Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A New Reformation Part 1: Funk

July 10th is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Calvin was the 16th century reformer who is considered the father of Presbyterianism. On Saturday the Johnson City Press featured an article on Calvin:
Born into a middle-class Roman Catholic family in the little French town of Noyon, north of Paris, Calvin became a lawyer, but soon came to sympathize with the anti-papal theses of Martin Luther that had rapidly spread to France.
Calvin broke with his Catholic past. His great rhetorical talents earned him quick prominence as an evangelical teacher, but religious turmoil forced him to go into exile in Basel, Switzerland.
He was 26 when he began writing the
“Institutes of the Christian Religion,” the first compendium of Reformed doctrines, much more profound than Luther’s theses of 1517. They won him an invitation from newly Protestant Geneva. But Calvin was soon banished again because authorities found his ideas were too radical.
He returned in 1541 after receiving assurances of official support for his plans to complete a Reformation based on his teachings. He introduced a revolutionary church constitution based on the democratic principles of division of powers.
In celebration of his birthday, I thought I would devote a few posts to the reformation of the church. I will present a few folks who also think we are due for a reformation as well as offer a few of my own ideas.

Why a reformation? Our denomination has lost members every year since the 60s with a whopping 69,000 net loss in 2008. We cannot blame this loss on one thing. But it is worth reflection on why so many people are part of the church alumni association. At least for the people I hang out with, the church's official beliefs and vows of membership and ordination are out of touch with reality.

In part, it is personal. I wish I had five bucks every time someone on this blog or on another blog has accused me of breaking my ordination vows. In my previous presbytery I was even officially "investigated" because one of my colleagues, a true believing busybody, thought something I wrote was is in violation of my ordination vows.

So is it me? Or the busybodies? Or is the problem the vows? Of course I play the game and tell the busybodies that I affirm my ordination vows (and I do so by interpreting them loosely). The very fact that I have to do that shows there is something wrong with the language in the first place. So I will devote a few posts to the vows that deacons, elders, and clergy in my denomination are required to affirm. My hope is that you will see that we are requiring duplicity among our church's leaders and that cannot be productive for our denomination's survival let alone relevance.

Larger than denominational or personal issues, we need a reformation because the world and its needs have changed. Believe it or not, I think that the church could and sometimes does say something good and worthwhile. We are facing huge threats to the survival of humanity and Earth. We need the best thinking available to interpret and respond to these crises. But our official church dogmas are still otherworldly and locked into a pre-modern system of thought.

I devote my first post to the founder of the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk. Here are his twenty-one theses for the reformation of the church.

These 21 theses are found in his 1996 book, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millenium. They were also printed in The Fourth R in 1998.

  1. The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is not a personal god out there external to human beings and the material world. We must reckon with a deep crisis in god talk and replace it with talk about whether the universe has meaning and whether human life has purpose.
  2. The doctrine of special creation of the species died with the advent of Darwinism and the new understanding of the age of the earth and magnitude of the physical universe. Special creation goes together with the notion that the earth and human beings are at the center of the galaxy (the galaxy is anthropocentric). The demise of a geocentric universe took the doctrine of special creation with it.
  3. The deliteralization of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis brought an end to the dogma of original sin as something inherited from the first human being. Death is not punishment for sin, but is entirely natural. And sin is not transmitted from generation to generation by means of male sperm, as suggested by Augustine.
  4. The notion that God interferes with the order of nature from time to time in order to aid or punish is no longer credible, in spite of the fact that most people still believe it. Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood. Miracles are conceivable only as the inexplicable; otherwise they contradict the regularity of the order of the physical universe.
  5. Prayer is meaningless when understood as requests addressed to an external God for favor or forgiveness and meaningless if God does not interfere with the laws of nature. Prayer as praise is a remnant of the age of kingship in the ancient Near East and is beneath the dignity of deity. Prayer should be understood principally as meditation—as listening rather than talking—and as attention to the needs of neighbor.


  1. We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine. Jesus' divinity goes together with the old theistic way of thinking about God.
  2. The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus.
  3. The virgin birth of Jesus is an insult to modern intelligence and should be abandoned. In addition, it is a pernicious doctrine that denigrates women.
  4. The doctrine of the atonement—the claim that God killed his own son in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction—is subrational and subethical. This monstrous doctrine is the stepchild of a primitive sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them some special gift, such as a child or an animal.
  5. The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead, except perhaps in some metaphorical sense. The meaning of the resurrection is that a few of his followers—probably no more than two or three—finally came to understand what he was all about. When the significance of his words and deeds dawned on them, they knew of no other terms in which to express their amazement than to claim that they had seen him alive.
  6. The expectation that Jesus will return and sit in cosmic judgment is part and parcel of the mythological worldview that is now defunct. Furthermore, it undergirds human lust for the punishment of enemies and evildoers and the corresponding hope for rewards for the pious and righteous. All apocalyptic elements should be expunged from the Christian agenda.

God's Domain according to Jesus

  1. Jesus advocates and practices a trust ethic. The kingdom of God, for Jesus, is characterized by trust in the order of creation and the essential goodness of neighbor.
  2. Jesus urges his followers to celebrate life as though they had just discovered a cache of coins in a field or been invited to a state banquet.
  3. For Jesus, God's domain is a realm without social boundaries. In that realm there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, homosexual nor heterosexual, friend nor enemy.
  4. For Jesus, God's domain has no brokers, no mediators between human beings and divinity. The church has insisted on the necessity of mediators in order to protect its brokerage system.
  5. For Jesus, the kingdom does not require cultic rituals to mark the rites of passage from outsider to insider, from sinner to righteous, from child to adult, from client to broker.
  6. In the kingdom, forgiveness is reciprocal: individuals can have it only if they sponsor it.
  7. The kingdom is a journey without end: one arrives only by departing. It is therefore a perpetual odyssey. Exile and exodus are the true conditions of authentic existence.

The canon

  1. The New Testament is a highly uneven and biased record of orthodox attempts to invent Christianity. The canon of scripture adopted by traditional Christianity should be contracted and expanded simultaneously to reflect respect for the old tradition and openness to the new. Only the works of strong poets—those who startle us, amaze us with a glimpse of what lies beyond the rim of present sight—should be considered for inclusion. The canon should be a collection of scriptures without a fixed text and without either inside or outside limits, like the myth of King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable or the myth of the American West.
  2. The Bible does not contain fixed, objective standards of behavior that should govern human behavior for all time. This includes the ten commandments as well as the admonitions of Jesus.

The language of faith

  1. In rearticulating the vision of Jesus, we should take care to express ourselves in the same register as he employed in his parables and aphorisms—paradox, hyperbole, exaggeration, and metaphor. Further, our reconstructions of his vision should be provisional, always subject to modification and correction.


  1. I've got to read this book! These 21 items are completely in line with everything I believe about the Christian church.

  2. Frankly I'd be happy enough if we just started sticking to what our Book of Order actually says, instead of what the busybodies, fusspots, tattletales, and scolds have convinced themselves and others that it says.

    Presbyterian principles are actually pretty clever if people ever bothered to understand or follow them -- particularly the fussbudgets who style themselves as the protectors of those principles.

  3. Huh. Ok, I think I can use this to get more of a handle on what I don't like about the Jesus Seminar, and at least lay it out with some numbers. So if yo don't mind, I'd like to link to this, copy the theses, and then respond to them.

  4. Bellandcandle, welcome! Yes, it is a thought-provoking book. I recommend it.

    Alan, I agree that the BOO is more broad that how either progressives or traditionalists paint it. Which is why even with all my whacko ideas I can still think I am on the team.

    Doug, Not only do I not mind, I encourage and welcome your critique! Just FYI, Funk isn't speaking for the Jesus Seminar here. These are his theological reflections regarding the publication of the Five Gospels and the seminar's work on the sayings of Jesus.

  5. Doug has provided a thoughtful critique here.