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“A good sermon should skate right up to the edge of heresy. Make your point to the extreme. You’ll have other sermons to pull in the other direction. Dare to go out on the thin ice. You’ll hear some cracks and groans. Just don’t fall through.”

So I was once told by an older colleague. He was being a little provocative. But all these years later, I still remember it.

His comments motivated me to consider “heresies I have loved”—beliefs and doctrines that are just beyond the pale. Nonetheless, they are attractive. They make sense in their own way. They are very close to the Gospel. Maybe that’s what makes them winsome. Maybe that’s what makes them dangerous.

Earlier I looked at the heresy of antinomianism.  I’d like this to be an occasional series here on The Twelve. I welcome your ideas and suggestions.

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As a high schooler, I worked part-time as a bag-boy at a local grocery store. I’d bag up the groceries and carry them to the customer’s car.

A bumper sticker on a frequent customer’s car read, “Jesus Only”. I remember nothing about that customer. But I remember being intrigued by the bumper sticker. I never dared ask what it meant.

Years later, I stumbled on a description of the “Jesus Only” movement—sometimes also called “Oneness Pentecostalism.” Basically it is a primitive form of American Pentecostalism with bad Trinitarian theology. Its most well-known adherent might be Kim Davis, renowned former County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky who refused to issue wedding licenses to same-gender couples after the Obergefell decision.

This is not the Christian group for me!

Nonetheless, I will own up to my own version of a “Jesus Only” heresy. Jesus fascinates me. Jesus haunts me. Jesus attracts me. Jesus confuses me. Jesus compels me. Jesus loves me.

We’ve all had to play those awkward icebreaker-mixer games. Maybe only among ministers is the question often used, “Which Person of the Trinity do you relate to the most?” For me, the answer is quick and easy.

At the convocation that began my doctoral studies, the speaker said, almost as an aside, “You will be tossed into a wide and wild ocean of ideas. It is easy to become overwhelmed, lost, and forgetful of why you’re here. I would encourage each of you, right now, to pick possibly even a single word that you can hold on to in these next few years—your interest, your focus, your passion. What is that for you?”

I don’t want to sound too mystical—this was grad school after all—but the word that came to me, stayed with me, and guided me pretty well, was “particularity.” Jesus is particular—unique, distinct, specific.

The Crucifixion, Georges Rouault

My version of a “Jesus Only” heresy wants most of all to focus on and talk about and think about, and imitate, and follow Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of the four gospels. His life, his death, and his resurrection. I’m not really hung-up by the “quest for the historical Jesus” and what is “original” in the Gospels. But I am drawn to the character portrayed in those Gospels.

The idea of “god” doesn’t move me much. I don’t have great interest in vague and anonymous deities. But talk to me about a God who has come to us as fully human, living and breathing in a specific historical, cultural context, and I become much more excited.

Of course, I don’t deny that Jesus is “the Christ,” the incarnation of the everlasting Word, co-eternal and co-equal with the Father and Spirit. I love the “high” Christology of Colossians 1. Still, I’m just a bit uneasy with of talk of the “cosmic Christ”—too easy to become abstract, distant, unattached from the itinerant rabbi from Galilee.

My version of “Jesus only” also means that I’m hesitant about the Belgic Confession’s “two means by which we know God.” There is Jesus only. (From Karl Barth, of course.) And what can sound narrow, simplistic, and exclusive, is in fact so broad, inquisitive, and inclusive.

As many before have said, we shouldn’t consider any topic without considering how Jesus touches and changes and influences that topic. This is difficult, and often I have to say, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.”

Actually many of those who want to “look first to Jesus” or “take Jesus seriously” simply don’t take Jesus seriously enough. Jesus, to them, is the fixer, the sacrifice, the relief pitcher, an emergency stop-gap measure, rather than the raison d’etre, the purpose, the driving impetus of all things.

As I once heard someone say, “Applying Christ to all things is often understood like putting a drop or two of Jesus into every slot and compartment on some gigantic tray that represents all of human culture and understanding—Christ and algebra, Christ and poetry, Christ and cooking, Christ and baseball. But rather than putting a drop of Jesus into every compartment, better to see that Jesus is the very tray itself, the container, the source that holds everything, not a drop that needs to be added to anything.” (For a little more on this, you might want to see my essay Reformed Intramurals: What Neo-Calvinists Get Wrong, especially the final two sections, “More Than a Fixer” and “A Story.”)

I hear your objections. All of those voices of warning, “Yes, but what about…?” I know them and they are real.

Oneness Pentecostals are charged with all sorts of heresies relating to the Trinity—Modalism, Arianism. Sabellianism. (Alex, I’ll take Sabellianism for $200!)

Of course I don’t reject the Trinity. In fact, I adore the Trinity—not only the actual Godhead, but also the doctrine and concept of the Trinity. Trinitarian doxologies make the hair on the back of my neck stand up in praise. Still, I worship the First and Third Persons because of the life I draw from Jesus.

I think I’m more liable to a charge of some mild form of Marcionism. Okay, calm down, everyone. I am not Marcionite. I love much about the Old Testament—the Psalms, Isaiah, Song of Songs, Genesis, Exodus, and more.

I understand that the Old Testament is the soil, the heritage from which Jesus arises. But just as one can enjoy a glass of wine without knowing its terroir, it seems many people have fallen in love with Jesus without knowing either the Old Testament or Trinitarian precision. Understanding terroir and all of oenology may make wine-drinking more meaningful, but it isn’t obligatory. To me the danger of flirting with Marcion is possibly losing a guardrail that keeps us from veering into anti-Semitism.

All of this is, I’m afraid, getting too heady and doctrinaire. Of course, I’m not actually “Jesus-only.” I don’t reject the Trinity. I don’t reject the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus is how I know God. When I wonder what God is like, I look first (almost exclusively) at Jesus. There is nothing about God’s character that differs from what we know in Jesus. There is no dual or triple “personalities” in the three Persons. Nothing about God contradicts or balances or is hidden from what we see in Jesus. When we hear a claim about God that doesn’t sound like Jesus, we should be very wary.

Moreover, I also need to say that I love Jesus. He warms my heart and guides my feet. This first-century Jew is the brightest, most enthralling light in my universe.

We may not want to be “Jesus only.” But we could be “Jesus a whole lot more!”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I’m with you. Even though of late I have really been charmed by the Holy Spirit.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    But I do find myself wanting to say, in general, not just “Jesus” but “the Lord Jesus” and “Our Lord.” Maybe that’s where I find myself differing a bit from your emphasis above. Not that the Lord Jesus is your typical kind of Lord. Which is why I love St. Luke so much. I was with some Lutherans this week, one of whom unabashedly claimed their Pauline theology. I thought that was great. And I do love St. Paul, increasingly so. But upon reflection, I think my own theology is more Lucan. And I think because of Luke’s Jesus.

  • Jim says:

    “There is nothing about God’s character that differs from what we know in Jesus. There is no dual or triple “personalities” in the three Persons. Nothing about God contradicts or balances or is hidden from what we see in Jesus. When we hear a claim about God that doesn’t sound like Jesus, we should be very wary.”

    My take-away, Steve. Love this series and I love this posting.

  • Allan Janssen says:

    Howard Hageman used to tell us that Calvin was a “yes, but” to Luther. Well, that’s what I am to Barth and his Christocentrism. I have too much Van Ruler and Noordmans in me — so that there is a way to Belgic 2 that is not the Barthian reservation re natural theology. Those old Dutchmen taught me to love the Spirit.

    • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

      I’d concur about the Spirit–and see Daniel’s comment above, about being “charmed.” Interesting and hopeful, I believe, that the Spirit is receiving attention after all those years (centuries?) when we seemed to hear so little about the Holy Spirit. As for the Belgic Confession’s “two means,” it is a confession so I don’t want to disagree outright. I saw you recommended NT Wright’s GIfford Lectures, but haven’t watched them yet. I’m not Barth, Van Ruler, Wright, or Janssen, I tend more tread where wise-ones have gone first.

  • Dave Pettit says:

    Appreciate this post, and love the series idea. Very apt!

  • David Stravers says:

    I like this because it is so counter cultural. Most people in the West don’t want, ever, to hear the word “Jesus.”

  • I love how mentioning heresies, brings out the Creeds and Confessions. Coming fresh off a Conference on the Canons of Dort and considering the work of God from “eternity past to eternity future,” I’m finding new depths reflecting on the focal point of Jesus’ cry from the cross manifesting his willingly enduring his separation from God, attestation of the completion of his mission at his death, “the burial of God,” and Jesus’ descent into hell.

    I am reminded as well, of former Central College Coach Ron Schipper’s testimony that, on entering the gates of a Jewish extermination camp and seeing first-hand the consequences of our total depravity, his only comfort was the knowledge of Jesus’ descent into hell. Let us not forget the One who entered, and thereby forever destroyed, the gates of hell.

    And let us ask: as the world’s groaning mounts and in the face of black Christians’ “Quiet Exodus” from white evangelical churches, what gates is Christ asking us to rattle?

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    Thanks, David, a little surprised by your insight. I would think “Jesus” is okay, maybe even still respected. It is “Christian” that the world is weary and wary of.

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