briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, April 22, 2019

It’s Monday, April 22nd, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A big theological story hits the pages of the New York Times, denying the sovereignty of God, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and much more

The pattern has been very familiar through the last several decades. The secular media become at least somewhat less secular two times a year. Given the historic Christian dominance within the America population, when you look at the major TV networks, you look at the old major news weeklies, just about every Christmas and every season called Easter, they would come out with cover stories that would have at least to do with Christianity or something to do with who is Jesus or a similar kind of story reflecting the fact that at least twice a year they had to do something to address what they might just call the religion beat, religious news. They could not ignore Jesus.

That’s largely a thing of the past because those news weeklies have largely disappeared. The three networks have been supplanted by an entire universe of cable news, and that has been transcended by the rise of digital media. But nonetheless, it leaves two times a year, especially in the United States, less so now in Europe, the major media have to turn to at least acknowledge the fact that millions and millions of people around the world are going to be celebrating at Christmas, the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, and at that season most people call Easter, a focus upon the death of Christ on the cross and the fact that on the third day He was raised from the dead.

Something of a continuation of that pattern is now represented by Nicholas Kristof, influential columnist for the New York Times. Repeatedly he has interviewed a major theological figure and then reported on that conversation in his opinion column at the New York Times.

Kristof is a Rhodes scholar, whose interest in these questions is obviously genuine. He comes back to them time and time again. He has an ancestor, his great-grandfather, John Howard Shakespeare who was leader of the British Baptist Union from 1898 to 1924. He has some familiarity at least with mainstream orthodox Christianity, indeed he has some interest in Evangelical Christianity, but in his latest article that appeared in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, his conversation was with Serene Jones who is the president of Union Theological Seminary.

She’s also the author of a recent memoir entitled Call It Grace. The headline of the article, “Reverend, the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?” When you look at the reports of previous conversations, Nicholas Kristof has talked with former President Jimmy Carter, he’s talked with New York pastor Tim Keller. He comes back again and again interestingly to the question as to whether or not Christians must believe in the virgin birth of Christ and in the physical resurrection, the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.

I want to say that it’s somewhat remarkable that an opinion columnist for the New York Times would even ask such questions, but Nicholas Kristof returns to them time and time again. Of all the articles published, this might be the most interesting, this conversation with Serene Jones. She is identified as a Protestant minister as well as president of Union Theological Seminary, more on that in just a moment. But what we need to notice here is the incredible candor with which she speaks, the incredible candor with which she simply overthrows the entire edifice of orthodox biblical Christianity.

She is inventing an entirely new religion in the course of this conversation. Kristof asks her right off, “To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection? I have problems with that.” Kristof said. Serene Jones answered, “When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”

Well, let’s just state the obvious, there is a consistent theme of the bodily, physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and its centrality to the good news of the Gospel in the entire New Testament. Mark is the shortest of all of the Gospels, it does not include a narrative about the resurrection of Christ, but it includes empathically an empty tomb. Of course, Mark isn’t the only of the four Gospels, there are three other Gospels. There’s the apostolic preaching throughout the New Testament, there is a clear issue of the priority and the centrality, the essentiality of the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. But that’s not important she says, the empty tomb again, “symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.” She dispenses with bodily resurrection as unnecessary, she emotivizes the resurrection saying that it’s basically about unquenchable love.

But then Kristof goes on to ask more questions. He asked, “But without a physical resurrection, isn’t there a risk that we are left with just the crucifixion?” Now let’s just point out that that is exactly what the Apostle Paul was talking about explicitly in 1 Corinthians 15, when he goes so far as to say that if Christ is not raised from the dead, we are of all people most to be pitied, and our sins are still upon us.

Serene Jones responds, “Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs. The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts. For me,” she said, “the cross is an enactment of our human hatred. But what happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?” she asks. Well, it’s not a reason for hope the Apostle Paul says, it is a pitiable hope. Anyone who holds to that hope is simply to be pitied because it is a false hope.

But furthermore, we need to look at what’s included in her dismissal of the biblical understanding of the cross and resurrection of Christ. She denies the crucifixion as “something that God orchestrating from upstairs.” Just compare that with the apostolic preaching. Just consider what Peter preaches in the book of Acts when he tells us that everything that took place in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, took place according to the predetermined plan and purpose of God.

Just consider that verse that is most famous of the entire New Testament, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life.” The bible makes clear that God is sovereign and omnipotent and that the salvation He accomplishes through the Son is exactly according to His plan, a plan that included Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross, and also included the fact that the Father would raise Him from the dead on the third day.

But perhaps you heard something else in her dismissal of biblical Christianity, and that is where she talks about the pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends His own kid to the cross. Nicholas Kristof picks up on that, the idea of the cross as divine child abuse. That’s a theme that was initially brought forward by feminist theologians, especially in the 1980s and the 1990s. He asked, “You alluded to child abuse. So how do we reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient God with evil and suffering?”

She answers, “At the heart of faith is a mystery. God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object. But I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology. That is not the God of Easter. The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world, but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.”

Now what you just heard there was a theologian going entirely off the cliff, driving right off the cliff of any sense of theological orthodoxy whatsoever. You will notice that what we see there is a candid straightforward replacement of biblical Christianity with an entirely new religion. A religion in which God is not even a being, in which God is not omnipotent, God is not omniscient. This is not only a new theology, by definition, this is a God very different than the God of the Bible. This is the God of modern theology. You might say this is the God of modern theology on speed.

Later asked about the virgin birth, Serene Jones says, “I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message. The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful. It also promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.”

Again, the virgin birth is simply dismissed. It’s dismissed as a bizarre claim. She also says, “It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message.” Well, let’s just think about this for a moment. One of the things we need to note in modern liberal theology is the attempt to separate the person of Christ from His work, indeed the person of Christ from His message. That’s something the Bible does not do, that is something that we must not do.

Having stated her unbelief in an omnipotent and omniscient God, you won’t be surprised that she dismisses intercessory prayer. Kristof says, “Prayer is efficacious in the sense of making us feel better,” but then he asked, “Do you believe it is efficacious in curing cancer?” Serene Jones answered, “I don’t believe in a God who, because of prayer, would decide to cure your mother’s cancer but not cure the mother of your non-praying neighbor. We can’t manipulate God like that.”

Again, let’s recognize at least what’s going on here. Serene Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary, is just dismissing both the Old and New Testaments when it comes to the character of God, the attributes of God, what prayer is, and what God does in response to our prayers. She’s already dismissed the idea that God is even a being, so there’s no real sense in which any part of intercessory prayer would make sense in her theological system, even as it makes perfect sense in the theology revealed in the Scriptures.

When Kristof asked what happens when we die, she answers in part, “My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife. People who behave well in this life only to achieve an afterlife,” she says, “that’s a faith driven by a selfish motive.” Just think about that for a moment. Here you’re looking at the fact that the motivation that is made clear in Scripture, is dismissed as an immoral motivation.

Now that means that when you’re looking at biblical Christianity, the entire structure she argues, is based upon an untruth that God doesn’t even exist, and furthermore a misrepresentation of, let’s just say, the divine, because the Bible tells a story that she doesn’t believe is true. She has invented an entirely new religion. There is no heaven. There is no hell, at least in eternal realities. There is no God who is a person, who is a being. There’s no omnipotence. There is no omniscience. Indeed, there is no Gospel. There is no cross in which Christ died for our sins. There is no Father to send the Son to die for our sins. There is no bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and almost as an afterthought, of course, there was no virgin conception of the Christ who is not in any genuine sense divine.

Kristof then ask a question of Serene Jones that he has asked of others interviewed in the series. He asked, “Am I a Christian?”

Jones answers, “Well, you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.” Step back for a moment. Here you have someone identifying as a Christian minister after having denied the virgin birth, denying the fact that God is even a being, denying God’s omniscience and His omnipotence, denying the virgin conception of Christ, denying heaven and hell, denying the entire superstructure of biblical Christianity, but she is the President of a major theological seminary. She is an ordained minister, she says, and she says to Nicholas Kristof, “You sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.”

Well, what that tells us is that the phrase Christian minister has absolutely no meaning in a world in which someone who denies virtually every single doctrine plus the entire superstructure of biblical and classical Christianity can be identified as a Christian minister. Here we see one of the problems that biblical Christianity has confronted for well over a century. We are looking at two rival religions, Christianity and theological liberalism. They both claim the name of Christianity. As we will note, that is not a new paradox.

Part II

The radical candor of modern liberal theology: A new religion to replace Christianity

Before leaving the article that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, we need to know that she made comments such as the fact, “I often feel like we are in the middle of another reformation in a 500-year cycle. John Calvin and Martin Luther,” she said, “had no idea they were in the middle of a reformation, but they knew that church structures were breaking down, new forms of communication were emerging, new scientific discoveries were being made, new kinds of authorities and states and economic systems arising — all like this moment in time. This creates,” she says, “a spiritual crisis and a spiritual flexibility.”

I simply want to know that John Calvin and Martin Luther profoundly did understand themselves to be in the midst of a reformation, both of them actually made arguments to that account, and both of them used the word reformation and the reform of the church. It’s absolute nonsense for someone to claim that they didn’t know they were in the middle of a reformation. They didn’t know how the story would unfold, especially after their deaths, but they profoundly did intend a reform of the church, and even referred to what they were doing as a reformation.

But you can see where her argument’s going, now is the time for theological flexibility. Well, flexibility’s one thing dangerous enough, but now we’re talking about being so flexible as to replace all of Christianity’s superstructure of doctrines with an entirely new religion. And you’ll notice something else, that will come with an entirely new understanding of reality. It’s going to be quite convenient for the LGBTQ revolution. It is going to be quite influenced by the strains of contemporary secular thought. It’s going to be quite amenable to modern ideological feminism.

That’s not going to be an accident in the case of Serene Jones. Back about 20 years ago she wrote a book entitled Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace. In it, just to take one example, she considers the understanding of sin held by the reformers and John Calvin in particular, and says, “We’re going to have to replace that understanding of sin as an offense against the Holy God with something very different.”

Where does she go for the source of her new theology? Feminist theory. In introducing Serene Jones, Nicholas Kristof notes that she’s the author of a new memoir entitled, Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in an Fractured World. In the opening pages of the book Jones writes, “People often ask me as a theologian if I believe in God. It’s an odd question,” she says, “to ask an ordained minister who heads Union Theological Seminary, a famous almost 200-year-old school in New York City devoted to educating religious leaders to help people with their ultimate questions. A theologian like me has to believe in God and even have a pretty clear vision and definition of God, right?”

“Well,” she says, “it depends. If by God you mean an entity that hovers somewhere above us watching all we do and constantly judging if we are doing right or wrong, then no. If you mean God as a being, like we are beings, or as any kind of an object or even an essence as we understand those terms, then also no. But if you mean believing the universe is ultimately loved by a divine reality that is greater and more wonderful than we can begin to imagine, and that in this reality we find our ultimate destiny, the purpose of our existence, then yes.”

You’ll notice that this is not only no to God, this is no really to any form of theism. It’s the replacement if theism with an entirely new theological system in which God is simply the mystery of the universe, our ultimate destiny and the purpose of our existence. She says to that, yes. To the God of the bible, decidedly, candidly, no. A similar approach is taken to Jesus Christ. She says, “For me, raised as a Christian, this is central to my belief. I’m frankly skeptical that Jesus was, strictly speaking, the biological Son of God. It’s too hard to fathom what that would mean of taken literally. I do believe however that in Jesus, divine love was fully present in a way that ordinary human beings rarely, if ever, experience and embody.”

Again, this is just the Jesus of liberal theology, a very insightful spiritual teacher, more than most. Another footnote here, biblical Christianity does not speak of Christ as the biological Son of God. Serene Jones has to know that as the kind of language used by theological liberals to dismiss beliefs that even orthodox Christians do not hold.

It is significant, of course, that Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In order to understand that, we have to go back to the late 19th Century when Union Theological Seminary took a turn and became the nation’s leading bastion of liberal thought, of liberal theology and liberal biblical studies. At the center of that story was Professor Charles Augustus Briggs who in 1891 delivered his inaugural address in which he basically denied the divine inspiration of the scriptures and said that biblical scholars should look to the text of the Bible, the Old and the New Testament as merely historical literature, and of course that created an uproar.

Within a number of years, Union Theological Seminary would sever its ties with the Presbyterian church in the north, and again, it would become the leading battle cruiser of liberal theology in the United States. Serene Jones is very proud of that, but here’s how she describes it in her memoir. When she was looking to Union, she said, “I became fascinated with a man named Charles Briggs. At the turn of the 20th Century, he was a Presbyterian biblical scholar at Union, which was still officially a Presbyterian Seminary.”

“Briggs,” she said, “I read, was teaching the radical idea that history might be a useful tool in understanding the Bible.” Now that’s an understatement that simply has to be pointed out. Charles Augustus Briggs was not unique for saying that history might be a useful tool in understanding the Bible. Orthodox biblical scholars believed and believe that, but orthodox scholars do not believe that the Bible is simply an historical artifact in itself. That’s a very different claim.

It’s a claim fundamental to liberal theology and biblical studies. It explains the trajectory of Union Theological Seminary. Elsewhere in her memoir, Serene Jones bemoans the fact that the churches that had primarily been related to Union Theological Seminary, very liberal denominations, are themselves in decline and not sending many students to Union in order to study to be preachers. There’s no mystery as to why that’s true.

At the same time she says the enrollment has continued with students who are committed to social justice. That represents a very interesting turn in the mission of the school, but it’s absolutely predictable in its embrace of liberal theology, going all the way back to the late 19th Century. Once again at this point in concluding this story, I have to go back to the brave insight made by J. Gresham Machen, one of the most important theologians of orthodoxy in the early 20th Century.

In his book Christianity and Liberalism, he made the point, even in the title of the book, that when you’re looking at orthodox biblical Christianity on the one hand and liberalism on the other hand, you’re not talking about two variants of Christianity as if there are two brands of Christianity, one orthodox and one liberal. He says that Christianity is orthodox Christianity. It is a set of true claims revealed in Scripture, understood by the church for over 2,000 years.

Theological liberalism, he rightly pointed out, is not a new brand of Christianity. It’s not Christianity. Now it’s interesting that Machen saw that so early, but we need to note that he did not have the benefit of many of those theological liberals speaking nearly so candidly as President Serene Jones did in this conversation with Nicholas Kristof, reported just yesterday in the New York Times.

In that book, Christianity and Liberalism, Machen said that the liberal theologian abandoning doctrine after doctrine, is actually not representing Christianity at all, “but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” A different religion altogether. If you want to see what that looks like, you need to look no further than yesterday’s edition of the New York Times.

Part III

The 100 most influential people? What TIME’s cover story tells us about TIME and America

Next, the current edition of Time Magazine is entitled the 100 Most Influential People. What’s interesting is there’s no particular grammar that concludes the sentence. The 100 most influential people where? When? There’s not a statement that these are the 100 most influential people in the world. There’s not a statement that these are the 100 most influential people of the decade. There’s simply a statement The 100 Most Influential People.

We need to see this in part as an effort to sell magazines or to attract clicks when you’re looking at the internet, but there’s no doubt that there are also many statements being made here that are of importance to Christians trying to understand the culture. Who would these people be whom Time Magazine has designated the 100 Most Influential People, we guess, for right now? The covers are interesting by the way, because there are several different covers depending upon which you want to pick up.

The one that came to me in the mail features Taylor Swift on the front cover. She’s one of the 100, you will not be surprised, but amongst the others who are cataloged here, amongst those listed as leaders, Nancy Pelosi. The article is written by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Also Donald Trump, the article written by Chris Christie. There’s a demonstrated leftward shift here, after all, it’s coming from Time Magazine, but it’s interesting to see that there is also some kind of effort at balance here.

It’s also interesting to note that all of the articles, all 100 of them, are written by someone who admires the individual covered, that’s why Hillary Rodham Clinton’s written about Nancy Pelosi, and Chris Christie about Donald Trump. As a sign of the times, consider that Brett Kavanaugh, the newest Justice of the United States Supreme Court is covered in an article written by Mitch McConnell, but later in the magazine, in a different section amongst the 100 is also listed Christine Blasey Ford, his accuser during the confirmation process, in an article written, not coincidentally, by Pamela Harris, who is running for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

There’s a big signal sent amongst the 100 concerning abortion rights, one of the person’s covered is Dr. Leana Wen who’s the head of Planned Parenthood. The article’s by Cynthia Nixon, who is herself an actress and “an advocate for reproductive rights.” It celebrates Leana Wen, it celebrates abortion, it celebrates Planned Parenthood. Later in the magazine three women who are activists for the cause of legalizing abortion in Ireland, you’ll recall that was successful in May of last year, reversing a ban that protected fetal life that had been in place for 35 years, the author of that article stated her moral viewpoint clearly.

“Society gave its overwhelming blessing to the fundamental rights of women and girls to bodily autonomy after generations of secondary status.” So the ability to kill unborn life in the womb is now a matter of overcoming secondary status. There’s a worldview for you to see. I was also very interested to find amongst the 100, an article about Tiger Woods entitled “Master of the Comeback.” It was written by Justin Timberlake. But wait just a minute, Tiger’s comeback came just last Sunday at the Masters. That tells you that he must have been a late insertion into this article for it to make the current print edition. That also tells you something about math. There probably had to be someone who had to go in order for Tiger Wood to be included. After all, 100 is 100.

But note very carefully, this cover story in Time magazine really doesn’t tell us who the 100 most influential people in the world are. How could you possibly write such a series and leave out Xi Jinping who is the leader of the Communist Party in China, or Vladimir Putin, who’s the President of Russia? But what this cover story does signal are the kind of moral and cultural signals that Time Magazine wants to send America. That in itself is worthy of our notice.

Part IV

Horrible headlines from Sri Lanka: A tragic story as old as Christianity

Finally, yesterday the horrible headlines came of a coordinated series of terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, that island nation in the Indian Ocean. As of this morning the death toll is approaching 300, it is likely to reach even higher numbers, but the word came yesterday that even as Sri Lankan authorities have not released the name of the group they feel is responsible, they have confirmed that Christians were clearly targeted.

We knew that already by the nature of the attacks, but we do not yet know the motivation behind the attacks. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo of the United States, quickly decried the attacks and identified terrorism as the cause. There’s more to come on this story, but there won’t be less. We already know this, there were individuals targeted because they were in churches identified with Christianity on that Sunday when the majority of Christians around the world particularly celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. This is a story of course that is as old as Christianity, but we need to know, it is also a story as new as the headlines just yesterday from around the world.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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