Is Jesus a moralistic therapeutic deist?

When Christian Smith and Melinda Denton coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” in 2005, it described the way that many Christian teenagers have grown up with fuzzy theology in which God is basically nice and he just wants people to be nice and happy. Since that time, MTD has become a catch-all slur to use against any theology which doesn’t make God sufficiently strange or mean. The way to prove that you haven’t succumbed to MTD is to interpret the Bible in a way that celebrates the opacity of inexplicably arbitrary divine commands, because if God’s law is entirely benevolent and concerned with human happiness, then it must be a secular humanist projection. But Jesus creates a problem for this Biblical interpretive strategy when he says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

In other words, Jesus is saying that the Sabbath exists so that humans can be happy and nice to each other. If he said this today, he would be accused of moralistic therapeutic deism. True, he didn’t use those trite words that we love to sneer at, but he’s making a specific claim about the benevolence of God’s law in contradistinction to the Pharisaic use of God’s law as a means of conspicuous self-sacrifice by which they earn their salvation. If the law’s purpose is to give you an opportunity to prove your superiority to others through self-denial, then its value would be compromised if everything the law was telling you to do was actually in your self-interest. By saying the law exists for our benefit, Jesus kicks over the pedestal of self-sacrifice the Pharisees had built for themselves to stand on.

Here’s the question: is it legitimate to apply what Jesus said paradigmatically to the Bible in general? “The Bible was made for man, not man for the Bible.” This would signify that God gives us the Bible’s teachings for the sake of our fulfillment rather than as an arbitrary test of our faithfulness. Jesus also tells us that “all the law and the prophets” have to do with the two Great Commandments to love God and love your neighbor. The way I understand this is that everything the Bible teaches us about how we are to live has to do with our ability to connect fully with God (happiness) and our ability to build safe and intimate community with one another (niceness).

God’s perfect nature means that He doesn’t have an insecure ego that needs to be satisfied by seeing us do things in a certain way just because He said so. He does call us to conduct ourselves with honor and holiness, but for the sake of our benefit, so that “His love might be made perfect within us.” In any case, I don’t think that its unreasonable to expect the Bible’s teachings to have to do with our ability to thrive as opposed to establishing some abstract order to which we’re supposed to conform so that God will have His ego stroked. If that makes me a moralistic therapeutic deist, then so is Jesus!

14 thoughts on “Is Jesus a moralistic therapeutic deist?

  1. I think the majority of us who speak against MTD would agree that the essence of God is not found in being “mean” or “strange” (although strange isn’t bad). It’s more a matter of God remaining unique, active, and dynamically involved in the world. All of that can lead with the chin of grace as far as I’m concerned.

    • Strange isn’t bad with me either and
      I definitely think MTD is a problem. I also think doctrinal Pelagianism (the opposite of MTD?) is a problem: i.e. thinking that being doctrinally correct is equivalent to the faith that justifies.

      • Not sure I’d put any kind of Pelagianism as the opposite of MTD. Remember that MTD is all belief and no discipleship required — i.e. Discipleship being a life of growing in sanctified grace. MTD only asks for intellectual assent to a vague God and requires no change in lifestyle to match a Christian identity.

        • I think there are multiple definitions that get tossed around. Thanks for sharing your understanding. It’s helpful.

          • For those who use a radically different definition, they should read Kenda’s book or the actual study by Smith

  2. “God gives us the Bible’s teachings for the sake of our fulfillment” — I think this is a valid point, depending on how we define our fulfillment. If fulfillment is defined as the most shallow, selfish form of “feeling good about myself”, then it’s true that this probably wouldn’t match what Jesus taught and how He lived his life. But if “our fulfillment” means listening to our heart and conscience to follow God’s voice as best we can then yes, I believe the Bible should be used as a tool in this spiritual process, as opposed to us submitting ourselves to some overly literal interpretation of the Bible. I don’t know if that makes me an MTD person or just a hippie 🙂

    • Right. Augustine wrote a book On Happiness in which he argues why we can only find happiness in God. John Piper makes the same argument in Desiring God.

      • Cool, I’m glad we agree on the meaning of this. Too often people mistake “fulfilled” or “happy” to mean the same thing as “self-centered”. I’m really liking your blog so far!

  3. Morgan, given your reaction to MTD (slur, sneer, etc.) are you saying Smith, Denton, and Dean are wrong in identifying the existence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

    • No I definitely think it exists and it’s right to identify it and be alarmed by it but I think sometimes folks are overzealous in their use of the term.

      • I’m curious where you’ve seen this. As someone who uses the term from time-to-time, I’m interested in how it gets used by others. I have not seen it used the way that is bothering you, but that is probably due to my limited scope of reading.

  4. So here is the Smith/Denton/Dean definition in full:

    1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth. 2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem. 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

    As I read that, Jesus satisfies barely one or two of these points at most. Feeling good about oneself is at best an occasional outcome of discipleship it seems, as his closest disciples do.not seem like they pull that off with any regularity. If that were one of Jesus actual goals he appears to have failed.

    It was also obviously the case with Jesus that life required God all the time… not just when I think I need something I cannot obtain myself

    • Yeah I’m not responding to the book itself but to the tendency to say that unless God is mean and arbitrary He’s an MTD God.

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