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The church today finds itself assaulted without—and even within—by a culture and worldview of untruth, anti-truth, and postmodern irrationality. In fact, researchers increasingly report that a majority of evangelicals themselves reject the notion of absolute or objective truth. The seductive lure of postmodern relativism has pervaded many evangelical pulpits and countless evangelical pews, often couched as humility, sensitivity, or sophistication. The culture has us in its grip, and many feel no discomfort.
The absence of doctrinal precision and biblical preaching marks the current evangelical age. Doctrine is considered outdated by some and divisive by others. The confessional heritage of the church is neglected and, in some cases, seems even to be an embarrassment to updated evangelicals. Expository preaching—once the hallmark and distinction of the evangelical pulpit—has been replaced in many churches by motivational messages, therapeutic massaging of the self, and formulas for health, prosperity, personal integration, and celestial harmony.
Almost a century ago, J.C. Ryle, the great evangelical bishop, warned of such diversions from truth: “I am afraid of an inward disease which appears to be growing and spreading in all the Churches of Christ throughout the world. That disease is a disposition on the part of ministers to abstain from all sharply-cut doctrine, and a distaste on the part of professing Christians for all distinct statements of dogmatic truth.”
A century later, Ryle’s diagnosis is seen as prophets, and the disease is assuredly terminal. The various strains of the truth-relativizing virus are indicated by different symptoms and diverse signs, but the end is the same. Among the strains now threatening the evangelical churches is the temptation to find a halfway house between modernity and biblical truth. Another is the call for an “evangelical mega-shift,” which would transform orthodox evangelical conviction into the categories of modern process thought. This is a road that leads to disaster and away from the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
What is our proper response to all this? Should we devote our attention and energies to epistemology and metaphysics? Must we spend ourselves in arguments concerning foundationalism and non-foundationalism? While these issues are not unimportant, they cannot be our central concern. Again, the words of Ryle speak to our age: “Let no scorn of the world, let no ridicule of smart writers, let no sneers of liberal critics, let no secret desire to please and conciliate the public, tempt us for one moment to leave the old paths, and drop the old practice of enunciating doctrine—clear, distinct, well-defined, and sharply-cut doctrine—in all utterances and teachings.”
We contend for the objectivity of truth, and we must insist that all persons do actually believe in the objectivity of Truth. The fact is that even the relativists objectivize their own positions. The difference for us is that we know that truth exists in God, who is Truth, and whose Word is truth. Our knowledge is true only in so far as it corresponds with God’s revealed truth. We are dependent upon the Word, the Word is not dependent upon us. As Martin Luther stated so clearly, “The objectivity and certainty of the Word remain even if it isn’t believed.” We have no right to seek refuge in a halfway house of false epistemological humility. To deny the truthfulness of God’s Word is not an act of humility, but of unspeakable arrogance.
This is our proper epistemological humility - not that it is not possible for us to know, but that the truth is not our own. We are dependent upon the Word of God. Indeed, we submit ourselves to the Word of God, as believers, teachers, and preachers. And this is genuine knowledge, revealed knowledge. It is knowledge of which we are not ashamed. As Gordon Clark warned: “If man can know nothing truly, man can truly know nothing. We cannot know that the Bible is the Word of God, that Christ died for our sin, or that Christ is alive today at the right hand of the Father. Unless knowledge is possible, Christianity is non-sensical, for it claims to be knowledge. What is at stake in the twentieth century is not simply a single doctrine, such as the Virgin Birth, or the existence of Hell, as important as those doctrines may be, but the whole of Christianity itself. If knowledge is not possible to man, it is worse than silly to argue points of doctrine—it is insane.”
We confess that knowledge is possible, but knowledge of spiritual things is revealed. Without the Word of God we would know nothing of redemption, of Christ, of God’s sovereign provision for us. We would have no true knowledge of ourselves, of our sin, of our hopelessness but for the mercy of Christ. As Professor R. B. Kuiper reminded his students, the most direct, the simplest, and most honest answer to the question, “How do you know?” is this: “The Bible tells us so.”
As Jesus reminded Peter, immediately after Peter’s majestic confession, “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). So it is with us: Our true knowledge was not revealed to us by flesh and blood, and certainly was not discovered on our own by the power of our own rationality and insight; it is revealed to us in the Word of God.
This is our proper humility. But we must be on guard against an improper and faithless humility. Wilfred Cantwell Smith has asserted that “it is morally not possible to actually go out into the world and say to devout, intelligent fellow human beings: We believe that we know God and we are right; you believe that you know God, and you are totally wrong.” Of course, Smith is correct; we have no right to assert such a statement, in and of ourselves and of our own knowledge. But we have no right not to bear witness to the truth of God’s Word, and on that basis to proclaim the truth revealed in God’s Word.
For this reason, our defense of biblical inerrancy is never a diversion or distraction from our proper task. This is why those who affirm biblical inerrancy and those who deny inerrancy are divided, not by a minor distinction, but by an immense epistemological and theological chasm.
Every aspect of the theological task and every doctrinal issue are affected by the answer to this fundamental question: Is the Bible the authentic, authoritative, inspired, and inerrant Word of God in written form, and thus God’s faithful witness to himself? For the believing church, the answer must be yes. With the framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, we affirm that “The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church. We confess and affirm the truthfulness of Scripture in every respect, and we stand under the authority of the Word of God, never over the Word. In other words, we come to the Scriptures, not with a postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion, but with a faithful hermeneutic of submission.”
As our Lord stated concerning the Scriptures, “Thy Word is Truth” (John 17:17). And, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Made clear in this text is the inescapable truth that our task is to teach and to preach this Word; to reprove, to correct, and to train in righteousness. Should our churches return in faithfulness to this fundamental charge, the secular worldview would lose its grip on the believing church.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Bishop Spong is the leading voice within modern progressive Christianity, attempting to make Christianity relevant to today’s world,” said Dixon Sutherland, director of Stetson University’s Institute for Christian Ethics. He went on to declare, “The exposure of students to probably the most formative leader of progressive thinking within Christianity today is an important part of our educational mission.”
That fascinating little piece of advertising is found at the website of Stetson University, a private university located in DeLand, Florida.
Of course, that introduction of retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong is a bit understated, since the bishop is known throughout the world for having denied virtually every major doctrine of the Christian faith, and has become something of a parody of theological liberalism.
What makes the Stetson University announcement all the more interesting is the fact that Bishop Spong was invited to the university in order to deliver a lecture on human sexuality and then to serve as the major speaker for the university’s “Twentieth Annual Florida Winter Pastors’ School.” According to the on-line registration form for the conference, the event sold out.
The bishop’s visit to Florida caught the attention of the Orlando Sentinel. In an article written by reporter Loraine O’Connell, Spong is quoted as stating: “Sex without any sort of loving relationship is always wrong. It’s appropriate only inside commitment. What’s the level of commitment? For me, it’s marriage.” The reporter was fully aware that this might sound like Bishop Spong was abandoning his endorsement of pre-marital sex, so she quickly corrected any misunderstanding. “Spong’s fans needn’t fear that he’s backpedaling. Although marriage is his preferred level of commitment, he says, expecting young people to remain celibate until marriage isn’t realistic. Teaching them to treat sexuality with respect is.”
Over the last twenty years or so, the Right Reverend John Shelby Spong has served as a minstrel for postmodern Christianity. After serving from 1976 to 2000 as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, Spong hit the lecture circuit and has become a media personality and provocateur. His books garner immediate media attention, though his methodology of theological sensationalism is running out of steam. Now that he has denied virtually every imaginable doctrine revealed in the Bible, there must be very little room for further denial.
In successive books, Spong has denied the incarnation, the miracles as recorded in Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, a salvific purpose for the crucifixion, the bodily resurrection, and an entire series of truths long cherished by the church. He sees the Bible as an essentially human book that is filled with foibles and faults, and thus argues that it is not to be taken seriously as God’s authoritative message to the church.
“The God I know is not concrete or specific,” Spong has written. “This God is rather shrouded in mystery, wonder, and awe. The deeper I journey into this divine presence, the less any literalized phrases, including the phrases of the Christian creed, seem relevant. The God I know can only be pointed to; this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements.”
Thus, Spong denies the authority and truthfulness of the historic Christian creeds and has been about the task of revising, remodeling, and transforming Christianity into an entirely new system of faith and meaning.
Biblical Christianity simply makes no sense to Bishop Spong. “The biblical account of Jesus’ return to heaven was based upon the ancient idea that the sky was the abode of God and that it was ‘up.’ A literal ascension makes no sense to those of us who live on this side of Copernicus, Galileo, and the space age. Indeed, the very word up is a meaningless concept in our time.”
In Spong’s view, God is largely a human construct. He has abandoned theism—the basic belief in a personal God—and has moved “beyond theism” to embrace “new God images.” In Why Christianity Must Change or Die, the bishop explained: “There is no God external to life. God, rather, is the inescapable depth and center of all that is. God is not a being superior to all other beings. God is the Ground of Being itself. And much flows from this starting place. The artifacts of the faith of the past must be understood in a new way if they are to accompany us beyond the exile, and those that cannot be understood differently will have to be laid aside. Time will inform us as to which is which.”
Just before the end of last year, I debated Bishop Spong on Lee Strobel’s program, “Faith Under Fire,” broadcast on PAX television. In that context, Bishop Spong presented his understanding clearly. “There is no human being that can know the reality of God. There is no inerrant Bible. There is no true Church. There is no corner on the market of salvation. There is no faith once delivered to the saints. Those are all human attempts to minister to the human security-need to believe that we possess the truth. It’s only those people who believe they possess the truth that want to have inquisitions or do heresy hunts or start religious wars or persecute people who disagree with them. I think that’s the dark and demonic side of religion, and I think we would do well to be rid of that.”
Most Americans are probably aware of Bishop Spong as an advocate for sexual revolution. His 1988 book, Living in Sin?: A Bishop Rethinks Sexuality, was a declaration of war upon the church’s historic understanding of human sexuality. Spong pulled no punches, rejecting the Bible as an adequate guide to human sexuality and insisting that the ancient Scriptures are simply too out of date to be relevant in today’s world. The bishop simply takes the sexual revolution as a fact and insists that Christianity must change its sexual ethic or be consigned to the dustbin of cultural history.
Furthermore, he insists that the church’s sole concern in this time of revolutionary sexuality is to “witness the expansion of that gray area bounded by promiscuity on the one side and sex only inside marriage on the other.” As he expanded, “Most people will live inside this area of relativity, of uncertainty, of various levels of commitment and various kinds of sexual practices. It will be in the gray area that new values will need to be formulated.”
Accordingly, the bishop argued for the full acceptance and normalization of homosexual behavior. “Contemporary research is today uncovering new facts that are producing a rising conviction that homosexuality, far from being a sickness, sin, perversion, or unnatural act, is a healthy, natural, and affirming form of human sexuality for some people.”
What about the Bible’s clear statements about the sinfulness of homosexuality? “Certainly there are biblical passages that seem quite specific in their condemnation of homosexual activity,” the bishop conceded. Nevertheless, he employed a postmodern relativizing of the text to get around that awkward reality. When Paul condemned homosexuality in Romans chapter one, “It was an unnatural act for a heterosexual person to engage in homosexual behavior, he [Paul] argued. He did not or perhaps could not imagine a life in which the affections of a male might be naturally directed to another male.”
Had the Apostle Paul been “enlightened” by modern notions of sexual orientation, Spong implies that he certainly would have changed his position. On the other hand, Spong elsewhere has argued that the Apostle Paul’s clear condemnation of homosexuality indicates that he may indeed have been a closeted homosexual himself.
Once Spong argued that the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality could be overcome, it was a short jump to argue that homosexuals should be eagerly welcomed into the church and its ministry, and that liturgical rites for the blessing of same sex unions should be developed and embraced. “Once the naturalness of majority and minority orientations is established, and the expectation of celibacy for gay and lesbian people is removed, the question of the moment will then become,” Spong insists, “How does a gay or lesbian person lead a responsible sexual life?” Celibacy, he argues, is simply too much to ask.
Spong clearly revels in his role as provocateur and lightning rod for controversy. “I am not likely to be burned at the stake,” he has commented, insisting that he is confident the church will inevitably move in his direction.
Meanwhile, this directs even greater attention to the fact that Stetson University invited Spong to be a major speaker at an event that was presumably intended to equip and inspire Christian pastors. The school’s Continuing Education department acknowledged the fact that the bishop had both admirers and detractors. “His admirers acclaim his legacy as a teaching bishop who makes contemporary theology accessible to the ordinary layperson—he’s considered a champion of an inclusive faith by many both inside and outside the Christian church.” On the other hand, “His challenges to the church have also made Bishop Spong the most vilified of modern clergymen. The target of hostility, fear, and death threats, he has been called anti-Christ, hypocrite and the devil incarnate.”
Nevertheless, the university obviously thought that Bishop Spong would be an absolutely appropriate speaker for its Pastors’ School, along with Marcus J. Borg, a member of the infamous “Jesus Seminar,” who has denied the bodily resurrection, miracles, and the historicity of the New Testament.
According to the university’s website, “A bright mind is never happy on the sidelines. A bright mind is meant to be wide open to all the intellectual adventures and encounters.” Participants in Stetson University’s Pastors’ School are certain to encounter an intellectual adventure—but it will be an adventure in subverting and undermining the Christian faith.
The irony and tragedy in all this becomes apparent when it is realized that Stetson University was founded and nurtured by Baptists in the state of Florida, and championed at one time as “the state institution of the Florida Baptists.”
But, as they say, that was then and this is now. Now, Stetson is simply another private university that sells itself as “a comprehensive university committed to academic excellence and distinctive, values-centered programs.” Elsewhere at the same site, the school describes itself as “a non-sectarian, comprehensive, private university.”
That is light years away from the university’s motto, “Pro Deo et Veritate” [“For God and Truth”].
The bottom line in all this is that Stetson University—formerly related to the Florida Baptist Convention—has invited a retired Episcopal bishop—now known for his notorious denials of Christian truth—to be the speaker at an event intended to equip Christian pastors. This is all done in the name of academic inquiry, no doubt. But who speaks for orthodox Christianity?
Oddly enough, the best response to Bishop Spong’s visit came from a local Episcopal rector who declined to attend the lectures. Spong is “on the fringe of the tradition,” said the Reverend Don Lyon, rector of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in DeLand. “He’s basically an eastern mystical pantheist.”
As Lyon told the Orlando Sentinel, “I’ve been a parish priest for 25 years, and for 25 years he has sought to deconstruct the historic faith in ways that have been profoundly damaging to the church.”
Reverend Lyon is right, of course. The most tragic aspect of this entire episode is the damage that is done to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The state of liberal Protestantism, of Stetson University and similar institutions, and the world of increasingly post-Christian spirituality, is made readily apparent once we recognize what it means that Bishop Spong, rather than Reverend Lyon, was asked to address the attending pastors. But then, Bishop Spong must have offered the kind of “intellectual adventure” those pastors would prefer. Let’s just leave it at that.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
ATHEISTS who secretly worry there might be an afterlife after all were yesterday offered comfort by a leading Jesuit theologian, who declared that non-believers would also enter Paradise after death, “provided they live and die with a clear conscience”.
Father Giovanni Marchesi, resident theologian on the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica (Catholic Civilisation) said members of the other great religions, such as Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, could also hope for “eternal salvation”. He said St Augustine had been wrong to say that non-believers would burn in Hell for eternity. Father Marchesi said he based his theories on the gospels and the 3rd-century Christian writer, Origen, who held that, although souls became either “demons or angels” after death, at the Last Judgement “even the Devil himself will be saved”.
Father Marchesi said his text had been cleared by the Vatican before publication. “I prefer to describe atheists as those who believe that they do not believe,” he said. “Both they and those who adhere to non-Christian religions may still hope for salvation, as long as they have earned it by the way they lived their lives.”
[KH: a pure heretic]
Bishop battles literalists and liberals
Bishop John Spong doesn’t have a trace of self-doubt in him. In his mind, there are only three real paths in today’s Christianity: “ignorant fundamentalism,” “vapid liberalism,” and Jack Spong’s way.
Jack Spong’s way is to free Christians and Jesus from what he calls “2,000 years of misunderstanding.”
He’s taking that mission to Kanata United Church tonight.
Bishop Spong says the original Jewish writers of the New Testament never intended their stories to be taken literally.
Therefore he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, or almost anything else in the Gospels of the New Testament.
He’s the head of the Newark, New Jersey, diocese of the Episcopalian (Anglican) church, one of the biggest dioceses in the United States. But last year, some of his fellow bishops put Bishop Spong’s assistant on trial for heresy for ordaining a homosexual as a priest. Bishop Spong says the charge was clearly aimed at him rather than his assistant.
The heresy charge was defeated and now the Newark diocese has 23 practising homosexual priests.
“I’ve never had a case of sexual impropriety levelled against them,” Bishop Spong says.
“I wish I could say that about my straight clergy.”
He admits there are many bishops who would like to vote him out of the church.
“But I’ve nothing to fear,” he says.
“The Anglican communion has always allowed exploration, and what we think heresy in one generation will become orthodoxy in another generation.”
Bishop Spong also believes in assisted suicide and the latent homosexuality of the apostle Paul. Such opinions have made him probably the most controversial mainline theologian alive. They have also brought him 16 death threats from Bible-believing Christians.
Bishop Spong, 65, says he’s still a Bible-based Christian. “One hundred per cent of the Bible is insightful. It needs to be taken seriously.”
He says he’s a popularizer and a communicator, not a theologian, and he’s trying to popularize Jesus for the non-religious, people who “can’t easily absorb ancient myths without bending their minds into first-century pretzels.”
His 16 books have sold half a million copies, and his talks regularly attract standing-room-only crowds. This weekend, he’ll be in the Ottawa area to conduct a sold-out seminar at Stewart House in Pakenham, and give a public talk tonight at 7 at Kanata United Church, 33 Leacock Drive. Some tickets for that are still available for $10 at Canterbury House, 97 Hinton Ave. N., or $15 at the door.
What makes his opinions stick in the memory are his one-liners, like his description of the “church alumni association” as “society’s fastest-growing segment,” or his answer to the question of whether the events in the Bible really happened. “I don’t know ... neither did Cecil B. deMille and neither does the Bible,” he says.
He says the fundamentalists are growing in numbers because their Biblical literalism appeals to the need for certainty. He believes the conservatives are “uninformed, unquestioning and ignorant,” while the liberals are quickly disappearing because they have made the Bible meaningless with their attempts to find natural explanations for supernatural events.
Bishop Spong admits that he too once considered himself a liberal Christian, and that some even considered him “the ultimate Liberal.” Now, however, he has rejected liberal Christianity as empty and offering no hope for the future.
What makes more sense, he says, is his latest book, Liberating the Gospels, which he says shows Christians how to read the Bible with Jewish eyes. He says that for centuries, Christians have misread the Gospels and wrongly argued over whether the stories of Jesus’ life and miracles are historical truth.
He believes the Gospels were written in the midrashic style common to first-century Jewish writers, who saw meaning, impact and understanding as more important than historical accuracy.
Bishop Spong says that understanding was lost after the first century, when the Christian church lost touch with its Jewish roots and became overwhelmingly Greek and Roman. He believes the Jewish writers of the Gospels wrote their stories of Jesus’ life not as history, but as interpretative tales based on key passages in the Hebrew Bible.
Later Christians interpreted these allusions to the Old Testament instead as evidence that God managed history and the events of Jesus’ life to fulfil Old Testament prophecies.
“In my understanding, that turns God into a kind of magician, takes away Jesus’ humanity and almost makes him into a robot.”
To believe that, says Bishop Spong, is “such nonsense that it requires a surrender of all intellectual faculties.”
To him, the virgin birth was never intended to be believed. It was just the early Christians’ way of trying to explain that mere human birth could not explain God’s powerful presence in Jesus.
“They were asked how God could get into Jesus, so they had to find a (metaphorical) way God could come down and be present in a man.”
Bishop Spong believes the virgin birth was a late addition to the Gospels, in about the year 90 A.D., more than 50 years after Jesus’ death.
“I don’t know a single Biblical theologian today who says the virgin birth is literally true,” he says.
“I don’t want to debate whether the Trinity was true, or whether the incarnation is the proper way to describe Jesus.
“The question I would raise is ‘What was there about Jesus that caused people to believe God was alive and in him.’ That’s the question I want to debate.”
New book admits non-Christians not all bound for hell
It’s time for Christians to drop the idea that Christ is the one sure way to salvation, says Vancouver’s Anglican bishop, Michael Ingham.
In a controversial new book, Mansions of the Spirit, Bishop Ingham says he doubts what has been a central tenet of the Christian faith for most of the last 2,000 years: that God can be known only through Christ.
That conviction is increasingly untenable in a world where we now regularly encounter members of other faiths “whose depth of intimacy with God is evident and radiant,” he says.
The fundamentalist belief that billions of non-Christians will be consigned to an “eternity of everlasting fire defies all moral sense and contradicts everything we know about God,” he writes.
Bishop Ingham said in an interview that his book will displease many Anglicans in his own diocese, and anger Christian fundamentalists, but he says most Christians who have heard him speak on the topic feel only a sense of relief that a church leader is finally saying what most people seem to believe.
He said fundamentalism is on the rise around the world, not only among Christians, but also among other faiths.
“It’s a great threat to peace and security, and is based on a mis-reading of Scripture.”
He said this Christian exclusivism has also turned many people off religion, because they see religion as creating violence instead of peace.
“What I’m advocating is a pluralist theology that accepts God’s grace in the great religions of the world, and calls us to see people of other faiths and traditions as brothers and sisters.”
Bishop Ingham said there is little in his book that is new to Christian scholars, but it will undoubtedly surprise many of the people in the pews.
He said the attitudes of most of the Christian churches have also changed over the years. In 1438, the Council of Florence, for example, agreed that all outside the Roman Catholic Church, whether Jews, or heretics “will go to the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels.”
That idea simply legitimized discrimination and barbarism toward non-Christians, Bishop Ingham said.
Today, however, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that God himself can lead non-Christians to salvation in ways we do not understand. Those who do not know Christ or his church may still achieve salvation if they seek God with a sincere heart, and try to do his will as they know it.
Bishop Ingham says some have called him the “Bishop John Spong of Canada”, after the Episcopalian bishop in the U.S. who has denied the virgin birth and defied church authorities by ordaining gay priests. Bishop Ingham advocates ordaining gays and lesbians but says he’s no John Spong.
“I’m not questioning the virgin birth or the central doctrines of the faith. What I am challenging is more the way they have been applied. I don’t see this as being doctrinally radical, but as being pastorally sensitive to the changing situation the church finds itself in.”
He said he sees Canada “as one of God’s great experiments. It’s as if God is seeing if the nations of the world can live together in a highly multi-ethnic, multi-religious country.
“We’ve seen what religious hostility can do to people. We have an opportunity to establish another way of doing things in Canada.”
Bishop Ingham says Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity or Judaism are paths to God that have withstood the test of centuries, and he would neither write off New Age beliefs nor universally accept them.
“Myself, I think of the New Age as rather like Muzak. It’s not the real thing.”
‘I don’t believe Jesus was God’
The divinity of Jesus and the reality of heaven and hell are irrelevant, says the new moderator of the United Church of Canada.
“What really matters,” says Rev. Bill Phipps, “is mending a broken world.”
He says Jesus was more interested in life on earth than the afterlife, and had more to say about economics than any other subject.
“I don’t believe Jesus was God, but I’m no theologian,” Mr. Phipps says. His lapel button, “Zero Poverty,” reflects the views he developed in the mid-1960s as a student observing riots and civil-rights marches in New York and Chicago.
“Biblically, it’s an abomination that there are any poor people in Canada at all,” he says.
As a minister in Toronto, and most recently in Calgary, he has been quick to demonstrate against everything from nuclear arms to what he sees as the cultural genocide of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
Mr. Phipps, 55, was elected head of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination in August, and he says what appealed to the 400 delegates was his platform: putting the United Church’s views front and centre in public policy debates.
Yesterday, he did that by taking on the Citizen’s editorial board in a free-wheeling debate about theology and the free-market economy.
His views on poverty are strong and definite. “Your soul is lost unless you care about people starving in the streets.”
He says Canada’s major churches can no longer be called mainline churches, because they now have relatively little influence.
Nevertheless, he thinks Canadians are increasingly conscious of a moral void and the church has much to contribute in the debates about world trade, employment, and the diminishing emphasis on health care and social services.
His views on the afterlife, however, are more agnostic.
“I have no idea if there is a hell,” he says.
“I don’t think Jesus was that concerned about hell. He was concerned about life here on earth.”
“Is heaven a place? I have no idea.”
“I believe that there is a continuity of the spirit in some way, but I would be a fool to say what that is.”
“We’ve got enough problems trying to live ethically and well here, to have any knowledge or understanding of what happens after we die.”
Rev. Phipps says Jesus is central to his beliefs and motivates his compassion for others, but he doesn’t accept the Bible as a valid historical record. Nor does he accept the traditional Christian concept of Jesus as the Son of God.
“I don’t believe Jesus is the only way to God,” he said. “I don’t believe he rose from the dead as a scientific fact. I don’t know whether those things happened. It’s an irrelevant question.”
Mr. Phipps says it would be a mistake, however, to say that he does not believe in Jesus. “The bald statement that Jesus is not divine gives the wrong impression.”
“I believe that Christ reveals to us as much of the nature of God as we can see in a human being. ...The whole concept of the nature of God is broader and wider and more mysterious and more holy than could be expressed in Jesus. ...That doesn’t mean that Jesus is the totality of God,” he said.
He says the defining mark of evangelical Christianity —a personal relationship with Jesus —does not ensure ethical conduct. South Africa’s regime of apartheid was unbiblical and obscene, he says, but “it was put in place with all the Christian rhetoric by Christian individuals who loved Jesus.”
He says it is not enough to simply go to church, pray, and live an upright personal life.
“Some of the great giants of Canadian commerce were upstanding moral people in church. But they paid low wages and opposed unions. Or they had no compunction about making armaments for Third World countries, and getting them deeply in debt.
“These are the kind of moral, ethical questions that often don’t get raised.”
Mr. Phipps admitted the United Church continues to lose members, and its 1988 decision to ordain homosexuals drove many away.
Although about three million Canadians claim affiliation with the United Church, there are only about 320,000 people in the denomination’s pews on a typical Sunday morning.
United Church moderator asks critics for tolerance
The United Church’s embattled moderator says he will not resign, despite the controversy over his theological views.
“I’m not going to destroy people’s faith. If one moderator can destroy people’s faith, it’s not all that deep,” Rev. Bill Phipps said yesterday.
Mr. Phipps said the United Church is big enough to include conservatives who fervently believe in traditional Christian formulations of doctrine, and liberal Christians like himself who are seeking new words to express God’s presence in the world.
The church has a choice, he said. “We can take up all our time sniping at each other, when what Jesus calls us to do is heal the broken world, which knows us by the way we act toward each other. Who’s going to be interested in us if all we do is snipe at each other?”
Mr. Phipps pleaded for his critics in the church to recognize that “I honor where you stand on your faith. You stand within the mainstream of Christian theology. There’s a place for you in the United Church.
“But I want you to hear there are people in the church who think differently than you, and who also stand firmly in their faith. There’s a place for all of us.”
Mr. Phipps said some people have suggested he resign from the church and the ministry because they believe he is not even a Christian.
But he said most members of the United Church would agree the denomination is theologically diverse enough to include people of many different viewpoints.
“I say I’m not going to resign because I would be resigning from people’s request to express only one point of view within the Christian tradition, and our church represents a lot more than that.”
The moderator said he takes full responsibility for statements he made to the Citizen on Oct. 23, including such remarks as “I do not believe Jesus is God” and his stated lack of belief in the scientific reality of Jesus’s resurrection. Those remarks have since led hundreds of church members to repudiate his theological statements, and some churches to formally request his resignation as moderator.
Mr. Phipps said that if his critics believe that membership in the United Church is defined by adherence to one narrow set of doctrinal beliefs, “we’ve got a big problem.”
He said he came to the Citizen editorial board meeting expecting to talk about faith and politics, and was surprised that much of the discussion centred on his theological orthodoxy.
Mr. Phipps said that because he was caught off-guard, he made the mistake of saying first what he did not believe, and those negatives have stuck in people’s minds. Now he says he begins by saying first what he does believe: that Jesus is alive in the world today, that he has called Christians to transform the world through their experience of Jesus, and that Jesus represents all of God that could be poured into a human being.
“As this thing has gone on, I think the conversations with people have been even more interesting. I think they have encouraged people, basically.”
Mr. Phipps said he wants to reassure his staunch critics in conservative renewal groups within the church that there is a place for them within the denomination, and that he believes they are genuinely trying to renew the church. He has already requested a meeting with the conservative Community of Concern, and said he is also willing to meet with the Alliance of Covenanting Congregations and Church Alive, all of which have strongly criticized his theological views.
John Trueman, president of the Community of Concern, recently said Mr. Phipps should resign as moderator and be disqualified from membership in the church because of his views. But the group’s executive has now agreed to a meeting with the moderator.
More than 700 people turned out yesterday at Metropolitan United, in London, Ont., to hear Mr. Phipps and question him on views he expressed to the Citizen’s editorial board on Oct. 23.
Mr. Phipps said in a telephone interview there was “less tension in the air” at the discussion in London than there was on Monday when he spoke to hundreds of people at Ottawa’s Parkdale United.
He said that some people in both London and Ottawa suggested he resign, but some London-area church members also spoke movingly in support of him, just as members did in Ottawa.
He said he feels bad that many people have been hurt by his comments. “It’s a huge thing, and something I apologize for, but there’s nothing I can do about it, because I can’t take back what I believe.”
Pastor calls on flock to ask for reaffirmation of official doctrine
In the pulpit yesterday, a United Church minister took strong exception to recent remarks by the church’s leader and said his fellow congregants must devote at least a year in prayer to look for a new vision.
The remarks by the moderator, the Very Rev. Bill Phipps, “do not correspond at all to the historic faith of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ nor of the United Church of Canada,” Rev. Allen Churchill told the congregation at Dominion‑Chalmers United Church on Cooper Street.
Mr. Churchill was referring to statements Mr. Phipps made in an interview with the Citizen’s editorial board last Thursday.
The moderator, who was elected to office last August, told the board:
-”I don’t believe Jesus was God.”
-”I have no idea if there is a hell.”
-”Is heaven a place? I have no idea.”
-”I don’t believe (Jesus) rose from the dead as a scientific fact.”
In yesterday’s sermon, Mr. Churchill said such comments contradict church doctrine.
The first article in the church’s Statement of Faith answers the question of whether or not Jesus was divine, he said.
That article reads in part: “We worship Him in the unity of the Godhead and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons of the same substance, equal in power and glory.”
Mr. Churchill asked the congregation, “Is our moderator right about the identity of Jesus that he is not God in the flesh? Or is the World Council of Churches right, which declares that Jesus Christ is God and Saviour?”
Clearly a rhetorical question.
The moderator, in his session with the editorial board, had affirmed the importance of compassion for the poor, while expressing skepticism about the existence of heaven and hell.
But one can’t pick and choose what to believe of the Bible, Mr. Churchill said.
“The very scriptures that state that the church should have compassion for the poor are also the scriptures that require that there is in fact a heaven and a hell. They don’t define them —but they clearly announce that heaven and hell exist.”
Mr. Phipps’ skepticism about the Bible contradicts the church’s Statement of Faith, Mr. Churchill said, quoting from Article 2 of the statement: “We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, given by inspiration of God, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ.”
Mr. Churchill quoted from the Church’s manual on the duties of the moderator —to give leadership, “quickening in the hearts of people a sense of God as revealed in Christ and strengthening the whole United Church.”
Mr. Phipps’ recent statements “dishearten and weaken our Church,” Mr. Churchill said. “They are in fact a serious embarrassment.”
The Church’s attempts to find new members “are seriously undermined when the denomination’s primary leader undermines the central point of our faith,” Mr. Churchill said.
Mr. Phipps’ comments have also injured the United Church’s ecumenical relations with other denominations, he said.
“Ministers of other denominations are now phoning the Presbytery Office here in Ottawa and asking what the official doctrines of the United Church are.” The moderator, he noted, was voted into office at the Church’s general council last summer in Camrose, Alta. He won handily on the first ballot.
Like other candidates for the office, Mr. Phipps had been questioned about his views on Jesus Christ and other matters before the vote, Mr. Churchill said.
“General council voted our moderator into office with knowledge,” Mr. Churchill said.
“They therefore must have some responsibility for this situation in which we find ourselves in today.”
But the pastor of Dominion Chalmers church said there were positive elements in the controversy.
“The moderator has neither the ability nor the mandate to redefine the faith of the United Church of Canada. These are personal views of one person who happens to be the moderator, and it is too bad that he said them. But he cannot change the doctrines of the church.”
Moreover, to criticize the Bible is to fight the wind, he said.
“Happily, the Bible has always withstood its critics and will continue to do so —it truly is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.”
Mr. Churchill said church members should write to the local presbytery and to the general council asking for affirmation of the Statement of Faith.
He said congregations should “spend at least a year in theological reflection and prayer, looking for a new vision for the future, asking serious questions about whether the United Church can maintain our valid Christian witness to the world.”
He also had advice for his fellow clergy.
“I believe we ministers should stand in our pulpits and declare before our congregations what we believe, and that this be done as a matter of first priority.”
Following the service, two members of the congregation expressed agreement with the sermon.
“It was excellent,” said George Tweedy. “It expressed my views fully.”
David Slater said he was “very much in sympathy with the sermon.”
The moderator is entitled to his own opinions, Mr. Slater added.
“But he has no right to change the fundamental beliefs of the church —and when he speaks, he should make his audience fully aware of the limitations of his authority.”
Another United Church minister had a take on Mr. Phipps’ remarks that was completely different from Mr. Churchill’s.
“I was delighted with our moderator’s human questing faith because it is so essentially Christian,” Rev. Brian Cornelius of Northwestern United Church on Northwestern Avenue said in a phone interview yesterday.
Mr. Cornelius believes most of his congregation saw merit in the moderator’s remarks, once they were put in theological context in yesterday’s sermon.
Mr. Cornelius said he personally believes in the resurrection of Jesus but does not know if it was a literal resurrection.
When Jesus returned from the dead, it was in a body that was qualitatively different from His earlier body —He could walk through walls, disappear, be unrecognized, Mr. Cornelius said.
“Clearly, His resurrection may have had nothing to do with human bones, for example.
“The resurrection is the mystery of life beyond this life. And that mystery would not be dissolved if some archeological dig found remains that were indisputably His.”
For Mr. Cornelius, putting great emphasis on whether Jesus was divine misses the point of His mission.
“What really matters —and this is what Mr. Phipps emphasizes —is the ethical component that comes from Christ, which is to care for the powerless in our society.
“This meaning of Jesus’ life is far more important than discussing the nature of His existence.”
In fact, Mr. Cornelius had only approbation for the moderator.
“A courageous leader like him saves us from ecclesiastical structures that would control us through doctrinal purity, thrive on wooden literalism, and regurgitate pat answers.”
Leaders state adherence to creed, support for Phipps
TORONTO —The national executive of the United Church supported both its founding beliefs and its controversial moderator in a statement released yesterday.
The moderator, Rev. Bill Phipps, ignited a nationwide controversy last month with his remark that “I don’t believe Jesus was God.”
After a 90-minute discussion, the 85-member executive wound up its regular four-day meeting yesterday by unanimously approving a series of recommendations that try to satisfy both the liberal and conservative wings of the church.
And it adopted a statement that says “Our grasp on the truth of God is finite and fallible, and we do not believe that faithfulness consists in assenting to particular statements. Rarely, if ever, do we use doctrinal standards to exclude anyone from the circle of belonging.”
Membership in the United Church is not based “on a creedal subscription or test,” said the executive. “New members are asked to profess their faith in the triune God and to commit themselves to faithful conduct in church and world.”
At a press conference, the moderator said he has learned a lesson from his encounter last month with the editorial board of the Citizen: to be more careful with his words and to state the church’s views as well as his own.
Mr. Phipps said he had no idea that he would ignite a nationwide controversy with his remarks.
However, he said, “My views are well within the theological mix of the United Church, and have been for some time.”
The national executive approved recommendations that:
The church’s national executive also attempted to put a damper on the controversy within the church by:
They also restated the fact that the United Church is governed not by bishops or moderators, but by groups of clergy and lay elders, which are the only bodies empowered to approve doctrinal statements.
“No individual ... can usurp this role of the community in the articulation of the faith,” said the statement adopted by the executive.
Marion Best, Mr. Phipps’ predecessor as moderator, said many people misunderstand the role of the moderator. She said they do not realize the moderator speaks only for himself, and it takes time for a new moderator to realize that people attach more importance to his words than they should.
However, in a reference to the denomination’s divisive 1988 debate over the ordination of homosexuals, she said the latest controversy has one advantage: “It’s a relief to be talking about Christology instead of sex.”
The controversy over Mr. Phipps’ remarks brought back into the open the deep divide between the denomination’s left and right wings that surfaced during the 1988 debate.
On one side are theologically conservative churches like Ottawa’s Chinese United Church, which has called for the moderator’s resignation, and Ottawa’s Dominion-Chalmers United, which has called on the church’s national executive to reaffirm the denomination’s original 1925 articles of faith as its doctrinal standard.
These articles of faith name Jesus as “the eternal Son of God” and affirm that “he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.”
On the other side of the debate are United Church members who support Mr. Phipps’ views and are prone to condemn the media, rather than the moderator, for the controversy.
However, Jon Jessiman, of Ladner, B.C., told the national executive yesterday there are many other church members who are somewhere between those two poles.
Some are disturbed by Mr. Phipps’ remarks. Others perhaps are more like the elders of Bloor Street United Church in Toronto, who wrote to the national executive to say Mr. Phipps’ comments are not new.
“We have heard similar statements from our pulpit for the last 30 years ... We do not wish to have some people tell others what they should believe,” said the Bloor Street elders.
Virginia Coleman, the denomination’s top administrator, told the national executive that church members and local congregations are still free to launch formal proceedings to force Mr. Phipps to resign, but said that to date no one has yet taken the steps to do so.
Rev. Don Smith, of Morrisburg, said he hoped Mr. Phipps would not be forced to resign and said there would be little profit for the church if any groups or individuals attempted to take that route.
One man who didn’t get his say at the national executive meeting yesterday was Rev. John Ellis Currey, 75, a United Church minister who has a regular slot preaching on radio in Newfoundland. He said he came to the meeting to “restore the moderator’s faith in the basic tenets of the United Church.” However, he was denied an opportunity to address the meeting.
Ministers scrambling to distance themselves from leader’s radicalism
In an affirmation of their Christian credentials, some United Church ministers are prepared to stand up in their pulpits tomorrow and avow that, yes, they believe Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.
Ordinarily, members of the Christian clergy might consider it redundant to proclaim their belief in such a fundamental tenet as the resurrection —the glory of Christianity, after all, is the promise of a shining afterlife. But suddenly some members of the United Church feel it’s not such a bad idea to restate some of the old ideas.
The truth of the resurrection, not to mention the divinity of Christ, became a controversial topic in the United Church this week after comments made by Rev. Bill Phipps, the recently elected moderator of the United Church of Canada. In a Citizen article yesterday, Mr. Phipps said he doesn’t believe Jesus was God nor does he think Christ was resurrected as the Bible suggests. Mr. Phipps also said he has no idea whether heaven and hell exist.
In Ottawa, Rev. Andrew Stirling of Parkdale United Church said he was deeply concerned after hearing of Mr. Phipps’ remarks. Because Mr. Stirling ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Phipps for the job of moderator last summer, he said it would be inappropriate to comment on whether Mr. Phipps should step down. Nonetheless, Mr. Stirling made it clear his own theology is less controversial than Mr. Phipps’.
“I subscribe to the divinity of Jesus and the centrality of the resurrection to the Christian faith,” said Mr. Stirling. “I believe you can have great diversity in the Church, but at the same time there must be some unity —and unity is based in the common recognition that Jesus Christ is Lord. One can have great diversity on many things, but there is a bottom line.”
Another local reverend, Heather Moore of St. Paul’s United Church in Carp, was similarly astonished that the church’s national leader would seem to diminish the stature of Christ. “Jesus is God incarnate,” said Ms. Moore, adding that Mr. Phipps’ comments might reduce the United Church to a kind of secular organization.
“If we renounce the resurrection, we’re in serious trouble,” she said. “What, then, is left? I don’t for one minute believe that I am (simply) a minister to a social club.”
As his followers expressed hurt and anger, Mr. Phipps said he never intended to undermine anyone’s faith. “I never wanted to hurt anybody,” he said yesterday. “I want only to stimulate people to examine their faith. I’ve always respected other people’s beliefs and understandings, and I ask that they do the same for me.”
By noon yesterday, United Church headquarters in Toronto had already fielded several angry inquiries. Mr. Phipps himself spoke with two irate callers who could not believe a church leader would appear to deny the most basic principles of Christianity. “Both of them were quite upset, but we had good conversations,” said Mr. Phipps.
“I told them that indeed I had said Jesus was not God, but also that I had said a whole lot of other stuff. I tried to explain that Jesus is the most we can know about God in one human being, but that God is more comprehensive and mysterious than anything in one person. Jesus is at the centre (of Christianity) but I just don’t believe that all of God walked on earth with Jesus.”
Although Mr. Phipps acknowledged that he was quoted correctly, he argued that the newspaper article did not capture all the nuance and subtlety of his hour and a half debate with the Citizen editorial board. For example, he explained yesterday that while he may not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, he believes very much that Jesus was and is always present in the world.
“Whether or not Jesus rose from the dead in the same physical body and walked around in the same body —the scientific (truth) of this fact doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “Some people would say it is essential, but to me it doesn’t have to be (essential) in order to understand that Jesus is alive and well.”
Muriel Duncan, the editor of the United Church Observer, a national magazine, said she was not shocked that Mr. Phipps would speak so candidly on sensitive matters. “He’s recognized for his integrity, by his willingness to talk openly,” she said. Ms. Duncan also said it is very unlikely that Mr. Phipps would be forced to step down as moderator, as the church has many members who will agree with his liberal theology. “It’s a church that sits well with diversity,” she said.
Rev. Brian Cornelius, the minister of Ottawa’s Northwestern United Church, said he’d be surprised if his congregants are offended by the moderator’s beliefs. “Mr. Phipps does not want to describe the (afterlife) in specific, literal words. I suspect a majority of those in the United Church understand that.”
Moderator’s comments cause growing uproar in United Church
The protest against United Church moderator Bill Phipps’s statement that “Jesus is not God” is spreading rapidly across Canada.
Hundreds of congregations have repudiated the moderator’s statements. Congregations from across the country have either officially requested his resignation or taken up petitions condemning his comments.
Among those who have requested the moderator’s resignation is Orleans United, a middle-of-the-road congregation that has the largest attendance of any United Church in the Ottawa area.
“The moderator’s apparent public disavowal of the divinity of Christ is a betrayal of the constitutional responsibilities of his position and the core tenets of the Christian faith,” say the elders of the Orleans church in a letter to Virginia Coleman, the church’s general secretary.
“As elders, we re-emphasize our uncompromising belief in Jesus Christ, who lived and died and lives again. If the moderator is unable to meet this standard of faith, and the trust placed in him by General Council and the entire church, he should resign his position,” said the Orleans elders.
Nancy Best, co-chair of the board of elders at Orleans United, said Mr. Phipps’s comments had a good effect because they forced the church’s leaders to re-examine their own faith. But she said the elders felt the moderator had done the denomination a disservice by disputing its beliefs from his senior position in the church.
The presbytery of Halifax, representing 47 United Church congregations, also voted Tuesday to “disassociate itself from the theological statements made by the moderator to the Ottawa Citizen.”
Rev. Calvin Ginn, chair of the Halifax presbytery, said the majority of ministers and lay elders in the presbytery “were not happy” with Mr. Phipps’s comments to the Citizen’s editorial board on Oct. 23 that Jesus is not the only way to God, and that he has no idea if there is a heaven or hell.
Members of the executive of the denomination’s Maritime Conference, were more restrained. They have asked all United churches in the Atlantic provinces to pray for Mr. Phipps “in this time of controversy” and to direct their attention “to the urgency of recognizing with him (Mr. Phipps) the need to profess our belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.”
Rev. Catherine Gaw, executive secretary of the Maritime Conference, said the Maritime executive’s statement “was not intended to be critical as much as it was intended to be supportive of the need for us to be in discussion about our faith.”
The Alliance of Covenanting Congregations, representing 114 conservative congregations within the denomination, repudiated Mr. Phipps’s views as being “in no way representative of the denomination he leads.”
“There are many, many people within the United Church who do not subscribe to our moderator’s beliefs,” said Rev. Dave Snihur, president of the Alliance.
Church Alive, a conservative theological association within the denomination, has also criticized the moderator’s views as contradicting the United Church’s official teachings.
Rev. Graham Scott, president of Church Alive, said the church’s traditional belief in the divinity of Jesus is good news. But he said “Moderator Phipps’s denials, unbelief and agnosticism are not good news. They seem to be an invitation to suicide. They do not even inspire me to care for the poor.”
Mr. Phipps has been working hard to explain his views. He faced mostly hostile questioners at a packed meeting in Ottawa’s Parkdale United Monday, and is expected to face a similar crowd today at Metropolitan United, in London, Ont. It is the country’s largest United Church, and one of its most conservative.
Rev. Bob Ripley, the senior minister at Metropolitan, has already co-authored and distributed a statement rebutting the moderator’s theological views. Mr. Phipps has also personally contacted many of those who wrote to the national offices to criticize his views. Tony Copple, a member of Glen Cairn United in Kanata, was one of 10 people that Mr. Phipps spoke to in a conference call last week. All had written critical letters to the moderator, and were invited to relay their concerns to him first-hand.
Mr. Copple says he admires Mr. Phipps’ willingness to reach out and listen to his critics but says the moderator has no authority to water down the denomination’s historic faith in the divinity of Christ.
He has now launched an Internet website to further discussion of Mr. Phipps’ views. It can be reached at www.ncf.carleton.ca/~aj624/mod.html.
Among those churches and groups who have officially asked Mr. Phipps to resign for his comments are these:
-Grace United, in Cobden,
-Zion United, in Pembroke.
-Harrisville-Steeves Memorial in Moncton.
-The Community of Concern, a conservative renewal group within the church. John Trueman, president of the group, said that “with one sweep of his hand, Mr. Phipps has repudiated both Christmas and Easter,” because he disputes both the divinity of Christ and his resurrection.
Members of Central United, in Brandon, Manitoba have also been circulating a petition calling for Mr. Phipps’ resignation.
The reaction to the moderator’s comments may still be building. A number of presbyteries in the Maritime conference are also expected to discuss the controversy surrounding Mr. Phipps. So are the elders of a number of United Church congregations in other parts of Canada, including Ottawa’s Dominion-Chalmers United, Parkdale United and Westboro United.
The elders of White Lake United Church, near Arnprior, have already asked the Ottawa presbytery to discuss Mr. Phipps’ comments at its meeting Tuesday. Rev. Don Anderson said the elders of the White Lake church have made a submission on Mr. Phipps, but want to discuss their concerns within the church before making any public statement.
To date, the national office of the United Church in Toronto has received only three official requests from local congregations for Mr. Phipps’ resignation, but other written requests are still in the mail. Mary-Frances Denis, a spokesperson for the denomination, said the requests for Mr. Phipps’s resignation will be discussed by the church’s national executive at its meetings Nov. 21-24.
The moderator of the United Church of Canada is a heretic, says a professor of modern Christian history.
A heretic is defined as someone who chooses a doctrinal path other than that of the church to which he belongs, says John Stackhouse, of the University of Manitoba.
By that standard, Rev. Bill Phipps “is a heretic according to the United Church of Canada’s own standard of doctrine. He’s also a heretic in generic Christian terms, because he denies the creeds that all Christians have subscribed to, whether they’re Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox.”
In interviews with the Citizen and other media organizations, Mr. Phipps denied the divinity of Christ, denied the reality of the resurrection as a historic fact and said he was unclear about the existence of heaven and hell, Mr. Stackhouse said.
“The historic church says there are such realities, which are crucially important to human life,” said Mr. Stackhouse, a former president of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association.
He said Mr. Phipps’s statements obviously differ from the United Church’s own doctrinal statement. These articles of faith say, for example, Jesus “rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, where He ever intercedes for us,” and that “We believe that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and of the unjust, through the power of the Son of God, who shall come to judge the living and the dead; that the finally impenitent shall go away to eternal punishment and the righteous into life eternal.”
This weekend, the national executive of the United Church will discuss the controversy over Mr. Phipps’s remarks and the calls for his resignation that have come from several congregations, as well as individual members, and conservative groups within the church.
Mr. Phipps also has many defenders within the church, among them Bob Bater, a United Church minister, and former principal of Queens Theological College in Kingston. [KH: heretic again?]
“Bill Phipps is not a heretic, “ Mr. Bater said. “The current flipflap that he (Mr. Phipps) can’t say Jesus is God betrays a terrible misunderstanding.”
No church, except possibly the Eastern Orthodox church, has ever been willing to say simply that Jesus was God, he said. What they said, instead, was that God was fully divine and fully human.
Mr. Bater said a careful study of New Testament accounts of the resurrection shows “it’s absolutely clear that each of the Gospel writers has a different conception of what happened on Easter morning.”
He said all the Gospel writers agree Jesus’s tomb was empty the morning after his burial, and that Jesus appeared to the disciples. But he said the appearances could have been more in the nature of a spiritual experience than an actual physical happening.
“My personal opinion is that I don’t believe (the post-resurrection) Jesus would ever have appeared on a camera film,” Mr. Bater said.
Rev. Michael Steinhauser, a Catholic priest and professor of New Testament studies at the Toronto School of Theology, said few scripture scholars today accept the New Testament resurrection stories as literal accounts of what happened after Jesus’s death.
Like Mr. Bater, Father Steinhauser is a member of the [KH: liberal, non-believing] Jesus Seminar, a California-based group of biblical scholars that has attempted to decide whether the acts and sayings of Jesus reported in the New Testament actually took place, or whether some accounts were perhaps added in by later generations of writers attempting to make sense of Jesus’s impact.
“In modern scholarship, there is a confusion between who the historic Jesus was, and how he acted, and what the later church defines him as,” Father Steinhauser said.
“People are asking ‘Was the historical Jesus divine?’, and the only way we can answer that is to look at the early texts.”
Father Steinhauser, co-author of The Man With the Scarlet Robe, Two Thousand Years of Searching for Jesus, said that although Jesus himself never clearly said he was divine, the earliest New Testament texts suggest that early Christians thought he was.
He said “it takes a sophisticated theological mind” to sort out the complexities that lay behind Christian descriptions of Jesus as “Son of Man” or “Son of God.”
Mr. Phipps has only raised the kind of questions that are routine in seminaries, but rarely discussed in most churches, said Father Steinhauser. Bringing up such questions often divides believers, but the “only alternative is to tell them nothing,” he said.
Peter Wyatt is in charge of helping United Church members make sense of some of these questions about Jesus.
As the United Church’s general secretary for theology, faith and ecumenism, he is the main author of a study guide, Reconciling and Making New: Who is Jesus for the World Today?, which is now being discussed by congregations across the country.
He says one aim of the discussions is to help church members work out their own personal understanding of who Jesus is.
“We are a church in which every believer is called to own his or her own confession of faith, and our intent is to bring people some at least of the ferment of faith that is present in the academy (scholarly circles) and in bar-room discussions.”
Mr. Wyatt said “My own confession of faith is different” than that of Mr. Phipps, but the United Church has always been a church of diverse beliefs. The church was born in 1925 in a union of Congregationalists, with Presbyterians who believed in predestination and Methodists who believed in free will.
That diversity of belief has been both a strength and a weakness ever since, Mr. Wyatt said.
One minister blames drop in attendance at his Ottawa church on Phipps’s views
It was the United Church at its passionate best, and some would say its divided worst, as Rev. Bill Phipps, the denomination’s moderator, came to Ottawa yesterday to defend personal beliefs some have labelled “heresy.”
Mr. Phipps said he came to apologize to those church members whose orthodox bedrock faith had been undermined by his comments to the Citizen’s editorial board Oct. 23. But neither anger nor tears nor applause from the crowd of more than 300 church members persuaded him to back down on his theological views.
He reiterated his belief that although Jesus is unique, and represents as much of God as can be poured into one human being, he still does not reflect the fullness of God.
“Jesus is not all of God,” he said. “In my understanding of the biblical story, that would be blasphemy.”
The important thing, he said, is not whether Jesus is God, or whether he literally rose from the dead but the fact that Jesus is alive in the world today and is calling United Church members to transform the world through the love of God.
About a third of the audience gave him a standing ovation after his initial statement. The other two-thirds steadfastly refused to stand; a few even refused polite applause.
Rev. T.K. Ng, of Ottawa’s Chinese United Church, was one of many who said Mr. Phipps’ comments have severely damaged the denomination.
Mr. Ng said that in 1989, his church split and 315 members left because they objected to the denomination’s decision to ordain homosexuals. Since then, the church has slowly built up attendance, to an average of 300 to 400 people at Sunday services.
But since the Citizen article on Mr. Phipps’ views appeared Oct. 24, attendance has dropped to about 80 people, he said.
Mr. Ng said his members believe Mr. Phipps’ views are “heresy.”
“You have a lot of interpretations (of the Bible), but we have been hurt,” he said. “We have a right to exist.”
Rev. David Chesney, former president of the church’s Montreal-Ottawa conference, said the two churches he serves in Osgoode and Kars were battered by the controversy in 1988 over the homosexual ordination, and Mr. Phipps’ comments may drive one of the two churches to close its doors. They have also divided the denomination once again.
“Your duty is to hold the church together. ... You need to be exceedingly cautious in what you say,” he told Mr. Phipps.
Some in the audience, like Eleanor Montgomery, a lay member from Kingston, tried and failed to pin down Mr. Phipps to yes or no answers on whether he believed Biblical verses condemning homosexuality as an abomination, and suggesting that Jesus is the only way to God.
Mr. Phipps said it’s impossible to give a simple answer to such questions. The moderator also had many defenders at the 7 a.m. meeting in Parkdale United Church.
Brad Lavenne, the church’s co-ordinator of youth services in Ottawa, said Mr. Phipps’ interview has provoked so much interest among young adults that in the first four days after the story appeared, he took calls from 30 people interested in connecting with a local church or church youth group.
Jolynn Somervill said she had recently started attending Ottawa’s Southminster United, and welcomed Mr. Phipps’ approach to faith. She said when her young daughter starts asking questions, her answers will be much the same as those given by the moderator.
Since Mr. Phipps appeared before the Citizen’s editorial board, his views on Jesus, heaven and hell have been reprinted in newspapers across the country, and the moderator and other church leaders have been deluged with calls, some of them angry, some of them delighted.
Mr. Phipps said the United Church has always been a free-thinking church and there is nothing new about his views. Past moderators have said much more outrageous things.
“What’s new is that my views hit the front page of a secular newspaper.” A 1994 survey of more than 2,000 United Church members by Alberta sociologist Reg Bibby, however, showed that 85 to 98 per cent of United Church members held “traditional beliefs concerning the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and life-after-death.” The one exception to that was members of the faculty at United Church seminaries; only one in four said it was very important to them to confess “Jesus as Lord and Saviour.”
Mr. Phipps said his worst fear is that the controversy over his views will divide the church, but his hope is that church members will see it as an opportunity to “invite people to see the significance of Jesus in our world.”
He said that since his views were reported, many people have phoned to congratulate him because people are now talking about Jesus at work. Others phoned or wrote to say his comments encouraged them to return to church after absences of up to 30 years. Mr. Phipps said his hope is that more and more Canadians will open their Bibles and struggle to understand just who Jesus is.
The United Church is Canada’s largest Protestant denomination. About three million Canadians identify with the church; about 320,000 attend on an average Sunday.
Valley congregations want United Church to fire moderator for ‘un-Christian’ beliefs
Two Ottawa Valley churches are hoping to remove Rev. Bill Phipps as moderator of the United Church for what they consider his un-Christian beliefs.
The elders of Grace United, in Cobden, sent a fax yesterday to the national church offices urging that he be removed from office for doubting the existence of heaven and hell and telling the Citizen’s editorial board: “I don’t believe Jesus was God.”
“His remarks were not the remarks of a Christian. He made people feel they were ashamed to be part of the United Church,” said Mrs. Isobel Fletcher, clerk of the board of elders at the church 90 kilometres west of Ottawa.
Jean Nagora, an elder of Zion Evangelical United, in Pembroke, said she and other elders of that church are equally disturbed by Mr. Phipps’ remarks.
“We too want him removed,” she said.
Ian Outerbridge, a Toronto lawyer and United Church elder, said he believes there are good legal grounds for laying a charge against Mr. Phipps within the church’s own courts.
He said “there is a serious question as to whether or not he ought to even be a member of the United Church of Canada.”
He said that Mr. Phipps has undercut the meaning of Christmas by expressing doubt that Jesus was God, and undercut the meaning of Easter by doubting the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Mr. Outerbridge said Mr. Phipps’ opinions are heretical, and he could be charged with spreading false teaching, and failing in his duty as moderator to provide spiritual leadership to the church.
Mr. Outerbridge has won several cases against the United Church on behalf of ministers who were dismissed from their jobs.
Virginia Coleman, the denomination’s general secretary, said yesterday that she had not yet seen the petition from the Cobden church, but said that any attempt to remove Mr. Phipps would be considered by the church’s general executive, which is scheduled to meet at the end of November.
She said no moderator has ever been removed from office during the denomination’s 72-year history.
Ms. Coleman said the church is currently beginning discussions at the local level on Who is Jesus Today?, a new document about Christ’s divinity. She said the controversy over Mr. Phipps’ remarks was unplanned but will help stir up discussion on the church’s current theology about the nature of Christ. “A moderator has the right to make a comment,” said Ms. Coleman.
John Trueman, head of the Community of Concern, a conservative reform group in the United Church, said the denomination has lost 185,000 members since 1987, and Mr. Phipps will increase the exodus from the church.
“This man seems to be in disagreement with the teachings of the church,” said Mr. Trueman.
He says his group now has 20,000 members, and will undoubtedly gain more members because of the moderator’s comments.
In a statement on the controversy, Mr. Phipps said his controversial remarks “were mine alone É However, I believe that nothing I said is outside the broad mainstream of United Church belief.”
Mary-Frances Denis, national public relations officer for the church, said the head office has received several calls about Mr. Phipps’ remarks, and they are relatively evenly split between those approving of what he said, and those who were shocked. She said one Ottawa Valley couple were so pleased by what he had to say that they sent the church a $1,000 cheque.
Too many priests are introverts, church official says
The Anglican church is dying in Canada, says a British evangelist appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“Unless the evangelistic verve that marked the early church —and the Baptists and the Pentecostals and the Chinese Christians in Canada —unless that returns to the Anglican church within 25 years they’re going to be on edge of extinction,” Canon [KH: evangelical] Michael Green said yesterday.
Canon Green taught at Vancouver’s Regent College until 1992, when the Archbishop of Canterbury asked him to train Anglican leaders around the world in evangelism. Yesterday, he was in the Ottawa area to speak to local pastors and Anglicans on new directions for the church.
He said in an interview that the Christian church is adding converts at the rate of 80,000 to 90,000 people a day around the world, but most of that growth is coming in Africa, Asia and South America.
For every 143 Anglicans in developed countries, there is one convert a year.
But there are more Anglicans dying than there are converts, Canon Green said.
He said Anglican priests and clergy in other traditional denominations are given little or no training in how to minister in a post-modern society. Up to 80 per cent of them are also introverts who often do not have the gifts to reach out to a public that has lost interest in the churches.
Canon Green said “the Christian church is essentially challenging, but if you’re in a context where the church is totally eroded, and you can’t look forward to the enterprise, you can’t expect to be drawing the customers in.”
Most people have become “coy” about entering churches, he said, because it is no longer familiar territory, and they don’t want to be pounced on by eager Christians. Therefore, modern evangelism has to be done in places where people are happy and relaxed.
Canon Green now does much of his evangelism in Britain in pubs. Canon Green said he has also been preaching in the streets, and then inviting the curious to sit down for lunch and talk some more at tables set up along the sidewalks.
He’s also happy to take on public debates, and uses artists, musicians and others to pass on the Christian message. Another favourite of his is the annual March for Jesus, in which millions of Christians have sung, danced and waved banners in parades through city streets around the world.
Traditional crusade evangelism no longer works for most evangelists, except Billy Graham, said Canon Green.
“It works for Billy because he has such universal respect. God uses him in wonderful ways,” he said.
Mr. Graham will be preaching in Ottawa at a four-day mission at the Corel Centre June 25-28.
A University of Lethbridge sociologist, Reg Bibby, has been surveying Canadians on religion for more than 20 years, and he has predicted that the number of Anglicans attending church regularly will fall from the current 220,000 to about 100,000 by the year 2015. Similar declines are also forecast for the United, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches.
“When you have been a denomination in a country for a long time, you tend to settle on the traditional thing and get more and more barnacles on the boat,” said Canon Green.
He said that in Britain, the Anglican church has begun to turn around its decline. In the 1970s and ‘80s, church attendance in Britain fell to levels even lower than those in Canada, but today the Anglican church is opening a new church every two weeks, and there are steep rises in the number of adult confirmations and the number of candidates for ordination.
A popular black preacher has been found guilty of the “heresy of inclusionism” after a year-long debate among his fellow bishops on whether non-Christians can be admitted to heaven.
Bishop Carlton Pearson, pastor of Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Okla., was informed last month that he was preaching theological error and would not be allowed to preach at any of the churches connected to the Cleveland-based Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops Congress. The Joint College numbers about 160 leaders of independent black churches.
“Inclusionism” is a doctrine that all people, not just Christians, are bound for heaven; that hell does not exist; and that Jesus Christ will not be returning to Earth.
“We do hereby declare the doctrine of inclusionism is an unorthodox teaching and shall be classified as a heresy,” said the Joint College in a statement March 29. Despite “repeated, compassionate and loving overtures,” it added, Bishop Pearson refused to quit preaching that doctrine.
“In light of the profound damage this heresy poses to the true presentation of the Gospel and because of our concern for the many people that could be influenced to adopt this heresy, and in so doing, put at risk the eternal destiny of their souls, we are compelled to declare Bishop Carlton Pearson a heretic,” the 17-page statement read.
A spokeswoman for Bishop Pearson’s church said the cleric is out of the country and has no comment on the pronouncement.
Bishop Pearson, 51, traveled to the District a year ago to present his views at a church trial before the Joint College. He was a rising star among conservative black Pentecostal preachers until about eight years ago, when he began teaching his “gospel of inclusion.”
His church Web site, www.higherd.org, has a special section on the teaching, with questions such as “Are Christians too mean? Do you think most people are going to hell?” in vivid colors against a dramatic background photo of Bishop Pearson.
But his church has suffered fallout from the controversy, with four associate pastors leaving, a staff layoff of 85 persons and a drop in attendance from 5,000 to 1,300.
“We all feel we have to jump through hoops to please this intolerant and difficult-to-please God,” he said in an interview last year. “We think God is going to burn billions of people endlessly without any recourse. That sounds more like the devil than God.”
However, the Joint College statement made clear that the bishop had been given several years to change his mind.
In response, “Bishop Pearson made it quite clear he was/is fiercely devoted to the teaching of inclusionism and that he expects the rest of the Christian community to either support his contentions, or at least show some Christian love by not rebuking his teaching,” the statement read.
“Bishop Pearson made it quite clear in both verbal and written presentations that he believed that Hindus, Buddhists, and other religions would enjoy the benefits of Christ’s heaven even though they rejected Christ’s invitation to faith and belief in Christ’s work. The [Joint College] has never wavered in its love and concern for the person Bishop Carlton Pearson.”
The conventional wisdom reminds us that a man is often known by his enemies. The same is true for Christianity and, through centuries of heresy, schism, and apostasy, Christianity has collected a good number of enemies.
Now comes Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest and current controversialist, who sets himself against orthodox Christianity and calls for “a new reformation” that would transform Christianity for the twenty-first century. Of course, it would also transform Christianity into something other than Christianity, but that is precisely what Fox intends.
Matthew Fox is no stranger to tumult and conflict. Born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1940, Fox was ordained a Roman Catholic priest of the Dominican order in 1967. After graduating from Aquinas Institute and the Institut Catholique de Paris, Fox became known for his method of combining non-Christian spiritualities with Christian symbolism. Fox’s syncretism and rejection of core Christian beliefs led to conflict with the Vatican. From 1989 to 1990, Fox was officially silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Just three years later, he was expelled from the Dominican order.
In a statement published in his most recent book, Fox’s conflict with the Vatican is described like this: “The principled objections to Fox’s work on the part of the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were that he is a ‘feminist theologian,’ that he calls God ‘Mother,’ . . . that he prefers ‘Original Blessing’ to ‘Original Sin,’ that he calls God ‘child,’ that he associates too closely with Native Americans, and that he does not condemn homosexuals.”
In more recent years, Fox established what he called the University of Creation Spirituality, now known as Wisdom University, based in Oakland, California. As the Web site of Wisdom University explains, “At most institutions of higher education, students engage in intense intellectual work, and success is largely based on one’s ability to memorize information and capacity to express analytical thought. Art and physical exercise are generally optional electives. At Wisdom University, the pedagogy is designed to balance the body, head, heart and psyche as a single learning continuum. Each morning students begin with physical movement and chanting, called “body prayer.” They then engage in seminars on a range of relevant and intellectually challenging subjects, each of which has an extensive reading list and requires both pre-and post-papers. Each afternoon, students engage in ‘art as meditation,’ exploring a variety of intuitive and artistic expressions. Creativity is not an elective at Wisdom University. Like the wisdom schools in antiquity, learning is predicated on the unity of mind and heart, body and soul. The day is completed with a process session to help integrate the learning that is taking place on all levels.”
Now, for those unable to enroll at Wisdom University, Matthew Fox has brought his teachings to the masses in A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity. Of course, the book has a story, and that story is itself fascinating.
Scheduled to give a series of lectures in Germany, Fox realized that he would be speaking in the native land of Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger. The recent election of the pope, who was once head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that had silenced and censured Fox, offered the former Catholic priest his opportunity to stage a demonstration of his “creation spirituality” as an alternative to classical Christianity.
But what would Matthew Fox seize upon as his opportunity? “I prayed about it and one night, at 3:30 in the morning, I was awakened with an idea: Why not draw up some theses, just as Martin Luther had done five hundred years ago, that would speak to my concerns and those of the people from whom I was hearing? Why not reenact Luther’s protest: the nailing of the theses to the church door in Wittenberg?”
As he recalls in his new book, he quickly sat down and drafted some of his own theses. By the time two hours had passed, “I found that I had poured ninety-five theses. One after another, they had tumbled out of me, and I was amazed.” In A New Reformation, Fox is now ready to share those many theses, which, he suggests, “represent a certain reformation—and indeed transformation—of church and religion for our times.”
Matthew Fox also decided to take his idea of ninety-five theses one step further—he decided to hold a public event in Wittenberg, where he would nail a copy of his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church. The plan did not go well. In Wittenberg, Fox and his cohorts were prevented from nailing the theses to the historic door and were required by civic authorities to stay at least forty-five feet away from the historic structure.
In the end, Fox was reduced to nailing his theses to a piece of leaning wood. Needless to say, the spectacle lacked something of the seriousness of Luther’s call for a reformation of the church.
Matthew Fox clearly sees the Roman Catholic Church as the main target of his criticism. Nevertheless, his call for a new reformation is actually addressed to the entire Christian church, Protestants and other non-Roman Catholics included. Fox’s catalogue of complaints against the Roman Catholic Church is long and laborious, including accusations of cover-ups of sexual scandals, the silencing of theological creativity, and injustice against the poor. When it comes to Protestantism, Fox describes the contemporary Protestant scene as “anemic, tired, boring, incurious, unadventurous, emasculated, compromising, confused, depressed, unmystical, lost, irrelevant, preoccupied with trivia, uninspired, one-dimensional, and burned out.” In response to all this, Fox calls for Christianity to “move from religion to spirituality.”
By now, most informed observers have learned to recognize what is being proposed when we encounter calls for “spirituality” rather than “religion.” In the contemporary context, this means the substitution of theological and philosophical creativity from orthodox Christianity—the substitution of postmodern concepts of relativity for the notion of an objective truth.
Fox covers a host of concepts and proposes an odd mix of heresies within his ninety-five theses. He begins with the assertion that God is “both Mother and Father.” From this starting point he argues: “At this time in history God is more Mother than Father because the feminine is most missing and it is important to bring back gender balance.” Leaving aside for a moment the utter lack of biblical evidence or support for Fox’s proposal, one stands back in amazement at his apparent confidence that he would determine when “gender balance” is restored once again.
He also argues that the older idea of God as a “Punitive Father” must be discarded. “God the Punitive Father is not a God worth honoring, but a false god and an idol that serves empire builders. The notion of punitive, all-male God, is contrary to the full nature of the Godhead, who is as much female and motherly as masculine and fatherly.”
In reality, Fox’s theses range across a very disconnected landscape. Nonetheless, some are breathtakingly simple and clear in their rejection of classical Christianity. Take Fox’s thesis 6, for example: “Theism (the idea that God is ‘out there’ or above and beyond the universe) is false. All things are in God and God is in all things (panentheism).”
Other theses are virtually unintelligible. Fox argues that “Christians must distinguish between God (masculine and history, liberation and salvation) and Godhead (feminine and mystery, being and nonaction).” What can this possibly mean?
When Fox’s theses are understandable, they are most often heretical. Like most modern heretics, Fox wants to make a clear distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” In his formulation: “Christians must distinguish between Jesus (a historical figure) and Christ (the experience of God-in-all-things).”
From there, Fox argues that “Christians must distinguish between Jesus and Paul.” Of course, no Christian I know has any difficulty distinguishing between the historical persons of Jesus and Paul. Nevertheless, Fox’s point is clear. He wants to privilege the words of Jesus over the words of Paul. At the same time, Fox clearly does not want to privilege or to accept as authoritative all of the words of Jesus, for that matter—just the ones that fit his model of Jesus as a teacher of universal “spirituality.”
Teachings about human sexuality are at least part of what brought Fox into direct conflict with the Catholic Church and its magisterial authorities. In his new book, Fox argues that human sexuality “is a sacred act and a spiritual experience, a theophany (revelation of the Divine), a mystical experience.” Sexuality is, of course, one of God’s good gifts to humanity—a gift to be exercised only within the Creator’s intention and command, which means within the institution of marriage. In arguing that sex is itself a “spiritual act” Fox crosses over into genuinely heretical territory. Such teachings are part and parcel of many ancient paganisms, but not of biblical Christianity.
Some will note with interest that Fox sees theological seminaries as enemies of his proposals. “Seminaries as we know them, with their excessive emphasis on left-brain work, often kill and corrupt the mystical soul of the young instead of encouraging the mysticism and prophetic consciousness that is there. They should be replaced by wisdom schools,” he suggests.
In one sense, the proposals of Matthew Fox deserve little attention from orthodox Christians. After all, his rejection of biblical Christianity is so transparent that he poses little threat to the institutional church. In one sense, that assessment is probably accurate. There is little chance that Matthew Fox is going to officially be embraced by any branch of Christianity that is in any sense committed to the historic faith.
Yet, at the same time, there are two reasons why attention to Matthew Fox and his new book is worthwhile. In the first place, Fox’s vision of “spirituality” as a substitute for doctrinal Christianity has gained ground in some very unexpected places—even within the pews and pulpits of some churches that consider themselves evangelical. His minimizing of the truth question in favor of existential meaning is a hallmark of the postmodern age and its spirit is a contagion spreading through many churches.
Secondly, Fox’s description of two rival visions of Christianity is, taken by itself, actually quite helpful. Why? Because it is good to know that those who reject historic biblical Christianity understand that their proposals represent a completely different religion. This is exactly the point made by J. Gresham Machen in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, written in the early twentieth century at the height of the Modernist controversy. Biblical Christianity and those movements that call themselves Christian but reject historic Christian doctrine do not differ in degree, but in kind—they really are two different faiths.
“There are two Christianities in our midst,” Fox argues. As he explains, one vision of Christianity “worships a Punitive Father and teaches the doctrine of Original Sin.” The “other Christianity” rejects any notion of a God who will punish sin, and the very notion of sin itself. Instead, this rival to historic Christianity “recognizes the Original Blessing from which all being derives. It recognizes awe rather than sin and guilt, as the starting point of true religion. It thus marvels at today’s scientific findings about the wonders of the fourteen-billion-year journey of the universe that has brought our being into existence and the wonders of our spiritual home, the earth. It prefers trust over fear and an understanding of a divinity who is source of all things, as much mother as father, as much female as male.”
On matters of sexuality, this “other Christianity” celebrates gays and lesbians as a normative part of creation. In making his argument, Fox makes the astounding (and completely undocumented) claim that there are 464 other species of animals which feature gay and lesbian populations.
Most persons will see Matthew Fox’s “new reformation” for what it is—an attempt to hijack the Christian faith in order to push his own panentheistic agenda. Nevertheless, we should note with care and concern that many of Fox’s ideas have taken deep root in various sectors of Christianity. Those wondering where such trends might lead should pay close attention to Fox’s admission that his ideas represent a completely new faith presented as an alternative to historic Christianity.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a serious attempt to recover and embrace historic biblical Christianity. Matthew Fox’s “new reformation” is precisely the opposite—an attempt to replace Christianity with a new form of paganism. Will today’s Christians see this clearly?
National Geographic magazine revealed an ancient manuscript today which may reveal startling new evidence about the relationship between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed him.
For most Christians, Judas is known as the villain of the bible who betrayed Christ with a kiss.
“Judas gets very bad press as the person who handed Jesus over to the religious authorities. Judas is looked upon very negatively,” Atlantic School of Theology professor, Joan Campbell, told CTV.
But scholars are considering the idea that this papyrus manuscript, which was written in ancient Egyptian Coptic script, may clear Judas from his nefarious reputation.
Some religious authorities believe the manuscript was penned around 300 A.D. as a translation from an earlier version written in Greek.
The manuscript has been dubbed the “Gospel of Judas.”
Experts at the National Geographic Society held a news conference Thursday afternoon to announce their findings.
The manuscript, according to Craig Evans with the society, contradicts Judas’ reputation as a traitor, and instead indicates he was only following Christ’s instructions when he betrayed him — an action that led to Christ’s crucifixion.
“The Gospel of Judas has some stunning items in it. For one thing it has Jesus ask Judas to sacrifice the man that clothes me — in other words to bring about Jesus’ death to accomplish his mission and that’s exactly what Judas does and so instead of being villain, instead of being a traitor, Judas becomes a good guy,” Evans told CTV.
The document remained hidden in the Egyptian desert for 1,600 years, until it was discovered in the 1970s.
Some religious experts, like Bart Ehran, believe that this discovery may show that Judas’s treachery is all a misunderstanding.
“This gospel portrays the act as far from nefarious, but as, in fact, the greatest thing that Judas could do for Jesus,” Ehran, a religious scholar at North Carolina Chapel Hill, told CTV.
National Geographic claims the document has been authenticated through radio carbon dating and ink analysis, and has been studied and translated by Biblical scholars.
The society plans to publish the document in the original Coptic, and a number of other translations.
Marvin Meyer, one of the experts on the panel, said the manuscript confirms information found in the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, such as the belief Judas was responsible for the disciples’ money, and was a member of Jesus’ inner circle.
Meyer said it also indicates that early Christianity was practiced in diverse ways, noting the text shows “the good news of Jesus could be understood and embraced in very different ways by early Christians.”
It is not known who wrote the manuscript, though the original Greek text is thought to have been written some time before 180 A.D. by a group of early Gnostic Christians.
When the manuscript was discovered in the 1970s, it was intact, but it deteriorated severely after it was put in a safe-deposit box on Long Island, New York, where it remained for 16 years until it was purchased by antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos.
The dealer bought the manuscript in 2000 and attempted to sell it twice, unsuccessfully. Aware the document was deteriorating quickly, Nussberger-Tchacos transferred it to a Swiss foundation for ancient art, to be restored and translated.
The translation and restoration process was an enormous task due to the advanced state of deterioration, and in 2001 a team led by Coptic scholar Rodolphe Kasser began working to piece together almost 1,000 fragments of papyrus.
The manuscript will eventually be handed over to Egypt for placement in Cairo’s Coptic Museum.
For centuries scholars have been aware of the manuscript’s existence, though its location was unknown until recently. It was referred to in other ancient texts, with the oldest reference dating back to 180 A.D., when it was mentioned by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, in what is modern-day France.
However, some point out that the text in question was written long after Jesus’ time – drawing into question its credibility.
“This looks like the writing of some follower of Jesus who was a dissident, in a way, who thought most of the leaders were on the wrong track. It sounds like a minority report to me,” Princeton religion professor, Elaine Pagels, told CTV.
Another expert on ancient Egyptian texts last month said the timing of the manuscript’s release was aimed at capitalizing on the interest in the movie version of bestselling book The Da Vinci Code, a fictional tale that centres on a conspiracy to cover up a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
The blockbuster movie stars Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen and is scheduled to be released May 19.
The skeptical American expert, James M. Robinson, predicted the text didn’t date back to Judas and wouldn’t reveal anything new about Judas.
Robinson is an emeritus professor at Claremont (California) Graduate University, chief editor of religious documents found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and an international leader among scholars of Coptic manuscripts.
A National Geographic response said “it’s ironic” for Robinson to raise such questions since for years “he tried unsuccessfully to acquire this codex himself, and is publishing his own book in April, despite having no direct access to the materials.”
“The Gospel of Judas,” an ancient Egyptian manuscript vilified by the early church as heresy, was released yesterday by National Geographic as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the past century.
“We are confident this is a piece of genuine, Christian apocryphal literature,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic executive vice president. “This is the most significant discovery in the last 60 years,” comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls, he added.
Purporting to tell the story of one of history’s most vilified men, the gospel is named after Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities for 30 silver coins.
The Judas gospel, in 1,000 fragments before it was recently assembled and translated, includes conversations between Jesus and his disciples about angelic hierarchies, cosmology, the underworld and Creation. Judas is given star billing in this account as Jesus’ chief confidant among the disciples, contrary to the portrayals in the four canonical Gospels.
“Judas is presented as the one to whom everything is told,” said Gregor Wurst, a German scholar who helped translate the document. “Judas was an anti-hero.”
It claims that Jesus and Judas planned Jesus’ Crucifixion so that the death of Christ’s weak, earthly body could release His spirit to enjoy the glories of heaven.
Near the end of the Judas gospel, Jesus tells Judas he will “exceed” the rest of the disciples “for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
This concept comes from gnosticism, a doctrine that believes salvation comes not by Jesus’ death and Resurrection, but through secret knowledge imparted by Him to select individuals.
Gnostic writers produced several gospels named after New Testament figures such as the Apostle Thomas and Mary Magdalene. None have been considered authoritative since the Christian canon was defined in the 4th century.
A lineup of scholars assembled by National Geographic yesterday admitted the book has no proven link to the Judas who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, committed suicide soon after he betrayed Jesus.
“There is no independent historical tradition behind this text,” said the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The writers of the Gospel of Judas, he added, “made its characters to be mouthpieces of their own theology.”
Marvin Meyer, a Bible and Christian studies professor at the Albert Schweitzer Institute at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., called the document a “mystical portrayal” combining Jewish mysticism and Platonism, which sees matter, including the human body, as imperfect, transitory and less than the ideal world of the spirit.
The 26-page codex, or manuscript, had a circuitous route to discovery. Scholars knew of its existence because of its mention in “Against Heresies,” a treatise written in 180 by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon. Irenaeus called the account “a fictitious story.”
The document remained a legend until a copy — in the ancient Coptic language, native to Egypt — was unearthed sometime in the 1970s near El Minya in upper Egypt.
In 1978, it was sold to an antiquities dealer in Cairo, who spent several years trying to sell it, but his asking price was too high for interested scholars. In 1984, the manuscript was stored in a Hicksville, N.Y., bank safe-deposit box where it stayed until 2000, when Zurich antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos purchased it.
She then transferred it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, to be preserved and translated. Samples sent to the University of Arizona’s radiocarbon-dating lab a year ago showed the manuscript’s date as between 220 and 340. It is not known who wrote the document or when the original, probably written in Greek, was composed.
National Geographic has published a book, set up a museum exhibit, put together a TV special to air Sunday and has devoted the May issue of its magazine to the gospel.
As commentators, scholars, and the media build up sensation that the “Gospel of Judas” may force a reexamination of the traditional Gospel understanding of Judas, Jesus, and Christianity, some of the nation’s most respected theologians are stepping in to quell the hype.
Just days before Easter, the English translation of the “Gospel of Judas,” which portrays Judas as a favored disciple who turned Jesus in at his request, was made public Thursday by the National Geographic Society, causing some to question the central events leading to the death of Jesus on the cross.
“According to some commentators, the publication of this new document will force a complete reformulation of Christianity and our understanding of both Judas and Jesus,” stated Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“In reality,” he added, however, “nothing of the sort is in view.”
Mohler is one of a number of respected theologians who have come out to expose that the “Gospel of Judas” shows strong Gnostic characteristics and to confirm the authority of the four canonical Gospels.
In a commentary posted by the president of one of the world’s largest seminaries on Friday, Mohler called the newly translated document “highly interesting” but asserted that the text does not conflict with the four Gospels but only offers a glimpse into the thinking from heretical groups with alternative understandings of Christianity.
Despite claims that the ancient text was written by Judas, Mohler said the document was “certainly” written in the third century after Christ, long after Judas’ death.
Furthermore, the text strongly displays Gnostic characteristics such as in its ideas and word choice.
“The most remarkable feature of this text is its thoroughly Gnostic character,” wrote Mohler, who has been asked to represent the Christian voice on programs including CNN’s “Larry King Live,” NBC’s “Today Show,” and “Dateline NBC” and been quoted by publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. “The substance of this gospel bears virtually no resemblance to orthodox Christianity – a fact which explains why the early church recognized this writing for what it is, and rejected it as neither authoritative nor authentic.”
Examples of Gnostic character in the text were pointed out such as in the text’s conversation between Jesus and Judas where Jesus uses Gnostic categories such as “aeons” and an “eternal realm.” Mohler also highlighted the fact that Judas is also called the “thirteenth spirit” in the “Gospel of Judas” and is selected to free Jesus from his physical body so that he can enter the spiritual world.
A key concept of Gnosticism is its focus of secret and mysterious knowledge and emphasis on the dualism between the material and spiritual worlds.
“In essence, the Gnostics sought to escape the material world and to enter the world of spirit,” explained Mohler.
The Gospel of Judas contains scene where Jesus reveals secrets to Judas that has been kept hidden from the rest of humanity including the defining statement, “but you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
Strong Gnosticism is seen in this statement where Jesus is claimed to reveal the secret knowledge of his fate and requests Judas to help him escape from his physical body and releasing him as spirit.
Moreover, as Mohler noted, the message that Jesus died on the cross in place of humanity and thus redeemed mankind is “completely missing from The Gospel of Judas.”
As a result, the text was rejected by the early church leaders and deemed heretical by Irenaeus, a major early Christian figure, in his writing at about year 180.
Simon Gathercole, a New Testament professor at Aberdeen University, has also voiced that although the text is authentic, it has no significant impact on the Gospel.
“It is certainly an ancient text, but not ancient enough to tell us anything new,” explained Gathercole, according to Mohler. “It contains themes which are alien to the first-century world of Jesus and Judas, but which became popular later.”
“Indeed, those Gnostic ideas did become popular later, and they are becoming increasingly popular now,” concluded Mohler.
“The truth of the Gospel stands, and Christians will retain firm confidence in the authenticity of the New Testament and, in particular, of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” he continued.
“Informed Christians will be watchful and aware when confronting churches or institutions that present spurious writings, rejected as heretical by the early church, on the same plane as the New Testament.”
Headlines around the world are announcing the publication of a “long lost” and “suppressed” ancient document, known as The Gospel of Judas. The National Geographic Society announced the publication at a major media event on Thursday, just in time to boost publicity for its Sunday night special on the National Geographic Channel.
The announcement led to a frenzy of media coverage, ranging from responsible reports to outrageous sensationalism. According to some commentators, the publication of this new document will force a complete reformulation of Christianity and our understanding of both Judas and Jesus. In reality, nothing of the sort is in view. The document is highly interesting, however, offering an ancient and authoritative source into the thinking of heretical groups who offered alternative understandings of Christianity.
The document purports to be written by Judas, even though it certainly was written long after Judas’s death. Nevertheless, the very existence of this document, rooted in the third century after Christ, indicates something of the struggle Christian leaders confronted in defining and defending the authentic Gospel against heretical groups such as the Gnostics.
A quick look at The Gospel of Judas reveals the contrast between this document and the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The English version, edited by Rudolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, presents an accessible and readable version of the portions of the Codex Tchacos now available. The most remarkable feature of this text is its thoroughly Gnostic character. The substance of this gospel bears virtually no resemblance to orthodox Christianity—a fact which explains why the early church recognized this writing for what it is, and rejected it as neither authoritative nor authentic.
In The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, Herbert Krosney explains how the codex was discovered and traces the events that led to its publication in English this week:
“In the mid- to late 1970s, hidden for more than fifteen hundred years, an ancient text emerged from the sands of Egypt. Near the banks of the Nile River, some Egyptian peasants, fellahin, stumbled upon a cavern. In biblical times, such chambers had been used to bury the dead. The peasants entered the cave, seeking ancient gold or jewelry, anything of value that they could sell. Instead, among a pile of human bones, they discovered a crumbling limestone box. Inside it, they came upon an unexpected find—a mysterious leather-bound book, a codex.”
The portion of the text that is now translated is taken from thirteen pages of papyrus, with the text written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egypt. Most scholars agree that The Gospel of Judas was originally written in Greek, and later translated into Coptic. This was the common history of many Gnostic texts, especially those associated with groups common to the area in which the manuscript was found.
The Lost Gospel reads like a suspense thriller at times, tracing the odd and admittedly remarkable story of how the codex was preserved and eventually published. Those familiar with the story of the Dead Sea scrolls and the documents of the Nag Hammadi library will recognize significant parallels in the saga of how the texts and manuscripts were found and eventually made available for scholarly review and publication.
The Gnostic character of the text is immediately evident. In his supposed conversations with Judas, Jesus speaks in Gnostic categories such as “aeons” and an “eternal realm.” Judas is identified as the “thirteenth spirit” who was appointed by God to be the agent of releasing Jesus from the physical body in which He was trapped in the incarnation.
When Judas speaks of a vision and asks for its interpretation, Jesus answers: “Judas, your star has led you astray.” Jesus continues: “No person of mortal birth is worthy to enter the house you have seen, for that place is reserved for the holy. Neither the sun nor the moon will rule there, nor the day, but the holy will abide there always, in the eternal realm with the holy angels. Look, I have explained to you the mysteries of the kingdom and I have taught you about the error of the stars; and . . . sent it . . . on the twelve aeons.”
The concept of secret and mysterious knowledge was central to Gnostic sects. The Gospel of Judas purports to reveal conversations between Jesus and Judas that had been kept secret from the rest of humanity. The Gnostics prized their secret knowledge, and taught a profound dualism between the material and spiritual worlds. They understood the material world, including the entire cosmos, to be a trap for the spiritual world. In essence, the Gnostics sought to escape the material world and to enter the world of spirit.
Accordingly, the most revealing statement in the entire text of The Gospel of Judas records Jesus saying to Judas, “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
In other words, Judas would perform a service to Jesus by betraying Him to those who would then crucify Him, liberating Jesus from the physical body and freeing Him as spirit. As the editors of The Gospel of Judas indicate in a footnote, “The death of Jesus, with the assistance of Judas, is taken to be the liberation of the spiritual person within.”
Needless to say, this is in direct conflict with the Christian gospel and the New Testament. The consistent witness of the New Testament is that Jesus came in order to die for sinners—willingly accepting the cross and dying as the substitutionary sacrifice for sin.
This redemptive action is completely missing from The Gospel of Judas. For that reason, the text was rejected by early Christian leaders. Writing about the year 180, Irenaeus, a major figure among the early church fathers, identified the text now known as The Gospel of Judas as heretical. In his foreword to The Lost Gospel, Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains, “This gospel was about the relationship between Jesus and Judas, and indicated that Judas didn’t actually betray Jesus, but did what Jesus wanted him to do, because Judas was the one who really knew the truth, as Jesus wanted it communicated.”
Ehrman, no friend to orthodox Christianity, has correctly explained the problem. Irenaeus rejected the text precisely because it was in direct conflict with the canonical gospels and with the teaching of the Apostles. Accordingly, it was his responsibility to warn the church about the heretical nature of this document. Still, the very fact that Irenaeus mentions the document with such a specific reference gives considerable credence to the claim that The Gospel of Judas is as old in its origin as its patrons now claim.
We now know a great deal about the Gnostic sects common to the first centuries of Christianity. The particular sect thought to be associated with the origin of The Gospel of Judas was known as the Cainites. The peculiar teachings of this sect included the rehabilitation of many characters presented negatively in the Bible—starting with Cain. In essence, the Cainites attempted to take the negative figures of the Bible and present them in a heroic light. In order to do this, of course, they had to create alternative texts and an alternative rendering of the story of Jesus.
What are Christians to make of all this? The publication of The Gospel of Judas is a matter of genuine interest. After all, it is important for Christians to understand the context of early Christianity—a context in which the church was required to exercise tremendous discernment in confronting heretical teachings and rejecting spurious texts.
The scholarly research behind the publication of The Gospel of Judas appears to be sound and responsible. The codex manuscript was submitted to the most rigorous historical process in terms of dating, chemical composition, and similar questions. In the end, it appears that the document is most likely authentic, in terms of its origin from within a heretical sect in the third century.
Nevertheless, extravagant claims about the theological significance of The Gospel of Judas are unwarranted, ridiculous, and driven by those who themselves call for a reformulation of Christianity.
The resurgence of interest in Gnostic texts such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Judas is driven by an effort, at least on the part of some figures, to argue that early Christianity had no essential theological core. Instead, scholars such as Elaine Pagels of Princeton University want to argue that, “These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse—and fascinating—the early Christian movement really was.” What Pagels and many other figures argue is that early Christianity was a cauldron of competing theologies, and that ideological and political factors explain why an “orthodox” tradition eventually won, suppressing all competing theologies. Accordingly, these same figures argue that today’s Christians should be open to these variant teachings that had long been suppressed and hidden from view.
Metropolitan Bishoy, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, dismissed The Gospel of Judas as “non-Christian babbling resulting from a group of people trying to create a false ‘amalgam’ between the Greek mythology and Far East religions with Christianity . . . They were written by a group of people who were aliens to the main Christian stream of the early Christianity. These texts are neither reliable nor accurate Christian texts, as they are historically and logically alien to the main Christian thinking and philosophy of the early and present Christians.” The Metropolitan is right, but we are better armed to face the heresies of our own day if we face with honesty the heresies of times past.
Simon Gathercole, a New Testament professor at Aberdeen University, defended the text as authentic, but relatively unimportant. “It is certainly an ancient text, but not ancient enough to tell us anything new,” Gathercole explains. “It contains themes which are alien to the first-century world of Jesus and Judas, but which became popular later.”
Indeed, those Gnostic ideas did become popular later, and they are becoming increasingly popular now. The truth of the Gospel stands, and Christians will retain firm confidence in the authenticity of the New Testament and, in particular, of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Nevertheless, old Gnosticisms are continually repackaged and “rediscovered” even as new forms of Gnostic thought emerge in our postmodern culture.
Informed Christians will be watchful and aware when confronting churches or institutions that present spurious writings, rejected as heretical by the early church, on the same plane as the New Testament.
The verdict of Athanasius, one of the greatest leaders of the early church, still stands: “Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these, for concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.’”
THE JULY 30 NEW YORK TIMES gave prominent coverage to a Minnesota mega-church pastor who disavowed the Religious Right (“Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock”). The Rev. Gregory Boyd, ostensibly fed up by the political pressures of the 2004 presidential race, gave a sermon series denouncing the shibboleths of politically conservative religionists. In response, 1,000 of his 5,000 member congregation ended up leaving the church.
Others in the church, the Times reported, were delighted and “liberated” by Boyd’s stance. In May, his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, was released, cataloguing his theology on religion and the state. He wants the church out of politics, to stop its focus on sexual issues, and to abandon any notions of a Christian America, past or present. Boyd may represent a trend among a new generation of evangelical clergy who want to overturn conservative stereotypes about the evangelical subculture.
BOYD IS A PRINCETON and Yale-trained minister who founded Woodland Hills Church in suburban St. Paul in 1992. Formerly a “oneness Pentecostal” who denied the Trinity, Boyd eventually rejected that view in favor of orthodox Trinitarianism. But he embraced another heterodoxy while teaching at Bethel College in St. Paul, where he advocated “open theism,” which denies, or minimizes, God’s foreknowledge of the future. The website of Boyd’s church declares that “we . . . recognize the current disagreement among evangelical Christians about the biblical data regarding the content of the future that God perfectly knows” and describes Woodland Hills Church as not having a “single position” on this issue. An effort by some in Boyd’s Baptist General Conference to oust him from the denomination failed.
Beyond “open theism,” Woodland Hills Church appears to be a conventional evangelical mega-church, whose theology is orthodox, and which disapproves of homosexual practice and abortion. Supposedly after years of pressure to distribute conservative voter guides and endorse anti-gay marriage rallies, Boyd exploded with his 2004 sermon series on “The Cross and the Sword.” He intoned: “When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses.” Boyd accused the evangelical church of exchanging the Gospel for political power and American nationalism.
Although supposedly shunning both political left and right, almost all of Boyd’s fire is aimed at conservatives, mostly fellow evangelicals. “I am sorry to tell you,” he preached in one 2004 sermon, “that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world,” a view that he ascribes to his targets. He chastised the “hypocrisy and pettiness” of evangelicals who dwell on “sexual issues” like homosexuality and abortion. American evangelicalism, he said, “is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.”
Boyd is blunt in his critique of America. “Our country was founded pretty much as most nations were founded—thru barbaric violence,” he recently told a radio interviewer. “It was a conquering kind and 10 to 20 million Native Americans were killed [which was followed by] the enslavement of African Americans.”
But because too many Christians propagate the myth of Christian America, “many now hear the good news of Jesus only as American news, capitalistic news, imperialistic news, exploitive news, antigay news, or Republican news,” he complained. For many, “the American flag has smothered the glory of the cross, and the ugliness of our American version of Caesar has squelched the radiant love of Christ.”
Because Americans have believed that, “God’s will was manifested in the conquest and founding of our country,” they “have assumed our nation’s causes and wars were righteous and just.” Power-hungry Christians are the problem across history. “When Christians get into power it’s destructive to the church,” Boyd has said. Christian rulers have been “barbaric” in practicing “persecution” and “bloodshed.”
While conservative activists and others want “Christians to run the nation,” Boyd warns that Christians should “keep from being polluted.” He asserts: “You can’t have Christ-like laws.” God may use the governments of the world, and Christians may be obedient to them, but the faith has little to nothing to say about politics.
In Myth of a Christian Nation, Boyd quotes from and appears to rely upon the late Mennonite theologian and pacifist John Howard Yoder, who rejected all statecraft as coercive. Yoder, who taught at Notre Dame, portrayed Christ’s submission to crucifixion as a rejection of all violence. Christians, rather than seeking political power, should simply model their sacrificial love through the church. Yoder’s colleague, Stanley Hauerwas, now teaches at Duke Divinity School and, is Yoder’s main apostle (Time magazine declared Hauerwas to be America’s most influential theologian).
Despite their ostensibly rejecting politics, Yoder-Hauerwas fans are typically condemning of America as “empire.” After 9/11, Hauerwas suggested that America got its just desserts, comparing it to Chile’s supposed equivalent of 9/11 on September 11, 1973, when Socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown by the Chilean military.
Boyd makes points not dissimilar to Hauerwas’s. In Myth of a Christian Nation, he says that the “horrendous” abuse by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib led to the Iraqi terrorist beheading of John Berg. “You can begin to understand why, given our passionate convictions and given their passionate convictions, this bloody tit-for-tat game is almost inevitable,” he writes, attributing both passions to “tribal” loyalties.
Will evangelicals hearken to the separatist, neo-Anabaptist mindset that Boyd espouses, as transmitted through Yoder and Hauerwas? It seems unlikely, but Yoder and Hauerwas are popular in many evangelical seminaries. For evangelicals uninspired by the traditional Religious Right, the Yoder-Hauerwas model seems to offer an alternative, without succumbing to theological liberalism. Expect to hear more from such disciples as Rev. Boyd.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Rob Renfroe, a minister at The Woodlands United Methodist Church near Houston, Texas, writes a very interesting article in the current issue of Good News magazine, published by the Good News Movement, a group of evangelical United Methodists. In “An Appeal to Leadership — Listen and Lead,” Renfroe argues that the sexuality issues currently dividing his church point to far deeper differences.
He explains, “we do not believe that homosexuality is the issue that is dividing the church. That would be like saying that the primary issue facing a patient with a staff [sic.] infection is his fever. I wish homosexuality was the issue that divided the church. It would be enough. But it’s not. The divide runs much deeper than our differences regarding sexual practice and it centers on four key issues.”
This is a keen insight. The issues related to sexuality point to more fundamental issues of biblical authority, the nature and character of God, and the meaning of the Gospel. Renfroe helpfully spells out the four key issues as he sees them.
First, “The nature of moral truth. Is moral truth determined by the unchanging character of God? Or is it determined by the ever-changing experiences of human beings?”
This is absolutely essential. If moral truth (as contrasted with our fallible moral judgments) is determined by our own changing experiences, then moral truth really does not exist. It is nothing more than mere social construction. In truth, righteousness is determined by God’s unchanging character — as is sin.
Second, “The authority of the Scriptures. Do the Scriptures speak truth to all peoples in all cultures at all times? Or were they wrong when they were written, culturally determined in their declarations, and hopelessly out of date for persons enlightened by the truth contained in the last sociological surveys?”
Again, absolutely crucial. If the Bible is not a truly transcultural revelation from God, we have no authority for speaking to anyone outside of our own culture. Furthermore, we cannot apply the moral wisdom of an ancient people in an ancient age to our contemporary context. This leaves the church in a disastrous predicament, and silences the Bible.
Third, “The revelatory work of the Holy Spirit. Is the revelatory work always in accordance with the Scriptures? Or can the Spirit amend and even contradict the Scriptures?”
Renfroe’s expansion of this point is crucial to his argument:
Even the most conservative Christians believe that it is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to illumine the Scriptures, reveal more of its meaning, and show us how to apply the eternal Word of God to the issues of our contemporary time and culture. But liberals, at least the more radical ones, go much further than that. They believe that the living Christ not only offers new insights into the Scriptures, but that he also corrects, amends, and even contradicts it. As one retired elder in our annual conference said to me, “The church created the Scriptures so we can recreate them.”
We now see some, even some claiming to be evangelicals, who claim that the Holy Spirit has led them to believe and to act in direct opposition to the Bible. This is an insult to the Bible and to the Holy Spirit. The assumption of individual autonomy, wedded to a radical concept of the Holy Spirit as a spiritual revolutionary, leads some to attempt to remake Christianity in their own image — and then to claim that the Holy Spirit led them there.
Fourth, “The uniqueness of Christ. Do we confess him as the only-begotten Son of God, the unique Savior of the word, and the supreme Lord of the universe? Or can he be particularized to our experiences, relativized for a Western culture, and trivialized into just one of many ways to God?”
As Archbishop Peter Jensen claims, if we will not defend the plain teachings of the Bible on sexuality, we will not defend the Bible’s clear witness to the uniqueness of Christ. Rob Renfroe makes essentially the same point here. If the Bible’s teachings on sexuality are culturally relative, then so is its message about salvation — and its witness to Christ. At this point, we then have no authority for knowing who Jesus Christ really is or why the question really matters.
Clarifying the issues is a first step toward answering the crucial questions. Rob Renfroe has done a commendable job of clarifying the issues that face not only his denomination, but all Christians today. All four of these points come down to biblical authority. There is just no way around it.
It’s almost nearly impossible to define “emerging church,” says one Christian author. And if there ever is a time when “emerging church” makes it to Webster’s Dictionary, the movement would probably fail at that moment.
Ever since its debut onto the Christian scene in the 21st century, the emerging church movement has been a puzzle for people to firmly categorize.
But in one aspect, that may be the whole point of the emerging movement – to not be institutionalized.
“The typical mindset is to try to very rigidly define something,” says Jim Palmer, author of Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God , “and then it’s not long before it’s institutionalized into its own hardened rule of practice or something of that nature.”
Nevertheless, the movement may be a “generational thing,” Palmer says. Emerging Christians largely come from younger generations. They are a people who are looking for a spirituality that has “some depth and width to it” and that is not confined within a lot of the typical or traditional forms of doing church, he notes.
The emerging church provides that. The movement came during a cultural shift called post modernity, Palmer explains, and a part of that shift is a general skepticism about traditional religion and organized church. Amid the skepticism, the emerging church gives believers “permission” to step outside the boundaries of tradition for more creative expressions of worship.
“I think the danger’s always focusing on the form or style of worship when really, it’s a spiritual hunger that wants to press beyond a shallow and narrow faith to something that’s deeply relevant to their day-to-day lives,” Palmer explains.
The emerging church, however, does not necessarily mean creating something “new,” he notes. Rather, the movement is recovering some of the original aspects of authentic Christianity and looking for ways to live them out in the times of today.
Palmer just came out of a conference at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., where Dr. Robert Schuller launched a three-day forum with one of the broadest group of thinkers speaking on the forward movement of Christianity. Speakers ranged from Pentecostals to Calvinists as well as emerging church thinkers and scientists.
More than a preacher’s conference, it was a “conversation,” as Palmer describes it, which also characterizes the emerging church movement.
“They (emerging church leaders) really want to open a conversation and connect with people who are different and learn,” Palmer says. “Honestly, I think it may be one of the great contributions that the emerging church serves.”
Conversations will continue and it is unlikely the emerging movement will disappear anytime soon, according to Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Ill., in Christianity Today magazine.
And emerging Christians are not looking for a hard and fast definition to categorize them into a certain sect of Christianity any time soon.
“In the end,” Palmer says, “one of the characteristics among emerging folks is the refusal to be defined.”
Three generations of prominent church leader Robert H. Schuller kicked off a new conference Monday, looking at the future of faith.
The Faith Forward conference at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and at satellite sites across the country is particularly focused on the challenges meeting the Christian faith and bridging the younger generation to the older.
“One of the attempts of Faith Forward is to build bridges between three very different kinds of Christian traditions,” Robert V. “Bobby” Schuller, told the Orange County Register.
“There has been a misnomer that the younger generation is looking for what is hip and trendy and all of this stuff when it comes to spirituality.”
The cohort of young adults today have grown up on cell phones, the internet and in a materialistic world where their top goals are fame and fortune, a recent Pew survey found. And more youth ministers are trying to draw more teens to the church with a message wrapped in pop culture.
Schuller says young people are looking for something “beyond the show.” Vintage is the newest trend.
“They are looking for a deep and real intimate relationship and what I found is that people desire something more vintage, not something in style. Vintage is something that is older but really valuable.”
In fact, they’re looking for something that is even older than the older generation, Schuller says, such as going to old cathedrals for lay worshipping.
Amid the search for something vintage, there is also a wide gap between the younger and older generations. Youth leader Chris Folmsbee had noted a widening “chasm” between youth ministers who want to do ministry in a new way and older leader who want to stick to traditional ways in his new book A New Kind of Youth Ministry.
“There is a lot of butting heads about which one is right, especially in O.C. (Orange County), where there is a greater emphasis on youth,” Schuller says. “A lot of older generations have been offended. The younger generation feels bound by older generations. We try to resolve in all of this and create a forum in which three generations can have a meaningful experience.”
The Faith Forward conference comes after 35 years of institute for successful leadership with the older Schuller ended in 2005. Demand for the leadership event soon led Schuller to create the “Robert Harold Schuller Forum for Possibility Thinking Leadership.” This is the first ever forum under the new title.
This year’s speakers include three generations of the Schullers, songwriter Tommy Walker, Pastor Brian Houston, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, Pastor Chris Seay and Dr. Todd Hunter among others. Faith Forward continues through Wednesday.
By Jason Lee Steorts
What’s a religion good for, anyway?
That is the question retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong never gets around to asking, let alone answering, in his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. His title suggests an answer, and he has tried to lob his book like a hand grenade into the institutions of Christendom. The idea is to explode two millennia of traditional belief on which these institutions rest, thereby making room for a new Christianity based on a conception of Jesus that is palatable to “a twenty-first century person.” What actually crawls out of the rubble is a Jesus for John Shelby Spong.
This Jesus would be unrecognizable to most Christians. The largest section of the book is an attack on “the supernatural forms of yesterday’s Christianity.” Spong executes this attack by means of a lengthy textual criticism of the Gospels, sprinkled with occasional undeveloped thoughts on the incompatibility of traditional belief with a modern worldview. (“The ability of anyone to walk on water exists in our world not in reality, but only in very bad golf jokes.”) Along the way, he jettisons the following claims, among others: that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’s birth; that Jesus performed miracles; that Jesus atoned for the sins of mankind; that Jesus was resurrected; and that the resurrected Jesus ascended to Heaven.
Spong’s analysis is interesting as far as it goes, though his tendency to dismiss all disagreement as “hysterical” — his adjective of choice for traditional believers — is unbecoming, morally and intellectually. I offer here no evaluation of his textual criticism, as literary sleuthing is rarely dispositive. Instead, let’s assume for the sake of argument that his thesis is correct: Jesus performed no miracles, wrought no atonement, and rose from no tomb. When one is left with such a Christ, what does it mean to say — as Spong says of himself — that one is “a believing Christian”? What does one believe in? How could one persuade anyone else to share this belief?
Spong’s attraction to Jesus seems to be rooted largely in the ethics Jesus taught and lived. Jesus was nice to Samaritans. Jesus didn’t shun lepers. Jesus protected adulteresses from the stoning mobs. All to the good, as hysterical Christians would agree.
Disagreement is likely to begin where Spong’s Jesus starts preaching the Gospel according to Howard Dean. For instance, this Jesus would support the ordination of homosexual bishops and oppose the “authoritarian” institutions of the Christian churches. Why? Because “moral judgment is not life-giving; love that transcends the boundaries of judgment, as Jesus’ love did, is.” One can charitably assume that, had Spong written more carefully, he would not have implied that all moral judgments are to be forsworn. (His admonition not to judge rests on a judgment against those who are judgmental in ways he disapproves of.) But the principal message of Spong’s Jesus is clear enough: We must set aside unacceptably exclusionary traditions and moralities.
Whether this appeals to you as an ethics will depend on whether you share Spong’s opinions about which exclusions are unacceptable. But even if you do, Spong does not want you to think of Jesus as a moral exemplar merely. Probably he wishes to preserve some necessary connection between Christ and Christianity, and recognizes that the soundness of an ethical system does not depend on who taught it, or whether anyone taught it at all. (We could pattern a very fine Christian ethics on the “life” of Alyosha Karamazov.) How, then, does Jesus transcend the ethical? “As a Christian,” Spong explains, “I live inside a faith system which, at its core, asserts that in the life of this Jesus, that which we call God has been met, encountered and engaged.”
A FAREWELL TO THEISM
“That which we call God,” eh? And what might that be? Spong starts by telling us what it isn’t. The “theistic definition of God” is dead, he says. What he means is that he does not believe — and does not think anyone else should believe — in “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and able to invade the world in miraculous ways to bless, to punish, to accomplish the divine will, to answer prayers and to come to the aid of frail, powerless human beings.” Our goal should be to “separate God understood theistically from the experience of God that we claim for Jesus.”
Unfortunately, Spong never explains what his nontheistic God is. His book abounds in passages such as this: “There is something about this Jesus that erases tribal boundaries, that calls people to step beyond security systems and that flows into a new humanity unbounded by the walls of protectionism. That is one huge dimension of what it means to say that God was experienced as present in this man Jesus.” One reads on in the hope that Spong will come around to the other dimension — to whatever it is about God that cannot be reduced to ethics. (For if the word “God” denotes nothing but the totality of sound ethical propositions, it is simply a metaphor for what could be discussed more clearly without it.) One’s hope is finally disappointed in the last chapter, when Spong admits to having no idea what God is: “I cannot tell anyone who or what God is. . . . The reality of God can never be defined. It can only be experienced, and we need always to recognize that even that experience may be nothing more than an illusion.”
Spong’s position, then, is this: There is a higher reality, and we have named it “God.” Somehow we encounter this higher reality in the life of Jesus. But we have no idea what the higher reality is, and can say nothing intelligible about it.
This view has one troublesome little catch: It destroys the possibility of justifying the claim that the higher reality exists. It would be one thing if we had a way of cognizing some aspect of the higher reality, an ability to articulate propositions about it and adduce reasons for thinking these propositions true. It is quite another to posit the higher reality’s existence simply because you feel you have “encountered” it. If you can say nothing about what you have encountered — and if the supposed encounter might in fact be “an illusion” — how can you know that you have encountered anything at all?
The blindness of this epistemological alley is all too apparent when Spong uses “the language of human analogy” to describe his experience of God. What he actually describes is his feelings. “I experience life to be more than I can embrace.” “I experience love as something beyond me.” “I experience being as something in which I participate, but my being does not come close to exhausting the content of Being itself.” This is all fascinating as one man’s account of his personal psychology. But there is no reason to suppose that what John Shelby Spong feels tells us anything other than what it feels like to be John Shelby Spong.
Even if we could somehow know that the nontheistic God existed, its obscurity would vitiate Spong’s conception of Christian ethics. Consider again my original question: What is a religion good for? One answer is that it goes on where Spong stops. It offers an account of the higher reality. It is not just an aggregation of imperatives, but a group of answers to such questions as: Why does something exist instead of nothing? Is there a supreme being? If so, what is his nature, and what does he expect of me? Will I survive my death? What must I do to ensure that my life after death is agreeable?
A religion’s answers to these questions are perfectly intelligible, even if its success in justifying them is open to debate. This intelligibility in turn provides a secure foundation for the religion’s ethics. If you believe (1) that you owe obedience to God and (2) that God has commanded you not to murder, it is a simple deductive step to the conclusion (3) that you ought not murder. I am not saying that an ethics must make reference to claims about God. But Spong thinks Jesus’s ethics is grounded in the divinity that was present in Jesus. By insisting that this divinity is unknown and unknowable, he destroys the possibility of such grounding.
SOMETHING ERE THE END . . .
So the nontheistic God is mute. It can say nothing about how we should live. Worse, it can say nothing about how we should die. That too is something a religion — or a theistic one, at least — is good for. Spong seems to recognize this. Theism arose, he says, as an adaptive response to the irreducible anxiety of self-consciousness, and in particular the fear of death. Whether or not he has his evolutionary biology right, it is surely true that theism, coupled with a belief in personal immortality, helps ease the way into that good night.
John Shelby Spong is an old man. In a passage both moving and sincere, he writes of his own approaching end and his hope to write another book:
I have one further literary task that I hope to complete in my already more than ‘three score and ten years.’ . . . I want to take the idea of a nontheistic but eminently real God met in the human Jesus and from that vantage point address the subject of death and dying, as well as what the church has tried to say throughout the ages on the subject of eternal life. . . . If my idea of God and my vision of a redefined Jesus cannot speak to the human anxiety of death, then I do not believe that I have found either the new beginning for the Jesus story that I seek or one that will survive.
It is hard to see how the new story can survive when the God at its center is nothing but an overwrought sentimentality plummeting down an abyss. If that is all we have left, Spong can keep his Christianity. There would be more dignity and courage — to say nothing of honesty — in facing life’s terrible question marks with a mind that does not flinch.
[KH: what about their polytheism?]
DALLAS, Texas – Is it possible to be a Hindu and a follower of Jesus Christ?
Some of the world’s top missiologists are not only nodding their heads, but even advocating the practice.
Contrary to what most Christians might think, it is possible to be a fully devoted follower of Christ who remains truly and fully a Hindu – a Krista Bhakta, as they like to be called.
“You can’t say a Hindu is a person that believes in A, B and C,” said Raghav Krishna, a Brahmin Hindu Krista Bhakta whose real name is withheld for security reasons.
“Probably the best way to say it is someone that is born to Hindu parents is a Hindu and you can have any beliefs you want.”
At this year’s annual gathering of the International Society for Frontier Missiology, Krishna emphasized that there is no consensus over the definition of a Hindu. It’s notable that India has over 4,500 different communities so what are considered Hindu forms change depending on the individual’s community.
Keeping the Hindu forms can mean attending a house gathering for Sunday service instead of a church building, singing bhajans (Indian style devotional music) instead of English hymns, continuing the Hindu dietary restriction, and having a water ceremony instead of a baptism in a Christian church.
Throughout the conference, speakers addressed the common misconception that Hinduism is a uniform religion when in fact it is more of an umbrella identity for vastly diverse cultural and religious communities. Most Christians, however, tend to perceive the word Hindu to mean a singular, homogenous religion – an understanding that is both erroneous and misleading.
“Historically, quite a number of people – including William Carey – referred to the term Hindu Christian to mean Hindu in a civilizational sense and Christian in a religious sense,” pointed out H.L. Richard, who spent over 20 years working and studying Hinduism and Christian ministry among Hindus.
“Today, most consider this terminology too confusing and wonder why a follower of Christ needs to abandon a Hindu identity and adopt all the baggage that is included with the ‘Christian’ label,” he added.
Richard said the term Christian should also not be confined as only a religious reference. He pointed to Europe where the word Christian is primarily used in a historical and civilizational manner more so than a person’s way of life and religious beliefs. The scholar noted that Hindus understand the word Christian as a geo-political and civilizational description, rather than as a spiritual or religious one.
Why the Hindu Forms are Needed
Proponents of the Hindu Krista Bhakta movement argue that Hindus who turn to Christ should not be forced to abandon their culture and identity, but rather be followers of Jesus Christ while rejoicing that God made them Hindus and desire to serve Him as Hindus.
“In Islam and Hinduism, we’ve insist that people come out of their culture and that is not biblical,” said Dr. Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission and one of the founders for ISFM, to The Christian Post in September. “It is a misunderstanding of the Bible and it is not successful and never will be. It shouldn’t be.
“God doesn’t want to destroy their (Indians’) language or culture, He wants to refine them.”
Krishna, for example, said that the western form of church is “foreign” to a Hindu person. He acknowledges that many Hindus who are in Christ can eventually adjust to Western worship forms, but said this comes at the cost of alienation from family and friends and a possibly closer relationship with God.
“The importance of social forms for me – because I was born in a Hindu family and I’m used to these forms – is they enable me to experience Christ in a much deeper way,” said Krishna.
Furthermore, supporters of the movement argue that followers of Jesus who remain Hindu and express their faith using Hindu forms are in a better position to witness in their community and avoid creating unnecessary tension within their families.
“The stumbling block in India has nothing to do with theology,” said Richard. “A triune God is absolutely non-problematic to Hindus. It is a problem for American rationalists and to Muslims, but no Hindu has a problem with the Trinity.
“The offense of Christianity is change of community,” added Richard, who is a strong proponent of new believers maintaining with integrity their Hindu culture.
“Why are you leaving us and going to them? How are they better than us? Isn’t there as much corruption in ‘Christianity’ as there is in ‘Hinduism’? Why are you shaming our people?” he listed as possible questions from the communities.
“So this community issue is absolutely basic and fundamental,” declared Richard.
Some of the younger attendees who were not familiar with the concept expressed skepticism at first when they heard that a person could follow Jesus as a Hindu, but later said they support the practice after understanding that Hinduism is not a religion, but a complex civilization that accepts multiple religious expressions within its various cultural forms.
“I still walk in Hindu traditions as long as they don’t contradict my faith in Christ,” explained J.V., a Brahmin follower of Christ who oversees a campus ministry catering to Hindu students in the United States.
The International Society of Frontier Missiology held its 2007 meeting Sept. 15-17 in Dallas, Texas, and convened missiologists, missionaries, and those working in the mission fields. The annual conferences focus on frontier mission – an area of missiology that concentrates on reaching the people with the least access to the gospel. The theme this year was India: Debating Global Missiological Flashpoints.
What the Bible says about Jesus vs. what Mormonism says about Jesus:
• He is the virgin-born Son of God, conceived by the Holy Ghost (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:34-35).
• Jesus “was born in the same personal, real and literal sense that any mortal son is born to a mortal father” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 547, 742).
• “When the Virgin Mary conceived the child Jesus, the Father had begotten Him in His own likeness. He was not begotten by the Holy Ghost. And who is the Father? He is the first of the human family (Adam)” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. I, p. 50).
• Christ had a “unique status in the flesh as the offspring of a mortal mother and of an immortal or resurrected and glorified Father (Adam)” (James Talmage, Articles of Faith, p. 473).
• Satan is a created - and fallen - angel (Isaiah 14:12).
• “Lucifer - this spirit-brother of Jesus desperately tried to become the Savior of mankind” (Milton R. Hunter of the First Council of Seventy, The Gospel Through the Ages, p. 15).
• Jesus did not marry.
• “Jesus was the bridegroom at the marriage of Cana - We say it was Jesus Christ who was married, to be brought into relation whereby he could see his seed” (Orson Hyde, apostle, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, p. 82).
• Jesus is the foundation of the true church (Matthew 16:18; Acts 4:11-12; Colossians 1:18).
• Joseph Smith: “I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him, but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet” (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 408-9).
• Jesus is the judge of all (John 5:22).
• “No man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith … Every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, Junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 7, p. 289).
• Jesus is the one who resurrects all (John 5:28-29).
• Joseph Smith will receive the keys of the resurrection. “If we ask who will stand at the head of the resurrection in this last dispensation, the answer is - Joseph Smith, Junior, the Prophet of God. He is the man who will be resurrected and receive the keys of the resurrection, and he will seal this authority upon others, and they will hunt up their friends and resurrect them” (Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 116).
• Jesus is the eternal Son of God, the Creator, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and Holy Spirit (John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 1:1-13).
• A “council of the Gods” created the world. “In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it … In all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 308, 474).
What the Bible says about the Holy Spirit vs. what Mormonism says about the Holy Spirit:
• The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the triune Godhead (Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19-20).
• Joseph Smith taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit “constitute three distinct personages and three Gods” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 370).
• The Holy Spirit is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son (Acts 5:1-11).
• The Father has a body of flesh and bones. So does the Son. But the Holy Ghost is “a personage of spirit” (Doctrines and Covenants 130:22).
• The Holy Spirit and the Holy Ghost are two Biblical names for the same person.
• “The Holy Ghost … is a personage distinct from the Holy Spirit. As a personage, the Holy Ghost cannot any more than the Father and the Son be everywhere present in person” (John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, p. 76).
• The Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost is God (Acts 5:3-4).
• “The Holy Ghost is yet a spiritual body and waiting to take to himself a body as the Saviour did or as the gods before them took bodies” (Joseph Smith, April 6, 1843; see Discourses on the Holy Ghost compiled by N.B. Lundwall, p. 73).
What the Bible says about the Gospel of Jesus Christ vs. what Mormonism says about the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
• Christ’s death at Calvary paid our sin debt and purchased our salvation so that everlasting life is received by grace through faith in the Person and work of Jesus (John 3:16, 5:24; Romans 4:4-5; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
• Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection made it possible for mankind to be resurrected, but “men will be punished for their own sins” (Article of Faith #2 by Joseph Smith). Through the atonement of Christ “all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (Article of Faith #3 by Joseph Smith).
• “There is no salvation outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 670).
• “Baptism … is for the remission of sins … (and) is the gate to the celestial kingdom of heaven” (Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 70).
• There is “no salvation without accepting Joseph Smith … No man can eject that testimony without accepting most dreadful consequences, for he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 1, p. 188).
• The Bible teaches that at death, man’s eternal destiny is fixed in one of two places: heaven or hell (Luke 16:19-31).
• Virtually all men are saved in “General Salvation … meaning resurrection” (Contributions of Joseph Smith by Stephen L. Richards, p. 5).
• Then, based on works, all men will spend eternity in one of three levels of heaven - telestial, terrestrial or celestial. A few “sons of perdition” will not be saved/resurrected.
• All men are sinners by nature and by volition (Romans 3:23, 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22).
• There is no such thing as original sin. All men are gods in embryo. “God and man are of the same race, differing only in their degrees of advancement” (Apostle John Widtsoe, Rational Theology, p. 61).The Bible
Rob Phillips is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.