Or, being interpreted, “How do you know what Jesus would do?” Soon after I thought of this title (which turns out to be unoriginal anyway), following up a train of thought in recent posts on Bible interpretation (and Bible rejection), our Pastor providentially introduced his sermon with the original phrase, “What would Jesus do?”. It was in the context of thinking about Creation care (a series based on material from A Rocha, whose founder Pete Harris did some blogs on The Hump a couple of years ago).
The pastor’s point was that we’ll look in vain for direct teaching on whether Jesus would have used an electric car, public transport or private jet, because “What Jesus would do” in those days was to walk, for sure. So it’s necessary to enquire into the Bible’s teaching on creation overall and do serious thinking in order to make our own lifestyle decisions.
Behind his use of the phrase, though, was an assumption which, until just now, I would have shared: that a slogan which arose amongst American Evangelicals is to be understood as shorthand for “What is Jesus’s relevant teaching on this issue?” But thinking about the character of American (and even some British) Evangelicalism now, that assumption cannot be made, at least universally.
Before I retired, I was for a number of years on the editorial board of a magazine dealing in contemporary prophecy, though paradoxically it held itself somewhat aloof from the Charismatic Movement. I should also add that my role, too, was paradoxical, as I was recruited after I wrote to the editor with major criticisms of its editorial policy, criticisms that I continued to make unhindered! Be that as it may, it meant that I was more concerned then than I would be now about the welter of “prophetic” movements and waves of “revival” arising (as did “WWJD”) mainly in North America.
There was an unhealthy aroma of the manipulation of money and power in most of these, as well as an intriguing paper-trail of individual heterodoxy linking them: the same names of individual influences kept cropping up (as is, interestingly, also the case with non-Christian trends, with individuals like Aleister Crowley turning up in the background of everything from the origins of Scientology to the songs of David Bowie). The common thread of both the “revivals” themselves and the continued support for their leaders who fell repeatedy into major sin was the stress placed on personal relationship with Jesus. This, when backed with apparent success in signs and wonders or sheer numbers involved, trumped biblical doctrine, established tradition and even common sense. Even Phil Collins (not influenced by Aleister Crowley as far as I know) was unable to raise many Christians’ concern about this unhappy phenomenon:
Since the Charismatic renewal began, the danger of pinning everything on “the prompting of the Spirit” has been known within the movement, but all too often fudged. For example, although false prophecy was rife in many churches (and probably still is), the disciplining of false prophets was not, each failed prediction simply being allowed to drain into a deepening cess-pit of them. Such was the belief in the Holy Spirit’s democratic dealings that the gift of prophecy continued be thought available to all willing to pronounce “Thus says the Lord”, even those who regularly got it wrong.
Such things are not new to the Church, of course. In the third century Montanism centred on prophets whose words were not always fulfilled and who, at least in some cases, prioritised their doctrinal revelations over Scripture. They nevertheless won over even so great an apologist as Tertullian, and are regarded by many Charismatics as their own forerunners in restoring primitive Christianity.
At the Reformation, Luther had to deal with similar individuals in Wittenberg. His opinion was that the “Zwickau prophets” had “swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all.” They in turn, of course, regarded the magisterial Reformers as quenching the Spirit – but that did not by any means correspond with any unity of belief or practice amongst themselves, or in common with the Montanists, or even in common with todays “Joel’s Army” and “Latter Rain” proponents. Rather, their conclusions on “What Jesus would do” bore a striking resemblance to what one would expect people of their own time and social setting to do.
The relevance of this to today’s “WWJD” is that a number of analysts have commented on the shift in meaning of the world “Evangelical” from having, until recently, the primary sense of being dependent on the Reformation principle of an infallible and sufficient Bible, “Sola Scriptura“, to being understood now as primarily signifying personal encounter with Christ.
In the past the two belonged together: the English Puritans, for example, were deeply committed to “experimental” (ie experiential) religion, but to them the Holy Spirit mediated such experience through his living presence in, and his interpretation of, the written word of God. One can see this presumption in, for example, John Owen’s magisterial 1674 work on the Holy Spirit. Owen’s authorial motivation meets surprisingly modern concerns:
In Owen’s day, as in ours, there existed a special need to expound, accurately and biblically, the ministry of the Spirit. Indeed, part of the value of his work for us today lies in the way he had to fight on two fronts:
(i) He faced an unbiblical rationalism, which gave little or no place to the Spirit. It was nurtured on the illusion of man’s autonomy, and blindly suggested that natural Christianity was an adequate substitute for supernatural grace.
(ii) He also faced an unbiblical Spirit-ism, which stressed the immediacy of the Spirit’s work and of individual divine revelation. It down-played the significance of the Scriptures, exalting the so-called ‘Christ within’ above the Christ of Scripture, and the ‘inner light’ above the light of the Word. Owen recognised that this displacement of Scripture would eventually lead to its abandonment: ‘He that would utterly separate the Spirit from the word had as good burn his Bible’.
So for the Puritans, as for most Evangelicals up until recently, “What would Jesus do?” is indeed shorthand for “What did Jesus teach? I must get my Bible out and see”. Now, it appears, with so many Evangelicals rejecting the infallibility of Scripture, it may instead mean “What does Jesus feel? I’d better see how his Spirit makes me feel.”
However, it should be remembered that it also was the elevation of religious experience over authority or reason that marked the liberal theology of Schleiermacher and Ritschl in the nineteenth century, so Evangelicals are rather late to the party, those liberals having left it by becoming extinct as a movement.
In the essay I have recently linked from a couple of posts, Gerald McDermott has pointed out how the Charismatic movement brought Charismatics and Pentecostals to the heart of Evangelical leadership, as opposed to what he charmingly describes as 1970s Evangelicalism’s “contempt for the charismatic movement because of what seemed to be its loosey-goosey attitudes toward doctrine and serious thinking.”
It is hard to be sure how much the Charismatic emphasis on direct experience of Jesus bears on how serious Evangelical theology is now done, but what is clear is that such experience seems to have become the major criterion for the rejection of historic doctrines, including the dilution of the authority of Scripture. In my last post I suggested that the abandonment of biblical infallibility leaves no clear way of sorting the wheat from the alleged chaff in the Bible: “any objective criteria for separating gold from lode are lacking.”
Strictly speaking, though, that is not entirely true. For if Jesus, in his teaching on earth, and the Bible authors even more, fell into error, then to make any claims about Christian truth, including the fallibility of Scripture, one must believe that the risen Jesus, now glorified above human error, has at least influenced, if not formed, ones own conclusions. And there seems to be an assumption that, since the same Jesus is experienced by all believers, the true ones (at least) will tend to feel the same way about things.
One sees this in many a controversial scholar’s description of their own abandonment of traditional doctrine. “Honesty to oneself” would not, presumably, be an adequate reason if one believed that one was simultaneously being disloyal to the teaching of Christ. Ergo, one’s honesty to oneself must also be seen as honest to God (in John A T Robinson’s phrase, though he espoused an entirely different theology culminating in Don Cupitt’s appraisal of God as a human invention – did I ever tell you Don Cupitt poured me a glass of sherry once?). And since that honesty to God always seems to be reciprocated by a divine feeling of affirmation (together with a hint that those not embracing change are “kicking against the pricks”), it does seem that direct experience of the divine must be the criterion for both the principles of their theological speculation, and the particular things in Scripture they still see as being from God, as opposed to the errors of the human authors.
In the UK, the Baptist Minister Steve Chalke had a similarly controversial personal epiphany leading to his rejection of the doctrine of penal substitution a few years ago, and his public call for everybody else to abandon it too. (I met him way back when he was a student leading a mission in my church, and he generated some local controversy even then by insisting on giving graphic details of crucifixion in his Sunday sermon, leading to weak souls fainting or rushing out!). Since then though, he too has come out against biblical inerrancy on matters of doctrine and morality as well as of fact, and last year he announced that he was now in favour of same sex marriage. What I find interesting is that he has explained that he now reads Scripture through “the Jesus lens”, that is in the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. As Andrew Wilson puts it:
Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text – say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger – figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus.
But of course, if we don’t find that real Jesus in Scripture (and if we did, there’d be no need to declare it fallible), we must find him within ourself, and apply that authority to filter out the dross in Scripture (not a lens, but a “Jesus tea-strainer“, in Wilson’s words). “What would Jesus do?” is still the question asked, and quite possibly the wrist-band worn, but in the end the answer turns out to be no different from “What would I do?” That, at least, appears to be the case whenever what Jesus would do sits all-too-comfortably with what the current society’s opinion-formers would do.
Why did Jesus only begin to tell Christians he approved of same-sex marriage after secular liberals got it put into law, against the protests of almost all the churches? At the time, he had, apparently, only told the Quakers and the Unitarians, representing under 21,000 members in the UK. The latter group do not even believe that Christ is the revelation of God, and the founder of the former, George Fox, was led by his own Inner Light to condemn sodomy along with other forms of sexual immorality.
Why is Christ only now (after 2,000 years) revealing to American Evangelicals who become Open Theists that God is not the Sovereign Judge (as Jesus taught) but the lover who would let all his desires fall to the ground rather than impinge on human free will? I don’t suppose it would have anything to do with the academic popularity of the Postmodern dictum that all power is oppression, would it? In some forms of Open Theism I guess that would actually be quite plausible, for they maintain that God himself learns by his experiences, so he might well have gratefully conceded the wisdom of the left-wing anti-authoritarianism he first learned from the Beat Generation, and their secular liberal successors, after World War II.
In the end, of course it is true to say that all belief and practice is filtered through our own experience, just we can learn nothing of the world except through our own senses. Nobody can do our believing for us. As I mentioned in a recent comment, my own trust in the divine authority of Scripture came through a direct spiritual experience, unsought. Naturally that means I don’t believe those who say that the Spirit makes them reject the truth of the Bible, any more than I believe those who insist that God told them to kill abortionists or homosexuals. Both cannot be true – though I’m hardly likely to let your experience trump mine simply on your say-so. But it would be futile simply to pit my experience against others’, any more than it was fruitful, the week after I first had the experience, to tell the guy who told me he had “met God” on an LSD trip that he hadn’t. But I know he hadn’t, even so.
That very subjectivity shows that spiritual experience alone is a very poor guide to the mind of Christ, as well as being the subject of cautionary injunctions throughout the history of Evangelicalism.
So, HDYKWJWD? PATWJT, of course (“Pay attention to what Jesus taught”). Or as Paul advised an early Evangelical leader:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
But hey, Paul’s the dude who thought sin came into the world through Adam rather than by evolution, and who thought homosexual acts are sinful … he really should have listened more to the risen Christ within rather than imaginary voices on the Damascus road telling him to turn the Gentiles from darkness to light.