Jesus and Religion

Why is it important to point out that Christianity is a religion, and that religion doesn’t equal self-righteousness? Jeff Bethke’s video has had so many ‘likes’, from all shades of Christians, including those from evangelical and Reformed churches, surely it can’t be that much out of kilter? Is a critique of Bethke splitting hairs?

Well, among other things, Jeff Bethke’s view:

  • denigrates the Church, the institution inaugurated by the apostles of Christ – which is the body of Christ. The mistaken view that religion is bad leads to ambivalence towards church leadership, church discipline, and the sacraments. And it devalues the place of obedience and attendance. I sometimes hear the view that: ‘you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.’ That kind of thing comes from this kind of thing.
  • falls hook, line and sinker for the post-modern suspicion of institutions and authority. Critiques of the church by the church are valid, but ought to be far more nuanced and balanced than this is. The authority of God over our lives is bound up with the authority of the church.
  • drives a wedge between Jesus Christ and the Apostles, or put another way, between the gospels and the letters. People have enough difficulty understanding who Jesus is without this inadvertent throwing of weight behind the claims of liberal theology. More and more people from a Christian background want a Jesus divorced from the church, obedience and ritual – a portable Jesus who they can carry around with their iPhone to pretty much wherever they want to be in life. The idea that Jesus wasn’t into the authoritarian stance of Paul is music to the ears of people like this. It’s not many steps from there to embracing the view that the church is really not what Jesus had in mind at all.

Why I Love Jesus And True Religion

bethkeA poet named Jeff Bethke has posted a performance poem to Youtube which seems to have won a lot of fans. It’s entitled ‘Why I hate religion but love Jesus.’ Is he talking sense?

Bethke asks why religion has started so many wars. Why has it built huge churches but not fed the poor? It’s clear that the target of Bethke’s criticism is the church. Well, the church has built great cathedrals. It has sponsored great works of art (Bethke’s question belies an outlook that denigrates art and aesthetics). And it has fed the poor too in plenty of places across its history. As the video progresses, we see Bethke unwittingly using the same technique as Dawkins, picking out practices that few Christians would defend and tarring the whole Church with whatever’s on his brush.

As for Bethke’s denouncement of religion per se, it is simply mistaken. The poem begins with the question: ‘what if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?’ If you told me that, you’d be wrong. The people of God in the Old Testament related to Him through a religion instituted by revelation to Moses. Jesus upheld the true practice of that covenant religion before his death and resurrection inaugurated a new covenant. The people of God in the New Testament relate to him through that new covenant religion which is revealed by, and centred on, Jesus the Christ. Christianity is a religion (although Bethke specifically contrasts Christianity with religion). It has sacraments, discipline, rituals and doctrine. The important distinction is not between Jesus and Religion, but between True and False Religion. False Religion can be found both inside and outside the Church – and False Religion is the problem. For example, it’s self-made religion that’s the problem in Colossians 2:23, not religion per se.

Bethke goes wrong because he equates religion with self-righteousness and he defines it as a man-made invention. Words are important, and Bethke has got his definition wrong. In the OED you find that religion is ‘a particular system of faith and worship’. More importantly, when the apostle James writes about ‘true religion’, he’s using a word which is used for Jewish worship, and pagan worship too. The apostle James clearly doesn’t believe that Jesus came to abolish religion. James believes that being religious is good, as long as it is pure or true religion (1:27) and not worthless religion (1:26).


    reagan Some time back I managed to get a watch of Reagan by Eugene Jarecki.  It’s an engaging and striking film, in part thanks to the excellent photography. Revisiting so many events that I clearly remember from my years growing up was fascinating – the assassination attempt on Reagan; the Iran-Contra scandal; the star wars SDI program; the talks with Gorbachov.  This is even more striking since I was growing up in Britain, not the US.  This in itself says a lot about Reagan’s effect on his country’s fortunes. 

    There’s one part of the film, near the end, that particularly grabbed my attention.  At several points in the film there are excerpts from an interview with retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich.  After contrasting Carter and Reagan (and giving his judgement that Carter was a failure as a president), he says this:
    That said, there was a moment when he, however briefly, grasped a central truth about the American predicament… (the film cuts to an excerpt from a Jimmy Carter speech: ‘it’s clear that the true problems of our nation are deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession,’ then back to Bacevich) …the problems we face are not out there, the problems we face are in here.  We have committed ourselves to the pursuit of freedom, where our definition of freedom is simply false.  We have convinced ourselves that through the piling up of material goods, through indulging the appetites of a consumer society, that by going down that road we will best be able to find life, liberty and happiness.  Carter argued that our dependence on oil was central to this and it would lead us down the path toward interventionism and conflict.  What Ronald Reagan said is: you don’t have to sacrifice, you don’t have to make do, you don’t have to get by with less, there’s plenty of oil, there’s an infinite supply, trust me.
    That one sentence, we have committed ourselves to the pursuit of freedom, where our definition of freedom is simply false, cuts profoundly to the heart of the emptiness at the very centre of western society.  But to say so is hugely costly to the doyens of western culture, since it prompts another question that seems to open an abyss beneath their feet: what then is the point?

    The Scene of Redemption

    The world into which we shall enter in the Parousia of Jesus Christ is therefore not another world; it is this world, this heaven, this earth; both, however, passed away and renewed. It is these forests, these fields, these cities, these streets, these people, that will be the scene of redemption. At present they are battlefields, full of the strife and sorrow of the not yet accomplished consummation; then they will be fields of victory, fields of harvest, where out of seed that was sown with tears the everlasting sheaves will be reaped and brought home.


    Edward Thurneysen, from Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 281.

    World Without End

    My PhD research falls in the realm of creation and eschatology. In Jer 31:36 there is a little phrase: hahuqqim ha’elleh. The NASB (and ESV) translate this phrase as this fixed order. The context is the new covenant…

    “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “ I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

    Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day, And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name:

    If This Fixed Order departs from before Me,” declares the LORD, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease From being a nation before Me forever.” Thus says the LORD, “ If the heavens above can be measured And the foundations of the earth searched out below, Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done,” declares the LORD.

    The commitment of the LORD to his people is matched by his commitment to the creation.

    Weiterfahrt von Vorsprung

    I’m back blogging. Previously, I was posting my experiences and reflections on studying theology as an undergraduate at Highland Theological College, on a blog called Vorsprung durch Theologie. This is not the usual, busy blogging of the proper theo- and biblio-bloggers, you understand (I haven’t got the time for that), but the occasional, sporadic blogging that I adopted on VdT. It’s therapeutic when you spend long hours in the company of ancient philosophers, and hopefully someone finds something interesting once in a while.