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)


Review: Still believing the Bible!

3 October 2020

Many books today are knocking the Bible by giving reasons for rejecting it. Many, perhaps most, are ill thought-through and lacking in scholarly substance. So it’s good to find a book in defence of the Bible’s trustworthiness, written by a competent biblical scholar with his feet on the ground. It is

Can We Still Believe The Bible?—An evangelical engagement with contemporary questions by Craig L. Blomberg (Brazos Press, 2014)

Blomberg engages with six aspects that have commonly come under attack:

  1. Textual criticism (finding the Bible’s original wording)

cwsbtbWith so many textual variants in the NT, can we be sure we know what the original version was? The author exposes the glaring weaknesses in Bart Ehrman’s influential book: Misquoting Jesus. He shows the statistics there to be presented in a misleading way, and counters them with a balanced and settling presentation. He goes on to examine the two key ‘doubtful’ NT passages: the ending of Mark’s Gospel, and part of John 8. Along the way, he addresses many other shorter textual variants.

He goes into considerable detail, too, on the more complex text of the OT. It makes fascinating reading. He concludes that, overall, we can be more certain of the text of the Bible than we can of most other ancient books. We can reconstruct it with a very high degree of probability, even if we cannot claim to have a flawless text.

  1. The biblical canon (which books are in the Bible, and why)

Here, Blomberg addresses the popular opinion that political forces at the time of Constantine (4th century AD) decided which books should be in the canon of the NT. He provides solid reasons for rejecting that position. He also examines the debates that took place over certain books and their legitimacy as candidates for inclusion in the NT canon, and what the criteria were.

outstandingbook  He looks at the OT canon, too, and shows how flimsy a foundation some of the critical claims are based upon, offering firmer alternatives on which to build a different view. But he is honest in admitting where our knowledge of ancient sources and developments runs out and speculation begins. He also tackles the question of the Apocrypha and how we should regard it.

There is an interesting section on the abuse of the canon of Scripture, in which Wayne Grudem’s widely-used Systematic Theology comes in for some direct criticism.

  1. The problems of the proliferation of English translations

Blomberg has already, in the previous sections, debunked the notion that the Authorized (King James) Version is somehow more trustworthy than later versions of the English Bible. And there are vastly more of these than in any other language, some of them of dubious quality.

He provides a history of the translations and the three main approaches adopted by translators. He debunks the idea that the more ‘literal’ a translation is, the more we should prefer it. Interestingly, the version favoured by most English-speaking scholars worldwide is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Conversely, he shows how exaggerated are the claims made for the English Standard Version (ESV).

The author also faces up to the fraught issue of gender-inclusive language and how appropriate it is for the Bible text, especially in relation to the latest edition (2011) of the popular New International Version (NIV).

  1. The ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible

It is chiefly in the USA that ‘biblical inerrancy’ is emphasised. But many Christians elsewhere have picked up on it and assumed it to be a ‘given’ of orthodox faith. It holds that the Bible is without errors. But there is debate over what constitutes an error! Definitions of inerrancy usually include a phrase like ‘Scripture properly interpreted’, which opens the door to many opinions.

Blomberg examines the ways in which, in biblical times, people reported speech or recorded history. They differed enormously from modern practices, but we should not judge the former by the latter. A difference does not constitute an error.

He comes down in favour of inerrancy, but with a view of it that is very nuanced and sensitive to the complexity of the biblical text. It is a view that many conservatives would, I suspect, dismiss as far too liberal, but which I myself find very satisfying.

  1. The biblical genres (e.g. what parts are history, and in what sense?)

The Bible contains a wide variety of literary genres: history, letters, wisdom, poetry etc. A problem for many people is which parts they should receive as historical narrative, and which as illustrative stories that are not necessarily true in a literal sense.

Blomberg looks at many examples, starting with the accounts of the creation and fall in Genesis. He goes on to discuss Job and Jonah—was he really swallowed by a whale?—and then the authorship of Isaiah, before looking at Daniel and the genre known as apocalyptic literature.

The NT section examines the theory that Matthew is an example of the Jewish genre called midrash, the disputed authorship of some of the epistles and, finally, the much-disputed book of Revelation. Blomberg’s treatment of them all is sensible, balanced and persuasive. To his credit, he comes clean on where he personally stands on the main issues.

  1. The question of miracles

Sceptics have argued that the Bible’s miracle stories make it a mythical book. This comes from a materialistic worldview that has no place for real miracles.

Blomberg disagrees. He points to the evidence for miracles happening today, well-documented and with lasting results. And, in addition, reminds us that miracles—especially the resurrection of Jesus—are an integral part of Christianity in a way that is not true of other religions.

After recounting some miracles that he himself has personally witnessed, he goes on to examine some of the NT miracles and ask whether they were embroidered over the years onto more mundane events, or were even based on pagan miracle stories. He looks particularly at the resurrection of Jesus, for which the evidence is overwhelming. Then he takes a similar approach with some OT miracles.

He identifies categories: types of situations where OT miracles were frequent. Then he applies the same process to NT miracles, including those in the book of Acts. He decides that the evidence for biblical miracles—and miracles today—is strong.

He concludes by coming down firmly on the side of the Bible’s trustworthiness. While cautioning against an over-liberal approach to it, he wisely warns, too, against the opposite: an unrealistic conservatism. The latter, espoused by hard-line biblicists, has done as much as the former to put off genuine seekers from engaging with the Scriptures.

Finally he cautions against exclusivist, pharisaical attitudes towards those who take a ‘lower’ view of the Bible that we do, asserting: ‘Millions of evangelicals worldwide and throughout history have not accepted the belief that every last word of Scripture is without error, yet they are living (or have lived) faith-filled, Christ-directed, God-honoring lives.’ (p221)

This is a first-class book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to every thinking Christian.

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

It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that God has worked with humanity gradually over time, progressively revealing more and more of himself and his will as humans have been able to receive it, which also suggests that there are trajectories of moral enlightenment established on the pages of Scripture that we should continue to push even further today. (4)

There are…areas of scholarship where new findings, or at least much more intense study of slightly older discoveries, have actually strengthened the case for the reliability or trustworthiness of the Scriptures. (7)

Huge misunderstandings remain about the strengths and weaknesses of so-called literal translations. (10)

Many people simply can’t live with even a very slight uncertainty about the exact reading of the original text of a document they treat as inspired, authoritative, and infallible Scripture. So, however implausible their arguments have to be, they insist on defending the notion that God has inerrantly preserved his Word. (39)

We have massive amounts of support for our convictions that the sixty-six books of the canonical Scriptures accepted by all branches of Christianity have been extraordinarily well preserved. (42)

The New Testament explicitly quotes from a broad cross-section of Old Testament documents but never quotes from the Apocrypha. Jude quotes once from a pseudepigraphic work, 1 Enoch, but not in a fashion that necessarily implies that he understood the work to be part of the Hebrew canon. (49)

In John’s original context, Revelation 22:18–19 on not adding or subtracting to the words of this book referred only to the book of Revelation itself. But when the church finalized the canon, by including Revelation and ending with it, it was in essence applying John’s words to the entire collection of authoritative documents. (56)

The criterion of apostolicity [for inclusion in the canon] does not mean that every book was written by an apostle—by one of Jesus’s twelve closest followers—but rather that they were written during the apostolic age, before the last of the Twelve (most likely John) had died. (58)

The Hebrew Scriptures remained an open-ended narrative in a way the New Testament did not. Christians, in compiling their uniquely sacred Scriptures, added to the Old Testament what they believed was the divinely intended fulfilment of the story of God’s dealings with humanity. (62)

Tellingly, the only way Muslims and Mormons have been able to justify another collection of divinely inspired literature is to claim either (1) that the existing texts of the New Testament are corrupt and originally taught something quite different (the typical Muslim claim), or (2) that entire books were left out of the canon that God originally gave to his people (the typical Mormon claim). (76)

Occasionally an evangelical systematic theology is written with insufficient reference to the history of Christian thought on the topic or to the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of the major schools of thought throughout that history. The result makes it appear as if the theologian’s task is merely to group every passage from the Bible on a given topic together and see what concepts emerge.115 Wayne Grudem’s widely used Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine unfortunately too often approximates this approach. (79)

The Bible is uniquely inspired and authoritative, but that does not mean that Christians shouldn’t read widely from every perspective on every topic about which they wish to learn. Nor does it mean that we can treat the Bible like a textbook on any topic, even theology, as if immersing ourselves in Scripture alone, with no other resources, will suffice to teach us everything that God has revealed about any area of human inquiry. (81)

The options [in Bible translation] are whether to (a) prioritize accuracy, (b) prioritize fluency, or (c) optimize both by seeking as much of a and b as can be accomplished simultaneously. Of course, there can also be gradations of these priorities, but in broad generalizations, the NASB, ESV, and NRSV represent a (putting meaning ahead of clarity); the NLT, CEV, and GNB represent b (putting clarity ahead of meaning); and the NAB, NET, HCSB, CEB, and NIV represent c (aiming at the optimal amount of meaning and clarity simultaneously). (94)

The updated NIV may have attained the best combination of accuracy and clarity of all the translations. (118)

Numerous competing theological and exegetical positions over the centuries have appealed to the inerrancy or trustworthiness of Scripture for their support; in reality these were debates over hermeneutics. (124)

The reporting of people’s words is a particularly significant example of where the ancients employed noticeably less precision than we moderns do. (127)

What it means to say that the Bible is wholly true varies widely from one genre to the next, but the concept of a deeply flawed or errant Scripture is a virtual oxymoron and largely the invention of recent times. (131)

Nothing in principle should prevent the person who upholds inerrancy from adopting a view that sees ʾādām (“man” or Adam) and awwâ (“life” or Eve) as symbols for every man and woman, created in the image of God but sinful by virtue of their own rebellious choices in succumbing to Satan’s lures. (152)

Outside of evangelical circles, roughly half of contemporary New Testament scholars believe that Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, James, 1 Peter, and Jude were not written by the authors to which they have traditionally been ascribed. Perhaps as many as three-fourths of New Testament scholars reject the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (1–2 Timothy and Titus), and an even higher percentage rejects Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. Second Peter is also the one canonical letter whose authorship claim was disputed in the ancient church as well. (169)

The form of Christianity in which these church-leavers and faith-leavers were brought up and/or nurtured did not allow for serious discussion of the hard questions of the faith in a safe environment and drew small circles around what was deemed acceptably “Christian.” (175)

Among biblical scholars there is a much greater openness to the miraculous than there was even a generation ago. (185)

The reliability of the entire exodus story has, of course, been frequently called into question because of the lack of direct archaeological evidence. The problem is compounded by the debate over its date, whether it should be placed in the thirteenth or fifteenth century BC. But we do have hieroglyphic paintings from Egypt from the fifteenth century that depict foreign slaves making mud bricks under the supervision of Egyptian overseers, and we have archaeological evidence for the sudden appearance or growth of towns in many places in Israel at about the right time, if we opt for the later date for the exodus. It is not realistic, moreover, to expect anything to remain of the shelters of impoverished people like the Israelite slaves in Egypt living in the marshy delta of the Nile, or of their temporary wilderness wanderings in the Sinai utilizing even less permanent structures. And no Pharaoh would have wanted to acknowledge the loss of a slave community due to their flight by recording or commemorating it in any way! There are, to be sure, sites in Israel where we might have expected evidence of occupation or signs of larger settlements, but it is actually amazing that so much has remained over the millennia. We should always remind ourselves that the absence of evidence is never the evidence of absence! (195)

Just as often as Christ works a sign or wonder in response to faith, he also effects a miracle to produce faith where it is too small or nonexistent. (201)

A study of the heresies that the early church had to address in its first several centuries quickly discloses that there are two ways one can distort the truth. The best known, then and throughout church history, has been to redefine central doctrines too broadly—to become too “liberal.” Less well remembered are the heresies caused by redefining central doctrines too narrowly—to become too “conservative.” (216)

We can still wholeheartedly believe the Bible in the twenty-first century, even after honestly engaging contemporary questions. (217)


Review: The ‘Jesus approach’ to the Bible

3 September 2020

Richard Rohr is a Roman Catholic and a Franciscan priest best known as an exponent of the ‘contemplative’ approach to prayer and spirituality. His many books have been immensely popular, even among non-Catholics, some of whom have had questions about the way he approaches the Bible. To answer them, we now have

What Do We Do With The Bible? by Richard Rohr (SPCK, 2019)

wdwdwtbIt’s a short book: just over 40 pages. And it’s commendably to the point. Rohr is keenly aware of the way Christians have misused the Bible over the centuries to justify the most appalling practices, like apartheid, slavery and the burning of heretics. And he is equally familiar with the weird ways many ordinary believers today approach it: ‘as a personal power pack, a hammer, or a rationale for their bad behaviour.’

At the same time, he recognises that, for sincere Christians, the Bible remains properly ‘the primary authoritative source’ for their beliefs and practices. He outlines the different approaches to it fashionable in different periods of history, most recently the rational, literal and historical approach since the Enlightenment. This, he maintains, hampers true spirituality. He is sceptical of the ‘biblical inerrancy’ line, with its excess literalism, and points out that Jesus took a different approach to his own OT scriptures, and so did the likes of Paul.

We cannot, the author claims, act as independent interpreters of Scripture, but must be aware of ‘the perennial tradition’ formed throughout Christian history. Nor must we overlook the way our individual personality affects our approach to the Bible. And let’s remember that, in the vast aeons of human history, the Bible turned up very late, but God was not silent before that; he was known through the natural world (Romans 1:20).

A ‘bullet point’ section briefly identifies some popular misconceptions about what the Bible is, how it came to us, and how we should use it. Traditional evangelicals will feel a few body-punches here! Rohr is skilled at showing how some of our strange ideas came into being, enabling us better to identify and hopefully jettison them.

He ends with what he calls ‘the Jesus hermeneutic’. That means, simply, ‘Let’s use the Bible the way that Jesus did!’ Jesus in fact treated his own Scriptures in a very biased way, picking and choosing which bits to highlight and which to overlook, and sometimes veering close to what have been called ‘situation ethics’. A further string of bullet-points provides a comprehensive range of examples from the Gospels.

He winds up by re-asserting that we ourselves should interpret Scripture the same way, which will be unsettling for many evangelicals—and needs to be!

Reassuringly, Rohr’s overall approach tallies with the hermeneutical approach being emphasised by a wide variety of scholars and writers today. If you want a brief overview of that approach, you can find one in my own free e-book, A Poke In The Faith.

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

…the postmodern revolt against religion in general and Bible quoters in particular. (9)

Read the Apostle Paul’s Sermo Sapientia, or sermon on wisdom, in 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:16, where he says that believers have an alternative way of knowing that prayerfully contemplates a text instead of using it as dualistic ammunition to protect our opinions or attack others. (9)

We must be prepared to somehow state our method of interpretation, including our conscious biases, or we end up being dishonest or manipulative with the text—without even knowing it. (13)

Our hermeneutic must make use of both our will and our intellect. Mere conformity (will) or mere reason (understanding) is always a dead faith, and unworthy of the full human person. (13)

The most common default position for Scriptural interpretation is, of course, the literal/historical one—which is honestly the least helpful and the least fruitful. (17)

The Reformation’s critical thinking was surely a necessary stage in our maturation process—but we cannot permanently rest in oppositional thinking. We must continue toward mystical, non-dual, and conciliatory patterns. The overreaction that produced fundamentalism soon set in motion an equal and opposite reaction called rationalism. This is the present argumentative frame inside of which we are trapped. There must be some good alternatives and subtleties to this false dualistic split between non-critical fundamentalism and overly critical rationalism. (18)

Good scriptural interpretation is not limited by the rational lens, but that does not mean it is irrational either. There is also the childlike lens of the pre-rational, the adult’s intelligent reason, and the very sophisticated lens of the trans-rational, the symbolic, and the mystical. This last is our wide-angle and long-distance lens, which provides the basis for our Biblical hermeneutic. We need all three. In fact, I would correlate the pre-rational with the always unknowable work of the Creator, the rational with the visible work of Christ, and the trans-rational with the ubiquitous work of the Holy Spirit. (19)

As Paul directly puts it, “Ever since the creation of the the invisible existence of God and the Divine Power can be clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things” (see Romans 1:20). These words undercut and self-correct the absolute and autonomous authority of Scripture—from the inside out! They base spiritual wisdom in nature, in creation, and from the beginning, thus preceding all later spiritual writings, which were composed in the last nanosecond of geologic time. (20)

This “proof text” approach to Scripture, which allows us to find a single line to prove or illustrate almost anything, has now been universally discredited and, also, shown to lead us to some very dangerous and difficult conclusions. (22)

The Bible does not demand academic scholarship, but it is indeed dangerous in the minds of unbalanced or agenda-driven people. (23)

We also extracted Christ from the eternal love flow of the Trinity and made him into a lone male monarch, revealed as such in almost all language and art up to our own time. We henceforth understood the God relationship less in terms of a circle and flow of shared life, and more as a pyramid of feudal authority. Obedience and loyalty were the supreme virtues, not love and compassion. (26)

By not reading the Jewish prophets, except in terms of their “foretelling” of Jesus, we failed to notice that the constant recipients of their ire and judgment are two special groups—the princes and the priests. (27)

When we watch his pattern of interpretation, we could even say Jesus “played light and easy” with the only Bible he knew—the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was anything but a fundamentalist or a legalist. This is not hard to demonstrate; in fact, it is culpable ignorance not to see it now. (29)

I am convinced that Jesus is presenting rewards and punishments as inherent and present-tense. Goodness is its own reward, evil its own punishment. (31)

Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any passages that appear to legitimate violence, imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws—of which there are many. These are the very ones we love to quote! Jesus is a Biblically formed non-Bible quoter, who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings. (32)

[Jesus] is not factually correct in some of his examples, which clearly should suggest to people who like to pick apart arguments that this is not the point! For example, he describes the mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds and the mustard bush as the biggest of all shrubs in Matthew 13:32, which, in both cases, is not anywhere close to the truth. Is the Bible still to be called inerrant when Jesus uses erroneous examples to make spiritual points? (34)

When religion meets culture, culture wins, nine times out of ten! Take that as normative. (35)

Not all Scriptures were created equal in Jesus’ mind, which is a great blind spot for most fundamentalists, who have little or no skill or training in spiritual discernment. Jesus seems to teach that you can only tell goodness “by its fruits” (see Luke 6:43–45) and not just by the naked action itself. (35)

God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. (37)

Excessive God talk and quoting of Scripture are the best cover possible for a narcissistic personality. (38)


Review: Q&A on ‘God Can’t’

31 July 2020

It’s no surprise that Thomas Jay Oord’s book, God Can’t (which I reviewed here) stirred up a huge response, and many questions.

gcq&aHe has now written a follow-up book where he addresses the major issues identified in a year’s correspondence, giving more detail on certain aspects of the ‘uncontrolling love’ view of God that he espouses. The book is:

God Can’t Q&A by Thomas Jay Oord (SacraSage, 2020)

Its eight chapters address one topic each, as follows:

 1.  If God can’t control, why pray?

 2.  If God is uncontrolling, how do we explain miracles?

 3.  What does an uncontrolling God do?

 4.  What does it mean to say that God loves everyone and everything?

 5.  How does Jesus fit in a theology of uncontrolling love?

 6.  If God created the universe, why can’t God stop evil?

 7.  What hope do we have if God’s love is uncontrolling?

 8.  Do you know God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly?

Good questions! And he answers them all in a frank and precise way, without dodging any of the issues. If you have read God Can’t—and/or his more academic work on the same subject, The Uncontrolling Love of God (reviewed here)—you will find this new Q&A volume really helpful. If you haven’t, you should read one of them first.

To whet your appetite, here is a selection of quotations from each of the above sections, with page numbers.

Introduction

We don’t have to believe everything happens for a reason. (13)

God doesn’t punish. But there are natural negative consequences that come from sin and evil. (13)

Some theologians say God’s love and power are equal. But then they’ll claim God has the power not to love. Or they’ll say God could decide to stop loving someone. These claims reveal such theologians actually think God’s power of choice comes logically prior to love. By contrast, I think love comes logically before power. (16)

I suspect that if John Wesley were living today, he’d identify as open and relational. (19)

If God can’t control, why pray?

The Conventional view portrays God as having the ability to rescue singlehandedly but not always doing so unless we ask. It portrays God as metaphorically sitting back, arms folded, waiting for us to pray, or pray enough, before jumping in to help. (26)

From the uncontrolling love view, petitionary prayer affects God. (27)

An uncontrolling love view says petitionary prayer makes a difference without fully determining others. It says our prayers affect God without saying prayers make it possible for God to determine others fully. It says praying opens new possibilities God can use in the next moment, without saying those possibilities guarantee the rescuing, healing, or blessing we seek. Prayer can be a factor in the good that occurs, but it doesn’t guarantee it. (29)

All of life is petitionary prayer, in that sense, because everything we do influences God’s experience. I think about this when pondering the Apostle Paul’s recommendation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). (34)

Many worship songs stress sovereignty when speaking of God’s glory. “God is in control,” they proclaim. “God orchestrates every lightning strike and falling leaf.” Some songs ask God to “take my will” or say God’s ways are “irresistible.” Taken literally, many worship songs assume God is or could be controlling. I can’t worship a God who could singlehandedly control but chooses not to prevent evil. (39)

I’m motivated to pray when I believe God cannot control but lovingly influences all. (40)

If God is uncontrolling, how do we explain miracles?

Miracles are unusual and good events that involve God’s causal action in relation to creation. (45)

Miracles involve both God’s initiating action and creaturely responses or the conditions of creation being conducive. (48)

For God to interrupt the law-like regularities that result from divine love, God would have to deny God’s nature. And God can’t do that. (48)

I know of no passage that says miracles require God to control creatures or creation. No story or passage of Scripture explicitly says God singlehandedly brought about some miraculous result. (50)

If for theological reasons we can assume God was active but not always mentioned in biblical miracles, why can’t we for theological reasons assume creatures were active but not always mentioned in biblical miracles? Assuming God and creation always play roles in miracles resolves mysteries and offers a plausible framework for understanding God’s action in the world. (53)

The (wrong) idea that God chooses how much to influence triggers what I’ve called “The Problem of Selective Miracles.” This problem comes when thinking God controls others when doing miracles. But the idea also emerges if one thinks God voluntarily regulates how much to influence. (54)

What does an uncontrolling God do?

God always acts without controlling. (61)

As a spirit with being, God influences everyone and everything moment by moment. In this influencing, God calls, persuades, commands, or woos us to choose particular courses of action and ways of being. This is God’s causal action. (67)

God creates and sustains all things in relation with other causes and factors, so being a necessary cause in all things does not mean being the primary cause for all things. (69)

When we experience goodness, we should praise God for being its source. But we should also thank creatures who cooperated with God. When outcomes are evil, we can blame uncooperative creatures, random events, or the conditions of creation. God did not want this evil, and creatures and creation sometimes oppose God’s work for good. (72)

God is always present to all creation. So it makes no sense to say God “intervenes” from over there… I refrain from using “intervention” and “supernatural” because in my experience, these words confuse rather than clarify. (73)

I believe the universal Spirit acts at every level of existence, all the time. This action includes God’s causal effects, as God empowers, inspires, calls, and more. God is an efficient and final cause that provides formal causes. But because God always loves without controlling, God’s actions require positive responses for the results God wants to see. (77)

What does it mean to say God loves everyone and everything?

To love is to act intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. (82)

Some people think a loving person has only the well-being of others in mind. But this perspective of love doesn’t account for appropriate self-love… If we ought to love those whom God loves, we ought to love ourselves! (83)

After decades of studying Scripture, I’ve come to believe biblical passages that portray God as unloving are in error. It may seem bold to say this. But it seems the most honest. I don’t look at biblical passages that portray God as violent, cock my head, squint, and say, “God killing people must be loving from the divine perspective.” Instead, I say, “The biblical writers who think God kills people misunderstand God.” (85)

God by necessity loves, because God’s nature is love. You and I don’t have natures of love, so we must choose whether to love moment by moment. (86)

God loves rapists, for example, because God acts for their well-being. But God doesn’t like rape. God knows what’s good for the rapist involves him avoiding rape, and that’s obviously also good for the potential victim. (87)

We could say God is not free not to love. Because love comes first in God’s nature, God does not freely choose whether to love us. In this sense, divine love is not free. Divine love is free in another sense, however. God freely chooses how to love. (91)

We have little reason to trust a God for whom love comes second. (92)

Many believers have inconsistent views of God’s love and power. Incoherent theology is prevalent. (94)

When I think about a God worthy of my worship, I find more winsome the vision of a God who consistently loves but can’t control than a God who can control but loves inconsistently. (96)

How does Jesus fit in a theology of uncontrolling love?

After pointing to Jesus’ example of self-giving love, Paul tells his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13). He’s saying God empowers us — “works in” and “enables” us — to express love. But we have to respond, to “work out” our salvation. (102)

Many now think of Jesus’ kenosis as telling us something about who God is and how God acts… The life, teachings, and cross of Christ powerfully reveal God’s power as non-coercive love. (103)

I believe a perfectly good but voluntarily self-limited God — if this God existed — would become un-self-limited, in the name of love, to prevent preventable evil. Because genuine evils occur, I can’t believe God is voluntarily self-limited. I think God’s nature of love limits what God can do. And God necessarily expresses uncontrolling love for creation. (105)

The belief God can control creatures or creation leads to other problems too. For instance, one wonders why the Bible would have errors, contradictions, and ambiguity if God could control its writers to produce a perfect text. (107)

It’s hard to understand why a loving God would create through a long and painful evolutionary process if God has controlling power to snap existence into its present state and avoid all evolutionary evils. (107)

Some readers of the Bible notice that Jesus did not heal everyone who needed it. They offer “explanations” for this selective healing that blame the victims, appeal to a mysterious divine plan, call the illness God’s punishment, and more. Much more satisfying is the idea Jesus wanted to heal everyone but encountered actors, factors, forces, and agents that did not or could not cooperate. (111)

If God created the universe, why can’t God stop evil?

Should we consider a God who created a world and added features with great potential for calamity a good Creator? (119)

Believing God can create from absolutely nothing leads to a host of problems. Most people are unaware of those problems, so they don’t question creatio ex nihilo. (122)

If God once had the ability to create from absolutely nothing, God would essentially retain that ability. But a loving God with this ability would be morally culpable for failing to use it, at least periodically, to prevent genuine evil today. (123)

The Bible does not explicitly support creation from nothing. Writers speak of God creating out of something, that that “something” might be water, the deep, chaos, invisible things, and so on. (124)

God everlastingly loves creaturely others. “Love for creation” is necessary to what it means to be God. This means love is God’s motive for creating and God has always been creating. (127)

God’s creating had no beginning. There was never a time God started from nothing. Because God’s eternal nature is creative love, God has always been creating and loving creatures. (128)

The problem of evil cannot be solved if God created the universe singlehandedly or from absolutely nothing. For this reason (and eight others), I reject the view God ever creates from nothing. Instead, I believe God always creates in relation to creatures, creation, and creaturely forces. And God’s creating is always loving. (136)

What hope do we have if God’s love is uncontrolling?

If God can’t singlehandedly prevent evil, what hope do we have for love’s ultimate triumph? (137)

My relentless love view of the afterlife assumes God loves everyone and everything. It assumes God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. And it assumes God’s love never ends: God never stops loving us and all creation. I call this the logic of God’s uncontrolling love. The logic of uncontrolling love grounds our hope for the afterlife. (143)

Never-ending conscious torment has little or no biblical basis. The theory’s influence owes more to the medieval writer Dante than the Bible. (144)

Saying sin generates qualitatively negative experiences fits well with the broad biblical witness, contemporary health sciences, and our own experiences. (145)

Infinite punishment doesn’t fit the crime of finite sin. (145)

I don’t embrace the common universalism view… The God with the controlling power necessary to put everyone in Heaven someday should use controlling power to stop evil right now. (147)

I don’t like the annihilation view. It rightly says our actions have consequences. It rightly says God sends no one to never-ending torment in Hell. But it assumes God quits. God gives up on some people. God does not forgive all but actively or passively destroys some. It implies divine love has limits. (148)

When we do not cooperate with God, we suffer the natural negative consequences that come from failing to love. God doesn’t punish. But there are natural negative consequences — in this life and the next — from saying no to positive and healthy choices. Sin is its own punishment. (149)

I believe we should remain open to the possibility that afterlife bliss may occur near to or on earth, somewhere in our galaxy, or some other location. (150)

The relentless love view does not guarantee everyone will enjoy eternal bliss. But it provides the hope of universal salvation. (151)

It’s reasonable to think the God who never gives up and whose love is universal will eventually convince all. (152)

God calls and empowers all to respond in love in this life and the next. And divine love never gives up. (156)

Do you know God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly?

I find I share more in common with those who do not identify as Christian but love consistently than those who identify as Christian but don’t love consistently. (160)

Doubt is fundamental to the good life. Doubt is an aspect of belief. Christians are “believers” not “certainers,” to coin a word. I like what Phineas Bresee says on this: “Faith isn’t the absence of doubt; it’s choosing to act despite doubt.” (161)

Professional scholars and the average person on the street reach for the mystery card when argued into a corner. (163)

I don’t know with certainty the ideas of the uncontrolling love view are correct. I think it’s plausible the view is true, however. These ideas fit how I read the Bible, the best of my intellectual abilities, and the way the world seems to work. Given the widest array of information and experiences, it makes sense to say a loving God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. (167)

 


Review: God can’t…

25 July 2020

‘God can’t’? To many, that’s an oxymoron. God, they say, is by definition omnipotent; he can do anything!

But Scripture lists several things he can’t do: he can’t lie, be tempted or grow tired. And, most importantly, ‘he cannot deny himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13). That is, he can’t act outside of his essential nature. An important book by Thomas Jay Oord highlights the fact that, fundamental to that nature is love, and love is by definition uncontrolling.

gcThat has huge implications for people who have suffered tragedy, abuse, rape, torture, a serious accident or life-threatening illness. They rightly ask, ‘If God is both loving and all-powerful, why didn’t he prevent this happening?’ It is to such people that this book is primarily addressed. It is:

God Can’t: how to believe in God and love after tragedy, abuse and other evils by Thomas Jay Oord (SacraSage, 2019)

A few years ago, Oord set out its principles in The Uncontrolling Love of God: an open and relational account of providence (2015). It was aimed at a fairly academic readership but the interest it stirred led to his writing this simpler version for the average reader.

It lays out five principles which, together, undergird the understanding of God and his love that this approach puts forward. They are:

  1. God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.
  2. God feels our pain.
  3. God works to heal.
  4. God works to squeeze good from the evil he didn’t want in the first place.
  5. God needs our cooperation.

This is no weird, heretical set of proposals. The author—who himself knows what major suffering means—grounds his work soundly in Scripture, alongside a sensitive appreciation of our human fragility and the things about God’s activity that, if we are honest, often leave us puzzled or frustrated. I recommend it with enthusiasm, and you will find it very relevant if you are involved in counselling, chaplaincy or pastoral ministry. Below is a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

  • If you want a summary, I have written a synopsis of the book here.
  • My review of Oord’s earlier book, The Uncontrolling Love of God is here.

Taking evil seriously means rethinking conventional ideas about God and the world. (4)

Polls indicate the existence of evil is the number-one reason atheists cite for rejecting belief in God. Who can blame them? (9)

Some assume God’s love is altogether different from ours. The phrase, “God’s ways are not our ways,” is taken to mean, “God’s love isn’t like ours.” What God thinks loving is not what we think. This sleight-of-hand confuses rather than clarifies. It doesn’t help to say God loves us if we have no idea what love is! (11)

It doesn’t make sense to say a loving God permits evil. We don’t need to say, “Your rape happened for a reason,” and mean, “God allowed it.” (13)

Perfect love prevents preventable evil. (18)

If God can control evildoers, we should blame God for allowing the atrocities they commit. The God who fails to prevent preventable genuine evil is morally reprehensible. (19)

The God of uncontrolling love cannot control creatures. (20)

The broad themes of the Bible help us make sense of God and life. But we must resist thinking the Bible is a weapon, medicine bottle, or magic book. And it’s not a systematic theology. While it’s important to drill down to explore the details, it’s more important to grasp the major ideas of the Bible. (24)

Love does not overrule or override. It does “not force itself on others,” to quote the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:5).  (26)

If God’s nature is love and love never controls, God would have to deny his love to control others. But God can’t do that. The limits to divine power come from God’s nature of love. I call this view “essential kenosis.” (28)

A bodiless, universal spirit cannot do what embodied creatures sometimes can. Despite having no body, God is present and active in all situations. Divine power is direct but persuasive, widespread but wooing, causal but uncontrolling. God’s loving activity makes a difference without imposing control or using a divine body. (33)

An uncontrolling God neither creates us as robots nor temporarily roboticizes us. (34)

Despite the positive aspects of The Shack, the story offers no believable reason why a good and powerful God fails to prevent genuine evil. The Shack fails to answer the primary question victims ask. (38)

God is always present, always affected, and always loving. Because God’s giving and receiving is universal and because God knows us fully, God empathizes to the utmost. God feels what we feel. God’s sensitivity is unrestricted. (52)

It’s important to believe God suffers with those who suffer. But we must also believe God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. Without both, we can’t offer a believable explanation for unnecessary suffering, tragedy, abuse, and other evils. A God who could singlehandedly emancipate but chooses only to commiserate is not someone to worship or to emulate! (60)

If God heals, why doesn’t God heal a lot more often? (81)

We need a plausible explanation for why healing sometimes happens but often does not. (84)

Requests for “intervention” don’t make sense. If God is already present and acting for good all the time, we don’t need God to come into our situation. God is already here; an omnipresent God is everywhere. (89)

When we understand that God cannot heal singlehandedly, we solve the problem of selective miracles. If God always works to heal but cannot control anyone or anything, it’s not God’s fault when healing does not occur. (93)

Factors within or outside us can frustrate God’s work to heal. Perhaps my phrase, God is “working to heal to the utmost, given the circumstances” now makes sense. God always works alongside people and creation when healing. “Healing to the utmost, given the circumstances” implies creation may not cooperate. Inanimate entities and conditions may not be aligned for the healing God wants. (95)

God is not a vending machine that automatically kicks out a miracle when we insert a prayer coin. But prayer alters circumstances in our bodies and world. It presents new opportunities for God to heal. Prayer opens up new possibilities for God’s love to make an actual difference. (96)

If good comes from suffering and God wants what’s good, is suffering God’s will? (109)

“Everything happens for a reason” really means, “even evil is God’s will!” (116)

The idea God punishes sinners is mostly absent in the New Testament. (122)

A loving God disciplines us in non-coercive ways for our good. God’s discipline isn’t punitive; it’s instructive and encouraging. (125)

There are natural negative consequences to sin and evil. Rather than believe devastation and heartache are supernatural punishments, we should believe they’re the natural negative consequences of refusing to cooperate with God’s love. (130)

Sometimes nobody causes the suffering we experience. No one sinned. No one’s to blame. We suffer as victims of natural disasters, random sickness, or plain bad luck. Accidents and forces of nature make our lives miserable or kill us. Calamity happens. (131)

I believe God uses suffering to mature us. And God responds to evil by helping us and others in positive ways. But I don’t think God causes or allows suffering and evil for this purpose. (133)

The best reasons for atheism are reactions to conventional ideas about God. (143)

The conventional view says that although God could control us and others, God typically gives free will and invites response. The One capable of control doesn’t need cooperation. Coercion is always an option when the conventional God wants to get a job done. (146)

Believers in the conventional God say we should help the poor. “God is calling us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the oppressed,” they say. But the God capable of control allowed that hunger, nakedness, and oppression in the first place. And he can alleviate it with a snap of a finger… if he really wanted to do so. (147)

The God who could singlehandedly determine outcomes but invites contribution is like an authority who pretends his minions matter. A condescending boss does what he wants but pretends to need help. He says the efforts of his underlings make a difference, but it’s a sham. He’s patronizing. (148)

The idea God needs cooperation is more common in the Bible than most realize. Because many readers assume God can accomplish tasks and develop relationships alone, they overlook it. They interpret stories as saying God alone accomplished some goal or task, though the texts don’t explicitly say this. (154)

My own prayer life grows as I pray in light of uncontrolling love. I don’t ask God to control others or situations. I don’t say, “God force them to act differently!” If God always loves and love never controls, asking God to control others or circumstances is fruitless. As I pray, I imagine how I or others might cooperate with God for love to prosper. I ask God to inspire and inform me. (158)

In my view, God doesn’t send anyone to hell singlehandedly. In fact, God can’t. The God whose nature is uncontrolling love also can’t force anyone into heaven. Such force requires control, and God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. (162)

Love is always uncontrolling. Because God’s love is relentless, however, we have good reason to hope all creatures eventually cooperate with God. It’s reasonable to think the God who never gives up and whose love is universal will eventually convince all creatures and redeem all creation. After all, love always hopes and never gives up (1 Cor. 13:7)! (164)

The uncontrolling love of God perspective says what we do — what we all do — matters. The radical truth is our lives count. (171)

 


Stuck in the mist

20 March 2020

Hiking in the Yorkshire Dales was a regular delight in my younger years. Fresh air, glorious scenery, challenging terrain and, once you got to the top of the fell, a magnificent view.

But on several occasions there was no view at all, because the summit was covered by cloud. As you enter the cloud you lose perspective. You have no clear bearings. No visible summit-cairn to head for. It can be truly disorientating.

mistLots of people are feeling like that at present under the coronavirus ‘cloud’ that has descended upon us all. Suddenly, everything is confusing. Might I catch the virus? Is my job safe? Should I hug the grandchildren or not? Will we get our holiday deposit back? What if the supply of loo-rolls runs out? Which way is ‘forward’? Just mist all around.

I was encouraged by an ‘in the mist’ experience recorded in the New Testament. It’s the account of Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36 (also in Matthew 17:1-8 and Mark 9:2-8), witnessed by Peter, James and John. Please read it. The key bit is: ‘A cloud appeared and covered them’ (v34). Here’s what I learnt from it.

It’s easy to get confused in the mist. Peter got confused on the Mount of Transfiguration. He started saying all kinds of unhelpful stuff: ‘He did not know what he was saying’ (v33). We’re the same, liable to be confused by the fake news on social media, and by the weird rumours circulating all around. Be aware of the danger of falling for them, and think before you speak or pass rumours on.

It can be frightening in the mist. ‘They were afraid as they entered the cloud’ (v34). And these were big, tough working men, not usually scared by anything. Even the most psychologically robust of us can suffer qualms of fear when plunged into the unknown the way we have been at present. But there is an antidote to that fear…

Jesus was in the mist with them. The cloud covered them all. Maybe the three apostles couldn’t see Jesus because of it, but he was there, close by, nonetheless. Jesus is with us, too, in the midst of this coronavirus cloud. His promise never to leave or forsake us holds good, even here. He has always delighted in standing in solidarity with his people, and he’s doing that right now.

You might not be able to ‘see’ him, but he is near. Hold on to that. He still says, as he did so many times during his ministry, ‘Don’t be afraid.’

God spoke to them in the mist. He urged them to focus on Jesus: ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him’ (v35). Your heavenly Father still speaks in the mist, so keep your spiritual ears open for his voice. It might even be that, in the forced inactivity that the current crisis is bringing to many, you are in a better position than usual to listen to him.

God doesn’t waste words, so expect him to speak pointedly into your situation, maybe giving you a steer when you are confused. Above all, he will nudge you towards a closer relationship with Jesus.

Eventually, the mist cleared. The ‘in the cloud’ experience of the transfiguration didn’t last forever. In due course, Jesus himself led the three apostles out of it into normality again (Matthew 17:6-9).

Our current cloud will pass, too, so don’t despair. We have no idea whether it will be weeks or months, but it will eventually pass.

The disciples were forever richer for their experience in the mist. They came out of it with a better understanding of God and his ways, a deeper appreciation of Jesus and who he is, and a clearer idea of the mission to which he was calling them.

Let’s learn from them and determine that, when all this is over, we too will be the stronger for it.


Dry powder

17 March 2020

‘Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry!’

That was Oliver Cromwell’s advice to his troops as they prepared to go into battle. He was a wise man. He understood that while trust in God’s providence was to be their basic attitude, it needed marrying with practical common sense—in their case, ensuring that the gunpowder used in their muskets was kept dry, and thus effective.

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_CooperThe same balance is vital in our coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

All committed Christians will say amen to the ‘trust in God’ bit. But I’ve already seen some weird Christian posts on social media suggesting that this is all we need. The gist is, ‘Repeat this Bible verse often and loudly, and shout your defiance at the devil, and you’ll be OK.’ No mention of taking sensible precautions in line with the guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer and others who are qualified to advise us.

At the other extreme are posts—from people without a faith—that make everything dependent on our own sensible actions, and give no room for God at all. That can leave us open to debilitating worry, or even panic.

So we need to embrace both factors: trust in God, and practical self-help steps.

I’m reminded of the young man developing as a preacher who, hearing that a famous preacher was in town, got an appointment to see him. He had a burning question. ‘When I’m booked to preach,’ he said, ‘how should I go about it? Some say I should prepare my sermon down to the last detail. Others say no, I should just stand up and rely on the Holy Spirit to give me the words. What’s your advice?’

‘That’s easy,’ replied the wise old man. ‘Work hard at your preparation, as if there were no Holy Spirit to depend on. Then, when you stand up to preach, rely on the Holy Spirit as if you hadn’t prepared.’

God has always shown himself to be committed to collaborating with human beings this way. Even in Eden, he did the donkey work of creation, you might say, but then handed over the running and shaping of the planet to human beings. That’s the way he continues to work: he asks us to trust him as the foundation of our lives while, at the same time, he expects us to do our own bit. It’s never one or the other; it’s always both.

Wise and godly people in every generation have understood this. Nehemiah is a case in point. He was in charge of rebuilding the broken-down walls of Jerusalem after Judah returned from exile. Not everybody liked the project, and ‘they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.’ How did Nehemiah react? ‘We prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat’ (Nehemiah 4:8-9).

Not either/or, but both/and. Let’s tackle coronavirus the same way.


<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: