Confessions of an Unrepentant JBC (by Michael Pahl)

Confessions of an Unrepentant JBC (by Michael Pahl) April 15, 2014

A guest post by Michael W. Pahl—revised slightly since first posted

Last week Scot McKnight graciously agreed to host an article I wrote on his blog, “The Polarization of ‘Biblical Christianity.’” I’m grateful to Scot again for hosting this follow-up post.

The gist of my previous article is this: along the wide spectrum of Christians who take seriously the authority of Scripture, we are seeing extreme pressure to move toward one or the other of two distinguishable poles, one pole focused on the Bible, the other focused on Jesus. The article fleshes this out, sketching out what I for the sake of convenience called “Bible Biblical Christians” or BBCs on the one hand and “Jesus Biblical Christians” or JBCs on the other.

I concluded the article with a heavy sigh:

“Is there a way to stop this polarization? Should we even try? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Perhaps it’s even a good thing. Perhaps all this seismic shifting and sifting will bring greater clarity for people on what it means to be a Christian—or at least what version of Christianity they are rejecting.

“Still, one can’t help but hear the prayer of Jesus echoing across the increasingly vacant divide: “May they become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me” (John 17:20-23).

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

But here’s the thing: I am unashamedly JBC. I think a JBC approach is a better one, more faithful to Scripture, more in keeping with the character and will of God. I don’t want some mediating approach between the two poles. I can acknowledge the legitimacy of a BBC approach—I think, in spite of its dangers, it can lead to Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. However, I still think it’s not the best model for understanding the practical authority of Scripture.

What I long for, then, in my sighing prayer at the end of the post, is not compromise but understanding, not agreement but acceptance and appreciation, not uniformity but unity.

I long for one side to stop saying about the other, “They’re not being biblical!”

I long for the other side to stop saying about the one, “They’re not being Christian!”

I long for mutual understanding, acceptance, and appreciation. I long for unity. Which means that I long for genuine conversation to take place, some charitable listening.

Terribly naïve, I know.

But let me put my money where my mouth is. Let me start a conversation, with a promise to listen charitably. Let me offer my story.

The Bible was everywhere in my life growing up, Sunday after Sunday and every day in between. I knew its stories, I knew its statistics. I knew its famous characters and its obscure passages. I knew the Bible.

I am profoundly grateful for this, and much of that gratitude I owe to my mother. (Thanks, Mom.)

But there was more to my early adolescent faith than just knowing the Bible. In everything I strove to be “biblical.” I sought the biblical view of everything from the age of the earth to marriage and divorce, from healing to salvation, from the nature of hell to God’s will for my life. When confronted with a theological question or moral dilemma, I went to the Bible first and foremost, and found answers equally from Genesis to Revelation. Apparent differences from one passage to the other? No problem: these were harmonized neatly with the help of well-respected Bible teachers, or left to the side as mysteries accepted on faith.

After the obligatory late adolescent search for myself, I came back to the Bible. This time I read it in large chunks: all of Genesis or Isaiah in one sitting, or all four Gospels, or all of Paul’s letters. I skipped my university classes to binge-read the Bible, chunk after chunk.

I am profoundly grateful for this, too, for much of my theology to this day comes from simply reading the Bible like this, carefully and in large sections, attentive to narrative and poetry and overarching themes and intertextual echoes.

But this deep reading of the Bible became my undoing. Much of the Bible simply didn’t fit well with the theological and ethical system of Christianity I had grown up with. The Bible’s poems had sharp edges that sliced and diced my tidy theology. The Bible’s stories left gouges in my view of God. The Bible’s diversity made my head spin. The Bible’s humanity made me uncomfortable.

And then there was Jesus.

Jesus, the living Word of God, made flesh and dwelt among us, who has made visible the God whom no one has seen. Jesus, head of the Church and Lord of all, the foundation upon which our faith is built, the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, the Son through whom God has spoken in these last days. Jesus, the very image of God, in all things having supremacy, in whom all things hold together. Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Crucified and Risen One, master of the keys of Death and Hades.

Jesus, born into a life of poverty yet buried in a rich man’s tomb, coming from a backwater village yet engaging the religious elite, an itinerant teacher walking dusty, thirsty roads with a rabble of followers, a prophet of renewal expanding holiness into love, a servant Messiah bringing God’s kingdom of peace, warning the rich, blessing the poor, condemning the powerful, eating with despicables, healing untouchables, unjustly condemned and tortured and abandoned, executed on a brigand’s cross, rising from the dead vindicated by God.

This Jesus, testified to by Scripture, yet unwilling to be held captive by Scripture, captivated me, and holds me still.

I turned tail on my education, abandoning English for Theology. I trained to be a pastor, then trained to be an academic. And it was while working on my PhD, while searching out the referent for a three-word Greek phrase in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, that it happened again.

My doctoral work pushed me to explore how Paul and other New Testament authors read their Scriptures, our Old Testament. And they didn’t read the Scriptures like I had first been taught. They read the Scriptures more like I had come to read them: carefully and in large sections, attentive to narrative and poetry and overarching themes and intertextual echoes. But more than that, they read the Scriptures as if Jesus was what those prophets and poets had been waiting for all along, but just didn’t know it.

My doctoral work also pushed me to explore what authorities the early Christians looked to for their theology and ethics: Scripture, Christian prophecies, Jesus’ teaching, the gospel message. And I discovered that the Apostles’ “word of the Lord” was not prophecy but the gospel, that their “word of God” was not Scripture but the good news, the “word of truth” and “word of grace”: the written “word of God” pointing to the oral “word of God” about the living “Word of God,” Jesus. I discovered that, when confronted with a theological question or ethical problem, the earliest Christians pretty consistently looked first and foremost to Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Scripture stood in support of this endeavor, not over it.

My doctoral work pushed me further to explore Paul’s gospel, which pushed me to explore Isaiah’s gospel and Rome’s, along with Matthew’s and Mark’s and Luke’s and John’s and Hebrews’ and James’ and Revelation’s. And I found Jesus at the heart of the gospel. Not escape from hell, not flight to heaven, not “being a good person,” not “having the right view on issues” or “having the right system of thought,” but Jesus himself, the crucified and resurrected Jesus, the untameable Lion.

Jesus, Jesus, everywhere Jesus. Jesus the whole point of Scripture. Jesus the very heart of the gospel. Jesus the Messianic Lord and King, whose life and teachings and death and resurrection form the new Torah we are to keep, the foundation we are to build on, the pattern we are to follow, the story we are to continue living out.

I found myself reading Scripture not to establish a “biblical view of x” to but to understand Jesus better, and through Jesus to know who God is and who I am and how I should then live.

I found myself reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus the clearest and fullest revelation of God, discovering in the process the many ways that Jesus challenges or even subverts readings of Scripture that don’t put him first.

I found myself less interested in Scripture simply for its own sake, but urgently interested in it for Jesus’ sake.

I found myself—as I’ve now described it—a “JBC.”

Along the way I wrote some stuff, mostly in sketches still waiting to be fleshed out. But if you’re interested in one person’s sketch of some of the biblical and historical underpinnings of a JBC approach, see here. If you want to see a sketch of what Christian theology can look like from a JBC perspective, see here. And if you want to see how a JBC might read some of the most controversial bits of the Bible, see here.

BBC or JBC or “none of the above” – what is your story? How have you come to read Scripture the way that you do?


Michael W. Pahl (Ph.D., Birmingham, is Lead Pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Manitoba, Canada. He is the author or editor of several books, including The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions (Cascade, 2011).


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