Jesus and the fundamentals of faith

Just a bit more than a century ago a series of pamphlets — titled The Fundamentals — were produced and widely distributed.

With some Christians rattled by Darwin’s view of human origins and Bible scholars’ less-literalist approach, the printing presses churned out this new definitive version of Christianity.

To question the validity of these inflexible “fundamentals” was to reveal oneself as an infidel.

The producers and defenders of these writings acquired the related identification of Fundamentalists.

Their purported essentials of Christianity were beliefs in a literal interpretation (theirs) of inspired scripture, in the divinity of Christ via the virgin birth, in substitutionary atonement, in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and in the assurance that Christ’s return will result in judgment and eternal assignments to heaven or hell.

Often these beliefs and associated church practices are deemed “old-time religion” — although they are not that old in the history of Christianity.

Whether one holds these beliefs or not, they were not the fundamentals that Jesus conveyed to his would-be followers.

It has long seemed odd to me that there would be “essential” requirements for being “Christian” that weren’t required by Christ.

The Gospels — and we have four of them with varying accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry, right there in the inspired texts — seem to be a better place to find what is really required.

It starts with Jesus telling some fishermen to throw down what they are doing and to follow him — right away.

The order Jesus presents starts with belief but leads to acts of giving over one’s self-interest.

Mark, the first of the Gospel writers, reports early on that Jesus called the fishermen-turned-disciples to “believe the good news” and then “follow me.”

Jesus continues that theme in recruiting others to his movement — emphasizing self-sacrifice over simply affirming any set of beliefs. Not that belief is unimportant, but that it is a means not an end to faithfulness.

“Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Mark 8:34 (NIV)

Fundamentalists, birthed in the early 20th century, aren’t the only ones to downplay or deflect from Jesus’ calling. Just check out the historic creeds recited in many mainline churches — and note how quickly they move from Jesus’ birth to his death.

Jesus did provide a brief but essential list of his own in response to the question of what one must do to inherit eternal life. His response, however, emphasized how one is to live in this life.

It was not five fundamentals articulated in dozens of pamphlets, or Four Spiritual Laws, or an ancient creed or a more modern faith-and-message statement treated like a creed, or someone’s politically motivated “biblical worldview.”

Jesus reduced the essentials to just two: loving God with all of one’s being and one’s broadly defined neighbor as oneself.

To suggest that Jesus came up short would be to miss his point that all of the laws and prophetic teachings hang on this two-fold commandment he deemed the greatest.

So why do those who claim Jesus as savior and lord look elsewhere for validity? Here are two possibilities.

One, it is a human tendency to want to be part of an esoteric group — which leads to exclusions based on being right and, therefore, superior to others. It is the very self-absorption that Jesus calls his followers to deny.

Two, it is really, really hard to follow Jesus. And even when we try, we so often fail.

Shifting the emphasis and definition of Christianity to affirming a human-formed list of “essential beliefs” is far easier than loving one’s enemy, choosing God over money, walking the extra mile, not worrying about anything, and generally putting the interests of others above our own.

These shifts become very apparent when those who identify themselves most publicly as being Christian so often espouse values and support political agendas that are in clear conflict with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Yet it is hard to ignore the ongoing call to discipleship that starts with believing the good news and quickly moves to an urgent call to toss aside one’s self-interest, fears and prejudices in order to risk being more like Jesus.

John D. Pierce is director of the Jesus Worldview Initiative, part of Belmont University’s Rev. Charlie Curb Center for Faith Leadership (