Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 3): We Love Jesus; Paul? Not So Much

I’ve already addressed liberals’ and (liberal evangelicals’) enthronement of experience and war on certainty.

They claim to be Christians, so what do they say about Jesus Christ?

In liberal theology, “[t]he core of Christianity is to be found in the personality of Jesus and in his teaching,” write Dillenberger and Welch (p. 209).  In this sense, they want above all else to be “Christ-centered” (or “Christocentric”).

Then again, what Christian doesn’t? To be a Christian is to believe and follow Jesus. The problem with liberal Christocentricity is that its view of Jesus is selective, and, in harmony with its religious epistemology (view of knowledge), it interprets Jesus in light of one’s individual experience.

Which is to say, it’s not especially interested in the Jesus as portrayed in the Bible.

For liberals, it’s the “teaching” and “personality” of Jesus, not his death and resurrection, that get the emphases. Specific teachings of Jesus that reinforce specific liberal tenets — turn the other cheek, do good to your enemies, forgive others, don’t judge people first by externals — captivate liberal Christology.  Liberals are less interested in other teachings of Jesus — I did not come to abolish the Old Testament law, no one can gain salvation except through me, and unrepentant sinners will end up in an eternal hellfire. These latter teachings of Jesus don’t conform to the reigning liberal paradigm of antinomianism, pluralism, and tolerance, respectively, so they must be conveniently omitted.

More importantly, perhaps, liberals want to concentrate on Jesus’ teachings recorded in the gospels and not other New Testament teachings, because Paul (and John and Peter) interpret Jesus’ death and resurrection in ways liberals find abhorrent, while Jesus generally does not offer an extensive pre-interpretation of his redemptive work.  He does speak about his work as a ransom on the Cross, and he does predict his resurrection; but he couldn’t go into great detail, because it was all his disciples could do to believe he was the Son of God — much less grasp the substitutionary atonement and implications of his bodily resurrection.  It was left for Paul (and, to a lesser extent, John and Peter) to provide that.  You can get around (but not very easily) penal substitution (that Jesus suffered the penalty of God’s wrath for our law-breaking sin) by looking only at Jesus’ words — you can’t get around it when reading Paul.

And the fact is, penal substitutionary atonement is a scandal to the liberal mind.  It presents three utterly embarrassing points: (1) Man is full of sin and he can’t save himself from God’s judgment on sin; (2) God is angry against sin and will pour out his wrath on it; (3) God punishes His own Son on the Cross.  These Biblical tenets had nothing in common with the temper of the educated elite of the 19th century — that is, the people early liberals were trying to please.  They believed (1) that man is basically good, (2) that God isn’t an angry God, and (3) that God would never punish His Son in our place.

Because you can — and will — get all these teachings from Paul (and, to some degree, John and Peter) but less from the recorded words of Jesus in the gospels, the “teaching” and “personality” of Jesus became “[t]he core of Christianity” for liberals.

It shouldn’t surprise us, either, that as evangelicalism slides toward liberalism, it slides away from Paul’s teaching and slides toward Jesus’ teaching.  Scot McNight, prominent liberal evangelical New Testament scholar, declares:

Formerly I had loved Paul and thought with Paul. Then, when I encountered Jesus, as if for the first time, I began learning to think with Jesus. One of my colleagues occasionally suggested I was getting too Jesus-centered and ignoring Paul. I’m not so sure I was ignoring Paul; after all, I was teaching a few of his letters on a regular basis. But I had unlearned how to think in Pauline terms and was thinking only in the terms of Jesus. Everything was kingdom-centered for me.

And, truth be told, I was so taken with Jesus’ kingdom vision that reading Paul created a dilemma every time I opened his letters….

My experience is not unusual. Many of us have made a move from Paul to Jesus, and an increasing tension remains among evangelicals about who gets to set the terms: Jesus or Paul? In other words, will we center our gospel teaching and living on “the kingdom” or “justification by faith”? (emphases supplied)

Don’t be misled. The root issue here isn’t kingdom versus justification (the Bible — and both Jesus and Paul — teaches both). The issue is allowing Paul to tells us what the Cross and empty tomb mean.  When we do that, we can’t come to liberal conclusions.

When we retreat to the “teaching” and “personality” of Jesus, we can champion liberal dogma (if we’re selective, of course).

Paul? No way.

For this reason, when the evangelicals slide to interpret Paul’s post-redemptive-era teachings in light of Jesus’ pre-redemptive-era teachings, they are sliding into liberalism.


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