Navigating the Waters around Supersessionism

There has been a good deal of online chatter recently about “supersessionism.”

Supersessionism is the idea that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity (as “the true religion”), or that Israel has been superseded by the Church (as “the people of God”). In this way of thinking, Christianity is superior to Judaism and the Church has replaced Israel.

It’s no surprise that supersessionism has been part of the mix in a lot of Christian anti-Semitism through history. Christians and Jews both, then, are right to condemn supersessionism.

However, it turns out it’s not all that easy to spot this anti-Semitic supersessionism in the wild. A Rabbi might condemn something they think reflects an aberrant, “supersessionist” version of Christianity only to find out it’s an essential part of historically orthodox Christianity. A Christian pastor might criticize other Christians for the latent “supersessionism” of their Christ-centred interpretation of the Old Testament, only to find themselves labeled “supersessionist” because of their Trinitarian reading of the Old Testament.

Contrary to some online exhortations (“C’mon Christians, it’s not so hard! Just don’t be supersessionist!”) this really is a rather knotty problem for Christians. And it won’t go away any time soon, because the tensions inherent to the problem of supersessionism grow out of the very nature of Christianity itself.

Here are a few historical realities that need to be considered by anyone—Christian or Jew—who wants to talk about Christianity and supersessionism. While there is debate about many of the details of these things among historians of Christian origins and early Judaism (a.k.a. late Second Temple Judaism), the basic points are not all that controversial.

1) Jesus of Nazareth was a devout Jew. As far as we can tell historically, he remained so to the end (Jesus was executed under Roman jurisdiction in or around 30 CE). Keep in mind, though, Jews (or perhaps better, “Judeans”) in the first century disputed vigorously among themselves as to what God-approved, Torah-faithful religious devotion should look like.

2) Paul of Tarsus was a devout Jew. His revelatory Jesus-experience near Damascus (within a few years of Jesus’ death) was not a “conversion” from one religion to another; he describes it rather as a prophetic “call” by the God of his ancestors to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Lord among the Gentiles (non-Jews, “the nations”; e.g. Gal 1). As far as we know, Paul considered himself to be a devout Jew to the end of his life. This claim was sharply disputed by other Jews of his day.

3) The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jews, and most of the authors of the writings that make up the New Testament were Jews. The scriptures of early Judaism were their scriptures, because they were Jews. They claimed Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel, their Messiah. They viewed what had happened to Jesus and what was happening among them as the beginning of the fulfillment of Jewish expectations for God’s “last days” salvation.

So far this sounds like Christianity should be simply a sect of Judaism. In fact, that’s essentially what it was, to start with: a branch of early Judaism on the “apocalyptic” side of the family tree. So what happened? A few more historical realities to keep in mind:

4) Early in the development of this Jesus movement these Jesus-followers began to understand Jesus in rather exalted, even exclusive, terms. Jesus was viewed not only as Davidic Messiah bringing about God’s promised reign on earth, but as Lord over all powers of this age, even as the fullest revelation of God to humanity—even as God-in-human-flesh. Exactly how early this “high Christology” developed and how widespread it was are matters of debate among historians, but these ideas are evident in one form or another throughout the New Testament writings, even in the earliest of them (Paul’s letters, written 15-30 years after Jesus, ca. 45-60 CE).

5) Within a decade or so after Jesus, Gentiles had begun to join this Jewish Jesus movement. This created a contentious problem for the movement: do we accept Gentiles as Gentiles, or do we expect Gentiles to become Jews? Within another decade, a formal decision was made accepting Gentiles as “righteous Gentiles,” no conversion necessary (Acts 15; ca. 49 CE); however, the controversy continued for many years after. That decision, though, along with the active evangelization of Gentiles by people like Paul, meant that it wasn’t long before Gentiles outnumbered Jews within the Jesus movement (e.g. this seems to have been the case in the Roman churches Paul wrote to in the late 50s CE).

6) By the end of the first century, “the parting of the ways” between Christianity and Judaism was well on its way; by the middle of the second century this parting was effectively complete. The “Gentilization” of the Jesus movement, along with the desire of these Christians to distinguish themselves from Jews in the aftermath of two failed Jewish revolts against Rome (66-73 and 132-136 CE), paved the way for this parting (which was not often as amicable as the word “parting” implies). Christianity emerged as a predominantly Gentile religion, and Judaism evolved into its current form (Pharisaic-Rabbinic).

These historical realities are part of the DNA of Christianity. They can’t simply be brushed aside. Nor does it work to blame supersessionism on a later Hellenization/Romanization of an early Jewish Jesus-movement (no “Thanks, Constantine!” allowed here). An exalted, even exclusive view of Jesus in relation to all other powers of this age and all other claims of divine revelation was already present in the earliest, “most Jewish” versions of Christianity.

In other words, again, the tensions inherent to the problem of supersessionism grow out of the very nature of Christianity itself. We might try to resolve these tensions by denying Christianity’s organic connection to early Judaism, as if Christianity and Judaism are completely distinct religions. Or, we might try to resolve these tensions by denying Christianity’s strong claims about Jesus even related to the Torah and key aspects of Jewish belief and practice, as if there is nothing distinctive about Christianity related to Judaism. Either way, we end up with something that is not Christianity.

So, what should we do?

Well, we need to be honest about the origins of Christianity and the nature of Christianity’s claims about Jesus. This should be part of any religious instruction about Christianity and Judaism, and part of any Jewish-Christian dialogue. It doesn’t help to gloss over these realities in order to resolve any problems that might arise from them.

We also need to be honest about the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and the ways in which Christian teachings about “Christianity as the true religion” and “the Church as God’s true people” have helped to fuel that anti-Semitism (not to mention European colonization and similar evils). This, too, should be part of religious instruction for Christians about Christianity and Judaism, and confessed by Christians in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

We Christians must also do the hard work of thinking carefully about Christianity’s origins and claims related to Judaism.

What does it mean for Christianity and our relationship to Judaism that Jesus was and remained a devout Jew? What does it mean for Christianity and our relationship to Judaism—and any other religion, for that matter—that Jesus did not found Christianity as a religion, let alone a religion distinct from Judaism?

What does it mean for Gentile Christians and our religious practices that Jesus was and remained a devout Jew? What does this mean for our relationship to the scriptures, symbols, and practices of Judaism, including reading Torah, keeping Sabbath, performing ritual washings, and eating sacred meals?

What is the significance of the fact that the Jewish scriptures (the Tanakh) say nothing directly about Jesus, yet they make up most of the Christian scriptures (as the Old Testament)? What does it mean to claim that the Jewish scriptures bear witness to Jesus? What does it mean to claim that Jesus (not any scripture) provides us with the fullest revelation of God and God’s will?

What does it mean for “Israel” to be the people of God, yet for “the Church” also to be the people of God? What exactly is the relationship between the two? What, in fact, does it mean for any specific group of people to claim they are “the people of God,” or “the children/family of God”? How does this relate to biblical ideas that all people are created “in God’s image” and are “God’s children”?

How do we understand the repeated New Testament claim that the new Messianic community forming around Jesus (“the Church”) is in some way an extension of the ancient people of “Israel” in fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures? That in Jesus the Messiah (“in Christ”) Gentiles have been “grafted in” to Israel, included in Israel’s promised inheritance?

What does it mean to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified by Rome and resurrected by God, is Israel’s Messiah? That this Messiah Jesus is Lord over all powers of this world, including religious powers? That this Messiah Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, even God incarnate? How do these claims relate to modern Judaism? to other religions? to other claims of divine revelation and authority?

These and similar questions are more complicated and difficult than they might appear on the surface. Yet we must grapple with these questions in order to navigate the waters around supersessionism. Let’s strive to do so with historical and theological integrity as Christians, with a deep sensitivity and love for our Jewish neighbours, and with grace for one another—because we will make mistakes along the way.

Preserving Faith for Future Generations

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 25, 2018, based on 1 Timothy 6:11-21.

First Timothy concludes with this exhortation: “Guard what has been entrusted to your care.” This is very similar to another exhortation in the Pastoral Epistles, 2 Timothy 1:13-14: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” These echo Paul’s plea to “hold fast to the teachings” or “traditions” he had passed on (2 Thess 2:15; cf. Rom 6:17; 1 Cor 11:2), and they are right in line with perhaps the best known of these New Testament appeals, Jude 3: “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

Yet what precisely is this “deposit,” this “faith,” these “traditions”? And how exactly do we “hold fast to” these traditions, or “guard” this deposit, or “contend for” this faith?

For many Christians today, the “deposit” of “faith” is a fairly comprehensive set of beliefs and practices. It might include everything from specific convictions about the nature of the Bible and how to read it, to particular ideas about the timing of creation, what counts as “sin,” the meaning of Jesus’ death, the mode of baptism, worship style, and much, much more. It’s “the way we’ve always done things,” it’s the “faith of our fathers,” it’s that “old time religion”—even when, in reality, the generations before us went through significant adaptations to their way of faith and life.

However, Kathleen Kern is almost certainly correct in her suggestion that the entrusted gift in view here is the gospel (Adult Bible Study student guide, 78). The “deposit” we are to “guard,” the “faith” for which we are to “contend,” the “traditions” to which we are to “hold fast”—these are all describing some aspect of the good news story of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, who brings about God’s saving kingdom on earth through his life, death, and resurrection.

How can we preserve this gospel for future generations? Our passage points to an answer: “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness,” it says, and so “fight the good fight of the faith” (6:11-12). In other words, we preserve the gospel for future generations by living out the gospel in our own—in authentic faith and love, in genuine godliness and gracious gentleness, with patient perseverance, always seeking first God’s kingdom and justice.

What non-essential beliefs or practices have we added to the simple gospel of Jesus? Which of these might we be wrongly expecting that the next generation keep? Are we striving to live out the good news of Jesus with authenticity and integrity? Are we willing to allow the next generation to live out the gospel in their own way, for their own time?

Holding on to Identity as a Minority Faith

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 7, 2018, based on Daniel 1.

Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with an estimated 2.3 billion adherents. As of 2015, three-quarters of Americans and two-thirds of Canadians identify as Christians. We are hardly a minority faith.

Still, it is true that Christianity’s public influence has declined. Christianity is no longer the touchstone of North American culture that it once was. Christianity no longer defines social values or public policy in quite the way it once did. The institutions of Christianity are not as prominent or as powerful as they once were, and the institutions of our western society are no longer exclusively or even predominantly Christian—if they ever were. Christendom is no more.

This means that although Christianity is not a minority faith in North America it can often feel like it is. For some, this presents a challenge, even a catastrophe. I think it presents an opportunity.

This changed situation is an opportunity for us to reflect on and sharpen our identity as Christians: What does it really mean to be “Christian”? What marks us off as “Christian”? What distinctive beliefs or rituals or symbols or sacred stories are at the heart of this thing called “Christianity”?

The story of Daniel and his three companions in Daniel 1 is a story about early Jewish identity. Ostensibly about Israelites exiled in ancient Babylonia, yet really about Maccabean Jews under pressure to Hellenize, the story remains for Jews a powerful symbol of maintaining their religious and cultural identity in the face of enormous pressure to assimilate. For us as Christians, it can stand as a biblical call to reflect on our identity as Christians, asking those same questions forced upon us by our own post-Christendom context.

So, what does mark us off as “Christian”? Contra Daniel 1, the New Testament insists it’s not our diet—“all foods are clean,” Mark concludes based on Jesus’ teaching (Mark 7:14-19), and Paul declares that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink” (Rom 14:14-17). Likewise, it’s not the observance of holy days like the Sabbath (Rom 14:5-6; Col 2:16-17) or covenant rituals like circumcision (Gal 5:6; 6:15).

For Christians, beliefs, rituals, symbols, and sacred stories have tremendous value in nurturing the things that matter most, but they are not themselves those essentials of Christianity. Rather, as markers of Christian identity Jesus and the Apostles consistently point us to a cluster of lived-out virtues: a trusting, obedient faith, a persevering, persistent hope, and, above all, a self-giving, other-delighting love, all in the way of Jesus, all nurtured by the Spirit.

My Confession of Faith

There is only one reason why I am, and remain, a Christian: Jesus.

In Jesus I see God embodied, a God who is a friend of sinners, who finds the lost and feasts the least and firsts the last. In Jesus I see a God who runs to wayward children, welcoming them in lavish banquets of love.

In Jesus I see a God who stands in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the stranger. In Jesus I see a God who stands firm against oppression and exclusion by the powerful and privileged.

In Jesus I see a God who loves stories and riddles, flowers and children, and eating good food with good friends and the very best of wine.

In Jesus I see a God who dreams of a better world, a kingdom of justice and peace and flourishing life, and who dares to plant that dream in the world with such a small and insignificant seed: love.

In Jesus I see a God who is willing to die rather than kill, following his own words of nonviolence on his own way of the cross.

In Jesus I see a God who turns death into new life, shame into honour, guilt into forgiveness, futility into purpose, brokenness into wholeness, suffering into joy, despair into hope—and this gives me hope.

In Jesus I also see, then, humanity as we are meant to be: walking in all these ways of Jesus, centered on devotion to our Creator expressed through compassion and care for other humans and all creation, paying special attention to the most vulnerable of God’s creatures.

I am not a Christian because of other Christians, though I know many good Christians. I am not a Christian because of the Bible, though the Bible points me to Jesus and tells me his story.

There is only one reason why I am, and remain, a Christian: Jesus.

Bishop Curry, Luke and Acts, and “Christianity Lite”

There was a lot of buzz this past weekend about the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, now the Duchess and Duke of Sussex. And a good bit of that buzz was about the sermon by Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Responses to Bishop Curry’s sermon have ranged from astonishment to amusement, from enthusiastic applause to sharp criticism. Some of that criticism has come from Christians, including a former chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen who claimed that Bishop Curry’s sermon represented a watered down version of Christianity, a kind of “Christianity Lite.” The specific critiques are diverse, but in general they seem to boil down to three things: there was too much love, too much social justice, and not enough cross.

However, if this is “Christianity Lite”—showing compassionate love for all including the unrighteous and unrepentant, seeking equitable justice for all and especially the vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed, and all this without a strong penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ death—then Luke the Evangelist, author of a good 27% of our New Testament, is also implicated.

Yep: Luke and Acts are also “Christianity Lite.”

Consider the cross.

Like Bishop Curry in his sermon, Luke does in fact mention Jesus’ death—dozens of times in the Gospel and Acts. What’s more, Jesus’ death is mentioned at significant points in Luke’s accounts of Jesus and the Apostles: in the Gospel’s creed-like “passion predictions” taken up from Mark’s Gospel, anticipating Jesus’ death yet to come; in the Gospel’s “passion narrative,” as rich in meaning as that of any of the Gospels; and in Acts’ several “evangelistic speeches,” where the saving message about Jesus is proclaimed to those who don’t yet believe. In other words, as with Bishop Curry, the cross is pretty important to Luke’s theology.

However, the cross isn’t talked about by Luke in the way at least some of Bishop Curry’s detractors call for. There’s no “You’re a sinner and you’re going to hell, but—good news!—Jesus has died to pay the penalty for your sins” in Luke or Acts—not even in the Apostles’ evangelistic speeches. In fact, “penal substitution” is entirely absent from Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ death—there is nothing in Luke or Acts indicating that Jesus is punished on the cross for our sins, paying a penalty that should be ours to pay.

For Luke, that “Christ died for our sins” means that “Christ died because of our sins,” and “Christ died to show us the way out of our sins.”

The most common interpretation of Jesus’ death by Luke is this stark contrast: human powers have killed Jesus, but God has raised Jesus from the dead. This idea is found in both the Gospel and Acts, explicitly and repeatedly. This refrain fits a Christus victor view of atonement: God has resurrected the crucified Jesus, thus declaring him to be Lord over all powers. The necessary response? Repentance of our collaboration with the evil powers of this world—rulers and idols alike—and walking in the Way in full allegiance to Jesus, Messiah and Lord. And this, of course, is where the gospel preaching of Acts always goes.

The next most common interpretation of Jesus’ death in Luke-Acts is that of Jesus as example to follow: Jesus has taught the way of nonviolent, self-giving love for both neighbours and enemies, and in his own suffering and death he exemplifies this teaching. This is “the way of peace” anticipated by John the Baptist’s father. These are “the things that make for peace” that Jesus laments the people of Jerusalem have missed. Jesus’ followers are to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him” in these very ways—following Jesus in bringing about peace through nonviolent, self-giving love.

That’s the cross in Luke’s writings—unlikely to pass inspection from at least some of Bishop Curry’s critics. How about love?

Luke’s Gospel, of course, has the same key references to love found in Mark’s Gospel (which Luke almost certainly used) and Matthew’s (which Luke probably used). Love as the Greatest Commandment that sums up the whole Law of Moses: loving God with our whole being, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Love of enemy as a distinctive hallmark of Jesus-followers.

But Luke also blends in a good-sized helping of other sayings and stories of Jesus about love.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

It is Luke’s Gospel that fleshes out love of neighbour by telling the story of the Good Samaritan—shockingly making a despised foreigner the epitome of neighbour love. It is Luke’s Gospel that has all three stories of lostness: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In this last story the father’s love for his prodigal son is particularly scandalous: generous from start to finish, watching for the prodigal and running for him without care for propriety, welcoming him home without any amends made or demanded.

Luke’s Gospel has more than the normal quota of stories of Jesus healing people and sharing meals with them, crossing bounds of purity and propriety to do so. He also tells his share of stories about Jesus forgiving sins on God’s behalf—sometimes in response to repentance, sometimes not. And it is Luke’s Gospel (or some manuscripts of it) that has Jesus calling on God to forgive his executioners even as he hangs on the cross, even while they remain ignorant of their heinous sin.

I suspect, then, that Luke’s Gospel has far too much emphasis on love for some—which brings us right to social justice.

One of the strangest criticisms of Bishop Curry’s sermon I’ve seen is that it focused too much on things like racial justice and poverty and the like. The thinking goes like this: the goal of Jesus’ ministry was to bring people into “the kingdom of heaven” (by which is meant simply “heaven,” or “an eternal, spiritual afterlife with God”). His ministry was “spiritual,” not “political”—and, in any case, things like sexism or racism or poverty aren’t really going to change in this world (you know, “the poor you will always have with you”).

But Luke the Evangelist will have none of this.

Leave aside the fact that “kingdom of heaven” is parallel to “kingdom of God,” and that the Jewish expectation of “God’s kingdom” was very much a this-earthly reality. Leave aside the fact that “give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and give to God that which belongs to God” would make any devout Jew think, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” And leave aside the fact that “the poor you will always have with you” is an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:11 where Moses is in fact urging generosity toward the poor.

Quite apart from these things, Luke’s Gospel is explicit in promoting what we today call “social justice,” even specifically along the lines of sex, race, and economics. There’s far too much to mention, so let’s just consider the issue of poverty.

James Tissot, Le magnificat

It is Luke’s Gospel that has Mary sing these words in anticipation of Jesus’ birth: “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

It is Luke that makes Isaiah 61 into Jesus’ personal mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (in other words, Jubilee—look it up).

It is Luke that presents Jesus’ beatitudes this way: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” And he includes some accompanying woes in case we’re tempted to spiritualize this: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” And just to hammer this home, these are among his following words: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

It is Luke’s Gospel that says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” It is Luke that tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, making sure his hearers know the rich man was being judged for his callous disregard of poor Lazarus at his very gate. It is Luke that tells the story of Zacchaeus, declaring, once Zacchaeus had promised to give half his wealth to the poor and make restitution to any he had defrauded, that “Today salvation has come to this house.”

It is Luke that tells of the early Christians selling their property and giving to the poor among them, even holding all their possessions in common. It is Luke that describes the Apostles’ concern for widows in need, ensuring all received sufficient help regardless of cultural background. It is Luke that mentions the concern of believers in Antioch to provide aid for the poor in Jerusalem affected by famine.

If this is “Christianity Lite”—showing compassionate love for all including the unrighteous and unrepentant, seeking equitable justice for all and especially the vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed, and all this without a strong penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ death—then it’s not just Bishop Curry who is guilty of it. That’s Luke the Evangelist implicated as well, and—at least according to Luke—even Jesus himself.

Not bad company, I’d say.

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

Abdul and Jesus and Me

Abdulkadir answers the door the way he always does: a smile, a nod, a quiet “hello,” and a handshake. His smile is a little pinched this day, though, the handshake awkward. He’s just had shoulder surgery a few days ago, and his right arm is in a sling, his face flickering with grimaces of pain.

“Come in,” he waves, lefthanded, indicating the narrow hallway to the room beyond. I shrug off my shoes and walk through to the snug but sunlit living room. There I place the flowers I have brought for him, my get-well gift. I remember the way he came by my house after I broke my foot, concerned for my welfare.

“Flowers,” I say as awkwardly as his handshake. “For you, or maybe for Halima—since she has to take care of you.” Abdul’s wife is just coming down the stairs, adjusting her hijab as she descends. “Hello, Halima,” I say to her.

Halima smiles and nods her own quiet “hello.” She quickly takes charge of the flowers, the awkwardness defused. With a tut of pleasure she disappears into the kitchen to find something for a vase.

Abdulkadir motions me toward one of the couches while he takes his place in the corner chair. It looks well lived in, pillows and blankets placed strategically for him to find a pain-free position.

A movie is playing on the computer monitor, streaming from somewhere. The film looks Middle Eastern, the language Arabic, but dubbed. I wonder what the original language had been. Farsi, maybe? Or maybe Kurdish, Abdulkadir and Halima’s mother tongue. Anything is possible in this household, forced into multilingualism out of harsh necessity.

“Qahwa? Shai?” Abdulkadir asks, as he always does. Coffee? Tea?

“Qahwa, please,” I reply, as I always do. One small cup of that strong Turkish coffee is enough to buzz me through a whole day.

A string of Kurdish zips from Abdulkadir to Halima and back again. Abdul settles back into his chair with another grimace, and we settle into our regular pattern of stilted conversation. They have been in Canada for a full year now, and their English has improved enormously—no more Google Translate, most of the time. My Kurdish still amounts to zero.

As we talk about his surgery, their children, my family, and more, my eye keeps being drawn back to the film still streaming its dubbed Arabic. Something about the scene strikes me as familiar. A group of men getting out of a boat at a lakeside village. One of them standing out from the others, strikingly handsome.

“Isa,” Abdulkadir says, noticing where my attention has turned.

“Jesus, yes,” I say in reply. “I thought maybe it was a movie about Jesus.”

Abdulkadir looks at me with a smile in his eyes. “Isa is good.”

“Yes, Jesus is good,” I respond, knowing it’s inadequate. I remember my religious studies classes, my previous inter-faith experiences with Muslims. Jesus, whom Muslims call Isa, is revered in Islam as a miracle-working prophet and teacher, even a bringer of the gospel—though not the crucified Son of God.

I have a hard time reconciling this reverence for the peace-loving Jesus with the flag of Kurdistan on the wall, adorned with the silhouette of a gun. But then I can’t always reconcile Christian reverence for the peace-loving Jesus with our own justifications of violence abroad to secure a homeland for ourselves.

We watch the handsome, Middle Eastern Jesus for a while. He teaches his disciples by the lake. He talks to a woman in the village.

“Maryam,” Abdulkadir says, another connection made.

“Jesus’ mother,” I reply, nodding. A virgin mother, according to Muslim theology. Does Abdul believe this, which I as a Christian find so difficult to believe?

Halima brings the qahwa and some almond cookies. We eat and drink in silence, the three of us, watching the Muslim Jesus. He heals a woman bent over with pain. He raises a child from the dead, bringing life to a whole community.

I remember last year during Ramadan, Abdulkadir and Halima sharing a meal with us at 9:30 at night, breaking the day’s fast. Normally this would be done with brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, all living nearby. But their family is far away, shattered to the ends of the earth by war and terror. Even Abdulkadir and Halima’s teenage sons are separated from them by an ocean of sorrow and pain. I and my family were there instead, taking their place, inadequately, awkwardly.

I remember, over that Ramadan meal of spiced rice and grape-leaf rolls, Abdulkadir beaming at me: “You are our brother.”

“Yes, we are brothers,” I remember replying with a smile in my eyes. “We are all sisters and brothers.”

Christians Need to Be More Conservative, Not Less

It’s happened again.

The other day someone casually referred to me as “liberal” (don’t worry, Peter, I don’t hold it against you). Every time that happens I kind of smile to myself—if it’s said innocently—or else I cringe inwardly—if it’s said pejoratively.

It’s not that I particularly mind being called “liberal.” In some circles that’s the worst thing anyone can be. But the word can be a wonderful compliment: think of a doctor who is “liberal” with their time, or a wealthy person who is “liberal” with their charitable giving. (Or maybe a Christian who is “liberal” with their love, “liberal” in the grace and mercy they show to others…?)

It’s more that the word doesn’t really fit me in the way people seem to think.

Most often people seem to think I am theologically “liberal.” That’s very strange.

They might mean (though I doubt it) that I hold to classic liberal theology, that I’m a disciple of Friedrich Schleiermacher or Adolf von Harnack. But I don’t, and I’m not.

Or they might mean (more likely) that I don’t believe in the classic doctrines of Christianity, that I am not theologically “orthodox.” But I do, and I am.

I believe in the Trinity, one God in three persons. I believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man. I hold fast to the good news of salvation through Jesus, Messiah and Lord and Son of God, who died for our sins and was bodily resurrected. I look to the Scriptures as divinely inspired and authoritative for Christian belief and practice. I can recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds without batting an eye or crossing my fingers behind my back—pretty much the definition of being “theologically orthodox.”

In other words, I’m actually quite conservative, theologically speaking. Within the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs through history and around the globe, I’m pretty securely on the conservative side of things.

Here’s the real issue, it seems to me: I don’t fit a lot of people’s culturally conditioned notions of how “conservative Christians” act, or what else they believe.

Beliefs like biblical inerrancy or young earth creationism or penal substitutionary atonement or the rapture have crept into Christian thinking over the past few centuries, and have become part of the package of “conservative Christianity”—but they are actually recent theological innovations, not historical Christian orthodoxy.

Likewise, things like upholding “family values” or “traditional marriage,” or being a “Christian nation,” or supporting war efforts or gun rights or free-market capitalism, or abstaining from alcohol, have become part and parcel of “conservative Christianity”—but they have actually grown out of our particular Western culture, with nothing timeless or universal about them.

Some of these sorts of things I may agree with in one sense or to a certain degree, but I hold them loosely. Other things, well beyond these examples, I have questioned and continue to wonder about. Many of these sorts of things I simply don’t believe in or agree with. Some I’m even convinced are actually harmful distortions of genuine Christian faith.

But in many “conservative Christian” circles, these kinds of beliefs and ideas and behaviours tend to get all lumped together with genuine Christian orthodoxy: believing in biblical inerrancy is on par with believing in the Trinity, upholding heterosexual marriage is on the same level as upholding the gospel, and so on.

liberalYou’ll have noticed the quotation marks around “conservative Christians” through all this. That’s not because I don’t think these folks are truly Christian. It’s partly because that’s just the common phrase used to describe Christians who hold to these kinds of views. But it’s also because I’m not convinced they really are all that conservative.

Yes, you’ve heard it here first: “conservative Christians” are not conservative enough. They need to be more conservative, not less.

They need to go back to genuine, generous, historic Christian orthodoxy—and hold fast to it, being wary of all those trendy theological innovations like biblical inerrancy or young-earth creationism.

They need to go back to the original, apostolic, gospel story of Jesus—and hold fast to it, being cautious of all those recent cultural accretions like “family values” or teetotalism.

They need to go back to our sacred Scriptures, that diverse collection of ancient human writings inspired by God—and hold fast to it, being suspicious of all those simplistic assertions of right and wrong.

We Christians—all of us—need to be more conservative, not less.

And if we do so, we might actually find ourselves becoming truly liberal—in the best senses of the word.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

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.'”