The Theological Beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was used providentially by God to help call the church in America to work for the end of racial discrimination. We have much to learn from his legacy and bold stand against the injustice of racism. The sin of racism denies of the dignity and value of every human being and is an assault on the image of God. King is often portrayed by theological conservatives like myself as a Bible-believing Christian who rejected the liberalism around him. But nothing could be further from the truth. To paint King as a theological conservative is a complete whitewashing of history and dishonest. This is a common mistake of amateur historians who read their own beliefs back into the heroes of the past. King’s theology was in essential agreement with the liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick. King wrote a letter to Fosdick in which he said:

“If I were called upon to select the greatest preacher of this century, I would choose your name. If I were called upon to select the foremost prophets of our generation, I would choose you to head the list. If I were called upon to select the Christian saints of our day, again I would have to place you on the list.”

Anyone can read King’s writings from his time at Crozer Theological Seminary (filled with grammatical errors) and see that King denied almost all of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. To begin with, King rejected the deity of Christ, calling it “harmful” and “detrimental”:

“We may find the divinity of Christ not in his substantial unity with God, but in his filial consciousness and in his unique dependence upon God. It was his felling of absolute dependence on God, as Schleiermaker would say, that made him divine. . . . The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadaquate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: ‘Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possible have.’ In other words, one could easily use this as a means to hide behind his failures. So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied.”

He rejected the virgin birth of Christ which is the first belief to go after inerrancy when liberals start cutting doctrines out of the Bible:

“The second doctrine in our discussion posits the virgin birth. This doctrine gives the modern scientific mind much more trouble than the first, for it seems downright improbable and even impossible for anyone to be born without a human father. First we must admit that the evidence for the tenability of this doctrine is to shallow to convince any objective thinker.”

But in the same document, he not only rejects the virgin birth, he rejects the bodily resurrection of Christ as well:

“The last doctrine in our discussion deals with the resurrection story. This doctrine, upon which the Easter Faith rests, symbolizes the ultimate Christian conviction: that Christ conquered death. From a literary, historical, and philosophical point of view this doctrine raises many questions. In fact the external evidence for the authenticity of this doctrine is found wanting.”

In other words, though he denies the literal and bodily resurrection of Christ, he can say that he still believes in it because he redefines it as a spiritual experience. This is known as “theological doublespeak” where you say that you believe in something but redefine its meaning so that the people in the pews still think that you believe in orthodox Christianity. He sets forth this approach in his paper on the spiritual meaning of Christian doctrine:

“Among the beliefs which many modern Christians find difficult to accept are those dealing with eschatological hopes, particularly the second coming of Christ, the day of judgment, and the resurrection of the body. In an attempt to solve this difficult problem many modern Christians have jettisoned these beliefs altogether, failing to see that there is a profundity of spiritual meaning in these beliefs which goes beyond the shackles of literalism. We must realize that these beliefs were formulated by an unscientific people who knew nothing about a Copernican universe or any of the laws of modern science. They were attempting to solve basic problems which were quite real to them, problems which to them dealt with ultimate destiny. So it was only natural for them to speak in the pre-scientific thought pattern of their day. They could do no other. Inspiration did not magically remove the limitations of the writers. It heightened their power, but did not remove their distortions. Therefore it is our job as Christians to seek the spiritual pertinence of these beliefs, which taken literally are quite absurd. We would probably all agree with the spiritual meaning of what these early Christians were trying to say, although we would disagree with how they said it.”

He explains his rejection of the bodily resurrection of Christ in more detail in his autobiography:

“The lessons which I was taught in Sunday School were quite in the fundamentalist line. None of my teachers ever doubted the infallibility of the Scriptures. Most of them were unlettered and had never heard of Biblical criticism. Naturally I accepted the teachings as they were being given to me. I never felt any need to doubt them, at least at that time I didn’t. I guess I accepted Biblical studies uncritically until I was about twelve years old. But this uncritical attitude could not last long, for it was contrary to the very nature of my being. I had always been the questioning and precocious type. At the age of 13 I shocked my Sunday School class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. From the age of thirteen on doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly. At the age of fifteen I entered college and more and more could I see a gap between what I had learned in Sunday School and what I was learning in college. This conflict continued until I studied a course in Bible in which I came to see that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape. . . . As stated above, my college training, especially the first two years, brought many doubts into my mind. It was at this period that the shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body. This is why, when I came to Crozer, I could accept the liberal interpretation with relative ease.”

King also rejected the bodily and visible second coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead:

“It is obvious that most twentieth century Christians must frankly and flatly reject any view of a physical return of Christ. To hold such a view would mean denying a Copernican universe, for there can be no physical return unless there is a physical place from which to return. In its literal form this belief belongs to a pre-scientific world view which we cannot accept.”

In the same paper, he rejected the belief in a literal hell:

“Those who failed to achieve this immortal life were subjected to a physical place called Hell in which they would suffer eternal misery by burning in a blazing fire. In modern times we have come to see that such eschatological thinking is by far incompatible with the modern scientific world view. A physical Heaven and a physical Hell are inconceivable in a Copernican universe.”

King denied that the cross of Christ was an atonement for sin:

“In the next place, if Christ by his life and death paid the full penalty of sin, there is no valid ground for repentance or moral obedience as a condition of forgiveness. The debt is paid; the penalty is exacted, and there is, consequently, nothing to forgive.”

He believed that the flood story of Genesis was just a myth borrowed from paganism:

“Looking at the flood story from an objective angle we obviously see that the Hebrews have done nothing but taken a polytheistic picture and placed it in a monotheistic frame, thereby producing from Babylonian mythology an almost verbatim story. . . . If we accept the Old Testament as being ‘true’ we will find it full of errors, contradictions, and obvious impossibilities–as that the Pentateuch was written by Moses.”

But it is not just the Old Testament that is full of errors, he believed that Christianity borrowed its beliefs from the pagan mystery religions of the Roman world in accordance with the history of religions school of thought. His paper comparing fundamentalism and liberalism summarizes his rejection of the historic beliefs of the Christian faith:

“Others doctrines such as a supernatural plan of salvation, the Trinity, the substitutionary theory of the atonement, and the second coming of Christ are all quite prominant in fundamentalist thinking. Such are the views of the fundamentalist and they reveal that he is oppose[d] to theological adaptation to social and cultural change. He sees a progressive scientific age as a retrogressive spiritual age. Amid change all around he was {is} willing to preserve certain ancient ideas even though they are contrary to science.”

There is no evidence that King ever repudiated his rejection of the deity of Christ, his bodily resurrection, the virgin birth, the second coming of Christ, a literal hell, the cross as an atonement for sin, and the Trinity. He was also, sadly, an unrepentant adulterer who lived a double life. We do not honor the heroes of the past by rewriting their history to make them more palatable to us. Good history presents the past just as it was, warts and all.

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