its hand-maiden the Higher Critical approach to Scripture begin with the purely subjective and totally unscholarly premise that the primary source documents—i.e. the Gospel accounts—are not reliable and that the picture they present of Jesus Christ is largely mythical and certainly not objective history. As a result, liberal theology has not been able to maintain a clear picture of who Jesus Christ is and what He accomplished at Calvary and by His resurrection from the dead three days later. Liberals constantly attempt to “recreate” Jesus according to modern images—whether they be the picture of the “simple revolutionary” a la Marxist theory or the current “Jesus of health and wealth” of the Robert Schuller variety.

If Higher Criticism had reigned in 1634 in Oberammergau there would not have been the theological strength to sustain a work soaked so thoroughly in the Biblical text as is the Passion Play (the text is still remarkably consistent with the 19th century refinement done by Joseph Alois Daisenberger). For a defining mark of liberal theology and Higher Criticism are their remarkable ability to obscure—to take the simple and straightforward text of Scripture and make it utterly complex and incomprehensible. From the beginnings of modern Biblical criticism found in the writings of Jean Astruc in 18th century France through the Protestant “neo-orthodoxy” of Karl Barth to the “demythologizing” of Rudolph Bultmann to Paul Tillich and Thomas J.J. Altizer and the Death of God school, Jesus has undergone an increasingly radical surgical makeover under the knife of theological liberalism.

Moreover, diverse legal apologists like Simon Greenleaf (former Dean of the Harvard Law School), Sir Norman Anderson (jurist and expert on Muslim law and the historicity of the resurrection of Christ), Lord Hailsham (former High Chancellor of England and authority on the reliability of the New Testament), and John Warwick Montgomery (author of over 50 books on the defense of the Christian faith, holder of more than 10 earned degrees, Barrister, American attorney, Lutheran theologian, and internationally regarded in the area of the defense of human rights) all argue that the failure to treat the New Testament record of the life of Christ as a reliable first-hand account is legally indefensible. As a trial lawyer myself, I recognize that documents and witnesses are presumed to be telling the truth in a court of law unless they can be shown by cross-examination to be in error whether it be by virtue of deception, innocent error or fraud.

One is reminded of the story of the liberal theologian and his Irish cleaning lady. Seems this particular liberal theologian, a student of Bultmann at the University of Marburg, had been working for 10 years on his theological magnum opus—a 6 inch thick commentary on the Book of John. One night at the end of the enterprise, the theologian was working late in his office at the University of Munich. The cleaning lady, who cheerfully vacuumed and dusted his office once a week, happened by. Elated at the opportunity to “share the light” of his work with such a clearly needy simpleton, the theologian gave her an advance copy of the tome and asked her to absorb its weighty truths. Anxiously he waited till the following week and purposely stayed late pretending he needed to finish some additional scholarly footnotes. Finally the maid arrived with book in hand. Seeing the theologian, she immediately acted sheepishly as if she had secretly hoped to have been able to have dropped the book on his table and left without speaking a word. The great scholar would not be denied, however, and asked for her opinion on his life’s work. “Well,” the Irish maid replied, “I’m ashamed to say sir, but yere work was mighty hard to understand, it was, but then I read the Gospel of John, and he cleared up all my confusion.”

Luther remains correct—a simple baker armed with the Word of God is more powerful than any theologian without it. Higher Criticism yields a mythical Christ created in the image of man. Scripture yields an objective Christ ever willing to save all who repent.

The Passion Play preaches Christ in His saving office because it follows the primary source material on the person and work of Christ. This is the path of the true scholar and the only legally defensible position.

I must confess that I found myself supremely depressed on the eve of the Passion Play after reading what the theologians told me the Play was to be about. To our joy, however, the Play utterly riveted us for its duration—all six hours. I checked my watch not once because Passionspiel 2000 brought me my sin and my Savior all day long. Instead of ambiguity and vacillating drivel about a humanistic example who showed me the way to greater self-esteem or some such trivia, I heard instead the following as the first words:

“Prostrate yourselves in holy wonder,
Humans, bent low under Adam’s burden!
Peace be with you! From Zion renewed grace!
Enthroned in the height of light
The Almighty One,
Filled with mercy, approaches the servant.
“I do not will,” thus speaks the Lord,
“the death of sinners. I yearn
to forgive so they can live.
Reconciliation to me I seek for them in my Son—
Reconciliation.” Gratitude, tears of joy, and adoration,
To you, O Eternal One!”

Or try this, the first words of the first chorus:

“Merciful God, you sent your only Son
To raise sinners from despair
Jesus, Savior! To restore us to life
You were our friend unto death.”

Or these words from Act X (“The Way of the Cross”):

“Thus Isaac, Abraham’s son,
Loaded the sacrificial firewood on his own back,
Trusting his father, and hauled it willingly up Mount Moria,
Himself the intended victim.
With a willing heart, like Isaac, Jesus carries
The heavy cross, stumbling, falling,
The cross that will for us become the sign of hope,
The tree of eternal life.
For just as in the desert, salvation lay
In the sight of the bronze serpent
So consolation and blessing and grace
Flow for us from the wood of the cross.”

Confidence in the objective Christ found only in a totally reliable Scripture is the foundation of all true evangelical theology. By refusing to follow the eyewitness accounts of Christ found in the primary source documents, liberalism has ended up in pure subjectivity. Simon Greenleaf’s masterpiece, “The Testimony of the Evangelists” points out that the testimony of the Gospel writers would stand up in any court of law. Why? Because they were “present at the creation.” Critics of Scripture, operating two millennia later in a foreign culture and in a foreign language, were not. As the French political philospher Talleyrand said in response to one La Revelliere, a rabid hater of Christians, after La Revelliere had delivered a paper before Talleyrand attempting to introduce a new pseudo-philosophical religion: “For my part I have only one observation to make. Jesus Christ, in order to found His religion, was crucified and rose again—you should have tried to do as much.” Indeed, until critics of the eyewitness accounts accomplish a crucifixtion and resurrection, we do well to listen to the voice found only in an inerrant Scripture of the One who did conquer death for all eternity.

The Word of God is greater than all its “interpreters.” The text of Scripture itself the final arbiter of all interpretations.

Try as they might, the liberal “interpreters” of the Passion Play could not succeed in “reinterpreting” the text. The text has a life of its own that transcends all interpreters and which itself is the final arbiter of all interpretations.

Passionsspiele 2000 is greater and more glorious than all of its post-modern interpreters. It refuses to be tamed by theologians or members of the Anti-Defamation League or the Jesus Seminar but simply preaches the Gospel in a way that a small child, or the greatest intellectual, can comprehend. Why? Because it remains in general unflinchingly faithful to the New Testament record, which a range of scholars from Montgomery to F.F. Bruce and William F. Albright have reminded us is the most reliable historical record of all antiquity.

After the Play’s conclusion, we spent substantial time in the village of Oberammergau and visited the countless shops of its world-renowned wood-carvers. One was that of Karl Fuhrler. Herr Fuhrler is participating in his sixth Passion Play (this year as Gamaliel, but in the past he has played Caiphas, Annas and a Roman Guard) and has been an artisan for over 50 years. He has made it his life’s work to carve his theology in wood. His simple shop is gloriously full of magnificent works depicting our Lord in His saving office, dying an atoning death on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. We were privileged to acquire several of his exquisite pieces and to discuss with Herr Fuhrler his utterly solid personal Christology rooted in the cross.

The villagers of Oberammergau like Karl Fuhrler continue to listen to their Shepherd’s voice found only in a totally reliable Scripture rather than to the voice of the demythologizers and reinterpreters. Because they do so, the Passion Play will long thrive and that isolated Bavarian village will be a stronghold against the Black Death of sin, death and the Devil.

The concluding words of the play are fitting epitaph for all Christians, whether they be theologians (may their orthodox tribe increase) or simple cleaning ladies:

“Praise to you, who vanquished death
You, who died at Golgotha!
Praise to you, Savior of sinners,
You, who won at Golgotha!
Praise to you, who on the altar of the cross
Offered your life for us!
You have bought us for yourself,
We live and die only for you!
Praise, honor, adoration, power, and majesty
To you forever and ever!”

Soli Deo Gloria—forever and ever.