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How Thomas Jefferson Tried to “Fix” Christianity

Thomas Jefferson is an enigma for many. Political enemies in his day accused him of being an atheist yet he started the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom with the phrase, “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” He certainly would not have been invited to speak at an evangelical conference to share his view that most clergymen are “soothsayers and necromancers.” You likely have a bigger brain than I do but I will confess that I had to look up necromancers. It literally means one who interrogates the dead. Okay. Not sure what church Jefferson was frequenting.

Jefferson believed that authentic Christianity had been hijacked by church leaders. Jefferson decided to fix the problem. He took out his scissors and cut out the parts of the Bible that he didn’t believe. He excised the virgin birth, all of the miracles and the Resurrection. He cobbled together a book he titled “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth”. Jefferson described his work as separating the “diamonds from the dunghill.” His clippers removed every miracle while leaving teachings about helping the needy and treating people as we would have them treat us. Jefferson’s called the moral code of Jesus, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

I agree with that statement but Jesus stripped of His Divinity and resurrection becomes just a really challenging life coach.

It is so easy to criticize Jefferson. What audacity! The incredible chutzpah to modify sacred texts to fit your own views! But then I took a breath and stepped back. Do I do the same thing without the in your face honesty of Jefferson? When I choose to ignore the hard teachings of Jesus I have, in practice, done the same thing. When I say that some command in God’s Word is too hard I have essentially taken my scissors of doubt and cut that teaching out. When I point out that I cannot forgive or love or give because you don’t understand my circumstances I have clipped out the challenge of supernatural living. In my book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People I wrote a chapter called “This is a Hard Teaching” about the challenging and difficult things that Jesus taught that I tend to mentally and practically excise from my walk. For example, Jesus had this fun little proclamation.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.  (Matthew 5:43-48, NLT)

Are you kidding me? Love your enemies? Pray for them? Scalpel please…that must be removed. I often feel like the disciples of Jesus who struggled with His teaching about the bread of life.

Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?” Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining, so he said to them, “Does this offend you? (John 6:60, NLT)

That is the bottom line isn’t it? Sometimes the hard teachings of Jesus offend me. Or at least annoy me. I don’t want to forgive the unforgivable or love the unlovable. I don’t want to serve the least of these because it is inconvenient, messy, and hard. But I have a choice to make. I have to accept the entire Word of God and be open to allowing the Holy Spirit to move in every area of my life. Or I have to take the scissors of my lack of faith to His Word. As for cutting out the miracles and just making Jesus a profound and amazing teacher? I don’t think He gave us that option. Jesus clearly let it be known that He was the Son of Man sent by His Father. If that is not the truth then Jesus was not a great man and teacher. The famous words of C.S.Lewis from Mere Christianity dismiss that philosophy.

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon and you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

So I am praying for the grace to embrace the hard teachings and leave the scissors in the drawer.