Review: Reading Scripture the Emmaus way

10 September 2021

This is the last of a trilogy of related works by Canadian theologian Bradley Jersak, following on from A More Christlike God and A More Christlike Way. It is

A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way by Bradley Jersak (Whitaker House, 2021).

It has a foreword by Peter Enns on five aspects of biblical interpretation.

Jersak’s emphasis in all three of his books is the supremacy of Christ, to whom all other aspects of faith and doctrine must bow, since he alone is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’. The ‘Emmaus’ reference in the title is, of course, to Jesus’ dialogue with two disheartened disciples in Luke 24, where ‘he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’

The author is wary of calling the Bible ‘the word of God’, in the conviction that only Jesus himself can claim that title. The Bible is a witness to him, no more. In the light of that, some of the notions of biblical inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy common in evangelical circles are open to question. He addresses them all in depth, along with the concept of the ‘canon’ of Scripture. In doing so, the author is open about his personal journey from dispensationalism, via Calvinism, to a more Christ-centred position, and how that has altered his approach to such issues.

He looks frankly at the brutal, genocidal passages in the Old Testament, concluding that God never commanded them, even though his people at the time thought he did. From there, it’s a short step to a critique of PSA (penal substitutionary atonement), where God allegedly killed Jesus, using violence to achieve his ends, and to a different (and now widely accepted) understanding of God’s ‘wrath’. In all this, he leans heavily on patristics (the church leaders of the first few centuries, and their hermeneutics), lamenting the fact that modern evangelicalism tends to ignore almost everything between Paul and Martin Luther.

In addressing his theme, Jersak anticipates the objections that some readers will interject, and he deals with them thoroughly, and with grace. These include charges of supercessionism, eisegesis and the ‘spiritualising’ or ‘over-allegorising’ of Scripture.

In addition to rejecting the ‘flat reading’ of the Bible associated with modern concepts of inerrancy, he questions the ‘progressive revelation’ approach. Instead, he prefers ‘progressive illumination’—spelling out the differences and making a good case for it. He also looks with favour on the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament), which was the version of the OT used by the NT writers. He illustrates how it often undercuts evangelical ideas like God punishing Jesus at Calvary (see the LXX of Isaiah 53:10).

He looks in detail at some literary features of the Bible often overlooked, such as allegory, ‘myth’, rhetoric, diatribe, phenomenology and anthropomorphism, with examples of each. He maintains that without some grasp of how the NT writers, in particular, used these stylistic devices, we cannot hope to get a clear understanding of what they are saying.

Evangelicals have tended to look down on church calendar-based practices revolving round liturgy and the lectionary. Jersak makes a strong case for a return to such approaches as guarantees that we get a rounded picture of God’s redemptive purpose instead of just pecking around the Bible for an interesting sermon-topic or a ‘blessed thought’.

To the huge current discussion about the nature of the Bible this book brings a helpful contribution. It’s not an easy bedtime read, but the effort of working your way through it will be a worthwhile challenge.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

When we stand firm on Scripture’s central revelation—that Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, is what God finally says about himself—biblicism (the notion that the Bible is our final authority) presents a thousand objections in the form of contrary biblical proof texts.  (p20)

Reading the whole Bible as a testimony of Jesus and as the grand narrative of redemption will require us to revisit our patterns of interpretation and layers of reading—attending to the literal, moral, and spiritual sense described by the early church.  (p24)

The Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. And when he was about eighteen years old, he grew a beard.  (p26)

The Word is a person. The confusion or conflation of inspired texts with the eternal Son of God is deeply problematic, especially when the Bible displaces Christ as the “Word of God” and “Scripture alone” becomes our “sole and final authority” instead of him.  (p27)

When I reoriented from Bible to Christ as the locus of the Word of God, Scripture became my map—or an inspired compass—rather than my destination, its authors, narrators, and events all employed by God’s Spirit, directing me to pursue the Person.  (p36)

…the difference between reading the Bible as a flat text (where every word has equal authority), progressive revelation (where all the words accumulate in a crescendo of consistent truth), and the Christocentric view (where Christ is the pinnacle of revelation, and every word must finally submit to him).  (p38)

[Re Numbers chapter 31]  Could the Abba Jesus revealed say, “Wipe out the foreigners. Take their women and sort them into virgins and nonvirgins”? (Who checked? How?) “Slaughter the nonvirgins and keep the virgins for yourself. But tithe a tenth of them to the Levites for their use”? (What use?)  (p39)

Following N. T. Wright and others, I no longer capitalize satan. Brian Zahnd says “the satan” is less than a person, more than a metaphor. It is the real phenomenon of evil, rooted in human sin, and verges on self-awareness. Most importantly, the satan phenomenon is undone by Love.  (p42)

“You mean in Eastern Orthodox churches you don’t have to believe in penal substitution?” I asked, hopeful.  “No, I mean in the Orthodox church you are required not to believe in it,” he replied firmly, adding, “And there are 350 million of us who have never believed it.”  (p49)

Once PSA fell, every doctrine related to divine retribution began to topple in turn. If God truly is Love in his essential nature, the necessity of eternal conscious torment, acts of divine genocide, and literalist interpretations of wrath fall too.  (p50)

I read 1 Samuel 15 to Vladika and asked him how the Abba whom Jesus Christ revealed as perfect love and unfailing mercy could possibly issue such a command. Without hesitation, he replied, “He didn’t.” I countered, “But the Bible says he did.” He parried with these surprising words: “No, these are the words of Samuel, a cantankerous old bigot who would not let go of his prejudice, projecting his own malice, unforgiveness, and need for vengeance into the mouth of Yahweh.”  (p51)

What the Bible calls “God’s wrath” is a metaphor for the self-induced consequences or intrinsic judgment of our own turning from Perfect Love.  (p52)

I am especially taken with Pete Enns’s “Christotelic” interpretation, which is why I asked him to explain it in the foreword to this book. In fact, he’s answered one of my most bewildering questions in one sentence: Why does the Bible contain so many bizarre, offensive, and un-Christlike depictions of God? Pete’s answer: “Because God let his children tell the story.”  (p53)

How you see the Bible changes your relationship with it. As I keep insisting, Christ gets the final word, and the Scriptures testify to his authority. I relate to Christ as God’s Word and to the Bible as one (and not the only) venue where I can hear the living Voice.  (p57)

I personally receive the Scriptures as authoritative insofar as they testify to Jesus. But I don’t see them making authoritative claims on matters of history, science, or even religion (e.g., I don’t submit myself to the purity laws of Leviticus). Rather, I ask, “How are the Law and Prophets not abolished but fulfilled in Jesus?” I let the authors say what they say on their own terms and then ask what the message is saying to me about Christ, his gospel, and his call for me to grow in love, by grace, toward God and my neighbors.  (p72)

The canon of faith was established by Christ and his apostles from the beginning, but the canon of Scripture has always been hotly contested. In fact, the canon of Scripture differs from Protestant to Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to Coptic Orthodox to Ethiopian Orthodox and beyond…to this day!…  The ecumenical councils felt it essential to be led by the infallible Holy Spirit to remember the gospel and articulate it infallibly in the first creeds—even before they finalized what books were canonical.  (p74)

[Re 2 Cor 3:5-18]  The veils are not only being removed from our own hearts as we read Scripture. Over the millennia, veil upon veil has been progressively removed within the Bible itself. That is, the authors who produced the Scriptures by the Spirit were themselves subject to temporal veils. Their veils glorified tribalism and nativism, militarism and violence, racism and misogyny, imperial and colonial ambition, and so on. Just like us!  (p79)

Prior even to opening the scrolls, the famous rabbi Philo understood that God is all-good and all-merciful. That understanding became his first interpretive principle. It predetermined how Scripture was to be understood and applied. Where God is portrayed as good, Philo instructs us to read that as a revelation of the good God. Where God is not portrayed as good, he instructs us to read allegorically, because we must never allow a literalist interpretation to negate our understanding of God’s goodness.  (p89)

I would suggest that the liturgical reading of the Scriptures in the context of community worship and the lectionary cycles, with its connections of linked texts, provided an essential medium for understanding the message that preceded the Bible—an understanding that is not as obvious in the printed version. In other words, the “divine liturgy” of the church is a medium that functions to frame the Scriptures within the canon of faith—the message of the gospel—showing how they work together within the drama of redemption that inexorably points to Christ crucified and risen. So, too, the lectionary cycles: these frame the Scriptures within the church calendar precisely in order to lead us to Christ and his gospel.  (p94)

I have often seen people, through a flat reading of the Bible, use particular Scriptures to argue against the very teachings of Jesus Christ, justifying from the idolized text that which the Word himself forbade. When the Bible becomes our final authority, Jesus is demoted to a mere episode in the Good Book.  (p95)

The next time you make eye contact with another human being, look through their eyes to the depths of their heart, to the treasure that is their true self, and then look to the deep joy of Christ’s adoring gaze. Leave behind the worm theology that judges another person’s deepest heart as deceitful and desperately wicked. Value them as you would a priceless gem—because Jesus did.  (p103)

When you compare translations side by side, the question is NOT necessarily which one best represents the first manuscripts, but which one best represents the gospel.  (p108)

[Quoting David Bentley Hart]  Fundamentalist literalism is a modern heresy, one that breaks from Christian practice with such violence as to call into question whether those who practice it are still truly obedient to the apostolic faith at all.  (p112)

Biblical literalism and inerrancy predetermine limits on what the Bible cannot do or say before even reading the text or allowing it to speak for itself. The result is an unwitting assault on the authority of Scripture, which itself is subordinate to Christ the Word. Inerrancy, then, is a modernist ideal that stands over Scripture (and over Christ!), attempting to master the text—to dissect it with the scalpel of literalism.  (p113)

We’ve learned that the Epistles are more than propositional teachings and ethical letters. Ben Witherington III and David deSilva have helped us to see these New Testament Epistles as sermons, written to be preached and crafted by masters of first-century rhetoric.  (p122)

The early masters of Scripture such as Origen in the East and Jerome in the West were simply following Jesus’s own hermeneutic and training us to emulate our Master-Teacher. And while literalists are skittish of allegory, Jesus makes it necessary for an Emmaus-Way interpretation. Contrary to my training, early church fathers didn’t come up with allegorical interpretation—Jesus and his apostolic successors were already adept at using and modeling it to unveil the gospel.  (p134)

Many disillusioned Christians, embittered ex-Evangelicals, and haughty New Atheists denigrate the Bible in the easiest possible way: they continue to read it as fundamentalist literalists—then use their misinterpretation of the sacred Scriptures against it as ammunition.  (p135)

Yes, I believe Jesus actually performed a wedding miracle in Cana, met with Nicodemus under the stars, and sat with a Samaritan woman who had been divorced five times. And I also believe the water-to-wine miracle is a parable of our transformation, that Nicodemus’s born-again transformation and the Samaritan woman’s inner spring are stories about us. I am/we are the morphing water. I am/we are Nicodemus. I am/we are the Samaritan. I am/we are the woman caught in adultery, and the blind man, rescued and healed by Christ. This dual reality of history and allegory is what Lewis meant by “true myth.”  (p151)

We can be liberal in saying, “I see Christ foreshadowed here,” without claiming, “God told me this verse means that.” This is not an “anything goes” hermeneutic. Rather, we’re reading with an open ear for intimations of the gospel itself within the Scriptures.  (p159)

A great many details of our sacred text still surprise and bewilder me. I can’t get my head around great chunks of it. But I trust that God is good, that Jesus is Lord, and that the unsearchable ways I read about are riches to be cherished. For me, being stumped has become an invitation to worship and to perpetual discovery.  (p168)

Hosea is one of our clearest revelations of the radical freedom of God to forgive sin without punishment, payment, sacrifice, or even repentance.  (p174)

[Re Deuteronomy 20-21]  I know Christians who are so hateful to Muslims that if I showed them this passage and said it was from the Qur’an, they would not hesitate to condemn and burn it. But if it’s in the Bible? Does the binding and title on the book suddenly make it defensible?  (p183)

The average Christian is now less biblically literate, and the average atheist is significantly more biblically aware, now than in the twentieth century.  (p190)

Worship precedes theology, often by several decades. As we experience the presence of God in prayer and worship, we begin to compose liturgies and songs that express what we have come to see. Eventually, theologians become observant and follow suit. Teachers may begin to confirm the implications of what the congregation has already been singing and praying (which is to say, believing) over the past decades. Ironically, the first generation of these teachers are often regarded as heretical, sometimes even by the very congregants who spawned the original revelation.  (p191)

The Bible is a revelation about us and about God. What the Bible reveals about the fallen human condition is our “sin.” This includes the depth of our “death anxiety,” the nature of “mimetic desire” and the “scapegoating mechanism,” and our human propensity to demand retributive justice and then sacralize retribution through sacrificial religion.  (p196)

[Re the book of Job]  Would the story have been better if we had simply skipped the first thirty-one chapters? After all, God himself tells us that virtually everything to that point was folly! Then why not just delete it? Why fill our minds with flaws? I used to flip right to the “good stuff” in Job until I started seeing how “good” the foolish counsel seemed to me. Some of it appears to make good sense. Exactly! The important function of the friends’ speeches is to shine a light on our own idiocy. The friends’ speeches are an inspired revelation of our own error, not a divine thumbs-up to their error.  (p203)

When we read the psalmist’s blessing on infanticide in Psalm 137:9, no sane person who has experienced the Father’s love honestly believes this is a revelation of God’s will. We know instinctively that we have here a revelation of the psalmist’s real but misguided demand for justice.  (p204)

We ought to bear in mind that just like Abraham, Moses, and David, so too the apostles of Christ and the authors of the New Testament were people in the process of transformation and discovery, not omniscient angels with magical pens. Their works, too, reveal both the human condition and faith culture of their era…and the divine solution—Jesus Christ, to whom all Scripture (before and after) points.  (p208)

We have often imagined that when we disobey a divine warning, God, rather than our own disobedience, becomes the threat and the source of harm. We confuse the wages of sin (intrinsic consequences) with the wrath (violent anger) of God.  (p221)

God deals with sin through correction, not punishment. That’s Clement, that’s Hebrews, that’s Hosea. The chastisements of God are disciplinary—not because divine justice demands satisfaction, payback, or wrath, but because a patient God is raising beloved children who tend to learn the hard way.  (p226)

I would argue that the number one genre error in biblical interpretation occurs when we mistake epistles for straightforward didactic teaching when, in fact, they are rhetorical sermons, designed to be preached aloud in the congregation.  (p233)

[Re Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats]  We literalize the parable into an eschatology. And since we can’t work out why the criterion of judgment is mercy rather than faith in Christ, we sit around reworking our end-times timeline instead of welcoming the stranger or visiting those who are sick and in prison.  (p244)

The Bible says God DOES change his mind. Some examples are Exodus 32:12–14; 2 Samuel 24:16; Jeremiah 18:8–10; 26:13, 19; 42:10; Ezekiel 7:22; Jonah 3:9–10; 4:2; and Amos 7:3–6. The Bible also says God DOESN’T change his mind. Examples: Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Isaiah 31:2; 2 Corinthians 1:19; and James 1:17. Does the Bible contradict itself? Yes, these verses are contradictory if we read them literally. If we forget to account for worldviews and phenomenology…  (p251)

What, then, shall we say to those texts that announce God’s wrath? I argue that to avoid regressing to pagan images of God, we must read them as anthropomorphisms—i.e., figures of speech projecting human characteristics onto God.  (p254)

It’s not as though God is some heartless Stoic in the sky or the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle’s philosophy. No, God is LOVE. And God is relational and responsive to us—infinitely so. It’s just that God’s love is not reactive, subject to or contingent upon our drama, shame, or performance. Rather, God’s love flows as the infinite, constant, and unfailing spring of his own nature. Does God grieve with us and rejoice with us? The incarnation reveals God’s limitless empathy. Yes, God sympathizes with our weaknesses and knows the human condition from within—but not as one whose character (love/goodness) is jerked around by external forces.  (p266)

These patristic giants defined orthodoxy and defended it against some of the same heresies that pass themselves off as mainstream Christianity today. Their dogmatic teaching on the Christlike God of unswerving goodness and cruciform love is the gospel through which all Scripture must be read. I commend them to you as the pinnacle of biblical interpretation, without whom we would have no Bible at all.  (p268)

I see the deconstructionists exiting their churches and walking away from faith by the tens of millions. One reason for this is that they’ve been indoctrinated with false images of who God is and what God requires. The wrathful God who threatened to burn them in hell forever if they don’t believe right or behave right is not the Abba whom Jesus revealed—not the gracious and gentle Shepherd who descends into hades to rescue lost sheep, who are too entangled in briars to find their way home.   (p271)

The parable of the prodigal son(s) is the clearest picture we have of what wrath is, how it works, what causes it, and how it is and isn’t “God’s.” The Prodigal Son woke up in a pigpen of his own making and came to his senses. The father did not send him there. Were his days or years or life of misery literally God’s wrath (anger expressed as violence)? No. But his trials were transformed by God’s grace into the big story of the son’s redemption.  (p274)

My reviews of other books by Brad Jersak:

  • A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel – here
  • Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope and the New Jerusalem – here

Open and Relational Theology

30 July 2021

Among thinking people today there appears to be a huge surge of interest in what is commonly called ‘open and relational theology’. But what is it? One of its foremost exponents answers that question in:

Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas by Thomas J. Oord (SacraSage, 2021).

The book is aimed at ordinary people—and not all of them Christians. So it grounds its message in painful real-scenarios experienced by folk like you and me: a girl raped by friends from church; queries about God’s ‘sovereign plan’ and how it gels with human free will; misgivings about hell as traditionally portrayed; questions about why God answers so few prayers etc.

Surveys show that most people believe God to be in one of four broad categories: authoritative (a sovereign judge who punishes the disobedient), benevolent (empathetic and forgiving), distant (remote and uninvolved) or critical (disengaged now, but will judge at the end), and the book examines each of these in depth. It recognises that we can’t claim to know God in detail, because he is beyond human analysis. Yet he has given certain pointers to his nature.

Oord examines the ‘conventional’ God’s traits and finds them wanting. He then presents open and relational theology as in every way more satisfying, beginning with ‘God is love’. People come to it because it fits with the flow of Scripture, it harmonises with the logic of love, it is intuitive to the seeking heart, it matches the findings of social science and the way we relate in society, it reflects the life and teaching of Jesus, it echoes the findings of science and philosophy, it sits comfortably with trends in art and creativity, and it provides a framework for believing that our lives have meaning and purpose.

Against this background, he describes open and relational theology in some depth under the broad headings that God is: open, relational, ‘amipotent’, present and loving. This is the beating heart of the book, with much to stir both mind and emotions.

The author does not use ‘proof texts’, because he aims to include readers for whom Scripture may not carry a lot of weight. Nor does he use much theologically technical vocabulary, and when he does he explains it in simple terms. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to grasp the message: it is heart-warmingly accessible to all, and has the ring of truth about it.

For those who want to dig deeper, there is a useful appendix listing some scholars and movements that have embraced some form of open and relational theology, followed by a bibliography suggesting further reading. But you will probably be more than satisfied, and blessed, by this book itself!

Here’s a selection of quotations, with Kindle location numbers.

These ideas align with our deepest intuitions and everyday experiences. They match scripture well, although we must abandon some interpretations people have offered.  (30)

Without believable answers to life’s pressing questions, theology is of little use.  (191)

I believe an open and relational view of God makes the most sense overall. But I’m not certain. I don’t know God fully, so I can’t be 100% sure. I look at reality through limited and sometimes distorted lenses, which means my vision is cloudy. I just don’t know for sure. Open and relational thinkers can’t prove their view is the right one.  (251)

The conventional God exists above or outside time…  is usually thought of as masculine…  God is unaffected by what we do…  is in control…  is large and in charge…  is pristine…  usually keeps a distance, preoccupied with His own glory…  Our actions don’t make a difference to the future that the conventional God already knows as fact…  loves some people, sometimes…  I don’t believe in this God.  (280ff)

It’s common for open and relational thinkers to start with “God is love” as they consider theology, their lives, and existence.  (334)

Open and relational theology offers a framework to make sense of God in light of Jesus.  (375)

Artists and the artistically minded find open and relational theology attractive for how it fits their vision of the creative life.  (389)

The “open” in open and relational theology refers to the ongoing nature of time. Creation and Creator experience time moment by moment with no preordained future.  (434)

If we examine our own experiences, we’ll discover we already live as if the future is open. We live in the forward march of time and experience a relentless flow into the sea of possibilities. We think our decisions partly decide what will be, and already live as if these opportunities are a reality…  God experiences the flow of time too. The past is past for God, and not even God can change it. The present is present, and the future is open.  (449)

In the sacred texts of Christianity and Judaism, writers describe God responding to creation or deciding to do something new. These are time-oriented activities, not timeless ones.  (463)

A God who faces an open future can’t predestine everything. If God pre-decided it all, the future would be closed. This God ordained everything in advance, including torture, rape, disease, tragedy, accidents, violence, and ecological destruction.  (491)

Open and relational thinkers reject the idea that God knows in advance everything that will ever happen. We think God has plans and purposes, and God knows what might happen. But God can’t be certain about what free creatures will decide or what random events will occur until those decisions have been made or events happen…  If God foreknows all, freedom, love, and randomness are myths.  (505)

Does open and relational theology reject what scholars call “omniscience?” Is God not all-knowing? No. God knows everything. Open and relational thinkers say God knows all that can be known. God knows all that happened in the past, all that’s happening in the present, and all possibilities for the future.  (535)

Conventional theologies focus on scripture passages that say God never changes but cannot account for those saying God changes. And those passages are common…  God’s essence is eternally unchanging; it’s stable and steadfast. But God’s experience changes moment by moment; it’s flexible and forming.  (579)

My prayers become new data, pertinent information, relational input, and points of possibility that God can use in the next moments. My prayers are actions that generate new options.  (653)

Whether one relies on scripture, arguments, or intuition, open and relational thought provides a sense of freedom. Those who embrace it step outside confining categories, able to explore a way that reflects their experience of reality. Many feel invigorated. God seems more like a companion. Life seems expansive. Reality becomes a pulsing, living movement into possibilities. Life is open!  (682)

No human or pet connects with us perfectly, and none can feel all our pain. But a God who is always present, in all places, and in all aspects of our minds and bodies can and does empathize in ways that surpass any empathy we receive from others.  (758)

God is concerned about each creature, each entity, and the world. God shows concern without playing favorites. God also gives and receives in relationship like persons do. As one with intentions, plans, memories, and purposes, God is a personal agent. This meaning of “personal” makes sense.  (815)

Open and relational thinkers believe God experiences emotions without thinking those emotions lead to moral meltdowns. God relates intimately with creation and feels all that’s publicly feelable. But God’s emotions never lead to evil.  (830)

In our moment-by-moment experiences, we all make free choices. That’s non-negotiable. Even those who say they’re not free act as if they are.  (995)

Saying freedom or something like it extends to the tiniest things allows open and relational thinkers to say God never controls cells, atoms, or even the simplest entities of existence. Creation includes free processes.2 That helps when explaining evil.  (1040)

Open and relational theology doesn’t rise or fall on the question of free will among quarks and amoebae. But it insists humans and other creatures act freely, although freedom is always limited. Most say free will is a gift from a gracious God who desires loving relationships.  (1054)

While “love” doesn’t sit alongside “open” and “relational” in this theology’s title, open and relational thinkers emphasize it. And most conceive of God’s power in the light of love. An open and relational God exerts open and relational power. God doesn’t predetermine or singlehandedly decide all that happens but works with others in the ongoing adventure of life. As an actor, God convinces other actors who have power to co-labor.  (1068)

God can’t control, because uncontrolling love comes first in God’s unchanging nature. Because God can’t deny the divine nature, God can’t control anyone or anything.  (1123)

God is neither impotent nor omnipotent but what I call “amipotent.” I coined this word by combining the Latin word for power — “potent” — with a Latin prefix for love — “ami.”  (1137)

An amipotent God is active, but not a dictator. Amipotence is receptive but not overwhelmed. It engages without domineering, is generous but not pushy, and invites without monopolizing. Amipotence is divine strength working positively at all times and places.  (1151)

God doesn’t cause evil or control others. And God doesn’t permit evil for some greater good. Consequently, the open and relational God isn’t guilty of failing to stop the pointless pain and unnecessary suffering we endure.  (1191)

God acts to empower, inspire, and lure others in each moment. This is constructive activity on God’s part, because it makes a real difference to creation. As creatures respond, their actions are creative too.  (1284)

Most open and relational thinkers believe the scientific consensus that our universe is billions of years old. They affirm the development of complex life through a lengthy evolutionary process. But they say this process involves more than chance, genetic mutations, and natural selection. Creatures respond to their environments in self-organizing and self-causal ways. Symbiotic relations emerge and ideas pass through cultural forces that influence evolution’s course. And God works in the process as a real creating contributor.  (1311)

If we take seriously our role as co-creators with our Creator, we will live in particular ways. We no longer see ourselves as passive observers, drifting along without contributing to the world. No longer do we accept harmful practices in land management and animal care, for instance. No longer do we sit paralyzed as climate change alters our world for the worse.  (1340)

If we polled open and relational thinkers, I suspect many would say the second most important divine attribute (after love) is God’s universal and experiential presence.  (1405)

Creatures can be in the divine experience without altering the divine nature. Creaturely sin — lust, killing, cheating, and more — can affect God’s experience without altering God’s perfect love.  (1451)

Open and relational thinkers also think big when it comes to atonement. God doesn’t pre-decide that some people go to heaven and others roast in hell. All are invited to a loving relationship. No one is irredeemable. God cares about saving animals and creation too, because God loves everyone and everything.  (1494)

I know of no open and relational thinker who believes God sends people to eternal conscious torment. In other words, they reject the traditional idea of hell. The idea that God sends people to eternal punishment not only contradicts steadfast love, it also has little if any scriptural support.  (1564)

Theoretically, some people, even in the afterlife, may never say “yes” to God. But the steadfast love of God continues inviting them, moment by moment, everlastingly. Consequently, the idea of relentless love provides plausible grounds to believe all will eventually cooperate.  (1591)

I earlier listed reasons many embrace open and relational theology. Those reasons point to its usefulness, truthfulness, experiential fit, consonance with scripture, alignment with science, and more. I embrace them all. But the biggest reason I adopt open and relational theology is… LOVE! In my opinion, open and relational thought provides the best overall framework for understanding and promoting love.  (1612)

Augustine’s God is a complete narcissist. The very heart of how I understand the gospel — that God loves me, you, and all creation in the sense of wanting our salvation/well-being — collapses in Augustine’s logic.  (1669)

If we fail to answer love’s call, God doesn’t retaliate. An open and relational God keeps no record of wrongs and condemns the payback of eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Natural negative consequences come from saying no to love, but God doesn’t dish out those consequences. They’re naturally rendered within the situation. Unlike the God of many conventional theologies, the Faithful Forgiver in open and relational thought doesn’t run a retribution racket.  (1702)

Bad theology expressed in a kind way is still bad theology.  (1781)

Few conventional theologies focus on love or let it be their guide. Most start with God’s power, a sacred book, an ancient creed, particular religious experiences, or a doctrinal issue. Problems follow. Even though Jesus says love is the greatest command, Paul says the greatest of the virtues is love, and John says God is love, few theologies follow their lead.  (1796)

Some say God wants to teach us a lesson by causing or allowing tragedy or abuse. Others say evil is part of a divine plan, mysteriously working for some incomprehensible good. Some say those who suffer are being punished, getting what’s due to them. And others simply appeal to mystery: God’s ways are not our ways. If these were the only answers available, atheism would make better sense!  (1908)

Open and relational thinkers believe God gives and receives in relation to creation. That’s relational. Both God and creatures experientially move into an open future. That’s open.  (2039)

My reviews of other books by Thomas Jay Oord on related topics are:

  • God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse and Other Evils: here
  • Q & A on God Can’t: here
  • The Uncontrolling Love of God: here

Life’s like this

14 July 2021

Hymns have been part of my world since childhood. Now, aged 80, my mental hard disk has a huge store of them. I know the words of scores of hymns by heart, and bring them to mind from time to time to express what I’m experiencing of life, and to use as prayers.

The best ones are like a stock cube that we use for flavouring a casserole or making gravy: a meaty concentration of flavour and goodness. Every word counts, often with a hint of further biblical allusions. Here’s one I love, dating from the nineteenth century but as flavoursome as ever:

Father, hear the prayer we offer.
Not for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.

Not for ever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be,
But the steep and rugged pathway
May we tread rejoicingly.

Not forever by still waters
Would we idly rest and stay,
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.

Be our strength in hours of weakness,
In our wanderings be our guide.
Through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be thou at our side.

The author, Love Maria Willis, skilfully weaves together two Old Testament themes and applies them to the daily life of the Christian. The first is the well-known ‘green pastures…still waters’ imagery of Psalm 23, where the psalmist rejoices in the divine shepherd’s care, God graciously enabling him to graze and drink in peace.

The second is a contrasting picture: the saga of Israel’s forty years of wanderings after they escaped slavery in Egypt and headed through the desert to the Promised Land, facing many struggles on the way.

Verse 1 begins the prayer with an admission that this duality is how it is for all of us in life: periods of both calm and stress. It recognises that constant peace and calm is too much to expect. Inevitably we will face challenges. In that case, let’s ask our heavenly Father to give us strength to face those challenges, when they come, with courage.

Verse 2 concedes that life in the ‘green pastures’ is delightful, but we can’t expect to lounge there every day. Like the Israelites in the desert of Sinai, we will be called to tackle many a ‘steep and rugged pathway’. We will be sweating and out of breath. So let’s ask Father to help us tackle those rough stretches with a glad heart and a positive outlook—’rejoicingly’.

Verse 3 takes the same line, but in ‘still waters’ imagery. While it’s pleasant resting by the lakeside, with a drink of water available whenever we feel the need, life’s journey will take us at times through a desert’s drought conditions. We will be desperate for a cooling drink. It was in such conditions that Moses, Israel’s leader, called upon the Lord, who commanded him to strike a rock with his staff, whereupon water flowed from it. We, too, can call on Father for miraculous provision in our own deserts.

Verse 4 pulls it all together and brings the prayer to a close. Yes, in our desert wanderings we will experience weakness, struggles (‘endeavour’), failure and danger. But we can call on the Lord to be ‘our guide’ through them all, and thus be confident of arriving safely in the Promised Land of his eternal kingdom.

It’s wonderful stuff. Simple, yet profound. Not a single wasted word. It has cheered and encouraged Christians for 150 years, and is set to keep going. Is it a new one to you? Perhaps it’s one to learn by heart and keep on your own mental hard disk for future retrieval?


Review: Posthumous salvation

24 June 2021

Do you believe in hell? If so, what kind? The fire and brimstone of Dante’s Inferno? Hell on earth in the form of war and genocide? Or what?

Of all the topics up for reconsideration by evangelical Christians, this one has risen to the top of the list in the last couple of decades—and not before time. ‘Rethinking Hell’ conferences have taken place on several continents, and a swathe of books have tackled the subject. This is one of them. It is:

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak (Wipf & Stock, 2009).

The author is a scholar in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He examines the biblical data against its cultural background in astonishing detail, concluding that there are solid grounds for hope that, in the end, everyone will respond to the love of God. The book’s title, of course, comes from the closing chapters of the Bible where, even after the ‘final judgment’, the city of God, the New Jerusalem, stands with its gates wide open, and the invitation to all who are thirsty to come and drink is still being issued.

Jersak has a good grasp of church history, from which he explains the changing views of hell that have marked different periods within it. On the way, he tackles in depth the meaning of the various Hebrew and Greek terms that English versions translate as ‘hell’. He does so within the framework of the three major positions, which he labels infernalism (eternal conscious torment), annihilationism (the wicked will eventually cease to exist) and universalism (all will be saved). He himself refuses to be pressed into any of these moulds, but expresses hope that the third one will be how it pans out.

Don’t attempt this book if you fancy a light read. Such is its degree of detail that it is, in the best sense, heavy. But could dealing in depth with a topic of such seriousness be anything else?

Here are some quotations, with page numbers.

As a sensitive little boy raised in the evangelical church, I was a horrified but Bible-convinced infernalist.  (p2)

Many or even most Christians across the church spectrum are still convinced that to be a good, Bible-believing Christian, they must accept a hell of eternal, conscious torment.  (p4)

The stubborn fact is that Scripture is richly polyphonic on the topic of hell and judgment—as if by design. Thus, if we become dogmatic about any one position, we reduce ourselves to reading selectively or doing interpretive violence to those verses that don’t fit our chosen view.  (p6)

Rather than painting themselves into universalist or infernalist corners, a great many of the Church Fathers and early Christians found refuge in the humility of hope. They maintained the possibility (not the presumption) of some version of judgment and hell and the twin possibility (not presumption) that at the end of the day, no one need suffer it forever.  (p8)

Rather than acknowledge the variety of terms, images, and concepts that the Bible uses for divine judgment, the KJV translators opted to combine them all under the single term ‘hell’.  (p15)

Each of the terms most commonly translated as ‘hell’ in our English translations—Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus—all share one thing in common: a potential terminus. That is, the biblical writers declare a definite end to each.  (p17)

The words that we’ve translated as ‘eternal punishment’ and ‘torment’ require close attention, because they are words used unblushingly by the Jesus of the Gospels.  (p28)

Our understanding—or misunderstanding—of the Gehenna tradition(s) shapes our view of hell and judgment… two distinct Gehenna traditions developed within Judaism.  (p34)

Building on N.T. Wright’s work, we can now see that Jesus’ ‘Little Apocalypse’ (Mark 13) functioned as an immediate prophetic warning concerning Jerusalem rather than an eschatological prophecy in the traditional sense. Jesus was not describing the culmination of the universe.  (p58)

Unfortunately, Christian tradition, theology, and translation followed the apocryphal reading of Gehenna rather than the biblical tradition of Jeremiah and Jesus.  (p64)

We ought to note the irony and incongruence of the Church utilizing the very place where God became violently offended by the literal burning of children as our primary metaphor for a final and eternal burning of God’s wayward people in literal flames.  (p65)

Wherever the judged are finally assigned, the spectrum of possibilities warrants pause to those who presume to know its precise nature. It’s not that we have too little revelation on the matter. Rather, the Bible includes too many possibilities to allow for simplistic dogmatism… Our habit is to dismiss the plain teaching of certain texts as not meaning what they say, because they don’t fit the scheme upon which we have already settled.  (p68)

The Eastern Orthodox Church has long regarded hell subjectively, as an existential experience. But rather than a question of inclusion and exclusion, they conceive of heaven and/or hell as two experiences of the same fire. To their way of thinking, God is the fire that we experience as either a blessing or a torment.  (p77)

When referring to ‘the lake of burning sulfur,’ the book of Revelation is not speaking of a traditional post-death hell. John was warning believers that Jerusalem is facing the end of the world as they know it. Armageddon is coming (the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70) for both Jerusalem and her attackers. Their judgment will be to share in the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, as prophesied in the OT.  (p95)

I do not like what I read in the Bible about divine judgment—especially from the mouth of Jesus. Frankly, I worry about those who do. But I am unwilling to discard biblical orthodoxy in favor of some fluffy, self-made spirituality that comforts me with lies.  (p96)

The above texts [John 12:31-32; Romans 5:18-19; Romans 11:32, 36; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28; Philippians 2:9-11; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:15-19; 1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 4:9-10] insist that Christ’s saving, forgiving, reconciling work predates any response on our part. A faith-response is not treated as a way to become saved but rather as a response of hopeful gratitude to Christ’s saving work.  (p109)

Each group says to the other, my verse outweighs yours. Your truth is conditioned by mine.  (p112)

A good number of early Christians saw no contradiction in hoping that non-Christians could also be saved posthumously, if necessary.  (p119)

God deals with sin through correction, not punishment. That’s Clement, that’s Hebrews, that’s Hosea. The chastisements of God are disciplinary: not because divine justice demands satisfaction (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo), payback, or wrath (Calvin, penal satisfaction), but because God is raising beloved children who tend to learn the hard way.  (p122)

Origen…became known for his teaching on apokatastasis from Acts 3:20–21: ‘And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: whom heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things (apokatastaseos panton).’ Apokatastasis is a theological extrapolation of the final phrase in verse twenty-one. It is the doctrine of ultimate redemption that believes a time will come when all things (the whole cosmos) will be saved by grace.  (p123)

We have a lineage of biblical prophets, Jesus, his apostles, and early church patristics who held forth the real expectation of a fiery judgment of purification—corrective, cleansing, and healing in nature—often identified as the glory and love of God himself.  (p126)

Both the Eastern Orthodox and the Anglican Communion pray for the dead and have theologies of an intermediate state. Yet they resist the term ‘purgatory’, because they do not subscribe to Rome’s old definition. Beyond that, Rome has changed its doctrine of purgatory substantially from the time of Augustine to Benedict XVI.  (p135)

‘He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Phil 1:6). What? Unless we die first? Or even thereafter?  (p141)

Since the fourth century, via the Reformers and the Revivalists, the Western Church and its Evangelical wing have inherited Augustine’s infernalism as the only biblical view of judgment and hell, typically writing off the early universalist Fathers as heretical and their modern proponents as liberal. But the infernalist doctrine that cured like concrete over the centuries has begun to crumble.  (p142)

The issue at this point becomes free will. We need, even with tongue in cheek, to preserve the possibility that in our humanity one can behold the love of Christ in all its fullness and still reject it. I say tongue in cheek, because it seems to me that absolutely everything in us that says ‘no’ to perfect love and eternal salvation is not based in freedom but in bondage. When every deception and every wound and every worldly, fleshly, and demonic chain has been removed, I hope and expect that the truly free will shall always answer the call with a resounding ‘Yes!’  (p146)

Those who oppose preterism read John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21–22 as belonging exclusively to the next age, following Christ’s glorious return—that is, until I express my joy that the gates of the city are always open and that the Bride is still inviting the thirsty ones in. At this point, anti-preterists often cut and paste the text out of the next age into our evangelistic present.  (p160)

Don’t think of the world versus heaven in terms of now versus then (consecutive ages) or as here versus there (dual dimensions). Rather, Babylon (the world system) and New Jerusalem (the heavenly system) are two coexistent realities constantly competing for our allegiance.  (p163)

The excluded…are at first seen in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8) and then later outside the city (22:15). Have the damned been relocated? Or more likely, are the two images synonymous?… Remember Gehenna’s location (Isaiah 66:24): Gehenna is the loathsome place of fire and destruction in the valley just outside the city where the dead bodies of the cursed are burned. The lake of fire (condemnation) is adjacent to the city walls.  (p170)

So much of the activity we read about in Revelation 21–22 involves processes (invitation, cleansing, healing, entry) to which traditional theology has barred the door at death that it is tempting to either ignore or transplant these processes. If we don’t treat them as already realized eschatology, the Bible forces us to consider the possibility that the lost who perish still have hope of eternal life after the Day of the Lord.  (p180)

Many of the more radical Moravians were universalists!  (loc 3871)

If my faith depends on fear of punishment, what will happen to my faith when perfect love (Jesus) comes to cast it out? (1 John 4:18) If God thinks that fear of punishment is something to be ‘cast out’ like a demon, then our Gospel and our preaching better not rest on that foundation!  (loc 3897)


Review: Gay marriage

17 June 2021

In Christian circles, gay marriage is a current hot potato. Many evangelicals take the view that the Bible condemns homosexuality in every respect, and that’s the end of the matter. Others, including myself, would want to take a more nuanced view of the Bible and its interpretation, which might open the door to gay marriage. This book is in the latter category. It is

God and the Gay Christian—The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships by Matthew Vines (Convergent Books, 2014).

The author is a Christian with a high view of Scripture. He was raised by Christian parents, and realised he was gay when quite young. He tackles every aspect of the question with openness and integrity, including detailed analysis of the six key Bible passages. But he also addresses appeals to the larger narrative of Scripture. In fact you will be hard pressed to find any anti-homosexuality argument that he doesn’t face up to and examine in depth, and with grace.

In past generations, the church rejected the idea of a heliocentric solar system and accepted the legitimacy of slavery, both on the grounds of ‘the Bible says…’ It has rightly changed position on both those issues, and others. The whole homosexuality issue, the author maintains, is in the same category, for the same kind of reasons.

He concludes that God favours commitment and covenant in human relationships, and that the kind of commitment expressed in a same-sex marriage falls safely within that circle. If your initial reaction to this statement is to snort with derision, you are the very person this book is intended for.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

My core argument in this book is not simply that some Bible passages have been misinterpreted and others have been given undue weight. My larger argument is this: Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. (p3)

Homosexuality, to the limited extent it was discussed in our church, was little more than a political football, a quick test of orthodoxy.  (p8)

Six passages in the Bible—Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10—have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches.  (p11)

With most sins, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the damage they cause. Adultery violates a commitment to your spouse. Lust objectifies others. Gossip degrades people. But committed same-sex relationships didn’t fit this pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they were characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self-sacrifice. What other sin looked like that?  (p12)

Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians differs from any other kind of Christian self-denial, including involuntary celibacy for some straight Christians. Even when straight Christians seek a spouse but cannot find one, the church does not ask them to relinquish any future hope of marriage.  (p17)

Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forebears or for the authority of Scripture. They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered.  (p24)

The trouble starts when we put names, faces, and outcomes to what the traditional interpretation means in practice.  (p28)

For the overwhelming majority of human history, homosexuality was not seen as a different sexual orientation that distinguished a minority of people from the heterosexual majority. It was considered instead to be a manifestation of normal sexual desire pursued to excess—a behavior anyone might engage in if he didn’t keep his passions in check.  (p31)

Prior to 1869, terms meaning “homosexual” and “homosexuality” didn’t exist in any language, and they weren’t translated into English until 1892.  (p40)

The new information we have about sexual orientation actually requires us to reinterpret Scripture no matter what stance we take on same-sex relationships.  (p42)

The account of Eve’s creation doesn’t emphasize Adam’s need to procreate. It emphasizes instead his need for relationship.  (p45)

For gay Christians, the challenge of mandatory celibacy goes far beyond their mere capacity to live it out. Mandatory celibacy corrodes gay Christians’ capacity for relationship in general. But it does something else equally harmful: by requiring gay Christians to view all their sexual desires as temptations to sin, it causes many of them to devalue, if not loathe, their bodies.  (p50)

Decades ago, biblical scholars on both sides of the issue dismissed the idea that homosexuality was the sin of Sodom. Yet that belief still pervades our broader cultural consciousness, fueling negative attitudes toward gay people among Christians and negative attitudes toward the Bible among gay people.  (p60)

No biblical writers suggested that the sin of Sodom was primarily or even partly engaging in same-sex behavior. That interpretation would only arise later, after originally being advanced by an influential Jew named Philo.  (p69)

The Old Testament doesn’t condemn either polygamy or concubinage. On the contrary, it often assumes them…  All this is to say that not all Old Testament sexual norms carry over to Christians.  (p84)

There’s no question that Romans 1:26–27 is the most significant biblical passage in this debate. It’s the longest reference to same-sex behavior in Scripture, and it appears in the New Testament.  (p96)

Paul’s description of same-sex behavior in this passage is indisputably negative. But he also explicitly described the behavior he condemned as lustful. He made no mention of love, fidelity, monogamy, or commitment.  (p99)

…the cultural context in which Paul’s original audience would have read Romans 1:26–27. Paul wasn’t condemning the expression of a same-sex orientation as opposed to the expression of an opposite-sex orientation. He was condemning excess as opposed to moderation.  (p105)

In the ancient world, if a man took the active role in sex, his behavior generally was deemed to be “natural.” But if he took the passive role, he was derided for engaging in “unnatural” sex. The opposite was true for women: sexual passivity was termed “natural,” while sexual dominance was “unnatural.”  (p108)

From the church’s early centuries through the nineteenth century, commentators consistently identified the moral problem in Romans 1:26–27 as “unbridled passions,” not the expression of a same-sex orientation. Furthermore, no biblical interpreter prior to the twentieth century even hinted that Paul’s statements were intended to consign a whole group of people to lifelong celibacy.  (p116)

The bottom line is this: The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sex orientation—or the expression of that orientation. While its six references to same-sex behavior are negative, the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation. What’s more, the main reason that non-affirming Christians believe the Bible’s statements should apply to all same-sex relationships—men and women’s anatomical complementarity—is not mentioned in any of the texts.  (p130)

Now that many of us recognize that same-sex orientation is both fixed and unchosen, we need to modify one of two Christian teachings: either the voluntary nature of lifelong celibacy or the scope of marriage.  (p134)

In Jesus’s understanding of marriage, covenantal commitment is foundational. The ability to bear children is not.  (p141)

Becoming “one flesh” encompasses much more than the act of sex. It includes the entire covenantal context in which God intends for sex to take place.  (p145)

Because same-sex orientation contains the potential for self-giving, covenantal love, it’s consistent with the image of God in us.  (p156)

If we tell people that their every desire for intimate, sexual bonding is shameful and disordered, we encourage them to hate a core part of who they were created to be. And if we reject the desires of gay Christians to express their sexuality within a lifelong covenant, we separate them from our covenantal God, and we tarnish their ability to bear his image.  (p158)

David Matthew note: My own journey towards being in favour of same-sex marriage is outlined in my free ebook, A Poke In The Faith, chapters 8 and 9. Chapter 8 sets out some principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), and Chapter 9 applies them to aspects of sexuality, specifically gay marriage. You can download the book for free here: Download ‘A Poke In the Faith’ (davidmatthew.org.uk)


Review: Wise angle on the Bible

1 June 2021

These days, many would say the biggest challenge facing evangelicalism is its no-longer tenable view of the Bible. One scholar after another has exposed the weaknesses in how most evangelicals treat it and has pointed to more sensible alternatives. This book comes in that category. It is

How The Bible Actually Works: In which I explain how an ancient, ambiguous, and diverse book leads us to wisdom rather than answers—and why that’s great news by Peter Enns (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).

This is Enns’s second book along these lines. The traditional ‘rule book’ approach to the Bible, he maintains, fails to take account of the fact that it is ‘ancient, ambiguous and diverse’. He outlines what he means by that, and how we need to adapt accordingly.

He proposes a ‘wisdom’ approach. That means looking at its varied, and often contradictory, messages and using Spirit-given wisdom to apply them sensibly to situations we face. After all, the Bible is all about Jesus, who ‘became for us wisdom from God’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). We should read it, then, intent on being wise in the way we interpret its broad guidelines. And these are broad indeed. Rarely do they come as unambiguous instructions but, instead, in a variety of forms requiring us to make choices.

The author has opted for an ‘amusing’ style for this book—presumably to broaden its appeal. For me it doesn’t work. I had the occasional smile, but most of the humour is anchored in American culture and thus, since I’m British, went over my head. A humorous style trivialises this serious topic anyway, I feel. That aside, it’s sound and thought-provoking stuff.

Enns illustrates ‘wisdom’ from the Book of Proverbs, showing how statements there flatly contradict each other—and that this is not a problem, because we are meant to exercise good sense in the way we apply the conflicting principles in everyday situations. He goes on to show, with many examples, how God’s laws, too, change and evolve with circumstances, requiring the same wisdom. The same feature marks the writings of the prophets of Israel.

Underlying the searching and insights of every past generation has been the question, ‘What is God like?’ The ancient Israelites could only express their conclusions within the limits of their time and culture, expressions mostly inappropriate for our own day. They saw him, for instance, as one god among many, and attributed to him the kind of violence typical of pagan deities of that era.

The most radical reimagining of God was triggered by the coming of Jesus, which forced Jews like Peter, John and Paul to stamp onto their ancient scriptures a whole new meaning. They honoured the tradition, but reworked it drastically to suit their new situation. Language featured in this. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the translators tweaked many a statement to make it fit their current situation better. And this modified document was the ‘Bible’ that the New Testament writers used and quoted.

The fact that we have four Gospels, not just one, and that they don’t match up, points to the need to bring a ‘wisdom’ approach to the life of Jesus. The same is true of the New Testament letters where, Paul, for instance, struggles to identify the exact relation between ‘the Law’ and the gospel. He tussled in the same way with the ‘temple’ and ‘land’ themes. His was a major ‘wisdom’ exercise as he sought to tie the story of Jesus to Israel’s tradition.

When it comes to ‘faith versus works’, Paul and James bring different emphases. How both can be ‘true’ is difficult to specify. But again, this is ‘wisdom’ territory, and what we emphasise will vary from one situation to another, depending on the need. And that, Enns maintains, is a good thing; it is how the Bible is meant to work.

Even the nature of the atonement retains a degree of open-endedness. Vicarious or substitutionary atonement was a newish idea by the start of the New Testament era, and the apostles applied it to the work of Jesus in a variety of ways, leaving us requiring wisdom in how we understand and apply it.

Enns looks at some contemporary applications of the ‘wisdom’ principle. One is how Christians should view Romans 13:1, which labels governmental authorities as instituted by God. Does that mean we should never criticise political leaders today? He suggests not! He goes on to show how the same principle might affect the perennial hot topics of slavery, the place of women in society and the church, and homosexuality.

He concludes by warning against getting stuck in any stage of the church’s past. The creeds, for all their value, were a staging point only. The Reformation did not mark the end-point of revelation. We are to honour the past, retain only what is of lasting value, and keep moving forward in wisdom.

I recommend this book as a key to help unlock evangelical Christians from the constrictions of a questionable attitude to the Bible. Were it not for the annoying ‘humour’ element, I would give it an ‘Outstanding Book’ rating.

Here are some quotations, with page numbers.

The ‘problems’ we encounter when reading the Bible are really problems we create for ourselves when we harbor the misguided expectation that the Bible is designed primarily to provide clear answers.  (4)

By ambiguous I mean that the Bible, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t actually lay out for anyone what to do or think—or it does so far less often than we have been led to believe…  The Bible is diverse—meaning it does not speak with one voice on most subjects, but conflicting and contradictory voices.  (8)

If polar opposite positions can keep claiming the Bible’s support, then perhaps providing ‘clear teaching’ might not be what scripture is prepared to do.  (10)

When the Bible is seen as a source of wisdom rather than an instruction manual of universally clear and consistent ‘teachings,’ we will learn to be comfortable with the provisional nature of how we think about God and therefore not shy away from interrogating our own faith with gentle candor.  (16)

What the Bible says about raising children is ambiguous once we pay attention to the details. It’s even morally suspect in places, in need of being questioned—even interrogated. And here is the bigger point of all this: How the Bible addresses this one topic of child rearing is a window onto how inadequate (and truly unbiblical) a rulebook view of the Bible as a whole is.  (28)

[Re Proverbs 26:4-5]  The lesson we learn from these two little verses sums up not only how Proverbs works, but how the Bible as a whole works as a book of wisdom.

Some of you might have thought ‘contradictions’ in the Bible were ‘bad.’ They’re not. They’re revealing.  (32)

The ambiguities in Proverbs are often tied to the book’s antiquity. When we read Proverbs, we are crossing a chasm of time and culture. The methods of disciplining children we’ve seen most certainly reflect the rather harsh climate of Iron Age tribal culture (1200–500 BCE), where physical violence among peoples and nations is a ho-hum matter-of-fact reality. Even God is depicted as a warrior who ruthlessly slays the enemy.  (36)

‘The entire Bible, like Proverbs, is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse. The Bible as a whole demands the same wisdom approach as Proverbs.’  (p38)

Wisdom became a prominent image for Judaism, which sets the stage for how the New Testament writers processed the idea of wisdom through a Jesus lens—the place held by wisdom would now be held by Jesus, ‘God with us,’ who, as Paul put it, became for us wisdom from God (1 Cor. 1:30).  (43)

The same wisdom that was with God when God ‘ordered’ creation (Gen. 1) is available to us as we seek to ‘order’ the chaos of our lives.  (45)

Given their uncompromising and stern tone, biblical laws have a surprising quality: they tend to be ambiguous, which should be rather disconcerting given what is at stake.  (52)

Readers from ancient times have always understood that keeping a law means more than ‘doing what it says’; it means deliberating over what the command actually requires here and now. Discerning how a law is to be obeyed, in other words, is an act of wisdom.  (53)

Jewish tradition has always understood that keeping the sabbath law—and any law—means working out how. And that insight still holds for today as we too seek to know God in the pages of scripture.  (63)

Times change, and laws that made sense at one point in time don’t necessarily make sense in another, and so they need to be amended.  (64)

[Re Exodus 21:11, 23-25; Deuteronomy 15:14-15]  These two slave laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy don’t match up, even though they are both said to come from the same divine source: God revealing his will to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Let that sink in.  (66)

Ambiguity in the Bible isn’t a problem to be solved. It is a self-evident reality. It is also a gift, for this characteristic is precisely what allows the Law to be flexible enough to fit multiple situations over time.  (69)

When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.  (77)

I’ve learned—by reading the Bible again and again—to accept and be grateful for this messy Bible we have, which drives us away from thinking of it as a stagnant pond of rules and regulations and toward thinking of it as a flowing stream that invites us to step in and be refreshed anew every day in following Jesus here and now.  (81)

Whoever was responsible for Deuteronomy apparently had no hesitation whatsoever in updating older laws for new situations and still calling it the words that God spoke back then to Moses on Mt. Sinai (or Horeb, as it is called in Deuteronomy), even though they don’t match what God said in Exodus. This writer wasn’t an idiot. He knew exactly that his words differed. But by saying that his words were the ones spoken by God to Moses a generation earlier, he was making a huge spiritual claim that we simply cannot miss and should take to heart: The writer of Deuteronomy sees his updating of the older laws as God’s words for his time and place. And so God isn’t just a voice out of the past. God still speaks.  (86)

Deuteronomy reimagines God for a new time and place.  (87)

Jonah and Nahum clearly see the matter of God’s attitude toward the Ninevites differently, and the reason is . . . wait for it . . . they were written at different times and under different circumstances for different purposes.  (104)

The reign of King Manasseh in 2 Chronicles—with his deportation to Babylon, repentance, and return to his homeland—is not an account of Manasseh’s reign. It is a symbolic retelling of Judah’s exile and return home after the captives had learned their lesson and repented of their sins.  (110)

I know many people of faith who struggle regularly with the God of the Bible, because this God seems so locked in a world we don’t recognize, a world that is so distant from ours—a world we have worked hard to get over.  (123)

‘What is God like?’ is the wisdom question around which all others revolve, the question that is ever before us, as each successive generation tries to pass on the faith of the past, which comes to us from an ancient time and in an ancient book, to the next generation that occupies its own unique moment in time and space.  (124)

‘Wisdom teaches us to embrace both the adequacy and the limitations of our God-talk, to keep the two in tension.’  (p129)

What made the Israelites different from their neighbors, religiously speaking, was their belief that only Yahweh, and not any of the other gods (heavenly bodies included), was worthy of their worship. To use the technical language, the Israelites were not monotheists in the strict sense of the word, but monolatrists: they worshiped one God, but believed in the existence of many gods.  (130)

Having no other gods before Yahweh (meaning ‘in preference to’ Yahweh) is a command that only has force if real live divine options are available.  (141)

The God of the Bible is portrayed in diverse ways. But that doesn’t neutralize the fact that one of those ways is as a harsh monarch so typical of the Iron Age world of tribal conflict.  (148)

The Bible does not leave us with one consistent portrait of God, but a collection of ancient and diverse portraits of how the various biblical writers understood God for their times. These biblical portraits of God are not there to test how clever we can be in making them all fit together nicely. They illustrate for us the need to accept the sacred responsibility of asking what God is like for us here and now.  (153)

The New Testament writers did not reject the God of the Old—they reimagined God, because the gospel in their time and place demanded it. The God-language of their Jewish tradition could not fully account for what the (Jewish) New Testament writers believed God had done in Jesus of Nazareth in their time.  (155)

When I see God presented today as a champion of the full equality of women, people of color, refugees, or the environment, I say, ‘Yes, this is my God too. This is the God I believe in.’ But this is a reimagined God.  (158)

At what point have we left the tradition by adjusting it to the present, and at what point have we killed the tradition by refusing to change at all? Addressing those questions describes the entire history of Judaism and Christianity, beginning already within the pages of the Bible itself and through to this very moment.  (165)

This process of needing to adapt over time is part of the biblical fabric, baked into its pages, and a crucial yet overlooked aspect of the Bible’s character as a book of wisdom rather than a once-for-all book of rules and static information.  (166)

Genesis 2:2 in Hebrew says that God finished the work of creation on the seventh day—which if you think about it suggests that God actually did some work on the seventh day and then took the afternoon off. But that would imply that God broke on page one of the Bible his own commandment to do no work on the sabbath. The Greek translators saw the problem and made a minor adjustment: he finished on the sixth day his works. Now God doesn’t contradict himself. Problem solved.  (175)

[Re the Septuagint]  The argument that gender-inclusive language is simply “compromising” the Bible for the sake of culture rings rather hollow when we look at what Jews were doing about twenty-three hundred years ago: they produced a culturally influenced Bible translation, the translation that—oh, sweet irony—became the Bible of the New Testament writers.  (177)

Resurrection of the dead was an adjustment to the story, a reimagining of what God will do that arose (an unintended yet fitting pun) during the Greek period to solve a pressing problem that had to do with God’s justice and fairness to his people.  (180)

The presence of an anti-God figure [Satan] solved (somewhat) a problem caused ironically by Judaism’s deep belief in only one God: Why do bad things happen? Where does evil come from? Who is responsible? In a world where many gods existed, you could pin horrid events on some erratic divine being. Sure, one of the gods was at the head of the table and ultimately responsible, but they couldn’t always be relied on to stay on top of everything. But once you believe that your God is the one and only God, accounting for the presence of evil in the world gets tricky.  (185)

Christians have said rather freely for almost two millennia that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and present everywhere at once (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent). We do not always realize how completely dependent these ideas are on the ways Greek thought influenced Judaism before Christianity and how ill-fitting these descriptions of God are, biblically speaking.  (186)

Wisdom didn’t stop being a big deal when Jesus came, as if now finally all answers are given and we can start following the rulebook. Wisdom continues to be fundamental to faith. Jesus and the gospel have more to do with wisdom than we might be used to hearing.  (197)

If Jesus’s main goal were to be crystal clear, he wouldn’t have introduced thick layers of ambiguities and possible misunderstandings [parables]. But that’s what he did. Because he is a sage.  (199)

Another sagely side of Jesus is how he answers questions when challenged by the guardians of the status quo. He rarely if ever goes for a straightforward answer and often answers the question with another question.  (200)

Following Jesus’s teachings is following the path of wisdom—it is your actions, what you say and do to others, not maintaining a hard-line doctrinal stance or turning faith into an intellectual abstraction.  (202)

As the Word with God at creation, Jesus is described in a way that unmistakably echoes the description of wisdom we already saw in Proverbs 8 (especially verses 22, 30) and wisdom’s role in creation.  (204)

Each Gospel is its own unique retelling of the life of Jesus centered on the needs of each writer’s community of faith. We’re in wisdom territory here again.  (206)

Paul doesn’t reject the Law of Moses, as some in Christian history have thought, but he does marginalize it, decenter it, by placing at the center of God’s plan for the world not our obedience to Torah, but Christ’s obedience to go through with the crucifixion to defeat Sin and God’s raising of Jesus from the dead to defeat Death.  (221)

Judging from the Sermon on the Mount, for example (Matt. 5–7), Jesus has no place for nationalism or political power, whether Roman or Jewish. Recovering the land of Israel—meaning an Israel the Jews run as their own with their own king, as in the old days—never gets so much as a whisper of support in the Gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament. Rather, the opposite is the norm.  (233)

Paul came to the conclusion that God’s raising of Jesus is Phase 1 of the ‘end times.’ Phase 2 will come at some future time when all will be raised in the normal Jewish way of thinking about it. But (more confusion coming) the final judgment that God would announce at the future time (Judgment Day, we often call it) has, for Paul, already been announced for believers in Jesus now.  (243)

The letters of the New Testament are wisdom documents. We are watching some of the earliest followers of Jesus working out what it meant to walk with God in their moment in time. When we read these letters we are watching wisdom in action.  (256)

Far from being an unalterable law that simply has to be obeyed by all at all times because Paul said it and it’s in the Bible, Romans 13:1 is a demonstration of wisdom at work, of choosing the best path for Paul’s here and now. Rather than simply doing what Paul told the Christians in the Roman capital to do two thousand years ago, we today follow Paul best by exercising the same kind of wisdom he did—discerning for ourselves how best to follow God in our time and place.  (260)

Paul brought gender equality into his world as far as he could. Christians today can—and should—build on that wise trajectory and take it farther.  (265)

‘Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.’  (p270)

The creeds are not high moments of the Christian tradition simply to be recited as if that’s the end of it, though they tend to be seen as that. Rather, they are monuments to wisdom that we revisit with profit, but dare not hold up as the non-negotiable high moment of the tradition. That place is taken by Jesus, the true subject that all creeds are trying to put into words.  (274)


Review: When tragedy strikes

2 April 2021

Most Christians are weak in theology. They just jog along happily with their received tradition—until some personal tragedy strikes. Then they start asking questions like ‘Why did God let this happen?’ and, suddenly, firming up their theological convictions become strikingly relevant. Here is where this book pitches in. It is:

Is God To Blame?: Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering by Gregory A. Boyd (IVP, 2003).

Our mental picture of God determines our attitude towards him, and that picture is, in much evangelical tradition, a skewed one. We need to realign it with Jesus, the Word and image of God, and his unique revelation of what God is like, says Boyd. Then we need to question the notion that everything that happens is part of God’s great plan, an element of his giant blueprint. It isn’t. Instead, we live in a complex world that is a spiritual war-zone, where God’s desires for us are sometimes frustrated.

Particularly frustrating can be the seemingly arbitrary nature of what sometimes happens. The author opens up the Book of Job in a masterly way to shed light on this key topic. On the way, he tackles related issues like how God determines what he will do, and how our prayers fit into it all.

This is a highly practical book, and it can be such because of the robust biblical theology that undergirds Boyd’s arguments. If you have been stressed out by serious ‘why’ questions in the wake of some personal tragedy, or are called to pastor and counsel others in that situation, you will find this book truly helpful.

It doesn’t toe the typical evangelical party line in many respects. Towards the end, Boyd therefore tackles some of the ‘But doesn’t the Bible teach…?’ reactions that you might raise, including a detailed look at Romans chapter 9, and other NT passages leant on by many for their ‘blueprint’ convictions.

This is no easy afternoon devotional read. It’s a book that will require your full engagement, and the use of your God-given brain. But you will find it immensely satisfying. And it will put you in a more confident position to address this messed-up world. Is it perhaps time to rise to a challenge? This book will provide it.

Here’s the usual sample of quotations to whet your appetite.

[I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers]

‘Melanie, do you really believe that God kills babies to teach parents a lesson? And do you really think that God is now refusing to give you any more children until you learn this lesson—though he won’t tell you what the lesson is?’  (56)

When things went wrong in people’s lives, whether it was about their physical or spiritual condition or some tragedy that happened to them, I don’t recall Jesus ever looking for the hand of God in it. Instead, he had compassion on suffering people and treated them like casualties of war. He expressed God’s heart by bringing relief to people’s suffering.  (71)

…the why questions. These questions are almost always unanswerable. But they are not unanswerable because God is so mysterious—his character and purposes are unambiguously revealed in Jesus Christ—rather, they are unanswerable because creation is incomprehensibly complex.  (97)

A creation which includes free agents capable of love cannot be one in which God can guarantee his will is always done.  (119)

To the extent that the God we envision is less than all-loving, gracious, kind and altogether on our side, we can’t trust him with our whole being. (189)

Whenever and wherever people experience true life and true light, it is Jesus Christ, whether they know it or not (Jn 1:4, 9).  (209)

Our (fallen) tendency, operating out of our illegitimately seized knowledge of good and evil, is to project onto God every ‘good’ we think God ought to have. For example, in classical Western philosophical tradition, emotional vulnerability is a weakness, so we have projected onto God the attribute of ‘impassability’ (above suffering). All variability is thought to be an imperfection, so God must be ‘immutable’ (above any sort of change). Lack of control is also an imperfection, so God meticulously controls everything. But we get a vastly different picture of God when we simply allow God to define himself in Christ!  (316)

The [mistaken] ‘blueprint worldview’…asserts that directly or indirectly everything in world history follows a meticulous divine blueprint. This view is succinctly expressed in the maxim ‘There is a reason for everything.’ The ultimate reason why anything happens is that God decided it was better to have it happen than not…  Christian theologians who espouse the blueprint worldview find various passages in the Bible to support their view. But their reading of the Bible is rather selective and is strongly influenced by a Hellenistic preconception of what God and his relationship to the world must be like.  (377)

The cross refutes the traditional notion that omnipotence means God always gets his way. Rather, the cross reveals God’s omnipotence as a power that empowers others—to the point of giving others the ability, if they so choose, to nail him to the cross. The cross reveals that God’s omnipotence is displayed in self-sacrificial love, not sheer might.  (467)

How can we hold that God is unchanging when in Christ we see that the second person of the Trinity became a man?  (477)

To question God’s experience of time by postulating that God really experiences all of history in a timeless fashion is to question the authenticity of the incarnation.  (482)

God is not ‘above’ suffering or being affected and responsive. God is God precisely in his willingness to be affected, to be responsive, and to suffer for the sake of love.  (492)

The New Testament depicts evil forces and human agents as having a good deal of ‘say’ in what transpires. And tragic afflictions are understood to arise from these wills, not Gods.  (518)

One of the chief problems in the Western philosophical tradition is reconciling the presence of evil with an all-good and all-powerful God. The problem, in a nutshell, is that if God is all-powerful, it seems he must have the ability to stop evil if he wants to. And if God is all-good, it seems he would want to. Yet evil persists… While blueprint theologians offer sophisticated responses in an attempt to avoid this conclusion, their position seems to implicate God in the very evil it attempts to explain. If God deemed the suffering of the Holocaust worth the good that would result from it, how is his thinking any different than the Nazis’?  (541)

The belief that God is all-powerful does not mean that God exercises all power. It only means that God is the ultimate source of all power… God empowers others to act on their own, against his own wishes if they so choose.  (572)

The kingdom of darkness has been dealt a decisive deathblow, and it is now just a matter of time before it is utterly vanquished. But this truth doesn’t negate the claim that to some extent human and spiritual agents can continue to thwart Gods will.  (605)

The church fathers repeatedly stressed that love and virtue require morally responsible choice. Thus they taught that God’s mode of operation in running the world is not coercion but persuasion.  (630)

Acknowledging that humans have free will explains much, but not all, of the evil in the world. To fully account for the war-torn nature of this creation we need to understand that God created angels as free agents as well.  (713)

Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It’s among the smallest of all seeds when planted, but it eventually grows to become the largest shrub in the garden (Mt 13:31-32). The point is that though Jesus defeated Satan in principle and re-established the kingdom of God on the earth, the earth doesn’t automatically revert back to the way God intended it to be. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the seed has been planted, but it needs to grow. The ‘strong man’ has been tied up, and now God’s troops need to ‘pillage the house.’ God could do all this himself, of course. But because God is a social being and his goal is love, he chooses to work through mediators (humans and angels) who lovingly choose to cooperate with his plans. How they use their freedom genuinely affects the extent to which God’s will is done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  (737)

When people believe that everything is already part of God’s ‘secret plan,’ they won’t work with passion and urgency to establish God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Rather, as much popular Christian piety reveals, they resign themselves to all that happens as coming ‘from a Father’s hand.’ They pray for the ability to accept things more than the ability to change things. They seek the power to comfort more than the power to deliver.  (762)

Because of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we can be confident of our knowledge about God’s character and general purposes for our life. What we can hardly begin to fathom, however, is the vast complexity of creation, a creation that includes an untold number of human and spiritual free agents whose decisions affect much that comes to pass.  (814)

We ordinarily can’t know why particular individuals suffer the way they do. But in the light of God’s revelation in Christ, our assumption should be that their suffering is something we should oppose in the name of God rather than accepting it as coming from God.  (872)

[Re the Book of Job]  Eliphaz’s statements illustrate the remarkable capacity some people have to ignore reality for the sake of preserving a formulaic theology.  (912)

People often quote Job’s words, ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away’ (Job 1:21)… The irony is that though these words are spoken from an honest and upright heart, they are part of a theology job repents of.  (980)

We aren’t omniscient, but having eaten from the forbidden tree, we have a misguided impulse to judge matters as though we were. We have difficulty accepting our finitude and the massive ignorance and ambiguity attached to it.  (1099)

The perennial question ‘Why me?’ is no different than the question ‘Why did this duck land in this pond at just this moment?’ It is strictly unanswerable from a finite human perspective.  (1127)

Life is arbitrary because of the way the decisions made by an unfathomably vast multitude of free agents intersect with each other. It is not a function of God’s will or character.  (1137)

Taking Jesus Christ as our starting point, we can’t avoid concluding that God intervenes in the world. Indeed, Jesus is the supreme instance of God intervening in human affairs.  (1144)

The same miracle-working power that gives hope to the believer also raises a multitude of questions. Chief among these is, Why does God’s intervention in the world seem so arbitrary? Yes, God can heal blindness. But why does God heal one blind person and not another?  (1153)

If God decided to create a world where love is possible, he thereby ruled out a world in which his will is always done. If he chooses to create this kind of world, he can’t guarantee that his will is always done, not because he lacks power but because of the kind of world he created. Just as a triangle can’t be round, so too a world that includes love can’t guarantee that God’s will always comes to pass.  (1187)

If God wants a world in which agents can relate to one another, he must create a world that is very stable and thus quite predictable. In deciding to create this kind of world, God ruled out a world in which the laws of nature could be altered every time someone was going to be harmed.  (1209)

The regularity of the world doesn’t have to be absolutely uniform. As Creator, God certainly has the power and the right to ‘suspend’ the regularity of the world at any time. But he can’t do this all the time, or even most of the time, if he wants us to have stable, nonchaotic lives. Because of the kind of world God decided to create, he can intervene on occasion, but not at all times.  (1213)

God has always anticipated that agents will use their freedom the way they do, for he is infinitely intelligent and thus foresees every possibility as though it were a certainty. So he has a strategy to bring good out of any decision by influencing the situation to minimize its harmful effects. But this doesn’t qualify the truth that God nevertheless has to tolerate free decisions and their effects.  (1241)

We have no more reason to hold God morally responsible for the evil his creatures bring about than we do to hold parents morally responsible for the evil behaviour of their adult children.  (1251)

Though we have every reason to accept that God is not morally culpable for creating a world where evil occurs, we must remember that God nevertheless takes responsibility for evil. This is what the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ are all about.  (1261)

…the fine line between God influencing an agent as opposed to coercing an agent.  (1279)

The constraints God placed on himself by the necessity of a stable world order and by irrevocable freedom are strong enough to prevent God from always unilaterally intervening to prevent evil. But they aren’t so strong that they prevent God from sometimes intervening. They are strong enough to allow agents to relate to one another and have morally responsible say-so. But they aren’t so strong that the only thing that decides matters is the say-so of these agents.  (1298)

Along with the necessary order of the world and the freedom of agents, Scripture consistently depicts prayer as significantly influencing God’s interaction with us.  (1346)

Scripture encourages us to believe that prayer really changes what God does. Indeed, it sometimes changes what God can do in particular situations… God created a world in which he has significantly bound himself to the prayers of his people.  (1352)

Since we can spend only so much time in intercessory prayer, and since there is virtually an infinite number of things we could pray for, praying for direction on how we should spend our say-so in prayer is extremely important.  (1435)

On the authority of Jesus Christ and the biblical witness we can be assured that prayer always furthers God’s purpose in the world. Yet prayer is not the only variable that influences what God can and can’t do in any particular situation within this complex war zone. Among other things, God must respect the necessary stability of the world and the irrevocable revocable freedom of vast multitudes of free agents. Prayer makes a difference, but so do the necessary regularity of the world and every free choice humans and angels make. We have no way of knowing how the power of prayer intersects with these and other variables.  (1445)

Our awareness of the complex mechanics of prayer helps us locate the mystery of unanswered prayer in the unknowable complexity of creation rather than in the will of God.  (1460)

Those who place their trust in God are called to work with him to bring redemptive meaning out of every event, however tragic it may be.  (1701)

We aren’t called to accept everything as God’s will; instead, we are called to transform everything to bring it into conformity with God’s will. Only when we live with this mindset can we claim to be doing God’s will.  (1736)

Understanding that life is unfathomably complex encourages us—indeed, forces us—to listen to God on a moment by moment basis.  (1760)

The view that God unilaterally determines some humans to be forever outside his saving grace contradicts the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  (1831)

The point of the potter-clay analogy is not God’s unilateral control, but God’s willingness and right to change his plans in response to changed hearts.  (1902)

For all their erudite distinctions between primary and secondary causes, necessary and contingent effects, and so on, no blueprint theologian has ever adequately explained how God can infallibly bring about evil while remaining all good, and while holding other agents morally responsible for the evil he ultimately brings about.  (1968)


Waiting around?

27 December 2020

On Christmas Eve, my wife and I popped along to the local parish church for the Christmas Communion service. It was good and, as always, realigned our focus on what the season is all about.

bored2As we walked home afterwards, close to midnight, my mind went back over the words of some of the carols. The service had opened with Once in royal David’s city. It’s a traditional element of any carol service. Starting with the ‘lowly cattle shed’ where Jesus was born, it traces his life right through to his ascension and glory. Then, to bring it all to an inspiring conclusion, it reminds us that we can look forward to being with him one day to behold that glory, and to share in it.

But the way the carol describes this is a huge let-down, and I confess that—not for the first time—I had to smother a snigger as we came to the closing words. Here’s how the last verse goes:

Not in that poor lowly stable
With the oxen standing by
We shall see him, but in heaven
Set at God’s right hand on high,
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

What? Wait around?

I don’t know what this image conjures up for you. But to me it brings up a picture of a scruffily-dressed unemployed person slouching on a street corner, cigarette hanging from his lips, staring into his mobile phone, desperately bored and thinking, ‘Anything must be better than this aimless existence!’

I’m sure that’s not what Mrs C.F. Alexander, the 19th century author, intended, but I have to say this wasn’t her greatest moment of literary achievement. Or of theological clarity, either. She tags along with the notion that we will one day escape this grim material world and float off to a ‘spiritual’ existence in heaven where, dressed ‘all in white’, we will walk about on 24-carat gold pavements, play harps and sing endless worship songs. Let’s face it: that is not an appealing prospect, especially when you throw in the ‘waiting around’.

No, the great Christian hope is far more gutsy and inspiring than that. It’s the kingdom of God in its fulness, when heaven—God’s dimension—comes to a renewed earth; when we get new bodies, like the one Jesus had after his resurrection; when sin and sadness, tears, sickness, depression and death are forever banished; when we live lavishly, enjoying all our human powers to the full. There will be creativity and art, music, maths, research, walks in the mountains, good food and drink, warm friendship, benign animal-friends, laughter, language-learning, choirs and astronomy. And a million blessings besides in the company of our God and Saviour.

This is the prospect that keeps us going. It’s what our minds turn to when the pressures of this fallen world gang up on us and threaten to crush us. It’s what enables us to face death with equanimity, knowing that it is just the gateway to something far better.

That’s what Christmas signals. The incarnation marked the beginning of God’s breaking into our broken society with the solid prospect of hope and a future. And it’s a future far better than ‘waiting around’ on a golden street corner!


Heavy Grasshoppers

11 December 2020

Not many people are keen to get old.

There are some advantages to it. Wisdom, hopefully, though the number of daft old folk around reminds us it’s not guaranteed. And leisure: we can retire and wear our slippers all day if we want. We can spoil the grandchildren. We can get discounts on travel.

grasshopper2But there’s no escaping the downside, as I myself (now aged 80) am discovering. The obvious one is health issues. While we oldies are hugely grateful for our medical services, we would prefer not to suffer those issues in the first place. We remember fondly the days of our youth, when we didn’t know the meaning of arthritis, prostate enlargement, gammy knees or heart problems.

Mental and emotional issues develop in old age, too. Some, like Alzheimer’s, are massive and intrusive, the elephant in the room. But others are more subtle. Speaking for myself, I’ve realised that what could be called my ‘coping capacity’ has reduced. Challenges that, not too long ago, I would have taken in my stride are more daunting now.

An example, you say? OK, take the grocery order from the supermarket. During the coronavirus lockdown, my wife and I took to ordering groceries online and having them delivered to the door. A real help. But on the second or third occasion, I somehow failed to confirm the order by the required date and, the day before delivery was due, we discovered it had been cancelled.

It wasn’t the end of the world. We had a well-stocked freezer, and a small local shop where we could get the basics if required (though at a higher price, and with face-masks and strict social distancing). But we were both amazed at how this setback shook us. Uncharacteristically, it rocked us both to our emotional foundations. Ridiculous, I know, but true.

As I thought about it afterwards, a phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes (chapter 12) came to mind that sums it up perfectly. The writer is describing old age in poetic language. He says, for instance, that in old age ‘the keepers of the house tremble’ (the legs grow weaker). ‘the grinders cease because they are few’ (dental issues), ‘those looking through the windows grow dim’ (poor eyesight)—and more. But the one that stood out for me was spot on for my ‘coping capacity’: ‘the grasshopper shall be a burden’ (verse 5).

I looked it up. Most modern versions translate it differently, applying it to difficulty in walking. But the underlying Hebrew is capable of ‘the grasshopper shall be a burden’, and the older versions, like the AV and RV, run with that.

It’s a marvellous expression. A grasshopper is no weight at all. It can hop onto your shoulder and you won’t even know it. But in old age it can feel more like a turkey sitting up there. That sums up my situation perfectly.

What can I do about it? As for prevention, not a lot. It’s an inescapable feature of my old age. So I have to focus on what to do when a heavy grasshopper jumps up there.

Not panic, obviously. Breathe a prayer: ‘Help me with this, please, Lord!’ Mentally step back from the situation to get it into better perspective. It isn’t, after all, a major disaster. My house hasn’t just been bombed and my loved ones slaughtered. I haven’t had a heart attack. It’s just a circumstantial grasshopper, and no sensible old chap is going to let that get him down, is he? Take stock of the situation and decide what practical steps I can take to move forward. Simple, really. But easier said than done when the turkey’s claws are biting into my shoulder and its weight is threatening to floor me.

All this I intend to keep doing. With the Lord’s help, cope I shall, until, as Ecclesiastes puts it, ‘the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (verse7).


Review: Water to Wine

10 November 2020

I’ve been a fan of Brian Zahnd for some time. I often listen to his online sermons from Word of Life Church, St Joseph, Missouri, USA, and have reviewed several of his books. I first read this one a couple of years ago. It is

Water To Wine: Some Of My Story by Brian Zahnd (Spello Press, 2016).

wtwAt the time, I chose not to review it. Maybe that’s because, as I discovered long ago, there is a ‘right time’ to read a book, and that clearly wasn’t it for me. But I have just read it again, and found it immensely helpful and reassuring as I pursue the adventure of my own pilgrimage of faith.

Zahnd describes how, as a successful American pastor with a large charismatic church, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the bland style of Christianity he was practising—the ‘water’. Events in 2004 led him to a crisis-point that set him off in a new direction—one he has been on ever since: the discovery of the ‘wine’.

His new direction took him to some new emphases. He found a new appreciation of the cross of Christ. And he began to revel in ‘mystery’ in his walk with God, where crisp answers have little place. He learned to appreciate the Christians he encountered in other traditions, such as the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches. He saw a way out of harmful dualistic thinking. And he began to question the individualism that dominates evangelical culture as he rediscovered the importance of community.

He came to believe that the ‘politics’ of Jesus, which is the kingdom of Godoutstandingbook and is rooted in love, cannot be associated with any human political system. At the same time, he began to value the use of some old liturgical forms as he explored dimensions of prayer that were new to him. This included an embracing of silence and the ’contemplative’ approach favoured by the mystics. And among all this, he found a new appreciation of Holy Communion and the sacramental aspect of the faith.

Zahnd is an accomplished author. His writing is meaty and substantial, but it also has poetry and heart. Indeed, he includes several poems that he wrote at key moments in his life.

The book comes out of the American religious scene, which is different in many ways from that in my home-country of the UK. But the bulk of what the author has to say remains fully applicable. If you are dissatisfied with your current Christianity, you will find some helpful pointers here.

Here are some quotations, with page numbers.

I was wrestling with the uneasy feeling that the faith I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery, weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the faith I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. (2)

Grape juice Christianity is what is produced by the purveyors of the motivational-seminar, you-can-have-it-all, success-in-life, pop-psychology Christianity. It’s a children’s drink. It comes with a straw and is served in a little cardboard box. I don’t want to drink that anymore. I don’t want to serve that anymore. I want the vintage wine. (7)

God does not traffic in the empirically verifiable. God refuses to prove himself and perform circus tricks at our behest in order to obliterate doubt. (17)

I began to see the cross in a much deeper way—not as a mere factor in an atonement theory equation, but as the moment in time and space where God reclaimed creation. I saw the cross as the place where Jesus refounded the world. (24)

If we insist on explaining the mysteries of faith—mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the return of Christ, the new birth, baptism, the Eucharist—we inevitably reduce rich mysteries to cheap certitudes. (30)

Fundamentalism is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art. (30)

Christianity is a confession, not an explanation. We will attempt to explain what we legitimately can, but we will always confess more than we can explain. (31)

The revivalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought to “industrialize” evangelism. While Henry Ford was mass-producing cars, Billy Sunday was mass-producing converts. (32)

Salvation is not a private, autonomous, individual, unmediated experience—salvation is being personally gathered by Christ into his salvation community. The individualistic view of salvation leads to the distinctly Protestant anxiety of having to convince yourself that you are saved. (40)

The Apostles don’t call us to “accept Jesus into our heart”—they call us to belong to the body of Christ. (44)

The politics of Jesus is without coercion. The kingdom of God persuades by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need be, martyrdom—but never by force. (47)

Faith, serious thought, and prayer are not easily cultivated in the transient and trivial atmosphere of modern mass culture. Everything is a bit too fast, too loud, too superficial. (54)

Without a primary orientation of the soul toward God, life gets reduced to the pursuit of power and the acquisition of things. (56)

To belittle the work of the theologian is to advocate a spiritual poverty. We need more than Christian folk religion—we need a Christianity that is serious and substantive in its thought. (60)

One of the sad things about spiritual poverty is that the impoverished hardly ever know they’re suffering from it. (61)

I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious. Anyone can be spiritual. Atheists are spiritual these days! So of course I’m spiritual—we all are!—but I am also intentionally religious. I accept the rigors and disciplines of a religious tradition. (68)

We are formed as Christian people as we learn the regular rhythms of praying well-crafted, theologically-sound, time-tested prayers. (69)

The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do, but to be properly formed. (74)

The objection I often hear to the use of liturgy—a formal track of worship—is that it’s dead. But this is a category mistake. Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. Liturgy is either true or false. What is alive or dead is the worshiper. So what we need is a true liturgy and a living worshiper. (78)

Peter’s ethnocentric perspective began to change when he had a contemplative breakthrough while praying on Simon the Tanner’s rooftop. In a trance he was shown non-kosher food and told by God to break the law of Moses and eat it! Peter was being instructed to transgress the Torah! Talk about cognitive dissonance! (96)

Everything about God tends toward love. God is love. The highest form of knowing is not empiricism or rational thought—as the Enlightenment told us—but love. (99)

What is called “revival” today is mostly spectacle and religious entertainment playing upon the emotions of guilt, desire, and anger. (108)

I was beginning to understand how important it is to maintain an ongoing conversation with the Christians who have lived before us. We must resist the tyranny of the present. If we ignore the echoes of the past, we doom ourselves to an unrecognized ignorance. (112)

Without some intentional silence the weary soul is a prisoner being slowly worked to death in a merciless gulag of endless noise. (116)

Looking back on those days I realize that our eschatology wasn’t based in any sound reading of Scripture, but in childish impatience. Everything had to happen in our lifetime. We could not be content to be faithful in our generation and hand the task over to the next generation. (120)

I’m trying to learn how to mature like a dusty bottle of wine patiently resting in God’s cellar. If nothing particularly notable happens in church history during my lifetime, I’m fine with that. It’s not my church. It’s not my world. It’s God’s church and God’s world, and God has time on his side. I can afford to be patient. (122)

As the church has become a powerful institution, a consort with kings and queens, a confidante of presidents and prime ministers, our dispensing of grace has become distorted. We show grace to the institutions of systemic sin while condemning the individual sinner. It should be the other way around. (125)

For the secularist the sacred is mere symbol. But to this idea the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation offers a resounding, “No!” If we believe that “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” (John 1:14) then we believe in a sacred ontology, a sacredness of being. (129)

Looking through a eucharistic lens we discover that we live, not in a secular world, but a sacred world, a world where every tree can become a burning bush aflame with the presence of God. (131)

It is only our false hopes that are being disappointed in the death of Christendom. Jesus never intended to change the world through battlefields or voting booths. Jesus has always intended to transform the world one life at a time at a shared table. (134)

Jesus reversed the concept of kosher. When the unclean touched Jesus, Jesus was not made unclean, rather the unclean were made whole. (140)

The Lord’s Table bears witness to the new covenant truth that the holy land is the whole earth and the chosen people are the human race. (140)

Jesus was constantly teaching people not to worry about scarcity, but to trust in God. (144)

The oceans, deserts, forests, and mountains are medicinal; they are a tonic to the mind, a palliative to the soul. (152)

Any understanding of salvation that doesn’t lead us to love God’s creation is far more Gnostic than Christian. (158)

Why did God create? Why did God say, “Let there be”? The mystics have always given the same answer—because God is love, love seeking expression. (162)

The “wrath of God” is but one way of describing the shards of suffering we inevitably subject ourselves to when we go against the grain of God’s love. God is all love, but we have to go with the grain of love or suffer the pain of self-inflicted sorrow. (164)

In the parable of the sheep and goats, the goats are not condemned for wrong belief or for failing to pray a sinner’s prayer, but for failing to love the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the imprisoned. If Jesus is to be trusted, it seems we will not be judged by how rightly we believed, but by how well we loved. The judgment seat of Christ is not a theology quiz, but an evaluation of love. (165)

Once I’d found the good stuff of substantive theology, the Great Tradition, and historic Christianity, there was no going back. (172)

As long as our churches are led by those who view being a Christian primarily as a kind of conferred status instead of a lifelong journey, and view faith as a form of static certitude instead of an ongoing orientation of the soul toward God, I see little hope that we can build the kind of churches that can produce mature believers in any significant numbers. (181)

The Christian life is a journey. It’s a road. We have to walk it. Jesus’ call to discipleship is always the same—“Follow me.” It’s presumed that we are going to be on the move. We’re going somewhere. The Christian life really is following in the ancient footsteps of Jesus through a modern world. (185)


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