If you’re not familiar with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, then you’ve been missing out on one of the most fearfully and wonderfully named of contemporary religious writers and cultural commentators. I’m not quite sure how this came to my attention — and I’m not sure how I find myself defending Al Mohler so often lately. But here we are. Listen to the Boteachings of Rabbi Shmuley:
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted a message to Congressman Anthony Weiner saying, “Dear Congressman Weiner: There is no effective ‘treatment’ for sin. Only atonement, found only in Jesus Christ.”
I hear you, Rev. Mohler. But I seem to recall many sexual scandals involving evangelical ministers that would seem to undermine the premise that salvation through Jesus Christ grants immunity to sexual sin.
I have debated Rev. Mohler many times…I have enjoyed his company…But just as soon as the TV camera goes on, Mohler’s persona changes. He is one of our Christian brothers who believes that Christians alone are saved, that Jews, however moral, ethical, and virtuous, are condemned to the eternal bonfire simply because they don’t believe in Christ.
No doubt this is the reason that Rev. Mohler has turned to Weiner, a Jew, and attempted to proselytize him via Twitter, the implication being that Weiner’s Judaism has not prevented him from sin but Christianity will.
These comments just grow curiouser and curiouser as they go along. The lesson the Rabbi goes on to impart is that “Redemption is never a function of belief and always a function of deed,” and “It is not faith that guarantees our morality but rather an ironclad commitment to righteous action, be we atheist or theist.” You can read the whole response here.
I found the response not only deeply unfair to Mohler, and passive-aggressively ad hominem in its suggestion that the version of Mohler one sees on the television is just an act, but also pretty shocking in how superficial and off-base it is. Did anyone other than Rabbi Shmuley interpret Mohler’s tweet to mean or to presuppose that “salvation through Jesus Christ grants immunity to sexual sin”? Or to imply that “Weiner’s Judaism has not prevented him from sin but Christianity will”?
The disconnect here is so severe that either the good Rabbi is deliberately scoring cheap rhetorical points or (what I prefer to believe) there is a basic misunderstanding. Let me suggest more than one:
1. Rabbi Boteach seems to assume that when Mohler speaks of “atonement,” Mohler means something like “making morally perfect.” Otherwise I fail to see how Boteach can interpret Mohler in the way he does. Mohler says that atonement is found only in Christianity. Therefore a Christian will be atoned (which Boteach takes to mean: immune to sin) and a non-Christian will not be. Yet this is not what Mohler or any self-respecting Christian theologian would mean by atonement, which is a removal of the guilt of sin (not an intervention that prevents you from sinning again) and entering into union with God.
In other words, Mohler is not suggesting that Christianity will prevent a person from sinning. Christianity is not really about stopping people from sinning; the Christian scriptures are very clear that even the redeemed will continue to wrestle with sin. So Rabbi Boteach seems to assume a Jewish sense of “atonement” and uses it to criticize Mohler for being too Christian-centric. The word for this is “irony”.
3. I don’t know Al Mohler’s position on the eternal destiny of the Jews, but many evangelicals believe that God will ultimately reconcile the Jewish people to himself through the grace of Christ and that God will ultimately be faithful to the promises He made to the Jews. I take this to be the point of Romans 9-11: If we cannot trust God to keep the promises He made to the Jews, how can we trust God to be faithful to the promises He made to us? So, at the least, I suspect that Boteach puts across a very rudely abbreviated version of Mohler’s views on the salvation of the Jews. The Jews occupy a special category in salvation history, and Christians do not generally regard the Jews in the same camp as, say, atheists or secular materialists.
4. Finally, I’m tired of people representing salvation, in Christian terms, as a matter of “belief.” It’s not about belief. It’s about faith. Faith is something far richer, far deeper, far more profound and all-encompassing than belief. When we say belief in contemporary culture, we often mean something like intellectual assent to a certain claim. In this case, it is intellectual assent to…what? To the proposition that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and the Son of God? However we construe Boteach’s comment, it missed the boat by a mile.
Salvation, Christianly understood, is a matter of placing one’s entire being in the trust and care of God’s gracious redemption through Christ. Certain beliefs are generally necessary to create the context in which this can happen, but it is not the beliefs themselves that are salvific. What is salvific is what Kierkegaard has called “resting transparently” in God through Christ. Christians believe that there is a God who created us, that this same God communicated himself and his grace to us through the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and that those who cease fighting God and fighting to be God and instead rest in the embrace of Christ will enter into a communion with God that will last forever. Those who reject God’s gracious provision hold themselves apart from God, and historically the Christian church has held that those who hold themselves apart will remain apart from God in the afterlife. But again, the Jews hold a unique place in salvation history, and Christians have a variety of viewpoints on the ultimate fate of the Jews.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Boteach’s comment is an example — and this happens on all sides, folks, so please don’t suppose that I’m being unfairly partisan here — of someone scoring rhetorical points at the cost of charity and mutual understanding. It’s easy to pretend that someone believes X and make them look foolish for it. It’s much harder to listen well to one another, to represent the other side’s viewpoint responsibly, and then offer your own critique. But it’s worth the effort.