Dismissing Jesus: A Study Guide, Intro and Pt. I

Long-time readers will recall that last year around this time I embarked on a gargantuan endeavor to offer a thorough critical review of my erstwhile teacher and mentor, Doug Jones’s, long-awaited book, Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross.  After seven installments and some abortive interaction from Mr. Jones, I had to abandon the project for lack of time, and repeated intentions to resume it have never come to fruition.

In lieu of a full review, then, I am offering here, in two parts, an extended set of discussion questions that I prepared for a book group this past month.  In these questions, I attempt, as I did in my reviews, to capture both the positives and the negatives of the book: on the one hand, prodding readers to take the book’s challenges seriously and try to apply them in our own churches, but on the other hand, critically examining the deep theological and ethical ambiguities of the book and how it might hinder, rather than help, the task of Christian discipleship.  I hope these will be of service to individuals and churches as they wrestle with these important issues.

General Questions

1) How does Doug Jones understand his vocation in the book?  How does this shape his rhetorical approach?  In what ways is this helpful and/or harmful?

2) Although he does seek to positively outline seven pillars that make up “the Way of the Cross,” on the whole, Jones sets up his book more as a negative critique against bad models of discipleship than as a positive exposition of true discipleship (this is evident in the title itself).  This being the case, what is it that Jones is critiquing?  How specific is the object of criticism?  Moscow? Right-wing contemporary American evangelicals?  American Christianity generally?  Modern Christianity generally?  Protestantism?  Try to find examples.

3) Are his criticisms fair, or is he resorting to straw men?  Provide examples.

4) How is Scripture used in the argument?  Does he build his arguments out of exegesis, or are Scriptural texts used more for illustrative or rhetorical purposes?  How does he understand the relative authority of the Old and New Testaments?    Hermeneutically, he privileges the sayings and actions of Jesus as interpretive keys to the rest of the biblical text (see for instance pp. 86-87).  Is this problematic?

5) There is a recurrent tension in the book between the language of “inward” and “outward.”  On the one hand, he will say (for instance, pp. 39, 42, pp. 240-41) that the problem with Mammon-based institutions is that they are concerned with externals and outward behavior, whereas the way of Christ is based on “an obedience of the heart, a faith of internal virtues grounded in love” (42).

Yet elsewhere, paradoxically, he will criticize traditional Protestant emphases on the inwardness of true virtue, on inward faith rather than outward behavior as the heart of Christian virtue; thus he will call for a re-prioritization of actions over words, of works over faith (pp. 46-47, 152-54).  How are we to make sense of this tension?

6) Jones is fond of appealing to Jesus’ statement “Narrow is the way, and few find it.”  Taken together with his insistence that we have fundamentally misunderstood the Gospel, what does this imply about the status of most American churches?  Or about the spiritual status of most professing believers?  Does this tend to undermine assurance of salvation?  Is that a problem?  Does Jones propose a way for us to gain assurance?

7) A frequent objection to arguments like Jones’s is that they rely on an “over-realized eschatology,” that is, demanding that we behave now as if Christ’s kingdom were already finally consummated, or applying Scripture passages that refer to that future time as if they described present realities.  Look for some examples of this in the text.  Does this pose a genuine problem?  If so, what are practical problems it could generate?

8) A constant danger in the Christian tradition is the heresy of Manichaeanism, a tendency to elevate the powers of evil into a power equal and opposite to God.  This manifests itself often in a dualism that treats swaths of the created order as fundamentally evil and irredeemable.  Does Jones’s personification of “Mammon” fall into this trap?  Is the resulting dualism evident anywhere?

9) What does Jones mean by the word “church”?  What role does it play in his arguments?

See for instance:

 “the church, an alternative city-kingdom here and now on earth” (5)

“a social order sufficient to itself, ultimately without the need of a civil realm” (91)

“a political body” (121), which “lives an entirely different life from the world.  And because of this it aims to be more and more complete and whole and self-sufficient to itself, a real city, not dependent on or mixed [with] the world, though not out of the world.” (123; indeed, see all of pp. 121-23)

Do such descriptions refer to any real-world reality, or to a future ideal?  Do they refer to individual congregations?  Denominations?  The church as a transnational institution?  The communion of all believers in a given place?

10) Does Jones view the State as intrinsically evil, or contrary to the way of Christ?  Does it have any legitimate role in society?  Is this view biblical?  How does it compare to traditional Christian teaching on the State?

See for instance:

“God is love, after all, but nations and empires don’t even attempt to do that.  States slice and bomb.  They are institutions that by their nature focus on external obedience and order.  They cannot look on the heart.  They do not attempt to live by love, especially not love of enemies that was so central to Jesus’s life.  States excel at breaking things and people, pushing them into outward order, forcing surface conformity.” (42)

“For [Paul], those outside the church don’t fall under the jurisdiction of a conceivable Christian state or civil magistrate.  They don’t fall under Christian jurisdiction at all. . . . The Corinthians had given legitimacy to pagan civil magistrates outside the church, and Paul found this scandalous.  The realm outside the church was virtually nothing” (p. 90).

“The church is supposed to be able to do it all.  The church has no need of an unbelieving or so-called neutral state.  The church is a kingdom unto itself.  Like Christ, Paul divided between God and Mammon, the church and Mammon, not Christian church-state vs. non-Christian church-state.  The church is to be a fully-functioning city.” (90-91)

 

            Contrast this to:

“Magistracy of every kind is instituted by God himself for the peace and tranquillity of the human race, and thus it should have the chief place in the world. If the magistrate is opposed to the Church, he can hinder and disturb it very much; but if he is a friend and even a member of the Church, he is a most useful and excellent member of it, who is able to benefit it greatly, and to assist it best of all.

“The chief duty of the magistrate is to secure and preserve peace and public tranquillity. Doubtless he will never do this more successfully than when he is truly God-fearing and religious; that is to say, when, according to the example of the most holy kings and princes of the people of the Lord, he promotes the preaching of the truth and sincere faith, roots out lies and all superstition, together with all impiety and idolatry, and defends the Church of God. We certainly teach that the care of religion belongs especially to the holy magistrate.

“Let him, therefore, hold the Word of God in his hands, and take care lest anything contrary to it is taught. Likewise let him govern the people entrusted to him by God with good laws made according to the Word of God, and let him keep them in discipline, duty and obedience. Let him exercise judgment by judging uprightly. Let him not respect any man’s person or accept bribes. Let him protect widows, orphans and the afflicted. Let him punish and even banish criminals, impostors and barbarians. For he does not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4).

“Therefore, let him draw this sword of God against all malefactors, seditious persons, thieves, murderers, oppressors, blasphemers, perjured persons, and all those whom God has commanded him to punish and even to execute. Let him suppress stubborn heretics (who are truly heretics), who do not cease to blaspheme the majesty of God and to trouble, and even to destroy the Church of God.

“And if it is necessary to preserve the safety of the people by war, let him wage war in the name of God; provided he has first sought peace by all means possible, and cannot save his people in any other way except by war. And when the magistrate does these things in faith, he serves God by those very works which are truly good, and receives a blessing from the Lord.

“We condemn the Anabaptists, who when they deny that a Christian may hold the office of a magistrate, deny also that a man may be justly put to death by the magistrate, or that the magistrate may wage war, or that oaths are to be rendered to a magistrate, and such like things.” (Second Helvetic Confession, 1566)

11) Jones frequently appeals to the Trinity as a model of Christian community or interpersonal ethics.  Why is this theologically problematic?

See for instance top of p. 69, middle of p. 113, and most strikingly pp. 193-94. 

            Contrast to the teaching of the Athanasian Creed:

“7. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. 8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. 9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. 10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. 11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. 12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. 13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty. 14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty. 15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; 16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. 17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; 18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord. 19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; 20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.”

 

Pt. I: What is the Way of the Cross?

Ch. 1: Overview of the Way of the Cross

(note: this chapter should be read alongside ch. 18, “Broad Way Illusions”)

A prominent theme here, and in the book as a whole, is the theme of “blindness,” and the corresponding contention that “Christ’s message is pretty straightforward and obvious.”  Is Jones’s use of this theme helpful or harmful?

 

Ch. 2: The Way of Weakness

(note: this chapter should be read alongside ch. 17, “American Mars”)

What does Jones mean by “weakness”?

Do the various Biblical examples of “weakness” have any common elements?  If so, what are they?

What errors is Jones trying to critique in this chapter?

What are some practical applications?

When Jones says that the wealthy and middle-class are supposed to be “second-class citizens in the kingdom,” what might this mean?

 

Ch. 3: The Way of Renunciation

(note: this chapter should be read alongside ch. 16, “Nice Mammon”)

What does Jones mean by “renunciation”?

What errors is Jones trying to critique in this chapter?

What are some practical applications?

This is one place where some of the concerns about Manichaeanism might crop up.  Jones treats many structures and areas of earthly life as being completely under the dominion of “Mammon.”  Does this mean Christians must withdraw from these altogether, seek to destroy them, or seek to win them back to the Lordship of Christ (see pp. 41-42)?

This is also a chapter where we see the language of “inward” and “outward” cropping up.  Jones complains that the “outward” is the domain of Mammon.  Does this imply that Christian renunciation consists in a reorientation of inward attitudes, overcoming our clingy dependence on material goods?  Or does it imply that Christian renunciation consists in outward renunciation?

 

Ch. 4: The Way of Deliverance

(note: this chapter should be read alongside chs. 10-12)

What does Jones mean by “deliverance”?

What errors is Jones trying to critique in this chapter?

What are some practical applications?

Is it significant that Jones describes the way of deliverance as part of “the way of the Cross”?  It makes sense for “weakness” and “renunciation” to be part of taking up one’s cross, but should “deliverance” have such a negative orientation?  Does this have any practical ramifications?

Is our work of deliverance a response to Christ’s work of deliverance, or part of it, a continuation of it?  What are the theological and pastoral implications of this?

A prominent theme in this chapter is the opposition of “words” and “actions”, of “believing” and “doing.”  What is Jones trying to accomplish with this?  Is this a biblical emphasis?

 

Ch. 5: The Way of Sharing

(note: this chapter should be read alongside ch. 15, “Absolute Property”)

What does Jones mean by “sharing”?

What errors is Jones trying to critique in this chapter?

What are some practical applications?

As above with “Deliverance,” does it help or hurt Jones’s agenda to describe “sharing” under the negative heading of “the way of the cross”?

The different biblical passages that Jones draws on here seem to point toward several different practical applications—holding one’s property in a generous way, renouncing property altogether, giving away “half,” etc.  Which of these, if any, is Jones trying to point us to?

 

Ch. 6: The Way of Enemy Love

(note: this chapter should be read alongside ch. 17, “American Mars”)

What does Jones mean by “enemy love”?

What errors is Jones trying to critique in this chapter?

What are some practical applications?

Are Jones’s representations of traditional Christian views on enemy love fair? (see pp. 75-78)

What does Jones mean by the word “violence” in this chapter?  What does the word mean in the string of biblical references he gives on pp. 80-81?  Does this support or undermine the way he is using it?

What sort of eschatology underlies Jones’s vision in this chapter?

Jones say he is not pacifist?  Why not?  What is he then, and how does this differ from traditional Christian views?

 

Ch. 7: The Way of Foolishness

(note: this chapter should be read alongside ch. 11, “Automatic Heaven”)

What does Jones mean by “foolishness”?

What errors is Jones trying to critique in this chapter?

What are some practical applications?

Is Jones’s description of Protestant doctrines of faith (pp. 99-100) fair and accurate?

What is Jones trying to accomplish with his redefinition of “faith”?  How different is this from what Luther was trying to accomplish?

If we emphasize that “the Gospel is foolishness,” how do we avoid the converse, “foolishness is the Gospel”?  That is, how do we know when it is legitimate to criticize things for being irrational, if faith should lead us to expect the truth to be irrational or counterintuitive?

 

Ch. 8: The Way of Community

(note: this chapter should be read alongside ch. 10, “Unconquerable Sin”)

What does Jones mean by “community”?

What errors is Jones trying to critique in this chapter?

What are some practical applications?

Jones critiques traditional Protestant ideas of salvation as being “selfish” (114-16).  Is this a fair and accurate critique?

Jones sets up an opposition in this chapter between the “individual” and “social”/“communal,” and says that we need to emphasize the latter more than the former, that the individual needs to “take second place” (117). What does this mean, concretely?  How might this change our theology and practice?

This chapter rests a great deal of weight on the concept of the “church,” and the church as the “kingdom.”  This raises important questions about what Jones means by the concept “church” (see general question #9 above) and what eschatology governs his application of it (see general question #7 above).

 

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