A New York Times interview with the theologian Serene Jones, the current president of Union Theological Seminary, is getting some attention given that Jones enthusiastically tosses multiple cherished doctrines of Christian orthodoxy. Virgin birth? “Bizarre,” she says. God as omnipotent and omniscient? “A fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology.” The resurrection of Jesus? Pfft! “For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there.” How about whether God exists? “Bwa-ha-ha-ha!!!!”
Okay, I admit it, I added the cynical laugh. But everything else comes from President Jones. For her, Christianity is hampered by such antiquated silliness as the virgin birth, an omnipotent and omniscient God, and a resurrected Jesus.
As I said, this interview has been getting some attention. In my circles, that attention has been withering, and for good reason: here we have the familiar story of a liberal Christian tossing essential aspects of the Gospel in order to gain some cultural cachet.
Arguably, the most famous example of this liberal distortion is found in the famous 1900 lectures by the great German theologian Adolf von Harnack (later published in English as What is Christianity?). In those lectures, Harnack reduced Christianity to three innocuous maxims: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul. Notably, Harnack’s summary left aside a long list of core orthodox Christian claims including the Trinity, the fall, the incarnation, the resurrection, and the final judgment and new kingdom.
And so, when one hears Jones claim that Easter is really about love winning over death while tossing the historical miracle that under-girds that hope, I am among those who interpret her in line with the long history of liberal Christians like Harnack who distort the Gospel even as they purport to be translating it for their age.
Having said all that, I now want to turn the caution back on the so-called conservative Christians, lest they fall into an ill-begotten spirit of triumphalism. In my experience, they are every bit as apt to distort the Gospel as the liberals. For every liberal Harnack, there is a conservative Dwight Moody. You see, while Harnack reduced the Gospel to his three truths, Moody, the great 19th-century American evangelist, reduced the Gospel to these three truth claims: ruined by sin, redeemed by Christ, regenerated by the Spirit.
Moody’s three claims are true, of course. That’s not the point. After all, Harnack’s points are also true. (Put another way, there are fully orthodox interpretations both of Moody’s claims and Harnack’s claims.) The point, rather, is that by emphasizing only those doctrines, Moody leaves a raft of other critically important orthodox claims behind no less than does Harnack.
To be fair, there is an important difference between Harnack and Moody insofar as Harnack rejected particular orthodox doctrines in the same way that Serene Jones rejects particular doctrines. While I do not claim to know Moody’s theology well, I am unaware that he did anything comparable. At the same time, however, it should also be emphasized that the long shadow of Moody’s singular emphasis — ruined by sin, redeemed by Christ, regenerated by the Spirit — has resulted in all sorts of distortions in North American conservative Christianity.
For example, Moody’s focus has often resulted in a Christianity that reduces the Gospel to a private conversion of the heart while leaving untouched the wider social implications of the Gospel. Think about it like this: Moody preached his Gospel during a time of racial segregation, Jim Crow laws, and extra-judicial lynchings. How many conservative Christians of his day thought they can have their individual conversion and private piety while remaining silent on (or even embracing) such moral horrors as that? And is that not a distortion of the Gospel every bit as egregious as that produced by the German liberal theologian?
In our own day, liberalism has resulted in seminary presidents who dismiss the virgin birth as bizarre and who reduce Easter to an inspirational maxim that life triumphs over death. Meanwhile, conservatism has resulted in millions of evangelicals who enthusiastically support a president that habitually lies, mocks his opponents, exhibits malignant narcissism, has affairs with porn stars and uses his lawyer to cover them up, and demonizes refugees and places their children in cages. And that man can be called “godly” and “biblical” by no less a Christian conservative than Michele Bachmann.
Don’t ask me to say which is worse.