“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.”



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