Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Thank God for Heretics!

I used to call myself an evangelical. I was never a full-fledged fundamentalist. I had too much education – especially in the sciences – to deceive myself into believing that the earth was six thousand years old and created in six days. So I opted for educated evangelicalism. Back in the 1970’s evangelicals were jokingly called “fundamentalists with a college degree.”

After seminary, as I spent the early decades of my career as a Baptist pastor, I continued to believe in the doctrines articulated in the ancient creeds and later confessions of faith.  I saw myself as holding to the historic Christian faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” I was so fervent in my beliefs that I taught classes on the world religions and “cults,” showing how they were false and Christianity was true.

Then I did something dangerous. I read the Bible carefully. I had studied the Bible extensively in seminary, of course, including in the original languages. I exegeted it, preached it and taught it as a pastor for decades. But this time I studied the words of Jesus as if hearing them for the first time – without the filter of later church tradition. That is when I realized that Jesus was not a Christian. He did not teach the doctrines that Christianity considers essential for membership in the Church.

Jesus was a Jew, ethnically and religiously. He attended synagogue and temple. But he was not an “orthodox” Jew, theologically speaking. I am not talking about Orthodox Judaism, which is distinguished from Conservative and Reformed Judaism. I am talking about theology. Jesus was outside mainstream Jewish thought, as represented by Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, rabbis, and “teachers of the Law.”

His teachings were so heterodox that they got him killed. Jesus was “beyond the pale.” He was a heretic. Consequently he was treated the way heretics have historically been treated by the religious establishment. He was verbally condemned and violently killed. The gospels make it clear that the religious leaders of Jerusalem put aside their differences and joined together to have Jesus executed for blasphemy.

Jesus was a heretic by both Jewish and Christian standards. All the distinctive theological doctrines of Christianity that were debated in Church councils and enshrined in creeds and catechisms are not found in the words of Jesus. Plenty of people have tried to read these doctrines back into the words of Jesus, but the most they could find were proof texts taken out of context. Jesus was not a Christian.

When I realized that Jesus was a heretic, I had a choice to make. I decided to follow Jesus rather than Church tradition. As the gospel hymn says, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” I have shared what I learned from Jesus of Nazareth in books, podcasts, and YouTube videos. That has made me a heretic in the eyes of those who define Christianity as a set of “orthodox” doctrines. They say I am not theologically correct. I am alright with that.

I am in good company. Socrates was a heretic who was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens by asking dangerous questions. Gautama Buddha was a heretic, which is why his Hindu homeland rejected his teachings. “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own hometown and among his own people,” Jesus said. Every innovative spiritual teacher was considered a heretic in their day.

The heretics of each age take the “road less traveled.” They bushwhack through the undergrowth of their religious tradition to rediscover the priceless jewel at the center of every spiritual tradition. When they proclaim what they found, they are called heretics. Jesus was a heretic, and I am glad he was. Thank God for heretics! They keep truth alive. 


Qual said...

Hello Marshall
Do you practice celibacy or variation of re: sexual energy? my understanding is Jesus was celibate - I'm fascinated by the practice of brahmacharya as it has had profound efftects on my connection to the TAO

Qual said...

Question 2 - if possible
Do you believe KJV is true text to follow OR is the conflict between which text more Duality from human mind ?