Last week Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Dallas. In his speech, he referred to President Donald Trump 76 times and the United States 65 times. How many times was Jesus mentioned? Once.
Responses varied among the denomination’s constituency, with a considerable number voicing criticism on the grounds of church-state separation. Adherence to this age-old Baptist distinctive is worth commending. But do Baptists (SBC and CBF alike) have the theological compass necessary to criticize this move on the grounds of revelation? There’s good reason to wonder.
In the 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message, the article on Scripture omitted the 1963 version’s phrase stating that Jesus is the interpretive key (“the criterion,” to use the exact wording) for reading the Bible. No longer was Jesus regarded as the one in whom the Old and New testaments cohere, which is why Al Mohler was able to write a “biblical” defense of the death penalty without mentioning Jesus (a man executed by the state) even once. It’s why Baptists are so urgent to “preach the Bible” instead of preaching what Origen called the autobasileia, the kingdom-in-person that is Jesus Christ himself. Indeed, it’s why Mike Pence can stand in a Baptist pulpit and preach a Jesus-less gospel without receiving the kind of pushback that would prompt a reappraisal of our theological commitments.
What we believe about Jesus’ place in the interpretation of Scripture is a good indicator of what we believe about revelation. As the theologian T.F. Torrance was fond of saying, there is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ. If God is fully revealed in the person of Jesus, we must calibrate our reading of God’s action in Scripture according to the character of God’s Son. Likewise, if Jesus embodies what it means to be fully human, we must calibrate our reading of creation according to that same character. We don’t know what’s “natural” apart from the flesh of Jesus. Or as the Baptist theologian James William McClendon put it, “A creation mandate apart from Christ is hardly Christian.” Jesus comes first, then creation.
This is precisely what the Swiss theologian Karl Barth tried to communicate to his colleague, Emil Brunner. In 1934, just a year after the Aryan Paragraph was issued by the German state, Brunner published a defense of “natural theology,” arguing that sinful humans maintain the capacity to discern God in creation apart from Jesus Christ. Barth’s famous rejoinder, simply titled Nein! (“No!”), claimed that we know the meaning of creation only by looking at the Incarnation. But if the creaturely flesh of Jesus won’t inform the character of creation, powerful despots will. Exhibit A: Nazi Germany, where Romans 13 was often cited in order to “naturalize” the state as a creaturely medium of God’s revelation. According to this logic, the reich was inscribed in nature. Such an impoverished theological imagination funded one of the most brutal systems of law and order imaginable. Beginning with “nature” has consequences.
So again: Jesus first, then creation. If we get this backward and posit creation as a prerequisite of grace, Jesus gets supplanted as the criterion for reading Scripture and creation, replaced by a self-justifying vision of “nature.” This always runs the risk of making empire the interpretive key for reading the Bible. Exhibit B: Jeff Sessions’ reading of Romans 13 to justify the morally derelict act of separating children from their parents at the border. Exhibit C: Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ assertion that following the law is “very biblical.” For them, law and order is part of nature. Indeed, it’s a perverted form of natural theology.
But Christian fundamentalists and members of Trump’s administration are not the only guilty ones. What about the rest of us? What about “moderate” and “progressive” Baptists? How did we respond when Colin Kaepernick took a knee? Was our instinct to protect the sanctity of a piece of cloth rather than the sanctity of black lives? Do we get upset when Trump uses the word “sh*thole” to describe poor countries, yet don’t bat an eye when nicer presidents bomb them? Do we keep saying things like, “We’re better than this” or “This is not America” when in fact separating children from their families was written into the DNA of America from its inception? Doesn’t our reticence to critically examine America’s very composition betray an assumption that this country is part of nature? We might think we’re “woke,” but these subtle iterations of natural theology keep us asleep. Only the incursion of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ can wake us up.
Jesus first, then creation. If we get this backward, we’ll end up preaching another gospel. And as Jeff Sessions’ favorite theologian once said to his congregation in Galatia: “If anyone preaches another gospel, let them be accursed!”