While liberal Christians make much of Jesus’ moral example, what is missing in their system is why anyone should care. After all, if Jesus is just an ordinary man, then why would we think his particular moral code is any better than any other person’s? Why should we think his moral code matters at all? Indeed, isn’t it the progressive Christian system that is always pushing back against people who make absolute moral claims?
Last week I announced a new series entitled “The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity,” based off a list offered by Richard Rohr. This list embodies the type of theological liberalism that was battled by Machen in the early 20th century and still abides today.
So, let’s jump right into the first commandment: “Jesus is a model for living more than an object of worship.”
In many ways, this is a fitting first commandment for progressive Christianity. When given the choice between worshiping Jesus (which requires that he is divine) and merely looking at Jesus as a good moral guide, liberals have always favored the latter.
Of course, one might object that this statement isn’t really rejecting the divinity of Jesus because of the phrase “more than.” Thus, it could be argued, liberals are quite happy to worship Jesus as divine, but just put the priority on his moral example.
But, I think that would be a naive way to take the text. While such a reading is possible, the entire history of liberal Christianity is against it. The first thing to be jettisoned by liberals is always the divinity of Jesus–and therefore the worship of him. Moreover, if Jesus really is our divine Lord, how could worshiping him be secondary? Why would Jesus as example be moreimportant than Jesus as object of worship?
It seems, therefore, we ought not to read too much into the “more than” phrase. It is likely just a way to tone down and soften the implications of this first commandment.
What, then, do we make of Jesus as simply a moral example? Several problems arise here:
1. Jesus claimed to be more than a moral example
We can begin by acknowledging that Jesus was, of course, a moral example for his followers. Indeed, he often called his followers to do what he has done (e.g., John 13:15).
But, is Jesus merely a moral example? Or, to put it differently, do the Gospels present Jesus as just a wise sage; a Ghandi-like figure dropping helpful tips for practical living?
An honest reading of the Gospels shows the answer to this is a resounding no. Indeed, throughout these texts, Jesus is presented as more than a good teacher, but as the divine Lord of heaven and earth. Aside from the obvious Johannine passages that show this (e..g, John 1:1; 1:18; 8:58; 10:30), scholars have argued that Jesus’s divinity is also evident in the Synoptic Gospels.
As just one example, Michael Bird’s recent book, Jesus the Eternal Son, has argued that even Mark–often thought to be the Gospel which presents the most “human” Jesus–offers a decidedly high Christology. Jesus is the “Lord,” Yahweh visiting his people, the one who forgives sins, the ruler of the wind and the waves, and the judge of all the universe.
This reality led C.S. Lewis to offer his well-known quote on Jesus as just a good moral teacher:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”
2. Jesus’ followers worshiped him as Lord
While the first commandment of progressive Christianity seems quite hesitant about worshiping Jesus, that is not how the earliest Christians felt. Indeed, because Jesus was viewed as their Lord (prior point), they unreservedly devoted themselves to worshiping him.
And here’s the kicker: the earliest Christians did this while also being fully committed to monotheism. Even as Jews, they worshiped Jesus precisely because they believed he was the one true God of Israel.