And why you should be too. Let’s get moving on this.
by Dave Schmelzer
“What does it mean to follow Jesus?” turned out to be a surprisingly hard question.
As an atheist debater, I had a powerful, ongoing encounter with a God who seemed eager to get my attention. Two years of studying the religious options convinced me that this sort of living, personal, loving, communicating God could only be explained by Jesus, and that epiphany has paid off remarkably in the years since. My temperament always wants more perspective on anything that matters. Trying over a few decades to hunt down this kind of perspective about following Jesus has played out in two noteworthy ways.
One is intellectual.
When I realized that I’d been wrong in my years of atheist debating, I was eager to be taught by the Christians, by the experts, by the people who’d mastered this way of living with Jesus. I got a graduate degree in theology. I read the classic thinkers about Jesus from most centuries since Jesus’s life. I read just about any current book that anyone I knew liked. I interviewed pastors and older Christians. I practiced every prayer practice anyone ever taught me. I spent two years living among the poor in the town with the highest murder-per-capita rate in the country. I read the Bible daily for decades. And all of that led me to a helpful conclusion that has had staying power.
Nobody has figured this out. No one. Nobody.
That guru of how-to-follow-Jesus doesn’t exist.
Of course that doesn’t mean that no one has any insights about anything about Jesus. I’m like Pavlov’s dogs to this day. Whenever anybody rings the bell by telling me how terrific some thinker about Jesus is, I salivate by reflexively dialing up my Amazon account and buying that book before the conversation’s done. Just this week someone favorably mentioned an obscure theological book from a couple of decades back. When he casually referenced it ten minutes later and started summarizing the small point that had most helped him, I said, “Oh, I’ve already ordered it. I’ll read the whole thing and get back to you.”
But when I started going to churches, many pastors would speak with confidence that “the Bible said ‘x’.” The world they painted was one where, sooner or later, with the right amount of study and spiritual practice, one would master this thing called “biblical Christianity.” Because, they said, the Bible was by and large clear, so “becoming biblical” was mostly a matter of honest labor.
It took me decades of this labor before I finally called the fight. What I’d been told in all those churches could now persuasively be called false.
It now seemed clear to me that the authorities these pastors looked to were mostly modern, confident scholars or pastors who were asking only very narrow questions, but who often claimed to be asking vast questions. To my just-learning-this-stuff eyes, they appeared to have limited emotional maturity. It wasn’t that these writers didn’t say anything worth saying! They would each have an insight or two worth considering. But it seemed to me that the pastors who made these men their gurus (always men, in these cases) also demonstrated a narrow range of emotional and spiritual maturity. Some of them grew large churches, but the appeal of their churches struck novice-Dave as that of having a strong if perhaps shallow leader telling congregants what’s what. When I moved on to thinkers about Jesus who had great depth (rarely the favorites of these early pastors), these thinkers still had their feet of clay. Augustine gave us the Confessions at the same time as he was persecuting his religious opponents and unleashing a theology of sexuality which most Christians now regard as having damaged its adherents ever since. Calvin gave us the Institutes while he was putting his opponents to death and working to create an ideal, godly city which, to the modern reader, looks a lot like a city under extreme Sharia Law. The greatest pleasures that Luther offers the modern reader struck me as being his robust insults towards his opponents. Even the favorite thinker of many late-twentieth-century western Christians, C.S. Lewis, is only attempting a modest project: to mount a defense of the reasonableness of Christianity against attacks on it from the secular world of his day. He’s not telling his readers how to follow Jesus.
Again, to emphasize once more, it’s not that there were no insights to be found in these people. (Or in the many great women who’ve written on faith. One difference with them is that very few have attempted to set up entire systems the way the men above did.) But they strike me as the insights of a delightful thrift store. As we dig through the bin in the far corner, we discover how so and so prayed the scriptures. As we dig through the bin near the register, we discover so and so’s view of 1 Corinthians 14—wow, that’s interesting stuff! As we rummage through the pile of shirts, we see how someone lived out their understanding of Jesus’s care for the poor.
So the first consequence of decades of playing out my drive for perspective about following Jesus was realizing that no one has that perspective, that there’s no answer to that question. And maybe that’s not entirely bad news. I think of the exchange Jesus had with the Pharisees in John 9 (in verses 39-41). “Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.’ Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, ‘What? Are we blind too?’ Jesus said, ‘If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.’” Maybe our mistake all along has been claiming that we see. Maybe Jesus has another plan in mind to accomplish what he has in mind that doesn’t involve us insisting upon a (facile?) “biblical Christianity.”
The second consequence isn’t intellectual. It’s emotional.
And that’s that the effort itself has a surprising payoff, if I go about it by staying in close contact with Jesus. The downside of all my need for perspective is some level of isolation. The nature of getting perspective is pulling back so one can get a clearer read on the situation. The more I connected with Jesus, the more I found myself connected not just to God, but also to my world and myself. I still lacked my big-picture “answer,” but this connection was a very nice gift for someone like me. And maybe this was also predicted in John’s Gospel, as Jesus talks about the whole ballgame involving staying connected to him like branches stay connected to a vine.
Those two consequences lead into what have become the six distinctives of Blue Ocean, which try to sort out the strange discovery I and many of my friends made. Why is it that a certain sort of “figuring things out about life with Jesus” didn’t seem to be as helpful as it was sometimes claimed to be, while a different sort of ever-maturing connection with Jesus did seem so powerful? Are there ways to craft an experience of faith that will better chart a course towards the good outcome?
Let’s start with the qualifier that these distinctives exist in time, so they might well change! That said, I’ll go ahead and list them, and then I’ll fill out the first of them in the remainder of this essay. I’ll look at each of the other five in essays to come. They’re framework-y and a little heady, but I hope you’ll find them as robust and encouraging as I have.
The six distinctives of Blue Ocean
- Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
- Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
- Our approach to spiritual development is CHILDLIKE FAITH.
- Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
- Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
- Our approach to culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.
Sola scriptura was astounding and needed. And now it’s become the problem.
This ties into my first discovery.
If you’re reading an essay like this one, you know about sola scriptura and you know why it was so powerful and needed in those early years, so you’ll have to forgive the briefest of summaries for our uninitiated friends. Protestantism was created by a few “sola’s” (meaning “alone”). Perhaps the most meaningful and lasting of them to our Lutheran friends would be “sola fide,” “by faith alone.” Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “justification by faith” rather than by “works,” by good things that we do. That was a big point of how Lutheranism (and Protestantism) separated from Rome.
But our evangelical friends have given even more attention to another of the “sola’s”—“sola scriptura” or “scripture alone.” The problem it was trying to solve was figuring out who had the authority to say what God’s will was. Roman Catholicism had answered that by pointing out that Jesus gave Peter the keys to his church, and that Peter then passed them on to leaders in his church. So the Pope and his leaders were the final authority. By Luther’s day, they were obviously corrupt, so he proposed a new authority that would not have been possible until that point in history. He and his fellow reformers proposed that the authority didn’t sit with any fallible human beings, but with the holy and unchanging words of God in the Bible. Sola scriptura. That spurred a massive literacy campaign in Europe. And the printing press was just coming into play, which soon made it at least theoretically possible for a literate person to read the Bible for him or herself. (In practice, of course, it was mostly impossible for a few centuries afterwards.) The challenge from Rome was quick. Fine. Let’s say, following your logic, that the scriptures are the authority. Who has the right or the ability to interpret them? The answer was novel: the scriptures were “clear” in all essential matters. Any reader of good will would, as my early pastors preached so aggressively, understand them just fine if they put in a minimum of work.
We’ve already established that I’ve found that to be a falsehood. But let’s get back to that later.
First, let’s celebrate sola scriptura for a moment.
Again, it created widespread literacy as we experience it today.
Also, Christians in the evangelical tradition now routinely get told that daily Bible reading is the key to their hope of growth in Jesus. I think that has real downsides (more on that in a moment), but I say that as a massive beneficiary. Starting to follow Jesus in college, I was in many hours of group Bible study each week in my campus fellowship, along with my highly encouraged personal daily Bible reading. That luxurious experience of studying the Bible with (and without) friends was bonding, encouraging, motivating, informative and among the best parts of my college life. It lived up to its billing as something that shaped me and shaped my future. And as someone with a literary bent, it captured my imagination. I was a playwright for years in secular settings and the biblical story informed everything I wrote, as it does for every earnest evangelical. I dreamed for years of writing the first great drama about Paul. My family and I, like all families and individuals, have gone through hardship and betrayal and anxiety. All that Bible reading my wife and I did over all those years was crucial in directing us how to navigate those challenges and discouragements and still end up close to a good God who loves us. The heritage of sola scriptura has been among the great gifts I’ve gotten.
But there are cracks in the armor.
Some of the cracks are, intriguingly, biblical cracks. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter were sola scriptura people. Actually their opponents better fit that description. Their opponents were the ones who were “serious about the Bible.” Jesus, Peter and Paul were the ones who scandalized them by abandoning the “clear” teachings there. Jesus picked grain on the Sabbath and hugged lepers. Peter went into the home of a Gentile despite the quite clear biblical prohibitions against it. Paul kept getting himself jailed and nearly killed by his constant tweaks to the serious Bible people of his day. Jesus, Peter and Paul seemed scandalously “free” to the sola scriptura people.
Some of the cracks are practical. Sola scriptura, it turns out, can’t actually give life. The Bible, for all its amazingness, is just a book, after all, not God. And so, in one example, the most earnest sola scriptura people increasingly focus on who to exclude, as if that equates with godliness. These churches and Christians invest a lot of energy in defining what is or isn’t sin. Books are excellent if you want to draw lines against other people, which is why Jesus counted “lawyers” among his opponents—people whose specialty was parsing out the correct interpretation of words in books. Lawyers were all about who to exclude. But unlike, say, Jesus, books do far worse at reaching out to include unexpected people.
And my experience has been that it’s not only the claim that the Bible is basically “clear” that’s turned out to be false. Also false is the thought that diligent Bible reading every day produces people who love and follow Jesus. Very few of my early Christian friends that I’ve kept up with are still daily Bible readers. And for those, like me, who continued on: after a decade or so, pretty much everyone has needed to take a break and ask what’s really going on for them with all this reading. Are they now, God forbid, maybe a little bored by the Bible? As a pastor of a large church for almost twenty years—who talks to lots and lots of other pastors—I can verify that advice to congregants to read the Bible everyday is rarely taken. The Bible, again, is awesome. But it’s not alive in the way that Jesus claims for himself.
Sola scriptura turned out to be a great organizing principle for the modern world. Modernism is dominated by systems and machines. For committed modernists looking for a spiritual mechanism, what better than treating a book as the unchanging machine that will always spit out good results?
But Jesus seemed to think that the Bible was very much meant to be the means to a different end than sola scriptura. There’s, for instance, John 5:39 (John clearly has a lot to say on this topic!): “You study the scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very scriptures that testify about me.” Maybe this focus on the Bible is, in the end, an old temptation, a way to feel in control of our lives and destinies which otherwise feel so out of control. If we hated the vulnerability of being controlled by a capricious Pope and so put our stake in the ground that we weren’t under the authority of the Pope but of the Bible, then Jesus kicks that stick out from under us as well in Matthew 28 when he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Not to the Bible but to the living, risen Christ. Jesus seems to think it’s not all about the Bible. It’s all about him.
He has a particularly useful and revealing take on this in Mark 4. You’ll remember his parable of the sower and the soils. Listeners come from all over the area to hear from this amazing teacher and he tells an impenetrable story about how seeds only grow in a certain kind of soil. He warns his listeners that what he’s saying is important. Most nonetheless leave immediately after he finishes. But his followers and a few others make their way to him to ask what on earth he was talking about. He tells them that they’ve been given “the secret of the kingdom of God” (which seems strange, since all they’ve said is that they have no idea what he was talking about) while, for those “outside” (seemingly everyone who didn’t come find him to ask him what he was talking about) “everything is in parables” so that they might hear but not understand and so wouldn’t turn and be forgiven. For most readers, this is both baffling and troubling. Does Jesus not want everyone to “turn and be forgiven?” He intentionally tosses out an obscure teaching to make sure that lots of people won’t go to heaven? We realize as he continues on that their “secret of the kingdom of God” is that they traipsed over to ask Jesus directly to explain his teaching. The secret of the kingdom of God turns out to be response to the living, interactive Jesus. At least some of his teaching—his words recorded in the Bible!—were intentionally impossible to understand. They were the opposite of “clear.” His point seems to be that he wasn’t interested in leaving behind a manual of his teachings for people to obey with or without him. He doesn’t want people to believe they can “turn and be forgiven” because of their response to a book. He only offers himself to accomplish that.
So if not sola scriptura, what’s our counter proposal? We’re wondering if it’s best been framed by Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence. She has a bold proposal about how God works in history—namely that God changes the terms of following God every 500 years or thereabouts. Since Jesus’s day (she says this pattern holds pre-Jesus as well), there’s been Constantine, the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Reformation, and then right now (which she calls “the Great Emergence”). The modern world effectively began with the Reformation, which made the mechanistic sola scriptura work well. But having moved into and beyond postmodernism, its flaws have shown themselves. The flaws, again, are not in the scriptures themselves, but in this modernistic take on them. What’s needed in this new transition is, well, Jesus. Which, happily, is the appeal Jesus was making in the Bible itself.
So what does it mean to have “solus Jesus” as a primary framework? Sola scriptura had some practical advantages. It set itself up as a way to settle theological disputes, for instance. I hope it’s not churlish to say that it was far less helpful in that than it promised because, again, its premise was off-base from the start. The scriptures were no more “clear” than Jesus’s parable of the sower was, which led to a profession of theological lawyers much like the Pharisees had. The scriptures quite clearly supported slavery until they didn’t and quite clearly supported Prohibition until they didn’t and quite clearly insisted that women could never preach until they didn’t. It turned out that the early Catholic critique of sola scriptura was borne out. But sola scriptura also suggested a straightforward means of growing in Jesus for a lifetime: read the Bible every day. Again, that program didn’t actually do what it promised. But it was clear what you were supposed to do.
What are the implications of solus Jesus?
- It relies on Jesus being alive and eager to speak to us.
This might understandably freak you out.
It feels so…subjective! (And we modernists hate subjectivity!) Just because you say you “heard from God” about this or that, why should I trust you? Why should you trust yourself?
And, indeed, that’s a totally worthy line of conversation. But, whatever our concerns, Jesus seems fine with all that risk. There’s that “secret of the kingdom of God” stuff. There’s the Hebrews 4 encouragement (that I tossed into the last footnote) to go to the throne of God because of Jesus. There’s Matthew 11:28 (“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”)
So, for all the risks and the need for thoughtful pastoring and wise and loving community, are we advised to set up a system in which, for heaven’s sake, we need to make sure not to require a living God?
- Perhaps this loving, interactive Jesus is revealed to us in several important ways.
If the scriptures speak of Jesus (per John 5:39, quoted a few paragraphs back) and if the Holy Spirit also speaks of Jesus and if, together, people who follow Jesus get called “the body of Christ,” then maybe we can help each other out in some key ways. Happily, the scriptures turn out to have a role to play! They just aren’t the bottom line. But combined with hearing from Jesus by way of the Holy Spirit and with rich, transparent friendships with other people following Jesus, it sounds like we’ll be on a good road.
- It switches the focus from figuring out who to exclude to believing God for new people to include.
Again, books are great for analyzing and line-drawing, but they’re bad at doing surprising, loving things. They’re not alive in that sense. But Jesus is not that way at all! Let’s go back to our friend John, in 12:32, where Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Far from figuring out who to exclude, Jesus has a specific, loving, expansive agenda. It was foreshadowed in the Hebrew Bible (in which Israel was called not to judge the surrounding nations, but to be a “light” to them). And then, again in John, Jesus aggressively signals what he’s about in some of his earliest words. This is 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
A switch in focus from exclusion to inclusion is a big deal.
- It suggests that the loving and interactive Jesus you meet will help you interpret the scriptures.
Brother Lawrence (who is worth reading in so many ways that apply here) has a powerful word about this. He talks about how, each night, he talks to God and confesses all his faults and sins. But, rather than getting God’s rebuke, which he expects, what he gets is lavish love and regard. It seems scandalous! Shouldn’t a serious Christian like Brother Lawrence be “serious about his sin?” Shouldn’t he be “uncompromising?” Shouldn’t he be “serious about personal holiness?” Well, on the one hand, he is all of those things! He’s confessing his sins to God each night. The one who’s not those things is God! Jesus, as experienced here, is so loving and encouraging and hope-filled that it changes Brother Lawrence’s expectation of faith in such a way that people flock to him from throughout Europe. I’ve experienced what Brother Lawrence describes. Once that happens, when one reads the Bible, one understands it as coming from the heart of that loving God. My experience has been that the stern, line-drawing interpreters of “biblical Christianity” that I’ve run across do not, at first blush, talk about having met that God. In that respect, while of course making no comment at all about their internal love of God or their hopes for heaven, it doesn’t seem obvious that we’re worshiping the same God. The Jesus I’ve met is not the stern judge they describe. Solus Jesus encourages reading the Bible with the lens of the Jesus you’re getting to know.
And, if you’ll indulge one more short list, let’s think for a moment about how you and I might live out a sola Jesus faith. On the one hand, we’ll need to figure this out together, if Ms. Tickle is right, because you and I are at the latest hinge of redemptive history in which this big change is just happening. I’m confident that whatever I say here will be only rudimentary thoughts. But let’s start somewhere.
How can you be solus Jesus today?
- Spend actual time with the living Jesus.
This is easier for some people than for other people. I’m not much of a Myers-Briggs personality profile person—I know only the most basic things about it—but I wonder if this is easier for what they’d call an “N” (an intuitive person) than it is for an “S” (a pragmatic, “sensate” person). One of my sons is very literal-minded and I’ve wondered if, for Jesus to “speak” to him, Jesus would have to show up in the flesh and be very explicit. This “talking with a God who talks back” thing is very intuitive. Revisiting my former playwright days, I’ve been listening to a radio theater version of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan recently. (The play is a stunner. This radio version is wonderful. I got it free from my library.) When Joan of Arc’s opponents assert that what she calls the voice of God is in fact only her imagination, her response is, “Of course. How else can we hear God?” All to say, this is a particular skill, and an intuitive one.
And yet it does seem to be near to Jesus’s own heart, as we learn in Mark 4 and as we learn again in John 14:26. If we’re looking for Jesus himself to be our authority, it seems to follow that we’d be served by him speaking to us.
- Learn from everyone you can about this ongoing, chatty relationship with Jesus—and teach all the things you know.
Thankfully the “body of Christ” is one way Jesus tells us we’ll get to experience him. Other people can help us in this and we can help them as well. And that body extends throughout history, so we can learn from Brother Lawrence and Therese of Lisieux and many others. Discipleship will include an ever-expanding skill set in this.
- Enjoy the Bible in the company of this Jesus you’re coming to know.
In solus Jesus, you have nothing to fear from the Bible, because Jesus is right there encouraging you as you read and guiding you to fresh connection with him. This by no means excludes the kind of scripture “study” that I’ve given so many hundreds of hours to, but the way scripture will take on the kind of life that Jesus promises in himself is if the living Jesus whom you’re coming to know is right there with you as he shows you how the passages you’re reading are all about him in some key ways.
- Embrace the mission of Jesus as your personal (and corporate) story.
If Jesus, say, came to seek and save those who are lost (he says he came to do other things as well), what would it look like to joyfully dream of that being your story as well, whatever your profession, whatever your life circumstances? What if this doesn’t bring pressure or disapproval with it—for doing this well or poorly—but instead is an offer that the life of Jesus can be yours in some very real way in your actual circumstances?
- Join others who are doing this.
Solus Jesus seems best to come to life when we find real partners and friends who are excited by pursuing this alongside us. Best case scenario: these people will be your friends in your church. But do this with others one way or another. It’s just more fun and powerful that way.
What is our authority?
Is it a church leader?
Is it a book?
Let’s band together and joyfully learn what the Bible so profoundly teaches—that Jesus, not a book or a fellow human being, is our Lord. He is our authority. He, being alive and loving, can be trusted with that task. And that’s only good news, because for all the hardship of each of our lives, Jesus only brings good news.
Let’s learn together what it means to be solus Jesus!
 My sola scriptura friends might have a pointed rejoinder here. Not alive!? What about Hebrews 4:12? “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Sounds like the scriptures are far from “dead words!” That might be a great point. But, just to say, the context of the verse has nothing to do with the Bible. It’s talking about Jesus as the “word of God.” Look at how this passage continues. “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess… Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Throughout the letter to the Hebrews, the author again and again expresses great enthusiasm for knowing and following Jesus. It comes up chapter by chapter. The letter starts with a soliloquy about that. I’m not aware of similar enthusiasm in Hebrews for the Bible in a sola scriptura sense.
 “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”