Can Christ Save Us from “Christianity”?

David B. Hart, in introducing his translation of the New Testament, describes a faith so strange that what we now call “Christianity” only vaguely resembles the original.[1] He claims that due to poor translation, theological misdirection, and a failure to grasp key terms, that we have missed that the first Christians were extremists. In pursuit of an alternative society and kingdom, they rejected society, “not only in its degenerate but its decent and reasonable form.” Hart uses the example of the contrast of modern Christian notions of personal wealth and what the New Testament actually says, to demonstrate how far removed we are from first century teaching.  Wealth per se is not evil, in the typical modern understanding, only its misuse or the wrong orientation to it.  We are so attuned to this misinterpretation, according to Hart, that we know exactly where to turn and what verses support it.  Yet, it is precisely from among these verses that he unfurls his irresistible case: The New Testament teaches that personal wealth is intrinsically evil. He concludes, after several pages of demonstrating the point, “the biblical texts are so unambiguous on this matter that it requires an almost heroic defiance of the obvious to fail to grasp their import.”[2] 

Compound this misunderstanding with the development of capitalism, the Protestant work ethic (in and through Lutheranism and Calvinism), and notions of wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, and it seems (on this subject and many others) Christianity as we have it is diametrically opposed to the teaching of the New Testament. Likewise, Hart explains how “eternity,” “soul,” “flesh,” “works,” “faith,” and “hell,” (among other terms) are interwoven with misconception so as to distort key features of Scripture. He concludes, “The first Christians certainly bore very little resemblance to the faithful of our day, or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world, securely sheltered within the available social stations of its time, complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties and civic conventions.”[3] Hart wonders if “even in our wildest imaginings,” we could really desire to be like these first Christians “fitting the pattern of life in Christ?”

Before we count the cost, the question is how we arrived at a cost-free (cheap) Christianity? Ours is not simply a faith which aids upward mobility and accommodates the middle class. It is impossible to extract modern forms of the faith from the emergence of the middle class with its values and desires.  Rather than obstruct the pursuit of wealth, modern Christianity relieves one of the moral anxiety of such a narrow and, what the first Christians would have considered, selfish pursuit.  As Max Weber has so convincingly argued, the spirit of capitalism and particular forms of Protestantism are one and the same. The guilt that arises from this purely selfish orientation toward success is relieved by the death of Christ – who died not to destroy the devil and his works so much as to relieve one of the burden of guilt. The impetus to live a materialistic life-style and relief from the pathology of doing so have combined to produce the modern vulgarity – a form of the faith at odds with the teaching of Christ.

In part, Hart blames the reformers who in their reaction to “works righteousness” confused ordinances of the law with deeds.  As a result, faith was pitted against human deeds, will, and initiative. Hart says, this gave rise to Calvin’s “weirdly endearing practice of treating Christ’s more demanding moral counsels in the Gospel’s as exercises in irony.”[4] It pits Jesus picture of the judgment, based exclusively on deeds, against Paul’s supposedly gratuitous and effortless salvation. Through a focus on this supposed Pauline notion, the Christian is relieved of obligatory deeds. His efforts can be redirected from first century concerns – the pursuit of holiness through a departure from the world – as primary obligation. Now one is freed up and even obliged to accumulate wealth – a sign that one is saved and blessed – in the name of Jesus.

The Reformers’ faith is rooted in a pervasive nominalism found in forms of Roman Catholicism which will morph into under-girding the Reformation. The notion of a heavenly reality at a distance, a theoretical righteousness (imputed legally), an interior faith (rather than a lived-out trust), an exclusive focus on the death of Christ as part of a transaction occurring within the Trinity (the Son paying the penalty to relieve the anger of the Father), all arise amidst the nominalist idea that we have no access to the essence of God and in turn that salvation is primarily an occurrence in the mind of God.  All of these theological pieces fit together to make room for the (un)gospel in which the coin of the earthly realm becomes the nominalist reflection of a divine economy.  While I too can celebrate the Reformation and count myself Protestant, inasmuch as I am not Roman Catholic, I can also understand how the Reformation aggravated the distance between the faith of the 1st and 21st century.  G.K. Chesterton may have overstated it but I understand the sentiment: “I am firmly convinced that the Reformation of the 16th century was as near as any mortal thing can come to unmixed evil.”[5]

The problem, though, is more deeply rooted than Reformation theology. Hart blames Augustine and the mistranslation of the Latin Vulgate for giving us a notion of “predestination” which is simply absent in the Greek. Hart says, “The Augustinian understanding of “predestination,” for all its epochal significance for later Western Christian thought, is a late fourth-century innovation, the inadvertent invention of a Paul who never existed, a theological accident prompted by a defective Latin translation and the temperamental idiosyncrasies of a sullen genius (with at times a singularly dismal understanding of the ‘good news’).”[6]  It is this notion which is connected to a degraded notion of “original sin,” faith, and repentance. These concepts were corrupted by an understanding which did not allow a synthesis of divine and human will as God ends up predetermining everything. Calvin will build upon this error and create an understanding of Sovereignty in which will and power are definitive of God and the economy of salvation. Penal substitution subsumes salvation into a problem with God’s anger – the righteous anger reflected in the law satisfied only by Christ’s death. It is an infinite anger, provoked by an infinite offence, satisfied by an infinite payment which relates to the finite hardly at all. It is an exchange exclusive to the persons of the Trinity and fails to address the finite human circumstance.

Hart does not attempt to spell out how we have come to a modern Christianity diametrically opposed to the original – he just notes particular areas of opposition. The story could be told, as he largely tells it, as the result of mistaken translations, slips in rightly apprehending vocabulary. In the sweep of history, one could blame the Constantinian confusion of state and church and the co-opting of the latter by the former. Living under this sensibility, the head of state is on the order of a priest, the purposes of state become synonymous with those of the church so that violence is sacralized.  The result, a soldier who dies for the state is counted a martyr.

At some point, and this is the rub, it has to be obvious that more than linguistic inadequacies and unfortunate turns of history are to blame.  It was sinful violence which put Christ on the Cross and which made martyrs of the first Christians. Now the martyrs appear to arise from among those who would kill Christ. Given the modern predisposition to kill enemies of the state and those who would threaten the heart of our religion – one would have to “nail” any terrorist who threatened our national Temple.   Surely bearers of the modern sensibility cannot remain oblivious, apart from sin, to the contradiction of killing enemies of the state for Jesus – who died an enemy of the state. Witness the ultimate sacrilege of a sword in the shape of a cross in a chapel in the shape of fighter jets constituting the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel. A good portion of the Gospel must be ignored (perhaps Jesus is being ironic in prescribing turning the other cheek and taking up the cross) and its teaching turned on its head.  What is an abomination in the New Testament is made a religious duty in the modern form of the faith.

Hart notes that, “Throughout the history of the church, Christians have keenly desired to believe that the New Testament affirms the kind of people they are, rather – than is actually the case – the kind of people they are not, and really would not want to be.”[7] He notes, given our modern sensibilities, how unlikely it is that we rightly apprehend the first century reality and continue to desire it.  He does not bother with explaining how our desire is misshapen precisely by what obstructs our vision of New Testament Christianity. Where the state becomes indistinguishable from church, church takes on the appearance, in the modern frame, of a secular organization and it shapes our desires accordingly.

Eugene Peterson describes this reversal in his memoir, The Pastor.  He describes the desperate attempt to be relevant to the culture as giving rise to “strategies of public relations, misnamed evangelism,” with “entertainment” displacing “worship,” and “statistics” trumping “kerygma.” He says, “I was watching both the church and my vocation as a pastor in it being relentlessly diminished and corrupted by being redefined in terms of running an ecclesiastical business.” Hart’s description of an obvious and overwhelmingly clear N.T. teaching is herein turned inside out – so as to turn us into Christian materialists. “The ink on my ordination papers wasn’t even dry before I was being told by experts, so-called, in the field of church that my main task was to run a church after the manner of my brother and sister Christians who run service stations, grocery stores, corporations, banks, hospitals, and financial services.”

The age of the business guru as church growth expert marks the final turn of the screw. “This is the Americanization of congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.” We could not possibly desire to be followers of the radical Christ of the Gospels as our desire and values are those of religious consumers seeking the new and improved church. Peterson’s description of the end result is most telling and disheartening: “Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually nonexistent.”

The dirty secret, according to Hart, is we may prefer to distance ourselves from the uninviting form of the faith found in the New Testament. Who wants to be stretched out like the skin of a drum (Hart’s explanation of Hebrews 11:35) in pursuit of a city whose architect and builder is God.  These first century extremists completely rejected the values and priorities of common sense. They were in pursuit of a Kingdom not of this world, in which rejection, persecution, tribulation, and failure in this world were promised. We are a reasonable people grounded in common sense notions of respectability. This rustic faith reeks of peasant crudities and ancient sensibilities, long since set aside as outdated.  Very few of us, Hart concludes, have the obstinacy to live as the New Testament really requires. “Christians would have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world. And we surely cannot do that, can we?”[8] Luckily, our modern Christianity saves us from the burden of having to follow the bizarre teachings of the first century New Testament faith.

[1] Thanks to the ever generous and thoughtful Matt Welch for so kindly gifting me with this translation. Though it may be underwhelmingly inappropriate – I dedicate this blog to Matt in celebration of our friendship.

[2] From the Introduction to David B. Harts translation of the New Testament (Yale University Press, 2017), xxvi.

[3] Hart, xxiv-xxv.

[4] Hart, in his “Concluding Scientific Postscript,” 554.

[5] Thank you for the quote Matt!

[6] Hart, 552.

[7] Hart, xxxii.

[8] Ibid.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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