Andrew Sullivan Says Forget the Church. That's Like Saying Forget Grace.
Today we may not kill each other over doctrine, but pop into a few theologically driven blogs or Facebook conversations, and you'll see that if people had the means, they very well might start a war over their differences. Even in the cause of grace, you find people sparring with one another, ironically, with livid self-righteousness. The neo-Reformed have convinced thousands of young believers to study theology, and as one deeply sympathetic to Reformed theology, I happen to think this is a good thing. But even one of their own has created a parody of their passions. In one clip, a young man, enthusiastic for all things theological, tells his girlfriend that he won't be able to go out tonight because someone said something wrong on Facebook, and of course, he has to correct it!
Sullivan believes, along with Jefferson, that Christians should pay less attention "theological doctrines" and more to "the very words of Jesus." As Sullivan put it, "Jesus' doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did."
As a person who has been fascinated with theology, I'll even have to admit that some days the whole business of theology is weariness to the soul. Who really cares about the difference between the imputation or infusion of righteousness? Or infra- and supra-lapsarianism? Or whether faith is a free choice or something that is compelled by a glorious vision of God? Or a hundred and one other theological disputes that, frankly, seem to make little difference in how most people live for God day to day?
But the love of neighbor—that I can get a handle on, especially when you give me a story to picture it, like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Couldn't we avoid so much division and wrangling—and get a lot more good done in the world—if we just concentrated on the simple ethics of Jesus?
Ah, but here's the rub: the ethics of Jesus are no less complicated than the theology of Jesus, of which there is plenty as well. Yes, many of Jesus' simple stories and actions are bursting with complicated theology. For example, take his audaciousness in forgiving the sins of the paralytic (Mark 2)—what was he teaching if it wasn't ontology, that is, who he is in his essence? In this case, it's pretty hard to read this without concluding that he is making himself equal to God, the only one with the absolute right to forgive sins. And what else was he teaching when he said, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) and "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58)? And once we realize he said those sorts of things time and again, we start getting curious about what he means exactly, and how exactly he can be equal to God, and, yes, what difference that might make in our daily lives.
Or take that complex doctrine we call the atonement. What was Jesus teaching about his death when he said, "the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45) and "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28)? It sure sounds like some form of substitutionary atonement to me. And that just forces you to start asking questions about sin and forgiveness and what exactly happened on the cross.
This simple Jesus also had a theology of Scripture (not one iota of the law will perish until all is accomplished, Matthew 5), and prayer (Matthew 67), the end times (the 100+ passages about the kingdom of God!)—and on it goes. No, Jesus may have been a teacher of simple ethics, but he was also a theologian, and, we might say, a theologian with a lot of insider information!
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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