As Dorothy Sayers says, Jesus wasn’t put to death for being nice and boring: ‘The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore – on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium.’
I remember two years ago, when Pastor Ken, beginning to preach through Acts, said the chief priests of the Jews had been threatened not by niceness, not by social teaching, not by ethics, but – as well as I can recall – by the message of salvation by faith. Now, if memory serves me correctly, and perhaps even if it doesn’t, let me make a point against one interpretation of this (perhaps the right one): a mere idea will not threaten anyone.
The gospel, beautiful and terrible
But the great voices of the saints in Revelation proclaim, ‘The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.’ All kings, powers, principalities – and not just the invisible ones – ought to be quaking before the great and awesome might of יהוה, who has raised his Christ from the dead. It’s the witness of the Church, who speaks the word of God, with the spirit of יהוה in her midst, that’s to make all mortal flesh keep silence before יהוה at the signs of the his past and present and future coming.
No, it’s definitely not the notion, even the true notion, that will threaten the idol-powers of the world, nor will it save anyone. If such a mere philosophy can save, if it’s our own faith that can save, there’s no objection at all to be made about theological liberalism, because orthodoxy will be an inconsistent ideological remnant to be cast off. Only hearty truth with a real God behind it who has truly worked in history and makes himself truly present in his love for Adam can count for anything.
A robust evangelical ‘ethics’
But if we look at the presence of God in the world, most fully represented by the Holy Spirit animating the Church with the word and sacraments, there’s a great gulf between Pelagian attempts at man-driven salvation of society and the Way, which succeeds by God’s powerful indwelt presence and God’s sure promises. An ‘ethics’ flowing out of Christ, our tree trunk, isn’t the same as another ethics, but this ‘ethics’ rests in the strength of the Lord’s arm and does nothing apart from the true Vine.
If it involves merely abstaining from stealing and out-of-wedlock sex and not saying non-nice words, of course, it’ll again be just a boring niceness. Niceness will save no one. If the things you talk about in homilies and group Bible study amount to good life advice, you might as well be a Chicken Soup for the Soul club, a place where God need not have come as a man to save us. If, however, that ‘ethics’ instead makes the Church a place of crucifixed forgiveness and radical, resurrected life – for Christ is a new root superior to that of the first Adam – a City of God, a heavenly Jerusalem, a Temple of the Most High God that fills the earth with glory, then we’re talking.
P.S. I think I’d like to get Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament.