Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Narrative Preaching 4


Tom Long takes on the many, many American manifestations of the gnostic impulse in his new book, Preaching from Memory to Hope. Some will not like this as an example, but here it is:
“The old American revival hymn wonders about Jesus, ‘You ask me how I know he lives?’ The hymn’s answer breathes the claustrophobic air of American piety, ‘He lives within my heart.’ [And Tom Long’s response is priceless:] A small space indeed for the Lord of all time and space” (80).
True, there’s an “in here” dimension to genuine faith but it’s always because there’s an “out there.”
Tom Long adapts from others a list of factors at work when the gnostic spirit and the gnostic impulse arises and becomes attractive, and he’s in no doubt that is a total revision of the orthodox faith. 

1. Christian tradition is viewed as basically untrustworthy.
2. Traditional Christianity fails the theodicy test.
3. Christian eschatology is implausible.
4. The core of the faith is worth saving.
5. Christianity needs a top-down revision not small corrections.
6. There is a hunger for more spiritual interpretation of Scripture.
7. Conviction that there is a profound difference between ordinary church people and those who deeply understand the spiritual truth of Christianity.
So he zeros in on Marcus Borg with this: “I do think his personal faith manifesto, recorded across several of his popular books, is not a fully adequate map for other Christians who seen an authentic faith today or for the larger church” (84-85). What Long finds is “not Jesus, but gnosticism” (85). He finds each of the seven in Borg, but this does not make Borg a gnostic.
So here goes:
1. For Borg, humanity is saved by knowledge.
2. For Borg, there is a focus on the spiritual inner self, the divine spark within.
3. For Borg, there is an antipathy toward incarnation and embodiment. [Extensive discussion.]
4. For Borg, there is an emphasis on present spiritual reality rather than eschatological hope, on the God of timeless truth rather than the God who will bring history to consummation.
By the way, Long thinks Borg’s “preEaster Jesus” has become his canonical Jesus, a point I will be making soon in a Christianity Today article. [I wonder if any readers want to examine Brian McLaren’s new book to see how many of the above seven categories it fits.] 
So, a gnostic? To begin with, Long observes that the old orthodoxy still defines Borg because Borg’s work is a response to its categories. This point is very important, but can’t be developed. Buy the book and read the chp. Thus, he sees Borg as a combination of three features:
The piety of orthodoxy
The honest intellectual inquiry of liberalism
The spirituality of gnosticism.
Tom Long says Borg’s Jesus is too much like Marcus Borg himself. 
The problem is that the first command to love God is mitigated; the God has become too much myself. And it mitigates loving the neighbor.
Gnosticism doesn’t just inflect the accent of our faith; it changes its grammar, distorts its memory, and makes it speak in a tongue alien to the gospel! (So Tom Long, 108.)
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John W Frye

posted February 15, 2010 at 8:27 am

Scot, how can this be? “He [Long]finds each of the seven [gnostic impulses] in Borg, but this does not make Borg a gnostic.” Is it just because for Borg “the old orthodoxy still defines Borg because Borg’s work is a response to its categories.” That seems like a weak deflection in light of the entire post.

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Scot McKnight

posted February 15, 2010 at 8:52 am

John, it appears to me that Tom Long sees Borg’s gnostic impulses in his spirituality more than anywhere else.

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posted February 15, 2010 at 9:05 am

It’s probably worth pointing out, even though I don’t much care for that hymn, it means something very different from what the writer had in mind when someone who doesn’t believe in (or see the need for) Christ’s resurrection sings it. For those who don’t accept a bodily resurrection, Jesus “lives on” pretty much the same way that anyone who died has–as an inspirational memory. This, of course, is a far cry from the sense in which Paul believed Christ “lives” and a far cry from what it means to have the Holy Spirit within (and surrounding) us.
It seems a little unfair to let people who don’t believe in a robust Holy Spirit and a resurrected and active Christ to hijack such lines and even references to a “divine spark” as gnostic or otherwise outside of orthodox faith and life.

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posted February 15, 2010 at 9:26 am

I’d love to know what Long prescribes for this problem (maybe I’ll read the book). Does he think we should paper over the untrustworthiness of Christian tradition like some Texas Public School textbook commission?
I’m not a particularly big fan of Borg, but he is very successful making aspects of Christianity compelling to people minted in a culture that has no use for traditional/institutional faith. Couldn’t we affirm him as a sort of “gateway theology,” giving people the opportunity to go deeper? I know people in my congregations who are there at least partly because of Borg, but here they say the creeds and hear the liturgy every week.
I’ll disagree with one of Longs 7 signs, though — #5. If Christianity needs revision, it should be bottom up, not top down!

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posted February 15, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Borg clearly has some gnostic tendencies. But why focus only on liberals — even many (most?) conservative Christians have some very strong gnostic impulses, as N.T. Wright argues fairly forcefully (e.g., many believe the end is all about going to a disembodied heaven when you die).
MarkP — I certainly understand some of the concerns that led Borg and people like him to where they are (some of the same concerns tug at me at times). But I just recently read Borg’s explanation of why he believes he can still say the creeds, and it struck me as quite a stretch. He doesn’t believe the words as they were meant, but is simply affirming that those words spoke to questions a particular culture had at a specific time, in their own language and meanings, so that by saying them he is somehow participating in their spiritual communion at that particular time. But he doesn’t believe what the words were intended to mean. I was left wondering, if you reach that stage, why bother with the creeds, or even Christianity? (That’s not a rhetorical point — I honestly wonder why he bothers).

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Scot McKnight

posted February 15, 2010 at 1:20 pm

EricG, Long focuses upon Borg and liberals because he’s a mainliner himself.

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Scott Leonard

posted February 15, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Scott-I read McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, and what I long thought to be true is revealed there. I no longer feel his views need to be entered into the discussion if the discussion pertains to serious biblical dialogue among evangelicals. He very sadly stands opposite Scripture on God’s nature and character, the gospel, the cross, inspiration, & other religions. Sadly, he is a confused Universalist. If we want to see what he has to say relative to this subject, then we would certainly want to know what the B’hai’s, the Unitarian Universalists and the followers of Lao-tzu have to say. There seriously is very little difference in the value of their opinions. I’m not trying to be cute, nor do I believe I am overstating. The title of your upcoming interview with him at Q Chicago, advertised as “Conversations on Being A Heretic”, in light of his new book, has lost all semblance of novelty or humor. It in fact carries a dark irony.

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posted February 15, 2010 at 10:42 pm

I have not read any of Marcus Borg’s books, but lately I hear a lot about him, so I did an internet search to find out more about him. I found this three page interview of him at to be interesting.

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