I first came across Doug Pagitt some years ago when I heard his interview on Todd Friel’s Way of the Master radio show (Parts 1 and 2). I was flabbergasted by the near complete inability of Doug Pagitt to answer even the most basic question in a straightforward manner (most humorous is at the beginning when Pagitt is asked where a good Buddhist goes after death and replies, “He probably goes to the funeral home”). So when I came across his 2008 book A Christianity Worth Believing, I decided to sit down and see what it really was that worked in his personal theology. What I read made me understand his position on the radio interview on WOTM radio a little bit more…but nonetheless it was just as unbiblical and unorthodox as the radio interview had portrayed his theology to be. While I wasn’t screaming out loud “WHAT?!” like I did reading The Shack, I was nonetheless just as flabbergasted, if not more, than when I heard Pagitt respond to Todd Friel’s questions.
The book is written like many others coming from the Emergent Church movement: it’s part memoir, part theological study, as Pagitt himself admits in the preface. Every chapter opens up with a person story from Pagitt, followed by a theological lesson stemming from said story. The topics vary, but for the most part consist of God’s role in a person’s life and sin. In the end, does Pagitt present to us a Christianity worth believing? Sadly, not at all. Let’s review some key topics and issues stemming from the book.
Let’s first examine by Doug Pagitt’s opinion of scripture, for surely if we are expected to believe in a “Christianity worth believing,” it must come from Christian scripture, correct? Then by what authority does Doug Pagitt give scripture? Actually, very little, despite his assertion that he’s teaching otherwise.
I just don’t think the Bible is always the best starting point for faith. Abraham didn’t believe the Bible when God claimed him to be a righteous man because it hadn’t been written yet. Moses didn’t read the lived history of his people as devotional material. David didn’t meditate on the words of Isaiah. The disciples didn’t read the letters of Paul in between conversations with Jesus. The Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, came along in the midst of the story. It is the result of the story of faith, not the cause.
This is usually the point in a conversation where someone starts accusing me of a low view of the Bible, of stripping it of its authority. But I believe this understanding of the Bible restores its authority by allowing it to be alive and free of the constraints we throw on it. [pg. 64-65]
On a surface level, of course, these arguments are simply silly. No, Abraham didn’t have scripture, but he also spoke directly to God, and therefore didn’t need any. Moses may have not had written scripture at the time, although he did give the Jews the Torah and Law by which they were to abide. David didn’t meditate on the words of Isaiah, but he did have the Torah, the Law, possibly Judges, and likewise prophets who spoke directly to God and for God – David also wrote much of what we know today as the Psalms, which were sung and read by people of his day. The disciples may have not had a complete New Testament as they traversed Asia Minor, but they were heavily versed in the Old Testament and quoted it extensively. Pagitt’s argument therefore does not hold as much water as he’d like – the Biblical characters he’s cited either had good reason not to use scripture or did use scripture in one form or another.
This, however, is veering off the subject he is discussing. When we speak about what “constraints” are thrown upon scripture, what are we ultimately talking about? The supreme authority of the scriptures. The ability to prove something wrong with a man’s theology and demonstrate it with scripture. The necessity to exegete and expound upon passages of scripture to form our doctrine. Whenever a teacher or group attacks the necessity to do this, they are usually preparing to insert their own authority in the void.
This is added onto in Pagitt’s response to the argument that scripture is “God-breathed.”
The inerrancy debate is based on the belief that the Bible is the word of God, that the Bible is true because God made it and gave it to us as a guide to truth. But that’s not what the Bible says. In a letter to the apostle Paul to a young ministry worker named Timothy, Paul wrote, “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Many Christians have taken this phrase to mean that the Bible is made up of God’s words. That’s not how Paul or Timothy would have understood it. The word breath would have brought to mind God as creator and life-giver. In that word they would have heard hints of God speaking, breathing the world into existence in the Genesis story. They would imagine God breathing life into Adam. They would picture Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples. For them the image of God’s breath symbolized a living and activating force. [pg. 65]
I almost want to laugh that Pagitt would quote a verse of scripture and then teach a contradiction when people can refer back a sentence or two to the verse he’s talking about, but I can’t laugh because people out there do fall for this. Paul most likely wasn’t conjuring up images of creation for obvious contextual reasons: the direct object of what is “God-breathed” is scripture, and from this status of being “God-breathed” it is said that scripture is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That’s most likely what Timothy thought as he read Paul’s letter, not the story of Adam and Eve.
Pagitt explains his concept of scripture further with:
Paul explains that the Bible, the God-breathed Scriptures, are meant to be lived. The Bible is a functional book that equips people to join with God in God’s work so they can act righteously. For Paul, the Holy Scriptures were alive; God was creating and re-creating through them. The Bible wasn’t a removed “truth text.” It was a fully integrated piece of the Christian life, one that held authority because it was a living, breathing symbol of God’s continual activity. [pg 66-67]
Some Christians reading this might be confused, as this sounds true. The scriptures “are meant to be lived”? That sounds like what Christians are supposed to believe – we’re supposed to be a living faith reflecting the commands of scripture. This, however, is not what Pagitt is teaching us to do. As we move along in the review, we will see exactly what he means by the statement that scriptures “are meant to be lived.”
Early on in the book, when we finally get around to some discussion on history and scripture, Doug Pagitt presents a very wild (and sadly unoriginal) view of early church history. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: everything was fine and dandy until Emperor Constantine came along and ruined everything. Constantine was not a perfect man, but the way men like Dan Brown, Jack Chick and Doug Pagitt treat him, you would think he was Satan incarnate. If he were alive today he could be quite wealthy from libel lawsuits.
Pagitt’s attack against Constantine amounts to this: when Christianity was made a legal and then official religion of the empire, it was then mixed with Greek and pagan philosophical thought to make it more appealing to the Gentile members of the empire at the time. Pagitt doesn’t bother to explain why this would be necessary, given that most Christians at that time were already Gentiles…but I don’t believe he expects us to ask any questions either.
This new theology mixture has many names that Pagitt applies throughout the book: “separatist dualism” (pg. 87); “the Greek version of God” (pg. 113); “a clear Greek-Christian hybrid” (pg. 125); “the Greek gospel” (pg. 186); and even in one instance “out of date theology” (pg. 136). He compares it at times to the dualism of the Gnostics, and at other times refers it to Platonic dualism. In the end all the names and phrases have the same meaning: the Christianity we know today and in most churches worldwide is a mix of pagan philosophical thought that has nothing to do with how early Christian believes. In other words, the vast majority of churches – if not all – are following a heresy.
I should note here that Pagitt doesn’t directly claim he has the secret to real Christianity, nor does he claim to be the prophet nor the son of a prophet. Nevertheless, when you plant the seed into your reader’s mind that Christianity has for 1700 years been teaching the wrong thing, and now you are presenting the “better” way of seeing the gospel, the reader can only conclude that you are, in essence, attempting to save the faith with your theology. It is like telling someone dying of cancer, “I’m not saying this treatment will save your life, but every other treatment in the world except this one won’t work.”
I’m used to reading these kinds of historically inaccurate views of the early church before, but perhaps what aggravated me the most by Pagitt’s use of it was that he never once justifies his position. He simply introduces early on the concept of, “Yup, the early church was tarnished by Platonic dualism,” and then repeats that over and over again throughout the book. He doesn’t give any evidence from historical sources nor doe he quote any Church Fathers – he simply creates this imaginary bogeyman for the reader to be afraid of. Any time he talks about historic Christian doctrine he immediately writes something to the effect of: “Look out! That’s the evil Platonic dualism talking!” This is followed by his own theology of what he thinks Christianity should be instead. In fact he uses it so often and in such a cavalier fashion that it grew to be annoying and I was tempted to simply stop reading. Unfortunately, his repeated mantra against Todd Friel of “You’re a Platonic dualist!” didn’t become any more reasonable after reading this book.
It would be appropriate to move on from the Greek Bogeyman to what I think is a great contradiction in this book: namely, right after condemning the early church for supposedly introducing Platonic dualism, Pagitt begins a lengthy (about two or three chapters) discussion on how holism helps the gospel story. In other words, right after condemning the introduction of Platonic dualism because it was not compliant with the Hebrew scripture, Pagitt then introduces holism into the Hebrew scripture! Indeed, he gives it credit for forming his theology: “Once I started thinking about and experiencing Christianity through the lens of holism connection, I understood it in a completely new way” (pg. 89).
The importance of holism becomes crystal clear in this section of the book:
The theology of holism is a theology of invitation, of welcome, of God saying, “Look what I’m doing. Come and join me.” The assumption is that God is present in all things, that we can find truth and nobility and righteousness and purity and loveliness in all things. In Romans 8:28, the apostle Paul writes about this Shema understanding: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” It’s right there: “in all things.” Not only in the special things. Not only in the holy things. Nothing is outside the read and presence of God. [pg. 90-91]
Two things become obvious here. The first one is that we now know why we had to challenge the authority of the Bible: the Bible is not the authority on our theology, but rather the holistic theology which we are now to accept has authority over the Bible. In removing the “constraints” he spoke of earlier, Pagitt has now introduced the new authority: holistic doctrines. The second obvious revelation is that Pagitt is preaching a kind of “better life now” theology, where we are to serve God better in the here and now.
Later on Pagitt will write:
The story of the gospel is so much better than the legal model suggests. It tells us that we are created as God’s partners, not God’s enemies. Sin does a lot of damage to that partnership – it disables us, it discourages us, it disturbs us – but it never destroys the bond that exists between God and humanity. [pg. 153]
This boils down to what could be called integration theology. In other words, we work in a special relationship with God in society to make it a better place, and this alone makes one close to God. Part of this is the idea that body and soul are not separate but one, and in serving the physical needs you are also serving the spiritual needs – even if you don’t mention or do anything remotely spiritual at all.
I’m not trying to make the case that meeting physical needs is as important as meeting spiritual needs. I’m making the case that there is no difference, that there are not separate categories of need, that when we minister to people, we minister to the whole person. This is the implication of holism, not that we pick one side of the old debate between caring for physical needs and caring for the soul but that we understand and live in the reality that the “difference” between them is not what we may have thought it was. [pg. 85]
Our spirituality then comes from our works, and we improve our life with God by living what are perceived are godly lives.
The good news in all this is that sin never gets the last word. We can live our lives in a collective way, so the systems that cause disharmony with God can be changed. We can change the patterns wired into us from our families and create new ways of relating and being. Our bodies can experience healing. In other words, we can be born-again, new creations. [pg. 167]
The focus, then, is the better life now. This includes things that may not even be considered Christian – and, ironically enough, Pagitt believes there’s scripture for this.
Reading the Bible with holism as our framework changes much about what we’ve long assumed the Bible to say. A few years ago a friend pointed me to a well-known section of the Bible, one that is often used to encourage Christians to circle the wagons in an effort to keep out the so-called dark forces of the world, Philippians 4:8-10. It reads, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Though we might not like to admit it, the theology of separation and distinction assumes that the “other” must be also be the “lesser.” It assumes that there are far more bad “whatevers” than good ones and that it is only by limiting our engagement that we can follow God. But my friend sees it differently. He says, “I don’t think that means we’re supposed to limit our engagement through some elitist selection process of only the right things. I think it means we should be open to the ‘whatever.’” That is a wonderful way to find the life of God – to look for the true and lovely and admirable in all places. [pg. 90-91]
I was already familiar with Pagitt’s distortion of Philippians from a news interview between him and John MacArthur (link). Just as when I saw that video, when I read Pagitt’s quotation of it here I couldn’t help but notice he leaves out what Paul writes immediately after: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). The things that are good are the things of God, not something that sounds good.
As the reader can tell, much of the book focuses on what we can do in this life we have. Perhaps one of the most interesting absences present in the book, then, is any discussion of an afterlife. With such an emphasis on the here-and-now, what room is there for heaven and hell? Pagitt even recounts a meeting with a woman who noticed that very thing – and his reaction is rather alarming.
I was talking about this idea with a friend, explaining this notion that God is about inviting us into life, that God is active in the process of eliminating from our lives whatever keeps us from living in rhythm with God. She responded by saying, “If Christianity isn’t primarily about the promise of an afterlife for those who believe the truth, how could we ever convince someone to be Christian? What do we have to offer?” She was completely sincere, but I was taken aback. I don’t mean to disparage her question – questions are what move us deeper into life with God. But for me, the idea of following a God who is in all things, who is inviting us to join in the work that is true and noble and pure, is so beautiful and appealing that I can’t imagine why we would offer anything else. [pg 93]
I had to read this twice to make sure I hadn’t misread it. Pagitt had responded to the question of what a gospel with no afterlife has to offer with the notion that a gospel which teaches a good life here in this world is far more “appealing,” and he “can’t imagine why we would offer anything else.”
Why should we offer anything else? Why would we offer anything else! The focal point of the gospel is the promise of eternal life with God. In one of the most famous passages of the New Testament, our Lord said:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16; emphasis mine]
Paul wrote to the Philippian church:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. [Philippians 3:7-11; emphasis mine]
This was why the Eternal Word of God descended – so that we may ascend with Him to the Father (cf. Eph 4:9-10). This is why the vast majority of the original apostles were willingly martyred, and why so many in the early church up until the Edict of Milan accepted martyrdom happily. This is why even today, all over the world, there are Christian missionaries willing to die – and are dying – because of their faith in Christ. It is because they believe on the day of judgment they will be before their Lord, and He will welcome them into His arms and into paradise. For Pagitt to so casually write “I can’t imagine why we would offer anything else” is a slap in the face to all of those who have suffered hoping and praying for the age to come.
Of course, what comes along with the notion of an afterlife is the notion of the judgment of God. What is Pagitt’s definition of judgment?
Judgment, then, is not complete when God’s anger is satisfied but when our integration with God is re-created. In our culture we tend to think of justice being brought about when a guilty person gets the proper consequence. But justice isn’t about paying someone back or even making people pay for what they did. Justice is best understood as redemption or reconciliation. The Old Testament uses the Hebrew word karem in many of the passages about God’s judgment. It means “healing” or “remaking” or “returning something to its intended purpose.” God’s justice is the restoring of things to the way they ought to be. We are intended to live with God and to live like God. Sin derails that effort. When the disintegration stops and integration arrives, God’s judgment is complete. [pg. 159]
Those who read my review of The Shack may remember that one of my laments about the book was the extremely vague view on judgment and the incompatibility with what scripture says regarding judgment. Judgment in The Shack was said to be “not about destruction, but about setting things right.” Here, Pagitt seems to be teaching a similar kind of judgment; judgment is not about heaven or hell, but about healing and making things right. Yet even if a “healing” judgment exists in the Hebrew text, it is not the only type of judgment spoken about. Pagitt’s argument regarding the word karem, in this regard, seems to suggest this is the only Hebrew word for judgment that is used – yet then what of words like shepheṭ, which does refer to a judicial act of judgment? Or the Hebrew word dı̂yn, which likewise refers to a legalistic kind of judgment and is used in reference to God.
The weakness of this theology was I believe perfectly illustrated in the interview with Todd Friel, where Pagitt was confronted with verses that dealt with a kind of judgment that was anything but remaking. Scripture is crystal clear that there will be a day of judgment, and men will be held accountable for their lives, and in the end some will be sent into hell and others into the bosom of Abraham. In response to these kind of arguments, Pagitt can only beat his drum of Platonic dualism – but when that is revealed to be the emperor’s new clothes, what is your theology left with?
Writing largely in response to the popular theology of the fall of man, Pagitt explains:
Yet even in the midst of this struggle, Adam and Eve partnered with God. They still cared for the land as they were created to do. They still brought children into the world. They were even part of the plan for all the strife to end and death to lose its power. Their story goes on, with the whole of creation living in fits and starts of participation with God.
This story never suggests that the sin of Adam and Eve sends them into a state of depravity. There is nothing in the story that tells us that God steps over to the other side of some great chasm once Eve bites down on that fruit. Certainly there is sin, but the result of sin is a change in our relationship with God and with others, not a change in the basic makeup of humanity. The creation story tells us that although we are capable of tragic missteps, God’s hope and desire is for us to continue to join in to the good things God is doing in the world. We are still capable of living as the children of God. [pg. 136]
One can’t help but wonder if perhaps the problem in Pagitt’s theology is that whole sections of his Bible have fallen out. God may have not left mankind, but mankind certainly left God, for they were kicked out of the garden where mankind had full communion with God before, and a flaming sword was kept to guard the doorway and keep man from entering (Gen 3:24). It is likewise remarkable that he outlines the “result of sin is a change in our relationship with God and with others” when we are told by scripture “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) – something rather far more critical than a mere “change in relationship.” Those who have not accepted Christ are described as being “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3), and we are told that all mankind is “under sin,” so that “none is righteous, no, not one,” for “no one seeks after God” (Rom 3:9-11). Like Joel Osteen, Doug Pagitt would have us believe that committing a sin amounts to losing some benefits at work – yet scripture says plainly that is far from the case. Sin is much, much more serious than a simple hiccup in our relationship with God.
Many of Pagitt’s attacks on the doctrine of sin aim at the teaching of man’s depraved nature. Appealing to emotion, Pagitt asks if anyone walks by a natal ward and thinks they are looking at a group of miserable sinners-to-be, and suggests that instead we should believe men are all inherently good as God made us good. He attacks traditional Christian thought in this regard, and yet it was never denied that man was made good by God, as one early Reformation creed admits:
Q. 6. Did God then create man so wicked and perverse?
A. By no means; but God created man good, and after his own image, in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him and live with him in eternal happiness to glorify and praise him. [Heidelberg Catechism]
The question is, of course, when man fell, what did that mean? Did it mean a slight hiccup in man’s relationship with God, or something far greater? Man entered a depraved state, yes, but it wasn’t impossible to get out of it. God first identified the sin in man’s depraved state with the Law, and then freed man from the depraved state and the Law through the redemptive and salvific sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This brings us to the biggest question: if sin is not that big of a deal, and God’s relationship with man wasn’t damaged all that much, and scripture is not all that important…then what role did Jesus Christ have? Doug Pagitt brings that question forward himself near the end of the book:
Over the past few years, as my faith has been rearranged from my understanding of an integrated God and all the good that follows from that belief, there has been a shadowy side, a question I’ve hardly dared ask: What happens to Jesus?
The Greek version of the Christian story provides an ideal place for Jesus: He is the one who connects us with God. He is the bridge. He is our way out of our depraved state. He is the blood sacrifice paid out for our redemption to appease the blood God. But if there is no cosmic court case, why do we need Jesus? If there is no gap, why do we need Jesus? If sin is really our “dis-integration” with the life of God and not an ontological problem of our humanity, why do we need Jesus? [pg. 174-175]
Reading this, obvious questions come to mind: is Pagitt saying Christ isn’t the bridge that connects us with God? He isn’t our way out of our depraved state? He isn’t the blood sacrifice paid for our redemption? Then why are we told “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5)? Why are we told that Christ reconciled “us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:16)? Why are we told that Christ canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” by “nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14)? I know, I know, that’s the Platonic dualism talking…then again, I’m only quoting the apostle Paul. How then does Doug Pagitt reconcile the clear message of the New Testament with his idea of integration theology?
Jesus was not sent as the selected one to appease the anger of the Greek blood god. Jesus was sent to fulfill the promise of the Hebrew love God by ending human hostility. It was not the anger of God that Jesus came to end but the anger of people. This world God created is one of peace and harmony and integration. Through Jesus, all humanity is brought into that world. And that is the point of the resurrection…But his resurrection is was about peace, compassion, renewal. The resurrection is the full picture of God’s promise. [pg. 194]
As you can see…he actually doesn’t. Having taken out any need for a resurrection, Pagitt makes the resurrection nonsensical. He assures us he hasn’t, but that is what he has done, and damage control is minimal at best. Having taken out the need for atonement of sins, Pagitt makes the crucifixion nonsensical. How then does he comply this with his distorted view of Christ’s ministry? “Ah, it’s all about renewal!” Surely, according to Pagitt’s own theology, sending a man to be scourged, beaten, mocked, and crucified, and all before friends and family, was the wrong way to go about that. Pagitt assures us, however, this is all part of the plan, even though it seems like there would surely be greater reasons for all of it.
The most obvious conclusion is that this turns Christ into simply a good example, like so many universalists and agnostics make Him out to be. Pagitt at times assures the reader this isn’t what he’s doing, but in the concluding remarks of his Christology says this:
Jesus is the fulfillment of what people are meant to do, who we are meant to be. Just as Adam showed us what disobedience looks like, Jesus shows us what full integration looks like. Just as Adam made disharmony with God possible, Jesus made partnership with God attainable. He is our way, our truth, our life, our Messiah. [pg. 208]
There you are – Christ is indeed simply a good example. He was simply the “fulfillment of what people are meant to do.” He served no other purpose than to promote the “integration” theology which Pagitt promotes. This isn’t the biblical Christ, nor does it give us a Christ worth worshiping.
Emergent leaders use the same tactics in their books and lessons: a personal life story followed by an applicable theological lesson; very little use of scripture, and if any is used most commonly out of context; most of all, they commonly say, “Oh, we’re not teaching that! Let me explain…” followed by an exact definition of what they claimed they weren’t teaching. The obviousness of this latter point is sometimes so unintentionally humorous that I’m suddenly reminded of the end of An American Tail, where the villain is revealed to be a cat in disguise but says to the mice: “C’mon, who are you gonna trust? Me, or your own eyes?”
What Christianity has Pagitt presented us? We are taught that sin isn’t a serious issue, that Jesus was simply an example of what we’re meant to do, that the crucifixion wasn’t necessary in the long run, that the afterlife isn’t important, and that we can learn a lot more from holistic medicine than we can the Bible. At what point does this become Christianity? How can this be Christianity? The role of Christ is diminished and our role with God is simply played out in a post-modern ideal that borders along pantheism. You can call it spirituality, but you can’t call it Christianity.
So what is a Christianity worth believing? I would move the Christianity we are taught in the word of God by the Eternal Word of God and His blessed apostles. The Christianity that promises eternal life through faith in Christ, so that we may be justified before the Father on the day of judgment, when the real “renewal” – not in holistic nature but in the body of believers who will be purified and sanctified forever – takes place. Upon no other form of Christianity should we take our stand. Amen.