I almost shared this recording publicly at the time I received it, but was convinced not to by those who said it would be a violation of the clergy covenant. I regret listening to those people. I think that we have been reluctant to call out bad teaching in the UMC in the name of collegiality. Since I am no longer a United Methodist elder, I am going to be calling out those in the UMC who are demeaning the gospel. This is the first of those posts. I would rather have been a positive voice instead of a negative, prophetic one. But that does not seem to be my calling.
I have had this recording for quite some time. The student who made the recording was in my New Testament II Class in the Weekend Extension School for part-time local pastors run by the North Texas Conference. This student was ready to quit after the class with Jack Soper, but I convinced him to stay and take my class. I think this student eventually left the UMC but I have no doubt that he is serving the Kingdom in some fashion in another church.
When I heard this recording, I shared it with others who had positions of authority and could have kept Soper from teaching. The response I got was that this was "under the umbrella" of United Methodist teaching. So Soper continues to teach and I was dropped from the lineup. Other pastors I share this with agreed with me that this is not in line with the teaching of the UMC and essentially denies original sin, the incarnation of Christ, the resurrection, and the atonement.
If this is true, then, laypeople of the United Methodist Church, you need to decide if this is what you want your pastors to be taught. Do you think this is appropriate teaching? Is this how you want your pastor to preach? If not, you should question your pastor on how he/she understands the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.
I and others would argue that it matters what we believe. We would argue that "orthodoxy" is not about a strict set of rules to be followed, but a life-giving way of "right worship" of God. For a wonderful take on this listen to one of the episodes of Plain Truth: A Holy Spirited Podcast on "Why does it matter what we believe, with Dr. Justus Hunter.
The recording is here, and the following is a transcript.
Transcript of Recording of New Testament Class
J is Jack Soper. D is the student who recorded the class. S is other students in the class.
Red italics are my comments.
J: So are you ready to go on to something else?
D: Not really no
J: No? Ok.
D: Well, I understand about, you know, with Christ initiating the new covenant with what he was doing that night – I guess it was in the Upper Room, right? – the last supper . . .
J: We call it that, yeah.
D: We call it that. I’ve heard you say twice now, and I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are?
J: Oh my goodness, this is Bishop McKee. He is our resident Bishop around here.
D: And I think I heard you second that . . . (unintelligible) my question is, I think I’ve heard both of you say, you know, with Christ doing that, that he was not paying for our sins, and I agree with that. That was initiating the new covenant there. But the next day was he not paying for our sins on the cross?
J: I don’t think so, and I’ve got a whole thing here on original sin, and I’ve got a whole thing on sacrifice that we need to go over. Because we also have to see the evolution of this concept called sacrifice and how that functioned in Judaism and is so essential to the Hebrew bible, and then how that in this context, which was very, very Jewish how that functioned. And atonement, and atonement sacrifice – you have to deal with all of that, and you have to deal with that whole concept of original sin that originated in the year 418 with Augustine.
D: We talked about that last time. But just . . .
J: we talked about what
D: I’m just looking here at the closest disciples, Peter being one of them and if you just do a quick search on this you find out that Peter talks about “For Christ also suffered once for the sins, our sins.” John talks about it – that Christ was offered up as a propitiation for our sin –
J: that’s right
D: ok, so that’s Peter and John, two disciples that were very close to Christ; Paul talks about it all throughout Romans, and so here we are 2000 years later and we are saying these guys are wrong.
J: Well, I’m going to reinterpret what those guys said and I’m going to talk about it in a different way.
D: No we’re coming to a different conclusion than what they came to, correct?
J: Well I don’t know, no, no. I’m going to understand that conclusion differently, that’s what I’m going to do. Because, because, let me just do a basic thing with this and then we’ll get into the detail and look at it in detail in an evolutionary way. I can say that “Christ died for my sins.” I can say that,
D: We say that whenever we do communion
J: but I don’t mean it the way that it’s typically understood through the concept of substitutionary atonement. Substitutionary atonement is very clear; it says that our sins are so bad – and we’ll see this in the evolutionary process of understanding of sacrifice, too – that my sins are so bad, it took that much of a sacrifice, it took a human sacrifice, it took the sacrifice of a child – and more specifically it took the sacrifice of a male child of God, all right? What’s gonna get it done? That’s gonna get it done. I don’t see the experience in ministry, the event of Christ as unfolding that way. Rather I see Christ as being the embodiment of God’s love and this whole principle that we talked about with regard to being the voice of justice, being the source and the deliverer of hesed, steadfast love, being halaka, walking ethically – all of that confronted a political system that was based on violence and fear. And what Jesus did is he said, “No we don’t have to live that way because the God I worship, the God who I embody is the God of justice and the God of love.” He was so unrelenting in proclaiming that message that even death would not stop him. And that message is that which lifts us out of our experience of fear and sin and death. And so he was unrelenting in his proclamation of that message and that’s our salvation, that’s our salvation.
A very limited view of atonement, particularly substitutionary atonement. He also seems to deny the fact that it was God on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ; that the cross was a matter of God’s self-giving love, not the “human sacrifice of a male child of God.”
D: That’s what we put our faith in?
J: And that which lifts me out of my sinfulness is the grace and the unconditional love of God; that’s what lifts me out of that morass. (to the Bishop) Take care, thanks so much. Good to see you, Bishop.
You see those are the distinctions. I think what happened along the way, and I’m not going to be able to document this, but a good church history book will document that. I’ve read it, but I can’t, I can’t do that. But what we will see is that the church – and let me just be real base about it - the church controlled people with that concept, and particularly in the 5th century and the end of the 4th century, the church was about controlling people. And Augustine – the way he talked about human beings – he talked about human beings as being utterly tainted, depraved.
D: Total depravity,
J: Total depravity
D: And John Wesley agreed with that.
J: John Wesley did agree with that, that’s right. And I disagree with John Wesley.
Note that Soper does not consider the concept of total depravity as being tainted in all areas of our life. He not only disagrees with Wesley, but with current Methodist doctrine. For a good explanation of this see Timothy Tennent's blog on Prevenient Grace.
D: And John Calvin and Martin Luther and all the big guys.
J: no, no, let’s not be . . .
D: And the majority of the scriptures as well, “There is no one who seeks God, no one who is righteous, no not one” We are all sinners, let’s talk about this.
J: I know that, I’m not questioning that – that we are all sinners, I’m questioning what is the mechanism by which we are freed from that, liberated from that? What’s the mechanism? And it is Christ, it is Christ, but it’s not because we had an angry God and that sin had to be paid off in order for God to be appeased. You see that’s not the God that I understand through scripture.
Once again, the only notion of atonement that Soper considers is a version of substitutionary atonement where an angry God is appeased. While the student appears to believe this, there is another way to understand substitutionary atonement that does not depend on appeasing an angry God. Soper makes no attempt to convey that.
D: Well, I come to a different conclusion reading the same scripture.
J: OK, I respect that, I respect that, but what I’m wanting to lobby for is a different way of understanding that. I don’t question at all our sinfulness. I understand that. We are human and human beings make choices that are inappropriate to what God would want. And that’s a violation of the covenant community, you see? It violates the covenant. So how is there healing? How is there wholeness? How is there restoration? Of that covenant relationship? Well, it’s through grace and love. And what did Jesus teach over and over in an unrelenting fashion in a society that would kill him for it? And that’s what he did. That’s what he did. He would die before he would quit proclaiming that truth. And so, he did die, and so therefore he is my savior. He is my savior. Because he taught me, he taught me what I had to know.
D: So your salvation is based on the education that was provided to you through the words of Jesus Christ?
Despite his denial, that is exactly what Soper is saying.
J: He embodied that . . .
D. . . . right
J: . . . and now I embody him. And that’s the spiritual aspect of that.
Soper appears to be saying that he embodies Christ in the same way that Christ “embodied” God. Note that he is reluctant to use the word “incarnated,” though he eventually says it.
D: So that’s the reason . . .
J: He “incarnated” that, yeah. So it’s not just teaching, it’s not like he was a moral teacher. He was the embodiment of that. And he would not die. Nothing would silence that. Nothing would eliminate that.
D: The scripture record is that Christ says that he came to die, right?
J: And . . . if you did what he did, you too would know that you would die.
J: How could anyone in that, in that setting know otherwise? It’s inevitable. But that’s, you see, that was his sacred covenant – to make sure . . .to do whatever he had to do. One of the, one of the ways John Dominic Crossan talks about this, he talks about how John the Baptist functioned in a different way than Jesus. John the Baptist’s function, one of the terms he uses is, “he functioned as a monopoly, whereas Jesus functioned as a franchise.” And what he meant by that is that if it’s a monopoly, then you eliminate John the Baptist and it stops, everything stops. If it’s a franchise, “you can do it, you can do it, you can it,” and that’s what he did. Just read through Matthew and that’s what you see – the disciples, “you can do it, you can do it, you can do it.” And he would die, but the truth would not. And the inspiration wouldn’t, and the divine power wouldn’t. It would continue, and it has continued. That’s what we do. You see, you understand, I know there’s a difference there and a tension there.
“He would die, but the truth would not.” This is a direct refutation of the resurrection. In fact, nowhere in this lecture does Soper talk about the resurrection.
D: The total depravity thing, you know, um, basically you believe that people are not fundamentally flawed or bad?
J: They’re human, that’s what I believe.
D: Not totally depraved?
J: No! No! Come on, no, I mean, all right, all right, so I just spent time with Rachel. Rachel is 2 years old.
J: And that baby girl when she’s in my arms, I’ve got perfection in my arms. I’ve got perfection.
D: Been a long time since you’ve raised a 2-year-old, isn’t it?
J: I know where you’re going . . .
D: I’ve got one right now . . .
J: I’ve been there, too. But as far as I’m concerned, no, I, you, we take a baby in our arms, right? We’re gonna baptize that baby? And we’re holding perfection, we’re holding perfection. There’s . . . oh by the way, child, you are depraved, you are totally depraved.
D: Well, here’s the thing . . .
J: . . . It’s not where I can go . . .
D: . . . Bad theology leads to bad things, does it not? We just talked about this gal over here, her whole family, her parents destroyed because of really bad theology. I look at the success of America, um, the United States of America, and I think, they started off with some good understanding about human nature, which is we’re not going to have a dictatorship here, we’re going to have 3 branches of government for checks and balances. And I think it’s because they understood human nature. And my fear is with when we come along and say that all people are good, then that can lead to setting up a form of government that would have a dictatorship.
J: And I think just the opposite. And what I think is that the more we can help people feel good, you know these kids that you’re talking about? The more we can help them understand their innate goodness, the more we can help bring that out. So, in fact, the goodness is not something that we have to create by our behavior, the goodness is our created essence and nature and it’s for us to peel away whatever it is that prevents that from coming to the surface.
S: I’m preaching on Revelation 5 tomorrow, it talks about going before the multitude and there was nobody worthy except the Lion of Judah, of the line of Jesse. And John started to weep, cuz nobody was worthy. The one who became worthy was the slain Lamb, that was the only one who was worthy. How does that fit with this whole equation? I’d just kinda like . . .
J: I don’t know.
S: To me there’s a, John was grieving because nobody was worthy.
J: So how do we get to the place where those that you are relating to in ministry, how do we help them understand their salvation? How do you do that? How do you do that? If the starting point is that all are depraved?
D: Nooo, I would say that’s not the starting point!
J: Well what is then? I’m sorry I misunderstood you.
D: I never did say that was the starting point. I just said that’s a basic tenet of, you talk about the nature of humans, the nature of God, the nature of humanity, what I hear you saying is that the nature of humanity is good, while I’ve heard and understood and studied, is that, well, the Christian faith says that the nature of humanity is fallen, ok? And has to be restored.
J: (Sigh) What does “fallen” mean? I guess I have to ask. What does it mean to be fallen?
D: Well, I . . .
J: Does it mean to be imperfect? I would say yes, to that, certainly. Or does it mean, as Augustine would say, and that’s totally depraved? Maybe we are closer than we think . . .
D: I think we should look at what depraved meant back in, you know, the 4th, 5th century versus what we think of it today as. Maybe total depravity might be a bad word to use in our common lexicon today.
J: I think I know what Augustine meant – that we’re filth, just absolute nothing. There‘s nothing good. So you’re not saying that? Flawed human, when I think about being human I don’t think about being God. I’m not saying perfect by any means. Not even remotely so.
D: What did Christ say in the Sermon on the Mount? How did he end it? What was his benediction on the Sermon on the Mount?
S: “Be perfect as I am perfect”.
J: All right, but wait a minute, let’s understand what that means too. Let’s understand what that means. Are we saying the same that Wesley . . . Wesley said go on to perfection, right? Does that mean perfect behavior? Or does it mean perfecting our relationship with God?
S: Made perfect by God, by the Holy Spirit.
J: That’s the consequence, though. So being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, right? Means being in a right relationship with God and others, you see?
J: Well, consequently, with others. Is that again and again I want to go back to that – that that’s a consequence to perfecting our relationship with God - the consequence of that is behavioral. The starting place, so when Wesley talked about going on to perfection, he wasn’t talking about, oh you don’t make any mistakes, you don’t do anything wrong, he wasn’t talking about that; he was talking about being in a right relationship with God. And that takes work. That’s something that has to be maintained. It’s not once and for all, something happens and it’s done. That’s something that we work at every single day. And every single day we have to do that in order to maintain that right relationship. I don’t know what it means to be in a perfect relationship with God. But the more I advance toward that, the more my behavior is going to be indicative of that.
D: Well, from the language used, I guess, by Wesley, is that we move from imputed righteousness to imparted righteousness, right?
D: The imputed righteousness was the righteousness of Christ . . .
J: Yeah, that . . .
D: . . . imputed to me, right?
D: . . . into my heart.
J: Right. And as a consequence . . .
D: The consequence of that . . .
J: . . . is sanctifying grace, right?
J: We are saying the same thing. And without that, without that, I’m not much. And it’s for me. But I don’t call it depravity. You see, I just cannot go there, where that’s depravity and I’m just ridden with guilt and you know, I’m just so horrible. That’s where I have a problem.
S: But the unworthiness . . .
J: Unworthy – I’m not, I’m never worthy, of grace, never worthy. You see, you see if I were worthy I would be in that camp saying I have to behave, behave, behave. Then I would be worthy. But anybody says I couldn’t take communion on a Sunday, I just don’t feel like I deserve it. I’d say, “Well nobody deserves it, I don’t ever deserve it” It’s not about being worthy. It’s about receiving the gift that is offered. And the consequence of that is behavior that is indicative of that which I have received. You see? So if we defined original sin as being human, that we are human and not God, I’m with it. But what seems to have happened by way of the church is to define original sin as being depravity, total depravity. And that’s a phrase Wesley used.
D: Original sin . . . (quotes from the Articles) And you reject that?
J: Well, I, biblically I reject that. Biblically. Because of what that book, what that means, what that means. How do you . . . the way I have to interpret that is that that baby that I’m holding in my arms . . .
D: Yes! And that’s really tough, and I agree with you. That is so freakin’ tough to do. When you’re holding your 2-year-old son and you’re looking at that and thinking, Holy crap, I’ve given birth to the spawn of Satan. I mean, that’s what that’s saying. And that’s a very hard thing to . . .
J: For me it’s impossible. Because I am so aware of the nature of God who created that “crap” – you see where that makes it impossible for me? Because I read the first chapter of Genesis. And the first chapter of Genesis says that we’re created in the image of God and that means we are made of the substance of God. There is sacredness about every human being.
“We are made of the substance of God.” That is a statement that we should find troubling!
D: . . . .(Unintelligible) cause chapter 2 we fall! Right?
J: I have fallen.
J: You have fallen.
J: In other words, we’re human . . . and when that child that is perfect develops, then that child is going to make decisions that are far from what we would want them to make or God would want them to make. And that’s where this function of grace plays into it. All right.
J: We’re not going to go anymore into that one. I have something here on original sin. . . .I don’t know. . .Let’s do this next time. We’ll do sacrifice and original sin and play that out. All right? Because I think these are interesting concepts that we have here with regard to the concept of sacrifice as it plays into this dynamic of atoning, substitutionary atonement and see how that plays out. And it has a history in the church that is, um, is really significant. And I think it’s too important to overlook or to rush through.
D: So substitutionary atonement is not the theory of the atonement? There’s not a, in this book or any book out there, that says, this is the official church position on the theory of atonement. Would you classify your theory more on the moral governance theory, or . . . Abelard’s theory? What, which one do you resonate most with?
J: Of atonement?
D: Of atonement, yes.
J: I think it’s on the biblical concept of atonement and that’s the provision of grace that allows for the healing of the relationship we have with God. And that grace is made available to us unconditionally. But the ingredient of all importance is accepting it, justification by faith alone. For Paul, faith and acceptance are synonymous terms. And so that’s it. And how did we get to that? Through Christ. And that’s . . .
D: I agree with you there. My issue is, through Christ’s work on the cross, is where I would continue that . . .
J: and to you that means “being a sacrificial object”?
J: And that’s substitutionary atonement.
D: absolutely, that’s the one I buy into the most.
J: And I don’t at all, not at all.
In the end, Soper attempts to make his language fit as much as possible with language that the student is more comfortable with, except for substitutionary atonement. He allows that humans are not perfect, but wants to say that they are of the “same substance” as God. He believes that Jesus was killed because he taught about God’s love, but he doesn’t want to say that Jesus is God incarnate. He has some very nebulous ideas about how Jesus embodying the teaching of God tells us something about God’s love, but is not very clear on how that works or what that means.