Thursday, February 24, 2005

Martin Luther King

Christianity Today recently did an interview with Charles Marsh (author of The Beloved Community). (HT: STR)

I found it interesting that he refers to Martin Luther King as a "radical Christian."

The late Tom Skinner, an African-American evangelist, wrote in his Black and Free (1968).

I am not sure that Martin Luther King knew Jesus Christ in the evangelical Christian context. One of the few reporters to interview King on his religious thought, was Presbyterian layman Lee Dirks, of the National Observer. Dirks found few traces of the hard fundamentalism in which King was reared. King rejected the idea of original sin; that is, he rejected the concept that a person is born separated from God. MLK accepted the deity of Jesus Christ, and the fact that Jesus Christ was divine, only in the sense that He was one with God in purpose; he believed that Jesus Christ so submitted His will to God’s will, that God revealed His divine plan through Jesus Christ; but he did not accept the fact that Jesus Christ was actually God or actually the Son of God, or God manifested in the flesh. Reflecting much of the liberal instruction he received in liberal institutions, he considered the virgin birth a mythological story which tried to explain that Jesus Christ had moral uniqueness, rather than the fact that His birth was a literal fact--that is His virgin birth. . . . He missed on important fact, and that is that man must be regenerated, his attitudes must be changed, a revolution must first occur within his heart, before it can occur in society (pp. 136-138).

My own research into King’s writings in seminary has confirmed this. I’ve seen no indication that he ever repudiated or moved beyond the beliefs summarized below. In fact, the evidence suggests that he continued to believe them. Even raising the question will be seen by some as racist, or as seeking to undermine MLK's significant achievements. But we must care more for truth than for how others might misinterpret our actions and motivations.

Theological Issues

1. In his paper "What Experiences of Christians Living in the Early Christian Century Led to the Christian Doctrines of the Divine Sonship of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Bodily Resurrection," MLK thought that in order to understand the true meaning of orthodox creedal doctrines—like the divine sonship of Jesus, the virgin birth, and the bodily resurrection—the literal element needed to be stripped away in order to uncover the true experiential foundation beneath it.

  • MLK believed that doctrine of Jesus’ deity developed due to Greek philosophical influence and because the early church saw him as the highest and the best
  • MLK believed that the “virgin birth” was unscientific and untenable; like divine sonship, this doctrine developed as a way for the early church to indicate how highly they valued the uniqueness of Jesus.
  • MLK believed that the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus was an attempt by the pre-scientific early church to symbolize the experience that they had with Jesus.

2. Read in light of the above, it is clear to me that in the paper, "The Sources of Fundamentalism and Liberalism Considered Historically and Psychologically," MLK is self-consciously identifying himself with classical theological liberalism and rejecting the doctrines of fundamentalism.

  • MLK praised theological liberalism. In addition to the denial of the doctrines of divine sonship, the virgin birth, and the resurrection, MLK points out that there is also a denial of Scriptural inerrancy and the doctrine of the fall.
  • MLK scorned theological fundamentalism. MLK seems not to believe in the direct creation of the world by God, man as being in the image of God, the historical account of Adam and Eve, the person of the Devil, the Fall, hell, the Trinity, the substitutionary atonement, and the Second Coming.

3. In his paper, “A Study of Mithraism,” MLK suggests that the doctrines of the early church grew out of the Greek mystery religions and cults which flourished at that time.

4. In an interview with Time Magazine, MLK seems to indicate that it was at Crozer Theological Seminary (the setting for the term papers quoted above) that he saw that the ministry was a framework by which he could express his philosophy of social protest.

A bright student, he skipped through high school and at 15 entered Atlanta’s Negro Morehouse College. His father wanted him to study for the ministry. King himself thought he wanted medicine or the law. "I had doubts that religion was intellectually respectable. I revolted against the emotionalism of Negro religion, the shouting and the stamping. I didn’t understand it and it embarrassed me." At Morehouse, King searched for "some intellectual basis for a social philosophy." He read and reread Thoreau’s essay, "Civil Disobedience," concluded that the ministry was the only framework in which he could properly position his growing ideas on social protest.

Ethical Issues

1. Plagiarism

The staff at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project wrote in The Journal of American History (June 1991) that “King’s plagiarism was a general pattern evident in nearly all of his academic writings.” In 1991, a panel of scholars convened by Boston University found that MLK’s dissertation in theology was 60% plagiarized from a dissertation done by a student there just thee years earlier (Jack Boozer). Nevertheless, Boston University decided not to revoke his doctorate. Furthermore, the dramatic closing to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech is virtually the same as Rev. Archibald Carey’s closing to his 1952 address to the Republican Convention.

2. Serial Adultery

It has been well-documented that King was a serial adulterer and womanizer. Here is an account of just one night—the night before his assassination—as recounted in Ralph Abernathy’s 1989 autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. (Abernathy was a close friend of King’s and was with him that night).

  • King gave a rousing speech (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”);
  • King then had dinner with a woman afterward and remained with her till 1 AM
  • King came back to his motel to spend the night with a second woman.
  • In the early morning hours a third woman came looking for King and became angry when she found the bed in the room he shared with Abernathy unoccupied.
  • When King reappeared, he argued with woman #3 and wound up knocking her across the bed.


I regret to say, then, that these theological positions and ethical practices make it impossible for me to consider Dr. King a Christian. He was a radical man. He was an ordained minister. He said and did many great things. God used him for good. But we must use caution in our labels, lest we unwittingly undermine the glory of Christ and mislead the church. If we take the Bible seriously, I think it will be impossible for us to refer to him as a "radical Christian."