Two years ago on this day the Herald Sun featured an opinion piece by Andrew Bolt entitled, “Even heathens can learn from a man who wasn’t the Son of God”. Given that this was Christmas Day, Mr Bolt’s piece was a bold (some might argue brazen) look at the most important person in human history. His thesis reflected that of liberal theologians and commentators who argue that while Jesus was not really God’s son, he had a lot to teach us about how we should live our lives. They want to divorce the ethics of Jesus from his teachings. Follow Jesus’ kind actions, we are told, but ignore his message.
It is my contention (and that of historic Christianity) that this simply cannot be done. His words and his practice stand or fall together. Indeed, both reinforce each other. To push the ethics of Jesus while ignoring his teachings is much like trying to promote a Big Mac while being a vegetarian. It just doesn’t work.
Mr Bolt cites one authority, Geza Vermes, to back up his claims. But Vermes is a Jewish scholar, and therefore has strong reason to deny any messianic claims of Jesus. However, there are many outstanding New Testament scholars who have shown both the historical reliability of the gospels, and the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus.
Indeed, one has to ask, have the critics actually read the four gospels, or just liberal theological assessments of them? A straightforward reading of the gospels will reveal one thing: here is a man unlike any other. He was certainly a great moral teacher and a prophet. But he claimed to be much, much more. Anyone who could say things like, “I and my Father are one,” or “I am the way and the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me,” was no mere ethicist or religious leader. And as the Jews of Jesus’ day perfectly understood, anyone who claimed to forgive sins was making himself equal to God. That is why he was so strongly opposed – he both claimed to be God and acted as if he was God.
Thus both in his words and his works, we have someone unique in human history. But as if that was not enough, he proved his divinity by doing what no other human in history has done: he predicted his own death and resurrection, and then died and was resurrected. This is not your run-of-the-mill moral teacher.
Now if we accept that Jesus did indeed make these grand claims about himself, there are few options. As C.S. Lewis once incisively remarked, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him. ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”
Mr Bolt concludes by saying that he suspects Jesus would have us look to ourselves, and not to him. Again, few who actually read the gospel accounts would ever get this impression. He urged the exact opposite. There is no ‘pick yourselves up by your own bootstraps’ thinking going on here. Jesus made it quite clear that we are all desperately sinful, in need of a saviour. It is exactly the self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees that he so strongly condemns. Jesus said he came to “seek and to save those who are lost” and repeatedly stressed that we are all lost, and therefore all in need of redemption.
Moreover, he told us to deny ourselves, to pick up our cross, and follow him. The last thing Jesus would argue is some sentimental line about ‘look to the god within’, or ‘follow your own inner light’. That sounds great for New Age spirituality, but it has nothing to do with the rigorous demands Jesus made of his would-be disciples.
Unfortunately this anemic view of Jesus simply reflects the sanitised and sentimentalised thinking of Jesus which characterises modern secular culture. As H. Richard Niebuhr once remarked, such a liberal gospel consists of a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through a Christ without a cross. It may sound good to modern ears, but it has nothing to do with the Biblical Jesus.
Given how perceptive Mr Bolt has been in battling political correctness one wishes he would not succumb to theological correctness. He has demonstrated great courage, wisdom and insight when it comes to the modern foibles of our day. I hope he applies the same intelligence and perceptiveness to the claims of Christ the next time he reads the gospels. In the meantime, Christians will celebrate Christmas as the nativity of the Incarnate God who entered human history as the divine Saviour of the human race and not simply as an upright moral human being.