Someone once told me that they believed in the priority of the Epistles. I think he was rare in actually saying what many people believe. For many Christians seem to think the New Testament is about Jesus’ action and Paul’s teaching, in that order. Perhaps we have the sense that Jesus’ death on the Cross for us sins makes His teaching unnecessary- because the teaching dealt with sin we no longer have, or belonged to a previous period of salvation history now overtaken by the cross.
There may also be a reactionary impulse behind this statement- thinking that those who hold Jesus’ teaching over His death tend to be theologically “liberal”, then the way to be theologically “conservative” is to lower His teaching. Right? This is problematic from a variety of angles. First of all, eliminating Jesus’ teaching cuts us off from the rest of the Bible. Next, eliminating Jesus’ teaching robs us of the universal while trying to universalize the particular (Paul’s epistles). Third, it breaks the necessary connection between word and act. The best way to understand what Jesus was doing is to listen to what He was saying. Imagine attending a Lord’s Supper service that had no words. Attendees might have a variety of interpretations for what occurred. We need the words to clarify the action. Jesus’ teaching are the words that clarify the Cross. Even more, Jesus’ words are also the way of life for the people who trust in His death and resurrection.
The “liberalizing” tendency of the teaching of Jesus can only occur in the imagination that does not allow for the possibility that Jesus is teaching about and through His death before His death occurs. For “Liberal Theology” is such not because it elevates the teaching of Jesus, but because it jettisons substitutionary atonement. The “conservatizing” tendency then is a failure to imagine that Jesus can be teaching about our lives beyond the Cross before the Cross occurs. Because in a theology that is actually “Conservative” the Atoning Death of Christ is inextricably bound with the living lives of generosity, love, and righteousness. What people have called for 200 years “Liberal” and “Conservative” theology, then, are not extreme ends of a pole, but two variations of the same heresy, that stand apart from and against an orthodoxy that holds the Cross of Christ and the Teaching of Christ in balance and in tension with each other.
And it is fair and accurate to call both this “liberalizing” and “conservatizing” heresies, because that is what their adherents claim them to be. These two schools are ways of being “not like them”- the classic definition of heresy meaning “a split” or “a division.” Nor can we, any longer, call this prioritizing of the Epistles over the Gospels, or of the Cross over Christ’s teaching “conservative” since it, itself is an innovation that departs from the faith once and for delivered to the saints. On the other hand, what we refer to as “liberal theology” is no innovation at all. It is just good old fashioned Arianism.
So what do we do with the teaching of Jesus which seems to take either back into place of “do it yourself” salvation or a place of radicalism in which salvation demands a full change of life? We accept them as the basis of the Christian Life. Not as a rule that saves you, but as the rule which salvation gives you. The Gospel that saves us also changes us and engages us- and that is God’s plan. If we find our Savior’s words difficult, impossible, and exasperating, they are none the less the words of our Savior, the worlds of eternal life, and exactly what we need. Though we are struggling to grow into to them, we must work to build our lives on them, trusting the One who gave them to us.
Consider what Jesus, Himself says about what He taught:
24Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: 25And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. 26And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: 27And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.