The Bible teaches…

26 January 2018

‘The Bible teaches…’ Time was when I used that phrase a lot. Having spent over sixty years studying the Bible, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of its message. I could tell you with great conviction what ‘the Bible teaches’ on, say, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, or male headship, or divorce, or the kingdom of God, or homosexuality, or church government, or whatever.

bible-thumper.jpgThese days I’m far less dogmatic on these and a host of other issues. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion—better late than never—that the Bible as a whole doesn’t in fact ‘teach’ much at all very clearly.

I’d always been aware, of course, that my convictions about what it taught on this or that were not shared by all Christians. Some of them had reached conclusions very different from my own—and from the same Bible at that! But somehow I had failed to grasp the enormity of the problem highlighted by these differences. The problem is this: if, after two thousand years, Christians are still reaching hugely different conclusions about the Bible’s teaching, the only thing I can conclude with any certainty is that the Bible is not clear in its teaching at all.

For decades, I felt convinced that my own conclusions (and those of my spiritual clan) as to what the Bible teaches were the right ones, and that everyone else’s were wrong. Now, I’m deeply ashamed of the appalling pride that this attitude displays.

Proof-texting was dear to me in those bad old days. I was skilled at mustering verses from both Old Testament and New to back up the ‘right’ view that I was presenting. I wrote semi-learned papers on a host of topics, using my middle-of-the-road knowledge of Hebrew and Greek to bolster my case and quoting from my extensive library of Bible commentaries and reference works.

I don’t do that anymore. I’m convinced that, if you have a mind to, you can present a decent case from the Bible, with supporting proof-texts, for just about any theory you want. Indeed, this has been happening regularly for two millennia, and it’s happening still. I don’t want any part in that sort of behaviour now. So I’ve ditched my old views on the Bible’s inerrancy, even its infallibility, and certainly what the Puritans called its ‘perspicuity’. I take a far less tidy view of the whole thing these days.

‘Ah,’ you say, ‘it’s tragic that you’ve gone off the rails at this late stage in your life, Dave. So sad that you’ve kicked the Bible into touch like this.’

Hang on. I didn’t say that! The fact is, I love the Bible now more than I ever did. I read it more. I draw more strength and sustenance from it, and I honour it as God’s Word with a new-found vigour. And that’s because I’ve adopted an altogether different approach to it. ‘And what exactly is that? you have every right to ask.

Now, I see the Bible as ‘God’s Word’ in only a secondary sense. The ultimate ‘Word of God’ is Jesus Christ. The Bible is the story—a God-breathed one, I believe—of a people struggling, through their changing times and cultures, to understand God better, and often getting it only half-right, or sometimes even wrong. But the whole story was leading to its brilliant climax: Emmanuel, God with us in the person of the God-man, Jesus the Messiah. He alone is the end to which the Bible is merely the means.

Jesus, and Jesus only, is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’, the full and final revelation of what God is truly like. Everything else is shadowy, vague, temporary, unclear. But in him the shadows have cleared and the sun has come out. The Bible gave enough light to guide the previous generations along, but it will always be secondary to him. I’m now trying to take my views and convictions, my lifestyle-model, my attitudes, my standards, my everything from him, and from nowhere else.

As for the Bible, I feel wonderfully liberated by my new way of looking at it. I love to read it for the insights it gives into the life of pilgrimage that I’ve embarked upon. I am gripped as I read about the ups and downs, the frustrations and joys, of previous generations of God-seekers, and learn much from them. I tap into the Bible’s psalms of praise and its accounts of the moments of life-changing revelation enjoyed by the pilgrims of old. And I quietly skip (as Jesus did when quoting Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue) the bits now shown, in the light of his revelation, to be wide of the mark.

So that’s where I’m at. If what I’ve written makes you hopping mad, I’m not going to let that faze me. After all, not so long ago, I would have reacted the same way myself, so I can understand where you’re coming from. I sincerely hope, though, that you will pause to think about what I’ve written, and maybe even become open to a few changes yourself. Jesus, I think, would smile at the prospect…

[You can read more about my changed attitude to the Bible in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, which you can download here.]

 

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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)


Red Herring in Galilee: Israel and prophetic promise

16 January 2018

I’ve never been to Israel and I’m not really keen to go. If someone offered me a paid trip I’d take it, but my own holiday cash is more likely to take me to Minorca or Corfu, where’s there’s less chance of gunfire in the streets.

Some would question my priorities. A trip to Israel should be top of the list, they’d say. I am, after all, a Christian, and Israel is where our Lord himself lived and died—and rose again. It would do me good to peer at the site of the nativity, breathe the air of Galilee or stroll the Via Dolorosa.

jerusalemsmallWell, maybe it would, but I’m not the sentimental type. And anyway, if ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’,[1] my own neck of the woods in England can be as replete with his presence as any Holy Land.

Others offer me another reason for showing interest, even if I don’t visit. Israel, they point out, is the Promised Land, given in perpetuity to the Jews, and the return of scattered Jews since 1948 is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. So I should at least be praying for the peace of Jerusalem—which means, they seem to imply, Israeli subjugation of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

Some Christians take all this very seriously. Like the pastor who told me his church was committed to ‘the conversion of the lost to Christ, and the return of the Jews to Israel.’ I found this a strange pairing, a bit like being committed to world peace and the eating of Harrogate toffee. The two are simply not in the same league. Didn’t the spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile come to an end with Christ and the foundation of his church?[2] Certainly the church—that redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’—is what Jesus loved and died for,[3] and that’s what he’s building.[4]  It’s the church that matters, not Jewish ethnicity, and certainly not any Middle Eastern territory.

The New Testament, in fact, contains not a single reference to the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. That’s for two reasons. First, because, while God’s promise of the land was unconditional, their possession of it was always conditional upon their obedience.[5] The Old Testament records how they failed to meet the conditions and so lost the land. And second, because ‘Israel’ has been redefined in the light of Christ. Present-day Israel is a secular state unrelated to God’s revealed purpose.[6] My view has been, therefore, that the whole ‘Christian Zionism’ thing is a gigantic red herring, diverting believers from their twin tasks of reaching the lost and nurturing the saints.

‘Ah yes, but what about that famous passage on the Jewish question: Romans 9-11? Isn’t it clear from Paul’s words here that the Jews are a special case?’

On the contrary. Look at the context. The theme of the whole letter is an examination of the question: who are the people of God? And Paul’s answer is unequivocal: God’s people are those who put their faith in Christ. Whether they are Jews or Gentiles is immaterial. A Chinese, an Indian, a Swede or an Eskimo can, by trusting Jesus, be as much a descendant of Abraham as a thoroughbred Jew.[7]  And the point of Romans 9-11 seems to be not that the Jews are a special case for God’s favour but that—wonder of wonders—in spite of their obstinate refusal to recognise their Messiah, they are still in with a chance. God in his mercy has not slammed the door on them. They are still candidates for salvation as much as any Gentile!

In fact Paul ends up redefining what ‘Israel’ means. While recognising Jewish ethnicity, of course, his more basic point is that the real ‘chosen people’, the real Israel, is the redeemed community: the church.

‘Ah, just as I thought!’ claims someone. ‘You’re into Replacement Theology, pushing Israel aside and saying the church has taken its place. And it’s heresy!’

Here I permit myself a few groans, then quickly gather my wits for a reply. I don’t believe in Replacement Theology, at least not as just defined. My position—and that of virtually all mainline biblical scholars—is a different one: not that the church replaces Israel but that the church is Israel. The real Israel, that is. The true people of God, the ultimate ‘chosen people’ of which the Jews in their national ‘chosen’ capacity were merely a type and shadow.[8] The church has not replaced Israel; God’s promises to ancient Israel have been fulfilled in the church.

Here’s where we have to check our hermeneutical bearings. We believe in progressive revelation: that God has made himself known gradually, culminating in Jesus Christ.[9]  The New Testament reveals truth unknown in the Old Testament, and the New Testament writers are the Spirit-inspired interpreters of the Old. No longer now can we afford to read the Old Testament—including its ‘land’ promises—as if the New Testament didn’t exist. If we do, we shall become bogged down in a quagmire of doctrinal confusion.

Let’s apply this principle to the Promised Land. That God gave it to the Jews no-one in their right mind can deny. According to the Old Testament he promised it to Abraham and his descendants [10] and, after the exodus, that’s where those descendants went. Later, when ousted from it at the Exile, they headed back to it—or at least a remnant did.

But what does the New Testament say about the Jews and the land? Zero. Absolutely nothing. For a start, that in itself should make us massively cautious about Christian obsession with Israel and Middle Eastern territory. And sure enough, when we look closely we see the New Testament writers pointing us in a quite different direction.

First, we see Jesus signalling a departure from Jewish centrality by choosing twelve apostles as the foundation for the new people of God in an obvious alternative to ethnic Israel with its twelve tribal ancestors. Then we see those apostles themselves adopting the same ‘new people’ line. Peter—that Jew par excellence—takes Old Testament phrases precious to Israel and applies them, without excuse, to the church. It is redeemed Jews and Gentiles together, he says, who are in the final sense ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.’ And not just a people, for he goes on: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.'[11]

In the Bible, ‘the people of God’ and ‘Israel’ are synonymous.

Paul is equally clear. He takes, for instance, a bundle of Old Testament promises originally addressed to the Jews and, writing to chiefly-Gentile Christians in Corinth, declares, ‘Since we have these promises, dear friends…'[12]  And in case we have any lingering doubts he tells the Galatians, ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision[13] means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.'[14]  Rare is the serious biblical commentator who sees that phrase as referring to anything but the church.[15] And again, ‘It is we who are the circumcision’—it is we who are true Jews—’we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.'[16]

So it’s no wonder ‘the land’ is absent from the New Testament picture. The real people of God, the church, are so numerous you would never fit them into that tiny country in the Middle East, even if they wanted to live there.

Instead, the New Testament writers give a global application to those Old Testament promises originally limited to the Holy Land. Abraham would be ‘heir of the world’,[17] his descendants in every land, not just in one. The meek now ‘inherit the earth’,[18] not Canaan. Christian children who honour their parents will ‘enjoy long life on the earth’,[19] not, as originally, ‘in the land the LORD your God is giving you.'[20]

That the church is the real Israel is so patently obvious that, to me, it’s not even up for debate. And I’m apparently in good company because, over the centuries, ‘the majority view within the church has been that the church is the New Israel and that the Jews have lost title to that claim.'[21]

‘But surely,’ you insist, ‘you accept the fact that the return of Jews to Israel in our own day is a wonderful fulfilment of prophecy?

Not in the least. The prophecies usually quoted in support of that view are capable of a more obvious interpretation: they refer to the return of a Jewish remnant from exile in Babylon around 500 BC.

‘But the return from exile was a return from a single country—Babylon. The promise that God would bring them back from among “many nations” can only be fulfilled in the return of the Diaspora in our own times.’

Well, that’s not what Jeremiah thought. He saw the Babylonian Empire for what it was: a conglomerate of ‘many nations’, and the return of Jews from Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah fulfilled those prophecies perfectly, as he himself makes plain.[22]

‘Well, then, what about Isaiah’s prophecy that God will bring his people back “a second time”?[23] The return from Babylon was clearly the first, so the second has to be today’s re-gathering.’

A look at the context knocks that one on the head, too. Isaiah states that the first return was, in fact, Israel’s arrival in the Promised Land from Egypt after their earlier escape from slavery at the exodus.[24]  Against that background, the ‘second time’ is the return from Babylon after all. And there’s no mention of a third time to cover events since 1948.[25]

That’s it, then. All the ‘Jews to Israel’ promises were fulfilled in the distant past. There’s no reason at all to look for any further fulfilment today.[26]

‘Ah, but what about the principle of double or multiple fulfilment of prophecy? Isn’t there room there for the Zionist return?’

No, because all prophecy finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus and his church. He’s what life, history, the Bible and prophecy are all about. Once Jesus came on the scene, all the strands of Old Testament prophecy came together in him.[27]  We have no business looking for rogue strands due to be fulfilled in ways unrelated to him or to the church which is his body. The only homecoming that matters now is the exodus of sinners from the ‘Egypt’ of sin through the blood of Jesus, God’s Passover lamb,[28] and their gathering into the real and ultimate Israel which is the redeemed community, the church. That is what all the Old Testament ‘return to the land’ prophecies were ultimately about.

And what a relief it is to get into that land! After those wearisome struggles to earn our own salvation, the ‘rest’ of receiving it freely by God’s grace is wonderful—more wonderful, even, than the relief of the desert-weary Israelites when they at last set foot in Canaan, the land that God called ‘my rest’.[29]  The letter to the Hebrews develops this theme, underscoring yet again that a patch of Middle Eastern territory for the Jews was merely a picture of a spiritual homeland for all God’s people in Christ and the church.[30]

‘But that’s all very spiritual. Don’t you believe there’s room for physical and geographical fulfilments as well? Surely there’s a heavenly people with a heavenly destiny—the church—and an earthly people with an earthly destiny—the Jews?’

No, because the Bible makes the progression clear: the natural comes first, then the spiritual.[31]  The one doesn’t run alongside the other; it supersedes it. Now that Christ has come, turning back to the natural (Jews in Middle Eastern territory) is unthinkable. Everything is better in him. Why grasp at shadows when the reality is here?[32] Why should the man who has just won millions on the lottery continue busking for pennies on cold street-corners? Even Abraham never saw Canaan as his ultimate destiny. He had grander prospects: a heavenly country, a city whose architect and builder is God himself.[33]  That’s the church—Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. And it’s not just a future prospect, inaccessible until Christ’s return. Already those who are in Christ ‘have come to’ it.[34]

The old Jerusalem is doubtless a fascinating place, with its Western Wall, ancient streets and souvenir shops selling olive-wood carvings. But it’s not a patch on the new one! [35]

So I’m not fussed about whether ethnic Jews live under the Israeli flag, or in New York, or Leeds, or wherever. Like Cambodians, Welshmen, Hottentots, Greeks and Kashmiris, they’re candidates for the gospel wherever they live. König is right: ‘[There can be] but one conclusion about the Jews’ future in the New Testament. The message expressed most fully by Paul is that, despite Israel’s rejection and merited judgment, God continues to hold open the doors of his mercy so that the Jews can again be ingrafted through faith in Jesus.'[36]

Well over half the world’s Jews live outside Israel and, today, emigration continues to outstrip immigration.[37]  But if God is the God of all the earth, he can use the fact that lots of Jews do live in Israel to further his saving purpose. May he do so! But let’s not get all misty-eyed and pseudo-spiritual about Zionism. It’s a deceptive sideline, nothing more. And the mainline? ‘Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.'[38]

Fancy a piece of Harrogate toffee?

 

P.S.

Experience tells me that some people get very emotional about this subject. So before you lose your cool, please note the following:

  1. I am not anti-Semitic. I have as much time for Jews as I have for anyone else. They stand in as much need of God’s grace as Gentiles do. According to the New Testament that grace—praise him!—is equally available to both.
  2. I am supportive of those who feel God has given them a particular call to evangelise the Jews—as long as they don’t condemn those of us who may, instead, be called particularly to evangelise the British, the Moroccans, the Guatemalans or the Palestinians.
  3. The present-day State of Israel is a reality, even if there are serious doubts about the wisdom of its creation. I take the view that the Arabs need to accept its existence and withdraw their determination to wipe it off the map. At the same time, some sort of Palestinian state is needed, existing alongside Israel and living in peace with it. The current mutual killing by both sides remains unacceptable, and Christians should certainly not adopt an unthinking support for Israel in the conflict on the mistaken assumption that the State of Israel somehow enjoys divine support. It does not.

Footnotes

  1. Psalm 24:1
  2. Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:11
  3. Ephesians 5:25
  4. Matthew 16:18
  5. Jeremiah 18:7-11; Deuteronomy 28:62-63; Joshua 23:16. The unbelieving spies, along with a whole generation of Israelites, were kept out because of their unbelief (Numbers 14:21-23); Moses was kept out because of his pride (Numbers 20:12). And one certainly cannot argue that the present State of Israel exists because its citizens have turned to God. It is a thoroughly secular state, with only a very small number of practising Jews and Christians.
  6. Only about 15% of Israelis are even observant [of Judaism], much less Orthodox.’ Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p28
  7. Romans 4:16. See also Galatians 3:7
  8. God’s way of moving from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is not to replace the old with the new, but to remodel the old into the new. The earth after the Flood, for example, was still in many respects the same earth, yet new in the sense that it had been radically reshaped by the waters. For further detail see my post: The Same But Different.
  9. Hebrews 1:1-2
  10. Genesis 15:18
  11. 1 Peter 2:9-10, referring to Isaiah 43:2 and Exodus 19:6
  12. 2 Corinthians 6:16 – 7:1
  13. A common shorthand for ‘Jewishness’ and ‘non-Jewishness’.
  14. Galatians 6:15-16
  15. Some have tried to argue that the Greek word kai doesn’t mean ‘even’ here but ‘and’. The weight of scholarly linguistic opinion is solidly against them. Paul is saying—controversially for the Judaisers who opposed him—that those who have been born again (i.e. have experienced the ‘new creation’), whether they be of Jewish or of Gentile stock, constitute God’s true Israel. He makes a similar plain statement in Romans 11:26 where, after using ‘Israel’ in the ethnic sense from the beginning of chapter nine, he then deliberately shocks his readers by using the phrase ‘all Israel’ to mean the church. N.T. Wright comments: ‘Paul is clearly offering a deliberately polemical redefinition of “Israel”, parallel to that in Galatians (6:16), in which the people thus referred to are the whole company, Jew and Gentile alike, who are now (as in chapter 4 and 9:6ff.) inheriting the promises made to Abraham.’ (P. W. L. Walker, ed., Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God [2nd edn. 1994] Carlisle: Paternoster. Grand Rapids: Baker, pages 53–77
  16. Philippians 3:3
  17. Romans 4:13
  18. Matthew 5:5 cf. Psalm 37:11
  19. Ephesians 6:2
  20. Deuteronomy 5:16, from which Paul is quoting in Ephesians 6:2
  21. Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p4
  22. Jeremiah 29:10-14
  23. Isaiah 11:11
  24. Isaiah 11:16
  25. Some see a third homecoming of a sort at Pentecost—the Jewish feast that, at the time of Jesus, annually brought Jews back to Jerusalem from their homes throughout the Roman Empire. It is interesting that Luke’s list of their home areas echoes those mentioned in the homecoming promise of Isaiah (Acts 2:5-11 cf. Isaiah 11:11). Apparently some who became Christians when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost sold property in the places from which they had come and settled in the Jerusalem area. It was these Jews who, in submitting to baptism and receiving the Spirit, fulfilled in a minor sense God’s homecoming promise through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
  26. There has always been a school of thought among the Jews that the return from Babylon under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah did not in fact fulfil the many OT promises of restoration, and that the real exile continued long thereafter. Paul seems to sympathise with this view in his treatment of the subject in his letters. On his view, the restoration of the Jews to God is tied up with Gentile salvation and its provoking of Jews to jealousy. But it is a purely spiritual restoration, which is why references to ‘the land’ in the Middle East are notable by their absence in the NT. For more of this see the entry ‘The Restoration of Israel’ in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, eds., IVP, 1993.
  27. Acts 3:24; 2 Corinthians 1:20
  28. 1 Corinthians 5:7
  29. Psalm 95:7-11
  30. Hebrews 3-4
  31. 1 Corinthians 15:46
  32. Colossians 2:16-17
  33. Hebrews 11:10-16
  34. Hebrews 12:22
  35. Revelation 3:12; 21:2-3
  36. König A., The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology, Eerdmans/MMS, 1989, p170
  37. According to The Jerusalem Post’s online statistics, Jews in Israel in 2000 numbered 4.9 million. At the same period, over 6 million Jews were living in the USA alone. Also emigration of Jews from Israel in recent years has exceeded immigration by about 600,000 (see R.H. Curtiss, ‘Year-End Statistics Gloss Over Israel’s Biggest Problem’ in the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, March 1997). The Sunday Telegraph of 30 Nov 2003 reported: ‘The government wants to bring another million Jews to Israel by 2010. Yet figures released by the absorption ministry, responsible for helping new immigrants, have revealed that an estimated 760,000 Israelis are living abroad, up from 550,000 in 2000. Only 23,000 people are expected to move to the Holy Land this year, the lowest figure since 1989… Many families head for Canada. So far 6,000 Israelis have moved there this year, double last year’s total.’
  38. Galatians 3:7. See also v26

Review: A refreshing ‘take’ on Scripture

11 January 2018

Richard Rohr, the author of many books, is a Roman Catholic priest in the Franciscan tradition. Does that set your Protestant alarm ringing? If it does, switch the alarm off, please, for here is a book with a depth of biblical insight that, frankly, leaves a lot of evangelical writing seeming, by contrast narrow and insipid. The book is

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality by Richard Rohr (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2008).

thlargeIt looks at some key biblical themes and draws from them practical applications for living the Christian life today. I found it resonating with lots of the changed attitudes to Scripture that I myself have adopted in recent years (some of which I have touched on in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith)—like the ‘trajectory’ approach to hermeneutics (which Rohr calls ‘the developing tangents’), the clear trend towards non-violence, rejection of the classic understanding of ‘original sin’, God’s core essence as self-giving love, and wariness of the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ position.

The author sees all the major themes being introduced early on in the Bible. These then develop throughout the middle part of it, and come to a crescendo in the risen Christ, who is the final revelation of what God is like, and who draws us into union with him. The large middle section records many instances of ‘three steps forward, two steps back’, as Israel’s understanding slowly progressed. We should be wary, therefore, of letting some parts of the Bible inform our conclusions as to what God is like.

In moving towards the goal of union with God through Jesus Christ, we need both the external wisdom of the Scriptures and the inner wisdom of experience; each sheds light on the other. As Rohr himself puts it, ‘Information is not necessarily transformation’. Too many Christians claim to have all the ‘right’ theological answers but don’t echo the character of Jesus much—and that’s challenging!

outstandingbookI love the penetrating insights Rohr provides into human nature, social dynamics, how we perceive truth, and how we change, grounding them firmly in the teachings of Jesus. They ring true and I, for one, have found them prodding me to make some adjustments to the way I think and act, and how I treat other people.

Throughout the book there is a strong emphasis on grace, which will be reassuring if you are wary of any writing from Catholic sources. And I have to say that the nature of the grace it portrays is a million times bigger and better than the Calvinistic variety! The whole flavour of the book, in fact, is one of grace, warmth, love and challenge-to-change.
This is the best book I have read in a very long time. There’s huge and winsome wisdom here, and I encourage you to taste it.

Here are some quotations.

The ecumenical character and future of Christianity is becoming rather obvious. It is really the religious side of globalization. (p4)

I am increasingly convinced that the word prayer, which has become a functional and pious thing for believers to do, is, in fact, a descriptor for inner experience. (p6)

The [Bible] text itself edges forward and sometimes backward, just as humans do. In other words, it doesn’t just give you the conclusions, but it does create a clear set of patterns and a tangent—and our job is to connect the dots forward and backward. In my opinion, it is only inner experience that can do that job—not just proof texts or external belief systems. (p11)

Our job is to see where the three steps forward texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust), which gives us the ability to clearly recognize and understand the two steps backward texts (which are usually about vengeance, divine pettiness, law over grace, form over substance and technique over relationship). (p11)

If you read searching for certain conclusions, to quickly reassure your “false self,” as if each line in the Bible was a full dogmatic statement, all spiritual growth will not just stop, but you will become a rather toxic person for yourself and others. (p12)

We have created a terrible kind of dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual. This dualism precisely is what Jesus came to reveal as a lie. The principle of Incarnation proclaims that matter and spirit have never been separate. Jesus came to tell us that these two seemingly different worlds are and always have been one. We just couldn’t see it until God put them together in his one body (see Ephesians 2:11–20). (p17)

What you have built into the Hebrew Bible and strongly expressed by Jesus and the prophets is the capacity for self-critical thinking. It is the first step beyond the dualistic mind and teaches us patience with ambiguity and mystery. (p18)

Our temptation now and always is not to trust in God but to trust in our faith tradition of trusting in God. They are not the same thing! (p19)

Forgiveness always heals; it does not matter whether you are Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic or Jewish. Forgiveness is one of the patterns that is always true, it is part of The Story. (p23)

One of the enlightened themes that develops in the Judeo-Christian tradition and reaches its fullness in the crucified Jesus is the recognition of the cosmic and personal significance of human pain and suffering…   I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” (p24)

We were created in the very “image and likeness” of God… our family of origin is divine. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. This says that our starting point is totally positive, or as the first chapter of the Bible says, it is “very good” (1:31). We do have someplace good to go home to. If the beginning is right, the rest is made considerably easier, plus we know the clear direction of the tangent. (p27)

God’s main problem is how to give away God! But God has great difficulty doing this. You’d think everybody would want God. But the common response is something like this: “Lord, I am not worthy. I would rather have religion and morality, which give me the impression that I can win a cosmic contest by my own efforts.” (p31)

[Re the animals in Noah’s ark and Gen 7:16]  Most people never note that God actually closed them in! God puts all the natural animosities, all the opposites together, and holds them together in one place. I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things unreconciled that teaches us—leaving them partly unresolved and without perfect closure or explanation. (p35)

If the mind that needs to make moral judgments about everything is the master instead of the servant, religion is almost always corrupted. (p37

The major heresy of the Western churches is that they have largely turned around the very meaning of faith, which is not knowing and not needing to know, into its exact opposite—demanding to know and insisting that I do know! (p38)

Salvation is only secondarily assuring you of an eternal life; it is first of all giving you that life now, and saying, “If now, then also later,” and that becomes your deep inner certitude! If God would accept me now when I am clearly unworthy, then why would God change his policy later? You can then begin to rest, enjoy and love life. (p41)

If we do not understand election as “inclusive election” (chosenness is for the sake of communicating the same to others), religion almost always becomes an exclusionary system against the “non-elect,” “un-worthy” or “impure”…  In any kind of “exclusive election,” the “chosen” do not see their experience as a gift for others, but merely a gift for themselves. We end up with a very smug and self-satisfied religion. (p44)

How we relate to God always reveals how we will relate to people, and how we relate to people is an almost infallible indicator of how we relate to God and let God relate to us…  The whole Bible is a school of relationship, revealing both its best qualities and its worst. (p56)

Jesus brings the biblical tradition to a climax when he defines truth itself as personal rather than conceptual. He says “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and then immediately defines himself as one who is in absolute relationship with his “Father” (14:7, 9–10) and the Spirit who is in relationship to both (14:16–18). This rearranges the world of religion from arguments over ideas and concepts into a world of encounter, relationship and presence to the face of the other. That changes everything. (p61)

God is not dependent upon knowledge in the sense that the Western mind understands knowledge. How could God make such a mistake when 98 percent of the people who have ever lived could not read or write? Biblical knowing is more akin to face-to-face presence. (p63)

You feel so much more in control when you are right than when you are in right relationship. (p67)

Faith will always be faith, and we are never going to be able to make it into total certitude and clarity, although that is always the temptation of religion. (p71)
Paul takes much of Romans and Galatians to say what the Dalai Lama says in one oft-quoted line: “You must learn the meaning of the law very well, so you will know how to disobey it properly.” You must know and respect the rules before you can break the rules. (p73)

It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is. But do know it will never make you popular. As you know, the prophets are always rejected by their own (see Luke 12:50–51) and usually killed. (p74)

Jesus criticizes hypocrisy more than anything else. He does not hate sinners at all, but only people who pretend they are not sinners! Check that out, story by story, if you do not believe me. (p76)

Paul tells us in Romans 7:8 that “sin takes advantage of the law” to achieve its own purposes. What does he mean by that? Our unconverted and natural egocentricity (“sin”) uses religion for the purposes of gaining self-respect. If you want to hate somebody, want to be vicious or vengeful or cruel or vindictive, I can tell you a way to do it without feeling an ounce of guilt: Do it for religious reasons! Do it thinking you’re obeying a law, thinking you’re following some commandment or some verse from the Bible. It works quite well. Your untouched egocentricity can and will use religion to feel superior and “right.” It is a common pattern. (p82)

We have been given a God who not only allows us to make mistakes, but even uses our mistakes in our favor! That is the gospel economy of grace and is the only thing worthy of being called “good news, and a joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). If we could have come to God by obedience to laws, there would have been no need for God’s love revelation in Jesus. The techniques for order and obedience were already in place. (p84)

Only very gradually does human consciousness come to a selfless use of power, or the sharing of power, or even a benevolent use of power—in church, politics or even family and marriage. (p85)

Two thousand years after the revelation of Jesus, many people still seem to prefer a punitive, threatening and violent God, which then produces the same kind of people and the same kind of history. (p87)

It is largely a waste of time to tell people to love generously when the God they have been presented with is a taskmaster, loves quite conditionally, is easily offended, very needy and threatens people with eternal torture if they do not “believe” in him. (p89)

It seems that until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system. It is the privileged “knowledge of the victim.” (p92)

After Jesus, God can no longer be perceived as the Pantocrator or Omnipotence Itself, but a member of a self-emptying and humble Trinity. (p93)

[Re Gideon’s army-reduction]  God has to teach the people that there are alternatives to brute strength. If all you are taught is the art of the hammer, everything in your life is perceived as another nail. (p94)

Until you don’t need external power, you normally cannot handle power. When you have real power, you do not need to flaunt it. When you know you are being used by a Higher Power, you do not take your small power too seriously. (p98)

[Re Luke 9:3]  This austerity was not a program for the whole of life, but rather it was an initiation rite, a training course in vulnerability and community. Jesus is telling his apostles, as it were, “You’ve got to go through this or you will never be capable of empathy, compassion and identification with the pain of the world that you are called to serve. You will use ministry as a career move instead of a servant position.” Some such rite of passage seems necessary to break our foundational narcissism. Paul says the very same, and it is the only time the word initiation is used in the Scriptures, to my knowledge (check out Philippians 4:11–13). (p103)

Almost everybody seems to need some kind of sinner or heretic against which to compare themselves. (p105)

[Re those excluded from the Temple, Lev 11-24]  We tend to like purity codes. They define groups and give us an identity as superior. Once inside, we cannot hear anything that demotes us. (p107)

The Bible illustrates both healthy and unhealthy religion, right in the text itself, and Jesus offers us a rather simple criterion by which to judge one from the other. It is not a head category at all, but a visual and practical one—“does it bear good fruit or bad fruit?” (Matthew 7:15–20; Luke 6:43–45). Jesus is almost embarrassingly practical. (p110)

When we presume we know fully, we can all be very arrogant and goal-oriented. When we know we don’t know fully, we are much more concerned about practical loving behavior. This has become obvious to me as I observe human nature. Those who know God are always humble; those who don’t are invariably quite sure of themselves. (p110)
In my experience, I observe that the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. I offer that as hard-won wisdom. (p113)

Without an in-depth prayer tradition, religion has cried wolf too many times in history and later been proven wrong. Observe earlier authoritative church statements on democracy, war, torture, slavery, women, usury, anti-Semitism, revolution, liturgical forms, native peoples, the Latin language and the earth-centered universe—to name a few big ones. If we had balanced our knowing by some honest not-knowing, we would never have made such egregious mistakes. We proved whatever we wanted from one twisted line of Scripture. The unprayerful heart will always twist reality to its own liking. (p114)

Good poetry doesn’t try to define an experience as much as it tries to give you the experience itself, just as good liturgy should do. It tries to awaken your own seeing, hearing and knowing. It does not give you the conclusion as much as teach you a process whereby you can know for yourself. It does not “overexplain and destroy astonishment.” (p116)

If I left myself as open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation as Jesus did by teaching in the way he did, I surely would be called a heretic, or at least a very fuzzy and dangerous thinker. Why do we need to be clearer or less capable of misunderstanding than Jesus? Apparently, it was not a problem for him. (p117)

The three monotheistic religions each insist on absolute truth claims in forms of words, whereas Jesus’ truth claim was his person (John 14:6), his presence (John 6:35 ff.), his ability to participate in God’s perfect love (John 17:21–22). (p123)

We must approach the Scriptures with humility and patience, with our own agenda out of the way, and allow the Spirit to stir the deeper meaning for us. Otherwise we only hear what we already agree with or what we have decided to look for! (p125)

Only people who have first lived and loved, suffered and failed, and lived and loved again, are in a position to read the Scriptures in a humble, needy, inclusive and finally fruitful way. If you put the Scriptures in the hands of a person uninitiated by life, they will always make it into a head trip. It becomes a set of prescriptions instead of an actual description of what is real and what is unreal. (p128)

Human nature always wants either to play the victim or to create victims—and both for the purposes of control. (p134)

It’s hard for us religious people to hear, but the most persistent violence in human history has been sacred violence, or more accurately, “sacralized violence.” Human beings have found a most effective way to legitimate their instinct toward fear and hatred. They imagine that they are fearing and hating for something holy and noble, like God, religion, truth, morality, their children or love of country. It takes away all guilt, and one can even think of oneself as representing the moral high-ground or being responsible and prudent, as a result. (p135)

If I would try to describe the evil people and evil events that I’ve encountered, they’re invariably characterized by a sense of certainty and clarity. They suffer no self-doubt or self-criticism, smirking at people who would dare to question them. (p135)

…the story of Noah’s Flood and God’s seeming destruction of the whole world. Unfortunately, this picturesque and ancient story that explains God’s salvation of a few, ends up presenting Yahweh as accusing, petty and even one who kills the unworthy and the innocent (Genesis 6-9). God’s love has not yet been received at a deep or reflective level by this biblical author. It is still a very conditional and deserved love, and God is free to drown a whole world of animals and children, even if we can assume all the other adults on the rest of the earth were sinful and “violent” (Genesis 6:11–13). Here God is created in our own punitive image and is made worse than we would hopefully be! But it is a good start, because Yahweh is at least revealed as a “savior” of some (6:19–20)…  This is an important story to use to reveal what I mean by a text in travail: getting part of the point, but not all of it yet, and partly in direct opposition to the tangent that will develop. (p139)

Jesus does not define holiness as separation from evil as much as absorption and transformation of it, wherein I pay the price instead of always asking others to pay the price. (p142)

I think the story of Jonah is the much-needed journey from ministry as mere careerism to ministry as actual vocation, from doing my work for God, to letting God do God’s work in and through me. (p147)

It always takes us a while to move beyond groupthink and to join the God of all the earth in universal compassion. (p148)

No one had been more pious, Jewish and law-abiding than Paul (Philippians 3:5–16). He was a perfect Pharisee, as he said, and suddenly he realized that in the name of love he had become hate, in the name of religion he had become a murderer, in the name of goodness he had become evil. (p148)

All three absolutes that keep people small and paranoid have been undone by Jesus: my identity or power group, my job, and my family. (p150)

Jesus is teaching us that if we put our energy into choosing the good—instead of the negative and largely illusionary energy of rejecting the bad—we will overcome evil in a much better way, and will not become evil ourselves! (p152)

I want to name what I think is the central positive theme of the Bible. It is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired. It is called grace. (p155)

[Re a ‘reward and punishment’ mindset]  As long as we remain inside of a win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and self-interested morality and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus really offered us. It will be duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” (John 2:6) instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party! (2:7–10). How did we avoid missing the clear message on that one? (p159)

When forgiveness becomes largely a juridical process, then we who are in charge can measure it out, define who’s in and who’s out, find ways to earn it and exclude the unworthy. It makes for good religion, but not at all for good spirituality. We have destroyed the likelihood that most people will ever experience the pure gift of God’s forgiveness. (p162)

God seems quite practiced in using peoples’ sin for good, but those who refuse to see their dark side God cannot use! Jesus himself is never upset at sinners. He’s only upset with people who don’t think they’re sinners. Righteous folks are much more problematic for Jesus, because they are only half there, at best. (p167)

To allow yourself to be God’s beloved is to be God’s beloved. To allow yourself to be chosen is to be chosen. To allow yourself to be blessed is to be blessed. It is so hard to accept being accepted, especially from God. It takes a certain kind of humility to surrender to it, and even more to persist in believing it. (p168)

God apparently gives us exactly what we want. Do you want life, to live inside the city of Jerusalem, “where you will be suckled, filled from her consoling breasts, where you will savor with delight her glorious breasts” (Isaiah 66:11). Or do you want “Gehenna,” the garbage dump still outside the walls of Jerusalem, “where the worm never dies nor the fire ever goes out” (Isaiah 66:24). That is always the choice, and in these concluding verses of the prophet Isaiah the choices are dramatically portrayed. They became archetypal metaphors that were used in the Jewish tradition down to Jesus himself. They were used so dramatically, however, that they become literalized and localized. This has had an unfortunate effect for generations of Christians, who were often not consciously realizing that to take it literally would make the loving God into an eternal torturer. It’s an absurd notion, because then God would be less loving than we are. (p171)

All of Jesus’ healings, touchings and “salvations” (Luke 7:50; 17:19; 19:9) were clearly now. He never once said, “Be good now, and I will give you a reward later.” (p173)

We don’t know how to say yes by ourselves. We just “second the motion”! There is a part of you that has always said yes to God, it is the Holy Spirit within you. God first says “yes” inside of us and we say, “Oh yeah,” thinking it comes from us! In other words, God rewards us for letting God reward us. Think about that, maybe even for the rest of your life. (p179)

How does Jesus “overcome death and darkness,” as we often say? Is it just a heavenly transaction on God’s side, or is it more an agenda that God gives us for our side? Did Jesus not reveal for all humanity the very pattern of redemption itself? Could that not be what we mean by calling him “The Savior of the World”? (John 4:42). Jesus is, in effect, saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good! I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again! I am giving YOU the victory over all death!” (p188)

In forgiveness, it is precisely my ego self that has to die, my need to be right, to be in control, to be superior. Very few want to go there, but that is exactly what Jesus emphasized and taught. I am told that forgiveness is at least implied in two-thirds of his teaching! (p193)

We are the only religion in the world that worships the scapegoat as God. In worshiping the scapegoat, we should gradually learn to stop scapegoating, because we also could be utterly wrong, just as “church” and state, high priest and king, Jerusalem and Rome, the highest levels of discernment were utterly wrong in the death of Jesus. (p194)

[Re the cross]  The trouble is that we emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love, which is the utterly central issue. The cross became more an image of a Divine transaction than an image of human transformation. We ended up with a God who appears—at least unconsciously—to be vindictive, violent and petty, not at all free, subject to supposed laws of offended justice—and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem instead of revealing the heart of God. (p199)

True Christianity beguiles, seduces, invites, cajoles, creates spiritual yearning and draws humanity into ever more desirable mystery, healing and grace. (p200)

If God can forgive, then God can forgive! We do not need one major exception where we need atonement and payment of price. But theoretical religion has always been more comfortable with cosmic problem-solving than with personal surrender to the healing and transformative mystery of divine love. (p202)

The things Jesus talked about constantly, like living a simple and nonviolent life in this world, like forgiveness and inclusivity, are still considered fringe thinking by many Christians. How strange that we have the capacity to not see what is taught so clearly by the one we consider our teacher. It must be what saddened Isaiah and Jesus too: “This people will hear and hear again, but not understand, see and see again but not perceive” (Isaiah 6:9; Matthew 13:14). (p213)

You don’t have to figure it all out or get it all right ahead of time. You just have to stay on the journey. All you can do is stay connected. We don’t know how to be perfect, but we can stay in union. “If you remain in me and I remain you,” says Jesus, “you can ask for whatever you want and you’re going to get it” (see John 15:7). When you’re connected, there are no coincidences anymore. Synchronicities, coincidences, accidents and “providences” just keep happening. Union realigns you with everything, and things just start happening. (p214)

It seems obvious to me that God is calling everyone and everything home, not just picking and choosing a few. In fact, the few are only for the sake of the many, or as Paul put it “the dough is for the whole batch” (Romans 11:16 ff.). We all are saved in spite of ourselves—and for one another. It never was a worthiness contest. If God is love and if grace is true, then what exactly is the cut-off point? “When is God’s arm too short to save?” (Isaiah 50:2). Are there any who have achieved worthiness and do not need saving? Name them, please. (p218)


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