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!