I have repeatedly stated that Christianity can claim objective status because its core belief is not an abstract belief, but an event. Furthermore, that event concerns death and life; so it is fundamentally basic. Christianity was founded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ; if this event in fact happened, then Christianity has a valid objective basis. If this event did not happen, then Christianity has no efficacy whatsoever, and Christian virtues such as forgiveness, kindness, tolerance, submission, and love are little more than window-dressing in our lives. Furthermore, the theological truth statements derived from the fact of the resurrection (last month’s article) would have no basis by which their truth might be established, and so we could not make the claims that undergird our first principles. This would be unnecessary anyway if in fact Jesus is not raised from the dead, because our faith would be in vain and we would be the most miserably misled of all people.
However, I have shown in previous articles that the historical records of the resurrection are well substantiated, and that it makes far more sense to accept these accounts than to reject them. We do accept the historical bodily resurrection of Christ, and from that fact we build the integrated theological frame we call “The Truth”. This truth contains one more area that we haven’t discussed yet in this series, but it is just as integral as the truth statements that describe God, human nature, sin, the atonement, and other facets of God’s plan and purpose. This other element includes what we usually call morality. I will not dwell upon the nature or development of the various character traits (love, mercy, etc.) that comprise this area of Bible teaching. I will only here highlight three points relevant to the present discussion on resurrection and exclusivity.
- Christian character development uses the resurrection as its model or metaphor.
- Christian morality is not an “add-on” or “by the way” proposition, nor does it compete with academic truth. Either we have both morality and academics, or we have neither; they are equally part of the same theological paradigm.
- The real exclusivity issue resides not in how we separate ourselves from other religious organizations, but in how God separates His people from those who are not. God is inherently exclusive, and that is the fundamental exclusivity issue.
Resurrection as moral metaphor
The New Testament has several lists of virtues and moral characteristics (for example, see Gal.5:22,23; Col. 3:12-14; or 2 Pet. 1:5-7). It is replete with admonitions, parables, and examples of expected moral behavior and thought, as well as warnings of what will happen if we fail to learn and practice these virtues. As a religious enterprise, Christianity expects much from its adherents. The true Christian must develop a character according to Christian precepts.
As an important aside, we should note that the Bible does not make the artificial separation that people often make between facts of religion and the ensuing conduct. In this sense, I use “facts” to represent the “first principle”-type statements that delineate Bible teachings about God, people, the Kingdom, and so on. In Scripture, “doctrine” means “teaching” and covers both academic and moral domains; it does not distinguish between the two.1 The resurrection of Jesus is the underpinning for both doctrine and morality. With respect to the former, the resurrection is a historical event from which we can construct theological truths. For instance, we know that God must exist if Jesus rose from the dead. With respect to morality, the resurrection serves as a model for how we are to attain Christian character. When Jesus said, “Whoever would come after me must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke9:23), he invoked the resurrection as the basis of character development. One puts to death a certain disposition of life, and regenerates, with God’s and Jesus’ help, another identity. Paul makes this abundantly clear in his baptismal exhortation in Romans 6. Here he tells us that we must die and live again in a different manner. The key point is that the believer must reckon his or her spiritual growth to be a complete transformation of self. Thus, the concept of resurrection underlies character development.
What does the death-and-life model add to the process of character development and behavior change? Why couldn’t Paul just as easily have written, ‘If you want to be like Christ, you must entirely change your outlook on life’? Why couldn’t Jesus just say, ‘If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must do what I say’? The added allusions to the resurrection of Christ teach us (at least) two lessons: (1) Character development is more than a matter of behavior, and (2) Belief in the resurrection is only validated if we engage in the process of resurrection of the mind.
Point number one above is impressive because it tells us that the development of Christian virtues, such as the fruit of the Spirit, does not take place if we merely attempt to change our behaviors. Behavior describes what we do; it is tangible, measurable, and observable. Going to meeting is a behavior, as is praying, reading, giving money, organizing activities, cleaning the hall, etc. Behavior does not depend on values, desire, motivation, thoughts, feelings, or any other abstract parameter. Behavior only describes what we do, not why we do it or what we think about what we’re doing. Keeping the law is entirely behavioral. It does not require any value system. It does not require any mental disposition. As long as you do it, it doesn’t make any difference what leads you to do it.
Behind any behavior is the thinking that drives it (e.g., Mic. 2:1,2). Paul in Ephesians 4 develops this track when he implores us to change our behavior by changing the thinking that drives it. At an even more fundamental level than our thinking, we find the whole collection of our deepest values and beliefs that form our self-identity. When Scripture sets moral character development in the context of resurrection, it invokes not just behavior change, but identity change. Identity is the highest level of psychological motivation. We cannot achieve the likeness of Christ merely by thinking we can stop doing “this” or start doing “that”. Discipleship requires an even higher commitment than its component values and beliefs. It must answer the questions, “Who am I? How do I identify myself?” We can only think in terms of identity change, based on the model that our old self died and a new self lives. Resurrection undergirds character development.
In the field of psychotherapy, identity change is the watershed issue in any aspect of personal growth. It is just as true in the secular world as in the spiritual. We can deal with behavioral issues of “do this” and “stop doing that”, but unless the identity that drives those behaviors develops, the behaviors will remain inconsistent and highly volatile. Attempts at behavioral change by themselves seldom lead upward to higher-level changes, and thus they don’t last. If we think only in terms of “this is right” and “that is wrong”, we will not grow in Christ. To truly develop our discipleship, we must develop a thought pattern that runs like this: “My selfish-self is dead. I am now a giver. That is my identity.” We must move to the highest psychic structure for each problem that we seek to overcome. A spiritual self-identity will produce consistent behaviors; this is the product of the love of God, rather than the human will attempting self-salvation.
The identity issue is key to our discipleship. How we think of the “self” is crucial. That is why Jesus commands us to deny self. This is the Biblical equivalent to what we call in secular therapy an “identity change”, i.e., the highest level of psychological change. A bonus accrues here for our study, for we find the Bible so psychologically sophisticated that it enjoins identity change as the vehicle of character development, and it does so under the model of resurrection. Marvelous.
Moral character integral to Christian theology
All of us have too often heard statements such as, “We need to balance doctrine and mercy”, as if the two were somehow opposed, or as if the more one learns about Scripture, the less one is able to manifest the grace of God. We hear sentiments such as this often suggested in the context of ecclesial problems. The concept of balance implies that the speaker is operating from an unscriptural model that opposes one part of God’s teaching with another. ‘We must uphold the truth, but we must also be merciful.’ You’ve heard expositions, I’m sure, along those lines.
The Bible model is not a balance, but a tree, because character development is described as “the fruit of the Spirit”. Fruit develops from a tree; you cannot get fruit without a tree (or a vine), nor does a tree without fruit have value. In other words, either we have both knowledge of the “doctrines” and moral character, or neither. If the knowledge of Biblical fundamentals leads us to a place where we think we must “sacrifice” some part of our knowledge in order to extend grace or tolerance to some “erring other”, then that knowledge itself is amiss. Jesus tells us that good fruit comes from good trees, and bad fruit from bad trees (Matt.7:18,19). Fruit of the spirit and knowledge of Bible basics are not in competition with each other, nor are they ever at odds with each other.
What does this have to do with exclusivity? It relates to our problem when we go back to our original paradigm of the fact of resurrection as the basis of religion. Starting from this, and taking into consideration the model of resurrection as the basis for character change, we see that both “doctrine” and “Christian character” have the same basis; if we believe the one, we will also develop the other. “Doctrine” and “character” are integral. They are not two separate lists, being composed of discrete entries. People who relate to the printed word, such as a statement of faith and the commandments of Christ, not to a living God and His son Jesus, invariably fall into the trap of propositional religion. They struggle with the question, “Just how much do we need to know?” In order to be sure of “protecting the faith”, they usually add to the requirements and build their barriers higher and stronger, attempting to create a safe buffer between what they perceive as the “Truth” and the errors of Christendom. While the differences are indeed real, the theoretical basis out of which they operate is entirely unbiblical and does not promote spiritual growth. Keeping the resurrection at the center allows us to view Christian doctrine (as the word is used in Scripture) integrally, and to reject the paradigm of propositional religion and ethics.
Now we come to the real problem of the exclusivity issue, which is that of God’s exclusivity. The idea that God will, in some way, judge mankind seems acceptable upon the slightest reflection of the matter. Either all people are saved, or some are not. If some are not, then we have a form of exclusivity, and the question then changes from “Is God exclusive?” to “How does God exercise exclusivity?”
Also, if we eliminate atheists from consideration (because they have, in effect, “excluded” God!), then we have already established, in some degree, an exclusivity situation.
The word “exclusive”, however, has the nuance that the excluded portion is large in proportion to the included portion. Like an exclusive society or club, the word “exclusive” connotes a small percentage in relation to the admitted. Scripture tells us directly that those who will be saved are few. Is our primary concern figuring out what classes of people might or might not be in the included or excluded categories? Or should our primary concern be that we recognize that God is indeed exclusive, and it is our own inclusion that matters most? The real exclusivity issue has much less to do with those outside than with those inside the spiritual house of Israel. Jesus said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke14:27). We cannot overcome the exclusivity problem unless we fully appreciate the resurrection of Christ as it applies to our individual lives. God is exclusive, and if we do not create a new identity in Him, He will exclude us.
In Romans 6-8, Paul sets out a lengthy and detailed description of the process of salvation. A brief and vernacular paraphrase of the argument is simply an agreement that God makes with us: If we resurrect our minds, God will resurrect our bodies. We enter the household of Christ with the act of baptism. We die and bury our old identity. We gain a new identity as a child of God. Consistent with that identity, we walk in newness of life. Eventually that physical life expires, but only temporarily, as God has a final solution to the problem of sin: resurrection to immortality. Physical resurrection to eternal life depends on the recipient having first put “self” to death, and then resurrected “self” in a new identity. The two aspects of resurrection are both integral to true religion; both are based on the literal death and resurrection of Jesus – a fact of history, not just a theological tenet.
We ought to be very concerned about this aspect of exclusivity: God is very exclusive; He accepts only those who accept that He raised His son Jesus from the dead.
Back to the Hard Questions
This essay concludes our investigation of the theological and moral implications of the resurrection, but it does not conclude our remarks on the subject of exclusivity. In these several articles on exclusivity, I have redirected the framework of discussion by appealing to the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus and all that it implies. The ultimate exclusivity problem is the personal application and commitment each of us makes to our own relationship with him and with our Heavenly Father. If we advance our spiritual development accordingly, we will have an easier time handling those situations where the exclusivity issue, in its conventional sense, does arise.
Our next perspective on the exclusivity problem will take us into the domain of mythology and comparative religion. This perspective might make it easier to see what’s really on the line when we encounter sentiments that seek to diminish the theological differences between ourselves and other alleged Christian denominations. These upcoming arguments should be understood within the larger circles of thought presented already.
Next: Mythology Meets Christianity
David Levin, Baltimore, MD
1 1 Timothy1:10 explicitly applies “doctrine” to moral elements; see also Ephesians4:14, Mathew7:28, and Romans16:17.