Bock

A Look at the Two Christian Faiths in Our Public Square: Christianity and Jesusanity April 1, 08

Although this is April Fool’s day, the blog for today is not for fools. It is a look at the two kinds of Christianity that are out in the Public Square today: Christianity and what I call Jesusanity. The latter I have discussed before in Dethroning Jesus.

Although this is April Fool’s day, the blog for today is not for fools. It is a look at the two kinds of Christianity that are out in the Public Square today: Christianity and what I call Jesusanity. The latter I have discussed before in Dethroning Jesus. However, having spoken around the country on this for six months I have pulled my thoughts together into a shorter summary of the key ideas. Here it is:

There are really two Christian stories in our culture, two things often called Christianity that are very different in their focus.

One approach sees Jesus’ teaching and person at the center of what God is doing for people. Jesus is God’s anointed one, the Christ, whose mission, life and death is at the center of God’s program. This is what is known as Christianity. The name fits because Jesus is seen as the promised Messiah, whose person brings God’s deliverance. His resurrection showed that His death for sin also makes possible the restoration of our broken relationship to God. His resurrection also shows that God has exalted Him to what the early New Testament texts describe as “the right hand of God,” a place of shared honor as the Son of God.

The second approach sees only Jesus’ teaching as the key to understanding who Jesus is. Jesus is like a great prophet, whose teaching shows us the way back to God, but his person, other than the example of Jesus’ walk with God and pointing the ethical path God calls us to, is not central to the divine program. This I have called Jesusanity, because in this view, it is Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher-prophet who is the central focus. This approach to the faith is difficult to discuss, because it does respect Jesus and affirms things about Jesus that are reflective of the Bible. However it also represents an incomplete picture of how the Bible, in its core narrative, presents Jesus. This approach to Jesus does have a distinct emphasis and focus. A conversation between people holding to each of these views can be confusing, because people may think they are discussing the same thing (Christianity), when their perception of that belief is in fact very different. Much cultural Christianity, as well as many presentations of Jesus in the public square, actually reflects this Jesusanity.

Jesusanity has many causes. Some of it is rooted in failures of the church to reflect truly Christian standards over the centuries. Here one can point to the religious wars Christians participated in when the faith and European states, wedded together, competed for political power, ravaging Europe and corrupting offices of church leadership. Immorality and hypocrisy in the church contribute to its presence and credibility. Other causes are more complex. These include efforts to undercut the credibility of the New Testament and its roots in the earliest era of belief in Jesus, the appeal to second and third century gospel and gospel-like texts as giving us an equally relevant picture of this early period, and the claim that portions of the New Testament reflect very contrastive theologies, as compared to distinct emphases in a shared faith. These claims reflect misdirected efforts to promote a more, modern and relevant form of Christianity as culturally more acceptable and tolerant form of the faith.

Beyond these, a kind of brittle fundamentalism can lead to such claims. Brittle fundamentalism is a defense of biblically rooted faith that overdoes the Christian faith by making Christianity do more than the faith claims for itself, including refusing to engage and respond to legitimate questions. When those young in the faith begin to ask questions in such an environment, the questions are not addressed as much as dismissed, often with exclusive solutions that do not consider other possible, biblically respectable alternatives. The impression becomes that the church has something to hide about its faith or that it is afraid of questions. Many who leave the faith from this background end up not adjusting their faith in small increments, but leaving it entirely. It is interesting to note that many of the writers who critique Christian faith today with a kind of Jesusanity grew up in a conservative theological context. The faith of those who grow up in a brittle fundamentalist environment often does not adjust; it shatters like a broken windshield. Some dedicate their lives to making sure others do not go through their experience (For example, in the opening chapter of Craig Evans’s Fabricating Jesus, he presents short bibliographies of many of those writing critically about Christianity in our time. Almost every story started in a conservative environment where such questions were not seriously considered.).

Knowing about Jesusanity is important in today’s context. There are ways to see when it is present. Often it divorces things that belong more closely together than the approach suggests.

First, it tends to distance the creature’s responsibility to the Creator. It speaks in generally ethical terms, but not with a sense of responsibility to the living God.

Second, it places a significant distance between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, arguing that the distance between the portrait of Jesus in the gospels and the real historical Jesus is so great that the gospels do not reflect accurately enough the real Jesus. (Note how this is carefully stated. Not all discussions of the historical Jesus are guilty of arguing for such a great difference, but many are.)

Third, Jesusanity often argues for dividing the New Testament into very different theologies. Usually it is Paul who is pitted against James, Matthew, and Peter. Sometimes scholars place the historical Jesus with James and company against Paul. Now the issues raised here do often point to texts where there was a scope of distinction in practice. For example, Jewish Christians in Jerusalem did keep many Jewish practices, in contrast to many who lived outside of the land. The book of Acts describes such differences. But Paul, Peter, and James did share the same faith, as Paul himself notes in Galatians.

Fourth, Jesusanity often claims that many types of Christianity existed in the first century with an equal claim to go back to Jesus. This view argues that there was no real functioning apostolic oversight in the earliest period and that Jesus generated several distinct expressions of faith. Sometimes this is wedded to arguments suggesting that the Gospel of Thomas or gospels from an even later period give evidence of such groups with such roots.

Now Thomas is an interesting gospel, completed likely in the early second century some of which is in touch with traditions about Jesus’ teaching that we also see in the gospels. However it also possesses material that reflects a dualistic Gnostic view of the world that the teaching of the earliest Christianity rejected. It is a hybrid gospel that probably operated on the edge of the Christianity of its time. The same thing cannot be said of other gospel-like materials often appealed to, such as the Apocryphon of John, the work found in more copies at Nag Hammadi than any other text. Its story of creation by underling emanations and not the One God, as well as the creation of man by such beings is something the earliest faith Jesus generated out of Jewish roots would not have held. In the early period, the Scripture these early believers embraced were the sacred texts of Jewish faith, which included the belief that (1) God created the heaven and earth and (2) that creation was good. The Apocryphon of John would have been rejected immediately had it existed in this early environment because of its view of God and Creation (pointing us back to the first distancing noted above).

Thus, one can see that Jesusanity is present when one encounters any of these four examples of theological distancing. This cultural kind of Christianity is all around us today, but the above issues make it clear that although its presence is understandable, it is not the same thing as the faith of the ages.

 

13 Comments

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    Matt Easter

    Is Jesusanity Inherently UnTrinitarian?
    Thanks for this. I think you are very right. Do you think that an anemic Trinitarian theology may also have something to do with this Jesusanity?

  • Avatar

    bock

    Untrinitarian dlb

    Matt:

    Yes, You can’t have a Trinity if Jesus is merely a teacher. Their claim is that Jesus never claimed to be Messiah, much less divine. All of this relates to how the Jesus tradition and gospels are treated. As I noted, my book with Dan Wallace, Dethroning Jesus looks at various examples of this view.

    dlb

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    Ivan

    Jesusanity
    Dr Bock. Thanks for the article.

    Many New Testament scholars ( while I do not know if they come from evangelical circle or not) said differences potraits about Jesus. Some said He is “Millenarian Prophet”, some said “Radical Reformer”, some said “Wandering Charismatic” and
    “Cynic Peasent”. The last came from one of Jesus Seminar. Can I say them as a “Jesusanity” ?

    Regards.
    Ivan

    • Avatar

      bock

      Jesusanity dlb

      The key to Jesusanity is that the central description of Jesus as some kind of teacher or social reformer only. The categories you note all fit this description. So most of the proposals noted above do not see Jesus as having a unique role in God’s program beyond that of teaching, guidance or example. So they fit the description but is not really a category evangelicals fit.

      dlb

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    boeinguy2

    It is deeply concerning…
    that in a ‘diverse’ culture, propagating multiculturalism and tolerance, Jesuanity is much more acceptable. It is the ‘Christianity’ that fits in. The evangelical or fundamentalist is not tolerant or accepting.

    Nothing wrong with the right kind of tolerance and acceptance, we live in a world that is fallen and we interact with and witness to people in it every day. We cannot do those things without a tolerant view of those who do not follow God.

    But the frightening thing is, the view of Christianity you have described is seen to be aberrant. Like the Jihadist, we are trying to force our views on others, we are not tolerant, we cannot be accepted. To say that there is a requirement for salvation, to be acceptable to God, is certainly not tolerant in the cultural view.

    • Avatar

      bock

      Deeply concerning dlb

      Boeing Guy:

      Yes, a view for the uniqueness of Jesus is not culturally acceptable. Your point is correct about the cultural fit and what is more well received.

      dlb

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    Anonymous

    Darrell:
    You make two points

    Darrell:

    You make two points that I found interesting: 1) an overt focus on Jesus stems from a reading that acknowledges diversity and 2) fundamentalism causes many students to leave the faith. But I don’t think you made the connection to these to claims adequately, nor do I think that you fully appreciate the theological diversity within the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. (Granted, I know that you focus on the New Testament, and that you have some concern with revision within early Christian studies.)

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the near consensus of Old Testament scholarship is correct about the nature of diversity in the Old Testament (between the North and the South, family religion, Deuteronomic and Priestly theology, and pragmatists (e.g. Qohelet)), which creates a canon that is fully of contradictory viewpoints and theologies. There are a couple of ways to deal with historical Old Testament scholarship, here are two of many options: one can reject it almost entirely and engage in apologetics or one can acknowledge the supposed problem of diversity and self-consciously develop a center, which in the case of mainline churches and seminaries, is Jesus. Part of the Jesusology has to do with more mainline Christians who want to both incorporate historical scholarship along with a sincere belief. My impression is that EC movement more-or-less fell into a similar theology less intentionally.

    And for many this obviates the epistimology that plagues fundamentalists, that the Bible must be true and the fear that historical scholarship leads one onto a slippery-slope. And with that presupposition in mind, many people leave the church because it is hard to dissassociate Christianity from fundamentalism (or conservative evangelicalism).

    I hope and pray that you are able to mentor your students and to prepare them to think critically about these issues and to avoid the extremes of abandoning the faith altogether or of reading Josh McDowell. I also hope that we see more of your students at top-ranked places like Duke, Emory, and Vanderbilt in the coming years–I know that you are pushing them hard. And I know that several of your students deserve those coveted spots.

    • Avatar

      bock

      Two Points dlb

      Dear anonymous (It would really nice to have a name to give here):

      You point is an interesting one. My take on the OT is that it does speak to the fundamental monotheism of Judaism (in contrast to the polytheism of their surroundings) and does so from a somewhat diverse set of perspectives or angles, but not in a way that detracts from a call to be God’s people with a distinct law and ethos, as wll as a promise and hope that God will move afresh among His people one day. Thus the "center" of OT is not merely Jesus, at least as it is moving into the Second Temple period. I agree with you about what motivates Jesusology for some, but there is a wing that simply wants to "defang" any unique Christian claims.

      As to what causes people to move between theological paradigms (from one to another), this is a complex question involving many elements (some I have alluded to above in terms of claims associated with religious truths). I also think how history works is far more complex than many on either side of the debate acknowledge. And so we press on to appreciate the Bible, its depth and its milieu.

      dlb

       

      • Avatar

        Anonymous

        Well Darrell, I can’t fault
        Well Darrell, I can’t fault you for being a NT scholar, but your points need refinement.

        The idea of diachotomy between monotheism and polytheism is false for several reasons: 1) the Hebrew Bible mentions widespread polytheism (as sin), 2) the Hebrew Bible presupposes polytheism in many places, 3) several other cultures may have been monotheistic (e.g. the Mesha Stele, 9th century Arameia, possible shades in Egypt), 4) you are making strong presuppositions about the origin of ancient Israel and Mosaic authorship (NB: Hebrew wasn’t written until the 9th century, maybe 10th) that, quite simply, can only be held on a priori confessional grounds–the evidence suggests otherwise. (K. Kitchen is a great Egyptologist… I’ll leave it at that.

        By center I do not mean that “Jesus” is in the center that he’s there–he’s not–but a Christological reading makes sense of the whole Bible. The problems and fractures of the text can be aided by simply deciding to read the Bible as a book about Jesus. You can call it Postmodernism; I call it remaining true to my confession and scholarship.

        You’re a great scholar. You’ve proven yourself; but, be cautious about overplaying your hand on OT issues.

        • Avatar

          bock

          Well dlb

          Anonymous (still no name?):

          I find it interesting that your examples deal with early OT examples. I note this because my remarks dealt with Judaism in the Second Temple context when the OT is nearing its completion and recognition. The idea of the core of Judaism involving monotheism and law is what helps to define Judaism when Jesus is dealing with it. He sees some center to the Hebrew Scriptures. It revolves around promise, the one God of Israel and a proper, faithful response to Torah and God’s call to righteousness.

          I do not see how a choice for Jesus with only an ethical thrust (the sometimes denomninational option that is Jesusanity) really honors a historically rooted reading of these texts or of Jesus’ ministry. The idea that Jesus had a hope tied to Jewish expectation is layered at every level of the traditions that are presented in the gospel tradition. This is anything but Jesusanity.

          dlb

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    Byron Gillory

    My Response
    I am convinced that it is exactly this Jesusanity that has promoted the anti-intellectual status of christianity. With this anti-intellectualism there has also come the moral decline of our society. Since our culture has looked upon Jesus as more of a good Prophet and teacher instead of Christ. People do not feel obligated to follow Jesus’ ethical system. It is sad though because Jesusanity has been inculcated into our chruches and is slowly and like cancer taking our pulpits and turning them death cold.
    I would love for you to look at my blog and give me any insights that you may have. My blog is dedicated to defeating the cancer of Jesusanity. And restoring intellectual integraty back to the Biblical faith. I would be honored if you would add your insights.
    It is encouraging that thier is a man of your magnitude that sees the same problem that I am blogging and fighting against
    (academicchristianity.blogspot.com)

  • Avatar

    bock

    My Response dlb

    Byron:

    I can’t go and check out blogs from here or else I will be inundated with such requests. But it is good for you to be concerned about this. Just remember that some of the issues and questions Jesusanity raises are worth thinking about. In some cases, the issues they treat are important to reflect on, even if the answer you or I might give to the questions they raise are different from their answers.

    dlb

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    gonzodave

    Christ-anity v. Jesus-anity
    Dear Dr. Bock,

    To keep the s-anity of language in check, an ity is considered “a state of being.” For instance – humility. Accordingly, you have demonstrated a contrast between a Christian and a Jesusian. Remarkable, because a Christian is to be “formed in the image of Christ” who was the original, unique God-man. Future perfected of course; yet still initially formed.

    I must offer my initial thought that elicited this comment. In the OT there is an episode involving starving Jewish lepers and starving Jews. Bear in mind, both groups are born into the commonwealth of Israel. Yet, in the providence of God, it is the tenacious Jew – who knows that he is a leper – who ventures into a sure death to find and share the location of the abundant provisions left behind (by the would be conquerers) with the rest of Israel.

    Now I ask, by a standard of typology: Who might be Christian and who Jesusian?