Archive for category Orthodoxy

No Hell = No Jesus

As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18


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The Bible is not The Good Book or a bad book. It is just a….book.

The Bible is a collection of diverse ancient Hebrew writings by many authors who never intended their works to be collected between the bindings of a book.  It is full of spiritual stories, poems, myths, biographies and various historical accounts. It may or may not include recorded attempts at predicting the future. Wisdom and beauty abound within its pages and the reading of this book has helped millions of people, in many spiritual ways,  to encounter God.  By this definition alone, it is a sacred book.  But as St. Paul  once said, the scriptures are useful for instructing a person in the ways of God, implying that they are only some of the tools at our disposal and not the sole repository of spiritual wisdom.

The common thread that runs through this assortment of writings is how a particular group of people interacted with their God over a very long time, in ways that were both moral and immoral.  Inspired by a sense of wonder, the authors attempted to understand God’s nature, God’s will and how, why and if God works in their lives, often depicting God as speaking and acting within the natural world.

The second, smaller part of the Bible concerns Jesus of Nazareth, his life, crucifixion and resurrection. It also includes his teachings and the teachings of some of his disciples.  These teachings have undoubtedly inspired generations of people to live lives of peace, mercy and love while at the same time championing justice.  At the same time,  different interpretations have helped others to rationalize behavior not so commendable.

The Bible had no release date, there was no publishing date. At some point, around 1700-1800 years ago, powerful religious men decided what Jewish scriptures would be included in what we call the Canon and the Apocrypha.  Everything else  (probably more than what was included) was discarded or destroyed, though some of these manuscripts survive today. Throughout its history the Bible has been translated in different ways and there have been a few cases where it has been altered to serve a religious agenda, but these were rare occurrences.  There has always been a very active, and often heated,  debate over what many portions of the Bible actually mean.

The Bible may, or may not, be relevant to us today.  The stories and poems and letters within have been used as a guide for morality, compassion and self sacrifice.  They have also been  used to justify genocide, torture, slavery, misogyny, bigotry and war.  If God has spoken through the Bible then some have certainly heard the voice of Satan as well.

Although a great work of historical literature and sacred to millions,  it has no magical qualities or powers. It needs to be interpreted contextually, framed within the time and circumstances of the people who populate it, lest whatever lessons it might contain remain hidden.   It is undeniably a very, very important book.  It is certainly a great book, one of the world’s greatest.  But it is not the GOOD book any more than it is a bad book.  In the end, with all that it has to offer, it is still…just…a…book.


But if you’re a Christian, then what am I?

Over on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of the members has (hopefully) started a thread by asking this question:

How do Christians define Christians? What makes you or not a Christian?

I often come across the argument that “said person is not a real Christian”, many tend to use this argument to exclude particulars who happen to shame the religion calling themselves part of it, or act in the name of it.

I think it would be interesting to see, how does every one define it, is it simply believing in a higher authority?. Is it taking every literal word of the bible?. Is it following the “reasonable” aspects of the bible?

Now, so far, only one person has given an answer, and it is one that I suspect the majority of American Christians would agree with:

A Christian is somebody who believes that Christ died on the Cross and shed his blood as the ultimate atonement(replacement for the blood sacrifice of the Old Testament law) for the sins of mankind. They believe that Christ is who He said He is. ie, The Son of God, and therefore God Himself. The concept of the Trinity applies here. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was the product of the immaculate conception. Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Isaiah 53:3-7 is an example, among others of the prophesy.

The first chapter of John in the New testament, gives a good representation of what Christians believe about Christ.

To be saved (ie a Christian), is nothing more then the realization that man is born into sin, and the acceptance and acknowledgment of the free gift of eternal life(made possible because of Christ sacrifice on the Cross), that is offered to mankind, should they(exhibit their “free will”) except it. It is nothing more then Gods grace being demonstrated through mans faith.

If all of the above needs to be believed in order to be a Christian, then I guess I am not one.  Of course, for many reasons I think the above definition, although perhaps “orthodox”,  is incorrect.

Over on Ric Booth’s blog there is an interesting conversation taking place about a new organization that John Shore is spear-heading called ThruWAy Christians, particularly their controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians.   The stated goal of ThruWAy Christians is to provide moderate Christians with a new forum.  As it says on their website:  “If you find conservative Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive Christianity too theologically tenuous, you’re probably a ThruWay Christian.”   Which means that, though I agree with much of the content of their founding document, my theology is much too “tenuous”  (something which I am sure the Conservative Christians could accuse the ThruWay people).

Surprisingly,  I don’t believe my theology is any weaker than theirs or any one else.  It’s different to be sure.  Maybe not as orthodox as they would like.  And like Christianity, it is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that it is “flimsy, insubstantial or lacking in strength”.  This is a charge that the orthodox have always levied at those who had the audacity to question theological authority.

The good folks over at ThruWAy Christian are not really challenging conservative Christian theological authority, though. They are only challenging the  conservative interpretations of certain scriptures that they believe lead to intolerant and mean spirited attitudes and behavior.  But I would suggest that the overarching theology that both the moderates and the conservatives still hold in common ( much of which has been condensed by the commenter from the WSJ blog and jives with the  first line of ThruWay’s creed )  is actually what drives this intolerance.  And has for centuries.

I ‘ve found that it is nearly impossible for Christian moderates to  engage Fundamentalists in any meaningful dialog that might result in a change of perception on the part of either, so  I’ve given up on it myself.  If this is the goal of the folks at ThruWAy, well then, have at it.  But  if they would be open-minded enough to engage some Christians whose convictions are not quite as solid, substantial or strong as theirs then perhaps they might find that ‘progressive’ is not such a bad word after all.

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Which Jesus died on the Cross? (or the 7 things he might not have said)

I’ve long looked at the four Gospels as being complimentary to each other. One evangelist filling in the gaps that were, for whatever reason. left by another.  Recently,  I took a closer look at the differences between the four passion narratives and it no longer appears that this is the case.  Mark was the first Gospel to be written and the vast majority of scholars understand that Matthew and Luke both based their gospel largely on Mark’s.  But it is clear that Luke significantly changed Mark’s account.  It’s not like he just added to it, filling in the gaps, but he changed the story in such a way that, if they both didn’t  use Jesus’ name, you might think that he and Mark are talking about two different men.

Mark’s Jesus is quiet and if anything, despairing. He does not respond to those who taunt him, not even those (2?) crucified along side him. Before he dies he forlornly cries out to God, asking why he has been forsaken.

‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’

For the most part, Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion remains true to Mark’s account.

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Luke’s Jesus, on the other hand, is much more talkative and seems to be much more positive about and more in control of his circumstances. Jesus is taunted by only one of the two crucified and he assures the other one a place in paradise. He asks God to forgive his killers and does not cry out in despair as he does in Mark and Matthew. Instead he appears unafraid of death and offers his spirit to God .

‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’

And John’s Gospel does not mention any dialogue between Jesus and  the thieves. His Jesus does not cry in despair or vocally assign his spirit to God (though it is implied) nor does he ask forgiveness of his tormentors. Instead he concentrates on the future well being of his mother and that of an unnamed disciple. Most importantly, his last words seem to underscore the cosmic significance of his death ( or do they?).

‘It is finished.’

I’m not questioning the authenticity of any of these accounts. But what do we mean by authenticity? That the scriptures must be factual representations of actual events? If so, then how do we account for where they differ?  Did Jesus say all of these things (as the famous ” 7 things that Jesus said on the Cross” quiz would suggest)?  If so, then why are all of them not found together in at least one Gospel? If not, then why would one author (or later scribe) remove or add something to another’s  earlier account? I don’t think there is any way we can read these four accounts and not see that this is precisely what happened.  But what were their motives? What, if anything, do these observations mean to us? Is it a good thing or not that these changes in the text, though at times seemingly slight, may decidedly alter the way in which we perceive Christ, perhaps in ways that were never intended?

Does a devotion to biblical literalism, a zealous misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura, require that someone  ignore the obvious? If we can force ourselves to deny the scripturally obvious in order to comply with ‘orthodoxy’ then perhaps we can also force ourselves to deny (or overlook) the essence of scriptural truth.

Perhaps it is too late for us to cut to the chase , too difficult to critically edit the various Jesus movies that are playing  in each of our minds, where in each film Jesus is portrayed differently: the tough Christ, the loving Christ, the Christ who climbs on Rocks.  Angry Jesus, sad Jesus, suffering Jesus, baby Jesus, the Jesus who loves little children. Warrior Christ,  peaceful Christ, Buddha Christ, liberal Christ, Super Christ, American Christ.  Vindicator Jesus, savior Jesus, Jesus the blood sacrifice. Max von Sydow, Jeffrey Hunter or Jim Caveziel?  Jesus as man, as God or as the Son of God.   Which Jesus died for you?

There is an old Evangelical tee-shirt that mimics the Coca Cola logo and reads: “Jesus-The Real Thing”.  How certain can we be that our Jesus is “the real thing”? Or should we be so confident? Perhaps certainty is part of the problem.

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Which scriptura should I sola?

picture courtesy of Emergent

Probably the most famous example of someone tampering with the Christian scriptures is the so-called Johannine Comma:

For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth:the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. (1 John 5: 7-8, NKJV)

The first line was later removed from most modern bible translations so that we typically find just the following:

For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. (John 5: 7-8, NIV)

According to notes in the NIV Study Bible the questionable line was added to the Latin Vulgate Bible and is not found in any Greek manuscript prior to the sixteenth century. The implication is that some scribe or scribes of the Roman Catholic church added it. Which they did, and for an obvious reason: this was the only line ever found in any Bible that directly points to the idea of a Triune God. The scripture was altered by Church authority to bolster a difficult-to-comprehend doctrine.

The reason this line was found in any Greek manuscripts after the 16th century was because Erasmus added it to later editions of his Greek New Testament, the first ever compiled. At first Erasmus didn’t include the Comma, as it wasn’t in any of the Greek texts he found, either. Under immense pressure from Church authorities he agreed to put the Comma “back in”.  Additionally, Erasmus couldn’t find complete Greek manuscripts for certain other scriptures (particularly Revelations) so in those cases he merely translated the Vulgate’s Latin “back” into Greek, errors and all.

(Remember that the New Testament scriptures were originally written in Greek  and it wasn’t until Pope Damasus ordered Jerome to produce a Rome-sanctioned Latin bible in the fourth century BCE that a single authoritative church-wide book ever existed.  But even Jerome’s earliest Vulgate (common) Bible didn’t have the Comma: it was added later.)

This is the kind of thing that many Protestants came to expect of the Roman Catholic Church, with the Magisterium’s disdain for Sola Scriptura. Except, as you can see with the above scriptural quotes, the King James (as well as the New King James) version of the Bible still include the Comma. And most modern Protestant versions of the Bible (with a few notable exceptions) rely upon Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, which is largely derived from the Vulgate. These collective works are known as  the Textus Receptus (a term bible scholars use to describe any Greek text that is not based on the best, oldest or most verifiable manuscripts but on Erasmus’ work instead.)

But scriptural manipulations by ‘orthodox’ authorities don’t end there. In John 5 there is the story of Jesus encountering the crippled man at the healing springs of Bethsaida. Apparently he has waited 38 years to be lowered into the water and be cured. Why so long? Well, he says, every time an opportunity arises, the water is no longer “stirred”. Which is a little confusing: what is this man talking about? What does he mean by ‘stirred’ waters. At some point someone took it upon himself to solve this mystery for us, even though he made it up in order to do so. You won’t find it in most Protestant bibles but you will find it in the trusty old (and New) King James:

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.
(John 5: 4, King James Version)

Even though many still love the King James (and it is easier on the ear – compare its version of Ecclesiastes with the competition’s) many more will concede that it has quite  a few issues.  But it is not the only bible that does.  Which, along with all the other textual changes and scribal errors (and there are many more), poses some serious challenges to anyone who believes that the Bible is the innerant, infallible Word of God, that must be taken literally in order for us to understand God and the universe.

Take the problem we have with 1 Timothy 3:16, which for most of the Church’s history (and in many bibles today) has read like this:

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:

God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

But in the early 18th century bible scholar J.J. Wettstein, upon examining the Greek manuscript this verse derives from, found that one of the word’s had been changed to read “God” when it originally said something like “who”. This altered verse is one of the few, if not the only, explicit statements of Jesus’ divinity found in the Bible. The verse originally read more like this:

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:

Who was revealed in flesh,
vindicated by the spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

Which speaks more about the mystery of who Jesus was and not the absolute assertion that he was God. By pointing this out (among other questions about scriptural accuracy) Wettstein was shunned from his religious and academic community. And even though this information has been well known for nearly 300 years many bible publishers refuse to make the necessary changes. What type of faith do we have when we need to fall back upon spurious scripture for our religious security?

It seems to me that, all affirmations of Sola Scriptura aside, Protestants have more devotion to non-biblical “tradition” than they would like to believe.  I mean, sola which scriptura, for Pete(r)’s sake?

(Thanks to Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” as the source for most of the above material.)

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The heresy of the dogma that bit the Church

I remember once asking my new Christian friends why – if Jesus is The Way and his Good News is all we need to hear – then why bother with the Old Testament at all?  Who needs to know all that old stuff if the Gospels and Epistles have all the information we really need?  It seemed to my novice ears that this was precisely what the apostle Paul was saying.  Besides, there are so many glaring inconsistencies between the Old and the New Testament’s messages.

The typical response was that the Old Testament clearly predicted Jesus’ coming as Messiah. This made the Hebrew Scriptures an important source of evidence for Christian apologetics. As far as any inconsistencies go, well they weren’t really inconsistent.  There was just a change in the way God related to us, now that Jesus had made everything right with his death and resurrection.  And after all, the Old Testament was still the Word of God.  Just incomplete.

Anyway, I don’t struggle with that stuff anymore.  I think the Hebrew Scriptures (the term “Old” Testament is so…condescending ) are very important for Christians to study.  All of the Hebrew scriptures, not just those found in our Bibles. We totally screw up when we forget that Jesus was a Jew, living in Palestine with other Jews, and most of these scriptures (no Bible yet, remember) were the source of his theology and his cultural traditions. And it doesn’t help when we exclude Jewish interpretations of their own scriptures, either.

I no longer struggle with trying to square the apparent inconsistencies between the  angry, violent and vengeful Yahweh with the forgiving and merciful Father of Jesus (even though the Hebrew Prophets presented us with much the same portrait of God as Jesus did ).  I simply no longer believe that any of the scriptures, old or new, are the Word of God.  They are not inerrant nor are they infallible.    They were written by men (and maybe women) who were certainly ‘inspired’ to come to some sort of understanding of God, but they were not God’s secretaries taking divine dictation. And they do not always paint God in a favorable, or accurate light. It’s when we try to take literally all the words found in the Christian canon, on face value and without any historical context, that our problems begin, whether we are orthodox, heretic or atheist.

I didn’t realize it then, but in some ways I was a Marcionite.  Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85-160) was an early Christian thinker who also had problems squaring the Hebrew Scriptures with the Gospels and especially with Paul’s Epistles. He could not accept the idea that the loving “Father” that Jesus prayed to was also the angry Yahweh of Hebrew scriptures.  So he came up with an alternative theology, one steeped in Greek philosophy and mythology, in which Yahweh is the flawed creator god, subordinate to the ultimate (and good) deity: God, the Father of Jesus.

According to Marcion, Jesus comes from the Father to redeem the walking dead from the clutches of Yahweh and the misery of this corrupt world. In this way Marcionism is similar to Gnosticism.  (For a nice movie parable watch “ The Matrix” trilogy.)  Marcion composed what is probably the first Christian canon, the first compilation of Holy Scriptures, but they contained only a syncretized form of the Gospels and the letters of Paul.  Paul’s epistles were the primary source of his theology and it is Marcion who first placed them in an anthology.

Now, with all due respect to Rey (who got me to thinking about Marcionism) I do believe that, in this case, those church fathers who ended up as history’s Christian victors were right to label Marcion a heretic.  Of course,  they were begging the question because there was no such thing as orthodoxy at the time– there was no Christian consensus on doctrine or dogmas – there were none of the creeds Christians recite today. In fact, the first creeds were likely written and imposed in response to Marcionism, which had a great following.  Now, I don’t think that the Church’s surviving theology is altogether that faithful to the teachings of Jesus either.  But there is little, I think, in Marcionism to commend it to someone who wants to follow Jesus. Because Jesus without Judaism is not Jesus at all. It is something completely different.

What so many orthodox-loving Christians, then as well as today, fail to recognize is that much of this heretical doctrine infused itself into the surviving Christian theology. So many of these destroyed and forgotten heresies had very large followings – their influence would not disappear by mere decree (or by book burnings and hangings). Just a few examples:

-To this day Paul has an inordinate amount of influence on the Church’s doctrine.
-Throughout the Church’s history there has been a tendency to place our focus on another, better realm that await us beyond this fallen and depraved world.
-Our fixation on a battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is reminiscent of the dualism found in Marcion and Gnostic theologies.
-And, of course, the Church has tried it’s best take the Jewishness out of Jesus (and make villains out of the Jews – some believe that it was the Church’s repressed Marcionism that helped fuel the dogma of Hitler’s  ‘Final Solution”).

As outlandish as Marcion’s theology may sound to us today, who have known nothing other than modern Christian ‘orthodoxy’  (the theology of the victors), does it really sound any more outlandish than the concept of a triune God? (Try asking your Jewish or Muslim friends that question.) Again, the problem seems to lie within the combined ideas of Biblical literalism and inerrancy.  A more relaxed, though possibly just as devout, reading of scriptures can solve this problem and, in my experience, help immensely with one’s understanding of God.

It was the cognitive dissonance caused by trying to believe contradictory ideas, ideas not just found in a literal reading of the Bible but ideas thought up by theologians in their attempts to square their own contradictory readings of scriptures, that had me doing the same thing that the ‘orthodox’ had already done and continue to do: embracing heresy to prove orthodoxy.

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Can you really be a smart theologian and have people who disagree with you killed, too?

In his defense of John Calvin’s allowing Michael Servetus to be burned at the stake, J. Steven Wilkens says:

If one contends that Calvin was in error in agreeing with the execution of heretics then why is there not equal indignation against all the other leaders who supported and carried out and supported these measures elsewhere. None less than the honored Thomas Aquinas explicitly supported the burning of heretics saying, “If the heretic still remains pertinacious the church, despairing of his conversion, provides for the salvation of others by separating him from the church by the sentence of excommunication and then leaves him to the secular judge to be exterminated from the world by death.” (Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae q. 11 a. 3)

Which, to me, points out something rather chilling: Aquinas and Calvin are considered two of Christianity’s greatest theologians. What was wrong with their theology that it would promote this type of mindset?

If there is no radical change in Church orthodoxy from that time until today – if it is true that Christian doctrine is timeless (as many insist) – then isn’t that kind of frightening?

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