The false choice between being devoted to Jesus and being devoted to the Bible

Popular blogger and United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli said in a post last week—as he has said many times before—that, contrary to the Bible, including the red-letter words of Jesus, God doesn’t really have wrath toward sin. Wrath is something that we project onto God, out of guilt for our sin. (How on earth Micheli comprehends Paul’s letter to the Romans is beyond me.) Saying that he’s simply regurgitating ideas espoused by Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus (from whom, I note with pleasure, the word “dunce” derives), he argues that God doesn’t experience anything resembling emotion because to do so would contradict the idea that God can be changed by anything, including the sorry plight of us sinful human beings.

I’ll leave it to my Catholic brothers and sisters to decide whether Micheli has accurately represented scholastic theology from the Middle Ages. I couldn’t care less. There are reasons I’m not Catholic, and if Aquinas and others argue God’s “impassibility” precludes God’s having wrath toward sin (or anything else suggesting that God, like humans, experiences actual emotion) then that’s just one more reason.

As I’ve said on this blog before and as I said to Micheli last week in a Facebook thread, if our tidy theological ideas constantly grate against our best understanding of what the Bible tells us, at what point do we say, “Maybe our theology needs to be revised”?

After all, as Roger Olson pointed out when discussing this very topic, “The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.”

Regardless, given everything else Micheli has said about the Bible, no one can be surprised that Micheli preached this sermon yesterday entitled, “My Problem with the Bible.” (But really: “problem,” singular? Surely this is part one of a lengthy sermon series!)

I only wish I disagreed with the sermon more than I do. I agree that the bumper-sticker affirmation, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” is wrong. Obviously, we have to bring our best exegetical and hermeneutical resources to bear on discerning what God is saying to us through scripture. I agree that biblicism is heretical and idolatrous (although I’m sure I would disagree with his definition of it). We don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God revealed by the Holy Spirit through its words. And I agree that Jesus is the Word of God, God’s complete and perfect revelation of himself. (That doesn’t mean, however, that the Bible isn’t also the capital-W Word of God, although in a different sense from Jesus.)

But my big objection to the sermon emerges at the end: With rhetorical flourish, he lists some of the sins that a “community devoted to the Bible,” rather than to Jesus, would naturally commit. Then, by way of contrast, he concludes with this:

But a community based on Jesus Christ, a community devoted to Jesus Christ, a community that believes in Jesus Christ and believes him to be the full revelation of God- that community has no choice, no excuse, no leeway.

It has to be a community characterized by love. Humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, sacrificial love.

The kind of love defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

The Bible says that Jesus- NOT THE BIBLE- is the full revelation of God.

I believe Jesus is the Word God speaks to us. I believe Jesus has made the Father known.

So that settles it- if we want God to be known- seen- then we have no other way in this world but to love as Christ loved.

Oh my goodness! How does he not see that he’s begging the question?

By all means, let’s be a community devoted to Jesus, characterized by his example of sacrificial love, which is “defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.”

Who could disagree with that?

Except… How do we know anything about Jesus and his “humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, sacrificial love”? It’s only by reading and studying God’s written revelation of himself, the Bible! How would we know about the woman caught in adultery in John 8? How would we know that Jesus healed on the Sabbath? How would we know that John says that Jesus is the “Word,” the full revelation of God? The apostles and other eyewitnesses aren’t around anymore. We have no reliable revelation of Christ outside of scripture—unless he would argue that a believer in Jesus has some private revelation, independent of scripture, which teaches us who Jesus “really is.”

There’s no way around it, Rev. Micheli: Being a community devoted to Jesus also means being a community devoted to the Bible.

Why does it matter? Because if we’re so confident that the biblical writers, inspired as they were by the Spirit, got the parts about Jesus right—including but not limited to his “red-letter” words—then shouldn’t we be very humble about what we think they got wrong?

This is especially true considering how often Jesus himself affirms the truthfulness of the Old Testament. Please see Andrew Wilson’s excellent essay on the “Jesus Tea-Strainer” for more on the false choice with which Micheli presents us.

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