Dr. Reza Aslan’s Jesus: Safe & Subjective

Dr. Reza Aslan’s version of Jesus of Nazareth has been getting a bit of press lately, and the viral Fox News interview with him discussing his recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth sure didn’t hurt the sales any. I haven’t read the book, but from the sounds of it (see paragraph 3 in the following interview) Dr. Aslan, like other scholars before him, are attempting to extract the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the four gospels. In another interview with The Atlantic author Joe Fassler, Dr. Aslan presents Jesus as a revolutionary who confronted the powerful religious establishment for the sake of the powerless and offered a salvation to people that comes from within:

In Dr. Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus you get to be your own Yahweh or at least make God whatever you want him to be, while in the gospels Jesus reserves the sacred divine name for himself.

I think that, obviously, is an enormous threat to the power-holders whose authority came from—precisely as Dostoevsky says—from their ability to appease a man’s conscience. Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation. And Jesus’ challenge to that idea was based on the notion that the power for salvation does not rest in any outsider’s hand: that it rests within the individual. I think that’s an idea that a lot of Christians need to remember. Those who state that salvation comes solely through the Church or belief in a set of doctrines that a bunch of men wrote many years ago are forgetting what Jesus himself said: that salvation is purely an internal matter. That you are the only one qualified to define what God is for you. No one else is qualified to make that decision for you.

This version of Jesus isn’t unique or new. In fact, he’s quite popular. He’s got a message of empowerment and self-salvation, which is eaten up by spiritual but not religious Americans. His Nazarene upsets the safety of the establishment through confrontation, while offering the safest of religious sensibilities. This Jesus grants justice for the weak and marginalized in the here-and-now and then basically gives us what we naturally want out of religion anyway–God and salvation on our own terms. He’s out to revolutionize the injustice of the world, but not to revolutionize the human hearts propensity to subjective idolatry.

The kind of radical revolution of religion that Jesus is promoting is not an internal, relativistic theism, but he’s calling the ones in power and the powerless to worship him and find salvation in him alone.

This is quite the opposite of Jesus, the Jewish man of the New Testament (I recognize that Aslan isn’t after that Jesus anyway), who was steeped in Israel’s identity and embodied Israel’s story in himself. According to this story, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, had quite a different understanding of God than Dr. Aslan. In the book of Exodus Yahweh called himself rather simply and almost curtly, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14). In other words, “I am and there is nothing you can do about it. I’m the definer. You are not. I exist independently of you, and you exist dependently upon me.” And the crazy-if-it-isn’t-true thing about the man Jesus of Nazareth is that he called Yahweh his Father, and not only that, he identified himself with Yahweh himself.

Dr. Aslan, as Fassler’s interview showed, doesn’t like this kind of Jesus. He’s distrustful of “anyone who presents themselves as a gatekeeper to truth, or a gatekeeper to salvation”. But this is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus, according to his own words, was the exclusive gatekeeper of the truth because he was the gate (Jn. 10:9) and the truth (Jn. 14:6).

In Dr. Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus you get to be your own Yahweh or at least make God whatever you want him to be, while in the gospels Jesus reserves the sacred divine name for himself. According to the gospel writer’s Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t put to death because he simply upset the religious establishment by breaking tradition and coming alongside the lowly, he upset the religious establishment most of all because he blasphemed by making himself out to be God.

These claims are found in many places in the gospels, yet there is one particular place in chapter five of John’s gospel that seems particularly revealing over against Dr. Aslan’s differing representation of Jesus. Here in a moment where Jesus is operating as a kind of revolutionary, doing good and overturning the religious establishment by healing on the Sabbath, at the same time, he is claiming to be God. Not only is he doing justice by restoring a paraplegic man to wholeness, in spite of the rules of the religious system, he is claiming to being doing the very “work” (a big no-no on the Sabbath) of his Father: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (5:17). In the next verse, the narrator of this gospel, fills out the results of Jesus’ words and actions,

“This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (5:18)

Jesus goes on to say this very same thing by identifying himself with his Father, Yahweh, and comes up with different claims than Dr. Aslan’s Jesus. John’s Jesus says,

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (5:22-24)

Key word here: honor. Key phrase: just as. Jesus is claiming to deserve the same honor–the same worship–as Yahweh. Furthermore, he is saying that eternal life, salvation, is found in him. The kind of radical revolution of religion that Jesus is promoting is not an internal, relativistic theism, but he’s calling the ones in power and the powerless to worship him and find salvation in him alone.

I’ll leave it to New Testament scholars like NT Wright (in places like this) and Richard Bauckham (see Michael Kruger’s recent post on the historicity of John’s gospel) to demonstrate the historicity of the Jesus of the gospels, but Dr. Aslan’s Jesus is not the Jesus of history or the gospels. The Jesus of the gospels is more like CS Lewis’s Jesus-figure, Aslan, the King of the mythic world Narnia who is a simultaneously unsafe, untamed and entirely good lion, while Dr. Aslan’s Jesus is more like a chameleon who changes the colors of the divine to whatever you want him/her/it to be.

10 Questions on the New Testament Canon with Dr. Michael Kruger

Dr. Michael Kruger is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC, has a Ph. D. from the University of Edinburgh, and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He specializes in the study of the origins of the New Testament. Dr. Kruger’s book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of New Testament Books was published this last month, and he has co-authored a 2010 book titled The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity and a forthcoming book titled The Early Text of the New Testament. Recently he started blogging and has an ongoing series called “10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon” that you can find here. He was kind enough to answer the following 10 questions of mine about the New Testament canon:

…redemption and canon go together. The latter follows naturally from the former.

  1. What is the canon of Scripture?

There has been a long and extensive debate between scholars about the best way to define the term “canon.”  I cover this topic rather extensively in my recent article in the Tyndale Bulletin.  But, for our purposes here, the canon can be defined simply as “the collection of scriptural books that God has given his corporate church.”

  1. Why is there a canon of Scripture?

God’s revelational deposits are typically designed to announce and apply his great redemptive activities.  Thus, when God accomplished his great redemptive work in Christ Jesus, he gave the canonical books as a permanent and abiding means by which that redemption could be announced to the world and applied to the hearts of his people.  Thus, redemption and canon go together. The latter follows naturally from the former.

  1. Who decided what books made up the canon of Scripture?

Well, simply put, God decided what books make up the canon of Scripture!  The canon always consists of the books God gave his church, no more, no less.  Of course, I realize that this question is really asking about what role humans (i.e., the church) played in the development of the canon.  The church played a very important role.  There role was to recognize, receive, and submit to the books that God had given.   And we see the church doing this from a very early time period.  They reached a general consensus around all these books by the time of the 4th century.

  1. Roughly, how much time did it take for all 27 books of the New Testament to be included in the canon?

Although a final consensus on all the books was not achieved until about the fourth century, that is not the whole story.  In fact, to only discuss the final consensus is to leave out an important fact, namely that the “core” of the NT canon had been in place, and functioning as Scripture, by the beginning of the second century.   The “core” canon consisted of the 4 gospels, Paul’s epistles, and a few other books like 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation.   Since there was a core canon from very early in the life of the church, then that means that (a) all of the so-called disagreements were only over a handful of books, and (b) the theological trajectory of early Christianity was already decided long before the fourth century.

…the “core” of the NT canon had been in place, and functioning as Scripture, by the beginning of the second century.

  1. Do the books that were “accepted” later have less value then books accepted earlier? In other words, should we spend more time in Matthew or Galatians over that of 2 Peter and Jude?

The books that were accepted later are as fully inspired, and fully scriptural, as all the other books of the NT.   The “delay” in the consensus around these books largely has to do with their small size.   Books like Jude, James, 2 & 3 John were simply not used as often as other books, and therefore the knowledge of these books was not as widespread in the earliest stages of the church.  Thus, it took longer for a full consensus to be reached regarding them.

  1. How would it help a Christian man working a “regular job” or a Christian mom working at home with kids to have an understanding of the formation of the canon?

It all goes back to the authority of Scripture.   Every believer needs to have a level of assurance about the authority of God’s word so that they can (a) faithfully live their lives in obedience to Him, and (b) confidently share their faith with non-Christians.   A core part of establishing the authority of God’s word is to be able to answer objections and questions about where the Bible came from.  In fact, this is one of the most common questions that non-Christians ask about the Bible.  Every Christian, even those with a “regular job,” will need to have at least some answer to that question.

  1. Will there ever be additions to the canon? If so, why? If not, why not?

One of the most common questions I get is, “If we found a lost epistle of Paul in the sand today, would we add it to the canon?”  That is a difficult question, but I come out on the “no” side of that debate.  I argue in my book, Canon Revisited, that we have good reasons to think that God would providentially preserve those books that he intended to be part of the church’s foundational documents.  Thus, if a book was lost, and therefore not providentially preserved, it is reasonable to conclude that God did not intend for it to be part of the church’s canon.  Even if we found an epistle of Paul, it makes little sense to add a book to the canon now when that book was clearly never part of the foundational documents of the church.

  1. With the recent discussion on the canon and the nature of the gospels brought up by scholars like Bart Ehrman or even in pop culture phenomenon like The DaVinci Code, what two or three main misconceptions do you think people have about the canon?

There are many misconceptions about canon.  So many, in fact, that I have started a new blog series on my website on this very topic (I just completed misconception #4).   I think the most common misconception is that early Christianity was wildly diverse with no clear theological or doctrinal direction, and therefore no sense of which books were Scripture.   People have this idea that the development of the canon was sort of like an ancient writing contest—if you wrote something good enough it may have a chance of getting in!  But, things were not quite this way.  Sure, there was some diversity and disagreement, but, as a whole, there was a remarkable amount of uniformity from a very early time period.

  1. In what way does understanding the formation of the canon give particular glory to God and adorn his gospel?

Studying the origins of the canon can be very encouraging spiritually.  It reminds us that God very much desires a relationship with his people; i.e., he desires to speak with them.  And it reminds us that God has not left that speaking to chance.  By his providential hand, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, God has made sure that his people hear his voice.

  1. What is the best lecture online and the best book to read to get started in understanding the NT canon?

If people want to learn more about the NT canon, I recommend they listen to the recent lectures I gave at RTS/Orland for the Kistemaker Lecture series, or pick up a copy of my book, Canon Revisited.