|The Barnabas Ministry
Jesus Proposal: A Theological Framework for Maintaining the
of the Body of Christ
By Rubel Shelly and John York (Leafwood Publishers, Siloam Springs, AR 2003). 219 pages.
The Jesus Proposal by Rubel Shelly and John York discusses the theological origins of divisions among professing Christians in our day and age, and offers an intriguing approach to the future. In their preface, Shelly and York state:
The unity of the body of Christ is not a desirable option. It is a divine mandate. It is also a practical necessity for leading the world to believe in Jesus.
But the world has just passed through a 200-year period during which oneness among Christians has been practically impossible. It was not theology so much as culture which created that impossibility. Or, stated more precisely, the Enlightenment culture generated a divisive approach to theology that kept Christians apart.
Modernity, the name we have fixed to that culture, demanded fixed, rational, and clear marked boundaries. It formulated categories for classification purposes. It labeled and assigned. It judged and excluded. It fostered and furthered division.
Now there has been a major paradigm shift to what is called--for the lack of a better term-- Postmodernity. It acknowledges and embraces a degree of ambiguity that Modernity could not tolerate. It sees fuzzy rather than fixed boundaries. It resists rigid categories, judgmentalism, and exclusion; it affirms inclusion, association, and flexibility. In its extreme forms, Postmodernity is as dangerous for its "fuzziness" as Modernity was for its rigidity.
The "proposal" of The Jesus Proposal is that Christians from all denominations can benefit from this cultural shift. In the Postmodern atmosphere of the twenty-first century, we can experience relational unity in Christ-- unity greater and more important than theological agreement, ecclesiological structure, and institutional loyalty.
Jesus Christ should mean more than denomination or theological tradition or method of interpreting the Bible. (pp. 9-10)
The philosophy of Modernism-- the idea that we can and
will find the
right doctrines and practices on all things Christian-- once held great
promise for Christians seeking the ancient paths of the early church in
confused times. The Restoration Movement was heavily influenced by this
sort of thinking, embarking on the journey to identify "the ancient
of things." It seemed like the logical outgrowth of such Biblical
commands as "watch your life and doctrine closely" (1 Timothy 4:16).
But as time went on and Western Christians pursued that
vision-- divisions arose, in part if not primarily because people of
faith, morals and intelligence had different perspectives and
certain things. A story I
ran across illustrates the problem well:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, 'Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!' He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?" He said, 'Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian.' I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" He said, 'Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?' He said, "Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, 'Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, 'Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!' I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.
As the story illustrates, we tend to regard our
most recent religious battle as "heretics" no matter how much we agree
on other things. Each little group tries to be united within
itself, all the
while ignoring the larger question of disunity among professing
Christians. This problem of disunity is "handled" by denying the
legitimacy of these other Christians. But this is a little silly-- of
course there won't be any disunity if you disregard all
of the people who disagree with you! And ultimately this approach to
unity (deny the legitimacy of your opponents) is applied to those who
disagree within their own group, providing another group that will call
itself "the remnant" and another group of "heretics."
Unity based upon such an approach is as unstable as the weather-- if you're unified with other Christians, just wait for the next issue to come along, and you'll likely be divided. Taken to its logical end, you'll be in a church all by yourself. In their more introspective moments, professing Christians in their varied traditions and organizations wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind in his prayer for unity (John 17). And the world looks at the division among professing Christians and rightly questions the legitimacy of Christianity.
But the problem isn't the Bible, or even the people
per se. According to Shelly and York, the problem is Modernism. We
can't figure everything out, even
though Modernism promised we could. We found that some doctrines are
clear than others, some are more important than others, and that
resists being analyzed and dissected the way we Western Modernists want
to do it.
The goal of this book is to address only one of the many issues raised by this Modern-to-Postmodern shift-- the possibility for meaningful unity among those who make an orthodox confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God (p. 20).Shelly and York don't claim to have it all figured out. Surely there are legimate concerns to protect the gospel from those who would make it fuzzy, and the authors do not advocate a fuzzy gospel. But it also seems clear to me that peripheral issues have often "trumped" the gospel and brought about senseless hurt and division in the past, and that Modernism (and all that goes with it) is not all it is cracked up to be.
It is hard to do justice to The Jesus Proposal in a short review. But for those who have traveled as far in their faith and experience as Modernism can take them and wonder what is amiss, The Jesus Proposal offers a thought-provoking and helpful thesis to consider as the next leg of the journey begins.
Copyright © 2004 John Engler. All rights reserved.
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