Am I “Satanic” or Just “Unbiblical”? A Guide for My Christian Critics

Dear Christian critic,

I occasionally say things that you find disconcerting, even disturbing. Sometimes you accuse me of being “unbiblical,” or of “not preaching the gospel,” or of “heresy,” even of being “antichrist” or (my personal favourite) “satanic.”

Those are strong words. However, you do not seem to be using them correctly. So, I’ve put together this helpful guide for you to use those terms more accurately in the future.

Rest assured, I will continue to say disconcerting things.

Respectfully,
Michael

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“Unbiblical.”

This means “not biblical.” (We’re off to a good start here.)

Now, I certainly say and do plenty of things that are “not biblical.” Just the other day I texted my wife (texting is not in the Bible) and let her know that we already had two big bottles of ketchup in the fridge, both half full (ketchup is also not in the Bible, and hoarding resources is not an acceptable biblical practice).

More to the point, like most people I do occasionally lie, I sometimes have anger issues, and I participate in an economic system that exploits poor labourers to enrich the wealthy. These things and more are profoundly “unbiblical.” I’m trying to become “more biblical” in both my personal morals and my social ethics.

But I suspect this is still not what you mean by “unbiblical.” I suspect what you really mean when you call something I say “unbiblical” is “Michael’s teaching is not according to my interpretation of the Bible and what I have prioritized as most important in the Bible.”

After all, I read and study my Bible every day. In fact, I’ve spent nearly my entire adult life studying the Bible in order to help other people understand the Bible better. I preach on biblical passages every time I preach. I teach Bible studies, and topical studies on the Bible and about the Bible. So, when you say I’m saying or doing something “unbiblical” you can’t mean “Michael doesn’t take the Bible seriously.”

I can only conclude, then, that by “unbiblical” you mean, “not according to my interpretation of the Bible and what I have prioritized as most important in the Bible.” It might be more helpful, then, if you said that. Then we could have a conversation about how we interpret the Bible differently and why we prioritize various biblical teachings differently.

“Not preaching the gospel.”

Now this strikes near to my heart.

You see, I’ve not only spent the last 30 years studying and teaching the Bible, I’ve also become convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what the Bible points us toward. The gospel of Jesus Christ is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). It is the truth we are to live out in our individual lives and as churches, and it is the truth we are to teach within our churches and proclaim to the world. It is the truth the world desperately needs.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of Jesus, from his baptism to his resurrection, including all his words and works and ways (Mark 1:1). It is the good news that God has arrived in Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus is the anticipated “Messiah” of Israel who brings about the “kingdom of God,” God’s vision for justice and peace and life for the world (Mark 1:14-15). It is the good news that Jesus has done this—that he has brought near God’s reign—through his life, his teachings, his execution on a Roman cross, and his resurrection from the dead by God (Acts 10:36-43; 1 Cor 15:3-5). It is the good news that this risen and exalted Jesus is now “Lord” over all powers of this age, including all evil powers (Rom 1:1-6; 10:9-10).

This good news calls forth a response of “repentance”: turning from our collusion with the evil powers of this age, even actively resisting these powers, including both our own personal sins and the wider injustices of our world. This good news calls forth a response of “faith”: committing ourselves to the loving and faithful God who calls us to walk in Jesus’ way of suffering love in solidarity with the vulnerable and the oppressed, in the presence and power of God’s Spirit. When we do these things, we will experience the reign of the God who is love: forgiveness and joy, true justice and lasting peace, flourishing life for ourselves and for the world—God’s “salvation,” in other words.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ according to his Apostles, and this is the gospel I preach. So, when you say I am “not preaching the gospel,” what you must mean is, “Michael is not preaching the ‘gospel’ I’ve been taught to believe.” If the gospel you believe lines up with the gospel I preach, hey, we good! If not, let’s get together and explore what the New Testament says about “the gospel.”

(Though if you publicly preach or disseminate a gospel reduced to a private transaction offering fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, or a gospel that is not actually “good news for the poor,” I’m likely to call you out on it. Fair warning.)

“Heresy.”

Ah, yes. The favourite power-play of self-styled theologians.

I say that because, for most trained theologians, “heresy” has a fairly well-defined meaning. It is the opposite of “orthodoxy,” which also has a fairly well-defined meaning.

“Orthodoxy” in this broad sense (not referring to “Eastern Orthodox churches”) means adhering to the universal creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and often also the Athanasian Creed. It means confessing such historic Christian doctrines as the Trinity, God as Creator of all things, the incarnation, the true humanity and true deity of Christ, Jesus’ virginal conception, Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus’ exaltation to God, Jesus as judge of humanity, the person and activity of the Holy Spirit, the universal Church, the forgiveness of sins, a future bodily resurrection, and life in the age to come.

“Heresy,” then, is denying these things.

Since I believe these things, and have never denied them, when you accuse me of “heresy” you must mean, “Michael is teaching things which I think are wrong.” Sorry, but you don’t get to decide what “heresy” is, and neither do I.

(Which is why I won’t call you a heretic, even though I probably think you’re wrong. Unless you really are a heretic, in which case I might use that term. But don’t worry: as an Anabaptist “heretic” just doesn’t carry the same weight for me as it does for others. Too many Anabaptists were drowned or burned for so-called “heresy,” I suppose, and there’s not enough interest among us in authoritative creeds beyond the life and teaching of Jesus.)

“Antichrist.”

I do admire this one—it’s got a certain panache.

Allow me a little deep-dive into 1 and 2 John, though, the only places in the Bible where “antichrist” is used.

These letters were written for a specific situation. Some people were teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was not really the “Christ.” They apparently taught that the “Christ” was a spirit which came upon Jesus and then left Jesus before he died. These teachers made a sharp distinction between the “spiritual,” which we are to embrace, and the “physical” or “material,” which we are to cast aside. These theological acrobatics allowed them to treat actual flesh-and-blood people in uncompassionate, even cruel ways—not providing food for the hungry, for example.

This is what the author of 1 and 2 John calls “antichrist” and “the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). You could summarize “antichrist” this way: “denying that Jesus is who the gospel proclaims he is, both fully human and fully God; denying that salvation is what the gospel says it is, the full redemption of creation and humanity in both body and spirit; and denying that the gospel calls us to love one another in very direct and practical ways.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always love others in the way of Jesus. But I strive to, and I certainly affirm all these things. Sorry to burst your bubble, then, but I’m no antichrist, and neither is my gospel or my teaching “of the spirit of antichrist.”

“Satanic.”

This is my favourite. (Narrator: “That is a lie. Michael does not like being called ‘satanic.’”)

This is getting long, so quick summary. “Satan” (or really “the satan”) in the Bible simply means “the adversary.” It often means “the adversary of God” or “the adversary of God’s people.”

So, I get it. If you think I’m teaching or acting against God’s ways, then I might well seem “satanic” to you.

But it’s worth thinking about the way the Gospels describe what is truly “satanic.” Jesus is tempted by “the devil” in the wilderness, tempted to use his power selfishly, tempted to bring about God’s kingdom on earth through worldly power. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus cries (Matt 4:10). Later, Peter tries to deter Jesus from going through the suffering of the cross; it’s another call for Jesus to instead bring about God’s kingdom on earth through worldly power. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus again cries (Matt 16:23).

The way of “the satan” is the way of worldly power—gaining power and privilege, even through accumulating wealth and the use of violence, and using these means to achieve our own ends, even potentially good ends. But this is not the way of God. This is not the way of Jesus. And, although I’m as prone to love power as the next person, it’s not the way I’m striving to live.

Sorry, I’m really not satanic. I’m pretty boring, really.

Here’s the bottom line in all this: you think I’m wrong about something. Fine. I probably think you’re wrong about a few things, too. I might even think you’re actually the heretic or the one not preaching the true gospel.

But maybe we could get together and talk about these things, you know, with a little gentleness and respect (2 Tim 2:24-26; 1 Pet 3:15-16). I’ll try and cut the sarcasm if you try and cut the name-calling. Deal?

Confessions of an Unrepentant “JBC”

This post first appeared on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. Re-posted here on February 13, 2017, though dated back to the original date of its first appearance.

Last week Scot McKnight graciously agreed to host an article I wrote on his blog, “The Polarization of ‘Biblical Christianity.’” I’m grateful to Scot again for hosting this follow-up post.

The gist of my previous article is this: along the wide spectrum of Christians who take seriously the authority of Scripture, we are seeing extreme pressure to move toward one or the other of two distinguishable poles, one pole focused on the Bible, the other focused on Jesus. The article fleshes this out, sketching out what I for the sake of convenience called “Bible Biblical Christians” or BBCs on the one hand and “Jesus Biblical Christians” or JBCs on the other.

I concluded the article with a heavy sigh:

“Is there a way to stop this polarization? Should we even try? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Perhaps it’s even a good thing. Perhaps all this seismic shifting and sifting will bring greater clarity for people on what it means to be a Christian—or at least what version of Christianity they are rejecting.

“Still, one can’t help but hear the prayer of Jesus echoing across the increasingly vacant divide: “May they become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me” (John 17:20-23).

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

But here’s the thing: I am unashamedly JBC. I think a JBC approach is a better one, more faithful to Scripture, more in keeping with the character and will of God. I don’t want some mediating approach between the two poles. I can acknowledge the legitimacy of a BBC approach—I think, in spite of its dangers, it can lead to Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. However, I still think it’s not the best model for understanding the practical authority of Scripture.

What I long for, then, in my sighing prayer at the end of the post, is not compromise but understanding, not agreement but acceptance and appreciation, not uniformity but unity.

I long for one side to stop saying about the other, “They’re not being biblical!”

I long for the other side to stop saying about the one, “They’re not being Christian!”

I long for mutual understanding, acceptance, and appreciation. I long for unity. Which means that I long for genuine conversation to take place, some charitable listening.

Terribly naïve, I know.

But let me put my money where my mouth is. Let me start a conversation, with a promise to listen charitably. Let me offer my story.

The Bible was everywhere in my life growing up, Sunday after Sunday and every day in between. I knew its stories, I knew its statistics. I knew its famous characters and its obscure passages. I knew the Bible.

I am profoundly grateful for this, and much of that gratitude I owe to my mother. (Thanks, Mom.)

But there was more to my early adolescent faith than just knowing the Bible. In everything I strove to be “biblical.” I sought the biblical view of everything from the age of the earth to marriage and divorce, from healing to salvation, from the nature of hell to God’s will for my life. When confronted with a theological question or moral dilemma, I went to the Bible first and foremost, and found answers equally from Genesis to Revelation. Apparent differences from one passage to the other? No problem: these were harmonized neatly with the help of well-respected Bible teachers, or left to the side as mysteries accepted on faith.

After the obligatory late adolescent search for myself, I came back to the Bible. This time I read it in large chunks: all of Genesis or Isaiah in one sitting, or all four Gospels, or all of Paul’s letters. I skipped my university classes to binge-read the Bible, chunk after chunk.

I am profoundly grateful for this, too, for much of my theology to this day comes from simply reading the Bible like this, carefully and in large sections, attentive to narrative and poetry and overarching themes and intertextual echoes.

But this deep reading of the Bible became my undoing. Much of the Bible simply didn’t fit well with the theological and ethical system of Christianity I had grown up with. The Bible’s poems had sharp edges that sliced and diced my tidy theology. The Bible’s stories left gouges in my view of God. The Bible’s diversity made my head spin. The Bible’s humanity made me uncomfortable.

And then there was Jesus.

christ-iconJesus, the living Word of God, made flesh and dwelt among us, who has made visible the God whom no one has seen. Jesus, head of the Church and Lord of all, the foundation upon which our faith is built, the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, the Son through whom God has spoken in these last days. Jesus, the very image of God, in all things having supremacy, in whom all things hold together. Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Crucified and Risen One, master of the keys of Death and Hades.

Jesus, born into a life of poverty yet buried in a rich man’s tomb, coming from a backwater village yet engaging the religious elite, an itinerant teacher walking dusty, thirsty roads with a rabble of followers, a prophet of renewal expanding holiness into love, a servant Messiah bringing God’s kingdom of peace, warning the rich, blessing the poor, condemning the powerful, eating with despicables, healing untouchables, unjustly condemned and tortured and abandoned, executed on a brigand’s cross, rising from the dead vindicated by God.

This Jesus, testified to by Scripture, yet unwilling to be held captive by Scripture, captivated me, and holds me still.

I turned tail on my education, abandoning English for Theology. I trained to be a pastor, then trained to be an academic. And it was while working on my PhD, while searching out the referent for a three-word Greek phrase in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, that it happened again.

My doctoral work pushed me to explore how Paul and other New Testament authors read their Scriptures, our Old Testament. And they didn’t read the Scriptures like I had first been taught. They read the Scriptures more like I had come to read them: carefully and in large sections, attentive to narrative and poetry and overarching themes and intertextual echoes. But more than that, they read the Scriptures as if Jesus was what those prophets and poets had been waiting for all along, but just didn’t know it.

My doctoral work also pushed me to explore what authorities the early Christians looked to for their theology and ethics: Scripture, Christian prophecies, Jesus’ teaching, the gospel message. And I discovered that the Apostles’ “word of the Lord” was not prophecy but the gospel, that their “word of God” was not Scripture but the good news, the “word of truth” and “word of grace”: the written “word of God” pointing to the oral “word of God” about the living “Word of God,” Jesus. I discovered that, when confronted with a theological question or ethical problem, the earliest Christians pretty consistently looked first and foremost to Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Scripture stood in support of this endeavor, not over it.

My doctoral work pushed me further to explore Paul’s gospel, which pushed me to explore Isaiah’s gospel and Rome’s, along with Matthew’s and Mark’s and Luke’s and John’s and Hebrews’ and James’ and Revelation’s. And I found Jesus at the heart of the gospel. Not escape from hell, not flight to heaven, not “being a good person,” not “having the right view on issues” or “having the right system of thought,” but Jesus himself, the crucified and resurrected Jesus, the untameable Lion.

Jesus, Jesus, everywhere Jesus. Jesus the whole point of Scripture. Jesus the very heart of the gospel. Jesus the Messianic Lord and King, whose life and teachings and death and resurrection form the new Torah we are to keep, the foundation we are to build on, the pattern we are to follow, the story we are to continue living out.

I found myself reading Scripture not to establish a “biblical view of x” to but to understand Jesus better, and through Jesus to know who God is and who I am and how I should then live.

I found myself reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus the clearest and fullest revelation of God, discovering in the process the many ways that Jesus challenges or even subverts readings of Scripture that don’t put him first.

I found myself less interested in Scripture simply for its own sake, but urgently interested in it for Jesus’ sake.

I found myself—as I’ve now described it—a “JBC.”

Along the way I wrote some stuff, mostly in sketches still waiting to be fleshed out. But if you’re interested in one person’s sketch of some of the biblical and historical underpinnings of a JBC approach, see here. If you want to see a sketch of what Christian theology can look like from a JBC perspective, see here. And if you want to see how a JBC might read some of the most controversial bits of the Bible, see here.

BBC or JBC or “none of the above” – what is your story? How have you come to read Scripture the way that you do?

 

The Polarization of “Biblical Christianity”

This post first appeared on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. Re-posted here on February 13, 2017, though dated back to the original date of its first appearance.

If you didn’t hear about the World Vision kerfuffle last week, you were either still in winter hibernation or nowhere near the US (yes, the kerfuffle was about World Vision in the US, not globally). In the space of 48 hours, World Vision US first opened their hiring gates to people in committed same-sex marriages, then slammed the gates back shut.

During those tumultuous few days there were two dominant Christian voices demanding attention.

Some Christians sought to rally the troops, appealing to the Bible: “Hold the line on biblical morality! Stand firm on the biblical view of heterosexual marriage and homosexuality! Those who aren’t with us are against us!”

Other Christians also sought to rally the troops, also appealing to the Bible: “Be like Jesus! Focus on the children in poverty, the little ones and least of these! Let God’s sun shine on the righteous and the unrighteous! Those who aren’t against us are with us!”

There was very little middle ground given, only polarization. Those who might have seen themselves as somewhere in the middle, or who didn’t even realize they were on a spectrum, were called to take sides.

The World Vision ruckus was only the latest in a line of once-a-month mêlées among Christians appealing to the Bible over some hot-button issue. And as Christians repeat this reactionary, polarizing approach to every issue that comes up, month after month, year after year, sides are indeed being taken. Some are not even taking sides—tragically, they’re abandoning the attempt to be either “Christian” or “biblical.”

There are, in fact, many different kinds of “biblical Christianities.” No, the term “biblical” doesn’t guarantee any kind of uniformity in Christian belief or practice—just read a little Christian Smith (for you give-me-the-research types) or Rachel Held Evans (for you give-me-the-stories types). This is not surprising given how diverse the biblical writings are, from ancient Israelite stories and poetry to ancient Christian biographies and letters, in three different languages and dozens of specific settings, across several centuries of writing and editing and compiling. It’s even less surprising given how diverse the Bible’s interpreters are.

But this ongoing series of very public clashes among Christians demonstrates that, among those who want to be both genuinely “Christian” and authentically “biblical,”people are gathering around two distinguishable poles. This is not only the case within Evangelicalism and its offshoots, though certainly many of these “biblical Christians” are or have been connected to the Evangelical movement in Western Protestantism. The desire to be both “Christian” and “biblical,” to be both recognizably part of the historic stream of Christianity with distinctly Christian beliefs and practices, and looking to the Bible as the primary source for Christian theological and ethical discernment—really just a striving for “Christian orthodoxy”—runs beyond Evangelicalism and cuts across the whole range of Christian traditions.

What are these two poles that are both attracting and dividing Christians who seek to live according to the Bible? In simplistic terms, they are reflected in the idea of “biblical Christianity” itself: the two poles are the Bible and Jesus.

christ-iconNow this claim needs to be carefully nuanced. As I’ve just affirmed, all “biblical Christians” look to the Bible for guidance in belief and practice, just as they all center their faith on Jesus. It isn’t helpful to claim otherwise, and it can even be hurtful to do so. Nor can we pit the Bible against Jesus: the Bible contains our best witness to Jesus, and Jesus himself stood in a religious tradition that looked to the Scriptures as divinely authoritative for life and faith.

So what do I mean when I say that “biblical Christians” are gathering around the poles of “Bible” and “Jesus”? As problematic as it may be, I’m afraid the best way to answer this succinctly is by giving some broad generalizations. I’ll try to be as careful as possible in how I sketch this.

When needing guidance for how to live or what to think as a Christian, some will look first to the Bible as canon—for convenience let’s call them “Bible Biblical Christians” (BBCs). This comes out of the conviction that, as 2 Timothy 3:16 puts it, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” BBCs see the whole Bible, in all its parts, as being uniformly authoritative for Christians: the New Testament is not more so than the Old, Jesus’ teaching is not more so than Paul’s. While many BBCs undoubtedly have a naïve, literalistic approach to Scripture, this need not be the case. Others have a sophisticated approach to Scripture that recognizes genre, context, and even some degree of theological progression through Scripture.

By contrast, when needing guidance for how to live or what to think as a Christian, others—let’s call them “Jesus Biblical Christians” (JBCs)—will look first to Jesus as presented in the New Testament, even especially the Gospels. This comes out of the conviction that Jesus, as the one to whom the Scriptures witness, is the clearest and fullest revelation of God (e.g. John 1:14, 18Col 1:15-20Heb 1:1-3). While they see the whole Bible as inspired Scripture, JBCs effectively see a hierarchy of authority within Scripture: Jesus’ life and teachings and death and resurrection are pre-eminent, as presented in the New Testament and anticipated in the Old. While some JBCs effectively have a Marcionite approach to the Old Testament or a highly critical view of Paul, this need not be the case. Many have an integrated approach to Scripture that recognizes a unity-in-diversity in the biblical writings pointing to and centered on Christ.

These differences are not about “biblical inerrancy” or “biblical truth” as some might claim; rather, they are differences in what one might call the “practical authority” of the Bible. Again, both groups see the Bible as divinely authoritative—both perspectives are, in fact, grounded in Scripture—but they differ in how that Scriptural authority works itself out in practice. And, as one might expect, these differences in the Bible’s practical authority tend toward different emphases in belief and practice.

“Bible Biblical Christians” tend to focus more on “individual salvation and personal morality.” For BBCs, “Jesus at the center” means an emphasis on Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice for our sins and Jesus’ resurrection as God’s triumph over death.  Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can have the assurance of both divine forgiveness and eternal life. For BBCs, “Bible for divine guidance” means an emphasis on the Bible as the source for a particular system of theology and as the guidebook for the particular moral decisions we face in life. This does not mean BBCs have no concern for matters of social justice—many do, in fact—but the tendency is to see this as a consequence of individual salvation and an extension of personal morality. The net result of all this is that BBCs are the more “conservative” on theological and social issues.

“Jesus Biblical Christians” tend to focus more on “personal discipleship for social renewal.” For JBCs, “Bible for divine guidance” means an emphasis on the Bible as witness to Jesus and his inauguration of the “kingdom of God” with its broad implications for justice and peace in the world. For JBCs, then, “Jesus at the center” means an emphasis on Jesus’ life and teaching culminating in his death and resurrection, and on our role as disciples of Jesus seeking to obey his teachings and follow his example. This does not mean JBCs have no concern for individual salvation and personal morality—many do, in fact—but the tendency is to set these within a wider context of personal discipleship and social renewal. The net result of all this is that JBCs are the more “progressive” on theological and social issues.

I’m pretty sure not everyone will agree with my characterizations of “Bible Biblical Christians” and “Jesus Biblical Christians,” and undoubtedly my descriptions could use some work. I can certainly think of more that could be said about how BBCs and JBCs read Scripture, do theology, or live out their faith. But this is what I’m seeing, and incidents such as the World Vision commotion back it up: along the wide spectrum of Christians who seek to live according to the Bible, there is extreme pressure to move toward one or the other of these poles.

This explains, I think, a number of things that have been happening over the past several years. The “young, restless, and Reformed” movement on the one hand, and “naked Anabaptism” on the other. The resurgence of Fundamentalism or “conservative Evangelicalism” on one side, and the “I’m done with Evangelicalism, just give me Jesus” folks on another. CBMW and CBETGC and RHE. And more.

Forget terms like “Evangelical”: the designation is now irrelevant.

Forget some new battle for “inerrancy”: it’s not about biblical inerrancy, but large questions of biblical interpretation.

Forget conventional distinctions among Christian traditions or Protestant denominations: those are still there, distinctions in church structure and liturgy and baptism and more, but they are no longer the watershed issues they used to be.

You can even forget stereotypical age demographics: this pattern is evident from young to old.

We’re moving toward two distinguishable “biblical Christianities,” two major versions of “Christianity grounded in Scripture,” two different perspectives on the practical authority of Scripture. We’re seeing Christian orthodoxy gathering around two poles: “Bible” and “Jesus.”

Is there a way to stop this polarization? Should we even try? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Perhaps it’s even a good thing. Perhaps all this seismic shifting and sifting will bring greater clarity for people on what it means to be a Christian—or at least what version of Christianity they are rejecting.

Still, one can’t help but hear the prayer of Jesus echoing across the divide: “May they become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me” (John 17:20-23).

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

You may wish to read my follow-up post to this: “Confessions of an Unrepentant ‘JBC.'”