“A Church without Chicken”: Comments on Marcus Borg’s Lecture Notes

A month ago a well-known Biblical scholar, Marcus Borg gave two lectures at Lexington Presbyterian, “Lex Pres”, here in Lexington,Virginia. Lexington is home to Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.  Lex Pres is one of the historic churches in our fair city.    A former member (a not-so-retired, 83 year old, Presbyterian pastor with LCMS sensibilities, now serving an ELCA congregation) told me that many professors are members. Its claim to fame is that one of its members was none other than VMI Professor, later General, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.    I did not attend the lectures but my wife was given a copy of outlines of his two “talks” which were handouts.  The notes are the basis of this article.

Borg is part of the Jesus Seminar.  This seminar goes through the New Testament literally color-coding the Gospels as to which sayings He really said, might have said, could have said or were just plain invented by the Church.  (In a similar fashion at Seminex, in Old Testament, we were instructed to color-code the Pentateuch with four colors for JEDP) Their Bible is not even a red-lettered edition but a rainbow one I guess.  In his presentation, he asserted that we have misunderstood all along the real mission of the Church.  His end-goal was plain:

 “If Christianity isn’t about an afterlife, what’s our product?”  Our ‘product’—what Christianity is about:  transformation—of ourselves and the world.”

In other words, the transformation is social justice along the lines espoused by liberal Protestantism as he defined “justice”:

 “*What justice is about in the Bible:  distributive justice, economic justice

*That everybody should have enough, not as result of charity, but as the product  of the way society (the system) is put together.

*It’s about the fair distribution of God’s earth.”

For Borg, this is raison d’etre of the Scripture. Even more significantly, the “justice” paradigm above replaces the outworn and totally misunderstand paradigm of the Bible as claimed by the Apostle Paul, indeed all of Scripture:  The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1: 15) However, according to Borg: The Bible is not about salvation of sinners but social justice alone. 

The point of Borg’s lecture notes is clear as to his methodology regarding the Bible to arrive at his conclusion:  linguistics. Borg redefines or replaces Biblical words and their concepts with the ones that will support his thesis.  Usually when someone is up to some mischief in the Church, it usually begins that way and of course, the speaker has the right definitions. In the Arian controversy, the heretics   not only attacked the divinity of Jesus Christ but also the Holy Spirit as not being co-eternal and co-equal with the Father and the Son.  The Arians did this by combing through the New Testament by supposedly demonstrating that the prepositions employed by the inspired authors show that the Holy Spirit is not co-eternal with the Father and the Son.  Therefore, Basil the Great (330-379), in his magisterial book, On the Holy Spirit, goes through each preposition so reinterpreted by the Arians to show their usage actually does support the orthodox and sound Biblical doctrine. In Basil’s introduction, he succinctly shows the importance of words:

 “Instruction begins with the proper use of speech, and syllables and words are elements of speech. Therefore, to scrutinize syllables is not a superfluous task…If a man spurns fundamental elements as insignificant trifles, he will never embrace the fullness of wisdom. “Yes” and “No” are only two syllables, yet truth, the best of all good things, as well as falsehood, the worst possible evil, are most often expressed by these two small words” (St. Vladimir Press)

Borg in like fashion also takes single words, important Biblical words and reinterprets them according to his ideology, not the orthodox and sound doctrine.  I know I am no Basil!  But in my own way, I must do a similar critique.

In Borg’s first talk notes, he states that religions are about language and there is a Christian language as there is a ‘Muslim language’, a ‘Buddhist language’, etc. He then employs the usual gambit in denying clear Biblical doctrine. The problem with the old “Christian language” is that is it is unfamiliar and misunderstood but the actual culprit in causing  unfamiliarity and misunderstanding of the Scripture is “The Literalization of Christian Language” which resulted in the alien interpretative claim that the Bible is “inerrant/infallible”.  “Christian language, including biblical language, was never meant to be taken literally, even as it sometimes does contain memory of things that happened.”

Therefore, we have misunderstood the “core message” of the Bible as salvation from sin, redemption etc. Borg attempts to demonstrate this by a series of antitheses between the old (wrong) way of understanding Scriptural words and the correct (Borg’s) understanding and reinterpretation of them.  Here are three:

 “*Saved means to be saved from our sins.  But in the Bible, it is seldom about being saved from sin.”

“*Redeem/redeemer/redemption” Jesus redeems us from our sins, and is the redeemer who brings about our redemption, But, in the Bible, these words have nothing to do with sin and forgiveness but refer to liberation from slavery/bondage.”

“*Faith, believing, means believing a set of core statements to be true, often literally true. But in the Bible and pre-modern Christianity “faith” and “believing” were primarily about 1). loyalty (commitment, allegiance, faithfulness) and 2). trust (it’s opposite is anxiety).  To make use of its etymology, “to believe” means “to belove”.  Believing is about beloving God, and Christian faith means beloving as the revelation of God.” (Boldface is original and “belove” is not a typo)

What is that revelation?  As ‘salvation’ is really social/redistributive justice so is the entire corpus of Biblical revelation.

In the second “talk”, he takes on three Biblical words and simply replaces two of them and the third one he redefines, as he did with the words he chose in the first talk, in order:  mercy, righteous/righteousness and sacrifice.

  1. Mercy:  He states that the better word for “mercy” is actually “compassion”. Why? The use of the word mercy “…creates and reinforces the image of God’s character as punitive – as law-giver, judge, and enforcer.” Borg’s logic is clear:  “mercy” has to do with God as lawgiver; therefore, “mercy” has to go because the Decalogue also must obviously be incorrect. The devil is in the details: who does not want to be compassionate?  In this theology, there is no sin…and no obviously no mercy.  We are deceived (1 John 1: 8), but not Mr. Borg!
  2.  Righteous/righteousness  is replaced by Borg with “justice”. The Bible is not about salvation from sin, which is forgiveness, walking in righteousness for His Name’s sake (see Psalm 23:  ) but “justice”.  He wrote that we should read, for instance the beatitude, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied, as, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…”  As I watch TV and some family members are interviewed whose son or daughter was recently murdered and what do they want?  They desire justice, which is the full weight of civil and moral law meted out to punish the wicked.  This is truly the first use of God’s Law.  This obviously is not the Gospel of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.  To say that Borg confuses Law and Promise is almost an understatement:  there is no Gospel, only Law, and only the Law’s political use.  It seems that for him, the first use of the Law is the entire scope of the Bible. The Law’s second or spiritual use is nil, because that is too “punitive” in regards to God, but it seems to me that Borg would want punishment inflicted on those whom he thinks should get it, probably, sexists, racists, heterosexists, corporations, nations who cling to the idea of nationhood, etc.
  3.  Sacrifice   Borg dispenses with sacrifice as traditionally understood in terms of atonement, that is,  substitutionary or satisfaction.  One reason, again, atonement is too “punitive”.  Instead, Jesus made “…a gift of his life to God.”  His life is not our death and life from the Lord to us. Borg asserts that  Jesus went to the cross out of his love for God and his love for others and so the crucifixion sounds like  a huge object lesson. (Needless to say, he has not one reference to the Resurrection.) Borg likes and cites Romans 12:1-2 as exemplified in “Bonhoeffer, King, Romero”, in other words, Romans 1-11 must not exist in the Borgian Bible.  But if the atonement is not about God’s justice and mercy (Romans 3: 25-26), this then means the Lord is not just (!) and Jesus is simply and only  an exemplar of God’s love but He does not by His sacrifice effect justification by faith for the life of the world.

For  Mr. Borg, the Church and her Lord are not about forgiveness…most of the Bible, he lectured,  is not about forgiveness of sinners and forgiven sinners living righteous lives by His grace alone as the salt of the earth.  And so the Gospel from Easter 2 is no longer relevant at all as Jesus sent out the Apostles with the authority in His Word for His Word, “…if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.  (St. John 20: 23) This is not what the Church and Christianity is about in Borgianity.  What characterizes His brave new church is rather neatly summed up in a response then presidential candidate Barack Obama gave in a Christianity Today interview about his faith:

 “I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful.” (Emphasis my own)

Always beware, dear fellow Lutheran brother and sister, the way someone uses the indefinite article “a” used with words like “path”, “way”, “doctrine”.  It is just a small word, only one letter, but truth…see Basil’s quote above.  The use of the indefinite article is behind every statement and assertion by Borg. Beware of the use of “example” or “model’ and its fancy synonym:  “paradigm”, as in “paradigm shift”.

Borg wrote in his notes:

 “Think of the differences between a Christianity shaped by righteousness and mercy and one shaped by compassion and justice.  They virtually produce two different religions, using the same Bible.”

This is the only thing he got right.  I think this is the great divide in Christianity.  Yes, he was right:  just think on it.  One of Borg’s lecture attendees said to my wife: “He spoke so wonderfully!”  This is what is so cautionary about these ‘super-apostles’ of heresy:  they use the right Biblical words in an authoritative fashion and can easily dupe those who have ceased to be a student of the catechism and basic sound Christian doctrine.

In my sermon for The Second Sunday in Easter, I referenced the Borg notes and lectures as a foil to the true confession and mission of the Church in the sermon text, St. John 20: 22-23 .  I then followed with this:

 “A week ago this past Thursday, on Maundy Thursday, Cullen (VMI LCMS cadet) asked me before the Divine Service if I could take him to a fast food place afterwards.  “No problem.”  After the service, I went over the options and, he said, “Kentucky Fried Chicken sounds real good”.  When we arrived at KFC, there was only one party ahead of us and we waited.  It was not a busy night.  Finally, the folks ahead of us got their order and we waited some more.  Finally, Cullen was waited on and as they took his order,  I looked at the condiments, but rather quickly, Cullen came back to me, smiling widely, said, “They ran out of chicken”.  KFC ran out of chicken!  Mr. Borg’s church is KFC without the chicken, no agape, no faith, no grace, mercy and peace. His Church has no main course and the sides coming from it: love, joy, peace etc, against which there is no law. We deserved justice, punishment, so did the apostles, but Jesus forgave them and opened their hearts and their room by the wounds of His forgiveness in true repentance  Avoid a church without chicken! They will feed you lies, as the Bible is not about forgiveness! This means Jesus did not die and rise for sinners nor did He send them out to preach repentance and forgiveness to all nations.  By His forgiveness, we will not run out of His grace!  But a church without chicken has terribly run out of Jesus Christ and when they do, they run away like chickens from His truth.”




“A Church without Chicken”: Comments on Marcus Borg’s Lecture Notes — 11 Comments

  1. Great article! Your final illustration reminds me of something that’s happened two times at two different Olive Gardens. When I inquired why there were no olives on the salad I was told that Olive Garden had run out of . . . olives!

  2. On a related topic, I’m a grad of VMI. 🙂 yes, many profressors are members–Pres is one of the two big churches in town, the other being Episcopalian. being an LCMSer there was tough.

  3. “If Christianity isn’t about an afterlife,….”

    What? I have always thought my time on earth was to prepare for the afterlife.

    “Our ‘product’—what Christianity is about: transformation—of ourselves and the world.”

    Transformation into what, and for what purpose. Since Christianity isn’t about an afterlife……..

  4. Another theologian out to deconstruct (that is, destroy) people’s faith, like Dr. Becker at Valpo. The simple Gospel just isn’t enough for these guys (and women)–they speak to the itching ears, and while the ears are scratched, souls are pierced.

  5. FYI: The Episcopal congregation that PHW references @4 is R.E. Lee Episcopal…yes, named after the famed confederate general. I have suggested that if our mission becomes a congregation, we should name it U.S. Grant Lutheran Church…just to give balance. 🙂

  6. @Lumpenkönig #5
    Good point! Who gives a rip whether or not there is “equity” or “transformation” if there is no eternity for anyone! Frankly, there are only two truly rational positions to hold (and the one really isn’t rational, but utterly the rejection of reason) Nihilism and orthodox Christianity. Either, as the Preacher put it, “Everything is meaningless/emptiness” or all of orthodox and catholic Christianity holds.

  7. Rather, name it “David Hunter Lutheran Church,” He’s the Union general that actually visited Lex in June 1864…and burned half of it down. 🙂

  8. Dear Sirs,
    First, I am ashamed that post like these exists. To write a sermon based upon outlines WITHOUT even seeing or hearing Dr. Borg? Wow. Not much integrity in that, in my opinion. Second, seems everyone on this site seems to think the primary (only?) reason Jesus was born was to “die for our sins” so that (believing in this) we might have eternal life. I have some questions: what do you make of the ONLY prayer we know of that Jesus taught his disciples? If eternal life is core reason of Jesus’ life, then why didn’t he construct a prayer based upon that? In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus does not ask that people pray to him for eternal life, but he asks that his followers pray to God, to daddy! Not just Jesus’ daddy, but OUR daddy! He also asks that things on earth be transformed (reflect) the way heaven operates. “On earth, as it is in heaven.” What? You mean Jesus was concerned about THIS world? Really? Why? Because heaven is fine, it needs no help. But, it is this world that needs help, needs mercy, compassion, justice and love.
    In my opinion, you represent The Pharisees of today! Arrogant, self assured, self righteous and overflowing with hatred pride. Seriously. You represent why Christendom is dying in North America in my opinion. Very, very few (except those who are fearful of death and hell, which you guys seem to thrive on) people in society believe God planned the human sacrifice of “his son.” That kind of violence went out with throwing virgins into a volcano! It makes God out to be a blood loving monster. But maybe you guys like that crap. Good luck, although I wouldn’t think you need it, after all, you have all the answers!!! (sarcasm btw)

  9. @Rev. Bradford Nelson Bray #10
    Rev. Bradford:
    First: A professor will give an outline of his presentation(s) because they are a synopsis of what he is going to say in black and white. It is clear from Mr. Borg’s extensive notes that he passed out that his teaching is not Biblical. I did not have to hear him, I read his notes.

    Second: Jesus did pray a prayer for us and eternal life: the entirety of John 17. This is, I think His longest prayer.He answered the prayer of the repentant thief on the cross: Today, you will be with Me in paradise. A concordance will demonstrate how many times the phrase “eternal life” and it’s variants occur in Scripture.

    Third: Since you address your post “Sirs” in the plural, and say “everyone on this site” you accuse everyone who writes here, and most who read this blog, of not being concerned about the temporal welfare of our neighbor. This is patently false. We know this is our calling in this world. As Luther is reported to have responded to the question, “Doctor, what would you do if you knew the Lord is returning tomorrow?” “I would plant a plum tree today.” You just judged people you do know of not serving their neighbors. This does not speak of “mercy, compassion, justice and love”. You are rightly concerned about serving the neighbor as Christ does. But this is not all. See 1 Corinthians 15: 19-20.

    But your real beef is that you do not seem to believe in the Atonement and to cite Scripture, both Testaments, in this regard, would take reading the Bible. You characterize the Atonement as God being a, “…blood loving monster”. He did plan the sacrifice of His Son, no quotations marks around “his son.” For instance: Jesus said 3 times this is why He went to Jerusalem. Your beef is not with me but God. If you do not believe in the Atonement, I have to ask: Do you conduct Good Friday service(s)? If so, why? What is the climax of the 4 written Gospels all about?

    Sir, given what you have written, and since you are clergy, I must conclude that we preach and teach in two different churches.

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