As often happens, a link that popped up in my Facebook feed a few days ago caught my eye. It was labeled as something that every conservative (read: “orthodox”) Christian needs to read because it promised new insights into real Christianity (as opposed to the silly outdated religion we follow.)
As also often happens, I followed the link expecting to be disappointed. Those expectations were quickly confirmed. It was a blog post by Roger Wolsey promoting the tired old cliches of theological liberalism. His problem (naturally) is that conservative Christians actually believe what Jesus and his apostles taught: that salvation comes through Christ’s death and physical Resurrection, and that whoever does not believe will be damned. Granted, he calls his belief “progressive Christianity” and pretended it was new and cutting-edge, but contrary to the presumption of the one who posted this on Facebook, orthodox Christians have been seeing this for over 150 years. It really doesn’t change too much for us anymore.
Still, we don’t get to pick the false teachers who challenge us, so we have to engage even the old and tired ones. Since Wolsey took the time to package his complaints about orthodoxy into five easily digested points for distribution over the internet, I thought I would take a moment to knock them down:
Complaint #1: “The lack of emphasis upon Jesus’ 30-33 years of life – his way, teachings, and example”
Yes, this is such a strange emphasis these orthodox Christians have. Maybe we got it from the four Gospel writers. After all, these collections of eyewitness accounts of Jesus all gloss over the first 30 years of his life pretty quickly (or skip them altogether) and instead describe the last three years as a narrative culminating in his death and Resurrection. You know… almost as if every follower he had that actually wrote about his life thought that his death and resurrection were the most important things.
Of course the Gospels do include other details of his ministry, and so we teach those as well. Contrary to Wolsey tut-tutting over our “not focusing on his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and looking at his actual ways of practicing his religion in interacting with and relating to people,” the orthodox are actually familiar with the Sermon on the Mount. This includes the parts about how even getting angry with your brother or looking at a woman with lust in your heart makes you liable to Hell. It includes the part about us having to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect and the dire consequences of relaxing even one of the commandments of the law (good luck with living up to all that, Roger.) Thankfully, we also hear about that very important part where Jesus says he has come to fulfill that law. Oh yeah, we also remember that last bit about the wide gate that leads to destruction and avoiding it by being wary of false teachers—you know, the ones we recognize by their teachings (for just as the fruit of a fig tree is figs, the fruit of a teacher is teachings.) Good thing the orthodox still care about accurate information…
Complaint #2: “Reducing the faith to a cerebral matter of what individuals accept as accurate information.”
…too bad progressive Christians aren’t that keen on it.
To be fair, this one could actually be a fair criticism of some forms of modernistic Christianity that do reduce the substance of the faith to mere intellectual assent. Much of American evangelicalism is susceptible to this because they distance themselves from the Sacraments which make God’s promises tangible rather than merely intellectual. And unfortunately, we Lutherans who do (usually) appreciate the Sacraments are terrified of the thought of conforming our lives and behaviors to God’s Word lest even the tiniest measure of success make us self-righteous. This can also ward other parts of our being from the Christian faith.
Unfortunately, Wolsey’s solution is worse than the disease, for he wants to take it out of the intellect altogether by exempting Christianity from fact and reason and subordinating it to personal preference. Does the Bible say something you don’t like? Dismiss that part. Does another religion say something you do like? Add it to Christianity. But what if it contradicts Jesus’ teachings? Call it a paradox and follow it however you prefer. Cut, trim, copy, paste, and vivisect the object of your faith until it finally meets with your approval. This is pure poison when Jesus tells us that salvation comes by believing in him.
The Christian faith is holistic. Inasmuch as we have an intellect, it manifests there. Inasmuch as we have relationships, it manifests there. Inasmuch as we act, it manifests in those actions. However, that faith is what shapes every facet of ourselves—we do not subordinate it to our intellect, actions, relationships, and certainly not to our personal preferences. We ought not exclude our faith from any facet of our lives, so excluding it from the intellect is no solution.
Complaint #3: “The view that salvation is largely a matter of where we’ll go when we die.”
Once again, the views of the orthodox are dubiously similar to what Christ actually taught. Shame on us.
Paul, of course put the matter very starkly in 1 Corinthians, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Perhaps this is because “for your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
As bizarre as this might seem to the theological liberal, Paul just might have picked up this idea from Jesus who taught, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” And also, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell.” He also taught a famous parable about a rich man making the poor trade of looking for salvation and prosperity in this life, as compared to a poor Lazarus who received his good things in the next. Once you toss in all of Jesus’ warnings that following him would lead to the kind of persecution that makes living your best life now a non-starter, it should become clear that while Christianity is lived out in the here-and-now, that’s not what it’s ultimately about.
To be sure, salvation isn’t merely a matter of destination, but also of who and what we are when we arrive there. However, this matter depends upon what God does for us, not what we do for Him—whether God’s gifts are received through faith or rejected in favor of going our own way. Will we be saints washed clean in the blood of Christ, or will we enter eternity clinging desperately to a hatred for God similar to Wolsey’s? And yes, Wolsey hates God. He calls Him “angry, judgmental, wrathful, blood thirsty” and is on the record as rejecting that God 100% (“that God” meaning the one he admits is described in the Bible.) What horrible sin did that God commit? He gave his only begotten Son to die for Roger Wolsey, which brings us to his 4th complaint.
Complaint #4: “The idea that it is Jesus’ death on the cross that allows anyone to experience salvation.”
Wolsey calls this one theory of the atonement among many, and gives two reasons for his rejection of it. One is his assertion that no church council ever settled on just one theory of the atonement. The second is that God’s actions in giving his only Son to die for us fail to meet the Roger Wolsey standard of excellence.
His first reason is simply a red herring. I seriously doubt Wolsey considers the canons of the ecumenical councils to be authoritative—particularly when his preferred Moral Exemplar theory (“that Jesus is our model who shows us how to truly live a Godly life and thus experience and know salvation wholeness and abundant/eternal life here and now – and beyond.”) is essentially the heresy of Pelegianism which was condemned by the Council of Carthage almost 1600 years ago.
His second reason is a classic example of taking “this is what I would be like if I were God” and concluding “therefore this is what God is like.” Instead, why not allow God to tell us what he’s like? But Wolsey cannot stomach that—he simply relegates any part of God’s self-revelation in Scripture that fails to reflect the god of his own design to pagan influences.
If Wolsey actually thought Jesus was an example worth following, he would probably imitate Jesus’ high regard for Scripture instead of carving it up into the parts he likes and the parts he doesn’t. Even setting aside, for the moment, the idea that the Bible is God’s word in any meaningful sense, the gospels aren’t exactly subtle about how Christ treats the Old Testament. If the gospels aren’t accurate enough to describe Christ’s teachings and behavior in that regard, then they contain no intelligible example to follow at all.
But then, the only example Wolsey needs is himself, which he simply trims Jesus down to match, as he does with his fifth complaint.
Complaint #5: “The notion that hell is even a Christian concept – it isn’t.”
Wolsey certainly didn’t get this idea from Jesus, who talked about Hell in rather stark terms (we’ve already quoted several examples, but there are plenty of others.) Wolsey doesn’t list his specific reasons why he doesn’t follow Jesus’ example with respect to Hell, but those are probably within the parts of the Bible that just happen to be from pagan influences rather than Christian in origin (i.e. the ones that make God “angry, judgmental, wrathful, blood thirsty” by Wolsey’s reckoning.)
This explanation becomes particularly ironic when he added a postscript talking about how influenced he is by Buddhist teachings, and quotes his book in which he writes, “each of the major world religions are like wells, and if you go deep enough into any of them, you’ll hit the same aquifer and Source.” So much for trying to reach the truth of Scripture by filtering outside influences. But the fun doesn’t stop there. The irony reaches critical mass when one realizes that these different religions supposedly drawing from the same deep well all have concept of hell. The details may differ between Jahannam (Islam), Naraka (Hinduism & Buddism), and the Christian concept of hell, but the basic idea is always there. Even Wolsey’s own syncretism should insist that there is a hell for precisely this reason—if only he were actually consistent about it.
He covers up all this shallow thinking and rejects Christ’s teaching of Christian exclusivity by labeling all the contradictions and nonsense as a paradox—a kind of riddle that seems like a contradiction at first blush but really isn’t. Orthodox Christians, you see, aren’t capable grasping this concept according to Wolsey. Well, what’s one more deception added to the heap? As a Lutheran, I’m quite comfortable with paradox—but only the paradoxes that God actually gives to us. We don’t get to make up our own paradoxes. If, for example, my wife tells me that our car just leaked a quart of coolant onto the garage floor, I don’t get to turn that into a paradox by adding my own belief that the car is in perfect working order. Likewise, Wolsey doesn’t get to take Jesus’ claims of exclusivity, throw in his own preferences, and then call the whole mess a paradox. In a piece full of cop-outs, that is perhaps the worst.
Whether you call it progressive Christianity, the emergent church, or anything else, Wolsey’s beliefs are nothing more than a rehash of old theological liberalism. Christ as moral exemplar is a reasonable starting point for a Christian—if and only if he truly takes it seriously. If he does, he’ll quickly realize that being as moral as Christ is not working out for him terribly well and turn an ear to Christ’s teachings of forgiveness based in the substitutionary atonement. Wolsey, however, does not take it seriously. He simply trims Christ’s example to match what he already does, believes, and aspires to—what progress has, in his mind, already decided on. In the end, his is a different religion than Christianity. The difference between such faith and orthodox Christianity is merely the difference between a movie that’s loosely inspired by a true story and the true story itself.