Last week I announced a new series entitled “The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity,” based off a list offered by Richard Rohr. This list embodies the type of theological liberalism that was battled by Machen in the early 20th century and still abides today.
So, let’s jump right into the first commandment: “Jesus is a model for living more than an object of worship.”
In many ways, this is a fitting first commandment for progressive Christianity. When given the choice between worshiping Jesus (which requires that he is divine) and merely looking at Jesus as a good moral guide, liberals have always favored the latter.
Of course, one might object that this statement isn’t really rejecting the divinity of Jesus because of the phrase “more than.” Thus, it could be argued, liberals are quite happy to worship Jesus as divine, but just put the priority on his moral example.
But, I think that would be a naive way to take the text. While such a reading is possible, the entire history of liberal Christianity is against it. The first thing to be jettisoned by liberals is always the divinity of Jesus–and therefore the worship of him. Moreover, if Jesus really is our divine Lord, how could worshiping him be secondary? Why would Jesus as example be more important than Jesus as object of worship?
It seems, therefore, we ought not to read too much into the “more than” phrase. It is likely just a way to tone down and soften the implications of this first commandment.
What, then, do we make of Jesus as simply a moral example? Several problems arise here:
1. Jesus claimed to be more than a moral example
We can begin by acknowledging that Jesus was, of course, a moral example for his followers. Indeed, he often called his followers to do what he has done (e.g., John 13:15).
But, is Jesus merely a moral example? Or, to put it differently, do the Gospels present Jesus as just a wise sage; a Ghandi-like figure dropping helpful tips for practical living?
An honest reading of the Gospels shows the answer to this is a resounding no. Indeed, throughout these texts, Jesus is presented as more than a good teacher, but as the divine Lord of heaven and earth. Aside from the obvious Johannine passages that show this (e..g, John 1:1; 1:18; 8:58; 10:30), scholars have argued that Jesus’s divinity is also evident in the Synoptic Gospels.
As just one example, Michael Bird’s recent book, Jesus the Eternal Son, has argued that even Mark–often thought to be the Gospel which presents the most “human” Jesus–offers a decidedly high Christology. Jesus is the “Lord,” Yahweh visiting his people, the one who forgives sins, the ruler of the wind and the waves, and the judge of all the universe.
This reality led C.S. Lewis to offer his well-known quote on Jesus as just a good moral teacher:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”
2. Jesus’ followers worshiped him as Lord
While the first commandment of progressive Christianity seems quite hesitant about worshiping Jesus, that is not how the earliest Christians felt. Indeed, because Jesus was viewed as their Lord (prior point), they unreservedly devoted themselves to worshiping him.
And here’s the kicker: the earliest Christians did this while also being fully committed to monotheism. Even as Jews, they worshiped Jesus precisely because they believed he was the one true God of Israel.
And, we should also note that Jesus never rejected this worship. Nor did he seem sheepish, uncomfortable, or hesitant about it. He welcomed it without reservation.
A few examples of worship to Jesus:
- Matt 2:11: Magi worship Jesus
- Matt 14:33: Disciples worship Jesus on the boat
- Matt 28:9; Luke 24:52: Disciples worship Jesus after resurrection
- John 9:38: Man born blind worships Jesus
- Phil 2:10: Every knee will bow in worship of the Lord Jesus
- Heb 1:6: Author says the even the angels worship Jesus
- Revelation: Virtually the entire book is about the worship of Jesus
And this quick sampling does not even consider the numerous doxological declarations offered to Jesus, nor does it consider worship practices of the earliest Christians that show the type of devotion to Christ that is reserved for God alone. For more on the latter, see Larry Hurtado, One God One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Christian Monotheism.
3. Jesus’ moral example is binding only if he is Lord.
While liberal Christians make much of Jesus’ moral example, what is missing in their system is why anyone should care. After all, if Jesus is just an ordinary man, then why would we think his particular moral code is any better than any other person’s? Why should we think his moral code matters at all?
Indeed, isn’t it the progressive Christian system that is always pushing back against people who make absolute moral claims? Morality is relative, we are told. Morality is ever-changing and culturally conditioned. There is no one true morality. Don’t push your morality on me.
So, why does Jesus get a pass? Why do these criticism not apply to him, if he is just another human being like us?
At this point, I suppose one could argue that Jesus has authority not because he is divine but because he is a prophet from God. But, how does one know he is a prophet from God? Scripture is the only way we know enough about Jesus to draw such a conclusion.
So, that just raises the question of what progressives think about Scripture. Many progressives don’t take Scripture as reliable and plainly reject its inspiration. If so, then how do they know Jesus is a prophet?
Other progressives might hang onto their view of the inspiration of Scripture. But, if they do that, then why don’t they accept the plain teaching of Scripture that Jesus is not just a prophet? Why don’t they accept the passages above that show Jesus as the object of worship?
Either way, the progressive Jesus-is-just-a-good-moral-teacher approach just doesn’t work.
On top of all of this, one might be confused by the progressive appeal to Jesus as a guide for morality when many progressives won’t, in fact, follow Jesus’ moral teaching. For example, are progressives willing to stand by Jesus’ plain teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman (e.g., Matt 19:5-6)? Or that he is the only way of salvation (John 14:6)?
If not, then why the eagerness to appeal to him as a moral teacher?
4. Christianity is not about moralism
Here is where we come to the most foundational problem with this first tenet. By removing the person of Jesus from the equation as an object of worship, it essentially makes Christianity a religion of moralism. What matters most, we are told, is not doctrine or theology, but behavior. Deeds over creeds.
But, this absolutely contrary to historic Christianity which is a religion of grace not a religion of merit. It’s not primarily about what we do, but what God has done in Christ.
Or, in the word of John: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Machen himself captured it well:
“Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity–liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God” (47).
This first commandment of progressive Christianity is precisely what has been happening for the last century in the Western world (and much before that). It attempts to preserve Jesus’ morality while jettisoning Jesus’ divine identity.
But, in the end it simply doesn’t work. Jesus’ moral teaching only works when we keep his identity as the Lord. The two should never (and can never) be split apart.
“What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:6).