False Teachers: Marcus Borg

FalseTeachers-02Tim Challies:

Today we will look at the life and legacy of a man who assumed and further developed theological Liberalism and paved the way for what became known as Progressive Christianity. His name is Marcus Borg.

MARCUS BORG

Marcus BorgMarcus Borg was born in 1942 to a Lutheran family in North Dakota. After high school he went to Concordia College in Minnesota determined to become an astrophysicist but soon changed his major to math and physics, and then again to political science and philosophy. As a young man he experienced great doubts about his Christian faith and decided to pursue postgraduate studies at Union Seminary in New York City and here he was heavily influenced by W.D. Davies, a man who laid the groundwork for what has become known as the New Perspective on Paul. After graduating from Union he moved overseas to Mansfield College, Oxford University, where he earned his Doctorate of Philosophy.

In 1979 Borg became a member of the faculty at Oregon State University, a position he would hold until he retired in 2007 as Distinguished Professor in Religion and Culture and the Hundere Endowed Chair in Religious Studies. However, his career as a professor would be overshadowed by his career as a writer and public figure, and his leadership in what has become known as Progressive Christianity, an updated form of theological Liberalism.

Borg is a gifted writer who is adept at popularizing difficult concepts and his prose is attractive for its lively and meditative style. One person he has influenced writes, “Almost single-handedly among progressives, Borg has opened up new avenues of experience and thought for lapsed Christians or nonbelievers interested in re-visioning the Christianity of their childhood. He writes clearly and concisely about the meaning of wisdom, compassion, justice, the kingdom of God, and life as a journey of transformation. His books boldly take us into fresh fields of wonder, mystery, and passion in regard to Jesus, God, the Bible, and the Christian way.”1

His most significant contributions have been as a scholar whose focus has been on the person and work of Jesus Christ. He has written or edited more than twenty-five books, and the great majority of them have been focused on Jesus. He also led two nationally-televised symposia—one focused on Jesus and the other on God—, served as national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, and has made regular appearances on PBS and other television networks. His bestselling book is Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and it is in this book that he most clearly lays out his convictions. He draws on his own journey, from a childhood, childish faith in Christ to the development of what he considers a deeper, richer, and more plausible set of beliefs based on a historical rather than fabled Jesus. He teaches here that the Christian life is not meant to be rooted in dogma or creed, but in compassion and community.

In 1985 Robert Funk founded the Jesus Seminar, a group of 150 critical scholars who were tasked with re-examining the traditions surrounding the historicity of Jesus, and in particular, his deeds and his sayings. Among these scholars was Marcus Borg. The scholars employed social anthropology, history and textual analysis to attempt to reconstruct Jesus’ life and to separate the historical Jesus from what they take as myth. They famously used a voting system that relied on colored beads to represent whether one of Jesus’ deeds or sayings was authentic. Of the over five hundred sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, they determined that only thirty-one were authentic with the rest being possibly authentic, doubtful or completely inauthentic. Over their many meetings and through much dialog they eventually determined that Jesus was a mortal man who, like the rest of us, had been born of two parents, that he did not perform miracles, that any healings attributed to him were merely psychosomatic, that he did not die a substitutionary death, that he was not physically resurrected, and that the post-resurrection sightings of Jesus were merely visions.

Marcus Borg became and remains one of the foremost leaders in what has become known as Progressive Christianity which differs from Evangelical Christianity in a number of important ways. Where Evangelical Christianity emphasizes life after death, sin and forgiveness, the substitutionary atoning work of Jesus Christ, and grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as the only way of salvation, Progressive Christianity takes a historical and metaphorical (rather than literal) approach to the Bible, affirms that God can be known through every religion, is far more concerned with good behavior than orthodox beliefs, and pursues progressive social and political views.

Today Marcus Borg has retired from Oregon State University but continues to serve as Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland. He also remains an active writer and blogs often at Patheos.

FALSE TEACHING

As a Progressive Christian, Borg denies important tenets of the historical Christian faith while affirming what Christians have long held as unorthodox or outright heretical positions. He has long denied the inspiration and authority of the Bible, saying, “I let go of the notion that the Bible is a divine product. I learned that it is a human cultural product, the product of two ancient communities, biblical Israel and early Christianity. As such, it contained their understandings and affirmations, not statements coming directly or somewhat directly from God.” He explicitly denies Jesus’ virgin birth: “Jesus almost certainly was not born of a virgin, did not think of himself as the Son of God, and did not see his purpose as dying for the sins of the world.” He also denies the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ: “I do not think that the gospel stories of Easter require us to think of the resurrection in material physical terms. I see them as parables of the resurrection. Parables are about meaning. They are truth-filled and truthful stories, even as they may not be literally factual.” In fact, he denies so much of the core beliefs of the Christian faith that it becomes nearly absurd to consider him a Christian at all.

FOLLOWERS & MODERN ADHERENTS

As one of the foremost Progressive Christians, Borg has been an influence on many of today’s Liberal and Progressives Christians. These would include Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, Karen Armstrong, Shane Claiborne, Anne Lamott, Jim Wallis and many others. He has lent the weight of his scholarship to their attempts to renegotiate the place of Scripture in the Christian life and faith, and to rethink many of its most sacred doctrines. He is often quoted favorably by those who want to consider themselves Christians but without holding to inerrancy, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and others beliefs most Christians have long held sacred.

WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS

2 Timothy 3:16 assures us, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Peter speaks of Scripture as God’s inerrant and inspired revelation of himself saying, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The writer to the Hebrews says that, because Scripture is God’s Word, it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If any or all of these things are true, then we do not read and judge Scripture—it reads and judges us. We have no right to stand over Scripture; instead, we have the privilege of sitting under it as it does its work in and through us.

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False Teachers: Harry Emerson Fosdick

FalseTeachers-02Tim Challies:

As we move steadily closer to contemporary times we must pause to take a brief look at the life and ministry of Harry Emerson Fosdick, the foremost proponent and popularizer of theological liberalism.

HARRY EMERSON FOSDICK

FosdickHarry Emerson Fosdick was born in Buffalo, New York, on May 24, 1878. As a young boy he claimed to have been born again, but even as a teenager rebelled against the “born again” movement known as fundamentalism. He developed an early interest in theology and chose to pursue ministerial training at Colgate Divinity School where he was influenced by William Newton Clarke, an early advocate of the social gospel. Upon graduating from Colgate he continued to Union Theological Seminary. In 1904 he accepted his first pastorate at First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and four years later also accepted a faculty position at Union where he was to teach until 1946. Fosdick quickly proved himself a skilled communicator and compelling speaker and it would not be long before he would be known as America’s foremost minister.

In 1919 Fosdick was asked to become associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in New York City, though he was allowed to retain his baptistic convictions. He quickly gained a reputation as a leading Christian voice, and hundreds and then thousands descended on First Presbyterian to hear his sermons. It was here, on May 21, 1922, that he preached the sermon that came to define him: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” In this sermon he proclaimed that there was a great battle in the church between the fundamentalists and the modernists or liberals, and that he was going to stand firmly on the side of the liberals. Because of his desire to modernize the Christian faith, he soundly rejected belief in a series of traditional Christian doctrines including Christ’s virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the literal return of Jesus Christ. He decried the fundamentalists as being intolerant for demanding adherence to doctrines that science, reason, and a modern world could no longer sustain. John D. Rockefeller enjoyed this sermon so much that he had 130,000 copies printed and mailed to every Protestant pastor in the nation.

“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” set off what would soon be called the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. We need to be clear that we cannot import into this battle a twenty-first century understanding of fundamentalism. When Fosdick battled the fundamentalists of his day, he battled nothing less than traditional or conservative Christianity. Fundamentalists were those who insisted upon the key tenets of historic, orthodox Christianity—what they defined as the fundamental doctrines of the faith.

Fosdick was by no means the only liberal theologian of his day, but he was the one to gain the widest acclaim and the broadest platform. While many others were pressing theological liberalism in the seminaries and the halls of academia, Fosdick was on the radio waves and in the bookstores, taking his message to the common people. His voice extended through his radio program, The National Vespers Hour, which was broadcast in the Northern and Eastern United States, and through many bestselling books which eventually sold in the millions. On two separate occasions he was on the cover of TIME magazine.

By the mid 1920’s Fosdick had established himself as the leading voice of twentieth-century liberalism. His stand for liberalism put him at odds with many of the conservative voices in Presbyterianism, and this led him to leave First Presbyterian Church in 1925 and to go instead to Park Avenue Baptist Church.

I am a heretic if conventional orthodoxy is the standard. I should be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic.

In the early 1920’s, J. Gresham Machen emerged as one of the foremost opponents of liberalism. His 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism was a strong, biblical response that drew comparisons between the Bible and liberal theology and showed that the two were in clear opposition. He rightly asked, “The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.” Others joined the battle as well. Fosdick remained firm in the face of such attacks, declaring “They call me a heretic. Well, ‘I am a heretic if conventional orthodoxy is the standard. I should be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic.

In 1929, Princeton, once a bastion of Reformed thinking and teaching, was reorganized under modernist influences. Almost immediately four Princeton professors who held to the Reformed faith (Robert Dick Wilson, J. Gresham Machen, Oswald T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til) withdrew from Princeton and established Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in order to continue upholding the faith Princeton once defended. If the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was begun with Fosdick’s sermon in 1922, if was effectively cut off among conservative churches in 1929 with the departure of those professors.

Rockefeller money soon built a grand new building on the Hudson, and in 1930 Fosdick was installed as pastor at Riverside Church. He would pastor this congregation for sixteen years, and, after his retirement, attend it for a further twenty-eight. This church became his laboratory for liberalism and it was here that he practiced his liberal values to the full. (To be fair, and to give credit where credit is due, he was a strong advocate of racial reconciliation and was perhaps the most notable preacher to invite African-American preachers into his pulpit.)

Fosdick died in New York City on October 5, 1969, two weeks after being hospitalized for a heart attack. He was ninety-one years old.

FALSE TEACHING

Harry Emerson Fosdick was not an original thinker as much as a popularizer who took the theory of liberalism from the seminaries and brought it to a common level. He wanted to modernize the faith by making it attractive to, and compatible with, modern times and modern sensibilities. At heart, liberalism questioned the nature of the Bible and denied its inerrancy, infallibility, and authority. Liberalism denied that the Bible is the Word of God and insisted instead that it contains the Word of God. Once Scripture’s authority had been denied, a host of doctrines would necessarily fall in its wake.

Fosdick questioned the essential beliefs necessary to be a Christian and began to challenge long-held, orthodox Christian beliefs such as the virgin birth, and the return of Christ Jesus. Robert Moats Miller, one of Fosdick’s biographers, wrote, “Fosdick could not believe that Jesus was virgin born. He did not ridicule those who did, but he was adamant that such belief was not essential to acceptance of Christian faith. … Fosdick doubted whether Jesus ever thought of himself as the Messiah; perhaps he did, but more probably Jesus’ disciples may have read this into his thinking.” He also denied the wrath of God, suggesting that wrath was simply a metaphor for the natural consequences of doing wrong. With wrath removed, it was inevitable that the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ would also be denied. Before long Fosdick’s Christianity looked nothing like historic Christianity.

In a later sermon, “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism,” Fosdick spoke of his methodology in modernizing the Christian faith, saying, “We have already largely won the battle we started out to win; we have adjusted the Christian faith to the best intelligence of our day and have won the strongest minds and the best abilities of the churches to our side. Fundamentalism is still with us but mostly in the backwaters. The future of the churches, if we will have it so, is in the hands of modernism.” Of course, he was too optimistic, and too blinded by his own success. Liberalism posed a major challenge to the faith, but like all other challengers, it would rise and then wane.

FOLLOWERS AND MODERN ADHERENTS

If Fosdick was the man who popularized and legitimized liberalism, we can rightly say that subsequent liberals, and especially those who operated at the popular level, followed in his footsteps. Men like Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller and John Shelby Spong are among them. Martin Luther King Jr., a theological liberal in his own right, regarded Fosdick as the greatest preacher of the century and in 1958, inscribed a copy of Stride Toward Freedom for Fosdick with these words: “If I were called upon to select the foremost prophets of our generation, I would choose you to head the list.”

But Fosdick’s influence extends farther than that. Though the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy began within Presbyterianism, it soon spread to other Protestant denominations, eventually leading to today’s division between “mainline” and “evangelical” Protestant churches. About half of today’s mainline Protestants consider themselves liberal, and they, too, whether they know it or not, are influenced by Fosdick.

WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS

Fosdick’s teaching was false in many areas, but the heart of it all was his denial of the inerrancy, infallibility and authority of the Bible. He elevated human reason above the plain words of Scripture; he made reason the final arbiter of truth. All the other doctrines he denied depended upon first undermining the Bible. Christians have long insisted, as the fundamentalists did in his day, that God’s Word, not science or human reason, is the measure of true knowledge. Proverbs 3:5-7 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.” Our understanding of ourselves and the world around us is flawed; we must depend upon God to reveal true knowledge.

If we remove the offense of the gospel, we have removed the power of the gospel.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul warned, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Fosdick wanted to make the Christian faith soothing to those itching ears and, in so doing, distorted it beyond all recognition. The reality is that the Christian faith is, and always will be, offensive. If we remove the offense of the gospel, we have removed the power of the gospel.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)

The End of Liberal Theology – Emptiness

Richard Niebuhr once said:

A God without wrath took a Man without sin into a kingdom without righteousness through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

In my opinion this describes the essence of all liberal theology.  The message is made so vague that it really does become something like this, or at least this is what people begin to believe.  Perhaps this is what they wanted all along.  A god who doesn’t judge them for things they do, but approves of them “just the way they are.”  This is dangerous and wicked.  A church that embraces such folly will eventually become something other than a Christian church, for this thinking is certainly not Christian, and certainly does not have a place among the Bride of Christ, whom He died for.