Today I will continue my review of David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity. In the previous essay I examined Gushee’s understanding of the sources of authority for Christian faith and morality. We discovered that he has abandoned the idea that Scripture is the sole source and norm for faith and has added reason and experience as sources of continuing revelation. In this essay I will address the second part of the book, “Theology: Believing and Belonging,” which contains chapters on God, Jesus, and the church.
Part Two: Theology: Believing and Belonging
4. God: In Dialogue with the Story of Israel
In the introduction to this chapter Gushee admits that systematic theology is not his strong suit. (His area of specialization is ethics.) He lists six theological “strands” that played a part in forming his theology, which those familiar with modern theology will recognize: Kingdom of God theology, social gospel theology, Holocaust theology, liberation theologies, Catholic social teaching, and progressive evangelical social ethics.
Gushee’s doctrine of God as reflected in this chapter has been decisively influenced by post-Holocaust Jewish thinkers. One such thinker is Irving Greenberg who recounts a story told by a Holocaust survivor who watched NAZI guards throw Jewish children alive into a fire. Greenberg articulated what has come to be called “the burning-children test:” “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children” (p. 70; emphasis original). Gushee accepts Greenberg’s “burning-children test” and allows it to constrain “all claims about God, Jesus, and the church” in his book (p. 70). The “burning-children test” brings to the foreground in a dramatic way the problem of evil. Gushee broadens the principle to include other instances of evil:
It is not a stretch to speak of other tests: murdered and raped women; tortured and murdered indigenous peoples; enslaved, tortured, murdered, and lynched black people; tortured and murdered LGBTQ people.
What kinds of statements about God will pass the “burning-children test” and the other tortured-and murdered-people tests? According to Gushee, in view of the horrendous evils people perpetrate we can no longer believe that God is in control of the world, that God allows evil for good reasons, that all suffering can be redeemed, or that “all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). We can no longer ask people to trust God in all things. The only response we can make to the burning of children and other horrible evils is to “cry out against evil…[and] redress as many human evils as possible” (p. 79; emphasis original). Gushee can accept only a suffering God, a God who “weeps at the evil humans do” (p. 80), a “God who risks trusting us with freedom, and suffers from the choices we make” (p. 80).
Is That It?
As I approached the end of this chapter I kept looking for some sign of hope. The only note of hope I heard sounded not from God but from humanity: that some of us might “cry out against evil…redress as many human evils as possible.” The God of Gushee’s new Christianity has given over the fate of the world into the hands of human beings. He can watch, suffer, and weep but cannot deliver and redeem.
5. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet. Lynched God-Man, Risen Lord
In this chapter, Gushee draws on the work of James D. G. Dunn in his book Jesus According to the New Testament. Dunn discerns in the New Testament eight different perspectives on Jesus: the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, John, Paul, Hebrews, and others. But Dunn also attempts to reconstruct from these perspectives a “Jesus-according-to-Jesus” or what is often called the “historical Jesus” (p. 86). According to Dunn (accepted by Gushee), the historical Jesus emphasized the love of neighbor command as the heart of our moral duties, prioritized the poor, demonstrated openness to non-Jews, included women within his inner circle, welcomed children, instituted the Lord’s Supper, and cherished a sense of his divine calling. Using this list as the standard, Gushee contrasts “Jesus-according-to-Jesus” with Jesus according to “American white evangelicalism.” In Gushee’s view, for white evangelicals Jesus is all about the assurance of personal salvation now and after death and success and happiness in this life. That is to say, Jesus supports the interests of white, middle class suburbanites in their comfortable lifestyle.
As an alternative to the white evangelical Jesus, Gushee presents a “Jesus according to Gushee via Matthew.” Jesus came announcing the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God and demanding that the people of God prepare themselves with repentance. Jesus entered Jerusalem and challenged the powers in charge. They responded not with repentance and belief but with murderous violence. Gushee, then, makes this rather anticlimactic statement about the resurrection:
I believe in the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus, although I do not pretend to understand it. I live in hope that if God raised Jesus from the dead, then, in the end, life triumphs over death, not just for me and mine, but for the world. The rest is mystery (p. 97).
What does Jesus have to say to us today? Drawing on Dunn again, Gushee distinguishes between the “religion of Jesus” and the “religion about Jesus.” The “religion of Jesus” is a social justice program centering on the kingdom of God. The “religion about Jesus” dominates the New Testament, John, Paul, Acts, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Revelation. It focuses on the atonement, resurrection, and the Spirit’s transforming power. Gushee prefers the religion of Jesus to the religion about Jesus:
I find the New Testament’s religion about Jesus to be a creative theological adaptation, useful for a time horizon of indefinite duration, deeply meaningful for the individual journey through life and toward death. But it is rather substantially cut adrift from the ministry of the historical Jesus, distanced from both his own Jewishness and the earliest Palestinian Jewish church…It is a beautiful and compelling message…But I cannot accept the common evangelical claim that this message is “the gospel.” It is one version (p. 100).
Where Do I Start? Where Would I End?
It would take more space than I have to reply fully to this chapter. Allow me, then, to let Paul make my reply:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
Gushee demotes what Paul designates as “of first importance” to the status of being “a creative theological adaptation” and places a twenty-first century scholarly reconstruction of the “religion of Jesus” at the center of his “new Christianity.” I suppose it makes sense that a “new Christianity” requires a new Jesus.
6. Church: Finding Christ’s People
This chapter centers on the problem of wounded and disheartened people leaving evangelical churches in droves and culminates in a section advising post-evangelicals about how to find a church. Gushee articulates a biblical theology of the church that sounds rather traditional. He defines the church as “the community of people who stand in covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ and seek to fulfill his kingdom mission” (p. 104). Though incomplete, this definition is not inaccurate in what it asserts. He also speaks of the church in traditional and biblical language: the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, it is the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, a new creation, people devoted to the kingdom of God, and a covenant people.
However, as is characteristic of progressive Christianity in general, Gushee sometimes uses biblical language in unbiblical ways. That the church possesses a “covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ” does not mean that other people (Jews, Muslims, and others) do not possess a covenant with God through other means (p. 105). The church is “apostolic” but as the previous section on Jesus demonstrated, for Gushee this does not mean that the apostles’ teaching possesses as much authority as the teaching of Jesus. That the church is catholic demands that the church reject “racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.”
Gushee proposes a variety of covenant communities as alternatives to white evangelicalism. He recommends that post-evangelicals “give the mainline a look” (p. 114). The Episcopal Church might be an “especially attractive option” (p. 115) for those looking for “high liturgy together with LGBTQ inclusion” (p. 114). Some post-evangelicals may seek out home groups or plant new churches with an evangelical style worship but with post-evangelical theology. As will become even more obvious when we examine chapter 7 (“Sex: From Sexual Purity to Covenant Realism”), Gushee thinks that LGBTQ inclusion is the decisive issue of our time. For Gushee, full and equal LGBTQ inclusion seems to be an essential mark of the post-evangelical church and of his “new Christianity.” A new morality for a new Christianity.
Next Time: Chapter 7, “Sex: From Sexual Purity to Covenant Realism.”