Dismissing Jesus: A Study Guide, Pts. 2-3

(See the Intro and Pt. 1 here.)

Pt. II: Special Blinders to the Way of the Cross

Ch. 9: Superficial Providence

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

How have you used the doctrine of providence in your own life?  Has it been a comfort in true adversity, or a way of complacently avoiding self-examination?

How have Christians misused the doctrine of providence in interpreting American history?  Has it blinded us against a truthful examination of our nation’s history?

 

 

Ch. 10: Unconquerable Sin

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

Jones complains that “individual sin” “gets all the attention,” thus leading us to ignore “communal sin.”   Is this a fair diagnosis of our tradition?  What might it mean to “deal with communal sin first, or at least at the same time” (141)?

Is it historically true that Protestantism developed this obsession with individual sin, or was Protestantism rather a response to this obsession as it appeared in the late medieval church?

Jones describes the Reformed confessions as denying the possibility of any virtue prior to conversion, and as describing us as “just as trapped by sin before as after conversion” (140).  Is this an accurate description of the Reformed doctrine of total depravity?

On pp. 144-145, Jones appears to deny the doctrine of universal depravity, arguing that Scripture only describes certain wicked leaders as depraved sinners, and others as “trapped under the corporate domination of sin without each person needing to be utterly depraved.”  Many people are “genuinely decent people” (145) who are not alienated from God.  What are the implications of this view?  Is this different than age-old Pelagianism?

 

Ch. 11: Automatic Heaven

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

One of Jones’s concerns in this chapter is an idea of “heaven” that sees the fulfillment of so many Biblical prophecies as totally otherworldly.  Is there a danger in the other direction, of insisting that they describe the “here and now” (149)

In discussing the classic problem of faith and works, Jones critiques Protestantism for separating faith as a standalone thing?  However, his description of works as “the incarnation of faith” (154) is similar to classic Protestant teaching.  What then is the difference between what he is saying and classic Protestantism?   (Hint: see the top of p. 155)

While it certainly makes sense to say that if it does not manifest itself in works, faith is dead, Jones goes further and says that faith is “invisible,” even to God, on its own (152).  This seems a problematic way of expressing the matter, to say the least.  Why would Jones put things this way?

 

Ch. 12: God the Accuser

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

The first full paragraph on p. 158 states neatly the larger issue at stake in this chapter, one that arose in ch. 4 as well: is Christ’s work on the cross a unique event that is the only ground of our response, or is it an example that we imitate, a beginning that we finish?  Or rather, since it is clearly both in some sense, in what senses is it each?  Keep this problem in mind as you reflect on this chapter.

Jones posits a disjunction between the Cross as a solution to alienation from God (penal substitution) and as a solution to the problem of death and Satan (Christus Victor), and argues that these “produce two different faiths.”  Do we need to oppose these two emphases?  Particularly given that death, and the dominion of Satan, are the consequences of sin and alienation from God?

Jones seems alarmed by any suggestion that we are saved from the just judgment of God.  Does this idea reflect biblical language or not?

Jones worries that the language of penal substitution transforms “God into the giant Pharisee in the sky.”  Likewise, he complains that it makes God “too holy to be around sinners.”  Do these complaints ring true to you?  Or is this sketch only possibly by isolating the “penal” from the “substitution”?  That is to say, given that penal substitution teaches that God himself took upon himself the sin and the punishment, how does this make him out to be a Pharisee or too holy to touch sinners?

At the top of p. 163, Jones connects his concerns about penal substitution with the “way of the cross” themes outlined earlier in the book, arguing that in penal substitution, “the Father is first and foremost angry with the weak,” and so there is little reason to deliver the weak.  Is this accurate

On p. 170, Jones argues that penal atonement theory sounds dangerously close to pagan models of appeasement.  He summarizes John Stott’s three distinctions between the two models, and dismisses them as inadequate.  Do you agree or disagree?  (Particularly crucial is Stott’s #3: that God did not demand something or someone else, but offered himself.  Jones denies this and asserts that the Father “got his child to do it,” apparently denying the unity of the Trinity.)

Isaiah 53 is crucial in any conversation about penal atonement.  Jones offers a re-reading of this passage on p. 173.  Read Isaiah 53 carefully and decide what you think of Jones’s reading.

How might it (or might it not) help contemporary Reformed churches to change the emphasis of their atonement theology?

 

Ch. 13: The Left-Right Political Distinction

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches

In what ways does the modern Left manifest its worship of a false God?

In what ways does the modern Right manifest its worship of a false God?

Do you find it persuasive that the failed modern political ideals stem from an inadequate grasp of the Trinity

What does Jones man when he says that to overcome the Left-Right political distinction, “we just need to imitate the community of Father, Son, and Spirit within the church”?  Does the Trinity provide us with a political model?  What might that mean in practice?  Do you find this way of approaching the problem helpful?

How might it help today’s churches to overcome the Left/Right political distinction?

 

Ch. 14: Impersonal Conservatism

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

Jones’s seems to begin by complaining that the problem with “conservatism” as a political philosophy is its empirical nature and attention to history, its refusal to be a settled ideology or set of dogmas, but then goes on to claim that it is too much of an ideology or set of “impersonal principles.”  What do you think Jones is trying to say here?  Do you find these complaints persuasive?

Based on the conservative thinkers surveyed in this chapter, do you think that “conservatism” is a single coherent body of thought, or are there several different versions that each warrant distinct criticisms?

Jones draws attention to several different problems that one tends to find in “conservatism”: impersonalism, fear-mongering, individualism.   In what ways have these problems infected contemporary American conservative churches?

 

Ch. 15: Absolute Property

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

Reflect on ways in which the sacralization of private property dominates American political discourse and the way that Christian churches talk about charity and related issues.

Contrast the way we often think about private property in modern America with the concepts of proper ownership and use in Scripture (what it means for God to be sole owner, the Jubilee system of ancestral family ownership, the various forms of sharing built into Israel’s property law, etc.)

As in chapter 13, Jones attempts to counter our modern political problem by an appeal to the Trinity, arguing that we should approach property ownership the way that each member of the Trinity owns things vis-à-vis one another (pp. 193-94).  What is Jones trying to say here?  Is this clarifying or confusing?  Does Jones’s language here avoid the heresy of tritheism?

If appealing to the inner life of the Trinity is not the best way to reject “absolute property,” are there other theological resources for making a similar point?

At the bottom of p. 196, Jones declares that Christians have nothing to do with worldly institutions and governments, and are supposed to let them crumble and die, so that “the church” can replace them.  What would such sectarianism mean in practice?  Contrast this with biblical and traditional Christian teaching on civil authority.

What are practical ways in which we can we live out a biblical view of property as intended for sharing?

 

Ch. 16: Nice Mammon

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches? 

Jones paints a disconcerting picture of economic and political realities in western capitalism on pp. 201-203.  Is this a realistic portrait?  How might it change the way we talked about “the market” and politics if this were true?

Modern conservatives usually dismiss any worries about inequality and poverty by saying that these depend on “zero sum thinking” and that in the real market, everyone wins.  Jones argues  (pp. 204-206) that this strategy ignores reality.  What do you think?

Likewise, one frequently hears on the Right that talk of inequality or redistribution is based on envy.  Jones counters this charge on pp. 206-208.  What do you think?

Discuss Jones’s distinction of “capitalism” and “the free market” at the end of this chapter.

How do the issues in this chapter tie in with the fundamental “way of the cross” issues discussed in this book?

 

Ch. 17: American Mars

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

On p. 213 Jones charges that respect for the American military for many rises to the level of “a religious devotion.”  Does this description ring true?  Reflect on how often Christian nations have fallen into this trap throughout history.

Does Jones’s re-narration of American military history surprise you?  Which bits were most surprising?  Does this change your perspective on American military action today, or is this a one-sided portrait?

In what ways does devotion to Mars undermine our Christian discipleship and witness in American churches?  What benefits might a healthier sense of perspective bring?

 

Ch. 18: Broad Way Illusions

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

On p. 227, Jones asks whether Jesus allows us to live “normal middle-class lives” or whether these are necessarily on the broad way which leads to destruction.  What do you think he means by this?  What elements of “middle class life” does he think we are called to give up?

On p. 230, Jones notes the tendency to intellectualize the “broad way” and “narrow way,” assuming that those with the hardest, least accepted doctrines are on the narrow way.  Have you noticed this tendency in Reformed churches?  What are its consequences?

If few find the narrow way, the “lunatic minority,” that Jones has in mind, what does this say about most churches that we find ourselves in?  What does this mean for the “church” that Jones describes in such grand terms as the alternative city that is living out heaven on earth?

 

Pt. III: Constructing the Way of the Cross

Ch. 19: Being the Kingdom-Church

Although Jones points to one of the most radical examples of Christian charity taking institutional form, Basil of Caesarea’s Basiliad, as a model of what he wants the church to do, there still seems to be a disconnect in his rhetoric.  It is one thing to call for Christians to create particular institutions for sharing and deliverance, another thing for the institutional church as such to be a “whole competing city” to all earthly institutions, something Basil never had in mind.  Is this just rhetorical overreach, or what does Jones practically have in mind in this chapter—such as when he calls for churches to get involved in “manufacturing” (240)?

Does Jones want Christians to withdraw from their various occupations in businesses where they work alongside unbelievers and to create separate church-run businesses?   Is this a good idea?

 

Does there need to be a dichotomy between Christians modeling Christlike practices and institutions in their own churches on the one hand and at the same time working for broader social and political change in their earthly occupations and communities?

 

Ch. 20: Getting There

What are some of Jones’s practical suggestions in this chapter for a more cross-centered church?  What do you think of these?  How might we go about putting some of these into practice in our own communities?

Did the tone and approach of this chapter surprise you?  In many preceding chapters, one could get the impression that only immediate, uncompromising, wholesale implementation of “the way of the cross” was acceptable.  But here Jones suggests a model of prudent incremental change.  Are there tensions between this chapter and other parts of the book?

What do you think of Jones’s suggestion that Christians need to abandon their various occupational vocations and start doing their work “within the activities of the church”?  What might this mean in practice?

Jones argues that too often our mercy ministries are “risk-free,” just sending a check thousands of miles away to poor people in Africa at a safe distance.  He suggests the need to get involved in a hands-on way with nearby needs. Would this be practical in your church setting?  If so, discuss how to implement such goals.

Jones suggests that churches might better live the way of the cross by creating large funds to bear one another’s medical burdens, debts, etc.  Would this be practical in your church setting?  If so, discuss how to implement such goals.

Jones suggests the goal of learning to live on half our incomes, and supplying the rest to the church and the needs of the community.  Would this be practical in your church setting?  If so, discuss how to implement such goals.

Jones concludes this chapter by reasserting that solving “the problem of evil and injustice in the world . . . [is] not the Trinity’s job.  That’ the church’s job. . . . Like Christ, the church is to feed on evil and absorb it” (252).  Does such a ratcheting up of the church’s mission beyond its apparent means undermine the centrality of Christ’s work or our assurance in him?  Is it an invigorating challenge or a crushing burden?

 

Ch. 21: The Spirituality of Descent

In previous chapters, Jones has emphasized repeatedly the problems with individualism, and criticized the Protestant tendency to prioritize individual sin before communal problems can be dealt with.  And yet in this chapter, he turns around to say, “we can’t hope to wrestle with Mammon in the world around us without first conquering the Mammon that has so long gripped our souls.  It’s futile and pointless.  Unless we exorcise the Mammon that shapes our normal habits, we will fail to overcome it in our communities” (254).  Is this that different, after all, from the traditional Protestant emphasis—that evil begins in the heart, and must be rooted out there if we are to really conquer injustice on a larger scale?

Likewise, in previous chapters (notably ch. 10), Jones has critiqued the idea that we remain entangled by sin throughout our lives, even as believers.  But here, he insists that “the battle between flesh and spirit is a battle Christians fight their entire lives” (258) and that we carry within us the old self of sin and the new self of the spirit.  Is this really that different, after all, from Luther’s classic teaching of simul justus et peccator?  And if not, why has Jones gone out of his way elsewhere in the book to critique that teaching?

The emphases in this chapter suggest that what Jones is really worried about is a theology of justification that forgets the doctrine of sanctification, a theology of forgiveness of sins that forgets our union with the indwelling Christ.  Have your own church communities been characterized by these omissions?  How much would it help us in addressing “way of the cross” issues to recover this balance?

At the top of p. 264, Jones declares unambiguously that without Christ’s once-for-all victory over sin, we would be “miserable and lost” unable “to break the hold of the false self on us,” and that by virtue of Christ’s work alone “we now live in a new cosmos, a new heaven and earth, promising freedom and indwelling now.”  Does this stand in tension with declarations elsewhere in the book that Christ’s work is incomplete unless we carry it out, that it is our job to bring in the new heaven and earth?

Reflect on ways that the false priorities of Mammon—power, prestige, and possessions—have captured your soul, and those in your community.

What spiritual practices might you engage in to cultivate a “spirituality of descent,” overcoming the bondage of Mammon in your life and freeing you for selfless service of others?

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