So declared the Reverend Dr. Richard Burnett in opening the 2020 Theology Matters conference. Burnett, the executive director of Theology Matters, spent the rest of his first lecture explaining how and why “Jesus is the truth” is such a provocative affirmation. Two other conference speakers addressed Jesus as the way and the life.
Burnett pointed to the 1934 Barmen Declaration as a prime example of how John 14:6 becomes a provocative text. Barmen’s challenge to the pro-Nazi “German Christians” begins with Jesus’ self-identification in that verse. It then asserts, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”
Speaking in Hilton Head, S.C., in February 2020, Burnett spotlighted the phrase exalting Jesus “as attested for us in Holy Scripture.” He commented: “Many through the centuries have confessed Jesus Christ, but not all ‘as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture.’ Many through the centuries have created a Jesus in their own image, and modern people not least among them.” Barmen rebuked that kind of idolatry.
The affirmation of Jesus as “the truth” and “the one Word of God which we have to hear” became particularly provocative because it implied a negation. Barmen struck a nerve when it rejected “the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures, and truths, as God’s revelation.”
What were these “other events and powers, figures, and truths” in 1930s Germany? Burnett paraphrased Adolf Hitler’s message to the German people: “He told them they were a very special people for whom God had very special plans. He reminded them of the glories of their past and their potential for the future.” The “German Christians” were especially captivated because “Hitler sold himself as a great defender of the church. In speech after speech he promised to protect the church, pledging, ‘I never will tie myself to parties who want to destroy Christianity.’”
According to Burnett, the “German Christians” objected to Barmen as “too narrow, too restrictive, too exclusive in its understanding of revelation.” A group of them published a rebuttal, called the Ansbach Counsel, that offered a broader account of truth: “The unchangeable will of God meets us in the total reality of our life as it is illumined by God’s revelation.” This vague formulation left ample room for German blood and history as sources of divine revelation, alongside Jesus Christ.
The Theology Matters executive director put forth a provocative thesis of his own: The problem of people positing “other events and powers” as equivalent to Jesus was not limited to Germany in the 1930s. As a pastor, he heard parishioners say things such as “Well, Preacher, I’ll be honest with you, I can worship God as well standing on a seashore of watching a sunset or sitting in a deer stand as I can in any church.”
Burnett responded: “You and I may learn all sorts of things about God by many different means, but how would we know they are true—and what difference would it make—unless we know the truth about God, namely, that he loves us and sent his Son to die for us in order that we might live with him forever? And to be sure, you and I did not learn this—and we would never have learned this—merely sitting on a deer stand, standing on a seashore, or watching a sunset, as inspiring as these experiences may be.”
“The point I’m trying to make,” Burnett said, “is that Jesus Christ is not just one truth among others. He is the Truth, the standard by which all others are measured.”
Burnett closed by warning that “there are ‘still other events and powers, figures, and truths’ in this world vying for recognition and acknowledgment that claim powerful authority in defining my being and yours.” Ultimately, he stated, “one cannot live from many truths. One can live truly from only one truth.” He challenged his hearers: “What is the truth of your life?”
A transcript and video of Burnett’s keynote lecture is available here.