Review: When Everything’s On Fire

2 December 2021

Brian Zahnd is one of my favourite preachers, so I was looking forward to this, his latest book. It is

When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes by Brian Zahnd (IVP, 2021)

It has a foreword by Canadian Orthodox theologian Bradley Jersak.

I have not been disappointed. This is one of the most telling, and moving, books I have read for a long time. In an age when hope is scarce and the world in deep turmoil, Zahnd shows how it is possible to maintain a robust Christian faith. It will appeal to the multitude of Christians going through some form of ‘deconstruction’ of their faith, but it also has a preventive aspect that will appeal to a wider readership.

I like the way the author refers to Descartes, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Pascal, Derrida and Dostoevsky, plus other thinkers and writers, to show how their views have shaped modern attitudes, and he skilfully exposes both their strengths and their weaknesses. At the same time, Zahnd recounts some of his own experiences to illustrate his conviction that there is hope for the future, and that we, too, can encounter God in similar ways.

The book is in two parts. The first looks at aspects of the current world situation, while the second points the way forward. The loss of faith being experienced by many is more a reaction to fundamentalism (and especially biblical literalism) than to authentic Christianity. The need is to get away from faith seen as holding to a set of doctrines and to experience God. Modernism frowns on this, but it is central to the way God works. We also need to see the key differences between Jesus, Christianity and the church. The latter two undergo change, but never Jesus himself.

In finding our way forward on the journey of faith, we will need to un-learn some things, just as Paul did after his encounter on the Damascus road. This can be a dark time. But the Jewish day begins at sunset, not at dawn, and ‘dark before light’ is the usual pattern in our own spiritual progress. Happily, God specialises in revealing himself, and he will do that for the earnest seeker. Zahnd encourages professed atheists to step out and approach, by prayer, the God they claim not to believe in.

Modernism is still a factor in people’s awareness today, making human reason the ultimate arbiter of truth and reality. Postmodernism, for all its weaknesses, has at least opened people up to the spiritual dimension, and it’s there where the vital experience of God is to be found. We should seek to be ‘mystics’—people who have such experiences. Contemplative prayer is one avenue of exploration to follow.

On this journey we will likely enter a ‘second naïveté’, particularly in our reading of the Bible. After starting with a childlike approach, we move on to a more analytical, scholarly attitude to Scripture—which is both useful and commendable—but then come back to a more simplistic reading, where God can speak to us.

Zahnd’s conclusion is that the way forward is through an appreciation of the bottom-line fact that ‘God is love’. That enables us to have real hope for the future and be able to dream dreams of better things. The author spells out some of the dreams he has for the church of tomorrow, and they are big ones.

This is a warm and hope-inspiring book. It is deep, and sometimes provocative. But whether we are in a process of faith-deconstruction or not, it has something of value to say to us all.

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

Is Christian faith still viable in an age of unbelief? Yes, it is possible. I can bear witness. My own faith has passed through the flames of modernity and is alive and well.  (p14)

Being angry with modern people for losing their faith is like being angry with medieval people for dying of the plague.  (p14)

[Nietzsche] was a towering intellect, a tremendous writer, a savage polemicist, and the most formidable critic of Christianity in the modern era. And if one is offended by his hostile disposition toward Christianity, it should be remembered that his caustic assaults were more of an attack on moribund Christendom as a cultural artifact than on a faith centered on the life and teachings of Jesus.  (p17)

In recent years, we’ve seen believers, pastors, and well-known Christian leaders publicly lose their faith. This phenomenon is happening with increasing regularity.  (p23)

Sometimes biblical literalism and angry atheism are just two sides of the same fundamentalist coin.  (p27)

I do my best to nurture my grandchildren in the rich soil of historic Christian faith, which in its healthiest forms has always been comfortable with mystery and nuance, metaphor and allegory, candid questions and honest doubt.  (p29)

From the very beginning, Christians have understood that faith and reason are not rivals but compatible ways of engaging with the mystery of being. A thousand years ago, Saint Anselm gave us the phrase “faith seeking understanding,” and the phrase still has currency. Advances in cosmology and quantum physics have only increased our sense of mystery, thus inviting faith to join the conversation.  (p30)

I know what it is to let go of anti-intellectual theology, doom-oriented eschatology, ticket-to-heaven soteriology, hyper-individualized ecclesiology and discover that something far, far better had been there all along.  (p31)

I suspect that many who think they are done with Christianity may not be as done as they suppose.  (p41)

The center of the human being is the heart—not the mind. I didn’t think my way to faith, rather I encountered Christ with my heart. Ultimately, the witness of my heart is as credible as the reasonings of my mind. And if you say the heart can be deceived, I will say the mind can also be deceived. A pure heart can be trusted. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8). My conversion was mystical, not rational. But that does not make it any less credible.  (p45)

Theories of eschatology, theories of atonement, and theories of final judgment I had inherited or picked up along the way now seemed to clash with the beauty of Christ. An unavoidable eschatological megawar in the Middle East, the cross as the Father’s violent anger inflicted on his Son, hell as God’s eternal torture chamber—these theological ideas had become too ugly to be endured.  (p47)

I believed in Jesus, but in midlife I became aware of how much of my theology was incongruent with the one who was the true object of my faith. I was willing to sacrifice my theology for my Lord.  (p48)

We’re not going to find Jesus in an archaeological dig but in the place of prayer and worship.  (p53)

Passing through periods of doubt is a necessary part of spiritual growth and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  (p54)

Within the broad borders of the historic creeds there is plenty of room for creative theology and rigorous debate.  (p60)

Disdain for received religious tradition is more akin to every individual left to discover the wheel and harness fire on their own. Without shared religion, we cannot build on the spiritual progress achieved by those who have gone before us.  (p61)

We train people in prayer by giving them well-crafted prayers because the primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do but to be properly formed.  (p62)

There is a remarkable degree of flexibility and capacity for change within the Christian religion. Among other things, this means that we can rethink and even modify Christianity without losing Jesus.  (p63)

[Re Mark 3]  Losing Jesus. Finding Jesus. Rethinking Jesus. This is the only way we make spiritual progress. Just about the time we think we’ve got Jesus figured out, he goes missing. We may fear that we’ve lost Jesus, nevertheless if we seek him, we will find him. But in the rediscovery we will be required to rethink some things.  (p73)

The sense of being abandoned by God, losing Jesus, is all part of the long spiritual journey. The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross described it as the dark night of the soul. These are the trying times when God plays a mischievous game of hide-and-seek. But it’s all designed to draw us out of our cozy spirituality and onto the hard road of an earnest quest. Christ is found by those who seek him, not those who presume him.  (p74)

In Genesis, the new day doesn’t begin at sunrise or at midnight, but at sunset. Reflecting this, the Jewish Sabbath does not begin at sunrise on Saturday but at sundown on Friday. Each new day begins with new darkness. Newness is not heralded by the rising sun but by enfolding darkness. This is counterintuitive. The new day does not begin with being able to see, the new day begins with being unable to see. Newness is born in nothingness.  (p75)

Complacency, not doubt, is the great enemy of spiritual development.  (p77)

There is a journey of unknowing that is mostly about un-knowing or unlearning. It’s not the learning that is hard but the unlearning. In the first half of life, we tend to think that all we need for spiritual progress is positive addition. Just learn some more God stuff. But in the second half of life, spiritual progress is more often obtained through the apophatic process of negation. We begin to know about God by realizing how very little we know about God.  (p79)

If we think doctrine is more important than love, we already have bad doctrine.  (p86)

The revelation of Jesus Christ cannot be proven (or disproven), it can only be proclaimed. And the proclamation can either be believed or disbelieved. But Paul insists that the capacity to believe is inherently present in the proclamation—the proclamation is self-authenticating because it is the word of Christ. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17 NASB). The capacity to believe is ontologically present in the proclamation of the gospel.  (p91)

If from the outset you insist that if God doesn’t show up in the telescope like Alpha Centauri or in the microscope like a DNA molecule, then God doesn’t exist, well, guess what, you’re going to “prove” that God doesn’t exist.  (p95)

To begin with the Bible and make that the foundation of faith (instead of Jesus!) is to put more weight on the Bible than the Bible can bear.  (p97)

Since the canon of Scripture is closed, the soil of the Christian faith is unchanging. But that doesn’t prevent the living Christian faith itself from growing, changing, developing, and maturing over time.  (p98)

My Christian faith is bigger than the Bible—and dare I say, better than the Bible. Jesus Christ is the only perfect theology and the only enduring foundation.  (p100)

As modern Christians, we are conditioned to be embarrassed by a claim to know something by a revelatory experience, so we are tempted to pretend that our faith is based on something everyone can agree on. But this is a departure from the apostolic understanding of how and why we believe in Jesus. It’s quite amazing to me that it took me decades to admit what I knew all along: I believe in Jesus because I know him.  (p101)

Most atheists I have had conversations with seem to think about God nearly as much as I do.  (p103)

The rational mind is capable of amazing accomplishments, but it is not an organ suitable for experiencing God. Attempting to use the rational mind as the organ for experiencing God is rather like trying to smell a rose with your ear.  (p110)

Jesus is clear that the only way to know if his teaching is from God is a resolve to act. “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (Jn 7:17). You’ll never know if Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life by sitting all alone upstairs in your head thinking about it. You have to act on it.  (p118)

Mystical experiences are not foreign to scriptural tradition but are the norm within scriptural tradition.  (p130)

The goal of spiritual practices like prayer, worship, scripture reading, and the like is to become properly formed as a being who bears the imago Dei—the image of God. Thus, the primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we want God to do but to be properly formed—to become the person God created us to be.  (p131)

Through practices like disciplined Scripture reading, liturgical prayer, formative prayer, listening prayer, contemplative prayer, spiritual reading, and spiritual direction, we form our soul in healthy ways and increase our capacity to experience God.  (p136)

Forty years ago, I read a book titled Knowing God, but as I look back these many years later, I realize that Knowing God isn’t actually about knowing God but knowing doctrines about God—a presentation of Reformed systematic theology.  (p137)

Today, if I’m reading the Bible in the morning as part of my daily spiritual exercises and I read about the walls of Jericho falling down, I don’t muse upon the fact that archaeological evidence does not support this. I know this fact, but now that I know it, I can set it aside and allow the inspired storyteller to tell the story. Because, although I know what biblical archaeology says about this story, I also know there are walls that need to fall and that the people of God need to march around these walls believing they will fall.  (p143)

I hold the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be a historical event. Though the precise nature of the resurrection may lie beyond our understanding, I believe it happened. I believe it because the living Christ has been revealed to me and because of the witness and creedal confession of the church.  (p145)

I actually believe—though I cannot prove it—that God is in a constant state of intervention in the world. I hold to the seemingly outrageous idea that God is never not intervening in the world! God is love, and God is always loving the world. God’s intervention is God’s love. God’s intervening love may rarely (if ever) be coercive and controlling, but the intervention of love is there nevertheless.  (p149)

In a time when everything is on fire with fear, hatred, and violence, the temptation is to fear the fear, hate the hate, and react with violence to the violence. It’s easy to be seduced into thinking that our fear is warranted, our hate is righteous, and our violence is justified.  (p152)

The house of fear exists only because its inhabitants don’t yet know the single greatest truth of our existence: God is love. The universe is not benign, but God is love. Cruel vagaries abound, but God is love. Harms are hidden among us, but God is love. An awareness of God’s love is the secret to facing the world as it is and still abiding in peace.  (p155)

Our blessed hope is that the Father’s house will finally subsume the entire cosmos—that the universe itself will become the house of love. But the particular good news in our present moment is that Jesus invites us to live in the house of love now.  (p158)

When we follow the Jesus way, embrace the Jesus truth, and live the Jesus life, we are on the road to the Father’s house, the house of love. And do I believe that some, drawn by the Holy Spirit, are on this holy way without yet knowing the name of the way? Absolutely. They are what Karl Rahner called “anonymous Christians.”  (p158)

We need to live with both an anticipation of the imminent return of the Lord and with a suspicion that the parousia might be many millennia in the future.  (p163)

[Re Moses and the burning bush]  Learn to sit in some kind of wilderness until something catches fire.  (p170)

Other books by Brian Zahnd that I have reviewed:


Review: It’s all about the journey

12 November 2021

This excellent book is hard to categorise; it straddles the divide between autobiography and spiritual insight. It is

Nomad: A spirituality for travelling light by Brandan Robertson (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2016)

Though still a young man (born 1992), Robertson has had more than his fair share of life’s ups and downs, as he has struggled to find his identity within evangelicalism in his native America. That has included coming to terms with his growing awareness of his own non-mainstream sexuality, which didn’t go down well in that circle, especially as he was in theological training to be a pastor.

He became a ‘nomad’—thrust out from mainstream church life and forced to embark on a journey of spiritual discovery and new alliances. And from these experiences he draws out some life-lessons of great value. These include the need to actually be with people we disagree with; the recognition that Jesus taught and modelled a way of life based on unconditional love; the need to stop trying to force our views on society through legislation; the fact that more of life is grey than black and white; the value of experience over doctrine—and more.

He leads us through some of his own discoveries, including the rich traditions of Orthodox and Catholic faith, and Celtic Christianity. He has found the contemplative approach to prayer of great benefit and has come to see the foolishness of writing off ‘tradition’—especially liturgy and ritual—the way most evangelical churches have done. And he is not alone: he has been surprised to find how many young Christians from charismatic and Pentecostal churches have moved in the same direction.

He tussles with the concept of what it means to be ‘holy’, and concludes that it is to embrace our own uniqueness as the products of an infinitely creative God. For him, of course, that has meant coming to terms with his sexuality—which he wisely refuses to be defined by. There are some challenging insights in this section of the book!

He has a chapter on the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Here, again, he has found the older traditions hugely helpful in appreciating its significance and depth. His eucharistic journey has also taught him the importance of ‘social justice’: feeding the poor, caring for the environment, and more—aspects which evangelicalism has tended to set over against the ‘important’ job of ‘preaching the gospel’.

He has much to say about grace, as expressed in forgiveness. Raised by a violent, alcoholic father who made his childhood a misery, his experience of putting this into practice is intensely down-to-earth, and I suspect many readers will find this deeply challenging. It was equally difficult for him to forgive his old pastor who, in the name of Christ, had treated him in an appalling way.

This really is a unique book. It is well-written and easy to read, but anything but shallow. And it’s one that will shake every reader out of smug complacency and urge them to get up and journey with Jesus.

Here is a selection of quotations, with Kindle location numbers.

I began to realise that I ‘struggled’ with same-sex attraction. As a good Evangelical Christian who felt called to be a pastor, I knew that this ‘struggle’ had to be kept quiet, lest I become the recipient of the harsh treatment I had seen the Church dish out to others.  (120)

I received handwritten letters from professors at my Bible college who were ‘deeply grieved’ by my support for same-sex marriage and even called for me to ‘renounce’ my degree, claiming that I received it under ‘false pretences’ as a ‘deceiver’.  (155)

The book you hold in your hand is not primarily about sexuality or gender identity. Instead, it’s about my journey so far from the rigid confines of religion to the vast desert sands of true spirituality.  (215)

Christians often define themselves by what they believe versus what others don’t. There is security in staying in a particular place with people who share our convictions and experiences. And there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all way of faith. For a growing number of us, this way of having faith is simply unrealistic and inconceivable. We need to move. We want to push the boundaries and traverse in lands where no one has gone before. We’re nomads.  (266)

Many people are leaving the safe confines of the faith of their upbringing and are roaming the streets, looking for and often discovering, new and innovative ways of expressing their devotion to God. This isn’t a symptom of unfaithfulness but is, I believe, a movement of God’s Spirit. As a new generation of Christians are taking to the streets of the world, looking for signs of God’s movement in the most unlikely and unexpected places, we are discovering that the God we worship is much bigger than we once expected. That Jesus is actually ‘alive and active’ as the Apostle Paul says in the book of Ephesians, in places we never thought he would show up.  (330)

What happens when the pat answers that once made so much sense now begin to seem uneducated, ill informed, and archaic?  (341)

Jesus wasn’t worried about giving anyone any answers. He was interested in leading them on a journey. Jesus created spiritual nomads, not doctrinal guards. Jesus stirred up doubt in the minds of those who thought they had it all figured out and honoured the seekers.  (414)

When I was still a Baptist, I believed that any church that used the NIV Bible were sell-outs and heretics. Seriously.  (583)

Fear and demonisation of ‘the other’ is one of the biggest problems with Christianity (and perhaps every religion) today. Anthropologists have long understood that one of the fundamental methods that humans use to create a unified community is to unite against a common enemy.  (620)

There is another means to fostering unity within our communities that brings life and breeds openness. There is a way that disarms both the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ and creates, in the midst of our great diversity and complexity, a ‘we’. And that way is love.  (645)

During my high-school years, I was very involved in inter-faith dialogue. What that really means is that I liked to argue with anyone who wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian like me. Throughout my four years, I spent countless hours debating with Mormons, Muslims, Wiccans, Pagans, Atheists, Non-Religious and of course, the Methodists, trying to convert them from their way of false teaching to my way, or rather, the way.  (675)

Part of loving is sacrificing our ego’s need to be right.  (712)

Even though the average Christian isn’t actually militaristic, this mindset of war does affect the way we interact with the people and culture that surround us. We begin to see everything in our world as increasingly dark and hostile to us and our faith… It’s this impulse to defend our faith against perceived threats that has made Christians more known for what we’re against than what we’re for.  (764)

I was a fan of the Apostle Paul. His words were clear, straightforward, and deeply theological. When Paul wanted to say something, he said it. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke in parables. His words were often cryptic. And most perplexingly, he seemed to have really bad theology. Paul made it clear that salvation was ‘by faith alone, through grace’. But Jesus seemed to suggest that we would be ultimately judged based on what we did, how we lived, and not on what we believed.  (788)

On the cross Jesus put an end to all judgement, condemnation, and war. He revealed that the Kingdom of God would not be established through Christianising our culture but by sacrificing our rights, privileges, and positions of power out of love for our neighbours. For our enemies. This is indeed ‘foolishness’ to the world, but it is the wisdom of God.  (824)

We vocally war against legislation to support same-sex couples’ civil right to be married under the law, claiming that marriage is ‘our’ institution. But when did Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or anyone ever ask us to do that? As we force our worldview and values on a nation that cannot relate to them, is it any wonder that there are such negative perceptions of Christianity?  (860)

The modern pursuit of winning over the culture is ultimately a pursuit of power and domination… While many great contributions have been made by Christianity because of its position of influence over the centuries, the truth seems to be that whenever Christianity is given power and prominence, it ceases to be authentic Christianity.  (874)

I found myself amazed that at the core of every religious tradition, there seemed to be beliefs and values that aligned with mine. Many of the religions we learned about had similar ideas and practices that seemed to complement my Christian faith in unexpected ways.  (959)

Truth isn’t a set of absolute propositions; rather, it is a person. Jesus Christ. He is Truth and like all people, he is dynamic. He cannot be classified, systematised, and organised into neat little boxes and categories. He defies boundaries and descriptions. And if Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, as the Apostle Paul claims, then we must assume that God is just as dynamic.  (1033)

When I understood that everything didn’t have cut-and-dried answers, that theology was a complex and imprecise art, and that God himself was dynamic and filled with colour and tension, I began to finally feel … safe.  (1045)

We are told to confess and affirm, rather than to critically think, engage, or seek after a personal experience with God. Many are even told that desiring to experience God instead of mentally assenting to his existence is somehow sinful and untrustworthy.  (1096)

…the Pharisees, a hyper-orthodox, Scripture-centred group of religious leaders who, like many Christians today, valued theological accuracy and moral purity over an intimate relationship with God.  (1120)

The early Christians’ spirituality was far more than reading the Bible and praying every day. It was deeply rhythmic; a well-structured pattern of living that ensured a person would remain aware and connected to the presence of God throughout the day. Many traditions involved some form of meditation.  (1144)

In my journey to experience God, I have found great resonance in the contemplative traditions of the Franciscans.  (1179)

When our theology and language fall short, as they always do, it is our experiential knowledge of God that will ultimately sustain us. As spiritual nomads with an insatiable desire to delve deeper into the depths of the great mysteries of our Universe, we must learn to seek and sense the presence of God.  (1215)

Though many of us may find ourselves in a place where we feel like no one understands our struggle and no church could ever be a comfortable fit for us, it is essential to intentionally commit to a community and to relationships, no matter how much tension or discomfort there may be.  (1396)

To be holy means to be unique or different. So when God calls us to be holy, we’re being called to embrace our ‘True Selves,’ the authentic being God originally created us to be.  (1466)

To be holy is to be like Christ, and to be like Christ is to be rooted and confident in our God-given identity.  (1509)

When a person diverges from the normalised cultural image, we marginalise and demonise them. Those who rock the boat by being their authentic selves are often the ones society despises most. Why? Because in our bondage to our false identities, which we perceive as giving us value and security, we can’t stand to see someone else walking in liberation.  (1522)

Instead of preaching the Gospel, which invites all people to come just as they are, we began to preach a message that required LGBTQ people to conform to our standard of holiness before they were welcome into the body of Christ.  (1634)

I now believe that God blesses LGBTQ marriages, that covenanted same-sex relationships are a reflection of the love and glory of God, and that identifying as both LGBTQ and Christian is not contradictory.  (1646)

The sooner we relinquish our desire to label and classify each other in neat boxes where we can understand and ultimately control each other, the sooner we open up ourselves and our world to true freedom.  (1669)

Growing up as an Evangelical, I never really got what the whole communion thing was all about… It wasn’t until I began to explore the ancient traditions of the Church that the importance of the Eucharist began to radically change the way I viewed Christianity altogether.  (1712)

Jesus seemed less concerned about whether his disciples were exemplary theologians and more concerned with whether or not they embodied grace, forgiveness, and peace to their neighbours, their enemies, and themselves.  (1797)

The ritual of the Eucharist provides the image of what it looks like to be a Christian. Beyond having the right answers or believing the right things about God, being a Christian is first and foremost about following Christ. About being filled with the Spirit of God, and allowing ourselves to be broken and poured out in the world.  (1834)

To the natural mind, it seems absurd to assert that the way to foster healing from a toxic or abusive situation is to return to the situation and offer forgiveness, blessing, and love. But this is the way of the Kingdom.  (1963)

One thing that I have become absolutely confident of is that life is not about achieving goals, gaining notoriety, or reaching a destination. It is about the journey.  (2025)

It seems to me that God has always been more interested in faithfulness to his leading and direction, wherever it may take us, than about reaching a place of certainty and comprehension.  (2037)

Beyond all of our theology, traditions, and practices, to be a Christian means to live every moment consciously aware that ‘in God we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28a).  (2087)

This is the goal for which I strive. This is the desire for which I long. For myself, for you, and for the entire world. That we would live lives of wonder, totally amazed at the goodness of God, the complexity of life, the diversity of human experience, and the peculiar reality that it all fits together somehow on to the giant canvas of the cosmos on which God is painting a beautiful masterpiece that defies comprehension.  (2160)

 


4th Edition: A Poke In The Faith

23 October 2021

I launched my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, in 2016. It shows how many traditional evangelical beliefs have come under question in recent years. And this, not by enemies of the Christian faith, but by solid, committed followers of Jesus who have been bold enough to query some aspects of their faith.

My aim in writing the book was, first, to spell out some of the challenges being made—most of which I’m in sympathy with, but others not—and, second, to show how it’s possible to face up to them without losing your own faith.

The latter came, in turn, out of the grim awareness of an increasing number of Christians who have jacked in their faith all together. And the reason they have done so, it appears, is because they have held to an inter-connected belief system in which every item is linked to all the rest. As a result, if an attack on one item brings it down, the whole belief-system comes crashing down with it.

In my book, therefore, I set out to show that you don’t have to have a tightly inter-connected system. That sets you free, then, to let go of—or adopt a different view of—certain items without having the whole faith-structure collapse around you.

Since the book went public on my website, I’ve had a steady flow of responses from people in many countries  who have found it helpful in just the way I intended, which is gratifying. Most of these have been Christians with a long evangelical history. Many of them have been questioning certain aspects for years, but have never dared make it known, for fear of being thought to be ‘backsliders’.

Naturally, I’ve also had a handful of vitriolic responses writing me off as an irretrievable heretic!

A few of the topics covered are:

  • Heaven and hell
  • What happened at the cross?
  • Creation and evolution
  • Interpreting the Bible
  • Belief-systems like Calvinism
  • What the Bible is and is not
  • The meaning of ‘justification’
  • What exactly is ‘the gospel’?
  • The kingdom of God
  • Christianity and other religions

In December 2019 I updated A Poke In The Faith to its Second Edition. This involved a few minor tweaks to the text, plus three new topics:

  1. A section on ‘the wrath of God’
  2. A chapter on the doctrine of ‘original sin’
  3. A chapter applying current thinking on Bible interpretation to the fraught topic of homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular

Hard on the heels of this, in August 2020, came the Third Edition. This added material on God and the problem of evil. In particular, it addressed the issue of why, if God is both loving and all-powerful, does he not do more to stop it? And, more recently still, the Fourth Edition appeared, with minor amendments and some material on the Bible viewed as ‘wisdom’ literature.

You can download the latest edition for free here. It’s available in PDF, Kindle and epub formats which, between them, mean you can read it on any computer, tablet or phone. I invite you to give it a read in the hope that, along with many other readers, you will find it informative and, hopefully, liberating.

The same link will give you access to my other current free e-book, Signposts To God. This is an evangelistic book aimed at people who at present don’t have any active faith but are beginning to feel their way towards God. Please don’t hesitate to download it and pass it on to anyone you feel might find it helpful.

And if you have any feedback to offer, I’d be very happy to receive it. You can email me via the link on my website at www.davidmatthew.org.uk

[If you have found this interesting, you might also like this post.]


Review: How the early church grew

19 October 2021

Church history is not everybody’s cup of tea. But some grasp of it, however weak, is better than none and prevents us from becoming rootless Christians. This fascinating book focuses on the first four centuries of the Christian era. It is

The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider (Baker Academic, 2016)

It builds its case around the words ‘patient’ and ‘ferment’. The early church never got up-tight about evangelism; it focused on living in line with Jesus’ teaching and example, and patiently trusted God to add to its numbers automatically. And he did just that! The ‘ferment’ idea is that of quiet change going on at the heart of things, like yeast in dough. And that, too, was a notable feature of the early church’s development and influence.

The word ‘habitus’ crops up a lot. It refers to the way of life of the believers in Jesus: their actions and reactions based on their convictions about what it means to live in a truly Christian way. Patience was a key element, in its broad sense that includes aspects like non-retaliation and the acceptance of societal pressure. In an age when violent persecution arose regularly, this was vital.

Their behaviour naturally posed a threat to a society based on military force and where people were entertained by watching gladiatorial combat. The Christians refused to take up arms or to attend the shows in the local amphitheatre. Their quiet resistance to these social pressures both annoyed their neighbours and attracted them.

It will surprise some modern Christians to know that, in these early days of the church, a three-year process of instruction and catechism was required, with many checks, before a would-be Christian was allowed to be baptised and participate in the Eucharist. This meant that the subsequent drop-out rate was low: people knew what they had signed up for. The book looks in some detail at the content of the catechism, then goes on to examine how the Christians worshipped together, once baptised and in full fellowship.

Huge changes touched the church, of course, when the Emperor Constantine became sympathetic to Christianity, early in the fourth century. For believers, respectability now replaced persecution. The book looks at the wide-ranging effects of this change for local churches across the Empire.

Kreider’s book is extremely well documented, with prolific references to the writings of early Christian leaders like Justin, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and others, some of whom wrote long treatises on the subject of Christian patience.

We can learn many lessons from the early church, and this book will highlight some of them. At the same time, our twenty-first century world is different in many ways, and we would not want to apply all of those lessons slavishly as the only way forward.

This is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking books I have read for a long time. If you are in any form of church leadership you will find it particularly helpful.

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

The Christians believed that God is patient and that Jesus visibly embodied patience. And they concluded that they, trusting in God, should be patient—not controlling events, not anxious or in a hurry, and never using force to achieve their ends.  (p1)

When challenged about their ideas, Christians pointed to their actions. They believed that their habitus, their embodied behavior, was eloquent. Their behavior said what they believed; it was an enactment of their message. And the sources indicate that it was their habitus more than their ideas that appealed to the majority of the non-Christians who came to join them.  (p2)

According to the evidence at our disposal, the expansion of the churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened.  (p9)

In 256 Cyprian wrote a treatise of encouragement for his people. “Beloved brethren,” he wrote, “[we] are philosophers not in words but in deeds; we exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by truth; we know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them.”  (p13)

Tertullian urges Christians, who live by Jesus’s precepts, to wear their oppressors out with patience: “Let wrong-doing grow weary from your patience.”  (p23)

French reflexive sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points us to another motivator that he believes is deeper which he calls habitus. Bourdieu contends that the knowledge that truly forms us is more profoundly a part of us than our intellectual knowledge. It is “corporeal knowledge,” a “system of dispositions” that we carry in our bodies.  (p39)

The Christian leaders recognized that, even after catechesis and baptism, there were profound continuities in the social reflexes of their people. Their wiring was almost hard. But not quite. Change was…not impossible.  (p41)

The worship of the Christian community, repeated week by week, shaped the worshipers’ habitus by giving them kinesthetic as well as verbal habits.  (p51)

It was not primarily what the Christians said that carried weight with outsiders; it was what they did and embodied that was both disconcerting and converting. It was their habitus—their reflexes and ways of life that suggested that there was another way to perceive reality—that made the Christians interesting, challenging, and worth investigating.  (p51)

What the outsiders saw was not their worship. It was their habitus. According to Tertullian, the outsiders looked at the Christians and saw them energetically feeding poor people and burying them, caring for boys and girls who lacked property and parents, and being attentive to aged slaves and prisoners. They interpreted these actions as a “work of love.” And they said, “Vide, look! How they love one another.” They did not say, “Aude, listen to the Christians’ message”; they did not say, “Lege, read what they write.” Hearing and reading were important, and some early Christians worked to communicate in these ways too. But we must not miss the reality: the pagans said look! Christianity’s truth was visible; it was embodied and enacted by its members.  (p61)

Christians were uncomfortably aware that pagans often attributed problems to the presence of Christians: “Many are complaining and are blaming us because wars are arising more frequently, because the plague, famine are raging.” This analysis could lead to persecution.  (p64)

[Re the plague]  As Cyprian wrote, some Christians were upset when they observed that “the power of this disease attacks our people equally with the pagans.” Cyprian would have none of this; in his sermon he simply reminds the people that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, had said that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust, and by extension the plague could also descend on everybody without distinction.  (p66)

Christians followed their business opportunities or the imperatives of their jobs by moving from their home areas to new areas as merchants, artisans, doctors, prisoners, slaves, and (by the third century) soldiers. As they traveled, they often moved in existing networks of family, profession, and faith (not least communities of Jews). Taking their faith with them, in new places they founded Christian cells. One scholar has called this process “migration mission.”  (p75)

As the worldwide Christian movement gained in membership, women played an indispensable part in the story.  (p82)

The significance of women in the early centuries was not in their institutional leadership but in their sheer number. It may be hard to prove this, but I am convinced that from an early date the majority of Christians were women.  (p83)

Christian catechists and writers in other parts of the ancient world also gave prominence to the “swords into plowshares” text. According to Gerhard Lohfink, this is the prophetic passage the early Christian writers cited more often than any other.  (p92)

Michael Green, assessing the apologetic writings for their evangelistic success, has concluded that there is “no example of an outsider being converted to Christianity by reading an Apologetic writing.”  (p93)

In the ancient world, when Christians were at their best, they sensed a dynamic interplay between indigenizing and being pilgrim, between affirmation and critique. They lived in existential tension between being at home and being strangers.  (p98)

Nothing did more to make the Christian communities distinctive than their sheer heterogeneity. Not only were women and men together; so also were children and old people.  (p102)

Even into the third century, their meetings, although structured, seem to have been characterized by emotional intensity and unpredictability.  (p105)

Ancient writers…more often mention exorcism than anything else as a cause of conversion to Christianity.  (p112)

According to Henry Chadwick, “The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success.”  (p117)

Justin asserted that the church’s growth was a product of the Christians’ distinctive approach to enemies. Why do Christians love and pray for and persuade their enemies? So the enemies will become brothers: “so that they [our enemies], living according to the fair commands of Christ, may share with us the good hope of receiving the same things [that we will] from God, the master of all.”  (p118)

By the late second century many Christian communities had decided that outsiders—non-Christians—could not be admitted to their worship services.  (p134)

It was not Christian worship that attracted outsiders; it was Christians who attracted them, and outsiders found the Christians attractive because of their Christian habitus, which catechesis and worship had formed.  (p135)

Typically the earlier churches held their primary meetings in the evenings, but by the first half of the third century most had their main services in the morning. The churches had moved from being a meal society to being a worship assembly, and their primary meeting had moved from dinner to breakfast.  (p136)

The true prophets were not those who said inspiring things; they were those who “behave like the Lord.” The Didache notes, “It is by their conduct that the false prophet and the [true] prophet can be distinguished.”  (p140)

Christians have renounced their old habitus and entered an alternative, life-giving habitus in each of the four areas: in sex, continence; in place of magic, dedication to God; in wealth, “bringing what we have into a common fund and sharing with everyone in need”; in violence and xenophobia, “living together and praying for our enemies, and trying to persuade those who unjustly hate us.” This new habitus, Justin contends, is rooted in the teachings of Christ, “whose word was the power of God.”  (p143)

Unlike many churches today, the third-century churches described by the Apostolic Tradition did not try to grow by making people feel welcome and included. Civic paganism did that. In contrast, the churches were hard to enter. They didn’t grow because of their cultural accessibility; they grew because they required commitment to an unpopular God who didn’t require people to perform cultic acts correctly but instead equipped them to live in a way that was richly unconventional.  (p149)

Non-Christians were at times attracted by the Christians and interested in exploring Christianity further. The Christians could not take them to Sunday worship services—these were off limits to people until they had been catechized and baptized. But the Christians could invite their friends to go with them early on a weekday to meet the church’s “teachers.”  (p149)

Church leaders of a later age might have said, “Let’s admit them as they do their current jobs and eventually, when they have ‘heard the word,’ they will think their way into a new life.” The church of the Apostolic Tradition says in effect, “No, our approach is the opposite. We believe that people live their way into a new kind of thinking.”  (p151)

The theologian Origen likened the catechumens’ experience to the Israelites’ crossing the Red Sea; in this, they had left their bondage in Egypt but had not yet crossed the Jordan. Like the Israelites, the catechumens were in the wilderness, a place of unlearning and learning, of testing and deciding. In this liminal place, the catechumens had to choose—did they want to go back to their old life, or did they want to take the risk of being immersed in a new life?  (p153)

The catechists knew that people are profoundly formed by the stories they tell; therefore, many catechists made it a priority to present to the catechumens the Bible’s narrative, which would replace the pagan stories as their primary fund of memory.  (p157)

[Re Cyprian on catechesis]  Catechumens are to be nonviolent in their attitudes, words, and physical bearing; they are to be humble, to accept oppression, to overcome anger, to refuse to curse and slander, to accept martyrdom, and to forgive others.173 In five of his precepts, Cyprian specifically enjoins Christians to live with patientia.  (p168)

In North Africa, according to Tertullian, the bishops did allow candidates to discuss theology—at the right time. The right time was the weeks prior to baptism.  (p181)

[Re Origen on those just baptised]  And then for the first time they take part in the Eucharist, in which they receive milk and honey as well as bread and wine. They have entered the promised land.  (p183)

Christians claimed that through their worship services God changed them and strengthened them to cope with the precarious realities and daunting problems of daily living.  (p186)

Christians did not worry that absence of the pagans from their services constituted a lost opportunity. Their worship was not evangelistic; it was not “seeker sensitive.” Their intent in worshiping was to glorify God rather than to attract outsiders.  (p189)

There was encounter with the Bible and teaching by leaders with whom there could be interaction.  (p194)

According to Hermas, prophetic perception and exhortation were a normal part of the evening worship services of the Roman Christians, not the vocation of only one prophet.  (p196)

The early Christian writers gave exceptional attention to prayer, vastly more than to the sermon.  (p204)

There is no explicit record of the Lord’s Prayer being used in eucharistic services until the late fourth century.  (p206)

Origen in Caesarea saw it as natural that believers, rich and poor, would stand so close together in prayer that they would overhear each other; and because of what they heard, they could engage in acts of mutual aid, meeting each other’s needs… A doctor “is standing by one who is sick and is praying for health; . . . it is manifest that he would be moved to heal the one who prays.” A wealthy person “hears the prayer of a poor person who lifts up an appeal to God on account of his necessity. It is obvious that he will fulfill the prayer of the poor person.”  (p206)

Tertullian voiced another concern—the believers’ experience that the God to whom they passionately prayed did not always answer immediately. The church, he wrote, is like the little ship in Matthew 8:24 in which Jesus’s disciples are being tossed about by waves (persecutions and temptations), and the Master does not respond: “In his patience [he] is as it were asleep.” Tertullian urged believers to be patient. At the right time, in response to the prayers of the people, the Master would awaken, “calm the world and restore tranquility to his own.”  (p209)

Scholars have noted in bewilderment that the early Christians did not spend a lot of time praying for the conversion of outsiders.139 Instead, energized by the power of God that they experienced in worship, many of them lived interesting lives. And the rumors got out. Christian worship was a place of empowerment.  (p211)

The kiss of peace also shaped Christian witness. Believers, many of them poor, emerged from worship with the exhilarating knowledge that they had kissed unequals on the level. I, a struggling stoneworker, have kissed a decurion! Whatever others might say about them, the believers knew that they were people of worth, brothers and sisters in Christ. They knew this in their bodies. Outsiders would look at them and wonder what had happened to them in worship that gave them dignity and confidence.  (p220)

The Didascalia’s authors were not particularly concerned about mission. They assumed the churches were growing but didn’t write much about growth. Significantly, they didn’t urge the clergy or laity to evangelize. According to their understanding, spreading the message was God’s work, and it was their calling to be “helpers for God.”  (p226)

Late in the second century the church reached a tipping point. According to Georg Schöllgen, the church’s numbers had grown to the point that their patterns of order and behavior were no longer working well and needed to be changed.  (p231)

[Re the Roman emperor Constantine]  In my view, Constantine became a Christian, but not until just before he died. And his conversion did not come in a moment but was the culmination of a process of conversion. Constantine became a Christian when he, like the Christians for centuries before him, submitted himself to catechesis and baptism.  (p251)

[Re the views of Lactantius]  Religion cannot be promoted by compulsion. The advocates of a religion must make their case by patience. When people seek to defend a religion by bloodshed and torture, the religion is “polluted and outraged.”  (p259)

Constantine was saying to the “saints” that because he wanted life to be governed by reason, there must reasonably be more than one habitual way to be Christian—and that it would be legitimate for some Christians to kill judicially and in battle.  (p262)

These examples indicate an emperor with a short fuse and unreconstructed habitus; he was still reflexively in the thrall of dignitas and violence. So it’s not surprising that in 326, whatever offenses his son Crispus and his wife Fausta may (or may not) have committed, Constantine responded not by forgiving them but by contriving their execution. If Constantine had experienced a conversion of lifestyle and habitus, he could have responded differently to these agonizingly broken relationships—and given a moving Christian witness to the empire.  (p264)

Constantine did not approach religious policy as a baptized believer in the Christian tradition. Instead, he approached it as a traditional Roman with Christian affinities who was convinced that the religious cult played a central role in unifying society.  (p267)

Constantine’s use of state power was not to root un-Christian behavior out of the church but rather to root heresy out of society. This was the aim of the council at Nicaea to which Constantine summoned the bishops in 325, and whose creed and canons he backed up by banishings.  (p268)

The move to crush illicit Christian groupings was rooted in Constantine’s anti-heresy edict of 330, which according to Stuart Hall was “an imperial assault on voluntary Christianity.  (p276)

For earlier Christians patience had been the “highest virtue”; for Augustine it has become an ambivalent virtue: it “might be bad—if not directed to a just cause—or good, if it was.”  (p282)

As Augustine preached his sermons, always open to dialogue, the people repeatedly interjected “their usual cry, ‘One is free to believe or not to believe. With whom did Christ use force? Whom does he compel?’” Augustine knew how to respond to this usual cry. He pointed to Christ who used force, who coerced Paul into conversion by blinding him, as a result of which “the Church, then, imitates its Lord in forcing the Donatists.”  (p288)

Augustine confronted the apparent effectiveness of force; what he repeatedly called exempla—experiences, facts—demonstrated that a just impatience works!66 In light of the evidence, Augustine was convinced that he should turn away from the traditional Christian missional approach that was saturated in patience. His On Patience rationalized his turning.  (p295)

 


Review: Problems with prayer

7 October 2021

I have long felt uncomfortable with some aspects of ‘petitionary prayer’—asking God to do things ‘at a distance’ for people and situations around the world.

I used to avoid prayer meetings because they raised too many questions. Like, ‘If God is in control, as most Christians maintain, why does he so seldom step in to heal people and sort things out?’ And, ‘If God is love, why doesn’t he just fix things anyway, without making his action dependent on how many people pray?’

Nobody seemed able or willing to answer those questions. Indeed, some Christians clearly saw me as on the verge of backsliding just for raising them. At last—oh, happy day!—I have found a book that tackles these and related issues head on! It is

Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God by Mark Gregory Karris (Quoir, 2018)

You may already have come across the idea of ‘the uncontrolling love of God’, popularised by theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Love is God’s essential nature (1 John 4:6), and love, by definition, does not control; it ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5). That is the central plank in the theodicy of ‘essential kenosis’. In this book, Mark Karris examines prayer in the light of it, and provides some deeply satisfying answers.

He patiently deconstructs the approach to petitionary prayer that is the norm among evangelical Christians, before proposing a reconstructed approach in line with the conviction that God is not ‘in control’ in the sense of causing of all that happens, or even ‘allowing’ things to happen. At the same time, he looks honestly at those Bible passages often used to support petitionary prayer (like Elijah’s prayer for drought in James chapter 5, and Peter’s release from prison in Acts 12), and shows them to be not as simple as we think.

He proposes ‘conspiring prayer’, in which we enter into a dialogue with God. We bring our requests. He hears them and, in response, suggests ways in which we ourselves can become at least part of the answer.

If you consider yourself a ‘praying Christian’, I’m tempted to say, ‘I dare you to read this book!’ It will, I think, make you even more of a praying Christian—but with a modified approach that makes more sense of how God’s love and God’s power interact. It has certainly been a big help to me, and I recommend it unreservedly.

[Here is a selection of quotations. The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

My own experience of unanswered prayers became a haunting ghost of doubt that impelled me to examine more closely just what petitionary prayer on behalf of others really entails.  (175)

We are called to be Divine Echoes—people who intentionally set aside time to prayerfully listen, humbly opening themselves up to receive God’s wavelengths of love and creatively reverberate them out to the world around them.  (236)

While I knew that praying for oneself and for others in close community could be liberating, I began to question the validity of petitionary prayer for others who were not present, as well as for social issues, like poverty, racism, drug addiction, and violence.  (268)

I define the traditional understanding of the typical petitionary prayer as talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand. For example, if I prayed, “God, please save my uncle Harold from his drug addiction,” I would be assuming that before I started praying, God was not already actively loving in the specific manner requested. In other words, God was not saving my uncle Harold from his drug addiction. I would be offering my petition in the hope that God might hear my prayer and lovingly save my uncle.  (376)

What exactly happens after the words leave my lips or after I speak them silently? Does God instantly hear them, or do they first move through the traffic of heaven where angels and demons are engaged in an epic battle? Some have suggested prayer releases and activates God’s power. Are prayers, then, like magical incantations? When a person prays for God to heal their ill dad, does that give God extra power, energy, or motivation to do so?  (455)

Does God increase his active love because a larger number of people pray? Does God say, “Well, just twenty of you prayed. If thirty of you had prayed, I would definitely have healed him”?  (469)

If an all-powerful God could single-handedly save and deliver loved ones but allows them to get into fatal accidents, become sick, get raped, or experience other tragedies because people did not pray for them, is that consistent with what a loving God would do?  (482)

It is important to remember that while biblical writers and saints of old believed petitionary prayer for others was powerful and brought about miraculous events, they were culturally conditioned. Their understanding was limited to the amount of revelation they could comprehend at their time in history. It is possible they did not think through the nuances, mechanics, and implications of petitionary prayer. They did not consider how other agencies were involved in moment-to-moment events—agencies like free will, lawlike regularities, randomness, and God’s uncontrolling, loving character. They engaged in an ancient social and sacred practice that came naturally and was modeled by generations of spiritual seekers before them.  (493)

One of the biggest conundrums with petitionary prayers for others is that they can unknowingly suggest a diminished view of God’s loving nature. In petitionary prayer, we are asking God to do our will with respect to our loved ones. We ask God to keep them safe, to heal them, to give them success, or to save them from an eternity without him. We want these things for those close to us because we love them. But if God loves them too, and his love far exceeds our love, does he not want these things for them too?  (580)

If our image of God is that of an autocrat, we believe God can do whatever God wants whenever God wants and however God wants to do it. Therefore, we don’t consider human agency and free will in the prayer equation.  (627)

If, on the one hand, God routinely intervenes in people’s lives without specific prayers for them and, on the other, chooses to remain passive and do nothing simply because people haven’t prayed, the logical conclusion is that God is a cruel utilitarian, prioritizing the faith of some over the health of others, rather than a benevolent Father to all.  (702)

The onus is on those who are trying to prove that petitionary prayer is empirically effective. Unfortunately, they have not effectively done so. Second, it would be impossible to scientifically prove whether prayer is solely responsible for any given outcome because there are too many variables.  (891)

If people believe that praying to God in a certain manner, at a certain volume, and with certain words will convince God to single-handedly root out prejudice, reduce hate crimes, solve the problem of homelessness, heal drug addicts, stop people from committing arson, stop rapes from occurring, and so on, they are engaging in magical thinking and superstition of the worst kind.  (930)

How many times throughout our lives have we prayed fervently for those suffering and in distress, placing all the responsibility on God to answer our prayers while those for whom we prayed suffered needlessly because we took no responsibility to be part of God’s answer to our prayer?  (982)

Some prayers in the Bible may be considered petitions, but a closer examination shows they would be more accurately described as wishes. Wishes are not typically addressed to God and do not have an expectation that God will intervene and actively love in a greater measure in someone’s life. They are simply a way of expressing inner longings.  (1027)

If God chose to stop the rain [in answer to Elijah’s prayer], God was simultaneously choosing to ignore other faithful people’s desperate prayers for rain.  (1164)

Why is it that God is able to instantly and supernaturally send angels to break people out of prison without being seen, and yet he is unable (or unwilling) to perform miraculous acts of that nature more frequently? Why doesn’t God send angels more often to prevent people, including young children, from being raped? Since God can instantly flick open a massive iron gate, why doesn’t he use his power to flick a psychopathic gunman in the head before a mass murder?  (1263)

[Re Daniel 10]   While God does use angels to deliver messages on occasion, God is an omnipresent being who can, and does, promptly answer prayers, speak to us, and show us visions. I would think a proper theology of prayer—especially one developed under the New Covenant—would not have us worrying about whether our mail will get stuck in transit due to the heavenly postal workers’ fighting with each other.  (1363)

Forming a theology of petitionary prayer for others based on Scripture requires that we work through some hermeneutical issues. It requires that we separate wishes from prayers. It requires that we separate myth, legend, and metaphorical and symbolic literature from objective history. It requires that we separate event descriptions (this is what happened) from biblical prescriptions (this is what you should do).  (1435)

Recently, I spoke to a professor and well-known speaker on the topic of prayer. He quoted John Wesley, who said, “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer.” I asked him why atheists in, say, predominantly atheistic countries like China or Denmark experience the same “miracles” as praying Christians experience. Why are they shocked to find their cancer has unexpectedly gone into remission? Why do they receive money as a gift at the last minute to pay rent? Why do they find true love, recover from addictions, find great parking spots, reconcile with estranged family members, and recover from depression? In other words, if “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer,” then why do atheists experience many of the things Christians pray for, except without the prayer?  (1471)

God does not step into time and intervene on occasion only when we pray fervently for him to do so. He is always close, always moving, always on mission, always loving, calling, challenging, encouraging, comforting, and convicting, moment to moment.  (1496)

Many Christians believe God can control but chooses not to. We have already seen how this view of God is problematic because a God who can unilaterally stop evil but who instead exercises “self-restraint” is a God who may be morally culpable.  (1561)

For many, humans having agency and free will to make choices in the world makes sense. Bad things happen because people choose to do terrible things. But randomness and lawlike regularities are seldom discussed. Understanding their interaction in everyday events helps us to understand further the complexities involved in human suffering. Understanding God’s inability to control randomness and lawlike regularities helps us understand why some tragic events occur.  (1573)

We often pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). It doesn’t make sense to pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done if God’s reign is already everywhere and his will is always done on earth.  (1598)

One of the pitfalls of the traditional model of petitionary prayer is that it tends to ask God to love or change others without taking into consideration other dynamics and agencies, such as a person’s free will. Conspiring prayer, however, takes free will and a coherent theodicy into perspective.  (1647)

A person without faith or openness to God’s presence limits what God can do in their lives. If a person pushes God away, then no matter how much one may pray for them, God is kept from loving more fully. James reminds his audience that a person who doubts “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (1:7). It is not that God doesn’t want to give gifts and blessings to that person, but God has an open-door policy. God’s love does not control and only enters fully when people willfully open their door to him; God doesn’t force doors open.  (1672)

Despite his power, even Jesus was limited. Mark 6:5–6 states, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” Can you imagine? Jesus, the all-powerful, mighty God, met people he couldn’t heal? It certainly had nothing to do with Jesus’s desire or power.  (1685)

God always performs the most loving acts possible in every moment in every nook and cranny of existence. God can be trusted completely because he would never purposefully or maliciously harm any person, especially not for some grand Machiavellian purpose. This way of thinking about God, alongside an understanding of God’s relationship to human free will and other agencies, is a grand proclamation. Keeping God’s faithful and uncontrolling love in mind radically changes how we think about prayer.  (1697)

If prayer changes God and increases God’s energetic force of love toward people and circumstances, why didn’t the cumulative force of millions of Jews and other believers in God who prayed and cried out to God for mercy keep them from being tortured and executed in the Holocaust?  (1826)

Some would prefer to treat prayer as a ‘drive-thru window’ where they can place their order quickly and one-sidedly, without much engagement with the other party, rather than as an intimate meal in which both parties set the table and cook the food together.  (1905)

God invites us to create sacred spaces where we can be silent and practice the art of listening. A typical prayer meeting consists of people singing a few praise songs, stating their prayer requests, praying them to God, and returning home. There ought to be a time in that mix where the congregation turns down the guitar amps, shuts off the projector, zips their lips, quiets their hearts, and listens for what God might have to share. This old Quaker tradition is needed all the more in our high-tech age, regardless of denomination.  (1991)

I propose we Christians get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused about God’s role or, worse still, would blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary cognitive and emotional obstacle that prevents many from having a loving and grateful connection with their Creator.  (2027)

Mother Teresa eventually made the switch from traditional petitionary prayer to conspiring prayer. She is quoted as saying: “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”  (2076)

This “God-is-in-control-of-everything” theology lulls Christians into becoming passive observers and siren-induced sleepwalkers. It can potentially cause people to lackadaisically go about their life and throw up an occasional prayer because, ultimately, “God is in control.” Meanwhile, greed, oppression, poverty, sexual violence, murder, genocide, and other systemic injustices increase. It is theology gone wrong.  (2115)

 


Review: Help on the D/R journey

24 September 2021

Lots of one-time keen Christians are questioning many of their long-held beliefs. This can create enormous pressure because those beliefs have previously undergirded their mental and emotional stability. To help navigate a way through that pressure, books have been appearing in recent years, including this one:

Religious Refugees: (De)constructing toward spiritual and emotional healing by Mark Gregory Karris (Quoir, 2020)

The author, who is from a Pentecostal background, is an ordained pastor and licensed therapist, and writes as someone who has himself made the journey successfully. He calls it ‘the D/R journey’ (Deconstruction/ Reconstruction). His book is in three parts. Part 1 identifies and outlines the scale of the problem, which is huge internationally. Part 2 examines the emotional and spiritual pressure people feel in the midst of it. And Part 3 provides some guidelines for moving forward and maintaining faith—though that faith will likely be of a different form afterwards.

The book is substantial and detailed, covering every aspect of the subject. Each chapter ends with questions suitable for group discussion. It analyses the different ‘stations’ of the typical D/R journey, providing honest evaluations of what people feel in each one, before offering pointers to the way forward. I wondered sometimes whether the author’s treatment is too detailed? But he is commendably anxious to cover all the options and so can perhaps be excused.

As part of his suggestions for moving forward, Karris offers some helpful approaches to prayer—including ‘centering prayer’—which go far beyond the routine petitionary approach of most evangelicals. He also offers useful insights from psychology and neuroscience. And he shows himself aware of a range of approaches to God and the Bible currently being publicised by authors like Thomas Jay Oord and his ‘uncontrolling love of God’ conviction.

If you are struggling with some aspects of your own faith right now, this book is guaranteed to shed light on your situation and offer you real hope for a good outcome.

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

The D/R journey is shorthand for those who are going through a seismic shift in their religious and spiritual orientation… I call the signs and symptoms of this disorientation Religious Disorientation Growth Syndrome (RDGS).  (p17)

It’s not your fault that your faith is shaken and your core beliefs about God, the church, the Bible, and yourself are shifting. Life happens. Shift happens. Life changes with or without our gracious consent.  (p23)

You are going through (or have gone through) a profound shift that has catapulted you into a season of doubt, distressing emotions, anxiety-provoking and painful social realities, and existential and identity concerns. You are not alone!  (p26)

Since church politics and bureaucracy are overseen mostly by men, there can be strains of misogyny and patriarchy, interlaced with theology, that are oppressive to women and marginalized people.  (p28)

With the power of the internet, people now have the ability to travel to exotic, cognitive-dissonance-producing, theological places with the click of a button. Stale, simple, myopic, and repetitive Christian teachings on Sunday mornings are no longer going to reach the hearts and minds of many church goers.  (p29)

The problem is, when church is all about positivity, singing solely upbeat music, and hearing shallow responses to complex individual and societal problems, some Christians just can’t stomach it.  (p31)

Some churches are functioning like powerful, foreign occupiers attempting to squash identities, individual desires, and anything that doesn’t fit in with their pathological ideologies that masquerade as divine intentions and holy prescriptions.  (p38)

When people finally awaken and realize how their once-beloved faith has sadly failed them (or worse, mentally or emotionally abused them), the result can be spiritual trauma.  (p40)

We had the answers. We were part of the in crowd and everyone else was on the outside. And, the best part? Because of our denomination’s perfect, unblemished doctrines, I knew I was one of a chosen few who were truly saved.   (p48)

There comes a time…when all of us…have to choose either to go home to what is familiar or to journey ahead toward foreign, potentially perilous, territory.  (p52)

I have heard firsthand from pastors who were in the midst of this kind of internal conundrum. Many have shared with me their terror just thinking about publicly acknowledging their doubts about important doctrines that their church holds dear. Knowing that they would be kicked out of the church, and perhaps be unable to provide for their families, forced them to hide. This is no easy predicament. It’s sad their professional roles don’t allow them to be exactly who they are: imperfect followers of Jesus on a messy spiritual journey just like everyone else.  (p53)

No single, unchangeable label captures the complexity of who anyone is. Labeling others is an attempt to dehumanize and erase the diverse complexities of individuals and groups in order to gain power over them.  (p61)

The more love-filled and inclusive one’s heart becomes, the less at home traditional beliefs, that lack such love and inclusivity, will feel.  (p68)

Years ago, amazingly, I wouldn’t even cringe at the idea of God commanding genocide (Joshua 1:12); flooding the planet and giving sharks a smorgasbord of human entrees (Genesis 6-9); killing precious Egyptian babies (Exodus 11:5); burning people to a crisp (Numbers 11:1); striking down seventy people for being curious and peeking into the ark of the covenant (1 Sam. 16:19); ordering someone to be stoned to death by an entire community for working on the sabbath (Numbers 15:32); being prejudiced against people with disabilities and those who looked different (Leviticus 21:17-24); or committing a host of other Hitleresque monstrosities. I suppose I was just going with the Christian flow.  (p74)

Am I supposed to believe that a God, who is vastly more loving and just than I am, would be less loving and just than me? No matter where you are on the liberal/conservative divide, I am sure we can agree that maiming, burning alive, stoning, and drowning our children, when they selfishly go against our wishes (even if they were our adult children), is not the most compassionate, just, wise, and loving thing to do.  (p79)

Here is my concern with the “God demands justice for sin” motif. It seems to me that God asks us to forgive, without the need for violent physical punishment, when people act unjustly toward us. So, how is it that God demands justice in the form of violent physical punishment if people sin against Him, but God calls us to extend love, mercy, and forgiveness when people sin against us?  (p79)

After many years of reading, wrestling, and reflecting on the biblical text, I cannot with a clear conscience hold to a flat reading of Scripture where all texts fully disclose and reveal the true nature of reality and of God.  (p81)

The Pentalateral Hermeneutic of Love (PHL) is a lens with which I currently look through the Scriptures… The five-part lens consists of:

  1. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)
  2. The biblical definition of love (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
  3. The only explicit parabolic picture Jesus gave of God the Father found in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31)
  4. Perfect love described in Matthew 5
  5. The radical self-giving, others-empowering life of Jesus Christ, who is the full revelation of God. (p82)

Even secular researchers are studying this phenomenon called spiritual disorientation, seeking to find a correlation between a person’s mental health, beliefs, and inner wrestling with God—what they call divine struggle.  (p90)

Because of our tribal brains, it’s almost impossible to stop singing the songs, to break the rules, to disobey the religious leaders in our lives, and to become anything different than the docile sheep that we are used to being.  (p92)

Some Christians, on the D/R journey, experience a sense of loss due to the tenuous relationship they now have with the Bible. What was once a comforting sacred text in which every passage of Scripture was God-breathed, is now an ambiguous book that is better left on the table collecting dust.  (p100)

It’s normal to experience strong jolts of emotion in the middle of your faith shift. After all, you loved deeply. You gave your heart to both God and the church. And you are now grieving a profound loss of connections, attachments, intimacy, conversations, rituals, and beliefs. You have every right to feel the way you do.  (p109)

The hardest dynamic of the deconstruction process is the confusion that sets in because of your chaotic emotional experiences. Your level of anxiety and suffering is increased by your inability to understand what is going on.  (p110)

Splitting is a defense mechanism that causes people to label others as either “good” or “bad”. Splitting enables people to steer away from complex feelings of ambivalence which are often uncomfortable. This shock absorber is wired inside of us because, let’s be honest, it is sometimes easier to see the world as black or white than to see in shades of gray.  (p128)

Because we can have so many thoughts—some of which are contradictory—and mixed emotions during our deconstructive process, our mind is on a mission to manage our mayhem and make sense of it all. Telling our story to others helps accomplish that mission.  (p140)

Finding healing in community is not an alternative, or fallback plan, for those who do not have enough faith in God. It is a biological imperative and part of God’s gold standard for successful healing and necessary for living life to its fullest.  (p147)

God loves it when we are truthful, no matter how ugly we think our experiences may be. And God much prefers truthfulness than to see us wearing a mask—pretending and bearing false witness. God can’t heal our masks because they are inanimate objects, but God can heal an authentic hurting soul that is laid bare before God’s presence.  (p152)

I have found Christians to be some of the most self-deprecating people I have ever met. Not only do many of us not love ourselves, we do not even like ourselves.  (p159)

Perpetuating the message of original sin and eternal torture, especially to children, can bring grievous, monumental, pathological ramifications from which a person might take a lifetime to heal.  (p166)

You have the option to relate to yourself as the Father of love (1 John 4:16) relates to you, or as the Father of lies (John 8:44) relates to you. Do I need to tell you which option is best?  (p169)

The descriptive words we use of God are not God. They are placeholders, and imperfect ones at that. They are fingers pointing to that which cannot be fully pointed to or named. I could tell you that God looks like Jesus. And, that is an incredible place to start. Jesus is God fully manifest in the flesh. But, even our conceptions of Jesus are diverse. Our minds, which are our filters that are conditioned by a great number of factors, such as the time and place in which we live, cannot even fully and perfectly conceptualize or reflect him.  (p181)

If it seems you have multiple personalities when it comes to your faith, rest assured, you are not crazy. Science validates our experience. We can have contradictory feelings and thoughts. We can have different parts of ourselves vying for their unique positions. The hope is that we can combine and integrate our head knowledge with our heart knowledge and align them with the truth of who God says we are and move a few degrees closer to who God really is.  (p188)

The primary metaphor Jesus gives us for God is that of a father. Premier New Testament scholar and historian John Dominic Crossan writes, “Despite its male-oriented prejudice, the biblical term ‘father’ is often simply a shorthand term for ‘father and mother.’”  (p191)

I am convinced that to reconstruct our faith, we must have a theology of suffering anchored in the unconventional love of God. This is especially important in a world full of pain, suffering, confusion, sorrow, and death. I believe that the unconventional love of God is shown in God’s perfect, moment-to-moment, uncontrolling, and co-operative love.  (p205)

Many Christians believe God can control but chooses not to. It is a complete paradigm shift (a heretical shift for some) to suggest that God simply cannot control because of God’s uncontrolling, loving nature.  (p208)

As you are in community with God and others, trust in your experience. I know that experience gets such a bad rap. But, unfortunately, the alternative is to trust everyone else’s experience and how they interpret the scriptures, God, and reality.  (p211)

What would we think of a man, watching a child be sexually assaulted, having the power to stop the event from happening, but simply choosing not to help? Our inner spirit captivated by love and justice would passionately rise up and object to the unjust and immoral actions of that man. In the same way, our spirit would also rise up against a view of God as someone with full ability to intervene in horrific events, but who simply chooses not to help (but unfairly decides to help others).  (p214)

Anyone who claims that God is in control of all things is implicitly stating that God is the Grand purveyor of evil.  (p223)

While God can always be trusted, the same cannot necessarily be said to be true of human beings. Creatures big and small, laws of regularity, and spooky quantum anomalies cannot always be trusted to have our well-being in mind. Horrific events occur because randomness, lawlike regularities, and human choices collide.  (p224)

The very fact that we can “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30), shows us that God doesn’t always get what God wants.  (p225)

I propose that we Christians need to get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused about God’s role or, worse, blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary, cognitive, and emotional obstacle that prevents many from having a loving and grateful connection with their Creator.  (p226)

Your tears are not a sign of weakness but a powerful symbol that shows you were courageous; you took a risk on the unpredictable nature of love and loved anyway. Those who have ceased to cry have ceased to love and participate fully in life.  (p236)

Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is that which appears faithless. There are times when singing songs of lament, which appear to hyper-religious folk as faithless, would be far more honest than singing today’s all-too-common, upbeat, pop praise songs.  (p239)

Our interactions with those theologically different than us can devolve into the type of religious debates for which Jesus called out the Pharisees. I think Jesus would remind us that, in spite of our differences, what matters most is whether or not we love God and others. Period.  (p262)

When we prioritize love, we make sure we are compassionately present, embodying the gospel for each person we meet.  (p264)

At the end of my life, I don’t want to have regrets because I was afraid of being the unique person God has co-created and co-shaped me to become.  (p274)

Identifying your values, choosing them for yourself and living them out is a part of the reconstruction process. This process can restore authenticity and congruence to your life, propelling you to live the life you are meant to live and to lovingly serve others with more of your authentic self.  (p275)

 


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

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)


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)

 


Will God one day be ‘all in all’?

30 January 2020

Can we realistically hope that, in the end, God will restore everything, and that all will be saved? This hope, usually called ‘universalism’, seems to be gaining ground steadily in evangelical circles. A new book on the subject tackles it head-on, and concludes we have every good reason—biblical and otherwise—to embrace it. The book is

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, 2019).

tasbsIt takes its title from 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which reads: ‘Our Saviour God…intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.’ Yes, your Bible version might have ‘wants’ instead of ‘intends that’, but either is a legitimate translation of the underlying Greek word.

The book comes in three parts. Part 1 is The Question of An Eternal Hell. It faces all aspects of the topic and concludes that the classic view of hell is ‘inherently incredible’ and is certainly not forced upon us by Scripture. Part 2 consists of four extended meditations under the heading Apokatastasis (that’s the Greek word translated ‘restoration of all things’ in Acts 3:21). These give a detailed examination of the reasons—biblical, logical and philosophical—pointing to the inevitable conclusion (in the author’s view) that all will indeed be saved. Part 3, What May Be Believed, pulls it all together by way of summary, and drives the message home.

The author is not suggesting that all will come to salvation this side of death, but gives reasons for believing that, post-mortem, God’s love will draw to him even those who outstandingbookdeparted this life spurning him. He has a sound grasp of church history and is thus well able to show that, down the centuries, many churches and Christian scholars and leaders have believed that.

In line with the seriousness of the subject, this is not a light read. The author is verbose, rarely using five words when twenty-five will do. But in spite of that, his reasoning is razor-sharp and his line of argument clear. He is familiar with every argument against his position, including the ones you yourself are probably turning over right now, and he deals robustly with them all. You should hear him out.

In the wake of earlier books on this subject, particularly Gregory Macdonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2006) and Rob Bell’s Love Wins (2011), this new one is a forceful wave guaranteed to send the tide of evangelical opinion still further up the beach of universalism. Deep down, if we’re honest, we all want it to be true.

[Hart lists the following as New Testament passages pointing clearly to universal salvation, noting that the list is by no means exhaustive: Romans 5:18-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; Titus 2:11; 2 Corinthians 5:29; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:27-28; John 12:32; Hebrews 2:9; John 17:2; John 4:42; John 12:47; 1 John 4:14; 2 Peter 3:9; Matthew 18:14; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:19-20; 1 John 2:2; John 3:17; Luke 16:16; 1 Timothy 4:10.]

Here is a selection of quotations with page numbers.

[In the church’s first 500 years] They believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds. (1)

Some will claim that universalism clearly contradicts the explicit language of scripture (it does not).  (3)

The very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. And a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. (18)

Christians have been trained at a very deep level of their thinking to believe that the idea of an eternal hell is a clear and unambiguous element of their faith, and that therefore the idea must make perfect moral sense. (18)

[We have] been taught to approve of divine deeds that, were they reduced to a human scale of action, would immediately be recognizable as expressions of unalloyed spite. (21)

I am convinced that practically no one who holds firmly to the majority tradition regarding the doctrine of hell ultimately does so for any reason other than an obstinate, if largely unconscious, resolve to do so, prompted by the unshakable conviction that faith absolutely requires it. (28)

I still insist that most putative believers in an eternal hell do not really believe in it at all, but rather merely believe in their belief in it. (29)

The most popular defense of the infernalist orthodoxy today is also, touchingly enough, the most tenderhearted: the argument, that is, from the rational freedom of the creature, and from the refusal of God to trespass upon that freedom, for fear of preventing the creature from achieving a true union of love with the divine. (33)

The better the rational will knows the Good for what it is—the more, that is, that the will is freed from those forces that distort reason and lead the soul toward improper ends—the more it will long for and seek after the true Good in itself; and, conversely, the more rationally it seeks the Good, the freer it is. (36)

We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. (43)

Another, even feebler attempt to make sense of eternal retribution is the traditional claim that a soul cannot alter its orientation after death. (45)

If there really is an eternal hell for finite spirits, then it has to be the case that God condemns the damned to endless misery not on account of any sane proportion between what they are capable of meriting and how he chooses to requite them for their sins, but solely as a demonstration of his power to do as he wishes. (47)

A father who punishes his child for any purpose other than that child’s correction and moral improvement, and who even then fails to do so only reluctantly, is a poor father. One who brutally beats his child, or wantonly inflicts needless pain of any kind upon his child, is a contemptible monster. And one who surrenders his child to fate, even if that fate should consist in the entirely “just” consequences of his child’s own choices and actions, is an altogether unnatural father—not a father at all, really, except in the most trivial biological sense. (54)

It is not God we are trying to judge when we voice our moral alarm at the idea of an eternal hell, but only the stories we are accustomed to telling about him. (55)

I do in fact believe in hell, though only in the sense of a profound and imprisoning misery that we impose upon ourselves by rejecting the love that alone can set us free. (62)

I have always found what became the traditional majority Christian view of hell—that is, a conscious state of perpetual torment—a genuinely odious idea, both morally and emotionally, and still think it the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith as a coherent body of doctrine or as a morally worthy system of devotion. (65)

If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all, and that any understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith. (66)

All comes from God, and so evil cannot be a “thing” that comes from anywhere. Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted. (70)

Paul dared to ask, in the tortured, conditional voice of the ninth chapter of Romans, whether there might be vessels of wrath stored up solely for destruction only because he trusted that there are not: because he believed instead that all are bound in disobedience, but only so that God might finally show mercy to all (Romans 11:32). (73)

Many Christians down the centuries have had to reconcile their consciences to the repellent notion that all humans are at conception already guilty of a transgression that condemns them, justly, to eternal separation from God and eternal suffering, and that, in this doctrine’s extreme form, every newborn infant belongs to a massa damnata, hateful in God’s eyes from the first moment of existence. Really, no one should need to be told that this is a wicked claim. (75)

The very notion of an “inherited guilt” is a logical absurdity, rather on the order of a “square circle.” (75)

The most civilized apologists for the “infernalist” orthodoxies these days tend to prefer to defend their position by an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity. There could scarcely be a poorer argument; whether made crudely or elegantly, it invariably fails, because it depends upon an incoherent model of freedom. (79)

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34): not seeing the Good, says God to God, they did not freely choose evil, and must be pardoned. (80)

It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or out of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy. (80)

…those three or four deeply ambiguous verses that seem (and only seem) to threaten eternal torments for the wicked. (88)

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. (93)

If one can be swayed simply by the brute force of arithmetic, it seems worth noting that, among the apparently most explicit statements on the last things, the universalist statements are by far the more numerous. (101)

I prefer a much older, more expansive, perhaps overly systematic approach to the seemingly contrary eschatological expectations unfolded in the New Testament—an approach, that is, like Gregory of Nyssa’s or Origen’s, according to which the two sides of the New Testament’s eschatological language represent not two antithetical possibilities tantalizingly or menacingly dangled before us, posed one against the other as challenges to faith and discernment, but rather two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other. In this way of seeing the matter, one set of images marks the furthest limit of the immanent course of history, and the division therein—right at the threshold between this age and the “Age to come” (‘olam ha-ba, in Hebrew)—between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not; and the other set refers to that final horizon of all horizons, “beyond all ages,” where even those who have traveled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride. Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God… This way of seeing the matter certainly seems, at any rate, to make particularly cogent sense of the grand eschatological vision of 1 Corinthians 15. (103)

Though Paul speaks on more than one occasion of the judgment to come, it seems worth noting that the only picture he actually provides of that final reckoning is the one found in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, the last two verses of which identify only two classes of the judged: those saved in and through their works, and those saved by way of the fiery destruction of their works. (105)

True, the book of Revelation does contain a few especially piquant pictures of final perdition, if that is what one chooses to cling to as something apparently solid and buoyant amid the whelming floods of all that hallucinatory imagery; but, even then, the damnation those passages describe chiefly falls upon patently allegorical figures like “Hades” (Death personified) or “the Beast” (Rome “brutified”), which hardly seems to allow for much in the way of doctrinal exactitude. (107)

If one chooses to read Revelation entirely as a picture of the final judgment of all creation, and of the great last assize of all souls, one must then also account for the seeming paradox of a prophesied final judgment—one that includes a final discrimination between the saved and the damned—that will nevertheless be succeeded by a new Age in which the gates of the restored Jerusalem will be thrown open, and precisely those who have been left outside the walls and putatively excluded forever from the Kingdom will be invited to wash their garments, enter the city, and drink from the waters of life. (108)

We might even find some support for the purgatorial view of the Gehenna from the Greek of Matthew 25:46 (the supposedly conclusive verse on the side of the infernalist orthodoxy), where the word used for the “punishment” of the last day is κόλασις, kolasis—which most properly refers to remedial chastisement—rather than τιμωρία, timōria—which most properly refers to retributive justice. (116)

It is hard, I know, to convince most Christians that the picture of hell with which they were raised is not lavishly on display in the pages of scripture. (118)

There is, it turns out, no final division between the elect and the derelict here [Romans 9-11] at all, but rather the precise opposite: the final embrace of all parties in the single and inventively universal grace of election. This is why Esau and Jacob provide so apt a typology for Paul’s argument. Esau, we must remember, is not finally rejected in the story of the two brothers; he and Jacob are reconciled, to the increase of both, precisely as a consequence of their temporary estrangement. (136)

[Re Romans 9-11]  For the time being, true, a part of Israel is hardened, but this will remain the case only until the “full entirety” (πλήρωμα, plērōma) of the gentiles enter in. The unbelievers among the children of Israel may have been allowed to stumble, but God will never allow them to fall. And so, if their failure now brings enrichment to the world, how much more will they provide when their own “full entirety” (plērōma) enter in? Temporarily excluded (like Esau) for the sake of “the world’s reconciliation,” they too will at the last be restored to God’s grace; and this will be nothing less than a “resurrection from the dead” (11:11–12, 15). This, then, is the radiant answer dispelling the shadows of Paul’s grim “what if” in the ninth chapter of Romans, its clarion negative. It turns out that there is no final illustrative division between vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy; that was a grotesque, all-too-human thought that can now be chased away for good. God’s wisdom far surpasses ours, and his love can accomplish all that it intends. (136)

This is perhaps the most depressing paradox ever to have arisen in the whole Christian theological tradition: that Paul’s great attempt to demonstrate that God’s election is not some arbitrary act of predilective exclusion, but instead a providential means for bringing about the unrestricted inclusion of all persons, has been employed for centuries to advance what is quite literally the very teaching that he went to such great lengths explicitly to reject. (138)

It would be possible for us to be saved as individuals only if it were possible for us to be persons as individuals; and we know we cannot be. And this, in itself, creates any number of problems for the majority view of heaven and hell. (144)

On the whole, Christians rarely pay particularly close attention to what the Bible actually says, for the simple reason that the texts defy synthesis in a canon of exact doctrines, and yet most Christians rely on doctrinal canons… But the Bible is not a system. A very great deal of theological tradition consists therefore in explaining away those aspects of scripture that contradict the finely wrought structure of this or that orthodoxy. (161)

How many modern Evangelicals think of salvation as something one receives by “accepting Jesus” as one’s “personal lord and savior,” even though such language is wholly absent from the New Testament, and even though all the real scriptural language of salvation is about a corporate condition of sacramental, moral, and spiritual union with the “body of Christ”? (162)

If the story really does end as Augustine and countless others over the centuries have claimed it must, with most—or, at any rate, very many … or, really, any—beings consigned to eternal torment, and if this story then also entails that God freely and needlessly created the world knowing that this would be the result, then Christianity has no “evangel”—no “good news”—to impart. (166)

The idea of a punishment that does not serve an ameliorative purpose—as, by definition, eternal punishment cannot—should be a scandal to any sane conscience. Endless torture, never eventuating in the reform or moral improvement of the soul that endures it, is in itself an infinite banality. A lesson that requires an eternity to impart is a lesson that can never be learned. (168)

If a rational creature—one whose mind is entirely unimpaired and who has the capacity truly to know the substance and the consequences of the choice confronting him or her—is allowed, without coercion from any force extrinsic to his or her nature, to make a choice between a union with God in bliss that will utterly fulfill his or her nature in its deepest yearnings and a separation from God that will result in endless suffering and the total absence of his or her nature’s satisfaction, only one truly free choice is possible. A fool might thrust his hand into the flame; only a lunatic would not then immediately withdraw it. (179)

If human nature required the real capacity freely to reject God, then Christ could not have been fully human. (189)

Evil has no power to hold us, and we have no power to cling to evil; shadows cannot bind us, and we in turn cannot lay hold on them. In the end, God must be all in all. (193)

God’s final victory as described in scripture, will consist not merely in his assumption of perfect supremacy “over all,” but also in his ultimately being “all in all.” Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature? (193)

Over the years, I have dutifully explored all the arguments for hell’s eternity from Christian antiquity to the present, philosophical and theological, and I continue to find them all manifestly absurd. (202)

I honestly, perhaps guilelessly believe that the doctrine of eternal hell is prima facie nonsensical, for the simple reason that it cannot even be stated in Christian theological terms without a descent into equivocity so precipitous and total that nothing but edifying gibberish remains. To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. (202)

Can we imagine—logically, I mean, not merely intuitively—that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life? And can we do this even while realizing that, at that point, his or her sufferings have in a sense only just begun, and in fact will always have only just begun? What extraordinary violence we must do both to our reason and to our moral intelligence (not to mention simple good taste) to make this horrid notion seem palatable to ourselves, and all because we have somehow, foolishly, allowed ourselves to be convinced that this is what we must believe. (204)

The two exceedingly simple—almost childish—questions that have persistently bothered me down the years, whenever I have tried to make sense of the doctrine of a hell of eternal torment, are whether it lies within the power of any finite rational creature freely to reject God, and to do so with eternal finality, and whether a God who could create a world in which the eternal perdition of rational spirits is even a possibility could be not only good, but the transcendent Good as such. And, for the reasons I have given above, I believe that the answer to both questions must be an unqualified and unyielding no. (208)


Badly Behaved Bible

27 November 2019

There seems to be, these days, a steady flow of new books about what the Bible isn’t and is. I find this very heartening; many of the problems evangelicals are encountering today stem from an unhealthy adoration of the Bible, and untenable ideas about its inerrancy. So it’s good to see a respected author like Nick Page weighing in on the subject. The book is

The Badly Behaved Bible: Thinking again about the story of Scripture by Nick Page (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).

tbbbNick is known for his unique mix of humour and serious issues, and he lives up to that reputation in this, his latest work. Our difficulties with the Bible, he maintains, arise from the fact that we have been misinformed about it. We expect it to be something it’s not. And the way to find a better position is ‘to stop studying it’. He brings balance to our perception of what ‘the word of God’ is, and what ‘inspired’ means in relation to the Bible, and his answers are not the usual mainstream ones.

He faces up to the complexities of the canon and its formation. He makes a strong case for the prominence of the ‘story’ aspect of the Bible, and how this requires us to respond to the text. He faces the unsavoury bits of Scripture head-on, and pulls no punches in his assessment of them. For every point he makes, he pulls together lots of biblical instances. Like the Christmas story which, in today’s world is a long way from what the New Testament says and means.

A key focus is the plain fact that the Bible portrays a people whose understanding of God is constantly developing, so that we get contradictory views about him at different stages of Old Testament history. Hence the folly of trying to reach a composite biblical view of what God is like; it just can’t work. God is like Jesus; end of story.

I like the way that Nick Page, a totally committed Christian, extols the virtues of doubt. It outstandingbookis a key part of the lives of all who are honest about their spiritual journey. He gives examples from various Bible characters and cautions his readers against equating doubt with backsliding. Well done! His tackling of the theodicy issue in this respect is brilliant.

He cautions against a blind ‘obedience’ to the Bible; it isn’t that kind of book. He shows how both the Law and the Prophets changed position on various issues, so which one should we obey? In practice, we all pick and choose the bits we prefer, opting, for example to insist on tithing but to look down on tattoos.

He covers all the major topics that Christians have tended to ignore, like the violence in the Bible and God’s commands to commit genocide. His answers are convincing and clearly argued. Ancient approaches to writing history were a far cry from modern historiography, and we should expect the ancient Bible texts to conform to it. And he examines the way Jesus and the New Testament writers treated OT scripture in a cavalier manner, with little regard to its original context.

He concludes with some wise guidelines for reading and using the Bible today. They are sensible, balanced and workable. So read Page’s book, and start putting his advice into practice!

[The numbers that follow are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

We are told that the Bible is inerrant, infallible and without contradiction, and then discover that there are two different creation stories and two versions of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, and that the New Testament writers misquote the Old Testament. Not only that, the Bible thinks the world is flat, with a big domed canopy above it to hold the water out.  (72)

Many of the saints whose Christlike lives changed their world were illiterate. For them, the right way to read the Bible was simply to listen to the stories, to learn the texts and to live it out.  (150)

I’ve come to this conclusion: I hate the phrase ‘Bible study’. And I want to ban it.  (177)

For the early church the ‘word of God’ was not the written text, but the spoken gospel: it refers to words said, not words read.  (325)

The Bible was written and compiled by humans, but God filled it with his presence.  (452)

If we insist on seeing the books as one unified work then we will always have problems with the fractures, the edit points, the duplications and the differing details. But if we just let the text speak for itself, then a different picture emerges: one of collaboration and careful preservation, one of multiple authors and witnesses, each doing their bit to tell the great story of God and humanity.  (867)

The contents of the Jewish Scriptures were not finally settled until about AD 90; the contents of the New Testament not until around AD 400.  (898)

Countless sermons and talks give the impression that characters in the Bible are really just like us, only with loincloths and more sheep.  (1797)

The Bible shows us people as they are, not as how we’d like them to be. Samson slept with prostitutes, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister, Jacob was a blasphemous liar, Joseph was a spoilt brat, Moses disappointed God so badly that he wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land, and Solomon, as well as building the Temple, ended up worshipping all kinds of other gods and marrying any woman with a pulse. And it’s not just in the Old Testament. Peter flip-flopped between eating with Gentiles and not eating with them. Jesus’ mother and brothers thought he was mad. And Paul had the temper of a bull hippo with a toothache.  (2052)

For much of the Old Testament history they believed that there were loads of gods, but Israel’s was the best.  (2223)

What I’m trying to show here is that (a) Israel’s concept of who God is changes through time, and (b) much of the Old Testament assumes the reality and presence of other gods.  (2249)

So much of our theology is built on the idea that everything is in God’s plan, but what if that doesn’t mean quite what we think it means? How much does our disobedience and our failure come as a surprise to God? How much does God change his mind? Is he playing the great tune of history from a written score or is he a jazz improviser working within patterns but always adapting creatively?  (2420)

Israelite ideas about who God was and what he was like changed and developed over the centuries. So we often find theology in the Bible that is either wrong or incomplete. Because the people in the Bible are still trying to work things out.  (2462)

People will insist on trying to turn the Bible into a systematic theology. But the Bible refuses to behave that way. There’s nothing systematic about the Bible, largely because it’s about humans who, despite valiant efforts throughout the centuries by various philosophers and sages, generally tend to prefer unsystematic thinking. The Bible isn’t a unified theology, but it is a unified story. Stories don’t deal in systematic thought. Stories may be used to challenge and explain, to connect and to work things out, but they do it by inviting us to think, not telling us what to think.  (2514)

The contradiction between doctrine and real experience: that’s what doubt is all about.  (2623)

Monotheism brings with it a problem: if there is only one God, then who can you blame for the bad stuff?  (2638)

[Re Job]  Yahweh accepts the challenge. He allows The Satan to put Job to the test. (It seems to me that, right away, we’re in a work of fiction. And if you don’t think this is a work of fiction, then you have some explaining to do as to why God kills people and tips Job’s whole life down the toilet simply to win a bet.  (2759)

Churches that deny oxygen to doubt and questions are really protecting not the Bible but the pastor.  (2914)

I am convinced that our failure to bring lament into our acts of worship is one of the reasons why so many people drift away from the Church.  (2979)

Gifts need to be given. People need to be paid. But it’s no longer a law. The tithe as it was originally stated no longer holds force. You can’t claim that tithing is obligatory for Christians from the Bible.  (3251)

Ultimately, I believe the authority of Scripture means the authority to live like Jesus. I’m a Christian. I’m not a follower of Paul of Tarsus or Moses or Isaiah.  (3412)

A disciple is one who learns by imitation – in this case by centring our whole life on the presence, teaching and example of Jesus Christ. This is why in your canon within the canon the Gospels have to take pride of place.  (3412)

If the Bible has authority in my life, then it will not be as a set of rules and regulations telling me exactly what to do in any circumstance, but as a story that authorises me to act in a Christlike way.  (3425)

All this – the hyperbole, the formulaic writing, the presence of different traditions within the Bible itself – should alert us to the possibility that the account of the conquest is not documentary history as we would write it today.  (3576)

If you have found this interesting, you might like to look at my own e-book on the subject, entitled A Poke In The Faith. You can find it here.


Psychiatric horrors

10 July 2019

This isn’t the kind of book I commonly pick up, but I’m glad I read this one. It’s the autobiographical account of an ordinary Yorkshire teenage girl who, in her struggle with shyness, angst, a dysfunctional family and issues of faith in the 1970s, was admitted to a tdtpsychiatric institution—temporarily, ‘for a rest and observation’. Instead, she remained there for years, partly as a resident and partly as an out-patient. The book is:

The Dark Threads: A Psychiatric Survivor’s Story by Jean Davison (Accent Press, 2012)

She writes well, so that what could have been a dry account of factual happenings becomes, instead, alive with passion, colour and intensity. In fact, it’s a gripping read. It draws you in, just as the system drew the author in. She suffered the horrors of electric shock treatment and a fearful regime of drugs and misunderstanding, all of which served to aggravate her condition rather than ease it.

Woven into the story from start to finish is her struggle with the simplistic Pentecostalism that, in the early days, had been her strength. As she began to question some of its essentials, this support system collapsed, pushing her yet deeper into the mental and emotional swamp than engulfed her. As you turn the pages you find yourself wondering, ‘Is she ever going to manage to climb out of this?’

In fact, she does, and it’s a real triumph in the end. The book itself is evidence of that: an accomplished piece of writing that could only emerge from a woman who, at last, has substantially got her act together, though still carrying the scars from the dark years.

Recently, I happened to drive past the grim Victorian mental institution in Menston, Yorkshire, where Jean was housed for so long. It’s now converted into smart apartments and is surrounded by expensive executive houses. But the book keeps the dark side of its history alive, and I’m glad of that. The story needed telling, and this telling is a good one.

[I usually append quotations from the books I review, but not in this case. I feel the book needs to speak for itself as an undivided whole; quotations would do it a disservice. Read it, and you’ll see what I mean.]


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