A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

So, Just How Inclusive Was Jesus?

Michael Bird on his blog Euangelion comments on an article from the latest issue of Horizons in Biblical Theology written by Markus Bockmuehl entitled, "The Trouble With the Inclusive Jesus." Michael quotes a portion of what Bockmuehl has written:
However one parses the exegetical particulars, Jesus of Nazareth is (as Richard Hays puts it), not only the friend of sinners but also the nemesis of the wicked. Another way of putting this is to say that Jesus of Nazareth includes a remarkably wide diversity of the marginalized, yet he also marginalizes an uncomfortably diverse range of the religiously or socioeconomically included. That necessarily complicates any discussion of Jesus' "universalism" or "inclusiveness": Jesus, like Paul, appears to envisage the saved as well as the unsaved or the not-yet-saved … Our problem, then, is that the apparent smoothness and attractiveness of the "inclusive Jesus" hypothesis are acquired at a very high moral price. As we have seen, the structure of the argument typically follows the familiar liberal departicularizing of a Jesus who takes his stance over against the Judaism of his time: Jews were narrow, ethnic, culturally conservative; Jesus by contrast was universal, inclusive, and welcoming without exception. (p. 14, 17).
Michael himself goes on to comment:
Bockmuehl raises a good point, social inclusiveness is the only absolute modern value, and biblical interpreters are quick to try to make Jesus the all-inclusive hero who championed his message of inclusiveness against all forms of exclusivism.

In recent scholarship, the caricature of Judaism as legalistic has been replaced with Judaism as ethnocentric. Now ancient Jews were well known for looking after their own kind, but synagogues did accept outsiders as guests and even proselytes if they became converted and circumcised. On top of that, the Romans were probably the most xenophobic group around at the time, and were always expelling some group from Rome on the grounds that weird foreign stuff from the east was getting too popular. There was usually an open door for Gentiles into Jewish synagogues, which is exactly where the early Christian mission took root. Likewise, Jesus appears to have upheld, as far as we know, Jewish ethics concerning wealth, sexuality, and family albeit in light of his eschatological conception of the kingdom. Paul, the great inclusivist for Gentiles, slaves, and women (see Gal 3:28), also railed against pagan sexuality, temples, and forbade marriage with outsiders (1 Corinthians 6-10). Jesus and Paul are inclusive in a way that other Jews were not, but at the same time they were also exclusive in ways that other Jews, Romans, and Greeks were not. The inclusive Jesus, with a brand of inclusiveness made conducive to modern culture, is another example of the liberalizing and modernizing of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.
I agree with Tom Wright that modern notions of inclusiveness are too broad and too shallow. Of course there is an inclusive aspect of the Gospel; it is, after all, offered to everyone. But one cannot avoid that along with the inclusive nature of the Gospel in the New Testament, there is also an exclusive character as well. One simply cannot read Jesus or Paul and conclude otherwise.

The fact that many Christians in the twenty-first century church do not understand this is revealed in the recent hoopla over Rob Bell's book, Love Wins. Bell rightly believes that the question "Is Gandhi in hell?" should not necessarily be answered in the affirmative, and those who confidently think otherwise need to remember that God is quite unconcerned over what they think about the eternal destiny of others. At the same time, those who have been so quick to hop on the universalism bandwagon need to remember that there is another question that should be asked as well: "Is Hitler in heaven?"

Now, my answer to both of those questions is that God is the one who will judge. It is not my place nor does God care what I think. I am not a universalist, but I am a big tent kind of guy. I think there will likely be more people enjoying eternity than some people narrowly think. But the task Jesus has given to his followers is not to judge who is in and who is out, but to go into all the world to make disciples of Jesus Christ. It is only in following Jesus that we can have the assurance of our salvation that John Wesley spoke so much about. We who follow Jesus need to be about the mission and let God take care of eternity.

But the purpose of this post is not to focus only on the hereafter, but to highlight what Bockmuehl and Michael are rightly saying about our present situation. Current accounts of inclusiveness are indebted much more to modernity than they are to the New Testament. Richard Hays words need to be heard: Jesus is not only the friend of sinners but he is the nemesis of the wicked. The issue is not the truly inclusive nature of the Gospel, but the imposition of a broad and shallow modern inclusivism that does indeed come at a high moral price. Bishop William Willimon reminds us that during his ministry Jesus drove away more people than he attracted.

Perhaps it is appropriate to quote the famous passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian 'conception' of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. 'All for sin could not atone.' Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
What Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "costly grace" John Wesley referred to as "transforming grace." Mainline Protestantism needs to recover grace as costly and transforming. Such grace is inclusively offered to all, but by its very nature as costly and transforming, it is exclusive as well.

It's time to put the "cost" back into discipleship and the "transformation" back into grace.


Mike said...

Good post.
I agree that mainline protestantism needs a modification of its understanding of grace. I also agree that there is way too much emphasis on who's in and who's out in much of the evangelical church. There is much work to be done in advancing the reign of God without checking for membership credentials.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what you are saying in this post. The one point that I would challenge you on is your assumption that the "modern inclusivism" is "Shallow and broad". As someone who pactices inclusion intentionally I must tell you that I have not experienced it as shallow or broad. Grace has not been cheapened or watered down. Inclusion is extended as invitation to anyone who wishes to engage, it is up to them to choose grace and to remain in community in which they may grow in Spirit and produce fruit of that spirit. My Wesleyan roots show as I think of modern inclusivism as the practice of prevenient grace, the invitation to grace before it is acknowledged or excepted. It is up to those who inclusion has been offered to accept grace, but if we are not welcoming without agenda to those who are seeking God (even if they are unaware of their desire)then we are being exclusive. While our community seeks to practice inclusivity we have had those who have chosen to not be included yet the invitation remains open, this does not cheapen Grace at all,we are clear about our Christian journey and faith. Extending the invitation for inclusion is NOT about getting your numbers up in community or giving people what they want, it is about being open to whom God sends our way and those whom God is already working on as they seek community and trusting that the same grace we were offered is being offered to those who seek inclusion.

Richard H said...

It's difficult to talk about such an abstract concept as "inclusivity." Lots of folks are for inclusivity - the difference comes in terms of inclusvity to what end and in what context.

Considering the institution of marriage for a moment... The current push is to change the institution to make it so that it includes same-sex relationships. From what I read of folks who argue in that direction, at least many of them continue to envision marriage itself as an exclusive institution. I am married to THIS person, not to THAT person, and because I am married to THIS person, we have an exclusive relationship.

Or considering Jesus as in this post by Allan. Jesus practiced INCLUSION by extending his kingdom invitation to those typically EXCLUDED by those who constituted the most powerful stream of current Jewish culture. Jesus included sinners not to the end of adding their ways of living (anti-thetical to the kingdom) to the kingdom ways, but to offer them a way of real life that required deep change on their part. In our modern terms, he appeared to include the people while not including their lifestyles (there was no, "Don't worry about the money Zaccheus, you don't need to change! I accept you as you are.).

The difficulty here is conceiving inclusion and repentance (and change) together.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate comments.

You do a nice job in a brief paragraph articulating prevenient grace, which is a doctrine I love about our Wesleyan heritage; and I especially appreciate your comment that "it is being open to whom God sends our way and those whom God is already working on," etc. Well said indeed and I am right there with you.

But the problem with us 21st century Methodists is that I fear we are real long on prevenient grace and quite short on sanctifying or perfecting grace, and that is what I am hitting upon in this post.

Our Christian ethics seems to boil down to being nothing other nice and kind. And while those are good things, surely (as Methodist scholar, Richard Hays notes), Jesus didn't go to the cross simply to make us nice.

My guess is (and this is controversial, I know) that we Methodist are so afraid of scaring people away with a rigorous call to commitment, we are left only with being welcoming. The latter is an important and necessary thing, but so is the former.

I suppose the influence of George Hunter is making itself known in my comments. I offer a link to a previous post of mine where I quote him in depth.-- http://www.allanbevere.com/2011/02/united-methodists-have-no-identity-and.html

So I stand by my conviction that modern notions of inclusiveness are too broad and too shallow.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your insightful comments.

PamBG said...

I do like what Connie says a lot.

In Chaplaincy, we also run into our own temptation to give absolution to individuals before they have actually repented of their sins. And people on death's door really do NEED to state their particular sins, have them heard by God and God's people and know themselves forgiven. So we can't shy away from this.

As a theological-liberal, I think we mainstreamers/liberals do have a tendency to be squeamish in facing up to the fact of sin.

However, I also feel that the Christian voices I hear on the internet arguing for fences do seem more concerned with keeping certain individuals out of the Kingdom (like the marginalized) than they are concerned with naming sin as sin. Here too is a sqeamishness about confessing actual, particular sins. And (from my personal experience in conservative Christianity) an obsession with getting people to see themselves as "sinFUL" is just another way to avoid dealing with particulars.

I believe that there is no type or status of person whom God wishes to exclude from the Kingdom (prevenient grace). In some way or another each individual has to use his or her free will to repent and turn in God's direction (saving grace). Confession of individual sins that won't in and of themselves damn us can bring us spiritual healing and, if we manage to do this during the course of our life, it will bring us spiritual growth as well.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks, Pam... I always appreciate your insight.

Yes, those on the conservative end do have the opposite problem. I think Richard H. is correct on the need to see inclusion and repentance together. Both of them give us reconciliation. I do not see them as mutually exclusive but complimentary. Why we human beings have trouble striking such a balance between the two (or two of anything for that matter) seems to be the perennial problem.

Dennis Sanders said...

Alan, thanks for the post. As usual, it was thought-provoking and something I've been thinking about for a while.

That said, I want to put some flesh and bone on the issue of inclusiveness.

As a gay man, I do understand and appreciate the call to be inclusive and welcoming. There are a lot of folks who have felt left out of the church because of their sexuality. But as someone who is also an ordained minister (in the Disciples of Christ), heck as a Christian, I know that we are called to be more than simply inclusive. As much as I find some parts of Christianity too quick to draw boundaries that I believe is up to God, I tend to find the drive towards inclusion at all costs kind of shallow. I mean, inclusion is a wonderful thing, but if there is no talk of the cross, or faith, or sin or forgiveness, then what you have is a very thin theology indeed.

What I long for is something you said in a previous comment, a balance between inclusion and repentance. People need to know that they are loved by God, but they also need to have room for repentance as well.

Sharp said...

Allan, your last comment points to an issue that I see cropping up in nearly every Christian discussion. We seem to thrive on choosing and championing either/or when God clearly expects both/and.

It's very frustrating to hear arguments about, for example, charity versus proselytizing because they aren't diametrically opposed. They are two sides of the same coin.

I sit in Bible study groups and listen to sincere people warp the apocryphal St. Francis witticism about using words if necessary into a command to "use words only if absolutely necessary but - if at all possible - don't mention Jesus at all because it's arrogant and presumptuous to proselytize." Then I listen to a sermon online and hear a preacher say it's more important to save one sinner from hell than to save a million people from disease.

Both extremes are wrong. Matthew 25 makes it clear helping others is neither optional nor a secondary consideration. But doing it in Christ's name is also mandatory because he is the good news. It's not either/or. It's both/and.

Apropos of this post, btw, in Matthew 25: There are sheep and there are goats. It's not up to any of us to determine who is in which group. But a determination will definitely be made. And the goats will be excluded. That's direct from Jesus. He refuses to be appropriated by any theological agenda of any century, conservative or liberal. And that's the way I like him.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Dennis and Sharp,

Thanks for your helpful comments. This has been a good discussion.

Gary Lyn said...

I tend to move away from the use of inclusive and exclusive. Trying to decide if Jesus was inclusive or exclusive, how inclusive or exclusive he was...it just doesn't seem to get anywhere. As we move toward the inclusive end of the spectrum, awareness of different-ness (and/or sin-evil) gets lost and muddled. As we move toward the exclusive end of the spectrum, we end up talking about the sin-evil in others that Jesus is exclusive towards, instead of the sin-evil in our own hearts.
A more helpful way of thinking about this for me is the biblical concept of hospitality. Not just genteel civility and/or tolerance, but the radical acceptance of the other, as they are, without the expectation of them to be different in order for me to practice acceptance of them. There is a way that we are all "other." As Parker Palmer has said, we live in the "company of strangers." Hospitality is deep recognition of that otherness and an intentional movement toward that otherness by creating a real and genuine space, physical and emotional, for them in my life.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Gary, some good points... thanks!