In a very long post, I contrasted Luke Timothy Johnson's notion of religion with the Bible, and did some Proverbs 21:22-ing to it. Not everyone would want to wade through such a treatise, and I don't blame anyone who didn't. What I want to do here is give you the heart from a different and more constructive angle, without all the demo work and analysis. (See the other post for fuller analysis and documentation.)
Luke Timothy Johnson simply represents the latest head of a very old Hydra. It took life in the Garden, when our great-great grandma somehow found herself in the one place she knew she had no business being, looking at the one fruit she knew she need never eat. She already knew everything she needed to know about that fruit: God said it wasn't for her. Yet there she was.
If she were hoping for another perspective (than God's), she got it. The Tempter started out by insinuating that God's viewpoint was narrow and parochial. When she took him up on this, he took the next step of full denial and the rest, as we say, is history.
Thus began a millennia-long series of human-viewpoint religions ranging from perversion of truth to outright formal denial. In Judaism by Jesus' time the former had morphed into formal acceptance of the Torah, but in-practice denial, as a series of horizontal ideas had functionally displaced the vertical revelation (see Mark 7:1-14).
Though decrying Pharisaism, Johnson is in that line. In the name of the vertical, he is concerned solely with the horizontal: what are people's profound stories, passions, yearnings. The flesh is renamed as the spirit, and it trumps the Word of God. This, I say, is just one form of the same process which, in and out of "Christendom" broadly so called, displaces the genuinely vertical by the actually horizontal.
Let's just contrast that with three passages from the Word. The first is from Jeremiah, who has so much to say to our age. It's one of my favorites. The prophet is in prison, and "King Zedekiah later sent for him and received him, and in his house privately asked him, 'Is there a word from the LORD?' (Jeremiah 37:17 CSB).
Were he a Johnsonite, Jeremiah might have responded, "You tell me." Or he might have said, "Yes there is. I listen to the voice of God in our people's profound stories, and I find that God is expressing Godself in many forms, in the joyous festivals of Baal, Marduk, Dagon, and a host of other names God uses to embody Godself in our day."
Instead, we read this:
"There is," Jeremiah responded, and he continued, "You will be handed over to the king of Babylon."Wow. And ouch. But there it is. Jeremiah did not always like what he was constrained to say, but since it did not come from within himself or his contemporaries, but instead came from God above, there he stood. He could do no other. God help him (Jeremiah 20:7-18).
Fast forward. God the Son Himself has come to earth, lived, taught, died, been buried, been resurrected, and is about to return to Heaven. What are His marching orders, charting the course of His church in the age to come? Does He say, "Go out and tell the deepest tales of your heart! Search within, discern the whispery, mumbly voice of God as you think God expresses Godself! It will fundamentally change and mutate from culture to culture, but whatever you think it is, share it, see how it goes!"? Is that it?
Not at all. God incarnate says:
..."All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)Once again, their proclamation is to be backward-looking and upward-looking. They are to teach what He taught them to teach. They are to teach His word, as a fixed and objective body of revelation; as well, the Spirit had more objective and inerrant revelation to give through His apostles (John 14-16), but even that was a fixed amount. There could be no tampering or diluting or perverting or "improving," because it issued from Him who had all authority in heaven and earth. It was non-negotiable.
Fast forward to Paul, giving an apologia to the Corinthians. He says this:
...we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6 For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:2-6 ESV)Paul would have bristled at and abominated the very suggestion that what he preached originated from within himself to any degree (cf. Galatians 1). It was not, at bottom, his "profound story." Paul was absolutely insistent that his message came from without and from above, from the throne of God Himself. That is why it could not be tampered with (cf. all of Galatians), why he would proclaim it without apology or equivocation of any sort, and why anyone who proclaimed anything different should just go to Hell where he belonged (Galatians 1:8-9).
And that is why the focus of the church had to be above all, through all, always and only the Word of God (cf. Colossians 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 4:1-2, etc.).
In spirit and in specifics, this could not be more chasmically distinct from and contradictory to Johnsonian horizontalism, or any variation thereof.
Machen told us 80+ years ago that it wasn't a variation of Christianity. It was another religion. The PCUSA didn't listen, it jumped the shark, and it's never jumped back.
Will we listen — not to the latest poll of sinners frolicking below, but to the extrinsic and transcendent word of God?
God grant we so listen, so believe, and so speak and write and live.