January 12, 2017 – John Stonestreet How far can Christianity be reduced before it’s no longer Christianity? We need to be able to answer that question with a firm answer.
One of C. S. Lewis’ most famous arguments is his so-called “trilemma,” laid out in “Mere Christianity.” Because of the things Jesus said and did, reasoned Lewis, He must either have been a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.
He made this point to debunk the most common secular misconception of Jesus, which has only grown more popular in the last half century. “I can accept Jesus as a great moral teacher,” says the secularist. “Maybe He was a kind of first-century Gandhi. But I can’t accept him as God in human flesh.”
Lewis called this idea “patronizing nonsense.” Apart from the historic belief that Jesus is God and man, born of a virgin, that He died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day, Lewis could see no future for Christianity. “Mere” or bare-minimum Christian faith, he argued, requires a belief in these miracles. Yet many today still insist that some kind of stripped-down, “bare-essentials” Christian faith is possible, and that the ancient summaries like the Apostles’ Creed are too exclusive.
During a sit-down interview with pastor Tim Keller just before Christmas, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested that Christianity can survive without the virgin birth or Resurrection.
“I deeply admire Jesus and his message,” he said, “but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity—the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles, and so on.” Are these really that essential to the Christian faith? Isn’t it possible to be a Christian without embracing them?
Keller replied that you can’t remove Jesus’ miraculous entry into the world or His miraculous return to life “without destabilizing the whole [of Christianity]. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be.”
He went on to explain that the main point of Jesus’ teaching, and of the New Testament, is not a moral maxim, but a message: that Jesus Christ is God in human form, Who was and did everything the ancient creeds say. And believing this is essential. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, if Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is vain, and we Christians are to be pitied above all people.
Now as far as I’m concerned, Keller knocked it out of the park. But judging by the letters to the editor, it seems many readers felt differently.
One United Church of Christ minister chided the paper for allowing an evangelical to represent Christianity. The creeds, she wrote, “are not tests of faith for individuals,” and “the virgin birth is not central.”
And a religion professor at Hofstra University scolded the Times for giving a “platform” to Keller’s “dangerous” reading of Christianity.
If you know anything about Tim Keller, a lot of adjectives come to mind. But “dangerous” isn’t one of them. But to those who prefer patronizing nonsense to historic Christianity, there’s nothing more dangerous than someone who can convincingly articulate the miraculous doctrines at the core of our faith.
In our culture of skepticism and unbelief, being winsome doesn’t guarantee a warm reception. But messengers like Keller not only make the claims of historic Christianity more accessible in our secular culture, they model what it looks like to be both loving and—as our critics put it— “dangerous.”
Why? Because “dangerous Christianity” can’t be outsourced to the professionals alone. All who follow Christ are to be informed and equipped to proclaim Him to the world around them.