Recently a Presbyterian minister posted a blog in which he claimed to be both a Christian and an atheist. I suggest that, rather than being a Christian, he’s a “Jesusist”. What’s a Jesusist, you ask? And how is that different from being a Christian?
A Christian is someone who accepts the biblical account of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God. By faith he or she trusts that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Very God and very man, Jesus Christ is our salvation. His sinless life, vicarious death, and triumphant resurrection accomplished the redemption of the individual believer, the Church, and ultimately Creation. In short, a Christian is someone who, like Simon Peter, confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. We believe Jesus as able to do what he did because he was who he claimed to be.
But what about those who admire Jesus for his ethical teachings and selfless actions, but don’t believe he was (in the words of Charles Wesley) “the Incarnate deity”? Many want to emulate the sacrificial life of Jesus, but they do not accept the Gospel accounts of the miraculous and the supernatural as factual or historical (John Dominic Crossan comes to mind). Such admirers see Jesus merely as an exemplar, but often they want to call themselves Christians also.
It seems to me that a more accurate label for those who admire Jesus and his teachings but do not accept his deity or place their faith in his finished work would be “Jesusist” rather than “Christian.” Just as a follower of the teachings of Karl Marx is a Marxist, and an adherent of Darwin’s theory is a Darwinist, a Jesusist is someone who aspires to follow what they understand to be Jesus’ philosophy of life. Marxists and Darwinists don’t worship the founders of their respective ideologies, and Jesusists don’t worship Jesus; they simply admire him. Unfortunately, Jesusists often want to call themselves Christians, and this creates confusion. So the Presbyterian minister who professes atheism is not a Christian. He’s a Jesusist.
New Testament scholars as diverse as Albert Schweitzer to N. T. Wright have demonstrated that one cannot successfully separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, regardless how hard some may try (I’m thinking now of the various “quests for the historical Jesus”). Attempts to demythologize the Gospel records by removing the layers of the miraculous have been akin to peeling an onion—once you’ve removed every layer there is nothing left.
Jesus himself does not let us get away with being merely a Jesusist. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks. A Christian responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Crossposted at www.theologyforthechurch.com