Review: The case for ‘open theism’

19 January 2018

Many Christians today, it seems, are uncomfortable with the traditional view of God as all-controlling, and are exploring alternatives that claim a biblical foundation. The view commonly known as ‘the open view’ of God is filling the gap for many, and this book sets it out. It is:

The Openness Of God: A Biblical Challenge To The Traditional Understanding Of God by Clark H. Pinnock et al (Paternoster, 1994).   

Openness of God #1852It’s a powerful case for the ‘openness’ position. That position holds that God has sovereignly chosen to limit himself in relation to us, his creatures, granting us freedom of choice, and opting to not normally interfere with natural processes or human decisions. At the same time, he is steering things in the background towards the fulfilment of his ultimate purpose of an earth where his will is done ‘as in heaven’. In doing so, he constantly adjusts to human choices and sometimes changes his mind.

The five contributors handle different aspects. Richard Rice establishes the view’s biblical foundations. John Sanders looks at historical factors that shaped the traditional view, especially the harmful effect of Greek philosophy. Clark Pinnock shows how the Open View dovetails with the usual categories of systematic theology. William Hasker considers it from a Christian philosophical angle. And David Basinger looks at its practical effects on key aspects of Christian living: prayer, knowing God’s will, how we account for evil, approach social problems and fulfil our evangelistic responsibilities.

I personally embraced this position some years ago, and recommend this book as a fine introduction to it. It could change your life radically!

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

People who believe that God cannot change his mind sometimes pray in ways that would require God to do exactly that.  (32)

The Scriptures contain such vast and varied material that it is not difficult to surround an idea with biblical quotations. The crucial question is whether the idea is faithful to the overall biblical portrait of God—the picture that emerges from the full range of biblical evidence.  (109)

The view of God and his relation to the world presented in this book…expresses two basic convictions: love is the most important quality we attribute to God, and love is more than care and commitment; it involves being sensitive and responsive as well.  (114)

Two streams of biblical evidence support an interactive view of God’s relation to the world. One consists of statements that affirm in one way or another that God is responsive to what happens in the creaturely world, that what happens there affects God somehow—by evoking a certain emotion, a change in attitude, a change in plans. The other consists of statements that indicate creaturely freedom in one way or another. These include various divine warnings and promises and calls to repentance, as well as fairly straightforward assertions that presuppose creaturely alternatives.  (147)

The biblical descriptions of divine repentance indicate that God’s plans are exactly that—plans or possibilities that he intends to realize. They are not ironclad decrees that fix the course of events and preclude all possible variation.  (256)

Some construe these denials [Num 23:19 and 1 Sam 15:29] that God will change his mind as general assertions of divine immutability, but this is not the case. For one thing, the word repent in both instances is used synonymously with the word lie. The point is not that God never changes, but that God never says one thing while fully intending to do something else. Only in this limited sense of the word does God not “repent.”  (340)

To summarize, at times God simply does things, acting on his own initiative and relying solely on his own power. Sometimes he accomplishes things through the cooperation of human agents, sometimes he overcomes creaturely opposition to accomplish things, sometimes he providentially uses opposition to accomplish something, and sometimes his intentions to do something are thwarted by human opposition.  (405)

The cross was God’s action. He was working in Christ to accomplish our reconciliation. Appreciating this fact, many Christian scholars now perceive the suffering of Calvary not as something Jesus offers to God on human behalf, still less as something God inflicts on Jesus (instead of on other human beings), but as the activity of God himself.  (500)

While proponents of divine openness emphasize the biblical evidence that God is affected by what happens in the world (suffers) and that he changes his mind (repents), they fully accept the biblical affirmations of divine changelessness. They apply the “changeless” statements to God’s existence and character, to his love and reliability. They apply the “changing” statements to God’s actions and experience.  (536)

The view of God worked out in the early church, the “biblical-classical synthesis,” has become so commonplace that even today most conservative theologians simply assume that it is the correct scriptural concept of God and thus that any other alleged biblical understanding of God (such as the one we are proposing) must be rejected.  (675)

Arguing from what is “fitting” for God to be (theoprepes), significant aspects of the biblical revelation (such as suffering and temporality) were revised to fit this understanding. Though they had good intentions in applying the ideas of immutability and impassibility, they used them in an absolute sense and so distorted the faithfulness and love of the biblical God. In the end the true understanding of the divine nature was derived from metaphysics and the biblical revelation was made to conform to it.  (925)

Calvin followed his feudal culture in interpreting divine kingship as domination and control so that “nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.”  (1053)

In Christian theology we are not dealing with just any old concept of God, but with the surprising God and Father of our Lord Jesus. This is a God who does not remain at a safe distance, worrying about his own honor, but one who bares his holy arm and rescues humankind through sharing their distress and affliction. We are not dealing with an unapproachable deity but with God who has a human face and who is not indifferent to us but is deeply involved with us in our need.  (1193)

Though no power can stand against him, God wills the existence of creatures with the power of self-determination. This means that God is a superior power who does not cling to his right to dominate and control but who voluntarily gives creatures room to flourish.  (1342)

In an attempt to preserve the notion of God’s power as total control, some advocate what they call biblical compatibilism, the idea that one can uphold genuine freedom and divine determinism at the same time. This is sleight of hand and does not work.  (1362)

To say that God hates sin while secretly willing it, to say that God warns us not to fall away though it is impossible, to say that God loves the world while excluding most people from an opportunity of salvation, to say that God warmly invites sinners to come knowing all the while that they cannot possibly do so—such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense.  (1366)

Past, present and future are real to God. This underlies the biblical claim that God is an agent who works in history, who makes plans and carries them out, who remembers the past and gives promises about the future.  (1442)

Total foreknowledge would jeopardize the genuineness of the divine-human relationship. What kind of dialogue is it where one party already knows what the other will say and do? I would not call this a personal relationship.  (1458)

Calvinism is distinctly unappealing as an account of our personal relationship with God.  (1724)

Since we believe that God greatly respects our freedom of choice, all of us find it quite reasonable to assume that God will at times refrain from doing all that he would like to do for us until we personally request such assistance.  (1958)

Since we do not believe that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future, it makes no sense for us to think in terms of some perfect, preordained plan for our lives and, hence, to worry about whether we are still within it. Accordingly, we need never feel—no matter what has happened in the past—that we must now settle for “second best”.  (1996)

We, unlike proponents of specific sovereignty, need not assume that some divine purpose exists for each evil that we encounter. We need not, for example, assume when someone dies that God “took him home” for some reason, or that the horrors many experience in this world in some mysterious way fit into God’s perfect plan.  (2068)

In his theodicy Calvin uses circular reasoning and equivocation, resorts to name-calling and, when he gives up on rational argument, appeals to mystery.  (2324)


Review: The delusion of ‘correct’ beliefs

18 January 2018

Peter Enns is a scholar and we’re used to a fairly technical type of book from him. This one is different: while it comes, in the best sense, from his head, it comes also from his heart, more than any of his other writings so far. It is:

The Sin Of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our ‘correct’ beliefs by Peter Enns (HarperOne, 2016).   

tsoclargeHe observes that the maintenance of ‘correct beliefs’ has been the major factor dividing Christians, especially Protestants, since the Reformation. We major on it, in fact, much more than God himself does. What God is really after is our trust: our determination to remain committed to him and assured of his love no matter how puzzling our circumstances. That is especially true when we experience ‘the dark night of the soul’—a deep experience of God’s felt absence.

Enns writes partly from his own struggles in ‘dark night’ periods and tough personal circumstances—he was dismissed from his post as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary for not toeing the party line. But, being the scholar he is, he puts those struggles into context with a helpful historical survey of how we have reached our current obsession with ‘correct doctrine’, along with some helpful biblical insights.

For all who, like myself, are conscious of being on a spiritual journey taking us away from much of mainline evangelicalism this book is both reassuring and helpful. It will make you more tolerant of other Christians, more sympathetic towards non-Christians and, best of all, more trusting of God himself.

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

When once settled questions suddenly become unsettled, our life narratives are upset—and no one likes that. Reflecting on that tension and working through it is what this book is about. (259)

No one just “follows” the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we “follow” the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God. (356)

The problem is trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God. The preoccupation with holding on to correct thinking with a tightly closed fist is not a sign of strong faith. It hinders the life of faith, because we are simply acting on a deep unnamed human fear of losing the sense of familiarity and predictability that our thoughts about God give us. (416)

Looking back, I am simply astounded that no one was aware enough to tell any of us that sooner or later “know what you believe” wouldn’t cut it. Sooner or later, that tank runs empty. (539)

If having faith means holding on to certainty, when certainty is under “attack,” your only option as a good Christian is to go to war—even if that means killing your own. (689)

The Bible does not have a good track record of promoting unity among those who read it.

When people read the Bible for themselves, they often disagree about what it means. The Bible does not have a good track record of promoting unity among those who read it. (715)

The Bible models trust in God that does not rest on whether we are able to be clear and certain about what to believe. (769)

Feeling like God is far away, disinterested, or dead to you is part of our Bible and can’t be brushed aside. And that feeling—no matter how intense it may be, and even offensive as it may seem—is never judged, shamed, or criticized by God. (834)

I don’t think “knowing” or seeking to think “correctly” about God is wrong. Not at all. The problem is preoccupation with correct thinking—mistaking our thoughts about God with the real thing, and then to base our faith on holding on to that certainty. The Bible is not remotely interested in that preoccupation. (1227)

I’m not against creeds or talking about what I believe. But as it’s used in the Bible, believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust—namely God. Believing is a “who” word. (1237)

Being like God. That’s the goal. And we are most like God not when we are certain we are right about God, or when we tell others how right we are, but when we are acting toward one another like the faithful Father and Son. (1349)

How can Christians condemn brutal tribal warfare today when the Christian God commanded brutal tribal warfare yesterday? What kind of God are we dealing with here? (1615)

A faith that eats its own not only drives people out but also sends up a red flare to the rest of humanity that Christianity is just another exclusive members-only club, and that Jesus is a lingering relic of antiquity, rather than a powerful, present-defining spiritual reality; a means of gaining power rather than relinquishing it. (1852)

Maybe my purpose on earth isn’t to be the thought police first and love others after all their ideas line up as they should. Maybe my first order of business is to risk my own sense of certainty about God and love others where and how they are no matter how they do on my theology exam. (1933)

Doubt isn’t a sign of spiritual weakness but the first steps toward a deeper faith. (2063)

St. John of the Cross’s insight [into ‘the dark night of the soul’], which has meant a lot to me, is that the dark night is a special sign of God’s presence. Our false god is being stripped away, and we are left empty—with none of the familiar ideas of God that we create to prop us up. The dark night takes away the background noise we have created in our lives in order to prepare us to hear God’s voice later on—in God’s time. (2176)

Working on the lifelong habit of cultivating trust has meant learning to express my faith with words that rarely came to mind before—and that I might have mocked if they had—like journey, pilgrimage, and mystery. (2454)

I was learning, and still am, to honor my head without living in it. (2504)

Trust is not marked by unflappable dogmatic certainty, but by embracing as a normal part of faith the steady line of mysteries and uncertainties that parade before our lives and seeing them as opportunities to trust more deeply. (2615)

The flood, massacre of Canaanites, and other such acts of violence don’t tell us what God is like but how the Israelites, an ancient tribal people, understood and worshiped God. Readers today are not meant to think of God the same way, because the Bible is not a handy information packet on God from A-Z but a record of Israel’s understanding of God, often penetrating and consoling, but also incomplete and disturbing. (2853)

Review: Tom Wright on the Crucifixion

17 January 2018

In his earlier work, Surprised By Hope, Tom Wright shook up traditional thinking about life after death and eschatology. In his latest popular work he does something similar with the cross and the atonement. The book is:

The Day The Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion by Tom Wright (SPCK, 2016).

tdtrblargeWhat, he asks, is the cross really all about? Our answer to that question will always shape the message we proclaim.

The death of Jesus, in the understanding of the first Christians, triggered a revolution. This was something far bigger than a personal ‘you can be saved from your sins and be sure of going to heaven’. It was a revolution with huge implications for the world at large. The fact that, for many today, it is something less is due to developments over two thousand years of church history, which Wright helpfully summarises.

He then goes back in history to place the cross in its original, first century, setting. He explores the Gospels at length, plus Paul’s letters, with a detailed treatment of Romans in particular—and, even more particularly 3:21-26. Here he exposes the traditional ‘works contract’ for the error it is.

Messiah dealt with the ‘powers’, notably Sin itself, by his cross. In so doing he brought Israel’s long, unfinished story to its astonishing conclusion. Now we, as human beings, are free to embrace the vocation for which we were made: to be a ‘royal priesthood’ under God.

En route, the author has some fascinating observations on related topics. The Reformers’ doctrine of penal substitution, for example, was chiefly a reaction against the doctrine of purgatory. And he holds that there is no room, biblically, for the doctrine of the ‘appeasement’ of an angry God by Jesus stepping in between him and us, his intended victims.

While this is a ‘popular’ book, as against Wright’s academic writings, it is no light read. I outstandingbookwent through it three times before I felt I had got a real handle on all its essentials. But it rings true to Scripture in every respect, reflecting Wright’s compendious grasp of the Bible as a whole and standing in stark contrast to the glib reductions of the ‘gospel’ that we hear all too often.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Do you have the guts to tackle it? If you do, you will be forever grateful. Hopefully the following quotations will whet your appetite.

[Here are some quotations. Note: the numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

I had been taught, that the death of Jesus was all about God saving me from my “sin,” so that I could “go to heaven.” That, of course, can be quite a revolutionary idea for someone who’s never thought of it before. But it’s not quite the revolution the early Christians were talking about. In fact, that way of putting it, taken on its own, significantly distorts what Jesus’s first followers were saying. They were talking about something bigger, something more dangerous, something altogether more explosive. (76)

What deep layers of meaning are hidden in the deceptively simple phrase “for our sins”? (281)

On the level of preaching and teaching, how can we best articulate the central gospel message, so that its impact comes from its original meaning rather than from dodgy illustrations that can easily distort the truth? (362)

Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, was the first one to work out in detail what has come to be known as the “satisfaction” theory of the atonement: God’s honour has been impugned by human sin and must be satisfied. (397)

The sixteenth-century Reformers never sorted out what to say about the ultimate future (for which the technical term is “eschatology”); and, as we saw, whatever we mean by “atonement” is directly related to whatever we think about God’s ultimate future, particularly about what happens after death. How we are saved is closely linked to the question of what we are saved for. (422)

In general terms the Reformers and their successors were…trying to give biblical answers to medieval questions. They were wrestling with the question of how the angry God of the late medieval period might be pacified, both here (through the Mass?) and hereafter (in purgatory?). To both questions, they replied: no, God’s wrath was already pacified through the death of Jesus. (482)

The New Testament insists, in book after book, that when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. And the early Christians insisted that when people are caught up in the meaning of the cross, they become part of this difference. (602)

The New Testament, with the story of Jesus’s crucifixion at its centre, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. (602)

The idea of an angry, bullying deity who has to be appeased, to be bought off, to have his wrathful way with someone even if it isn’t the right person fits uncomfortably well with the way many human authority figures actually behave. (663)

To understand any event in history, you must put it firmly into that history and not rest content with what later generations have said about it. That is certainly true of the crucifixion of Jesus, and unless we allow first-century contexts and insights to surround the event, we can be sure we shall fail to grasp its original meaning. (759)

Jesus himself chose Passover as the moment to do what he had to do, and the first Christians looked back to Passover as one of the main interpretative lenses for understanding his death. (950)

All the great prophets of the exile had insisted that Israel’s disaster (including the destruction of the Temple and the consequent sense of being excluded from the divine Presence) was the result of Israel’s own idolatry and sin. If and when, therefore, a fresh act of deliverance were to undo this long exile, it would be a divine act of “forgiveness of sins.” (950)

There has been little agreement on the meaning of sacrifice in Jesus’s world. Since both he and many of his earliest followers used the language of sacrifice in relation to his death (remarkable enough in itself, in that the Jews did not believe in human sacrifice), it will be important to clarify some at least of the meaning that seems to have been attached to the ritual slaughter of animals in the Temple. This is harder than some might imagine. (996)

In the Bible, God’s plan to deal with sin, and so to break the power of idols and bring new creation to his world, is focused on the people of Israel. In the New Testament, this focus is narrowed to Israel’s representative, the Messiah. He stands in for Israel and so fulfils the divine plan to restore creation itself. (1008)

The human problem is not so much “sin” seen as the breaking of moral codes—though that, to be sure, is part of it…—but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces. (1045)

…the first three chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There, one of the key technical terms is “righteousness,” in Greek dikaiosynē. For many centuries in many traditions, “righteousness” has been understood as the moral status we would have if only we had kept the “works contract” perfectly, and then (by various explanations) as the status we can have by faith because, despite our moral failure, Jesus has taken the punishment and so provided the “righteousness” as a gift (“the righteousness of Christ”). The problem—to put it bluntly—is that this is not what Romans is all about. (1069)

What the Bible offers is not a “works contract,” but a covenant of vocation. The vocation in question is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world. The main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. Those who do so are the “royal priesthood,” the “kingdom of priests,” the people who are called to stand at the dangerous but exhilarating point where heaven and earth meet. (1081)

Most people suppose that when Paul explains what is wrong with the human race, he focuses on “sin.” This is wrong. What he says about “sin” in Romans 1–2 is secondary to what he says about idolatry. The primary human failure is a failure of worship. (1208)

The biblical story addresses…the “sin” problem but goes much farther. The problem is that humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected; that this rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols; that this results in giving to the idols—“forces” within the creation—a power over humans and the world that was rightfully that of genuine humans; and that this leads to a slavery, which is ultimately the rule of death itself, the corruption and destruction of the good world made by the Creator. (1232)

Only when we give full early Christian weight to the phrase “in accordance with the Bible” [1 Cor 15:3] will we discover the full early Christian meaning of the phrase “for our sins.” And this means renouncing the Platonized views of salvation, the moralizing reduction of the human plight, and ultimately the paganized views of how salvation is accomplished. (1329)

When we read Genesis and Exodus together, the construction of the tabernacle toward the end of Exodus and the role of Aaron the high priest within it can be seen as a renewal or restoration of the original creation. In the “little world” of the sacred tent, close up and divinely personal, the story echoes the original creation. Heaven and earth belong together. God himself is mysteriously present. Humans, bearing the divine image, play their priestly role at the centre. (1354)

Just as the Creator chose the covenant people to be the means of rescuing the human race, so now, with the chosen people themselves in need of rescue, God might do the same thing again. He might act in a new way to call from within exilic Israel a remnant, perhaps even a remnant of one, through whom he would deliver Israel. (1365)

When humans sin, they hand to nondivine forces a power and authority that those forces were never supposed to have. And that is why, if God’s plan is to rescue and restore his whole creation, with humans as the active agents in the middle of it, “sins” have to be dealt with. That is the only way by which the nondivine forces that usurp the human role in the world will lose their power. They will be starved of the oxygen that keeps them alive, that turns them from ordinary parts of God’s creation into distorted and dangerous monsters. (1426)

Exile is therefore to be understood as a kind of corporate national death. Leaving the land is leaving the garden; leaving the ruined Temple means being debarred from the Tree of Life. (1475)

When the early Christian formula says that Jesus’s death happened “in accordance with the Bible,” it really does mean, as Jesus himself indicated in Luke 24, that the single great narrative had now come forward to its long-awaited goal. (1500)

It is startling to reflect on just how diminished the average modern Western Christian vision of “hope,” of “inheritance,” or indeed of “forgiveness” itself has become. We have exchanged the glory of God for a mess of spiritualized, individualistic, and moralistic pottage. (1641)

The book of Daniel bears witness to a recurring theme found in some parts of scripture and then in some postbiblical Jewish literature. When Israel’s God finally acted to accomplish the long-awaited end of exile—which, as we saw, meant the forgiveness of the sins that had caused the exile in the first place—this would come about through a time of intense suffering, either for the people as a whole or for a particular group within the people. (1713)

As far as I can tell, within Israel’s scriptures it is only in Isaiah 53 that the intense suffering is the means, and not simply the context, of the expected deliverance, of the forgiveness of sins… Isaiah 53, above all other passages, is used in the New Testament as the scriptural clue to the meaning of Jesus’s death. (1772)

…the New Testament’s message, that what we are promised in the gospel is the kingdom of God coming “on earth as in heaven”; or, to put it another way, for all things in heaven and on earth to be summed up in the Messiah; or, to put it yet another way, “new heavens and a new earth, in which justice will be at home” (2 Pet. 3:13). (2093)

In much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore). (2105)

…the “forgiveness of sins” in the ancient biblical sense of the long-awaited covenant renewal and “end of exile.” (2161)

This is what “for our sins in accordance with the Bible” actually meant: that the scriptural narrative of the restoration of Israel and then the welcome of the non-Jews into this restored people…had been launched through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that the single-phrase summary of all this, operating at both the large, national scale and the small, personal level, was the “forgiveness of sins.” (2188)

Acts describes what happens to human beings who are learning to live within God’s new world: they worship and they witness. The first corresponds to the “priesthood” theme, the second to the “royal” theme. (2288)

But if heaven and earth are already joined in the ascension, with part of “earth”—the human body of Jesus—now fully and thoroughly at home in “heaven,” then they are joined again in the opposite direction, as it were, in Acts 2, when the powerful wind of the divine Spirit comes upon the disciples. This is one of the New Testament equivalents of the filling of the tabernacle with the cloud and fire or of Solomon’s Temple with the glorious divine Presence. (2327)

“Witness” is not simply about people saying, “I’ve had this experience; perhaps you might like it too,” but about people announcing that a new state of affairs has come into being. (2351)

And with the resurrection we find the beginnings of the interpretation of the crucifixion. The cross meant what it meant in the light of what happened next. (2517)

At the heart of what we securely know about Jesus’s death is the time of year at which it took place. It happened at Passover time, and it seems clear that this was deliberate on Jesus’s part. He chose, for his final and fateful symbolic confrontation with Jerusalem and its authorities, the moment when all his fellow Jews were busy celebrating the Exodus from Egypt and praying that God would do again, only on a grander scale, what he had done all those years ago. (2566)

…when Jesus himself is making his final journey to Jerusalem and telling stories about the master who comes back—an obvious allusion to the much-anticipated return of Israel’s God after the long years of exile. (2578)

As long as Israel was still in bondage to hostile powers, what was needed was a new Exodus; but, because the cause of that bondage was Israel’s sins, what had to happen was for those sins to be dealt with. This combination of themes—the Passover victory, on the one hand, and the exile-ending “forgiveness of sins,” on the other—would then become characteristic of many strands in the New Testament. (2649)

Almost nobody in the gospels warns about “going to hell.” The dire warnings in the four gospels are mostly directed toward an imminent thisworldly disaster, namely, the fall of Jerusalem and other events connected with that. (2814)

John 19:30, the last shout of Jesus from the cross, is sometimes translated “It is finished” or “It’s all done!” This is then turned into a statement about a bill being paid or an account being settled to fit in with a particular atonement theology rather than being allowed to make John’s point, which is the completion of Jesus’s vocation in parallel with the completion of creation itself in Genesis 2:2 (see also John 17:4). (2826)

All four gospels tell the story of Jesus as one of Israel’s God returning at last. (2874)

The four gospels are telling not only the story of God’s kingdom being inaugurated, but also the story of how evil draws itself up to its height so that it can then be defeated by the Messiah. (2958)

Within this larger picture, the evangelists have also explained how this “forgiveness of sins,” this “return from exile,” comes about. It comes about because the one will stand in for the many. It comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole. (3032)

Jesus is accused of crimes that Luke’s readers know he has not committed, but that are characteristic of the many revolutionary groups around at the time (23:2). He is thus to die the death of the brigand, the revolutionary, in place of rebel Israel as a whole. This is captured in the way Luke somewhat belabours his explanation of the “exchange” of Barabbas for Jesus. (3069)

Jesus’s death is seen, right across the New Testament, not as rescuing people from the world so that they can avoid “hell” and go to “heaven,” but as a powerful revolution—that is, a revolution full of a new sort of power—within the world itself. (3173)

The letter [to the Galatians] is about unity: the fact that in the Messiah, particularly through his death, the one God has done what he promised Abraham all along. He has given him a single family in which believing Jews and believing Gentiles form one body. (3376)

Precisely because the Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work in generous self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power, that same divine nature would now be at work through the ministry of the gospel not only through what was said, but through the character and the circumstances of the people who were saying it. That is Paul’s central argument in 2 Corinthians. (3627)

Many traditions, misled by the normal translation of 1 Cor 5:21b as “that in him we might become ‘the righteousness of God,’” have imagined that in this verse we have a statement of what is called “double imputation”: our sins are “imputed” to Jesus and his righteousness is “imputed” to us. But that is specifically not what Paul says. (3653)

The poem [Phil 2:6-11] is a masterpiece of compressed biblical theology. One can only stand in awe at the combination of insight and expression that could encapsulate so much in a mere seventy-six Greek words. What this tells me is that already in the very early church it was common coin, first, that Jesus’s death established God’s kingdom; second, that this came about because of his servant-shaped identification with sinful humanity, sharing their death and so bearing their sin; and third, that this action was not something Jesus did despite the fact that he was “in God’s form” and “equal with God,” but rather something that he did because he was those things. In whatever way the New Testament tells the story of the cross, it is always the story of self-giving divine love. (3719)

Humans are designed to worship God and exercise responsibility in his world. But when humans worship idols instead, so that their image-bearing humanness corrupts itself into sin, missing the mark of the human vocation, they hand over their power to those same idols. The idols then use this power to tyrannize and ultimately to destroy their devotees and the wider world. But when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power. (3756)

The first four chapters of Romans have for many years been read as though they were a statement of our old friend the “works contract.” Humans were supposed to behave themselves; they didn’t. God had to punish them, but Jesus stood in the way, so God forgave them after all (provided they believed in Jesus). Rather than going to hell, they can now go to heaven instead… I am convinced that this is mistaken. (3611)

“Sin” is not just “doing things God has forbidden.” It is, as we saw, the failure to be fully functioning, God-reflecting human beings. That is what Paul sums up in [Romans] 3:23: all sinned and fell short of God’s glory. He is referring to the glory that, as true humans, they should have possessed. This is the “glory” spoken of in Psalm 8: the status and responsibility of looking after God’s world on his behalf. This status and this activity are sustained by true worship of the true God. This is the royal vocation, undergirded by the priestly vocation. (3860)

The “I” and “me” of Romans 7 is a literary device through which Paul is telling the life story of Israel under the Torah. (4084)

[Re Romans 8:1-4]  “There is no condemnation for those in the Messiah … because God … condemned Sin right there in the flesh.” The punishment has been meted out. But the punishment is on Sin itself, the combined, accumulated, and personified force that has wreaked such havoc in the world and in human lives. Here is a point that must be noted most carefully. Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus. (4137)

The death of Jesus, seen in this light, is certainly penal. It has to do with the punishment on Sin—not, to say it again, on Jesus—but it is punishment nonetheless. Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not. (4150)

For the death of Jesus to be an expression—the ultimate expression—of the divine love, that covenant love that as we saw lay at the heart of so many ancient Israelite expressions of hope for covenant rescue and renewal, we would need to say, and Paul does say, that in the sending of the son the creator and covenant God is sending his own very self. (4174)

What then is this “righteousness of God”? In Israel’s scriptures, to which Paul explicitly appeals in Romans 3:21b (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”), God’s “righteousness” is not simply God’s status of being morally upright. It is, more specifically, God’s faithfulness to the covenant—the covenant not only with Abraham and Israel, but through Israel to the wider world. (4380)

Paul is not saying, “God will justify sinners by faith so that they can go to heaven, and Abraham is an advance example of this.” He is saying, “God covenanted with Abraham to give him a worldwide family of forgiven sinners turned faithful worshippers, and the death of Jesus is the means by which this happens.” (4559)

God is faithful to the covenant; and, since the covenant focused on the purpose and promise to rescue the world through Israel, this is what has happened in and through the Messiah, who has offered to God the Israel-shaped obedience, the “faithfulness,” that was previously lacking. (4661)

The idea of “punishment” [in Isaiah 53] is in reality a sharp metaphor for the consequence that is writ large across the history of Israel—just as, when Paul is talking about sin and its results in Romans 1, he repeats three times that “God gave them up.” The corrupting and corrosive lifestyles he describes are not arbitrary, but rather the result, the consequence, of the original idolatry. This doesn’t mean that God is not involved in those consequences. (4925)

Israel’s past sins, the faithlessness that had apparently thrown the covenant into jeopardy, had been passed over, while the purpose of the covenant was gloriously fulfilled in the creation of a worldwide justified people. The “covenant of vocation”—Israel’s vocation to be the light of the world—was fulfilled. As a result, God and Israel “met” in Jesus. In Jesus, as Israel’s representative, God and Israel, God and the human race, God and the world met and were reconciled. “God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah” (2 Cor. 5:19). (5047)

Paul is not simply offering a roundabout way of saying, “We sinned; God punished Jesus; we are forgiven.” He is saying, “We all committed idolatry, and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has put forth the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery.” (5059)

When we see the victory of Jesus in relation to the biblical Passover tradition, reshaped through the Jewish longing for the “forgiveness of sins” as a liberating event within history, we see the early Christian movement not as a “religion” in the modern sense at all, but as a complete new way of being human in the world and for the world. (5230)

To reflect the divine image means standing between heaven and earth, even in the present time, adoring the Creator and bringing his purposes into reality on earth, ahead of the time when God completes the task and makes all things new. The “royal priesthood” is the company of rescued humans who, being part of “earth,” worship the God of heaven and are thereby equipped, with the breath of heaven in their renewed lungs, to work for his kingdom on earth. (5243)

What we have to do is to respond to the love poured out on the cross with love of our own: love for the one who died, yes, but also love for those around us, especially those in particular need. And part of the challenge of putting that into practice is that the powers, in whatever form, will be angry. They want to keep the world in their own grip. They will fight back. (5278)

The victory was indeed won, the revolution was indeed launched, through the suffering of Jesus; it is now implemented, put into effective operation, by the suffering of his people. (5290)

The revolution he accomplished was the victory of a strange new power, the power of covenant love, a covenant love winning its victory not over suffering, but through suffering. This meant, inevitably, that the victory would have to be implemented in the same way, proceeding by the slow road of love rather than the quick road of sudden conquest. (5402)

The bread-breaking meal, the Jesus feast, announces to the forces of evil like a public decree read out by a herald in the marketplace that Jesus is Lord, that he has faced the powers of sin and death and beaten them, and that he has been raised again to launch the new world in which death itself will have no authority. (5497)

The reign of the crucified Jesus only had to be announced for it to become effective. The powers that had held people captive were powerless to stop them believing, to prevent them from becoming part of God’s new creation. (5638)

It isn’t the case that power as we know it in the “real” world is the “norm” and the Christian subversion of it is a kind of bizarre twist that might just work even though we don’t see how. The gospel of Jesus summons us to believe that the power of self-giving love unveiled on the cross is the real thing, the power that made the world in the first place and is now in the business of remaking it; and that the other forms of “power,” the corrupt and self-serving ways in which the world is so often run, from global empires and multimillion businesses down to classrooms, families, and gangs, are the distortion. (5746)

As Christians, our role in society is not to wring our hands at the corruption of power or simply to pick a candidate that supports one or another supposedly Christian policy. The Christian role, as part of naming the name of the crucified and risen Jesus on territory presently occupied by idols, is to speak the truth to power and especially to speak up for those with no power at all. (5770)

Those who are called to this particular royal and priestly ministry, to worship the Jesus who reasserted the power of love and to bring that powerful love to bear upon the enslaved world, will suffer in some way or other as they do so. (5811)

Mission, as seen from the New Testament perspective, is neither about “saving souls for heaven” nor about “building the kingdom on earth.” It is the Spirit-driven, cross-shaped work of Jesus’s followers as they worship the true God and, confronting idols with the news of Jesus’s victory, work for the signs of his kingdom in human lives and institutions. (5882)

We lift up our eyes and realize that when the New Testament tells us the meaning of the cross, it gives us not a system, but a story; not a theory, but a meal and an act of humble service; not a celestial mechanism for punishing sin and taking people to heaven, but an earthly story of a human Messiah who embodies and incarnates Israel’s God and who unveils his glory in bringing his kingdom to earth as in heaven. (6003)

Forget the “works contract,” with its angry, legalistic divinity. Forget the false either/or that plays different “theories of atonement” against one another. Embrace the “covenant of vocation” or, rather, be embraced by it as the Creator calls you to a genuine humanness at last, calls and equips you to bear and reflect his image. Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now. (6016)

Review: Original Sin – a legitimate doctrine?

16 January 2018

This challenging book puts ‘original sin’ under the spotlight and finds the doctrine wanting. The book is:

Original Blessing: Putting Sin in its Rightful Place by Danielle Shroyer (Fortress Press, 2016).

oblargeOriginal sin’ is the idea that, as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, human nature was corrupted, leaving all human beings fundamentally and inherently sinful. Far from being a plain biblical teaching, it was not until the 4th century AD that this doctrine emerged, thanks chiefly to Augustine and his new twist on some of Paul’s teaching. Before that, ‘sin’ was seen as specific wrong actions, words or thoughts, or as an ‘illness’ that plagued an otherwise healthy individual. Nobody considered that we had a ‘sinful nature’.

But by the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of original sin was so ingrained in Christian thinking that no-one seriously questioned it, believing that there were other, more serious, issues needing attention. It has hung around ever since, giving a negative flavour to many of our attitudes and approaches, at least in the Western church. But the Eastern church never held that doctrine, and still rejects it as unbiblical.

Shroyer is not saying that sin isn’t universal; it clearly is. She is saying that humans were—and still are—formed as recipients of God’s love and blessing. Through our own waywardness and sin we repeat Adam and Eve’s running away from God. But he doesn’t run away from us; instead, he comes after us, bringing the means of covering our spiritual nakedness.

God, says the author, made us to be connected: to him primarily, then to each other and to the created order. He is committed to the relationship with us that he himself initiated. And insofar as any human being responds to that truth, they grow and prosper. Our gospel message, therefore, must focus on deepening their awareness and showing them how to know a full relationship with God through Jesus.

The author is a competent theologian. She looks in detail at Genesis 3 and at the Bible’s language of sin, drawing conclusions that are hard to deny. She also examines carefully the texts where original sin is usually grounded: Romans 5:12-17; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; and 2 Corinthians 11:3. There’s a lot to think about here. But you could find that it makes you look at other people with more of God’s own love and compassion!

Here are some quotations (numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers).

There’s a well-worn description of the great chasm of sin, where we’re on one side and God is on the other, and Jesus’ cross provides a bridge over which we can walk to God again. That illustration isn’t a description of the gospel. It’s a description of the story of original sin. And original sin is not the gospel.  (53)

Original blessing claims we are steadfastly held in relationship with God. Original blessing reminds us that God calls us good and beloved before we are anything else. Sin is not at the heart of our nature; blessing is.  (62)

More than any other idea, the doctrine of original sin has slowly eroded our understanding of our relationship with God. Rather than seeing our lives as naturally and deeply connected with God, original sin has convinced us that human nature stands not only at a distance from God but also in some inborn, natural way as contrary to God.  (155)

Original blessing means we don’t have to believe we must work against our human nature to live with God. Our human nature is not an obstacle to our relationship with God. Our humanity is the very reason we’re able to have a relationship with God in the first place.  (214)

We have to get rid of the idea that to be God-centered is to denigrate the self. When we are truly God-centered, our humanity becomes beautiful, not insignificant.  (272)

Though it may seem that original sin is a given, Christian history tells us a different story. None of the Eastern branches of our family tree (Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Christian) have ever accepted it, and of course our Jewish forebears, without whom we would not have our tradition, have roundly and consistently rejected it. So Jesus wasn’t raised with our notion of original sin, and his disciples wouldn’t have been either, or Paul.  (358)

Original sin is the red sock in our theological laundry. It has the potential to discolor everything, and it often does.  (364)

The man and the woman in the garden of Eden didn’t have a sin nature, and they sinned. Why can’t we just say the same is true for us?  (395)

People aren’t perfect, but the opposite is also true. People aren’t entirely evil.  (403)

I’m also wary of the idea of a sin nature because it devalues humanity. I don’t mean that we ought to put humanity on a pedestal, but there’s a direct correlation between how we value something and how we treat it.  (508)

Many proponents of original sin say it’s the only way for us to understand how much we rely on grace. I don’t think that’s true, and I also think that’s dangerous. God’s grace can’t and shouldn’t be twisted and used as a way for us to feel like we’re unworthy. God doesn’t need to humiliate us before giving us grace just to ensure the grace is effective and appreciated.  (574)

We are not born fallen—and yet, for many of us, that’s the only version we’ve been told about what happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate an apple, and when they did, their relationship with God—and ours with it—was permanently disfigured and disordered. Now instead of a golden thread connecting us to God, there is a chasm of sin separating us from God.   But maybe that isn’t the only way to read the story.  (712)

In no place in Genesis 1–3 does scripture describe the man and the woman as immortal. They are created by God and given life by God, but nothing in the creation stories tell us that death is not present…   Genesis 2:17 says, “Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” It does not say death will enter into the world. The fact that the man and the woman understood what God meant proves that death was a reality they already knew, even if they had not yet experienced it.  (779)

When we read Genesis 3, we do not have to say, “Oh yes, that’s how I got to be like this. It’s their fault.” We can say, quite simply, “Oh yes, I am sometimes like that.”  (881)

There are a good number of legitimate ways to interpret Genesis 3. I happen to think the most popular Protestant version of it is one of the least legitimate ones, if only because of the unconvincing conclusions it makes about original sin.  (1111)

The man and the woman were raised in the garden, but eventually they would have to leave home. And, like every other child who embarks toward adulthood, leaving home inevitably includes some form of individuation and rebellion. For us to become ourselves, we have to push against the very people who made us. We have to stand against them, and even reject them, in order to find our way back into relationship with them again as adults.  (1155)

We are not evil villains but wayward children. We do not have a sin nature but a human nature.  (1271)

We learn in the garden that we are capable of good and evil, and that we often do not know the difference. But more importantly, we learn in the garden that we are loved, that we are clothed and sent away in peace, and that God is waiting for us even east of Eden.  (1275)

The word of God is very close to us, while sin must always stalk us at a distance. Sin is waiting for us, but it is our choice whether we open the door. Blessing is not waiting for us, because blessing is already with us and within us, regardless of whichever side of the door we’re standing. Blessing is the home, and sin is the stranger.  (1406)

The most predominant word for sin in both the Hebrew and the Greek assumes in its very definition our ability to hit the mark.  (1574)

When scripture calls us to goodness, to repentance, to grace, it’s not like telling a fish to ride a bicycle. It’s not something so contradictory to who we are and what we can do that it’s an impossible notion. Salvation is available to us because God has offered it, but also because God has designed us to be capable of responding to it.  (1579)

I fear we’ve confused the personal nature of sin with an individualistic view of sin. Much of this stems from the doctrine of original sin, which slowly began to describe sin more and more as an individual problem. So it’s important to remember that the concept of the modern human and even the modern individual conscience is a new idea, and we have to be careful not to assume that the writers of scripture understood sin in the same kind of overtly personal (and existential) way.  (1646)

People are most motivated by a desire to be loved and cherished. What we want most of all is not heroin but a home.  (1713)

The doctrine of original sperm paved the way for the theory that the virgin birth was necessary to keep sin from being passed on to Jesus. And it’s one of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church ended up promoting the doctrine of perpetual virginity for Mary, even though scripture itself mentions that Mary and Joseph had children after Jesus was born.  (1771)

If we are taught to see our bodies as the source of our sin nature, it’s not particularly easy to appreciate them, much less to know what to do with them. When we believe our bodies are created good, we can choose to live into them as a natural part of human life blessed by God.  (1793)

If we see growing up as a natural part of life, we can see teen questions and struggles as the necessary road toward maturity, not the road paved to hell.  (1820)

This may be one of the most tragic results of the doctrine of original sin. It deeply diminishes Jesus. When we emphasize sin as the big problem, and we make salvation the debt paid for our sin problem, then Jesus becomes not a savior but a sin portfolio manager.  (1887)

For the first nearly thousand years of Christian history, the crucifixion was not a central focus; Easter was. The cross was remembered one day a year, and the other three hundred and sixty four days were devoted to Easter. Symbols of Jesus as healer, life-giver, shepherd, light, and gardener populated art, houses of worship, liturgy, and prayers.  (1897)

While original sin would say someone is bad, original blessing need only say something is wrong.  (1918)

As the doctrine of original sin developed, the Western church began to move away from healing language and instead describe sin and salvation in legal terms. Sin ceased to be viewed as the natural state of our bodies gone awry, but instead an unavoidable part of our human heredity. But once sin is considered part of our inborn nature, there is no restorative medicine to heal us. Sin became separated from the very life that can heal it. What is now required is not whole-life salvation, but payment. With this view of sin, the Western church began to rely almost exclusively on legal metaphors in some of the New Testament letters to describe salvation. Eventually, legal debt and payment were the only dimension of salvation left in the West.  (1931)

If we see Jesus’ story only through the lens of a courtroom and a legal debt, God’s love, mercy, and grace become more of a “phew” than a “wow.” Justice and mercy are not forces of punishment. They are agents of healing.  (1958)

In a world where we think we get what we deserve, the most deserving of us all got sold out, abandoned, denied, mocked, beaten, bloodied, and crucified. The cross is the symbol of a cosmic “should not.” It is the ferocious antidote of “if, then” faith. Choose life, says Moses. He didn’t mention if you do it perfectly, it would get you killed.  (2021)

God’s love is the steadiest thing the cosmos has to offer. We can rest in God’s steadfast faithfulness even after we have crucified the Son of God. What an unfathomable mystery. Once we realize that’s true, we can begin to know the depths of the deepest truth of all: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing.  (2134)

Blessing isn’t one more thing for you to be good at. It’s the one place where you don’t have to do anything at all but just show up.  (2368)

God’s blessing is not based on feeling it. It’s there whether you can see it or not, whether you feel it or not, even whether you can accept it or not. It’s always there. And somehow, it will become known to you again.  (2373)

Review: Love trumps sovereignty

12 January 2018

Open theism has made a big impact among Evangelicals in recent years, giving a third option alongside the Calvinist and Arminian views of divine providence, and their versions of theodicy. This book is firmly in this third category. It is:

The Uncontrolling Love of God: An open and relational account of providence by Thomas Jay Oord (IVP Academic, 2015).

tuloglargeIt deals with the age-old question of why, if God is all-powerful, does he not prevent the appalling evil that scars our world. Most of the traditional answers are anything but convincing, appealing in the end to ‘mystery’. Oord contends that God, in fact, cannot unilaterally prevent purposeless, gratuitous evil, just as he cannot lie, deny himself or make a square circle.

He grounds this conviction on what he calls ‘essential kenosis’. We normally associate the term ‘kenosis’ with Philippians 2:7, which says that Jesus, in his incarnation, ‘emptied himself’ or ‘made himself nothing’. But because Jesus is the complete revelation of what God is like, Oord contends, God’s essential nature is eternally kenotic. By that he means that God’s love, not his sovereignty, is his defining feature, and love, by definition, does not control. God thus leaves the beloved space to respond willingly to his love and, inevitably, risks being spurned.

God can, of course, work within the created order to influence, call or persuade, but he cannot control, and therefore cannot stop humans killing, raping etc. Nor can he alter the random natural processes that produce suffering and pain, like earthquakes, genetic mutations etc. If he were to interfere, it would be a revoking of the gifts he has given and by which the world operates.

While this approach lets God off the hook for the evil in the world, it perhaps leaves some unanswered questions. How, for example, is God ever going to fulfil his ultimate purpose to make all things new in Christ if he is permanently limited by the shortcomings of his much-loved creation? And while Oord believes in miracles, his explanation of how they fit into the ‘essential kenosis’ scenario is not altogether convincing, in my opinion.

But that doesn’t mean that his book isn’t worth bothering with. It has some fine insights and some interesting angles on particular scripture passages. Well worth a read!

[Here are some quotations]

My overall goal is to make sense of randomness and evil in light of my conviction that a loving and powerful God exists and acts providentially.  (p10)

If we should not blame God when things go badly, should we praise God when things go well?  (p23)

Many Christians have ignored biblical passages that speak of chance. Like Rick Warren, they have believed that accidents are just incidents in God’s predetermined story. For them, randomness and chance are ultimately unreal.  (p30)

Life is an open-ended adventure, not an already settled script.  (p38)

Any design we encounter—and we encounter design often—comes from randomness, regularity and other forces, including God. Because of this, arguments pitting evolutionary randomness against design and organization are usually misguided.  (p43)

Absolute randomness is a myth. But absolute determinism is too…  Chance and lawlike regularity characterize our world. If chance reigned absolutely, chaos would ensue. If law reigned absolutely, order would eliminate creativity. Both randomness and regularity persist in the universe.  (p50)

Libertarian free will supporters are incompatiblists because they believe we cannot be simultaneously free and entirely determined by other forces. In other words, free will and complete determinism are incompatible.  (p59)

Being morally responsible is impossible if free will is an illusion.  (p60)

Most often, believers who wrestle with the problem of evil say God loves perfectly and can control others entirely. Because these believers cannot reconcile their beliefs with the genuine evil they experience, they appeal to mystery…   Those who appeal to mystery still usually say we should oppose genuine evil. “God calls us to work to make the world a better place,” they may claim. But it is hard to be motivated to oppose that which an omnipotent God allowed.  (p64)

If we look for it, we will notice goodness all around. Virtue is far more common than we may realize.  (p70)

I can think of numerous evil events a voluntarily self-limited God should have prevented by momentarily becoming un-self-limited. Victims of horrific evils likely have their list of events too. Saying God allowed or permitted but did not will evil offers little comfort. A perfectly loving God should and would prevent genuine evil if it were possible.  (p92)

The model of God as voluntarily self-limited thinks self-limitation is a free divine choice. It begins with the idea that God essentially has the capacity to control others entirely, and God could choose not to self-limit. But God freely chose at creation or, usually, chooses in history thereafter not to exercise the capacity to control others entirely. The model of providence as essentially kenotic, by contrast, portrays God’s self-limitation as involuntary. God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.  (p95)

Forty or more Old Testament passages say God has a change of mind, which suggests God does not foreknow the future in its entirety.  (p110)

By the end of the twentieth century, it seemed the majority of Christian scholars rejected the classical view of impassibility. Most believed God to be relational because God affects others and others affect God.  (p125)

The alternative to a risk-taking God model is some form of theological determinism. Outcomes are guaranteed only if God controls others. Robots can be trusted to comply, but free creatures may hinder divine plans.  (p135)

Sanders’s position seems to imply that voluntarily giving freedom to others is always the most loving thing God can do. But is this true? Is giving freedom when it could be restrained always an act of love?  (p142)

If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say “God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.” If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.  (p147)

I follow the contemporary trend of interpreting kenosis primarily as Jesus’ qualified power, other-orientation and servant love. This interpretation seems more fruitful overall than discussions about what might be communicated between Christ’s two natures, although I think such discussions have their place.  (p156)

Although no translation is perfect, the most helpful rendering of kenōsis may be “self-giving”…   Kenōsis translated as “self-giving, others-empowering love” corresponds well with passages found throughout Scripture.  (p159)

Essential kenosis says God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation. Because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom, agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power.  (p169)

Realizing that God cannot unilaterally prevent suffering caused by simple entities helps us make sense of suffering caused by natural malfunctions or disasters. This means, for instance, we should not accuse God of causing or allowing birth defects, cancer, infections, disease, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, or other illnesses and catastrophes. The degradation brought by such calamities does not represent God’s will. Instead, we can blame simple structures, various natural processes of the world, small organisms or creation gone awry.  (p172)

As an omnipresent spirit with no localized divine body, God cannot exert divine bodily influence as a localized corpus. This means God cannot use a divine body to step between two parties engaged in a fight, for instance.  (p178)

Although Jesus can be angry or even exert strong force on occasion (e.g., clearing the temple), Jesus never acted coercively in the sense of controlling others entirely. The a posteriori evidence of the life of Jesus, whom Christians believe reveals God better than any other person, suggests that God does not coerce.  (p184)

God is almighty in at least three senses. God is . . . mightier than all others. the only One who exerts might upon all that exists. the ultimate source of might for all others…   God’s almighty power in these three senses does not involve coercion. God can be the mightiest without controlling others. God can exert power upon all creation without unilaterally determining any. God can be the ultimate source of power—empowering and enabling others—without dominating any creature or situation entirely. Almighty is not coercive.  (p189)

If God can enact miracles to do good or prevent evil, why doesn’t God enact miracles more often?…   it’s natural to wonder why an alleged consistently loving God enacts miracles so inconsistently.  (p192)

Instead of thinking miracles are entirely in the mind of the observer, I think they are objective events in the world. Instead of defining miracles as violations of natural laws or divine interventions, I think God is already present to and active in all creation. Instead of believing miracles require supernatural control, I believe miracles occur by means of God’s uncontrolling love in relation to the universe and its creatures.  (p196)

We have no evidence on which to argue that God ever acts miraculously in a vacuum. Essential kenosis presumes that creaturely causation of some kind is present in all miracles, even when biblical narratives do not identify the creaturely causes.  (p207)

In this miraculous activity, God’s steadfast love does not supersede the lawlike regularities of nature, and God does not control. But God coordinates creaturely elements in ways that bring about unexpected and good results. This coordination is possible because of God’s omnipresence and complete knowledge of what has occurred and is occurring.  (p209)

Essential kenosis removes the “selective miracles” reason for rejecting special divine action. God never has and never can control others entirely when acting miraculously. God does not selectively coerce to enact miracles for some people but not for others because control-based selectivity is not possible for the God whose nature is kenotic love.  (p213)

Even when we consciously say yes in faith to the divine desire for our well-being, our bodies may not cooperate with God’s healing plans.  (p213)

Essential kenosis offers an adventure model of reality. This model may strike some as a precarious paradigm of providence. Adventures aren’t safe, after all, because they have general goals, not predetermined designs. Adventures involve calculated risks, free decisions and sometimes random occurrences. Love is an adventure without guaranteed results.  (p220)

Review: What is saving ‘faith’?

11 January 2018

Faith versus works is a big thing for Protestant Christians. In elevating ‘by faith alone’, they pour scorn on the perceived ‘works’ aspect of Roman Catholic views of salvation. The danger of polarised views like these is a failure to give proper attention to the common features of the middle ground. Here is a book that examines one aspect of that middle ground. It is:

Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King by Matthew W. Bates (Baker Academic, 2017).

sbaalarge_Bates looks at the meaning of ‘faith’ (Greek pistis) and makes a solid case for his argument that it means a good deal more than mere mental assent, or ‘belief’. He shows—from both the NT and other literature from the NT period—that it contains a strong element of faithfulness, or fidelity, and reckons that the word ‘allegiance’ is the best English word to sum it up.

He argues that the NT presents Jesus primarily as Lord, or King (with Saviour as a secondary aspect), and that the proper response to his lordship is allegiance. That, by definition, means a sustained commitment rather than a quick, one-off moment of commitment—though the latter may well be the start of the former. But salvation requires that ongoing allegiance, and the obedience to Christ that it entails. That, of course, is where many will cry, ‘This is salvation by works!’ And maybe it is, to some extent. But Protestants have long been good at ignoring the NT’s plain statements that works are somehow involved anyway.

En route to his conclusions, the author tackles various related issues. For example, like many scholars today, he holds that the biblical concept of election is chiefly corporate rather than individual. He is also strongly opposed to the notion that ‘going to heaven’ is our destiny.

You may not go along with all his opinions, but the book is worth reading to help you escape the faith vs. works polarisation that, since the Reformation, has probably caused as many problems as it has solved.

Here are some quotations.

The word pistis (and related terms) has a much broader range of meaning. This range includes ideas that aren’t usually associated in our contemporary culture with belief or faith, such as reliability, confidence, assurance, fidelity, faithfulness, commitment, and pledged loyalty. The question is, then, when a person today says, “I am saved by my faith in Jesus,” what portion of the range of meaning of “faith” is understood to effect salvation?  (p3)

I hope that the correct identification of the high point of the gospel as Jesus’s kingship and a retargeting of “faith” as allegiance will reinvigorate the life and mission of the church today.  (p9)

For many today faith is defined as the opposite of evidence-based truth. This is neither a biblical nor a Christian understanding of faith.  (p17)

The most straightforward explanations of what the word “gospel” meant for the earliest Christians are found in three passages in Paul’s Letters, Romans 1:1–5, 1:16–17, and 1 Corinthians 15:1–5 (cf. 2 Tim. 2:8). Another passage that does not use the word euangelion but aligns closely with the above mentioned is Philippians 2:6–11, which can help fill out our understanding.  (p30)

We might summarize Paul’s “by pistis for pistis” [Rom 1:17] in this way: in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed (1) by Jesus’s allegiance to God that ultimately led to his enthronement, and (2) in order to bring about our allegiance-yielding response to Jesus as the king.  (p43)

We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of “faith” (pistis) as “allegiance” in relation to salvation. Jesus as king is the primary object toward which our saving “faith”—that is, our saving allegiance—is directed.  (p67)

My intention is not to flatten the rich multiple meanings and nuances of pistis into a bland singleness. Rather it is to claim that, when discussing salvation in generalized terms, allegiance is a better overarching English-language term for what Paul intends with his use of the pistis word group than the more customary faith, belief, and trust.  (p78)

Scholarship committed to a hard faith/law antithesis has generally had to fall back on problematic explanations of “the law of the Christ” [Gal 6:2]…  The “law of the Christ” (and the like) is spoken of in a positive fashion because pistis is not fundamentally opposed to all law but involves enacted obedience to the wise rule that Jesus the king both embodies and institutes.  (p86)

What is essential for salvation? Public declaration that Jesus is Lord is at the bedrock, because this designates mental agreement with the gospel and the desire to live a life of personal fidelity to Jesus as the sovereign ruler of heaven and earth.  (p98)

Paul is firm even if some modern commentators are not: we will be judged, at least in part, for eternal life on the basis of our works.  (p108)

I do wonder…if the contemporary tendency, at least at the level of popular Christian teaching and preaching, to center “image of God” theology on the human essence (ontology) rather than on the human purpose (teleology) might give the doctrine short shrift.  (p147)

When a person is truly acting as the image of God, he or she serves as a genuine contact point between God and creation, mediating God’s presence to creation (including other humans and all other creatures).  (p152)

Properly speaking, at the present time Jesus the king is the only person who has already been directly judged by God (the Father), found to be in the right (justified), and vindicated. His resurrection from the dead is proof of his innocence—that he truly has been justified. Resurrection constitutes Jesus’s deliverance and total vindication. Currently no other person has been directly justified and declared righteous apart from him. All other cases are reserved for the final judgment.  (p168)

The transactional idea of the Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us so that it covers our unclean sins is nowhere to be found in Scripture…  The language of imputation can be preserved if it retains a more modest valence as a subset of union with the Christ-king. Paul favors the language not of covering for imputation, but of counting or reckoning or considering (logizomai) for those who are found to be “in the Messiah” (e.g., Rom. 4:3–11, 22–24; 2 Cor. 5:19; Gal. 3:6). Imputation can be maintained from a biblical standpoint only if it is predicated on a prior or simultaneous union and if it is regarded as a counting or reckoning.  (p182)

This point should be regarded as absolutely nonnegotiable: a true gospel invitation must summon the hearer toward a confession of allegiance to Jesus as the king or cosmic Lord…  We must stop asking others to invite Jesus into their hearts and start asking them to swear allegiance to Jesus the king.  (p199)

Although contemporary Christian culture tends to separate personal salvation and discipleship, allegiance is where they finally meet—and they don’t just meet, they embrace. For when we discover that saving “faith” means above all allegiance to Jesus the king, the intimacy between discipleship and salvation is easy to recognize.  (p206)

Review: The ‘mystical’ approach to Christianity

11 January 2018

There’s a rising interest in the branch of Christianity described as ‘mystical’ and ‘contemplative’. My own interest was piqued, so I read a couple of books on the subject. The first one was:

Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path by Carl McColman (Hampton Roads Publishing Co, 2013).

atcclargeMy main problem was how to find the route from my own, fairly standard, evangelical experience of God to the kind of ongoing Christian experience the author describes. Is the latter an alternative to the former, or a possible extension of it? Probably the second, but I can’t be sure.

The gist of ‘mystical Christianity’ seems to be recognising that, because God is omnipresent, he is within all of us. Because of this, we can make a regular effort to shut out the chatter of everyday life, and of the active mind, and focus on becoming aware of his presence in the depths of our being. It’s hard to describe in clear language and is, I suspect (as one Scots lady allegedly said), ‘Better felt that tell’t.’

The author builds the book around a ‘travel’ metaphor. His three divisions are ‘Recognizing the Call’, ‘Preparing for the Journey’ and ‘Embarking on the Adventure’. I have to say it all seems sound enough, and he explains things as clearly as anyone could explain deep mysteries of spiritual experience. He roots everything firmly in Jesus and has a keen awareness of the human weaknesses that can inject impure motives into any spiritual pilgrimage.

He also quotes with affection the works of past Christians who tend not to figure much in the average evangelical’s awareness, people like Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton. In doing so, his aim is to show that the ‘mystical’ form of Christianity is not some weird novelty but has a solid pedigree stretching across the centuries.

He introduces his readers to some terminology that will be new to many of them: as well as ‘mysticism’ and ‘contemplation’ (in their specialist senses), there are terms like ‘kenosis’, ‘apophatic’ and ‘kataphatic’. You will enjoy getting to know them!

The goal of the ‘contemplative life’, he insists, is to know God more intimately, and that can’t in any way be bad. So push to one side notions of your becoming a twenty-first-century Desert Father or cloistered monk, and open yourself up to what could be a new and stimulating facet of the very faith that you have known for a long time. That’s the way I’m approaching it, anyway.

[Here are some quotations. As I read this book in its Kindle version, the numbers are Kindle locations, not page numbers]

The goal of the journey is, at least in part, to have no goal; the purpose is not so much to find God as to find ourselves in God.  (142)

…mysticism: I’m using this word very much in the intimacy with God sense… Contemplation: If a mystic is a lover of God, then contemplation is the means by which Divine love is given, received, and shared…  When I speak of mysticism and contemplation, I refer specifically to the Christian journey into the love of God.  (164)

…an interior alchemy that occurs in the human soul—the transformation from the normal human state of existential angst to serene recognition of the unifying presence of God.  (206)

To mystics, the mysteries of life are our teachers. It’s no accident that mysticism and mysteries are such closely related words, both evolving from the same Greek root. What makes something a mystery is that it is hidden from the peering, penetrating efforts of the human mind to analyze, categorize, and understand everything.  (329)

God is what matters, and any experience of God is secondary.  (351)

The longing we sense for God is a gift given to us by God, out of God’s longing for us.  (371)

When God’s longing for us connects with our longing for God, we enter the mystical life. All that remains is for us to wake up to this fact.  (424)

The contemplative call is a call to intimacy with God, not a call to be entertained by spiritual experiences. This is not to dismiss our longing but rather to be careful to point it in the right direction. To humbly and lovingly long for God and God alone—not even for an “experience” of God—this is the path of awakening.  (588)

Those of us who recognize the mysterious longing in our souls have probably already had at least one spiritual awakening of some sort at some point in our lives, no matter how small or humble it may have been. In all likelihood, we’ve had more than one. And if now you have a longing to wake up again, that’s part of the nature of things.  (672)

We have been trained, at least in the Christian world for the last few centuries, to approach God primarily with our minds.  (690)

I’m asking you to consider something that, in all probability, you’ve never been encouraged to notice before. I’m asking you to recognize just how God is present and active in your life.  (712)

So there is the paradox: We do not need to go anywhere to get closer to God, for God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. And yet, just as life is a journey, so too our dance of intimacy with the Divine will take the shape and form of a path, a passage, an adventure.  (781)

Just as not all mystics speak to all people, neither are the mystics infallible. Their writings are shaped by their own limitations and eccentricities. Some are dull, overly abstract, excessively penitential, hostile to those who see things differently, and marred by such ongoing problems as sexism, hatred of the body, and irrational fear of the devil.  (901)

Our journey is an inner journey—we are seeking not something far away or beyond ourselves, but something found inside our own hearts.  (980)

Spiritual practice, like any other discipline, can at times be dull and boring, especially once the novelty wears off.  (1113)

Jesus has been loved and accepted by the mystics, not as a way of appeasing an angry God, but as a joyful entry into the mysteries of love.  (1200)

For the spiritual life to reach its full potential, the interior/mystical dimension needs to be balanced by the external/social dimension.  (1251)

Again and again throughout history, mystics have pointed out the importance of the apophatic way—that God ultimately cannot be known in any kind of theoretical or conceptual sense.  (1299)

Everyone who engages in the serious pursuit of contemplative spirituality discovers that either the sensual imagery of kataphatic prayer or the vast emptiness of apophatic prayer is the more “natural” way of praying for them. And that’s fine. But each of us needs at least to be familiar with both approaches to spirituality.  (1321)

Even after months or years or decades of practice, veteran contemplatives are often humbled by the degree of inner noise—of mental static and emotional turmoil—that persists within their hearts and minds.  (1359)

Behold God’s presence in your life, whether seen or unseen, felt or unfelt, sensed or at a level deeper than sensation. Behold God’s love for you, implicit in your desire for love and your ability to love, wounded and imperfect as it may be.  (1474)

Because God is not an object, it is absurd to talk about “experiencing God.” Contemplation is not about us experiencing God; if anything, it is about God experiencing us.  (1497)

If we can loosen the grip and relax into the awareness of the present moment with a humble and loving heart—then, by grace, we may join Julian of Norwich in beholding God in all.  (1562)

One of the signs of being a true mystic is forgetting about yourself in the joy of loving and being loved by God.  (1713)

Here are the core spiritual practices of the Christian wisdom tradition: meditation and contemplative (silent) prayer. The journey into the mystery of God is a journey into these two essential mystical practices.  (1724)

Unlike the Eastern idea of meditation as a desired state of mental peace and clarity, the Christian idea of meditation is much more interactive, allowing the mind (and heart) to engage with the object of meditation—God, Christ, the Spirit, the Trinity, the Divine mystery. So Christian meditation is not about letting images or thoughts go; rather, like other forms of kataphatic spirituality, it is all about immersing ourselves in the Word of God.  (1734)

…the crown jewel of mystical spirituality—the regular practice of silent prayer.  (1887)

Centering prayer, the popular method of silent prayer based on the teachings of Trappist monks Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and William Meninger, involves using a prayer word of your choice. The idea behind reciting one single prayer word is to give the thinking mind as little stimulation as possible, instead offering one single point of focus that can be repeated lovingly and prayerfully as you embrace the silence.  (1950)

As we go deeper into contemplation, we find that kenosis isn’t just for Christ; it’s a spiritual path that all who hunger for the love of God will eventually be asked to follow.  (1981)

The mystical act of kenosis—of self-emptying, of freely choosing humility, of letting go of any desire to own or control God or otherwise reduce God to the level of spiritual experience—can never be systematized or encoded or reduced to a set of laws or rules or principles.  (2046)

Kenosis is central to the mystical tradition. Christ emptied himself, and is now emptying anyone else who comes to him in love and trust.  (2118)

The contemplative life offers a new dimension of sorrow and suffering, for to the extent that our hearts are united with God, we will be that much more sensitive to the brokenness, pain, and suffering of all God’s children—of all beings.  (2140)