The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box

Method always gobbles up message, and no pietistic zeal will ever protect us from our actual lack of faith.

Harrell lamented hearing “stories of harm” resulting from the church’s rejection of homosexuality and, based on “pastoral conversations and social science research,” he and his elders decided to change their view of Scripture’s teaching. Those who defended Harrell argued, “What’s the harm if they are trying to reach people for the gospel?” Yesterday’s tweet supplies the answer: the method of cultural accommodation in theology and Bible interpretation eats up the gospel and demands that it, too, accommodate to the doctrines of the world.

 

Over twenty years ago, while in seminary, I was present during a hallway conversation with a professor who then seemed to be moving toward liberal theology. A student asked how this man’s higher critical methods would enable him to remain a Christian. The professor gave quite the revealing answer: “I have a Jesus Box that I never touch.” By this, he meant that he had drawn a line of piety around his faith in Jesus to keep out the implications of his liberal scholarship. I remember thinking at the time how vain was this hope. Method always gobbles up message, and no pietistic zeal will ever protect us from our actual lack of faith. That professor has long since moved on, and from his seat in a liberal college he has not surprisingly revised his former evangelical faith in Jesus.

This conversation came to mind yesterday when I learned of Fred Harrell’s tweet endorsing a denial of Christ’s propitiation on the cross.1 He commented: “As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice.” The article to which Harrell linked, written by Derek Vreeland on Missio Alliance, asks: “Is the Cross Even Necessary?” Informed readers will recognize the argument made here, which amounts to a blend of Abelard’s moral influence theory and the New Perspective on Paul.

More interesting than Vreeland’s standard denial of penal substitutionary atonement is Fred Harrell’s endorsement. Trained in ministry under Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Harrell planted a high-profile and well-funded PCA church in San Francisco in 1997. His career charted a path that progressive ministers in the PCA long to emulate: RUF campus minister; associate at progressive-leaning urban church; pioneering church plant in a progressive city. In 2006, Harrell led City Church out of the PCA and into the liberal RCA on account of a change of heart regarding the ordination of women (which the PCA does not permit). At the time, defenders chalked up the change to the pressures of charity in an uber-progressive setting. In 2015, however, Harrell announced that City Church had changed its view on homosexuality, so as to “no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation.” Harrell insisted that City Church had not abandoned its high view of Scripture.

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