Review of The Jesus Proposal

Rubel Shelly and John O. York, The Jesus Proposal: A Theological Framework for Maintaining the Unity of the Body of Christ (Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2006). 

Shelly and York have put forth a unity program based upon “relational faith.”  This phrase divides nicely into the two primary facets of their proposal, one salutary and one rather dubious.

1. The relational facet pertains to our priorities as Christians interacting in ecumenical fellowship.  The authors play up the vaunted postmodern value of meaningful relationship in community over against the modernist tendency to strive for truth or rightness (in modernist scientific terms) to the detriment of all else.  They write:

We believe the divisive attitude of Christians toward one another that dominated the past couple of centuries has been more a cultural phenomenon demanded by the worldview of Modernity than a righteous phenomenon demanded by Scripture.  Specifically we believe it was an inevitable result of an institutional view of Christianity and a distinctively American way of reading the Bible.  We want to propose instead a more relational model for how those who profess love for Jesus should relate to him and to one another (20).

Essentially the authors would have us reorient to a relational priority, modeled on Jesus, as the basis for our ongoing dialogue.  The two problems they mention—institutionalism and a particular hermeneutic—remain key issues throughout.

Expanding on the contrast with Modern Christianity’s priorities, York asks:

But what if the church is not a machine?  What if objective truth isn’t so scientifically objective at all?  What if the goal is not to have all the right answers to Bible trivia questions?  What if the goal is not to be doctrinally sound?  What if, in a relational model, people once again focus on the Christ instead of each group’s particular set of proof texts and practices?  What if all that looks so random actually is relational (31)?

Simple though the relational point may seem, it has practically escaped us often enough to make Shelly and York’s rearticulation of the relational priority a welcome contribution.  Their ability to communicate in an accessible and understandable way benefits the proposal greatly.  A slight caution comes to mind regarding the tendency to caricature the modernist mind and church, but the rhetorical value of the approach is evident, and their points remain valid.

2. The faith facet is the more problematic one.  The authors desire to create an inter-denominational consensus, seemingly by force of will, on a “bare minimum” (179) of theological or doctrinal agreement.  Various biblical and traditional phrases—”confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God” (20), “faith in Christ as Savior” (87), etc.—are used to delimit the “faith.”  Shelly and York have not dealt with the reality, however, that the vacuousness of these phrases when merely recited undermines any attempt to build unity upon common creedal confession.  That is, even if Shelly and York are theologically on solid ground as they boil down to the essentials—which is doubtful—the assumption that everyone means the same thing when they confess Jesus as Lord is a exceedingly detrimental to the project.

The authors attempt to address this by asserting that there has historically been no disagreement on their core points:

Doctrinal heresy is to deny either the deity or humanity of Jesus.  It is to abandon the need for or ground of salvation.  It is to repudiate the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection for human redemption.  It is to demolish and flatten the gospel message of redemption through Jesus Christ.  The desire to maintain the unity of the church must never be an excuse for tolerating such points of view.  But these are not the issues that have divided the body of Christ across the history of the church (153).

A few observations are needful.  One, by definition, heresy means division.  Therefore, it is nonsensical to call something heresy and then assert that it has not caused division.  Two, Christological heresies have indeed plagued the church throughout that course of history.  That is no bit of secret church lore, and it is somewhat shocking that these two authors would say otherwise.  Three, it is questionable at best to redefine “heresy” to suit their point.  At least in historical and commonly accepted use, the word encompasses much more than the the authors allow.  Lastly, one must ask how they have come to their conclusions about the points listed.  Their initial statement above sounds very much like third and fourth century creedal formulations morphed into theological assumptions.  For a book that is rejecting a particular way of interpreting, it would be helpful to demonstrate at least how the bare minimum of necessary theological conclusions are being reached.  The authors appeal to orthodoxy at various points, but one must ask what that means and how they decided (20; 79; cf. “heresy” on p. 32 and “the earliest confession” on p. 73).

It is evident from their creedal summaries that both the identity and role of Jesus are central to their proposed “core belief.”  The role is given particular emphasis, as Shelly and York lean heavily on the centrality of atonement:

So long as the core gospel message of sin and salvation, of our in adequacy and Christ’s sufficiency, is taught, why can we not apply Paul’s counsel [that other issues are unimportant] to our discussions of ecclesiology, eschatology, and pneumatology?  So long as repentance and faith in Christ as Savior is proclaimed as gospel, can we not grant that intelligent people of goodwill may come to contrary conclusions about nuances of baptismal theology?  Although every item of of Christian theology is important, not every item is equally important.  The gospel defined as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for sinners is of “first importance” to biblical theology (1 Cor. 15:1–4).  But this is the fundamental message passed on by those who take Scripture seriously in all Christian denominations (87–88).

1 Cor 15:1–4 is, for the proposal, a “theological anchor point for believers concerned with preserving the unity of the church” (152; emphasis original), seemingly because of Paul’s own claim of “first importance.”  While is would be pointless to argue that death, burial, and resurrection do not stand at the heart of the Christian story, it is surprisingly biblicist (Modern?) of the authors to draw their conclusions about the “core gospel message” in this way.  The gospel, in fact, deserves a good deal more nuancing than their summary entails.  An appreciation of Paul and the Corinthian’s own circumstances would likely make provision for other points of first importance as well.  In other words, it doesn’t seem that Paul was trying to make a statement that would be used in they way Shelly and York are employing it.  The underlying issue is also reflected in a hypothetical portrayal of someone coming to faith on the Jesus Proposal’s terms:

In a teaching event, she learns that God’s love became flesh in pursuit of her in Jesus of Nazareth and that his death on Calvary was in her place.  Christ Jesus was made sin for her so that she might become righteous in him.  In hearing that message, her heart is captured by God’s love.  She now has faith that Christ alone can save her (137).

This, then, is representative of what it means to confess Jesus as Savior.  The essential difficulty with such a portrayal of faith or the gospel is that it does not do justice to even the variety within the total Christian concept of atonement, much less Scripture’s richer notion of God’s good news.  The above is a firmly substitutionary model of atonement, which, while popular in the evangelical world, does not account for the variety of the NT’s witness to the work of God in Christ.  Why, then, should this be the common denominator upon which Christianity unites?  Shouldn’t a book offering a “theological framework for maintaining the unity of the body of Christ” deal with the gospel more thoroughly—particularly when the theological aspect of the proposal consists of this supposed bare minimum?

Despite these difficulties, the authors’ desire to move the focus from knowing doctrines about Jesus to knowing Jesus personally is a welcome counterbalance to Modernistic tendencies (164).  There are other positive sub-points to be mined from the the Jesus Proposal as well.  Some of these are undeveloped pointers toward the promised but undelivered theological framework, and some are more like pastoral or relational wisdom.

A significant corollary to their quest for the bare minimum is the intention to focus on commonality rather than differences.  Returning again to the contrast between the institutional church and the relational church, Shelly explains, “The former is church presently experienced with its emphasis on separation rooted in distinctive beliefs and practices; the latter is the Jesus proposal which pleads for unity that affirms common beliefs and ministries” (78).  This is undoubtedly a necessary shift.

A similar reorientation is seen in the author’s recognition and advocacy of the individual’s faith journey.  The diagram used to represent this is highly similar to missiologist Paul Hiebert’s “Open Set” (81).  “What if we looked for direction rather than perfection in one another’s spiritual lives,” asks Shelly (125).  He suggests that salvation is “a process with distinct events that will be expected along the way” rather than a moment or event (130–31).  He concludes that it is better to include and encourage one who is “‘near’ the kingdom” than draw hard lines (138), which he rounds out with a section on grace for flawed obedience (139–40).  These pastoral insights are invaluable for the discussion in which Shelly and York would have us engage.

Echoes of lessons learned from a more theological type of reflection are scattered throughout the book.  For example, one might hear Tillich’s Method of Correlation in the contention that our answers do not line up with the world’s questions (42), and perhaps it is Lindbeck’s Postliberalism shining through when York decries the reduction of Scripture into a series of propositions (43).  The latter reference in particular begins a thread of “story” language that runs throughout the book.  The authors are obviously, though indirectly, endorsing a narrative theological framework of some sort, but, alas, it remains unexplained.

The work as a whole does succeed in contributing toward its stated goal, but it falls short of delivering in terms of a workable proposal.  On one hand, it would be virtually unbelievable if York and Shelly did manage to overcome Christianity’s greatest problem in two hundred large-print, quotation-infused pages; that they did not is no real criticism.  On the other hand, the direction The Jesus Proposal propels us, and the spirit with which it does so, is hopeful enough to cause the reader to dare another step in the church’s journey toward salvation.