Review: God is like Jesus!

9 March 2018

A big question today is ‘What is God like?’ A consensus has been crystallising in the reply, ‘God is like Jesus’. This book takes that, not as its conclusion, but as its starting-point. It is:

A More Christlike God: A more beautiful gospel by Bradley Jersak (Plain Truth Ministries, 2015. ISBN: 978-1508528371).   

amcglargeIt treats its topic comprehensively. Starting with how we tend to create a view of God in our own image and then find scriptures to support it, the book goes on to look at history’s competing images of God (‘will’ versus ‘love’) before looking at the scriptures, both OT and NT, that present a vengeful God—a view of him which the author sees as trumped by Christ’s perfect revelation of the Father’s heart.

Jersak develops at length the idea that God is a cruciform God. He rules through self-emptying love (kenosis), and ‘Christ crucified’ is the climax of his self-revelation. Kenosis is not a surrender of the divine attributes but the very nature of them! God rules, not by force, but by consent, which is evident in the deference of the Persons of the Trinity to one another, and in God’s allowing us to choose to respond to his love.

This notion of ‘consent’ leads to an interesting take on theodicy, what the author calls ‘an anti-theodicy of the cross’. God has given consent both to natural law and to human will, and does not normally interfere in their operation. But he comes with love and compassion when their effects are negative, having been there himself in Jesus.

The concept of God’s ‘wrath’, too, comes under examination, and the author sees a progression of understanding of its nature as the Bible unfolds, ending in its definition as God’s ‘giving over’ of sinners to the natural results of their behaviour. This is how theoutstandingbook ‘bipolar image’ of God (as both angry and loving) is resolved. Inevitably, this ventures into the realm of ‘atonement theories’, on which Jersak has some well-balanced comments, and takes a detailed look at Jesus’ own metaphors for his saving work, and those used by Paul.

This is meaty, challenging material but also heart-warming. I’ve never been a fan of ‘devotional’ books, always preferring something intellectually challenging. But this book somehow manages to combine both aspects—and that, in my view, is a huge plus.

Here are some quotations. The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers.

God is love and every other aspect of God must align with his love. (271)

When we say “God is love” or “God is good” or “God is light,” we aren’t merely describing his characteristics. We are saying God is love, goodness and light in his energies, just as we say God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in his persons. (283)

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised how this proposition—the message that Jesus shows us what God is like—is often well received by those who don’t profess Christian faith. (308)

What are we to think when the ‘God of the Bible’ seems so un-Christlike? Sometimes even Jesus seems to describe this kind of God. It’s not as simple as tossing the Old Testament; God the vengeful king makes a cameo appearance in several of Jesus’ parables. Awkward! (359)

Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith. Or better, he was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy. He didn’t seem to appreciate our self-loathing. The repentance he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. (451)

The great peril is that we worship ourselves via an image of God we create out of our own temperament. Then, easily enough, we find scriptures to establish our image as ‘biblical’! (528)

…just one beautiful image of God, evident in the Christ of the Gospels: he’s the Restorer of lives. (754)

…the two principal competing images of God throughout the history of religion: the God of pure will (or freedom) and the God of pure love (or goodness). This divide affects virtually every faith tradition and cuts through the heart of most of them. These two images clash within the ‘biblical religions’ of Judaism and Christianity and even collide on the pages of our Bible! (778)

If God is pure will—even a divine tyrant—then we’d better submit, like it or not. The fact is, historically, such a God recurs in various forms throughout Christian history and even within the pages of the Bible. (966)

According to Calvin, God is not only beyond good and evil, but everyone who does evil is merely acting as his instrument and at his command. When an evil person or even the devil commits evil, it is because the Lord not only permitted it—he commanded them and forced them to do it. Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name. (1006)

…the obvious intended trajectory of revelation from Old Covenant to New. God didn’t evolve; our conception of him did, in greatest part because Jesus came to show and tell us exactly who God is in ways no prophet had the capacity to anticipate—not Moses, David or even Isaiah. (1138)

It’s not only the vengeance or violence from which I’m recoiling: the real problem is the portrait of a God whose un-Christlike naked will eclipses love and trumps grace—a coercive force incongruent with Christ’s cruciform revelation of his Father’s love. (1147)

Throughout his letter [Romans], Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles. (1178)

Because God is fully revealed in Jesus—exactly like him—then God is a self-giving lover, and not a conquering emperor, like Constantine for example. We will need to address both the problem of a seemingly two-faced God (love versus force) and an apparently two-faced Christ (Lamb versus Lion; the suffering Servant versus the bloody Warrior on the white horse). (1216)

If God sent his Son to reveal himself, if Jesus showed us how true sovereignty works, what real power does, and what victory looks like—on earth as it is in heaven—then let me propose that the King of Heaven rules and reigns, not like Constantine, but like Jesus of Nazareth. (1320)

Some believe that kenosis means that God gives up his divine attributes or hides or hinders his own nature in order to become incarnate. He either puts on something (like wearing a disguise) or takes off something (like disrobing). Certainly the fullness of the divine nature is concealed in some ways in the Incarnation. But it is uniquely revealed in Christ as well. “We beheld his glory,” says John (John 1:14). (1413)

What if Jesus’ humility, meekness and servant heart were never a departure from God’s glory and power, but actually define it and demonstrate it? (1437)

Unlike the synoptic Gospels and Pauline epistles, which usually associate glory with the resurrection, in John’s Gospel, the ‘hour’ of Christ’s execution is the hour of his exaltation. Jesus is the serpent ‘exalted/lifted up’ on the wooden stick (John 3:14). When he is ‘exalted / lifted up’ from the earth, he will draw all people(s) to himself (John 12:32). Thus, the language of glory and the exaltation / lifting-up of Christ are synonymous in John. For John, the Cross is the diadem of God’s unprecedented self-revelation. (1618)

“Please accept my proposal, my beloved …or I’ll throw you in a lake of fire.” Where’s the freedom in that kind of ultimatum? Where’s the consent? (1672)

Cruciformity and kenosis are not temporary conditions of God’s history, restricted to a first century Jewish long-weekend or even to the whole of the Incarnation of Christ. They describe God’s divine identity—not just what he is like, but who he is. (1676)

As first cause, God is Good and all he does is goodness. But there are also secondary causes. Secondary causes include natural law and human freedom. We refer to them as secondary causes because while God caused them, they also cause things that God does not directly cause. That is, God consents to the free (and often catastrophic) play of these secondary causes—he allows natural law and human freedom to do their thing. God is ultimately responsible for all that is—for natural law and for human freedom—but we would say he doesn’t directly cause or control humans or nature in whatever they do. (1798)

God is in charge, but he is not in control, because he doesn’t do control. (1852)

Kenotic power may seem feeble because it is patient and humble, but in the end, God-as-love—the truly Christlike God—is the overcoming force more powerful because he does what no tyrant can ever do: he wins hearts, restores lives and transforms societies. (1889)

I once heard the renowned South African human rights activist, Bishop Desmond Tutu, say, “For whatever reason, since humankind showed up on the scene, God does nothing without a human partner.” (2076)

Christlike prayer is kenotic, cruciform and willing—not coercive, demanding or manipulative. Partnering prayer listens first to seek God’s will, rather than attempting to impose our will in the world in his name. (2157)

At the Cross, we see the perfect love of God and the crazy-making affliction of all humanity in one place, one moment, one Man—Jesus Christ, the cruciform God. Rather than dazzling us with a clever answer, the Cross arrests us. It offers an anti-theodicy. The love and the anguish—both present in the extreme—are astonishing. (2246)

If evil exists and yet we hold that God is good, then what of his power? Ultimately, the cruciform King—the Cross itself—challenges this premise and overthrows our ideas of what it means for God to be all-powerful in this world. (2325)

A theology of the Cross responds to “why does God allow X?” with “God (obviously and observably) allows everything!” If God is all-powerful, his power is not akin to control. (2339)

We might know theologically that God is everywhere and always present, but we don’t always feel it. In affliction, God’s real presence often makes no practical difference; people still suffer and die in all manner of cruel ways. So in the crucifixion, Jesus shared fully in our experience of absence, assuming it and thereby utterly redeeming it. (2400)

The Bible…itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents—gives us over—to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. (2491)

By reading the Bible’s judgment narratives through the lens of cruciform consent—through the Cross—we will begin to understand the wrath metaphor. And we will be equipped to retrieve rather than dismiss the so-called ‘toxic texts’ of the Bible. (2599)

Boyd teaches that the judgment of sin is not an externally applied penalty by a divine judge. God doesn’t actively investigate, arrest, convict, sentence and punish sinners. There’s no need and, in fact, that’s not God’s heart at all. Here’s the bottom line: sin carries its own penalty (or ‘wages’ in Rom. 6:23) because consequences are built into the fabric of the universe… It’s not that my sin literally causes God to be angry and provokes God’s judgments. Rather, that sin itself is harmful to us and to others. (2621)

When mercy is hidden and the wrath of self-destruction begins to play out, rather than assuming God’s patience has run out as if he’s decided, “Okay, enough mercy; now I’m choosing to withdraw mercy to release the wrath,” what if it is really we who make that choice, consciously or unconsciously? What if the valve that shuts off mercy is intrinsic in the same way wrath is? In fact, what if it’s the very same thing? (2641)

God consents, but remember, there is so much more. God also participates. This is super-important. Yes, our heavenly Father allows, but he is also truly good and he cares. (2641)

Wrath is a metaphor for the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God… When mercy gives way to wrath, it must be that we ourselves hit the off-switch and rebuffed mercy through our sinful acts. (2672)

As God is increasingly unveiled as life-giver rather than death-dealer, the biblical authors reflect this perspective more and more, becoming ever more careful to assert that God is not to blame. A simple example of this shift appears when David counts his armies. (2707)

In the Gospels, Christ did not operate in the power of miraculous interventions (the magical suspension of laws), but in the authority of supernatural love (the application of God’s highest law). (2845)

The cruciform King is not literally an angry monarch seething from his heavenly throne, but we do experience wrath as God’s passive and indirect consent to the destructive forces of necessity. (2886)

How did the life, death and resurrection of Christ save us and reconcile us to God? Was the wrath of God somehow satisfied through the punishment of Christ? Or was the Cross God’s grand rejection of wrath as a solution to sin? (2998)

Confusing atonement theories with the gospel itself, or with the biblical metaphors they strive to interpret, leads to a terrible mistake. The mistake occurs when we want to speak about the meaning of the Cross, but skip the Gospel narratives and New Testament metaphors, and charge straightaway into debatable and polarizing theories. (3026)

God’s saving work through Jesus is so multi-faceted that Christ and the apostles found it necessary and helpful to use a constellation of metaphors to describe its benefits. Each metaphor serves to clarify, but can also obscure. Every metaphor can extend our understanding, but can also be over-extended such that we corner ourselves into error. So our theories about the metaphors need to be held very lightly—no theory holds a monopoly on the gospel, nor should it lay claim to actually being the gospel. (3033)

One of the tragedies of the atonement wars is how wound-up many pastors and theologians get about theories composed many centuries after the New Testament, and the great efforts involved in imposing those later theories back onto Scripture. If this weren’t already worrisome, the comparative dearth of concern for the breadth and depth of Jesus’ own metaphors is pretty appalling. (3060)

When we see sin as a fatal disease that produces ugly symptoms and a sure death-warrant, we see how useless punishment is as a cure. (3097)

There is no law or principle of justice higher than God to which he is beholden. ‘Justice’ is not a god to whom Yahweh must bow or appease with blood. Nor is God’s ‘Law’ some retributive principle that binds him. The whole point of the prophetic Book of Hosea is exactly this: that God is utterly free to forgive sinners—to show mercy to the guilty. He is able to respond to legal demands for punishment with a counter-verdict: complete pardon based in God’s own grace. (3260)

Christ’s self-offering must define the true meaning of sacrifice, as opposed to letting the symbols of sacrifice define the reality of what Jesus did. Reversing these is the quickest path to paganizing the sacrifice of Christ. Christ doesn’t get his meaning from the symbols; the symbols derive their meaning from him, even when they predate his own sacrifice.

The meaning Christ attributes to sacrifice is simply this: laying one’s life down for someone else (1 John 3:16). Anyone who gives their life to rescue another—whether it’s a fireman dying while pulling someone from a flaming building; a policeman who’s fatally wounded while rescuing a hostage; or a martyr stoned to death for preaching the good news—is ‘paying the ultimate price.’ Here, the metaphors are off the table. Here, sacrifice (laying down your life) is raw actuality—the events as they really happened.

Notice that this type of sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment, payment, retribution or appeasement. In every case, a life is given for the sake of the other, not to satisfy someone’s wrath or placate their anger, but as a life-giving, life-saving sacrifice. (3390)

We want—even demand—to know how the death of Christ removes sin, whereas Paul resists the mechanics of transaction: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Wages, payment, sin, death—that’s ledger language, wrath language. But Christ doesn’t balance the ledger; he nails it to the Cross (Col. 2:4)! He utterly removes it. God’s ways are not bound to the ledger, but free to the boundless way of pure grace and free gift. (3412)

We can retain a biblical form of ‘substitution’ if we ask simply, “Did Jesus do for us what we could not do for ourselves?” Of course he did. Did he ‘step into the ring’ as our substitute? Did he go through the battle royal with Satan, sin and death for us? Sure he did. Did Jesus ‘take a bullet for us’? Yes! The key is to remember, God is not the one holding the smoking gun. We are. And as he bleeds to death, he forgives us and says, “I’ll be back—see you in three days.” (3462)

The great problem the gospel addresses is not primarily your guilt or God’s need to punish it. Rather, it is about saving us from death and the fear of death through which the devil held us in bondage all our lives (Heb. 2:15). (3721)

This drama is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. God makes a promise, someone turns from him, they experience the tragic results, but God comes to find them. (3769)

Some will resist and reject God’s love and forgiveness to the bitter end. And when humanity experiences the penalty of its own sin, when it falls away into death to be forever separated from God, what does God do? God says, “My love is stronger than the grave!” (Song of Sol. 8:6). “Even if you make your bed in sheol, I am there” (Psalm 139:8). God in Christ pursues us in his wild love all the way into death. (3856)


Review: Scapegoats, sacrifice and non-violence

12 February 2018

Frenchman René Girard, who died in 2015, is best known for his ‘mimetic theory’. This holds that people copy one another in desiring things, which leads to conflict. To deal with the conflict, a scapegoat is chosen and sacrificed. This pattern, he alleges, is the foundation of sacrificial systems, of all human violence and, indeed, of human culture. But the Bible, he believes, subverts the pattern at various levels, culminating in Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, who by his death made sacrifice redundant and indicates a new life-pattern of love, non-violence and forgiveness.

Steven Berry conducted a series of interviews with Girard shortly before the latter’s death. These have been edited into readable format by Michael Hardin, making Girard’s views more accessible to the average reader than his own learned writings. The book is:

Reading the Bible with René Girard: Conversations with Steven E. Berry edited by Michael Hardin (JDL Press, 2015).

rtbwrglargeIt makes fascinating reading, revealing some fresh and thought-provoking insights into some well-known passages of Scripture. Girard shows how he discovered and developed the mimetic theory from his early studies of great European literature (he quotes, among others, Cervantes, Flaubert and Shakespeare), and later came to see how the Bible reflected many aspects of it while, at the same time, marking a clear trajectory away from it.

If Girard’s concepts are new to you, it will take a while to get your head round them. But once you manage it, they are strangely compelling. They shed light on so many everyday aspects of social life. This book could be a good starter for you.

Of course, you will be uncomfortable if you can’t accept the principle of absolute non-violence, which Girard maintains that the Bible teaches, culminating in the teaching of Jesus himself. So be prepared to be a bit unsettled by this book. Maybe that could be a good thing, especially if you think you’ve got all your doctrine ironed out already?

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

…the Caiaphas solution: “It is more expedient that one man should die, rather than the whole nation should suffer.” (John 11:49-53)  (235 – from Preface by Steven Berry)

The relationship between Don Quixote and all the other novels is that desire is not independent, not rooted in the self, or in the object. There is not a straight line between the desiring subject and the desired object; rather, there is a triangle with a model directing the desire of the hero towards an object which, if he had been all by himself, he would not have desired. The idea of what I call “triangular desire” was born there in the novel.  (417)

Rivalries in human beings don’t end with a dominant-dominated pattern; rather, they end with vengeance.  (543)

Sacrifice is repeating the event that has saved the community from its own violence, which is killing a victim.  (621)

Sacrifice is the lightning rod for the community’s violence, because it mobilizes the whole community against a fake enemy, who is not a member of the community, thus preventing people in the community from killing each other.  (762)

When you say that someone is a scapegoat, he is not your scapegoat. To have a scapegoat is to be unaware that you have a scapegoat, to think he really is guilty. It’s so simple that people don’t understand it. Scapegoating is effective only if it is nonconscious. Then you do not call it scapegoating; you call it justice.  (870)

The Bible shows that scapegoaters who slander the victim and wrongly accuse the victim have no basis on which to do so. The prophetic and Christian texts destroy that slander by demonstrating the innocence of the victim.  (1038)

Everywhere Christianity appears and seriously implants itself, blood sacrifices disappear. Where blood sacrifices disappear, you have no more real cultural protection against your own violence.  (1061)

[Re the Eden story]  …the general temptation of disregarding the will of God and preferring our own will, which always turns out not to be our own but our neighbor’s. In the Genesis text, the neighbor is represented as an animal that we call the serpent.  (1194)

All myths are wrong since they tell us that the scapegoat is guilty. They fulfill the function of mythology, which is to expel an innocent, but they don’t know it. That’s how they can do it. Whereas the Gospels tell us the victim is innocent. Once you have the Passion text inside your world, it contaminates all the scapegoats around and tends to make you discover that all collective victims must be a little bit similar to Christ, that they are condemned for no reason at all. That’s why the great stories of the Bible, which reveal the innocence of Joseph, of Job, and so on, are beginning to shatter the scapegoat system all around, but Christianity does this more completely as it invades the pagan world.  (1358)

Abraham is the symbol of that enormous change, which is from the sacrifice of humans and even children to the sacrifice of animals. It’s a sign of tremendous progress in civilization.  (1417)

[Re Judah’s sparing of his brother Joseph]  Scholars consider this story to be produced quite late in the chronology of the Bible; it can therefore be labeled prophetic, belonging to the spirit of the great prophets, which is explicitly anti-sacrificial. The idea of sacrifice is changing; God wants pity and compassion, not human or animal sacrifice. One can see this in Hosea, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and the greater prophetic tradition of the Jewish Bible.  (1525)

The desire that was prohibited in the Ten Commandments was mimetic desire.  (1741)

Christ is in the place of all victims since the foundation of the world, all sacrificial victims, revealing their innocence.  (1765)

The building block of animal culture is what the specialists today call dominance patterns; these are seen in physical encounters, for example, between wild wolves. The male wild wolves vie for the same female, but there is no death; there is surrender. When wolves fight this type of fight, the defeated wolf lies on his back and offers his throat to the victor, who does not kill him but becomes the dominant animal. So we can assume that the threshold of hominization is when this no longer happens but the killing of the submissive rival occurs.  (1776)

The Eucharist is really related to sacrifice, but rather than representing the violence against the victim, of it being the victim that you eat, you eat the total refusal of violence, which is Christ. It’s a reversal, but it’s still the same symbolism.  (1834)

Cannibalism means you eat the sacrificial victim in order to be your victim, because you want to be that victim. The reason you killed him is you want to be him or her. So if you absorb his or her flesh, you become them, just as if you absorb the flesh of Christ, you should become a little bit nonviolent, more than you were before.  (1847)

Satan has to be contrasted with the Holy Spirit because ‘Satan’ comes from a Persian word that means the accuser. The Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is called the Paraclete, which means counselor for the defense in a court. The Holy Spirit is the defender, the advocate.  (1884)

I feel that the resistance to the mimetic theory on the part of academic circles is understandable, because in a way the mimetic theory interrupts or reverses a trend that has been with us since the eighteenth century, since the Enlightenment. This is the trend of secularism, of expelling religious studies from academic life.  (2053)

Many aspects of the refusal of violence are perhaps more intelligible today, but it’s still not acceptable to most people. Most people, even Christians, don’t take the biblical emphasis on the renunciation of violence found in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels, very seriously.  (2159)

The ultimate test is not the interpretation of texts, of course, but how you behave with your neighbor. That’s a real example that you provide in the flesh, that’s going to convert people, and you’re lucky if your language and your actions coincide. But if your actions don’t coincide with your language, your language will have very little influence.  (2195)

Peter’s denial is, in a way, the most beautiful story. Here, Peter is a figure representative of all humanity, who cannot resist the powerful pull of the crowd. We cannot resist the mimetic contagion. When you’re in a crowd, you become literally possessed by the crowd.  (2207)

Those who accuse Christianity of being responsible for violence are not right, of course, but indirectly they are saying something which is true: the more the Gospel influences the world, the more it destroys the sacrificial apparatus that up to now has protected human culture.  (2325)

If you act like Christ you’re not going to be happier, you’re going to be persecuted. You’ll be happier in a higher sense, but you’re going to be persecuted.  (2445)

“They hated me without a cause,” as a prophetic word, is a fascinating phrase because it’s the definition of a scapegoat.  (2497)

Good mimesis is defined in the Gospels as not only imitation of Christ but also imitation of those who imitate Christ.  (2509)

[Re: “Resist not evil. Do not resist one who is evil, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”]  If you resist evil, you yourself are in evil. You imitate. Resistance and agreement ultimately amount to the same thing. This is one of the paradoxes of Satan where I’d say, “The more you resist him, the more he plays dead.” The satanic loves that kind of resistance. That resistance is what creates devils, what turns people into twins in the mimetic sense. So the key to this is readily accessible: If you resist evil, you do what evil invites you to do.  (2585)

[Re the Gerasene demoniac]  When the people show up, they notice that this man is just safe and sound. He’s acting normally, dressed normally, talking to Jesus, and they’re terrified. This shows that, in a way, the reason the demoniac was not tied sufficiently so he could always be safely imprisoned, was so he could free himself from time to time, so that the whole thing is a show that the people are playing for themselves. It’s part of their neurotic life. They need some of these people as fools in the medieval sense who perform the craziness of which they themselves are free, and which they want to scapegoat of course, but which they need, in a way, for the balance of the community. It’s a kind of sacrificial system where you don’t really kill people, but you perpetuate their sickness because you allow him to have these escapades from time to time, in which he goes on a rampage and they all watch with a certain pleasurable awe.  (2683)

Why is the first stone the hardest to cast? Because no stone before has been cast and you have no one to imitate. It’s really a mimetic phenomenon.  (2720)

In the story of the adulterous woman, the text tells us that when Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” he turns his eyes toward the ground. He was writing in the sand before and he starts writing again. Some people say silly things about that. They say that he’s writing down the name of those who will be sent to hell. But in fact, he’s trying to avoid eye contact. He knows that if he makes eye contact with his interlocutors, rivalry is going to be born in that mutual glance, and it will be impossible to avoid a violent resolution. The woman will be stoned. It’s not like Jesus to avoid eye contact, but in this case, he does so to save the woman, and it works.  (2731)

I believe Christianity today is the scapegoat for absolutely fundamental reasons, because it says something about humanity that people don’t want to believe, which sounds impossible. It destroys our pride. It says our cultures feed on scapegoats, so no wonder Christianity is the hated religion. For instance, if you look at the media, have you ever seen the media attack religions other than Christianity? No! They never do. As a matter of fact, concerning Islam, the media consistently sides with Islam. But Christianity has everybody against it, just as Jesus had.  (2779)

The God of wrath is always somewhat connected with the scapegoat system in which the god is both good and bad. This is no longer true of the biblical God. When the biblical God is wrathful, he’s wrathful for good reasons; we might even say just reasons. However, still there is a change, it seems, in the nature of God from the oldest part of the First Testament to the prophetic God of the great prophets and then to Christ himself. You see, this “new” God is no longer punitive; it’s people who punish themselves. It’s people who are going to threaten the survival of the world. It’s people who refuse to turn the other cheek and maintain peace who get into all sorts of trouble.  (2816)

 


Review: Small, intimate churches

2 February 2018

In the ‘new churches’ today, the trend is towards big buildings, concert-style auditoriums and slick programmes of activities. But some don’t care for that, holding that small and more intimate is beautiful. Here’s a book that argues that case. It is:

Grassroots Christianity: The church as it was created to be by Duncan Kellard (Authentic Books, 2009).

gclargeKellard argues for home-based, small-group churches with few or no paid leaders, where the emphasis is on wide member-participation, the leading of the Holy Spirit and the sharing of everyday life together. His argument for it is twofold—one aspect of which I agree with wholeheartedly, while the other I view with some scepticism.

The first is that ‘it works’. He is frank and open about the problems this model can throw up, but he reckons that they are worth it for the benefits it brings. And these are, among others, that it is best for developing individual character and Christlikeness, for allowing scope for the Holy Spirit to use every single member’s gifts and contributions, for producing relatively stress-free leaders, for reaching the unchurched, and for coping with opposition. I believe he’s right. He cites the millions in the ‘underground’ churches in China as a living example.

His second argument is that this model is ‘the biblical pattern’ (his own phrase). I’m not sure about that. His approach assumes that, in the New Testament, we have some kind of blueprint as to how church should be, and that the modern type of church with a smart building, a worship band, stage-led meetings and seats facing the front, run by frazzled, paid pastors, is failing chiefly because it departs from the ‘biblical model’.

Kellard’s arguments are a bit naïve in places, to my mind, but there’s no denying that he is speaking, with utmost sincerity, from wide experience of both types of church, and the huge number of real-life cases he quotes is one of the book’s strengths.

You may feel that he over-emphasises the either/or of what church should be like, and that there is a good case for both/and. Or that the two models could in some way be combined, as when a church of several hundred active members has a thriving cell-group structure. You must make up your own mind on that. But, wherever you stand, you will find plenty in this book to make you think—and maybe to make you tweak your church methods.

Here are some quotations.

Inspiration releases life; institutionalism eventually quenches it. Because the tendency of any significant movement is to become institutionalised, the best, longest-standing examples of simple, inspirational church life occurs where either persecution or poverty prevent the church from becoming more ‘sophisticated’, and the raw, rustic state is maintained and multiplied. (p18)

The premise of this book is that far from helping us attain the life of the early church, the trappings of organisation and institutionalism often hinder it and, more alarmingly, cloak a loss of vital purpose. People are preached to but wouldn’t choose to be called ‘disciples’, they experience high-quality music, but often struggle to engage in worship, they fund expensive missions but may lack the boldness or desire to share the gospel with friends or colleagues.  (p21)

The grassroots quotient: ‘Our dependence on God is inversely proportional to the value we set on human method and ability.’  (p23)

In traditional churches, there may be ‘home groups’ for the keen ones in the mid-week, but real church is perceived as what happens on Sunday. New churches, ironically, usually burst into life spontaneously in homes. But when they outgrow them, rather than starting new local home meetings, they move into a hall or school and the intimacy, participation and flexibility begin to wane immediately. (p30)

[Re participation in meetings]  There are two dynamics here. First, people speak up in home gatherings in a way they are reticent to in the more formal setting of a hall. Second, quite simply, the more people in a meeting, the fewer will actively take part.  (p37)

In a recent sabbatical I visited a number of churches over a twelve-week period. I was taken aback by two things. One was the ‘sameness’ of what went on in terms of style, length and even choice of songs. The other was the palpable sense of boredom and passivity among many in the congregations. They knew what would happen, and that it was the same last week, and that it would be next, too. The shocking thing is that these were, for the most part, charismatic churches reputedly at the vanguard of radical renewal. (p41)

One of the most moving and satisfying aspects of our journey from structured, front-led church to flexible body-life church is the way children have naturally moved in the Spirit and used their gifts.  (p48)

As leaders, we must abandon status, shun selfish ambition, relinquish comfort and resist being controlling. Instead, we rejoice in others’ elevation, delight in unrecognised service, revel in making sacrifices and excel in releasing others into fruitful ministry.   (p63)

The critical issue for the western church today is that we are rich in the things that don’t matter. Professionalism, real estate, communication technology and sophisticated structure and programmes. Yet, too often, we are paupers in spiritual currency of real worth: a humble dependence on God producing an experience of his presence, expressed in devoted fellowship, passionate worship and unbridled disciple-making ministry.  (p88)

Putting people into small groups doesn’t make them devoted friends immediately, anymore than planting a few saplings makes a border. But given time, what develops, like a carefully laid hedge, is strong and intertwined and becomes a place for others to take refuge in.  (p99)

I would contend strongly that there is an environmental problem with larger gatherings that violates against a sense of belonging and family intimacy by which biblical church is defined.  (p100)

[Re Spirit-led worship]  Freedom exalts God and puts every believer on the same plane, regardless of status or office, and reflects the New Testament pattern perfectly. But this is too risky for the timorous human heart. It might get out of control (Whose control, we might wonder?). Traditionalists respond with liturgies, conservatives with orders of service, and charismatics with worship leaders. Each of these ultimately controls God’s people, domesticating their worship with the frequent, dire result of the Holy Spirit being quenched.  (p117)

Most meeting set-ups resemble a concert rather than a participating body. No wonder gifts of the Spirit are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth in many places, as people receive the subliminal message, ‘You are here to watch’.  (p119)

In adopting the simple forms and radical-disciple lifestyle advocated in these pages, we will be preparing both spiritually and practically for a time that is coming on soon, when Christians and their message will be no longer enjoying acceptance by society.  (p140)

The huge number of once-keen church members who have haemorrhaged from the church in the past two decades is evidence enough that we need a return to grassroots church forms, where every person belongs, is cared for as a friend, and fulfils a vital role.  (p143)

I love to think that there are ‘churches’—functioning gatherings of believers—that don’t yet realise what they are. You see, you don’t need a group of forty, a full-timer and a building to start a church. It could be three devoted friends with open homes and hearts to reach out, surely a wineskin God loves to fill with his best vintage!  (p150)


Review: Examining the gospel we preach

25 January 2018

Here’s yet another book challenging the gospel represented by Jonathan Edwards’ famous 18th century sermon, Sinners in the hands of an angry God, with its theme of retributive justice and divine violence. It is:

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God: The scandalous truth of the very good news by Brian Zahnd (WaterBrook, 2017).

sithoalglarge_It’s a book about how we should read and interpret the Bible, and the nature of the gospel—the ‘good news. Edwards’ sermon was graphic in its description of God’s intense hatred of us because of our sin, and of his determination to fry us for ever in the inextinguishable fires of hell. But, asks Brian Zahnd, is this true? He concludes that it most certainly is not! Jesus, who alone is the final revelation of God’s nature, presents his Father in a different light altogether.

He tackles the topic of ‘the wrath of God’ directly, as he does the Bible passages that Jonathan Edwards-types typically lean on, and sheds helpful light on their meaning. He also faces up to OT ‘violence’ texts like God’s request to Abraham to kill Isaac, and the command to Joshua to commit genocide on the Canaanites. If we have problems with those issues we have to (1) Question God’s morality; or (2) Question God’s immutability; or (3) Question how we read Scripture. The latter is the way to go!

Zahnd gives many documented examples from history of how people leaned on the Bible to justify the most appalling atrocities—Adolf Hitler among them. Not the Bible, but the Christ to which it points, is God’s final word and it is upon him, not it, that we should lean.

The book deals with the fraught question of ‘Who killed Jesus?’ It certainly wasn’t the Father, it concludes! And it looks in detail at the ‘hell’ question. Yes the wicked (which means ‘wicked’, and does not mean all who have failed to ‘accept Christ’) will end up in an afterlife hell—but whether than means endless torture is quite another matter. Zahnd speaks a lot of good biblical sense on this.

Then he takes a searching look at the book of Revelation—long the favourite book of violence-loving Christians. There, he points out, it is the self-sacrificing Lamb who triumphs; the Lion is the Lamb. He pours scorn on dispensationalism and its sick longing for the horrors of Armageddon as the only way forward. ‘God is love’—that is the true bottom line. 

This is a well-written and thought-provoking book that will enhance your grasp of the good news you are called to preach, making it ‘better news’ than it appeared to be before.

Here are some quotations.

God is like Jesus! God is not a sadistic monster who abhors sinners and dangles them over a fiery pit. God is exactly how Jesus depicted him in his most famous parable: a father who runs to receive, embrace, and restore a prodigal son. (p11)

Christians are to believe in the perfect, infallible, inerrant Word of God—and his name is Jesus. (p13)

The Bible itself is not a perfect picture of God, but it does point us to the One who is. This is what orthodox Christianity has always said. We also need to keep in mind that the Old Testament doesn’t give us just one portrait of God but many. It’s impossible to make the Old Testament univocal. (p14)

In the Old Testament God is portrayed as both quick to anger and slow to anger. It’s Jesus who settles the dispute. (p15)

We easily acknowledge that God is not literally a rock and not literally a hen, but we have tended to literalize the metaphor of divine anger. (p16)

The revelation that God’s single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love. When we live against the grain of love we suffer the shards of self-inflicted suffering. This is the “wrath of God.” (p18)

God does not hate you, and God will never harm you. But your own sin, if you do not turn away from it, will bring you great harm. The wisdom that acknowledges this fact is what we call the fear of God. (p19)

In answering with an unequivocal no to the question of whether you would kill children, are you claiming a moral superiority to the God depicted in parts of the Old Testament? (p25)

Clinging to the idea that if God commands genocide it’s not immoral opens the door for all manner of atrocity to be justified in the name of God, something the human race has proved itself all too adept at doing. Persecutions, pogroms, crusades, and the Shoah are all the bitter fruit of this corrupt seed. ISIS may justify killing children in the name of God, but followers of Jesus must never do this. Never! (p26)

It’s Jesus, not the Bible, that is the perfect revelation of God. (p29)

As Israel was in the process of receiving the revelation of Yahweh, some unavoidable assumptions were made. One of the assumptions was that Yahweh shared the violent attributes of other deities worshiped in the ancient Near East. These assumptions were inevitable, but they were wrong. For example, the Torah assumed that Yahweh, like all the other gods, required ritual blood sacrifice, but eventually the psalmists and prophets take the sacred text beyond this earlier assumption. (p30)

We should acknowledge that in the late Bronze Age, Israel made certain assumptions about the nature of God, assumptions that now have to be abandoned in the light of Christ. (p34)

The Hebrew prophetic tradition developed in the crucible of enduring threat, invasion, and oppression from Gentile empires. In this crucible of suffering a theology of justice was forged, but it also produced the slag of vengeance theology. (p36)

Certainly there is divine judgment, but it is a judgment based on God’s love and commitment to restoration. The restorative judgment of God gives no warrant to a schadenfreude yearning to see harm inflicted on others. Jesus has closed the book on that kind of lust for vengeance. (p44)

The Bible is the penultimate word of God that points us to the ultimate Word of God who is Jesus. (p50)

[Re the transfiguration]  When Peter, James, and John looked around on Tabor after the voice from heaven had spoken, they saw only Jesus. This is significant. To say it as plainly as I know how, the Old Testament is not on par with Jesus. The Bible is not a flat text where every passage carries the same weight. (p53)

I remember preaching on Jesus’s call to the practice of radical forgiveness and being challenged by a church member who said, “Yeah, but the Bible says, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ ” I had to explain to him that a Christian can’t cite Moses to silence Jesus. (p55)

Wars of conquest, violent retribution, the institution of slavery, and women held as property are all biblical. But when placed in the light of Tabor these primitive assumptions must be renounced. (p59)

A Biblicist reading of the Bible can be a clever way of hiding from the rule of Christ. (p62)

In the light of the crucified and risen Christ, torture stands condemned as evil and barbarous, and it doesn’t matter in the least that a text from Ecclesiastes says there’s a time to kill and hate. (p66)

The Bible is not univocal about violence. It says “There is…a time to kill” and “Thou shalt not kill.” The Bible says “Show no mercy to them” and “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Are these contradictions? Of course they are! And it’s a fool’s errand to try to reconcile all the disparate things the Bible says about violence. But there is a trajectory in the Bible, a movement away from violence as normative and toward God’s peaceable society where swords become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks. (p67)

Unfortunately, over the last thousand years, the Western Church has drifted into the idea that God required the violent death of his Son in order to satisfy his honor and pay off justice. (This theory was wisely rejected in the Eastern Church.) (p82)

Who is this tortured man, nailed to a tree, suffering a violent death? Incredibly Christians say this is God! The crucified God. If we don’t find this scandalously shocking, we have grown far too familiar with the crucifixion of Jesus. (p83)

The apostle Paul tells us that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” This should not be misunderstood as God reconciling himself to the world. It wasn’t God who was alienated toward the world; it was the world that was alienated toward God. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to change God’s mind about us; Jesus died on the cross to change our minds about God! It wasn’t God who required the death of Jesus; it was humanity that cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” When the world says, “Crucify him,” God says, “Forgive them.” (p85)

The justice of God is not retributive; the justice of God is restorative. Justice that is purely retributive changes nothing. (p86)

In Christ we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. (p87)

The term God of the Bible does not give as coherent a picture as we like to pretend. Is the God to whom the Bible points chiefly revealed as infinite anger or as immeasurable love? It’s possible to read the Bible in support of both. What we need is a way to center our reading of Scripture. We do this by reading from the center of salvation history: the cross. (p89)

A good deal of atheism is protest atheism. The protest atheist is essentially contending that the angry god of ritual appeasement should not exist. And I agree. (p92)

In what is called the fear of God, what I fear is not God but the suffering my sin can inflict on myself and those around me. What God calls me to fear is the destructive results of sin—and I take God seriously. The shorthand term for this is the fear of God. (p96)

Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers, a term used by the apostle Paul to describe the very powerful, the very rich, the very religious, the institutions they represent, and the spirits that operate within these institutions. Jesus was put to death by the structures of political, economic, and religious power represented by Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and Joseph Caiaphas. (p99)

Among the many problems of Calvin’s theory of the cross is that it turns God into a petty tyrant and a moral monster. Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic, atrocious theology, and a gross distortion of the idea of justice. (p101)

Viewing the cross as payment to God for our personal debt of sin ignores the deep problem of systemic sin. When we turn the cross into a payment for our personal sin debt to an offended God, we leave unchallenged the massive structures of sin that so grotesquely distort humanity. (p106)

What sinners need (shall we say deserve?) is love and healing, not torture and death. We are worthy of God’s love and healing not on the basis of personal merit but because of the image we bear: the very image of God. Original blessing is more original than original sin! (p108)

We are so addicted to the idea of redemptive violence—problem solving by killing—that it even infects our theology of the cross. (p109)

At one point a clearly frustrated Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell [Gehenna]?” Indeed they did not escape! In AD 70 the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. In the smoldering, corpse-strewn ruins of the city, the fires were not quenched and the maggots did not die. Jerusalem had gone to hell…again. (p123)

It’s very eye opening to realize that in all the evangelistic sermons found in the book of Acts, none of them makes an appeal to afterlife issues. Not one. (p125)

When Jesus does speak of an afterlife hell (most extensively in the parables of the rich man and Lazarus and of the sheep and the goats), he is making this point: it is the wicked who end up being condemned. And we need to recognize that Jesus uses the word wicked in a conventional sense: the wicked are those who live wicked lives, inflicting evil upon others. Jesus does not use the word as a technical term for all of humanity except those who have “accepted Jesus into their hearts.” Jesus does not use wicked as a synonym for non-Christians! The idea that all non-Christians are wicked is the result of some very arrogant and deeply mistaken theological systems. (p126)

The first part of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was an existing Jewish folk tale; there are seven versions of it in rabbinic writings. But Jesus supplies his own twist to the parable by adding the bit about the five brothers. The effect of this new addition is to pull the story back into this present life. (p133)

In the final scene [of the story of the Prodigal Son], the older brother is outside the father’s house, gnashing his teeth in resentment and rage. The father has not exiled his elder son to the outer darkness; rather, in his refusal to forgive, the embittered brother has exiled himself. (p135)

Hell is not God’s hatred of sinners; God has a single disposition toward sinners, and that is love. God is always the loving father of both the prodigal younger son and the resentful older son. He always loves them both. Hell is not God’s hatred; rather, hell has something to do with refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God. (p136)

Let’s say I have an enemy whom I deeply despise; my heart is filled with nothing but bitter contempt for my enemy. And let’s say that I wind up destitute, living on the streets. I’m friendless and homeless, hungry and thirsty. Then my despised enemy finds me on the streets, takes me into his home, and gives me food and drink as acts of co-suffering love. If I respond to my enemy’s love with entrenched hatred, these acts of kindness are a source of torment; they burn me up. Hot coals of resentment are lodged inside my head. I am tormented. I’ve turned heaven into hell. When hate wins, hell is inevitable. But what if I will repent, if I will change my thinking, change my heart, if I will say, “Why am I acting this way? This man is not my enemy. He’s a good person. He has nothing but love for me. I repent. I’ll stop resisting him as my enemy and receive him as my friend”? If I do that, what had previously been a source of bitter torment becomes the warmth and delight of a shared meal with a dear friend. What had been hell turns into heaven. This is close to how I understand hell. Hell is the love of God refused. (p139)

The gospel is the joyful proclamation that the kingdom of God has arrived with the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the audacious announcement that Jesus is Lord and that the world is to now be reconfigured around his gracious rule. The gospel is the beautiful story of how God is bringing the world out of bondage to sin and death through the triumph of Jesus Christ. If you don’t know how to preach the gospel without making appeals to afterlife issues, you don’t know how to preach the gospel! (p143)

The Apocalypse brings the Bible’s most creative and powerful critique of the idolatry inherent within economic and military superpowers. (p150)

The Revelator’s composition is intended somewhat to comfort but mostly to warn Christians who were getting too cozy with the Roman Empire. (p151)

Revelation is a daring proclamation that Jesus Christ, not Julius Caesar or any other emperor, is the world’s true emperor and Savior. It’s the empire of Christ, not the empire of Rome, that is the eternal city. It’s the Pax Christi, not the Pax Romana, that brings true peace to the world. (p152)

The only way to consistently interpret the book of Revelation is to acknowledge that everything is communicated by symbol. (p153)

Perhaps the best way to understand the book of Revelation is that it is a prophetic critique of civil religion. By civil religion I mean the religion of state where the state is the actual object of worship. Civil religion is religious patriotism. Christians are called to practice responsible citizenship but to renounce religious patriotism. (p155)

John the Revelator tells us that Rome’s claim of a divine right to rule the nations and of a manifest destiny to shape history is the very thing that God has given to his Son, Jesus Christ. (p156)

Over the years I’ve heard countless sermons and songs about the Lion and the Lamb in the book of Revelation. But they’ve missed the point. There is no lion in Revelation, only a Lamb…a little slaughtered Lamb. Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah only in that he is a descendant of the tribe of Judah. (The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah.) But when we look for Jesus to be a lion, we see only a Lamb. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords; he reigns not as predatory lion but as a sacrificial lamb. (p161)

The phenomenon of modern dispensationalism with its endorsement of supposed divine and unavoidable hyperviolence is such an ugly and perverse eschatology that it’s unworthy of the name Christian. (p165)

If you believe there must be a megawar in the Middle East before Jesus can return, you’re going to be a lousy peacemaker! (p171)

A Left Behind theology of Revelation turns the Lamb into a beast! It turns a text that was intended to subvert empire into a text that endorses empire. There is not a worse possible abuse of the final book of the Bible than this! (p173)

John stresses that Jesus reigns through self-sacrifice by depicting the white horse’s rider as wearing a robe drenched in blood before the battle begins. Jesus’s robe is soaked in his own blood. Jesus doesn’t shed the blood of enemies; Jesus sheds his own blood. This is the gospel! (p176)

[Re Noah’s flood]  In an attempt to solve the problem of exponential violence, God intervened with his own violence. Salvation by tsunami. Human violence washed away by a divine deluge…  God’s attempt to solve the problem of violence by violence didn’t work. So God began a new plan and called the son of Terah. Enter Abraham. (p184)

With Easter and Pentecost, New Jerusalem began its slow but inexorable annexation of the old empires of death…  Today it is the task of every local church to be a kind of suburb of the New Jerusalem here and now. (p188)

I believe in hell. I believe in hell here and now, as Jesus taught, and I believe in the possibility of self-exile from the love of God in the afterlife, as Jesus indicated. But the notion that God, out of personal offense and infinite spite, inflicts eternal torture upon his wayward children is completely incompatible with the revelation of God in Christ. (p206)

 


Review: What happened at the cross?

24 January 2018

This book’s title may mislead you. It is really an examination of the main theories of the atonement; the idea that God killed Jesus on the cross is just one aspect of the Payment Model of the atonement. The book is:

Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for love in history’s most famous execution by Tony Jones (HarperOne, 2015).   

dgkjlargeThe ‘atonement wars’ are raging right now, in spite of the fact that many Christians naively believe that the Payment Model (or penal substitution theory) that they have been taught—and which remains the commonest view in the Western world—is the only one there is. Jones’s book sets out all the major (plus a few minor) theories of the atonement and tries to reach a balanced assessment of each one.

The major ones he designates the Payment, Victory, Magnet, Divinity and Mirror models. He assesses each against the answers it offers to six basic questions:

  1. What does it say about God?
  2. What does it say about Jesus?
  3. What does it say about the relationship between them?
  4. How does it make sense of violence?
  5. What does it mean for us spiritually?
  6. Where’s the love?

He wisely concludes that there is probably some merit in all the models, though he is convinced that God did not kill Jesus and so keeps his biggest reservations for the Payment model. He writes lucidly and maintains a charitable spirit even when describing aspects of doctrine that he strongly rejects, but I find him a little over the top sometimes in noting the negative aspects of each model. The bottom line for him is solidarity: God’s with us, expressed in the cross, and, as a result, ours with him. That, he believes, is what the atonement is really all about.

Most thought-provoking of all his insights is the notion that God is by nature self-limiting, choosing to use his sovereign freedom to unite himself to humanity in the person of Jesus, and especially in the sufferings of Calvary. God is love, so we err if we think his primary trait is power. He calls us to the same kind of self-limiting love that makes room for others and quietly reaches out to the marginalised of society.

While Tony Jones is associated with the ‘emergent’ stream of Christianity, he is no wild extremist, but shows himself wise, balanced and sensibly biblical in his conclusions. He really does have something worthwhile and stimulating to offer to the current debates about the essence of the Christian faith.

[Here are some quotations. I have also done a synopsis of the book, which you can find here.]

Sure, there’s the occasional verse that talks of God’s anger at particular sins or human behavior that God considers an abomination, but the overarching message of scripture is clear: God created us, God loves us, and God wants the best for us. In fact, the Bible is rife with stories of God going out of his way to set people on the right path—despite our failures, despite our sins. Indeed, the Apostle Paul assures us that God loved us “while we still were sinners.” (p8)

After two thousand years of Christian history, we wonder why our world is so flooded with war and violence and ethnic hate. We fret that church attendance is low and dropping. And we worry that many see the Christian faith as irrelevant or even bad for the world. Could viewing God as vengeful and wrathful and bloodthirsty be the source of our problems? (p9)

How did the act of following Jesus go from something that was a response to God’s love in the first century to a bloody, fear-based, avoidance-of-hell decision in the twenty-first? (p10)

If God is wrath, then violence is inevitable. But if God is love, then violence must be surmountable. And the crucifixion of Jesus, while violent, must be the key to ending violence. (p16)

Behind each explanation of the crucifixion is an implied view of God. God is either strong or weak, in control or abdicating control, engaged or absent, gracious or vindictive. (p19)

Each of the theories about the crucifixion is historically contingent, reflecting the place and time of its invention and even the personality of its author. Each sets out to solve a particular problem, and in each case the death of Jesus is the solution. Throughout Christian history, the death of Jesus has been the answer—it’s the question that has changed. (p22)

A lot of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the regnant interpretation of Jesus’ death as primarily the propitiation of a wrathful God. For one thing, we don’t experience God as uber-wrathful toward us. For another, it simply doesn’t make sense that God would game the whole system so that he has to kill his own son just to vitiate this wrath. It just doesn’t smell right. (p26)

How did our human ancestors convince themselves that the death of an animal or, worse, a fellow human would appease an angry deity? And why did they seem to think that the bloodier the death the better? For that matter, why did they think that the gods were mad at them? No one has provided a better answer to the first of these three questions than René Girard. (p43)

An Israelite in the sixth century BCE could not have imagined worship in the Temple without the death of an animal. To put it quite plainly, God wanted blood sacrifice. Either the Israelites got it wrong—and very wrong for a lot of years—or else that’s what God wanted. (p59)

If pressed, I’d say that this is the core of Jesus’ message: a new age is dawning—the rules by which followers of Yahweh lived their lives, while not irrelevant, are in need of a serious overhaul; the spirit of those rules has been forgotten amid the attempts to keep those rules; I’ve come to redefine the relationship between God and humanity. (p70)

The blood of Jesus, according to the Gospels, is the blood of deliverance. Like the original Passover lamb, whose blood saved Israel from the plague of death and freed them from bondage, the Gospels cast the blood of Jesus as liberating the people by bringing new life. (p83)

The cross is like a giant reset button that God pushed in his relationship with humans and with all of creation. As a result, new things were revealed about God and humanity. Some elements of that relationship, like blood sacrifices and circumcision, were made unnecessary; other elements, like hospitality to the stranger and love of neighbor, were amplified. The whole cosmic state of affairs was rejiggered by Jesus’ death. (p88)

In Romans 3, the entire sacrificial history of Israel is concentrated in Jesus the Messiah, so in Romans 7–8 is all of human sin concentrated in him. Then, on the cross and in the person who represented Israel most perfectly, all sin is condemned. What this doesn’t mean is that Jesus died because you and I sinned. Instead, it means that sin is endemic to the human condition, that it needed to be conquered, and that on the cross it was. What some see here—that God demanded sacrificial recompense because his holy honor had been disparaged—isn’t really there. Yes, Jesus acts as a substitute for us, but it’s not to appease a wrathful God. Instead, it is to vanquish sin. (p91)

For the writers of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, the death of Jesus was seen exclusively through the lens of the Passover sacrifice—a Messiah leading the people into liberation. While Paul acknowledges this, he also introduces the idea that Jesus was the Yom Kippur sacrifice, an atonement in blood, meant to cleanse sin. It’s not that Paul disagrees with the Gospels; it’s that he emphasizes a very different part of Jewish sacrificial life. (p92)

[Re hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10]   You can see how much hinges on the translation of this one word. If John is saying that God required a sacrifice to free us from sin, then God is standing with his arms crossed, shaking his head at every sacrifice humans have offered until finally his own son meets the requirement. But if instead God looks at sin as separate from humanity and acts himself to end the tyranny of sin by sweeping it away in one loving and self-sacrificial act, well, that’s a whole different story. Looking more broadly at 1 John, it seems clear that the latter is implied. The entire letter, and these two passages in particular, are predicated on God’s love, not God’s requirements. Reading 1 John, God’s love drips from every page. (p99)

The Bible lacks one particular perspective on the cross, instead offering us a plethora of ways to understand Jesus’ death—a surplus of meaning. That means the church has had a lot to draw on when trying to make sense of this event. (p107)

We’ve…got to find a perspective on the cross that doesn’t make Jesus or God helpless or beholden to a system of justice that’s bigger than they are. (p109)

Calvin and others upped the ante from Anselm. Now it’s not just that Jesus made our payment for us, but that he pays a penalty on our behalf—a penalty that we cannot pay. In theological jargon, this is how it goes from substitution to penal substitution, the “penal” connoting the penalty. This change happened during the Reformation, and it remains popular today. (p113)

I assumed that the doctrine of original sin was a biblical notion and that all Christians accepted it as gospel truth. As it turns out, neither is true. (p116)

[Re Romans 5:12-14, 17-19]  If one believes that there is some kind of spiritual nature that is passed from mother (or father) to child by a biological process, as Paul likely believed, then this passage will be taken one way. If, however, one does not believe that the taint of Adam’s sin is genetic but is instead an archetypal account of the human condition, then it will be taken another way. (p122)

One can acknowledge the universality of the human proclivity toward sin without affirming either Calvin’s total depravity or Augustine’s original sin. One merely has to accept simple human fallibility. We’re neither immortal nor perfect. We’re fallible. We make mistakes. And we die. It’s not such a big hurdle to accept those facts, and we can do so without the theological gymnastics required for the doctrine of original sin and all of the corollary doctrines that flow out of it…  If we simply embrace the Eastern notion that we inherit death but not guilt from Adam, then many of our theological problems are solved. (p126)

In 2013, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational song decided to leave a song out of its new hymnal. The song, “In Christ Alone,” contains the stanza, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” The committee asked the song’s authors if they could change those lines to “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” The songwriters rejected the change, leaving the committee to debate the merits of the hymn and of that particular stanza. One committee member reported, “It would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate…the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.” The committee voted to remove the song from the hymnal. (p131)

If we are supposed to learn about love from God, then the idea that God predestined us to sin, which results in our eternal damnation and requires God’s Son to die on the cross, teaches us very little about love. (p132)

The God behind Payment/Penalty/Punishment is a quid pro quo God. God won’t do this unless his subjects do that. But his subjects are constitutionally incapable of doing what he demands. Instead of realizing that fact and coming up with an alternative solution to his problem, God looks around for someone else who can satiate his thirst for justice, and he settles on his own son. (p138)

It seems rather unlikely that God would set up the cosmos in such a way that Satan could gain the upper hand and force God to negotiate a deal. But in the Victory theory, God does seem to have given up a significant amount of power. In fact, God is reduced to a sparring partner with Satan. (p152)

Socinus thoroughly refuted Anselm’s Payment model. Among his arguments is this: If grace and mercy are eternal aspects of God’s character, then they must also be infinite characteristics, just like God’s wrath. So why does Payment assume that the demands of God’s wrath must be met, but not the demands of his mercy? Why is wrath a more powerful motivation for God than love? (p160)

A recovery of the Magnet model in modern times holds great promise. So many people teeter on the edge of Christian faith, and the metaphysical answers of the Payment and Victory models of the atonement fall short. People are often not attracted to a theory of a cosmic transaction between God and the law or God and Satan. They want a personal, relational connection to God. And this is just what the Magnet model offers. (p164)

To the Orthodox, [the problem is] not about what we do, it’s about what we are. We are mortal; we are condemned to die. We are hedged in by our mortality and our always impending death. That’s what defines us, and that’s what separates us from God. The problem is death, not guilt. In the resurrection on Easter morning, God defeats death and gives us the ability to once again claim our divinity. (p171)

Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “Sure, God is loving, but his love is balanced with his justice” or “Without justice, love is not possible.” These statements speak of God’s love as an attribute of God. But, for the Divinity model, God’s very nature is love. Love is not an aspect of God’s being; love is God’s very being. (p173)

Girard’s view of the crucifixion can be understood like this: When we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we are looking in a mirror. God is reflecting back to us the outcome of our systems of rivalry, sacrifice, and violence. Jesus’ death shows conclusively that those systems are bankrupt, that they do not assuage guilt, and that they do not minimize violence. Jesus is the final sacrifice because he reveals the fiction behind the entire enterprise of sacrifice. (p180)

[Girard says that] sacrifice was efficacious at mitigating rivalry, but only temporarily. And it was based on a fiction, that the victim somehow deserved it. So Jesus’ death is not the last in a long series of sacrifices, the ultimate sacrifice, better than any dove or goat or ox or virgin or prisoner of war. Instead, Jesus’ death shows that the entire system of sacrifice is bankrupt, that it never pleased God, and it never really solved human problems. (p184)

God’s story is a story of humility, of self-limitation. Before the creation of the cosmos, God was all there was. For there to even be anything other than God, God had to withdraw, to retreat. That is to say, God had to make room for something that was other-than-God. You and I and everything else that’s not God exist because God withdrew enough to make room for us. God began creating with an act of self-limitation. And that act set the course for God’s activity up to the present day. (p211)

Our definitions of God hinge on God’s power and freedom. But part of freedom is the freedom to give up that freedom. That’s what God started in creation, and that’s what God did most poignantly in the birth of Jesus. (p215)

We can say that in Jesus, God was experiencing something that God had not experienced before. To take it one step further, we can surmise that in Jesus, God was learning. In Jesus, God crossed the line from sympathy with the human condition to empathy with humans—that is, God went from pitying us to truly understanding us by actually becoming one of us. (p225)

Famously, Mother Teresa preached the presence and love of God to kings and lepers her whole life, but letters published after her death told a different story: she had not sensed God’s presence for decades. (p229)

When Jesus cried out from the cross in despair and anguish, God experienced something that God had never before experienced: God experienced the absence of God. (p232)

God is present, on the gallows, in the gas chambers. To the cry of godforsakenness—Where is God?—the response is quiet presence. (p236)

Jesus is the most fully realized revelation of God that we’ve got, and what we can see of God in the life of Jesus is the perfect example of self-limitation and humility. (p238)

The amazing thing about the cross is that both the victim and the victimizer, both the oppressed and the oppressor, are liberated. God plays both of those roles in the event of the crucifixion. In Jesus, God is the victim; in God the Father, God is at least allowing the oppression. In God and in this event are wrapped up everything it means to be human. So the crucifixion does not valorize victimhood, it redeems the victim. And in an unexpected twist, it also redeems the victimizer. (p239)

Sin must be thought of as a condition rather than an activity. (p243)

God has forsaken power in order to give creation freedom. In other words, God’s primary posture in the world is that of weakness, not strength. This is a tough pill for many Christians to swallow—we’ve been taught to claim God’s power in our lives, to pray for power, and to trust God’s power and perfect plan for our lives. But we’ve got something to learn from Jesus’ cry of forsakenness, and from God’s response. God’s power, it turns out, comes in God’s willingness to abdicate power. God saves the world through submission to the point of solidarity with human weakness. (p252)

Cut off from cultural power, Jesus died on the margins, among the marginalized. Surely that’s also the place for the church founded in his name. (p264)

The way of the cross is God’s solidarity with us, and ours with God. When we look at the cross, we should be reminded that God identified with us. And we, in turn, identify with the dying Jesus. In that two-way identification—God with us and us with God—we are gathered up into the Trinitarian life of God. This is atonement, this two-way identification. This is the good news of Jesus’ crucifixion: that you and I can be made one with God. That happens because God identified with our most human frailties in Jesus, and God invites us to identify with Jesus’ victory over death in the crucifixion and resurrection. (p268)

God as defined by Greek philosophical categories—omnipotent, immutable, impassible—is not the God found in the Hebrew Bible. (p272)

The crucifixion is a source of peace. It’s a magnet that draws us into the all-encompassing love of God. It’s a mirror that shows us the result of all our violent tendencies. It’s a spark that relights the flame of divinity within us. It’s a symbol of God’s victory over the forces that oppress us. (p276)


Review: What ‘faith’ is really all about

22 January 2018

It’s great when you meet a book confirming some of the conclusions you yourself have been coming to for a while. I’d long had doubts about the nature of ‘faith’ in the believer’s lifestyle. It may be faith for healing, for some friend’s salvation, for deliverance from pressure—or whatever. Now here comes Greg Boyd, ticking lots of boxes for me on the subject, and taking me much further than I’d got on my own. The book is: 

Benefit Of The Doubt: Breaking The Idol Of Certainty by Gregory A. Boyd (Baker Books, 2013).

botdlargeThe popular notion of trying to convince ourselves that we ‘believe’ for whatever it is, he shows, is seriously flawed. It is unbiblical, and it makes an idol of certainty. Real faith, by contrast, means holding on to God in spite of our doubts and being frank with him about them. It means facing up to facts and evidence, not denying their reality. It means ‘wrestling with God’, as did the likes of Jacob and Job.

He also deals with the folly of the ‘house of cards’ approach to Christian faith, where you have to take every biblical statement literally and subscribe to a host of interconnected doctrines to be considered a proper believer. If you pull any one of the cards out, the whole thing collapses. We need instead to come back to ‘Jesus Christ, and him crucified’, and hold everything else more loosely.

The author advocates a Christ-centred understanding of Scripture. All Scripture may be inspired, but it isn’t all of equal value, and the portraits of God it presents are not to be lumped together to create a composite image. The way Christ has revealed him, and that alone, is the way the Father truly is.

Boyd also shows how our relationship with God is covenantal, not contractual—a crucialoutstandingbook difference that, once grasped, will govern how we view him and his love for us. And this, too, will change how we view Scripture. We will stop looking for alleged ‘promises of God’ and treating his Word like a legal document that we can quote to our advantage.

This a deep book, in the best sense. It is sometimes annoyingly repetitive and is overloaded with italics and phrases like ‘As we saw in Chapter 3…’ But these are minor irritations. The author illustrates from his own experiences with frankness and warmth, and his approach to Scripture is commendably balanced. This book’s message, if taken to heart, could have a radically beneficial effect on today’s typical evangelicalism. I hope it does!

[Here are some quotations. I have also produced some notes on the book’s key points which you can find here.]

I’ve had questions, doubts, and confusions about most of the beliefs Christians typically espouse. (p12)

I am now persuaded that, at the end of the day, there is only one thing I really need to remain confident about, and that is “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). (p12)

The people who are best at convincing themselves that something is true, beyond what a rational assessment of evidence warrants, are most often people who are either self-delusional or intellectually dull. (p13)

Certainty-seeking faith, combined with the all-or-nothing way evangelicals typically embrace it, is simply no longer viable in the postmodern world in which we live. (p16)

My re-examination of the biblical concept of faith led me to the conclusion that the concept of faith that equates strength with certainty and that views doubt as an enemy is, in fact, significantly different from the biblical model. (p17)

I’m going to offer eight arguments as to why I believe certainty-seeking faith is misguided, unhealthy, and dangerous. (p28)

Having the courage to embrace the pain of doubt and to face unpleasant facts, as well as to embrace challenging questions and to live with ambiguity, is the hallmark of a mature and responsible human being. (p31)

Trying to make ourselves certain that a friend will be healed because of our prayers when there is such overwhelming evidence of people who were not healed by the prayers of their friends is, frankly, the height of irrationality. (p35)

I­f God is so enamored with the ability to not doubt, why on earth did he bother to create critical minds that instinctively doubt truth claims and that are unable to believe anything until they’ve thoroughly examined the matter? (p36)

Most of us know firsthand, to one degree or another, how painful it is to doubt beliefs that are important to us. Cognitive dissonance over important matters can be excruciating! (p44)

Evangelical Christians generally assume that it’s arrogant, if not sinful, for people of other faiths to refuse to doubt their beliefs. And I think we’d all agree that it is arrogant for anyone to simply assume their views are right and to refuse to question them. But is this not how Christians who embrace certainty-seeking faith tend to hold on to their beliefs? (p46)

[Re John 5:39-40]  Jesus was trying to get them to see that there is no life in knowing the Bible and embracing Bible-based beliefs unless they lead to him. Yet by trying to wring life out of things that have no life apart from Christ, these leaders made an idol out of the Bible and their Bible-based beliefs. (p66)

This is the nature of biblical faith. It’s not about striving for certainty; it’s about a willingness to commit in the face of uncertainty. (p68)

The God revealed on the cross is a God who loves people more than right doctrines. (p69)

If we are really interested in embracing true beliefs, then the last thing we would ever do is to try to convince ourselves that we already embrace true beliefs. A genuine concern for truth is simply incompatible with a concern to feel certain that one already believes the truth. (p70)

In sharp contrast to many today who seek the comfortable feeling of certainty as a way of feeling at peace with God, biblical heroes are better known for their willingness to be uncomfortable and to honestly wrestle with God. (p82)

Though it initially sounded pious, the “Lord-gives-and-Lord-takes” philosophy implies that Job was right when he accused God of capricious cruelty. (p87)

While God had to confront his mistaken blame-God theology, he applauded Job’s raw honesty. He applauded the fact that Job wasn’t afraid to “argue [his] case with God” (13:3). (p88)

The very fact that Jesus tried to influence the Father to change the plan (and sweat blood in the process) demonstrates that his perfect faith and obedience didn’t mean he never struggled and never tried to push back on God’s plan. (p93)

When God displays his true eternal nature to a fallen world, it looks like Calvary. This is why the cross is presented in the New Testament as the quintessential expression of God’s love (John 3:16; Rom 5:8) and why the Son is put forth as “the exact representation” of God’s “being” or “essence” (hypostasis, Heb. 1:3). When we behold the crucified Christ, we are beholding the eternal essence of the Triune God. (p96)

A dishonest relationship with a false image of God always requires a dishonest relationship with oneself to be sustained. (p111)

Faith presupposes belief. But faith goes far beyond belief in that its focus is not on a mental conviction but on willingness to act on that mental conviction. (p113)

People enter into covenants because they trust one another; people enter into legally binding contracts precisely because they don’t. (p115)

There’s been, almost from the start, a strand within the Western theological tradition that has tended to conceive of our relationship with God in legal terms, where contractual concepts are more at home than covenantal concepts. (p116)

When our relationship with God gets framed in terms of a legal contract, people are inclined to treat the Bible like a confusing litigation manual, the purpose of which is to resolve technical theological disputes and clarify ambiguities surrounding the terms of our contractual acquittal before God. (p120)

Giving honest feedback is one of the roles fellow disciples are supposed to play within the body of Christ, according to the New Testament. This is how the bride is supposed to be making herself ready as she waits for her bridegroom to return. (p132)

I don’t believe it is anyone’s right or responsibility to entertain any opinion about the destiny of those who show little to no signs of God’s life within them, whether they profess faith in Christ or not. (p142)

So long as we remain confident enough that Jesus is Lord to commit to living as if he were Lord, then whatever doubts and questions we have about other theological, spiritual, or personal issues can and should be wrestled with from the inside of this covenantal commitment rather than as a precondition for entering into, or staying within, it. (p147)

A true and living faith is never a destination; it’s a journey. And to move forward on this journey we need the benefit of doubt. (p151)

I found a way to embrace the essence of Christianity while also embracing a degree of ambiguity about creation and evolution, as well as about the discrepancies and archeological problems I was beginning to discover in the Bible. (p158)

Rather than believing in Jesus because I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, as evangelicals typically do, I came to believe the Bible was the inspired Word of God because I first believe in Jesus I discovered I have compelling reasons for believing that Jesus is the incarnation of God that have nothing to do with the belief in the inspiration of Scripture. (p159)

The most compelling and most objective reasons I have for believing in Christ are historical in nature. (p160)

Our faith in Christ and in Scripture is anchored in Christ, not in the absence of discrepancies or the absolute historical veracity of Scripture. (p166)

To accommodate the ever-expanding worldview of thoughtful people today, we need a model of faith that is flexible enough to accommodate people’s expanding worlds while being sufficiently grounded to help them to confidently embrace definitive convictions that keep them from floating off into a sea of postmodern relativism. (p167)

It is odd that, despite the common claim of conservative Christians to base everything on the Bible, the rigid, all-or-nothing way they typically hold onto their beliefs is actually not biblical. (p168)

I’ve become increasingly aware that the God of other-oriented love that the cross reveals is in tension with portraits of God that depict him commanding or engaging in horrific violence… My struggling has led me to the understanding that confessing Scripture to be completely “God-breathed” does not entail that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative or that every portrait of God carries the same weight. (p175)

Confessing Scripture to be completely “God-breathed” does not entail that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative or that every portrait of God carries the same weight. (p175)

The authors of the New Testament…, as much as they affirm the inspiration of the Old Testament, are even more emphatic in proclaiming that the revelation of God in Christ completes, and in this sense trumps, everything that preceded him. (p177)

We cannot read the Bible as we would a cookbook, giving equal weight to everything it teaches. We should rather read it like a novel in which the final chapter forces us to rethink everything that preceded it. (p183)

I confess, primarily on the authority of Christ, that Scripture is inspired and perfect for what God intends it to do. In this sense I can affirm that it is “infallible” and even, if one prefers the word, “inerrant.” But the thing that God most wants Scripture to do— point to the cross— leads me to expect it to reflect some limitations, imperfections, and faults rather than to feel the need to defend it against these things. (p185)

While God has always worked to reveal as much of his true self as his people could receive, he has also always been willing to acquiesce to the hard-heartedness of his people to whatever degree was necessary. It is for this reason that we find God sometimes taking on violent roles and giving violent commands in the Old Testament. Violence was unfortunately the only language most people of this time could understand, and so this is the language God was sometimes forced to speak. (p189)

[Re James 1:6-8]  James is…describing a person who is wavering between whether they will remain loyal and seek wisdom from God alone, on the one hand, or whether they will be duplicitous by also trying to derive wisdom from the world. (p197)

If we interpret Mark 11:24 literally, this instruction is simply impossible to obey. Think about it. We are instructed to believe we have already received what we ask for when we ask for it. But the very act of asking for something presupposes that we don’t believe we’ve already received it. If we truly believed we’d already received what we’re asking for, we obviously wouldn’t be asking for it. (p200)

Few things have caused as much misunderstanding and have led to such damaging consequences as the tendency of modern readers to mistake hyperbolic expressions for literal statements. (p203)

When the role of imagination in faith gets severed from the more fundamental point about trusting God, faith is transformed into a self-centered, mind-over-matter gimmick… If we always remember that the purpose of imagination in prayer is to help us more effectively lean on God, it becomes a crucial, God-glorifying dimension of what covenantal faith is all about. (p205)

The obvious but rarely noticed insight that we think with imaginative representations lies at the heart of the nature of faith, and I believe it’s what Jesus is hyperbolically alluding to in Mark 11:24. We can’t literally believe we have received what we’re asking for when we pray, but we can, and should, mentally envision receiving what we’re praying for as though it is present to us. (p208)

[Re Hebrews 11:1]  Faith involves embracing a vivid vision of an anticipated future that in turn gives rise to a compelling conviction that moves us toward that future. (p212)

If nothing is allowed to count as evidence against our belief in God’s faithfulness, one has to wonder if we’re really asserting anything meaningful when we point to events as evidence of God’s faithfulness. (p220)

Christians who try to find security in the magical promise that, if they can just “trust and obey,” God will bless them and protect them and their children… The unspoken rule is, don’t notice the obvious. And the obvious reality no one is supposed to notice is that this magical formula contradicts the way the world actually is. (p223)

To all who simply open their eyes, it’s obvious that the righteous suffer debilitating and fatal diseases the same way the unrighteous do. (p224)

There are a multitude of variables other than God’s will or our faith that influence what happens to children, marriages, careers, finances, health, and every other aspect of our lives. (p224)

I’ve discerned a tendency among conservative Christians to assume that anything in Scripture that looks like a promise is in fact something that God promises them. Sometimes driven by a need to find some security in a world that can be very scary, and paying little attention to the context or original meaning of passages, Christians tend to randomly cling to verses that seem to promise what they’re looking for. (p225)

Whenever we come upon unqualified promises or instructions in Scripture, whether in the Old or the New Testament, we should consider it likely that we are dealing with hyperbole, especially if the promises or instructions contradict reality or are otherwise absurd. (p226)

As part of the surprise ending of the biblical narrative, Jesus actually turned the Old Testament’s system of rewards and punishments on its head. (p227)

The practice of combing through the Bible in search of promises to stand on and to feel secure in is reflecting a contract mind-set more than a covenant mind-set. (p229)

I am proposing that we anchor our understanding of what we should trust God for in the same revelation that serves as the intellectual foundation of our faith, the same revelation that serves as the center of our interpretation of Scripture, and the same revelation that serves as the center of our theology. Every aspect of faith, in short, is centered on “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (p234)

When we find ourselves in the midst of radical suffering— our child dies, our marriage dissolves, cancer strikes, a tornado wipes out all we held dear— we should not infer anything about God’s character from this. The only one from whom we should ever draw conclusions about God’s character is Jesus. p238)

Jesus put an end to the fallen tendency to discern the hand of God behind “natural” disasters (Luke 13:1–5)… A central strategy of Satan has always been to do terrible things or to motivate others to do terrible things and then try to deceive us into attributing these terrible things to God… If we trust that the cross reveals what God is really like, I don’t see that we have any other choice but to conclude that every aspect of our circumstances that fails to reflect the loving character revealed on the cross is traceable back to wills other than God, whether human or angelic or both. (p238)

We can be confident that God is using our decisions to love rather than hate, to serve rather than retaliate, and to be killed rather than to kill to move the world closer to the time when God will fully reign on the earth. (p246)

…the bizarre and beautiful world of the realized eschatology of the New Testament… (p248)

An important part of my calling has been to continually seek out objections to my faith in order not only to re-examine my faith for myself, but also to help others who may struggle with these objections. (P251)


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)


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