The Southern Baptist Convention’s 2004 doctrinal study evades Jesus’ teachings, skipping his Sermon on the Mount and ignoring his greatest commandment.
Simply put, if Matthew, Mark and Luke receive any attention in Discovering the Biblical Jesus, then the focus is mostly on texts related to the virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection. The bulk of the Synoptic Gospels appears less important than selected texts from Genesis, Isaiah and some of Paul’s writings. Daniel’s apocalyptic words appear more relevant than Jesus’ parabolic words.
Regrettably, this pattern is not new. Fundamentalists have long defined Jesus’ only in terms of matters related to Old Testament prophesy, virgin birth, divinity, atonement and resurrection. They have a noted habit of watering down how Jesus taught his followers to live.
The doctrinal study author, Daniel Akin, continues in this tradition. While he writes that “Discovering the Biblical Jesus focuses on the central doctrine of Christianity—the person and work of Jesus Christ,” his real focus is on shoring up the walls of conservative Baptist orthodoxy against imaginary threats. He warns about Marcus Borg, the Jesus Seminar, liberal theologians, atheists and pluralism.
He fails to warn about a more immediate threat within Baptist churches—the quest to evade Jesus’ teachings.
Akin essentially defines faith as mental assent and severs faith from real life. Faith is all in the head about doctrines, propositions and scholastic proofs. Faith has little to do with the prevailing materialistic, militaristic, nationalistic and narcissistic culture. Faith really has little to do with following Jesus.
Glen Stassen, a Baptist professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, is right when he warns, “When Jesus’ way of discipleship is thinned down, marginalized or avoided, then churches and Christians lose their antibodies against infection by secular ideologies that manipulate Christians into serving the purposes of some other Lord.”
“Christian churches across the theological and confessional spectrum … are often guilty of evading Jesus, the cornerstone and center of the Christian faith,” writes Stassen, co-author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. “Specifically, the teachings and practices of Jesus—especially the largest block of his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount—are routinely ignored or misinterpreted in the preaching and teaching ministry of the churches.”
Stassen, who taught for years at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says, “This evasion of the concrete teachings of Jesus has seriously malformed Christian moral practices, moral beliefs and moral witness.”
“It is no overstatement to claim that the evasion of the teachings of Jesus constitutes a crisis of Christian identity and raises the question of who exactly is functioning as the Lord of the church,” he writes.
The conflict between Southern Baptist fundamentalists and virtually all other Baptists worldwide is rooted in competing understandings of Jesus. Fundamentalists advocate a Jesus to whom they give their mental assent about hard-right belief. Others Baptists believe in a Jesus to whom they give their whole life—heart, soul and mind.
Contrary to his title, what Akin describes is a far cry from the “biblical” Jesus.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.