Review: Is God violent?

24 March 2018

Several writers have recently tackled the delicate question of how to reconcile the violence practised by God in the Old Testament with the forgiveness and non-violence taught and modelled by Jesus Christ.

The definitive work on this is without question Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. But that is 2 volumes, 1500 pages, and is written for a scholarly readership. Happily, he has also produced, for ordinary folks like us, a slimmer and simpler version. It is:

Cross Vision: How the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense of Old Testament violence by Gregory A. Boyd (Fortress Press, 2017).

cvlargeBoyd holds to the divine inspiration of the whole Bible. At the same time, he recognises the shortcomings of the human authors, who were men of their time, with a typical Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mindset and cultural conditioning. As we would expect, they often portrayed God as a ‘man of war’, helping his people in their conquests and rejoicing when they slaughtered their enemies on his orders. God accommodated them in their twisted thinking as, in love, he met them where they were, in order to take them into deeper revelation about his nature.

If Jesus alone is ‘the exact representation’ of the Father’s nature—and this is the truth on which everything else depends—there’s no way God is really the genocidal deity portrayed in some parts of the Old Testament. The cross gives us a clue as to how we can resolve the problem. There, we not only see the immense love of God reaching out to reconcile the world to himself, but his amazing condescension in allowing his enemies to crucify him. God was acting on humanity, but also permitting humanity to act upon him.

The author applies this broad principle to a substantial cross-section of OT incidents where God is portrayed as bloodthirsty and violent. He does it in great detail and with careful exegesis of the relevant passages. He explains the meaning of the ‘wrath’ of God, and tackles incidents of violence by Israel’s enemies (like the Babylonians, who were his outstandingbookinstrument of judgment), by cosmic forces of evil (like the Flood and the Red Sea crossing), and by his servants (like Elijah, Elisha and Samson). To my mind he has a sound case from start to finish.

But you must read it for yourself to get the full picture. If it will help, I have prepared a synopsis of the book, which you can read/download here: Cross Vision synopsis.

Meanwhile, here is a selection of quotations.

I am not going to try to minimize the moral awfulness or put the best possible spin on the OT’s violent depictions of God, as Evangelical apologists typically do. (p7)

The biblical authors believed they were complimenting God when they proclaimed that “the Lord gave David victory wherever he went” (2 Sam 8:14), which meant leaving no man or woman alive. (p11)

While I continue to affirm that the whole Bible is inspired by God, I’m now persuaded that the Bible itself instructs us to base our mental representation of God solely on Jesus Christ. (p19)

To say that a passage is divinely inspired is not to say that it necessarily reflects an unclouded vision of God. (p21)

Augustine defined love as an inner attitude that did not have any necessary implications for how we actually treat others. He went so far as to argue that Christians could imprison, torture, and, if necessary, even execute heretics in the name of love. (p35)

If Jesus is the center to which all Scripture points, then the cruciform character of God that was supremely revealed on the cross must be regarded as the epicenter of this center. And if all Scripture is about Christ, then all Scripture is more specifically about Christ crucified. (p38)

Whereas the OT consistently presents people who are victorious in battle as being blessed by God, Jesus taught that it is the peacemakers who will be blessed (Matt 5:9). (p41)

Paul didn’t view the cross merely as God’s means of achieving salvation. It was for him also the clearest expression of the power that God uses to rule the world and to defeat evil…  This cross-centered understanding of God’s weak-looking power and foolish-looking wisdom is so radical that even the majority of Christians throughout history have not been able to fully accept it. (p45)

Putting the best possible spin on the OT’s violent portraits of God isn’t going to cut it. In fact, the very attempt to defend the violence ascribed to God in these portraits indicates that we still believe that God is capable of this sort of behavior, which in turn indicates that we do not yet fully trust that the crucified Christ is the full revelation of God’s true character. (p46)

[Re Jeremiah 13:14]  When read in light of the cross we are able to look through this ugly sin-mirroring surface to behold the beautiful cruciform God stooping to bear Jeremiah’s sinful conception of him, which is why God takes on this ugly appearance in Jeremiah’s contribution to the biblical narrative. Interpreted through the looking-glass cross, violent divine portraits like Jeremiah’s become both beautiful and revolting for all the same reasons the cross is both beautiful and revolting. (p53)

Insofar as the cross is beautiful, it reflects God acting toward us…  But insofar as the cross is ugly, it reflects God humbly allowing other agents to act upon him. (p55)

God allowed the sin of humanity to act upon him and to condition the way he appeared when he breathed his supreme revelation on the cross. And this is also why God has always been willing to allow the sin of his people—including their sinful conceptions of him—to condition how he appears whenever he breathes revelations of himself. His breathing always reflects the reciprocal give-and-take of a noncoercive, authentic relationship. (p58)

While the cross-centered interpretation of the OT’s violent divine portraits that I’m proposing in this book has clear precedents in the early church, I nevertheless concede that it runs counter to the way the church has interpreted these portraits for the last 1500 years. (p63)

…my conviction that we should interpret the OT through the lens of the cross instead of restricting ourselves to the authors’ originally intended meaning. (p65)

The supreme revelation of God in the crucified Christ requires us to conclude that the author of the biblical Flood account (Genesis 6–8) was reflecting his fallen and culturally conditioned view of God when he portrayed God as the agent who caused this flood. Yet, my commitment to the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle nevertheless compels me to affirm this author’s claim that a flood occurred and that it was indeed a judgment of God. I must therefore give an account of how the Flood could be a judgment of God while denying that God was the agent who brought it about. (p67)

Given that God created people free and thus with the potential for love, he must work by means of a loving influence rather than coercion. God has therefore always worked to reveal as much of his true character and will as was possible while accommodating the fallen state of his people as much as was necessary—though…it certainly grieved God deeply to do so. (p84)

Even the Ten Commandments reflect highly accommodating elements, however. For example, they reflect the common ANE assumption that women are the property of men. Men are told not to covet a neighbor’s wife, nor his house or male or female servant, nor his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to their neighbor (Exod 20:17). In other words, men can’t covet their neighbor’s wives because they are his neighbor’s property, which is why there’s no similar prohibition on wives coveting husbands. (p93)

Let us settle on this guiding principle: Insofar as any law reflects an improvement over the prevailing laws of the ANE, I submit that it reflects God acting toward his people. As barbaric as many of the OT laws are, most reflect an improvement, and sometimes a significant improvement, over the laws of Israel’s neighbors, and this surely is the result of the influential work of God’s Spirit. But insofar as any law falls short of the character of God revealed in Jesus’s cross-centered ministry, it reflects the point at which the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people resisted the Spirit and, therefore, the point at which God stooped to allow his people to act upon him. In my view, all portraits of God in the Bible should be assessed by this criterion. (p98)

In light of the material we’ve covered, it seems that when Yahweh said, “I want my people to dwell in the land of Canaan,” what Moses’s fallen and culturally conditioned ears heard was, “I want you to slaughter the Canaanites so my people can dwell in the land of Canaan.” For again, in Moses’s ANE worldview, acquiring someone else’s land and slaughtering the inhabitants of the land were two sides of the same coin. (p117)

One of the primary ways we battle cosmic foes is by refusing to battle human foes, choosing instead to love and bless them. (p125)

All ANE people believed their chief warrior god lived on top of a sacred mountain, and we find this belief reflected throughout the OT. (p127)

If the violence that biblical authors ascribe to God reflects their cultural conditioning, does this mean that God never actually judged people? If so, does this imply that we must interpret every story of God bringing judgments on people to be nothing but a reflection of the fallen and culturally conditioned imaginations of biblical authors? In short, have I erased God’s judgment with my interpretation? While there are some Bible scholars who accept this conclusion, I cannot. (p131)

Sometimes love leaves us with no other choice but to let go of a loved one and allow them to suffer the consequences of their own self-destructive decisions. And this is as true of God as it is of us. (p136)

It surely is not a coincidence that soon after the “myth of redemptive violence” was introduced into the church’s thinking about the atonement in the 11th century, there were five centuries of almost nonstop, church-sanctioned, violence. (p138)

Prior to the eleventh century, most Christians believed that Jesus died not to free us from the Father’s wrath, but to free us from Satan’s wrath. This is known as the Christus Victor view of the atonement, and in contrast to the penal substitutionary view, this view doesn’t implicate God in any violence. (p139)

God longs to mercifully protect people from the destructive consequences of their choices, like a hen protects her chicks. But when people are not willing to be protected, and when God sees that his mercy is simply enabling their sin, he has no choice but to “hand them over” to suffer these consequences. (p140)

God wisely used the evil of Satan’s loveless heart and inability to understand love to get him to orchestrate the destruction of his own evil kingdom. In other words, God used evil to vanquish evil! This was God’s Aikido strategy in action. (p145)

Contrary to what many people think, the Bible generally construes God’s punishment of sin as organic in nature. God doesn’t impose punishments on people. The destructive consequences of sin are built into the sin itself. And this is why God only needs to withdraw and let sin run its self-destructive course when he judges people. (p148)

Some of God’s judgments in the Bible did not unfold quite the way God intended, and the attack on Israel by Nebuchadnezzar is a case in point. Scripture tells us that this king and his army went beyond what Yahweh had intended. “I was only a little angry,” the Lord said, “but [the Babylonians] added to the calamity” (Zech 1:15). This sort of thing actually happens quite often in the Bible, and each instance makes it clear that God doesn’t micromanage the agents he uses to express his judgments. (p157)

The very narratives that attribute violent actions to God usually provide clues that this violence was actually carried out by other agents who were already bent on violence. (p160)

Like all other ANE people, the Israelites assumed it was an insult not to “credit” God with the violence that resulted from his judgment. And this is reflected in the fact that God and God’s agents are frequently made “the subject of the same destructive verbs” in the writings of many biblical authors. In other words, the cloudiness of their vision of God is reflected in their dual speech pattern of depicting God simultaneously doing and merely allowing the same violent actions. (p166)

When the violence that an author ascribes to God can’t be attributed to humans, it must be attributed to violent cosmic agents. (p179)

The Gospels uniformly attribute afflictions not to the mysterious providence of God, as so many do today, but to the corrupting influence of Satan and demons. (p181)

It is the narrative that is divinely inspired, regardless of what we think about the historical event it is based on. (p194)

[Re Genesis 6:12-13]  The same root word (sāhat) is used to describe the sinful condition of humans, the effect their sin was having on the earth, and the punishment for this sin, which indicates that all three are organically related. And this means that the Flood was an organic, not a judicial, divine judgment. (p196)

The Flood was not the result of something God did, but of something God stopped doing. (p200)

While the author of the Exodus narrative believes he is exalting Yahweh by attributing the violence involved in each plague to him, these passages provide further confirmation that Yahweh merely permitted a band of cosmic agents that were already bent on destruction to do what they wanted to do. (p214)

Moses later struck a rock with his staff out of anger, causing water to gush out of it in order to quench the thirst of the complaining Israelites (Num 20:11). Yahweh was so angry with Moses and Aaron over this outburst that he did not allow them to enter into the Promised Land (v. 12). Yet the supernaturally endowed staff worked, in spite of the fact that it was used in a sinful way! (p220)

[Re 2 Kings 1:10-12; Luke 7:51-56]  It seems that Jesus attributed violent supernatural feats like Elijah’s incinerating fire to “the way of the devil, rather than the way of God.” (p222)

At no point does the author show Samson seeking God’s will about the use of this supernatural power. Nor does the author ever depict Samson aspiring to use this power for the glory of God. Samson rather uses the divine power that was entrusted to him for personal gain and personal retaliation. (p229)

If we are to believe that the God who is fully revealed on Calvary went to the extreme of uttering this barbaric command [for Abraham to kill Isaac], we must assume that he had sufficient reason for doing so. And for me, the suggestion that God was merely trying to find out if Abraham trusted him doesn’t suffice. (p235)

I’m suggesting that Yahweh didn’t merely stoop to allow Abraham or others to believe he gave this command. In this one instance, the heavenly missionary stooped to actually give it! And Yahweh did this to have Abraham undergo a highly emotional paradigm shift in his view of God that removed any doubt that Yahweh might be like other ANE gods who required this ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, far from demanding this sacrifice, Abraham needed to learn that Yahweh is a God who makes sacrifice. (p236)

In Abraham’s pagan upbringing, sacrificing one’s firstborn child was the ultimate “work” a human could perform to prove their loyalty to a god or to court a god’s favor. So if there remained any suspicion that Yahweh was in any respect like other ANE gods, it would be about this. As a means of finally freeing Abraham from every remnant of this cursed view of divinity, God humbly stooped to temporarily take on the likeness of this cursed view. As we’ve seen throughout this book, God was once again stooping to meet his covenant partner where he was at in order to lead him to where he wanted him to be. (p240)

The test boils down to this: Will we trust God’s loving character even when God appears to be acting in ways that contradict this character? This is the question all followers of Jesus must face. (p243)

The cross only functions as a looking-glass that enables us to discern what else is going on behind the scenes of the OT’s violent divine portraits when we remain fully confident that Jesus’s cross-centered life and ministry fully reveal what God is like. (p246)

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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: Love trumps sovereignty

12 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Here are some quotations]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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