Review: The Jesus Creed

The Jesus Creed

The Jesus CreedScot McKnight. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2019.

Summary: Explores how reciting, reflecting upon, and living the Greatest Command can transform the lives of disciples.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind and with all your strength.”
The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
There is no commandment greater than these.

Scot McKnight proposes that this response by Jesus to a teacher of the law regarding what was the greatest commandment was not merely a response of Jesus, but reflected the creed Jesus recited. Certainly the first part, drawn from the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), was a creed every devout Jew recited and professed. Jesus response did something revolutionary. He added Leviticus 19:18 concerning love of neighbor. Jesus sums up the spiritual life, and all the teaching of the law as love of God and neighbor.

McKnight, who came from a non-credal background, made  this a personal creed, reciting it morning and evening. In this work, McKnight offers a series of reflections on a life lived around the Jesus Creed, a life lived around loving God and others. After encouraging the use of this creed in prayer, McKnight explores the God we are to love and the powerful truth that we address Abba, the Father who first loves us, even when we were prodigals. The table he invites us to is an open table, a place where a new society is created. This sacred love, exemplified by John Woolman, manifests in transformed worship and transformed relationships.

In the second of four parts, McKnight leads us in reflecting on stories of people in the New Testament transformed by their embrace of Jesus and his creed: John the Baptist, Joseph, Mary, Peter, John, and the women around Jesus. I was particularly taken by his treatment of Joseph as a righteous man, who in taking Mary as his wife when she was pregnant with Jesus, lost his righteous reputation with a woman perceived as adulterous, and with an illegitimate child. McKnight observes that in his decision to love God and Mary and the baby, he loses his reputation and gains an identity as the husband of Mary and the Father of Jesus.

The third part explores a vision of the society of the Jesus Creed, It is a society that transforms life in the now. It is a mustard seed society in which small beginnings have far-reaching results. It is a society for justice, one devoted to setting things to rights. It is a society of restoration, that tears down walls of protection to spread the infectious purity of Jesus. It is a society of joy, where yearnings met by glimpses of joy become the full-blown joy of feasting with God and each other. It is a society of perspective, where we discover that “the end is the beginning,” where our communion now with God in scripture and in prayer in Christian community is shaped by what we expect to be our eternal destiny.

Finally, McKnight considers what it means for us to live the Jesus Creed. He summarizes this as:

  • Believing in Jesus
  • Abiding in Jesus
  • Surrendering in Jesus
  • Restoring in Jesus
  • Forgiving in Jesus
  • Reaching Out in Jesus

All of these were challenging chapters, and certainly the challenge to forgive is one many of us wrestle with. Another, that I do not hear much of these days, is that of surrender. McKnight speaks of surrendering both mind and body and gets very specific about each. Here is part of what he says about physical surrender:

   A disciple of Jesus recognizes the significance of what is physical. As Dallas Willard makes clear in several of his books, “the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life.” The challenge for spiritual formation is for our bodies to love God and others so that they “honor God.” While some people need to discipline the body more than others, the extravagances of some forms of monasticism, however well intended, express a fundamental misconception of the proper place of the body in spiritual formation. Having said that, however, the disciplines of the Christian life are “body acts of love” and cannot be set aside if we are being spiritually formed. In fact, the body cries for the opportunity to surrender itself to the Jesus Creed (p. 207).

No gnosticism here. McKnight explores how our bodily love for God and others works out in everything from our use of power to our quest for agelessness to our acceptance of the gift of our sexuality, while guarding from the misuse of this gift.

McKnight’s book is so valuable in calling us back to the heart of following Jesus. When asked about what we believe, at best we often stumble to offer theological, explanations, or at our worst, declare all the things we are against. McKnight invites us to reflect, and by saying this creed morning and evening, to center our lives on what Jesus thought most important. I suspect that we often get distracted from loving God and neighbor because it is simply hard. On the one hand, this is uncompromisingly simple–love God with all you are, and when you find a neighbor–love that person as you would be loved. On the other hand, it is hard, and that, I think is why we turn to other things. It is scary to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God. And we worry what will become of us if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the neighbor. But does this not take us into the place of surrender, of trusting the love of Abba-Father, as we day by day pray the Jesus Creed?

Leave the Label But Not the 81 Percent

Scot_McKnight_ACU_Summit_2013

By Flofor15 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Popular blogger and theologian, Scot McKnight, argued recently on his blog that it is time, and past time to bury the identifier “evangelical.”  Recently the former Princeton Evangelical Fellowship changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship, citing the confusion and negative associations the term has with students. Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical publication, now uses the language of “beautiful orthodoxy” to describe its vision. What it comes down to is the term is now associated with the 81 percent of voters who self-identified as evangelical who voted for our current President, and that essentially “evangelical” equates with a certain kind of Republican, and is a divisive and alienating term if one doesn’t identify with those Republicans.

I find I have to agree with McKnight, albeit with great sadness. This is the death of what was once a good word, literally. It has been corrupted by making it politically captive to one party whose policies and practices many thoughtful Christians find impossible to reconcile with a biblical faith.

McKnight is not one who is leaving what would be defined as an evangelical faith in abandoning the term, unlike others who have changed their beliefs along with their identification, some leaving Christianity altogether, others finding a home in mainline Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox bodies. What I hope for McKnight (and I would include myself along with him) is that he doesn’t leave behind the “81 percent” who still use the identifier.

I think there is a great danger for the “19 percent” to fall into the same error of the Democratic elite in this last election, who lost touch with their base, particularly in the working class and perhaps even looked down their nose at them as the “great unwashed” or “the basket of deplorables.” I would argue that there is an evangelical elite as well–academics, writers for national organs like Christianity Today, who would identify as “socially progressive” on many issues while remaining theologically orthodox. And this elite has its own “echo chambers.”

In his book Just ImmigrationMark Amstutz observes the progressive position on immigration of the Evangelical Immigration Table, and the disconnect between these evangelical leaders, and many of those in the denominations and ministries they represent. What this suggests to me is a telling lack of influence by those charged with teaching and shepherding their flocks. Amstutz also notes a troubling disconnect between biblical principles and policy recommendations reflecting a very thin biblical and theological analysis of the issues. When evangelical leaders fail to root their teaching in careful biblical argument, and promote a policy position that looks very much like a party platform, is it little wonder that there is a disconnect between shepherds and flock?

It is probably not uncommon for those in the “19 percent” to bemoan the divisive politics in our country. But what are we doing to heal the deep fault lines with the “81 percent”? I found it deeply troubling to read the uncharitable things written by those in the 19 percent about those who voted for the current president. Dropping the term “evangelical” helps shed what is a negative identification. But if it means dropping identification with those who share our core convictions, who we would call brothers and sisters in Christ, then we mirror our country’s political divisions in the body of Christ. What place have we for complaining about our nation’s divided house when we cannot even restore our own?

Scot McKnight represents a significant group within the 19 percent–those who are the teachers and pastors of the church. Ultimately, if the flock of God has entered into unholy alliances that have compromised our identity in the world, at whose feet must this be laid but those who are teachers and shepherds of that flock? Will we then distance ourselves to preserve our progressive theological purity and simply say “they” are the problem. How far from the prophets of old who identified with the sins of their people, or even Christ, who accepted a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin” even though he had no sins of his own to repent.

What is the responsibility of teachers and pastors when they believe their people in error? The apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

I wonder if we might need to spend less time in our echo chambers and more time with the people we serve, exercising kindness, able teaching, patient endurance, and gentle correction?

I also realize that some evangelical leaders are among those who have strongly supported the President. I’ve seen them decried in numerous blogs, but I wonder how many efforts have been made to “reason together” face to face.

Beyond all this, I wonder if there might be value in laying aside the politics to re-affirm the defining essentials of evangelicalism, even though we may need to find another name for it? Classically, we have been committed to the authority of the Bible in all of life, the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, the promise of new life through conversion of once lost persons, and activism in both witness and social concern. While we squabble about politics, a generation is embracing a secular ideology and a variety of alternative spiritualities, we face a rampant opioid crisis and growing disparities of wealth and poverty, education, and even life expectancy. We are witnessing militant extremists deepening our racial divides and promoting violence.

If we really believe the gospel in its wholeness is very good news and is a message of transforming power, why aren’t we coming together to consider how we might fulfill our Lord’s commission in our day? Why are we looking to the political order to deliver us, whether we are the 81 percent or the 19 percent? I wonder what would happen, and how many of our differences might either be resolved or set aside, if we came together across the spectrum to get about the Lord’s business.

Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners, wrote an article critical of Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright for his support of right wing causes. Bright was deeply hurt and the two didn’t speak for many years until they were staying at the same hotel and Wallis approached and apologized for failing to mend the breach between the two. Another meeting followed, Bright affirming that the Great Commission included care for the poor in doing all Christ commanded. The two prayed for each other’s work. Some time later, Wallis received a $1,000 donation for his work from Bright, along with a personal note,  at the same time that he had learned Bright had just died. He realized this gift and note were among the last things Bright did.

Might we give ourselves to healing such breaches and come together around our shared calling once more? It would be a sad thing if we gave up hope for that kind of healing along with the name “evangelical.” To do so would be to give up on the gospel.