9.20.2011

Living From Jefferson’s Bible


If you know much about Thomas Jefferson (beyond the fact that he was instrumental in the crafting of the Declaration of Independence and later became the third President of the United States), you’re probably aware that he is well-known for his unorthodox religious ideas.1

Among other things, Jefferson’s worldview was heavily influenced by Enlightenment thought, and caused him to dismiss the miraculous elements of Christianity as unbelievable. Corresponding to his beliefs, Jefferson created his own version of the New Testament, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Using a razor, Jefferson literally cut out the parts of the Gospels that he didn’t like (things such as the incarnation, miracles, divinity, and resurrection of Jesus) and created a new book that was more palatable for him.

Christians today who claim to live according to the teachings of the Bible find this to be absurd—obviously you can’t just pick and choose which biblical teachings you wish to follow. After all, at the point when you start dismissing certain teachings because you don’t like them, you’ve basically ceased to follow the teachings of Scripture altogether and have turned yourself into the ultimate source of authority.

And yet…

For all of our insistence that we live based on the teachings of Scripture, if you look at the lives of Christians from a broad perspective, I would suggest that we, too, are guilty of creating our own versions of what the Bible says. We might not physically cut out passages with razorblades, but we practically do the same thing by ignoring certain teachings and living our lives in clear violation of others.

Probably there are many such teachings that we could use to illustrate the point, but just limiting ourselves to the words of Jesus, we can easily find several examples:

(1) Jesus’ Teachings on Divorce—

Statistics show that up to half of first marriages end in divorce, and subsequent marriages are even more likely to fail.2 Furthermore, religious belief doesn’t seem to have a great impact on these statistics, as conservative evangelical Christians are only marginally less likely to get divorced than non-believers.3 How do those statistics mesh with the teachings of Jesus?

At one point in His ministry, Jesus was asked if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all. He responded by saying that, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.4

In our current climate of widespread divorce for a variety of reasons, this isn’t a passage that is talked about too often, and when it is discussed, it’s often explained away—I recently heard an intelligent, well-educated Christian minister argue that perhaps Jesus wasn’t limiting “unfaithfulness” to sexual immorality, but was also including “emotional unfaithfulness” as a legitimate reason for divorce. Although I am no expert on 1st century Jewish life, the idea of “emotional unfaithfulness” is a modern Western concept that is completely foreign to the New Testament text. In the context of Matthew 19.4-6, where Jesus talks about man and wife joining together to form one flesh, it is an explicit sexual reference. The unfaithfulness that He mentions in v. 9 (or “immorality” in the NASB) is clearly sexual unfaithfulness—Jesus is saying that the only legitimate reason for divorce is once spouse cheating on the other sexually.

This is undoubtedly a hard teaching for us to accept (as it was for Jesus’ original audience—see v. 10)—but does that give us license to ignore it?

(2) Love Your Enemies—

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a good deal to say about how we should respond to people when they mistreat us, and how we should feel about our enemies in general.5 Maybe we struggle to identify “enemies” in our everyday lives, but once again, this is a teaching of Jesus that we often neglect.

For example, I hear lots of public prayers on behalf of “our servicemen and women overseas” but I rarely (if ever) hear prayers for the individuals that those men and women are fighting against.

Certainly I have no problem with praying for US military personnel, but shouldn’t we pray for the other side as well? Regardless of how we feel about militant terrorists (and let me assure you, I’m not filled with warm feelings for them), isn’t this exactly the sort of thing Jesus was talking about?

(3) Treasure in Heaven—

Also in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urged His audience to focus on building up spiritual wealth rather than the accumulation of earthly treasure.6 And this was not an uncommon topic—Jesus spoke about money a lot, and surely His teachings have implications for us, people who claim to follow Jesus who also live in the wealthiest society in the wealthiest time in history.

And what do those teachings say? Over and over again, they are consistent: spending our lives chasing after and accumulating possessions is foolish and wrong, greed is a sin, and we should use what we have to bless others.

I’m not denying the importance of good stewardship and providing for our families, but when multitudes of people around the world are dying due to starvation, contaminated water, and preventable diseases, how big of a house, how many cars, or how much money in the bank do we accumulate before stewardship becomes idolatry?


I could go on, but if you’re the average Christian, I’ve probably already stepped on your toes by now (I know I’ve stepped on my own).

I think living according to the teachings of Scripture is a noble pursuit, and for the Christian, is a necessary one. But by all means, let’s not get so wrapped up in talking about following God’s Word that we neglect actually doing it.

• • •

1 Jefferson is often described as a Deist, but this might be an oversimplification of his religious views. Regardless, he was certainly influenced by deist thinking.
2 http://www.divorcestatistics.org/
3 http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released
4 Matthew 19.1-12.
5 Matthew 5.38-47.
6 Matthew 6.19-34.

4 comments:

Colby 9/21/11, 9:03 AM  

Don't forget all the fun that is the old law! You and I might draw the line differently from Mr. Jefferson, but everyone chooses which parts of the Bible have authority of them.

(woops, deleted this comment once. DANGBLASTED COMPUTERS)

Luke 9/23/11, 7:55 AM  

Colby,

Of course you're right—I don't know of anyone today who simultaneously tries to follow the Law of Moses and abide by the principles of the new covenant.

That being said, I would argue that there's a significant difference in a Gentile Christian like myself neglecting portions of Hebrew law according to the teachings of the NT (see Paul, James, even Jesus) and someone like Jefferson scratching out supernatural elements he didn’t like or a modern Christian ignoring Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount because they’re difficult.

“Choosing which parts of the Bible have authority over you” is a basic part of biblical interpretation, but if one’s method of choosing is, “I don't like this part so it’s out”, then he’s done what TJ did—made himself the final authority rather than Scripture.

Colby 9/23/11, 9:23 AM  

I agree there's a significant difference between one person overlooking parts of the law of moses and another literally cutting out miracles, but from a postmodern perspective, they've both made themselves the final, final authority on scripture.

"I think living according to the teachings of Scripture is a noble pursuit, and for the Christian, is a necessary one. But by all means, let’s not get so wrapped up in talking about following God’s Word that we neglect actually doing it." I think this is where Jefferson actually gets it more right than the people (me, you, whoever) you're calling out in your post. He may have had trouble believing in the miracle stories, but clearly he was obsessed with Jesus' teachings.

Luke 9/26/11, 10:50 AM  

Colby,

Sorry for the late response; busy weekend.

Well, from a postmodern perspective I guess we're the final authority on anything in life, whether we make up our own code to live by or choose to defer to another (Scripture, laws of the land, etc.). Either way, we make the decision (i.e. have the authority) to determine what will govern our life. That’s not really what I was talking about though, as I guess I was drawing a line between creating our own code and deferring to another.

And your point regarding Jefferson is well-taken—considering that it was Jesus’ teachings that he was most (only?) interested in, perhaps he wouldn't have glossed over the difficult ones like we tend to do (though I guess how well he followed those teachings is debatable). However, the main point of this post was not to run down Jefferson, but to point out that something he did that most evangelicals would consider to be awful (cutting out parts of the Bible that we'd like to avoid) is also something that we're guilty of from time to time.

Of course, the fatal flaw that Jefferson made and that countless others still make is that he tried to divorce the teachings of Jesus from who was, which, as C.S. Lewis and others have argued, isn’t really an option. To separate Jesus’ teachings from His authority and identity as the Son of God profoundly diminishes them.

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