A friend and I, after the Clark Pinnock tribute at AAR/SBL, were chatting about how the Evangelical Theological Society and conservative evangelicalism in general seem to have a special radar for folks who in their view are moving to the left theologically. A set of expressions came to my mind and I want to flesh them out here:
Among conservative evangelicals moving to the right seems never to be wrong.
Moving to the left, however, is either on the way to being wrong or is in fact already wrong (for the right).
To the left is a slippery slope, to the right is faithfulness (even if it is extreme).
I wish to challenge the very notion that going to the right is never wrong, and I want to contend that going left is sometimes the right thing to do. I have three witnesses.
Question: Do you think the above theories are accurate? Why or why not?
First, Jesus. The singular folks who were most opposed to Jesus were the Pharisees. Though today the Pharisees are often misunderstood as religious bigots and miserable legalists and anal-retentive religious folks, and each of those stereotypes has no bearing on what they were actually like (so we should equating “hypocrite” and “Pharisee”)… though they are misunderstood, their central platform was faithfulness to Scripture and scrupulous attention to detail and constant vigilance in observing Torah. In other words, they were zealots for the Torah and if they wanted to add to Scripture, as long as it was founded in Scripture, they were right. Anyone who looked left was in trouble.
Jesus was on their wrong side. Why? Because he ate with the wrong people, he invited tax collectors and hookers and sinners to the table and told them stories that were designed to change them and society. He pushed their boundaries on sabbath and what could be done on Sabbath. He claimed to forgive sins, and they thought that was for God alone. He protested their operations in the Temple, or at least the priests’ operations, and they thought him a misguided lunatic for it.
What matters here is that Jesus was pushing left, was expanding the people of God, was pushing back against traditions and probing new areas because of the work of God … and he got in trouble. The Pharisees could add and add and add to the laws and that was a sign of obedience; they could even get extreme and it be fine; but Jesus could subtract a few laws on who eats with whom and he was a goner for them. Going right seems never wrong; going left seems wrong (for the right).
Second, Paul. I’ll be brief. Paul’s slogan was that when he was with the Gentiles, he acted like a Gentile; when he was with the Jews, he was kosher. Read about it in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. The right side of the religious spectrum in Paul’s day thought him a chameleon. The Spirit of God, though, was pushing Paul in progressive ways and he got in trouble. Going right is not wrong but going left is wrong (for the right).
Third, Peter. Ah, a neglected text. In Acts 10-11 Peter learned first hand, through experience, that God could save Gentiles, that God could give them the same Spirit he had given to Peter, and when he saw it happen (no exegesis got him there), he caved in: if God gives the Spirit to them, who am I to resist? Well, he got in all kinds of trouble about this, and it all comes crashing down in Acts 15 when they had to sort things out. They did, and what they decided was that God was progressive: he was opening the boundaries to new folks, to Gentiles, just as he was doing in Jesus’ day. The right didn’t like it. Going right is not wrong but going left is wrong (to the right).
Many conservative evangelicals are like this today; they are right-facing zealots. No one to my knowledge has ever been kicked out of the Evangelical Theological Society for being too conservative, and frankly I don’t think anyone could get kicked out for being too conservative. Why? Because going right is never wrong. Go as far as you want, you’ll never get into trouble. You can believe in dictation theory, in views on the authorship of books that are more miraculous than anyone needs to believe, in snakes talking to Adam and Eve (as a result of a miracle, mind you), in a 10,000 year old earth and in youth earth creationism, in radical views of complementarianism, you can deny women their rightful place in ministry (it’s in the Bible, after all, that women were prophets and apostles and leaders of the whole People of God), you can equate right wing Tea Party libertarianism with what the Bible is teaching, you can be as Calvinistic as you want to be (and more), and I could go on and on … no one ever gets in trouble for espousing these views among conservative evangelicals. Ever.
But if you wonder if science might have a few things to offer us when it comes to Genesis 1-3, if Isaiah didn’t write that whole book, if something in one of the Gospels just might be midrash (did Peter really grab a coin from a fish’s mouth?), if maybe God made a world where there is divine self-limitation (some forms of open theism), if Jesus rides (or will ride) on clouds, if justice is at the heart of God’s mission in this world, especially through the church … well, then, you’re on the slippery slope. Going left is wrong (for the right); going right is never wrong. Even if you can show that your view is justifiable biblically, many think any move away from the right is wrong.
Here’s my thesis: the slippery slope, if there is one, is one both sides. The middle, the Third Way, takes the courage of commitment to faithfulness and the willingness to join Jesus, Paul and Peter to progress when God’s Spirit guides. The right embraces the first and fails at the second. By the way, liberals embrace the second one and fail on the first. What I’ve said here can be said in reverse about many in the American Protestant liberal tradition.
The Third Way is the courageous way. I’ve sketched this view of reading the Bible in The Blue Parakeet.
If you want safety, avoid true Christianity. Safety is found only on the extremes. Aslan is not a tame lion.