Minimalist Christianity


(Daniel Fisher) #21

I should have read this post earlier… as if to demonstrate the point that many people use Jesus’ summary of the of the law in order to abrogate, nullify, or otherwise dispose of other parts of the faith.

And then, so often, it most certainly becomes a case wherein this one standard (or verse) is authoritatively true, and others false.


(Christy Hemphill) #22

I don’t disagree. I think people should read the whole Bible and wrestle with the entirety of it.

I think the OP was more proposing we not let our unsettled theology or undecided doctrinal stances get in the way of trying to relate to God and trying to put into practice the most fundamental and clear moral guidelines. I think that’s a pretty good plan. God promises wisdom to all who ask for it and it is through meditation and prayer that we learn to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading as we try to live out love for others.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #23

I don’t put Jesus’ words forward here as an abrogation of all other doctrinal details, but more a checkpoint of validation for them. In other words … does our understanding of and attendance to all those details fall within that call to love God and others? Or does our attendance to them get in the way of that? When the latter becomes the case we know that such religion has lost its first love. And any “correctness” it may have (if indeed any truth can be had apart from love) will be of little value unless it is to help steer the possessor of such truth back onto that path.


(Christy Hemphill) #24

Agreeing with Merv that the Bible is pretty clear about love being the checkpoint and validation for everything else.

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.


(Jay Johnson) #25

Recruits must undergo basic training. An honest commitment and genuine effort to follow Christ’s teachings is all that is needed to begin. Where it ends is between Reggie and the Holy Spirit.


(Daniel Fisher) #26

So long as you don’t mind me adding the word “all”, then we are in full agreement…

“Recruits must undergo basic training. An honest commitment and genuine effort to follow all Christ’s teachings is all that is needed to begin. Where it ends is between Reggie and the Holy Spirit.”


(Jennifer Thomas) #27

This little word “all” has created many problems for Christians over the centuries. Whose definition of “all” do you use? Whose interpretation?

Loving your God and your neighbour and yourself with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength is a messy, lifelong affair that doesn’t fit well within a system of strict orthodoxy where all the rules have to be obeyed all the time. (There’s that word “all” again.) We need some clear guidelines and some clear do’s and don’ts, of course. My reading of Jesus’ teaching is that his guidelines included love, forgiveness, inclusiveness, healing, using your mind to enhance your faith, standing up to those who hypocritically abuse their authority, and putting relationship with God ahead of traditional doctrines. That’s my minimalist Christianity.


(Mark D.) #28

I almost get the impression @Daniel_Fisher that you felt a comprehensive implementation of the entire bible might get one around the advice in Heidegger quote @Jay313 shared:

Rule following alone doesn’t elevate anyone and neither is a comprehensive knowledge of the rules sufficient to live a good life. There is more need to “venture a decisive act” than to cite a justifying passage.


(Daniel Fisher) #29

I don’t significantly disagree, as there is much theology that is done from pride or division rather than a spirit of love and respect and obedience to God and a consequent love of our neighbor.

I would object, though, if you consider it possible that parts of the Bible, or any teachings of Jesus, could fail to pass this validation. There are many I’ve read that think Jesus’ call to love somehow invalidates the “violent” parts of the Bible or God’s justice or the final condemnation… including Jesus’ own violent language and imagery.

That is essentially what I am familiar with regarding the term “minimalist Christianity,” that I am able to limit my beliefs, and/or practice, to some certain select fraction of what Jesus taught, based on some delimiting criteria.
Please correct me if I misunderstand the term or the intent.

So essentially, I fail to see why “Everything Jesus taught, including, but not limited to, his command to love God and neighbor”, should not rather be our checkpoint of validation for any of our doctrines or practices, rather than selecting only one particular section of his teachings?


(Daniel Fisher) #30

And my reading of Jesus’ teachings is that whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

But granted, what do I know?


(Daniel Fisher) #31

Who is Heidegger referring to here? Normally I’d assume that the term “savior of the world” referred to Jesus. But this description is so radically different than the man described in the gospels that Heidegger is clearly describing someone else…


(Christy Hemphill) #32

Mt 5:17-20 is not exactly the most straightforward passage to take out of context like that. In saying what you referenced, Jesus was echoing the teaching of his day and then responding to in an unprecedented way in v. 20.

R.T. France’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew says that the “greater righteousness” of v. 20 is “the golden rule” of vs 12.

Or see Keener’s Biblical background on this passage:

Jesus’ ethical demands (5:3–16) are no weaker than those of the law given by Moses; cf. 5:21–26.
5:17. Jewish teachers said that one “abolished” the law by disobeying it (cf. Deut 27:26), because one thereby rejected its authority. Such highhanded rebellion against the law—as opposed to particular sins—warranted social and spiritual expulsion from the Jewish community. The charge of openly persuading others that the law was no longer in force would be even worse. Jesus opposed not the law but an illegitimate interpretation of it that stressed regulations more than character.
5:18. Jesus refers here to the yod, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Later rabbis told the story that when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah, the yod that was removed complained to God for generations till he reinserted it, this time in Joshua’s name. Jewish teachers used illustrations like this to make the point that the law was sacred and one could not regard any part as too small to be worth keeping.
5:19. Later rabbis decided that the greatest commandment was honoring one’s father and mother, and the least, respecting a mother bird; they reasoned that both merited the same reward, eternal life (based on “life” in Ex 20:12; Deut 22:7). A modern reader might ask, What happens to the person who breaks one and keeps another? But such a question misses the point of this hyperbolic language which other Jewish teachers also typically used to say, “God will hold accountable anyone who disregards even the smallest commandment.”
5:20. The Pharisees were the most respected religious people of the day, and the scribes the supreme experts in the law (especially, no doubt, the Pharisaic scribes). Verses 21–48 show what Jesus’ demand for a “higher” righteousness involves. The Pharisees also stressed the right intention of the heart (kavanah); Jesus’ criticizes not their doctrine but their hearts as religious people. Religious communities led by Pharisaic teachers may have also been opponents of Jewish Christians in Syria-Palestine in Matthew’s day, giving Matthew additional incentive to record these words.

Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Mt 5:17–20). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.


(Jennifer Thomas) #33

This is a good example of the reality that each of us reads the Bible through our own particular lens. While you feel Kierkegaard’s description is about someone other than Jesus, I think it suits Jesus to a tee.

Edited to correct the name of the quote’s author, as pointed out by @Jay313. (Thanks – I missed that.)


(Mervin Bitikofer) #34

I agree with you that we’re probably pretty close to agreement here, and I only add more clarification here to keep good conversation going.

Well - if somebody tries to use those violent texts to try to justify violence against anyone, then their actions / biblical understandings have failed this critical “sniff” test. That’s what I see as reading the Bible (including the Old Testament) through the person of Christ. So it isn’t that I’m trying to poke at Biblical authority itself so much as poking at any human interpretation that justifies some departure from that highest call of love.

Sure … but it is interesting to me that when people asked Jesus to distill “the whole shebang” down into what is most important, what he did not say was this: “It’s all important - every jot and tittle; so stop trying to condense it down into a soundbite.” Instead he actually accommodates their curiosity and tells them “yeah - it all hangs on this couple of priorities right here!” So that seems to me like he’s given us a “peek behind the curtain”, if you will, to see what the motivating strategy was behind everything that was commanded. And (given his record of rebukes of Pharisaic practices) it would seem Jesus fully expects us all to make use of our knowledge of this “spirit behind the law” as we carry on our daily relations with God and neighbor, and even with regard to how we understand / prescribe all the legalisms to be found in simple flat readings of the entire sacred text. Paul’s later commentary would also bear this out as he often lost patience with the legalists who put law over love when it came to gentile converts.


(Daniel Fisher) #35

Again, I don’t substantially disagree, but I think that is still a bit too simplistic. For instance someone came up to Jesus and simply asked the “whole shebang” question, how do I inherit eternal life, and in response Jesus starts listing various of the 10 commandments.

Another place when he was asked about the “whole shebang”… “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Other similar examples I could list. So I fear it a bit too simplistic to select a single one of all those numerous ways Jesus summarized his preaching as “THE summary.”

And granted it isn’t like they are inherently separate ideas, for “if you love me, keep my commandments,” after all. Ultimately, it is just that I object to the idea that someone could say, essentially, “I love Jesus… but to hell with all those doctrines or commandments of his that I personally disapprove of…”


(Jay Johnson) #36

Sorry for creating confusion, but the block quotes in my earlier post were Soren Kierkegaard. Heidegger was commenting on the fact that Kierkegaard’s spiritual writings (his “upbuilding discourses”) contain more philosophy than his analytical ones. As for whether Kierkegaard is describing someone other than Jesus, all that is required is to look at those instances in the gospels when someone was called by Christ or expressed an interest in being his disciple:

Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.

As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.

The next day He purposed to go into Galilee, and He found Philip And Jesus said to him, “Follow Me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”

Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.

Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.

Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

“If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”

Kierkegaard, like any writer, doesn’t mind exaggerating to make his point. But I get the feeling that you’re going to find disagreement with us on everything, just out of principle.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #37

Yeah … it must have been frustrating for all the legalists. Well which one is it, Jesus? Was it what you said before?, what you told them over there? or what you said today?

One then gets the idea that trying to codify it all into something formulaic that I can try to satisfy (or demand of other people) so that we can all just breath easy, then I’ve probably lost the Spirit of the whole thing. And it is that Spirit that is what counts.

Here’s another way I tend to think of these things. There are (a very few) hyper-legalists on our roadways that would make sure to come to a complete stop at every stop sign. Good for them. But you can be a legalist and still be an unsafe driver. And you can fail to be a legalist and still be a much safer driver than the legalists. I.e. I would rather have my children riding with a driver who, while he may be a bit sloppy in always following the letter of the law, is yet always extremely attentive and would never ignore a stop sign or any intersection whether it was marked or not. I would not want my children in the car of a driver who obeyed the letter of every law(!) and was content then to think that he’s done enough (no good judgment or extra attentiveness forthcoming because he just expects the law to take care of all that.) That driver is unsafe while the former one is the safer one. The former one is attending to the spirit of the law (which is to keep all parties safe), while the latter has lost that.

Now here is the crux. The former (non-legalist) driver is not ignoring stop signs! Far from it! He is just taking a wider domain of circumstances into account to formulate a good judgment about what is safe in each circumstance. Since one cannot just safely drive through intersections without stopping to attend to what is going on, the better driver will always be doing that. But that driver will also be willing to set that rule aside if the Spirit of the law demands it be set aside in some extraordinary circumstance (perhaps rushing somebody to the hospital, and they can clearly see that no one else is approaching the intersection). The Spirit trumps the letter every time. The letter kills. The spirit gives life.

So as long as people are hotly defending doctrinal detail as some “highest good”, I fear that they are actually working against the very preponderance of scripture that they imagine they are so busy defending.


(Marshall Janzen) #38

Isn’t that such an interesting statement by Jesus in Matthew? Such a person will be called (by whom is not stated) least in the kingdom of heaven. But then, in the following sentence, unless your righteousness exceeds the scribes and Pharisees who were so scrupulous about rules, you won’t even enter the kingdom.

And what does Jesus do later? He goes on to make a special focus of the least and the little ones, upturning our expectations. “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). In the final judgement, the king declares, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). They may be least, but they are not insignificant, nor are they outside the kingdom.

This isn’t to say that Jesus is praising those who relax a commandment. But he does give his church authority to do so (Matthew 16:19 and 18:18-20; see this other thread). The key seems to be that when we bind or loose, we should do it like Jesus. He gives us some examples directly after those words about the law and prophets enduring. He overturns much of what was written about oaths, the requirement to retaliate in kind, and the mission to destroy enemies (Matthew 5:33-48). In doing so he shows how the Scriptures endure: only when read in light of him.

That gets back to the dig Jesus includes in his very common, very rabbinical statement that the law endures. Jesus envelopes this widely-voiced platitude within “untils”:

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18)

By contrast,

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35)


(Daniel Fisher) #39

Ah, Kierkegaard makes sense, yes. Kierkegaard was a master of overstatement and hyperbole to make his point, which has confused not a few of his readers. “Christianity does not exist,” he would say to get attention, and then clarify the point to something I would wholeheartedly agree with.

Kierkegaard himself, for instance, clearly believed in what we would call “objective truth,” but he denied it in his rhetoric to make the deeper point. So reading the quote from that angle, I can see where he was going with it. Sure, Jesus taught, lectured, commanded obedience, but at core the real crux was deeper.

Reading between the lines and recognizing the statement as one of Kierkegaard’s typical exaggerations, I can see what he is getting at, and essentially agree with his point, especially knowing his larger beliefs and convictions. But I also know enough of Kierkegaard to know he was quite doctrinally orthodox, and would not put up with certain kinds of what might be called minimalistic Christianity … in fact his critique of the established church in his day was largely that it had begun to become what might be called “minimalistic”!

that the human race is or is supposed to be in kinship with God is ancient paganism. But that an individual human being is God is Christianity, and this particular human being is the God-man.”

“Yes, it is true that people have doubted the Ascension. But who has doubted? I wonder, have any of those doubted whose lives bore the marks of imitation? I wonder, have any of those who doubted who had forsaken all to follow Christ… it sounded like a eulogy of an enlightened century’s matchless progress in tolerance; when they so reduced what it means to be a Christian that being a Christian became practically nothing (and thus there was not anything to persecute either)—then in that idleness and self-complacency all sorts of doubts arose.”

“Only the consciousness of sin can force one, if I dare to put it that way (from the other side grace is the force), into this horror…Admittence is only through the consciousness of sin; to want to enter by any other road is high treason against Christianity. But sin, that you and I are sinners (the single individual), has been abolished, or it has been illicitly reduced both in life (the domestic, the civic, the ecclesiastical) and in scholarship, which has invented the doctrine of sin in general. By way of compensation, they then want to help people into Christianity and keep them in it by means of all this about the world-historical, all this about the gentle teachings, the sublime and the profound, about a friend, etc., —all of which Luther would call rubbish and which is blasphemy, since it is brazen to want to fraternize with God and Christ.”


(Daniel Fisher) #40

Sure, I’m in essential agreement. Just in general, I’m just terribly sensitive to the danger of people’s using “spirit, not letter ”of the law to flagrantly ignore or disregard Jesus’ commands on items that are inconvenient. I’ve seen that too often. If we have a spirit that loves him, then in love, we will want to obey and please him regarding everything he commands.

But yes, I am also acutely aware of the danger on the other side, of those folks getting so wrapped up in doctrinal exactness, pouring over jot and tittle, that they neglect the weightier matters of the law, they disregard the law of God for the sake of their traditions, and individuals become victims of their orthodoxy-seeking heresy trials. Zeal without knowledge is deadly, but yes, so is letter without spirit.