Tag Archives: doctrine


Jesus Forgives Our Doctrine

I heard Scot McKnight on a podcast the other day where he made an interesting observation. “I grew up in a Paul church,” he said, and went on to explain that in America there are “Paul churches” and “Jesus churches.” I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, and I may not parse it out exactly the same way McKnight does, but I realize that he’s right. This is not to say that some churches openly worship Paul instead of Jesus (though a few come close). The difference is between churches that worship and celebrate Jesus according to ideas about Jesus, especially those gleaned from the writings of Paul as interpreted by the church fathers and reformers, and churches that seek to follow the teaching and way of Jesus himself. This isn’t really about Paul vs. Jesus, it’s about the often shocking disparity between our doctrinal beliefs and the kingdom ethos that Jesus taught and embodied.

Even though I’d never considered the “Paul church/Jesus church” rubric before, I have been meditating for a long time on the glaring disconnection between the Protestant church’s doctrines of sin and grace and the attitude and behavior of Jesus toward “sinners” in the gospels. In a “Paul church” setting, the tendency is to focus on legality and guilt, and to treat sinners like offenders and defendants. When there is talk of forgiveness and atonement, it is usually reserved for those who have entered into a process of confession, conversion, and belief. But is that how Jesus dealt with sinners? Jesus urged his hearers to repent and turn from sin, to be sure, but did he withhold blessing and salvation until his subjects proved sufficiently contrite or devout?

In my opinion and experience, stories speak much louder than doctrines and axioms. Stories are interactive, designed to engage and provoke thought. And the Bible is full of stories and testimonies, especially about Jesus. So here are three stories about Jesus interacting with sinners that a “Jesus Christian” might take to heart.

Jesus Versus a Blind Man (John 9)

Wait a minute, you protest, a blind man isn’t the same as a “sinner!” And in your cozy, enlightened, twenty-first-century context you may be correct. But in this story and in the larger ancient world, the overwhelming belief was that anyone with an infirmity or disability was obviously being punished for some violation of God’s laws and/or the natural order. Jesus’ followers spell it out: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (9:2) Jesus responds, “He didn’t sin nor did his parents; this happened that God’s works could be seen in him!,” (9:3) and then proceeds to heals the man. For Jesus, pain and brokenness are not signs of divine punishment but opportunities for divine blessing. And this is why I include this particular story on this list. In a Jesus-based view of humanity, the category of “sinner” has a radically different shape than it does elsewhere. Before we talk about how to deal with “sinners,” we might need to radically rethink the label itself.

Jesus Versus an Adulterous Lady (John 8)

OK, this is more like it. A real live sinner, caught in the act, even! Spicy! In this famous incident, a crowd of extremely religious gentlemen are set to stone a woman they caught in adultery (I guess the man she was with had to get to jury duty or something). They’re super excited to put their Bible-based doctrine into action and “deal with sin” when Jesus crashes their party and ruins everything. He exposes their hypocrisy, disperses the crowd, and sends the woman on her way to continue being alive. In a “Paul church” environment, Jesus’ admonition to “sin no more” (8:11) is the instructional takeaway. But really, “sin no more” is the least radical aspect of this story. This woman, guilty beyond doubt of a top-ten sin, is pardoned and rescued by Jesus with no lecture or ceremony, without so much as a word of contrition or devotion from her. What does this story tell us about Jesus and sin? In this account, like so many others from the gospels, the danger of punition and violence comes not from heaven but from the human religious establishment. Jesus’ only role is to invade and disrupt that system and advocate for the “sinner” that it seeks to victimize.

Jesus Versus His Own Murderers (Luke 23)

I’ve talked about this story many times here on the blog, because it always gets to me. In fact, if I was tasked with summing up the message of the New Testament in a single short passage, it might have to be this one. Jesus has been betrayed and abandoned by his followers, taken into custody, tortured, and is being executed, all on trumped-up charges. The son of God hangs there, degraded and mutilated, the victim of wicked collusion between religion and empire. And with his dying breath, what does he do? Does he call fire and death upon his persecutors? Does he speak ominous prophecies of vengeance and vindication? No, with his last breath he simply and bafflingly pronounces pardon upon his killers: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!” (23:34)  Is there a more moving and powerful sentence in all of world literature? Not only does Jesus forgive his oppressors – unrepentant pagan murderers who will never believe in him or embrace the kingdom of God – he dies advocating for them. In a stunning and prescient sociological insight, Jesus recognizes the systemic and environmental forces behind the heinous deeds of his executors and looks upon them with inexhaustible understanding and compassion.

What if our doctrines of sin and grace were based on the words and deeds of Jesus in stories like these instead of the musings of philosophers and theologians? What if being a Christian meant being like Jesus rather than believing Christian things about Jesus? And what if God looked more like Jesus the lover of sinners than any of our shame-based doctrinal formulas? 


Depravity Follow-Up

Wednesday’s post really seemed to resonate with some people and to irk others. On the one hand, lots of folks seemed to identify with my personal journey away from burdensome and fear-based religious beliefs. Meanwhile, others pointed out that I wasn’t quite describing or analyzing the doctrine of depravity correctly. And guess what? They’re technically right (the best kind of right!).

When I published that post I thought to myself, Someone’s going to tell me that I don’t understand depravity. Someone’s going to explain that depravity relates to the pervasiveness of sin in all aspects of the human condition and has nothing to do with original sin, divine violence, etc.  And that’s true, I suppose, by the book. I took those courses and read those texts. I know what the doctrine of depravity is all about. My post was rather sloppy, I admit, from a doctrinal perspective. I basically used “depravity” as an umbrella for related doctrines about sin guilt and its legal ramifications. I should have been more precise.

But my bigger point, which was also challenged, was about how divine violence is always the elephant-in-the-room with such doctrines, whether they spell it out or not. Ideas like depravity and original sin understand the human dilemma in terms of a desperate legal battle against the cosmic justice machine, an anticipation of divine wrath and violence instead of an embrace of divine forgiveness and mercy. This effectively makes people feel like tiny wads of sputum instead of beloved children of God, and God seem like the ultimate supervillain instead of a loving Father. It’s an arraignment instead of a party. It’s a millstone around the neck instead of a shattered yoke. It’s Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Spurgeon, and Piper instead of Jesus.

Doctrine has value as both a subjective intellectual analysis of biblical material and a snapshot of how our forebearers in the church responded to their historical circumstances and challenges. The authors of our doctrines, like the authors of scripture before them, are products of specific times and places, and their work reflects a contextual attempt at faithfulness to God and tradition. We benefit from their work, and within our respective traditions it can help to shape our identity and inform our response to our own times and challenges.

But doctrine is no substitute for Jesus. Each generation has the opportunity and the duty to reassess its inherited doctrines in light of who Jesus was and is. This is why I feel not only permitted but obligated to critique and even to reject doctrines which distort or forsake Jesus’ kingdom vision. Clarifying and emphasizing that original spark of divine hope and liberation will always be more important to me than compiling biblical data or balancing my doctrinal ledgers.


Depravity: The Sickest Thing I Used to Believe

I used to believe that I was so depraved in my mind, heart, and DNA that I deserved to be killed by God, but that Jesus died in my place so I was off the hook, except that I wasn’t really off the hook unless I believed and felt bad and obeyed every word of the Bible forever. I called this “good news.” I didn’t know any better.

Millions of children are taught from a very young age that they are broken and bad, utterly unacceptable to God as they are, and that only a religious negotiation will give them a chance at last-minute salvation. These are not the teachings of some fringe cult, they are the mainstream beliefs of American conservative Christianity.

Like so many harmful doctrines, the belief in “total depravity” (codified by Calvin) is based on a legal conception of the relationship between humans and God as well as a flat and technical reading of an inerrant Bible. When the poets and teachers of scripture describe their personal woes or the sorry state of the their society and world, they say things like “there is no one on earth who is righteous,” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) and “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23) These powerful and subjective testimonies have somehow become burdensome legalities, a forensic diagnosis of humankind’s “fallen” state. The message behind the doctrine is clear to those living in its shadow: you may think you’re doing OK, but the Bible says you are awful and bad and God can’t even bear to look at you.

A Depraved Doctrine

In the Reformed formula, depravity is the necessary premise for an entire “plan of salvation.” Without a legal status of depravity, the legal solution of Jesus’ blood cannot be efficacious. This mires our Christian faith – which ought to be an open-hearted journey along the Path of Jesus – in the archaic and dangerous logic of blood sacrifice and sacred death.

The pastoral failure of depravity as a doctrine is how it teaches people (especially young people) that they have no worth apart from their legal standing within a religious system and, bad news, your default status within that system is “screwed.” It teaches them to feel bad about who they are, out of the box, and sets them on a lifelong journey of anxiety and self-doubt. Ironically, while the mantra of Reformed theology is that humans play no part in their own salvation, its effect is that of a death sentence for every human being unless they begin to frantically dig themselves out of the pit.

Theologically, depravity and its implications are deeply rooted in a commitment to divine violence and sacrificial religion. This is the notion that from the ancient past God has demanded lifeblood as a payment for human sin, and the expectation of an ultimate future in which God uses violence to set things “right.” In the framework of depravity and substitutionary atonement, the “good news” is that God has provided a loophole out of the inevitable catastrophe for an elect few, but it nevertheless upholds the essential violence of God and of the divine plan. Again, it fails to follow Jesus in envisioning and following after a God who is bigger and better than our broken and bloody systems of justice. It cannot imagine victory or peace without a necessary shedding of blood.

The Alternate Way of Jesus 

Jesus warned his neighbors and followers that they were committed to a path of self-destruction. He invited them to repent of their sinful and violent ways before it was too late. But Jesus saw humans as beloved children of God who had lost their way, not legally damned fodder for the divine bloodlust. He called them back to the loving embrace of a God of peace and reconciliation, not into a legal machine that might make them conditionally acceptable to a violent God through substitution and sacrifice.

Prof. Bernard Ramm is quoted as saying that “God forgives our theology just like he forgives our sin.” We must stop teaching our children that they are inherently deficient and depraved. Jesus points us away from shame and sacrifice and toward joy and peace. The young ones will discover soon enough how compromised and treacherous the world and their own hearts might be. Let’s be ready to encourage and affirm them as recipients and agents of God’s rescuing love in a world that needs them. This is the path of Jesus. Violence and depravity are the other path.


Errant Notions Part Six: This Time It’s Personal

Last in a series of posts examining common arguments for ‘biblical inerrancy,’ the assertion that the Bible is without error in everything it affirms.

This is the final argument we’re going to consider in our series on inerrancy, and it is quite unlike the previous ones. Up to this point, each question we’ve considered had a technical aspect to it: Were the original autographs free of error? Was canonization an indication of infallibility? Does the Bible establish its own inerrancy? Did Jesus teach inerrancy? And what did the church fathers and reformers believe about the nature and authority of scripture? Each of these can be researched and assessed to varying degrees of satisfaction. Our sixth argument, unlike these others, is less technical and far more rhetorical. And, for me, it has become unexpectedly personal.  Continue reading


Errant Notions Part One: No Autographs!

In this next series of posts I want to consider the major arguments made by proponents of “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible is without error and infallible in all that it teaches. These are the arguments I intend to address:

I will say this as often as I can throughout this series, but I want to say it clearly here at the start: I do not enter this debate because I have a low regard for the Bible or because I wish to undermine its authority for the Christian. I value the Bible highly and recognize its essential role in the formulation of Christian belief and practice. But that is precisely why I am a vocal critic of the inerrancy doctrine, which I believe to be a smokescreen of false certainty masking deep insecurity and doubt. Instead of engaging the Bible for what it is, inerrancy proffers a shortcut to certitude, as if deep spiritual convictions could be foregone, predetermined by a formula apart from soul searching and rigorous study. I believe as all Christians do that God can and does speak through scripture, but the presumption of inerrancy actually limits the extent to which we are willing and able to listen.

Nothing Tops The Originals!

In a way this first one is the most compelling argument for inerrancy. And yet, in another more accurate way, it is an utter non-argument. You’ll see why. The claim is this: “The Bible is inerrant, but only in the original autographs.” That is, only the original compositions written by the hands of the authors (or their scribes) are truly infallible and constitute the word of God. We’ll tackle the phrase “word of God” in a future post, and for now we’ll focus on the substance of this claim about the original manuscripts.

This argument is rather convenient in one sense and awkwardly inconvenient in another. On the one hand, it is helpful in dodging questions about canonization or scribal transmission or the interpretation of difficult texts. Forget all that noise, only the originals are perfect anyway! On the other hand, the original autographs do not exist, and we will likely never have access to them. No one outside of the Bible has left us a record of seeing or reading or handling the original texts, and our oldest copies of New Testament books are scribal copies of copies of copies made more than a century after the originals were written. The argument cannot be demonstrated or tested. The post could end here on a technicality.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

But this is not really a technical argument. In fact, it’s not an argument at all, it’s an assertion. A religious claim. And that’s OK! Religious claims make great religious claims, but they usually make lousy arguments. This claim ultimately forces a question of personal belief: Do you choose to believe that the original biblical autographs are the infallible words of God Himself, perfectly true in everything they affirm? Each hearer must answer that personal, spiritual question for him or herself. I have great respect and brotherly affection for my Christian friends who answer “yes,” even as I must answer “no.”

For me, the evidence is the texts themselves. They are too obviously the product of diverse human personalities to have all been secretly authored by God, and even as they reveal Jesus they also seem to affirm too many horrors and ambiguities to be called “perfect” in their every teaching. If God actually did write them, that remark is wildly out of line. If, however, inspired humans wrote them to express their beliefs and experiences of the divine, it only makes sense. But this is where we discover that inerrancy isn’t really about the nature of the texts themselves, it’s about the will of the person who wants to appeal to their authority.

Without inerrant, unquestionable proof texts, our claims over the lives and destinies of others have no solid basis. We are left without a platform, with no posture of superiority, forced to rely on our own discernment and humility and experience. But isn’t that exactly where a Christian servant and follower of Jesus ought to be: vulnerable and teachable and selfless? This is ultimately why I reject inerrancy; it represents a false and self-serving front of arrogant certainty that denies our own humanity as much as the Bible’s. It doesn’t just misrepresent the living texts of scripture, it threatens to turn the believer into a fossil of empty certitude and an agent of unrighteous condemnation.

Hiding Behind the Text

The original autographs of the New Testament texts don’t exist and likely never will. But that’s why and how they have become a sort of safety net or trump card for those who seek to justify themselves with the Bible. We can prove that manuscript copies contain errors. We can demonstrate how even our best translations fall short. We can wrestle with voices in scripture that seem to promote retribution and hate. But we will never be able to scrutinize those originals, and so they provide a safe place for insecure believers to lay low, an impenetrable shield behind which to hide. It’s far easier than engaging messy reality with humility and an open heart.

I do believe that God speaks to us through scripture, but He does so as often in spite of what the text affirms as through it. In hindsight, I might have made this the last post in the series, since it gets so swiftly to the heart of the inerrancy debate. There is much more to say, but it will all hearken back in one way or another to this point: that inerrancy is a calculated rhetorical assertion, not a fact.