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Chemical & Idolatry: Reflections on a Jack Garratt Track and the Apocalypse of John

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that http://oceanadesigns.net/images/granite/tigerish/tigerish.jpg pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

— David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”

Late last year, I fell headlong into the music of Jack Garratt. It started with his EP, Remnants, and continued with the release of his first full album, Phase. There’s too much to say about my love for his music. Suffice to say I find it enchanting.

Meanwhile, in my teaching capacity as a pastor, I’ve been immersed in the study of Revelation. Rather than charting the Great Tribulation, or attempting to decipher which rogue agent on the world’s stage is the “antichrist,” or some such quixotic project (as Dispensationalists are want to do), I’ve been teaching John’s Apocalypse using the el Seroquel generico cruciform-centric hermeneutic that has been developed by such scholars as Richard Bauckham, Michael J. Gorman, N. T. Wright, and Greg Boyd. I’ve also been learning from works by both David DeSilva and Brian Blount, who read it through the lenses of postcolonial empire criticism and the experience of the African American church in America, respectively. And I also have to give props to Brian Zahnd’s excellent teaching ministry via the Word of Life podcast. He’s spent some extensive time in Revelation in recent months/years and it has been highly formative.

A second lens through which I’ve been reading Revelation is pedagogical. For this I blame the works of James K. A. Smith—particularly his book Desiring the Kingdom, of which he has recently published a layman’s version called You Are What You Love. Smith has succeeded in shifting my focus as a teacher from the dissemination of information to the inspiration of imaginations for the purpose of spiritual formation. (Not that I’ve mastered this; I’ve still got a lot of pedagogical baggage to overcome.)

One of the unexpected discoveries I’ve made thus far has been just how much of Revelation is pastorally concerned with spiritual formation. This should have been more obvious to me, considering that the book is so clearly addressed to seven churches from their bishop. However, I’ve spent so much of my Christian life surrounded by those who read this book as a roadmap to the “end times,” that the pastoral value of the book has rarely been presented as anything more than its ability to predict the future.

This brings me to “Chemical” by Jack Garratt.

Phase has become the soundtrack to my life for the past several months. I listen to it in the car and I listen to it while I write sermons. “Chemical” is one of the tracks that has fascinated me the most. What initially captured my attention was this:

And when you pray, he will not answer
Although you may hear voices on your mind
They won’t be kind

And when you pray, he will not answer
I know this for I ask him all the time
To reassure my mind  

Naturally, my pastoral ears perk up when prayer is mentioned. But this is clearly not a positive assessment. I’m almost ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what this track was about until I watched the video—and then the brilliance of this track blew my mind.

John of Patmos does something unparalleled in the New Testament. Instead of writing in the didactic style of the epistles, which Evangelical Modernists love, or the narrative style of the Gospels and Acts, he writes in the apocalyptic mode of a Hebrew prophet. He writes a book that takes many of the things Jesus preached in his famous “Olivet Discourse” and expands them into something that resembles a Greek drama more than a sermon. Relentlessly paraded before the eyes of our imaginations is a graphic and often grotesque onslaught of nightmarishly disturbing pictures. But as the cruciform-centric hermeneutic has taught us, these images are not meant to be taken as a journalistic, if phenomenological, account of future events. Instead, they are symbols of realities as true today as they were nineteen hundred years ago.

The Seer’s primary pastoral concern is the vision of ‘the good life’ toward which these fledgling churches (and by extension our churches today) were living. Every day, in a thousand different ways, they and we are tempted to place our trust in a story that is not the story of Jesus’s incarnation, self-giving death, and resurrection. The story in John’s day was the “Pax Romana”; the story for many of us today is the “American Dream.” The way John combats this lie is with the truth that empire is beastly and to follow its way is adultery for the people whom God has redeemed. John gives his congregations a new imagining of what ‘the good life’ is all about. Instead of conquest as violent domination, conquest becomes giving faithful witness to God’s grace in and through Jesus. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Messiah Jesus, is revealed as the little, slaughtered Lamb who yet stands and reigns from the very center of the God’s throne. True power is not located in the military might of Rome’s armies but in the self-giving love and wisdom of God demonstrated on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

“Revelation does not contain two competing Christologies and theologies—one of power and one of weakness—symbolized by the Lion and the Lamb, respectively. Rather, Revelation presents Christ as the Lion who reigns as the Lamb, not in spite of being the Lamb. […] ‘Lamb power’ is ‘God power,’ and ‘God power’ is ‘Lamb power.’ If these claims are untrue, then Jesus is not in any meaningful way a faithful witness.” [1]

The New Heaven and New Earth is a vision the world gone wrong finally made right. It is a reimagining of the vision of shalom ubiquitous among the writings of the Hebrew prophets—not just some tranquil “peace,” but the world as it should be. This is the vision the churches are to be proleptically embodying now in part as a foretaste of what’s to come.

But, like a fish in water, we unconsciously swim in the current of our surrounding culture and the desires of our hearts are molded and shaped by our environment. We are indoctrinated into believing that ‘the good life’ is found in the acquisition of power, wealth, and pleasure. We surrender our agency to the pursuit of these ends and we become instruments of the powers that be. This is what the psalmist is describing when he warns that placing our trust in human-made idols numbs us to the life-giving Spirit of the Creator God.

The idols of the nations are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear, and mouths but cannot breathe. And those who make idols are just like them, as are all who trust in them. — Psalm 135.15-18 NLT

Here’s how N. T. Wright puts it:

“You become what you worship: so, if you worship that which is not God, you become something other than the image-bearing human being you were meant and made to be. […] Worship idols—blind, deaf, lifeless things—and you become blind, deaf and lifeless yourself. Murder, magic, fornication and theft are all forms of blindness, deafness and deadliness, snatching at the quick fix for gain, power or pleasure while forfeiting another bit of genuine humanness.” [2]

“Chemical” is about the power we give our idols—with which they mercilessly destroy our humanity. The “love” idols have for us is the “love” of an abusive master. It is not a relationship of mutuality, interdependence, nor understanding; it is a relationship of utter domination. As David Foster Wallace put it, browse around this web-site “[they] will eat you alive.”

My love is overdone, selfish and domineering
It won’t sit up on the shelf
So don’t try to reason with my love
My love is powerful, ruthless and unforgiving
It won’t think beyond itself
So don’t try to reason with my love

My love is chemical, shallow and chauvinistic
It’s an arrogant display
So don’t try to reason with my love

The apostle Paul famously describes love in a letter to the Jesus-disciples of Corinth. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you probably know at least this much Scripture.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. — I Corinthians 13.4-8 NIV

Our idols aren’t patient or kind; they aren’t self-giving or forgiving. Our idols demand subservience at all costs—especially the loss of our humanity.

The pastoral mission of John of Patmos is to inspire the imaginations of God’s people—to place before them the vision of the Lamb Who Was Slain—the only One worthy to reign in heaven—because he is the embodiment of self-giving love. The Lamb moves us to worship not because of some ‘shock and awe’ display of brute force. No, the Lamb moves us to worship because the self-giving love of God smites our hearts with a power that could never be possessed by tanks or bombs. The image of God being restored in God’s redeemed people is the vocation of serving as priestly rulers on God’s behalf, reflecting God’s loving reign into the world God loves.

The questions with which John of Patmos confronts us are of allegiance and trajectory.

What vision of ‘the good life’ is forming the desires of our hearts—the shape and aim of our lives—through the everyday practices in which we often unconsciously participate?

__________________

  1. Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb Into the New Creation (Cascade Books, 2011), p.139.
  2. N. T. Wright, Revelation For Everyone (Westminster John Knox, 2011), p.92.
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Prophetic Detox: A Review of Morgan Guyton’s book How Jesus Saves the World From Us

Morgan Guyton is a husband, father, writer, Methodist campus minister serving the students of Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, and he also might be the inventor of the “rave sermon” [1]. I’ve been reading his blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice, for many years and a few years ago we took a run at starting an online collective of writers called “The Despised Ones”. Over all the years I’ve known Morgan, he has challenged and encouraged my thinking with both pastoral and prophetic wisdom. And he continues to do so with his first book, How Jesus Saves the World From Us.

In this book, Morgan takes on 12 of the most toxic aspects of Christianity in the U.S., which include, but aren’t limited to: performance, biblicism, separatism, judgment, and hierarchical power. While Morgan clearly approaches these subjects from firmly within the “progressive” wing of Christianity in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised at just what an equal opportunity offender he was. There’s no doubt in my mind some of Morgan’s criticisms will not be well-received by his own progressive comrades.

For example, I remember when we were co-leading “The Despised Ones,” it was understood that anyone and everyone was welcome. That’s progressive Christianity 101, after all! Well, that didn’t last long. Even progressives have their own “unclean” communities: “abusers” and “unsafe” persons, are just a couple examples. So, quickly the discussion in our group shifted from how inclusive we were of anyone and everyone, to how there was no hope of redemption for “oppressors.” And few recognized the irony. That’s why I thought it was wonderful to read this passage in Morgan’s book:

“Jesus’ meal with Zacchaeus committed the cardinal sin of today’s progressive activist culture: centering the oppressor. Did Jesus betray everyone who had been oppressed by Zacchaeus by eating dinner with him? What would Twitter say? […]

The goal of Jesus’ solidarity with all sinners and victims of their sin is to dismantle our divisions so that all humanity can be reconciled together.” (p.116-117)

This will definitely offend Morgan’s progressive friends who will no doubt accuse him of revictimizing them. But Morgan demonstrates that he’s not interested in toeing any theological camp’s “party line.” He’s perfectly willing to call attention to the hypocrisy of both the Right and the Left! For this courage, I applaud him.

But that certainly doesn’t mean Morgan is unwilling to boldly confront the ubiquitous abuses of the conservative, Fundamentalist Right in the U.S.. He most assuredly does that. However, unlike other progressive Christian authors who have practically made this style of writing into its own genre, I think Morgan critiques this favored target with more pastoral sensitivity and personal reflection than usual. Morgan is nothing if not first self-critical. He locates himself directly within the demographic most often responsible for abuses of power, racial insensitivity, denigration of women, etc. Part of Morgan’s genius is using his own highly reflective journey as a guide for others who share his social location. He doesn’t stand outside and hurl stones at white, cis-gendered, straight males—he stands within that space and calls attention to his own failings and how he’s seen God’s grace transform him. This might actually be the only Christ-like way to challenge people who are like you in so many ways, but nevertheless hold a significantly divergent worldview. Two of my favorite chapters were “Worship Not Performance” and “Poetry Not Math.”

Redeeming Justification

In “Worship Not Performance,” Morgan reframes the essential human problem from guilt to self-consciousness. I think this is brilliant. Today, in the U.S., when I hear sermons or read writing that calls attention to God’s power to forgive the guilty, I hear chirping crickets. I’m not sure I ever felt “guilty” for my sins, and that certainly wasn’t what turned my heart toward God. Instead, I was chiefly aware of my alienation from God, from others, and even from myself. I felt like I was wearing a mask all the time, trying to live up to a mysterious and often shifting set of expectations. And I always felt like there was a gap between who I knew I was and who I was for other people. Self-consciousness is a better description of that experience than “guilt.”

White Westerners like “guilt” as a descriptor of sin because they like to conceptualize God as a judge who wants law and order above all. When you’re on top of the world in terms of political power and wealth, it’s to your benefit to conceptualize God as a “law and order” God. It keeps the riff-raff in check. But, if, as Morgan puts it, we have been “transformed from curious delightful worshippers into anxious, self-obsessed performers,” (p.8) then everyone on any spectrum of political power or wealth is implicated. In fact, the most “anxious” and “self-obsessed” people might be those who “break commandments” the least. Those who are most “anxious” and “self-obsessed” might even be those who are very religious and very wealthy. Such a reframe is not advantageous to the rich and powerful. It necessarily levels the sin playing field. And that’s precisely why I think it’s such a brilliant and biblical reconceptualization. Here’s a little taste to whet your appetite:

“We are not saved from God’s disapproval. We are saved from the self-isolation of believing the serpent’s lie and hiding in the bushes from God. Faith isn’t the performance that passes God’s test to earn us a ticket to heaven; it’s the abolition of performance that liberates us from the hell of self-justification and restores us to a life of authentic worship.” (p.17)

Another reason I love this chapter so much, is that it rescues the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” from those who peddle it as a replacement for sanctification. There is a wealthy and politically powerful contingent of American Christians who love, love, love them some “justification by grace through faith” because it promises to free them from the “legalism” of “works.” What then happens is, “the Gospel” is equated with a message that we “don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation,” and everyone who already didn’t want to “do anything” erupts in joy. But Morgan’s reframe on this cherished Protestant doctrine actually ups the ante. There is nothing more challenging than to daily resist the pressure to self-justify and to perform for the expectations of others, or even ourselves. This take on justification by grace through faith actually requires me to daily relinquish my own nagging need for status, recognition, and value to God as a “work” that is far more strenuous than following some list of “dos and don’ts”. This reframe of justification makes sanctification essential rather than dismissing it as an optional addition to the Christian life. And that’s a message Christians in the U.S. desperately need to hear.

Deepening Hermeneutics

In “Poetry Not Math,” Morgan takes aim at toxic hermeneutics in a beautifully-brief yet powerfully-poignant chapter. So much of my own journey of faith has included grappling with biblical interpretation. I was incredibly impressed by how succinctly Morgan captured concepts it has taken me over a decade to work through thoughtfully. (Where was this book when I was 17?!)

By describing our relationship to biblical interpretation as more akin to one with poetry than one with math, Morgan takes the legs out from underneath those who would accuse him of undervaluing the Bible. Poetry is not “less valuable” than math. In fact, viewed one way, poetry may be more valuable than math, since math has very defined limits, while poetry is potentially limitless. Also, by comparing our interpretation of Scripture to interpretation of poetry, Morgan sneakily teaches a post-colonial and post-modern hermeneutic. Who we are has as much to do with our interpretations of the Bible as the text itself. Again, this is a message the church in the U.S. desperately needs to hear.

For far too long, Fundamentalists in particular, but also many, if not most, conservative evangelicals, have put forth a conception of Scripture that is little more than a facade behind which they hide their own bids for wealth and political power. The certainty with which they’ve spoken about what is an “abomination” to God and the certainty with which they’ve spoken about the divine purpose of geo-political events could only be supported by a “mathematical” conception of Scripture. To admit that hermeneutics is more of an art than a science would be to admit that they could be wrong, and that just wouldn’t be good for fundraising nor fear-mongering. And that’s why this chapter is so necessary. Here’s another sample:

“Poetry has a unique truth about it. Arguments that you might lose in logic can be won through poetry. It does justice to realities that cannot be captured by scientific explanation. It gets under your skin in a way that strictly rational communication cannot. Most importantly, good poetry is never finished being interpreted. No one can say the final word on a good poem, because its meaning defies any conclusive explanation.” (p.70)

As a pastor in a highly diverse congregation, I am routinely faced with questions about biblical interpretation from every possible starting point. Morgan’s take on biblical interpretation is one that will aid me immensely as I lead both Fundamentalists and progressives toward a more faithful immersion in the biblical narrative.

Conclusion

How Jesus Saves the World from Us is a gift to the church. In particular, it is a gift to those who, like Morgan, are open to God’s leading of them on a journey of exploration, adventure, and delight. This book is not for those who are so confident in their own views that they do not want to have them challenged. Reviews from those folks have already been predictably defensive. Rather, this book is for those who are humble or want to be humble. This book is for those who want to peer into the life of a Christian writer in the U.S. as he processes with depth and wisdom several of the most challenging subjects of the Christian life. As for me, I’ll be revisiting and recommending this book often. And I’m tremendously grateful to Morgan for writing it.

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1. Jonathan Martin, who wrote the forward to How Jesus Saves the World from Us was the preacher behind whose sermon Morgan performed his modified “progressive trance” music.

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Palm Sunday: Two “Triumphs”

Palm Sunday is the occasion on the Christian calendar when we commemorate Jesus’s “triumphal entry” in Jerusalem. The concept of a triumph requires some explanation because it’s foreign to modern Americans.

A triumph was a ceremonial and celebratory procession through the streets of a city. When the Romans wanted to celebrate their latest conquest, they celebrated with a triumph. In fact, in 70AD the Roman general Titus destroyed the very city into which Jesus entered that first Palm Sunday. Titus’s triumph, with the spoils from the Jerusalem Temple, is depicted on a monument which remains to this day in Rome.

Roman_Triumph_Jesus_TriumphThat first Palm Sunday, Jesus wasn’t the only person leading a procession into Jerusalem. There was a second. From the opposite side of the city, Pontius Pilate was entering Jerusalem from his home in Caesarea. His procession was in the Roman style—complete with a terrifying display of Rome’s military might. Pilate was perched atop a majestic stallion with all the trappings of Roman wealth and prestige. His procession was a proclamation of his and Rome’s superiority. The message was directed to the pilgrims who had gathered in the city from near and far for the Passover festivities. “Don’t let things get out of control. Or these soldiers you see here, they will cut you down!” (1)

But Jesus’s “triumph” was of an altogether different kind. His victory would not be won by military might. His status would not secured by wealth or prestige. And he isn’t interested in asserting his superiority. By direct contrast, Jesus enters Jerusalem in humility, on a donkey.

Mark’s Gospel makes it clear Jesus deliberately staged his “triumphal entry” to fulfill the prophesy of Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (9.9)

Jesus sent his disciples to bring him a donkey colt for him to ride. Jesus staged his procession as a prophetic lampoon of Roman imperial pomp and circumstance. He meant it to expose the pretensions that exalt themselves.

York.DonkeysAndKings.89408When my children were a little smaller than they are now, I used to read them stories from this book called Donkeys and Kings by Tripp York. He tells eight Bible stories from the perspectives of the animals in the stories. But the star of the book is the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. In this story, the donkey Jesus rode into the city, George, finds himself stabled with the royal horses of the Caesar’s court. And they are not happy at all at the ruckus his rider has caused. In fact, they’re outraged at his presumptuousness to be in a procession at all. Here’s what the arrogant royal stallion, named Constantine, says to George, the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem:

“…your kind does not get to make history. History is made by the strong, the powerful—those in charge. It si made by kings, Caesars, warriors, government officials, nobility, and stallions. It is not made by the weak, the lowly, those filled with resentment for their small and insignificant place in life. It is not made by creatures like you or the one you gave a ride into the city.” (2)

Today we celebrate Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem because it reveals to us an altogether different way of being-in-the-world from the arrogance and violence of empires.

In Luke’s account, when Jesus sees the city of Jerusalem he foresees its destruction in 70 AD and he weeps over the city. He said,

“Would that you, Jerusalem, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Lk. 19.42 ESV)

May we not make the same mistake. May we see the way of Jesus and his way of peace!

Responsive Reading:

One: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Today we celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of our King, Jesus!

All: Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

One: Humble, riding on a donkey, King Jesus entered the city as the crowds prepared the way for his victorious arrival.

All: Rejoice! Rejoice! The triumphant King has come!

One: On the journey to liberation from sin, we celebrate Christ’s victory, we sorrowfully contemplate his sacrifice, and we revel in his resurrection.

All: We remember the long road to freedom that our ancestors traveled, filled with triumphs, death, and new life.

One: Ride on, King Jesus! Ride on, conquering King!

All: Jesus came “to bring Good News to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; and to set the oppressed free.” (Lk. 4.18)

One: With excitement and joy we welcome you into our lives. With loud shouts of hosanna we joy you on your march toward liberation, justice, and love for all people.

All: Rejoice! Rejoice! The triumphant King has come! (3)

Prayer:

We praise you, O God,
For your redemption of the world through Jesus Christ.
Today he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph
and was proclaimed Messiah and King,
by those who spread garments and branches along his way.
Let these branches be signs of his victory,
and grant that we who carry them
may follow him in the way of the Cross,
that, dying and rising with him, we may enter into your Kingdom;
Through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
Amen. (4)

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  1. Marcus Borg, “Holy Week: Two Different Meanings” [http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/07/holy-week-two-different-meanings]
  2. Tripp York, Donkeys and Kings: And Other “Tails” of the Bible, p. 43 [http://astore.amazon.com/theolograffi-20/detail/1606089404]
  3. Adapted from “Triumphant Entry (Palm Sunday)” Litany in African American Heritage Hymnal,
    p.66.
  4. Adapted from the Book of Common Worship, “Palm Sunday”.
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Treasures in the Attic: A Brief Review of Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd

When Old Wineskins are New Again

In Mark 2.22, Jesus said,

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.

I’m no wine aficionado, but I think it’s common knowledge that wine gets better with age. Maybe there is something about the aging process that brings out the wine’s flavor and texture. But Jesus is clearly doing a new thing among the people in Judea. He teaches with authority, unlike the scribes and Pharisees. He takes authority over demons, heals people of their diseases, and even commands the wind and waves. Jesus welcomes sinners to his table and forgives people of their sins. This is “new wine” indeed! So, people need renewed thinking to understand what God is doing in and through Jesus. They need new “wineskins.”

But, what if you’re not a first-century Judean witnessing the ministry of Jesus firsthand? What if you’re a twenty-first century Westerner who has been immersed in an Americanized form of Christianity that looks very little like the faith of Jesus. Well, in that event, the “old” wineskins of an ancient faith might feel quite “new” to you. And, in fact, many Christians today are discovering just that. They are discovering for the first time what Christianity has been for hundreds of years and to them it tastes as rich as aged wine.

In Water to Wine, pastor Zahnd tells “some of [his] story” around cultivating a richer Christian faith. But this journey hasn’t let Zahnd to some novel form of Christianity. No, it has led Zahnd to recover much of what has characterized Christian faith since the time of the early church. Water to Wine is about an American evangelical pastor who had been successful at being an American evangelical, but not at being a faithful Christian. The beauty and power of Water to Wine is seeing snapshots of Zahnd rediscovering Christianity like a man who finds priceless treasures in his own attic.

One way of reading Water to Wine is to see in it a prophetic indictment of Americanized Christianity. Another way is to read it as an invitation into a journey that Zahnd and many others have embarked upon. It’s a journey for those Christians who have grown dissatisfied with grape juice Christianity, are craving “new wine,” and are discovering it in “old wineskins.”

Potter’s Wheel Prayer

One of the most profound transitions Zahnd has underwent is out of consumer Christianity and into the Spiritual Formation movement made popular by authors and thinkers like Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson. In “Jerusalem Bells,” Zahnd recounts how God began to teach him how, after being a pastor for several decades, to finally pray well. It was similar to a movement I’ve described as going from wielding prayer like a tool, to viewing prayer as a potter’s wheel on which one is being formed. At first, Zahnd is annoyed by the Muslim call to prayer he hears in Middle Eastern countries in which he’s led pilgrims. But God’s Spirit uses this occasion of discomfort to lead Zahnd into the ancient practice of formative prayer. This was one of my favorite sections of the book. Like Zahnd, formative prayer has breathed new life into my Christian faith. It has caused me to rely more on God and to situate myself in the global and historic body of Christ. I love what Zahnd says here,

“If we think of prayer as ‘just talking to God’ and that it consists mostly in asking God to do this or that, then we don’t need to be given prayers to pray. Just tell God what we want. But if prayer is spiritual formation and not God-management, then we cannot depend on our self to pray properly. If we trust our self to pray, we just end up recycling our own issues—mostly anger and anxiety—without experiencing any transformation. We pray in circles. We pray and stay put. We pray prayers that begin and end in our own little self. When it comes to spiritual formation, we are what we pray. Without wise input that comes from outside ourselves, we will never change. We will just keep praying what we already are. A selfish person prays selfish prayers. An angry person prays angry prayers. A greedy person prays greedy prayers. A manipulative person prays manipulative prayers. Nothing changes. We make no progress. But it’s worse than that. Not only do we not make progress, we actually harden our heart. To consistently pray in a wrong way reinforces a wrong spiritual formation.” (p.75)

Due to this insight, Zahnd has now made teaching Jesus-disciples how to be properly formed in prayer a pillar of his ministry. He regularly teaches a “prayer school” at Word of Life, the church he leads as pastor and he says it’s the best thing he does as a pastor. Even though he staunchly refuses to bottle up his teaching on prayer and sell it or give it away in video form online, he nevertheless includes a central component of his prayer insight in Water to Wine. “Jerusalem Bells” concludes with a morning liturgy of prayer Zahnd himself uses and teaches others to use. It’s a wonderful collection of Psalms, prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, passages of Scripture, and prayers from a wide variety of Christian traditions. When one prays this liturgy, she can be assured she is being properly formed.

A Journey into Maturity

Overall, Water to Wine is about growing up in the faith. It’s about being weaned off milk and learning to eat meat. Many American Christians have been taught that milk is all there is, or that milk is actually the stuff of maturity. But Zahnd exposes the immaturity of consumeristic, militaristic, tribalist, dualistic, and secular Christianity. And instead of merely replacing them with an equal and opposite list of -isms, Zahnd invites readers into an experiential practice of discipleship that is rooted in the global and historic church. Zahnd’s gift is helping readers taste the richness of a Christianity that’s been aged to maturity through his eyes of wonder and joy as he discovers it anew. His pastoral gift comes through as he invites us to join him on his journey.

This is a wonderful and timely little book that I would recommend to just about anyone. For many it will rekindle a faith that has laid dormant. For others it will kick open the doors to new rooms of Christianity that haven’t yet been explored. For others still, this may be the best introduction to Christianity they’ve ever read. For all who read it, it offers a fascinating glimpse at the spirituality of an American Christianity that is discovering treasures in the attic of the church.

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PDF available at Academia.edu

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Evil and the God Who is Love: A Review of The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord

When Blueprints Fail

In 15 years of full-time Christian ministry, I had not presided over a funeral service until yesterday. The funeral was for a 24 year old man who was brutally stabbed to death a few days before Christmas by a complete stranger.

He died mere hours before he was due to enter an expensive in-patient rehab program, to which he’d miraculously gained admission, after years of battling alcoholism. And from what I can gather from the police report given to the family, the young man’s murderer was an L.A. school teacher.

The sheer absurdity and brutality of his murder continues to deeply sadden and confound me. How could something like this have even happened?

The day before the funeral, I met with and listened to the victim’s mother as she told me just how completely devastating his death has been for her. She is a single mother of three and he was her oldest son. While I was listening and praying with her, she asked me a critical question that should give any sincere minister pause. She asked, “Do you think he was destined to die this way or do you think it was just bad luck?”

How would you have answered her?

As I imagine how pastors and ministers all over the United States would engage with that question, I’m deeply concerned that many are shamefully ill-equipped. They’ve been sold a model of divine providence that is not only biblical unfounded but also ethically bankrupt. Far too many well-meaning Christian ministers in the United States today would actually tell this grieving mother it was God’s will that her son die the way he did. Others, aware of how cruel such a statement would be, would attempt to find some creative way to avoid answering her directly, while secretly believing her son was predestined to be murdered.

John Piper, a famous Calvinist pastor revered by thousands of American Christians, was once asked his thoughts on the brutal violence depicted in the Hebrew Bible—particular the killing of women and children noncombatants in holy wars. His response was chilling and grotesque:

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”

Yes, pastor Piper claims that when someone dies because they’ve been murdered (shot to death, for example), that is necessarily God’s will because, well, “God governs.”

Some will write Piper’s statement off as an extreme example. But, I’m afraid the reality is, this type of theological determinism is far more common than many American Christians are either aware of or willing to admit. This type of “blueprint theology,” the conception of divine providence as meticulous omni-causality, has grown in popularity due to the ministries of Neo-Puritans like John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll. And, if the next generation of ministers are trained with this view, the pastoral ramifications are potentially disastrous.

A Timely Book from a Well-qualified Thinker

It’s tragedies like the murder of this 24 year old man that make Dr. Thomas Jay Oord’s latest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (hereafter, ULG), so important and timely. Dr. Oord is one of the most well-known and prolific American theologians in the Wesleyan tradition. He has written and contributed to over twenty books on philosophy, theology, science, and more. He has served in academic moderator roles and consulted for groups including the American Academy of Religion (AAR), Biologos, and the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Tom since 2007, when we met at a conference he co-directed in Quincy, MA (just outside of Boston) called the “Open Theology and Science” conference. I was a bright-eyed seminary student excited to meet the authors of the ground-breaking 1994 book The Openness of God. Since then, I was honored to co-direct an Open theology conference with Tom that focused on the implications of Open theology for the church in 2013.

I haven’t always agreed with all his views, but Tom has consistently challenged and inspired my thinking over the years and I am very grateful for his scholarship and friendship.

Seeking a Better Solution to the Problem of Evil

ULG opens with several accounts of events Oord calls “genuine evil.”

Oord recounts the story of a woman who was killed when a stone was flung from a truck, came through the windshield of her car, and killed her instantly. He also tells the story of a Congolese woman who was raped and brutalized by militiamen who also killed her husband and children in front of her.

One of these chilling stories hit particularly close to home for me. In 2013, I lived in West Cambridge and saw the police in paramilitary uniforms and armored personnel units rolling through Watertown during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. It terrified my wife and children. We also personally knew runners who missed being in the blast radius of the bombings by minutes, if not seconds.

Oord uses these chilling accounts to establish the reality of evil, and the urgency of a more plausible solution to the problem of evil. As an Open and Relational theologian, he’s already part of a tradition of thought that has made significant progress in this regard. The “Free Will Defense,” as it’s sometimes called, provides a not insignificant amount of relief. However, Oord contends it remains nevertheless insufficient. In this book, he will propose a more radical solution—one that will make many uncomfortable, but will provide much needed comfort to others.

The Science of Randomness and Free Will

One of the best features of ULG is it’s integration of science, philosophy, theology and pastoral sensibilities. When I was a seminary student in Boston, I learned an approach to urban ministry that differs from the traditional approach taught in many evangelical seminaries. Instead of viewing the city as a machine, like a toaster, that can be disassembled and reassembled without harm, the city is conceptualized as an organic, “living system” more like a cat. While a toaster may be able to be repaired with conventional mechanical tools, a cat must be operated on by a surgeon using delicate instruments, because the subject is alive.

What this approach did for me was provided a framework for understanding the complexities of the city. Linear, cause-and-effect approaches to urban ministry are relics of a bygone era. We now know that the world is far more complex than we previously thought.

This is where Oord’s thinking future-proofs Open and Relational theology. It combines the latest in philosophy and science on the subjects of randomness and indeterminacy. While Newtonian physics was easily compatible with “blueprint theology,” it falls flat when confronted with the “world of true becoming” that has been discovered by quantum physics.

Oord has worked with some of the world’s leading thinkers in this area, including Sir Dr. John Polkinghorne, who is perhaps the most prolific and profound thinker on science and faith alive today.

Oord argues that randomness is real. Indeterminacy is not a lack of sufficient data, but an actual aspect of reality. This is an important part of Open and Relational theology. In this broad category of theologies, the world is conceptualized not a static place, but a dynamic one. Dr. Polkinghorne calls it a “world of true becoming.”

If this is the case, as Oord argues, then the way is opened for genuine agency—“free will.” The conception of free will Oord, as an Open and Relational theologian, proposes is called “Libertarian.” It contrasts with “Compatibilist” free will. Libertarian free will is the power of choosing agents to deliberate between and actualize real options which emerge in a world populate by moral, rational, and sentient beings. Compatibilist free will does not recognize the power of contrary choice, that options are legitimately open to choosing agents other than what they in fact actualize. As he succinctly writes, “A free being is an agent who chooses among options.”

In ULG, Oord argues that the world is made up of both choices and constraints on our freedom. Agents are not free to choose anything they can imagine, but agents are free to choose between the available options. This conception of free will, and only this one, provides the necessary framework for moral and ethical outcomes. Once again pinpoint precise in his language, he writes, “We cannot be morally responsible unless we are freely response-able.”

This is a cornerstone of Ood’s argument. Unless we understand moral responsibility, we will misunderstand God’s providence.

Problematizing Divine Permission

When God is brought into the puzzle of evil, often this formula is used to make providence problematic: if evil is real, either God is not all-loving or God is not all-powerful. Classical theism has snubbed its nose at this problem in one way or another and continued to assert both the omni-benevolence and omnipotence of God. Some simply say that evil is necessary for God’s goodness and power to be displayed. This would be John Piper’s answer. Evil is as much under the control of God as goodness. God decrees evil. Problem solved, he thinks. Others construct appeals to mystery. Oord cites the Bible verse commonly quoted out of context, “God’s ways are not our ways.”

But Oord, like many others, is unsatisfied with either approach.

Oord is perhaps just as unsatisfied with the language of divine “permission.” Some theologies, in an attempt to salvage God’s omni-benevolence, have proposed that God is not responsible for evil because creaturely agents have free will. God merely “permits” evil to exist. But one of Oord’s main goals in this book is to show that even this approach is ethically dubious and problematic. He sets out to problematize even the “permissive” approach to providence to which many in his own Open and Relational camp ascribe. He writes,

“Careful readers may have also noticed I have often talked about God failing to prevent evil. Some people think they solve the problem by simply saying God gives freedom and agency to creatures, and, therefore, God does not cause evil. Creatures effect evil, they say, so God should not be blamed.

I also believe God is not the primary cause of evil. But to solve the problem of evil, we must say more than this. After all, a perfectly loving individual would do whatever possible to prevent—not just fail to cause—genuine evil. A person does not have to cause evil directly to be morally culpable for failing to prevent it.”

By holding the feet of those who use “permission” language to the fire, Oord has upped the ante. This sets a much higher standard of moral righteousness on our model of providence. This was what actually made the book exciting for this reader.

How will Oord solve the problem?

The Landscape of Providence

Every attempt to “solve” the problem of evil entails an implicit model of providence. In ULG, Oord makes explicit his model of providence in his proposal for a solution to the problem of evil. But, before he does that, he provides readers with a very helpful overview of the theological landscape. “Models of Providence” is perhaps the most helpful chapter in all of ULG.

Besides being a gifted philosopher and teacher, Dr. Oord is also a very talented photographer.

From surveying his work over many years, it appears that one of his favorite things to capture is a beaming sunset over an beautifully textured landscape. He goes on long hikes into deserts and mountains to compose the perfect shot at the perfect moment. Dr. Oord’s photographic instincts mirror his theological proposal in ULG in many ways. In a timely and winsome way, he has composed a snapshot of providence that is a shining ray of light in the very textured landscape of theologies of divine providence. Chapter four frames the terrain in a way that allows Oord to distinguish his model from its closest comrades. On one end of the landscape are the rocky mountains of omnicausality. They are jagged, treacherous, and inhospitable for human residence. Besides the obvious way this model calls into question the goodness of God since it makes God the “ultimate cause over every rape, torture, disease and terrorist attack,”

Oord also points out its logical inconsistency. He writes, “…it makes no sense to say that God totally causes something and that creatures also cause it.”

On the other side of the frame are the Weeping Willow trees of appeals to mystery. Appeals to mystery are comparable to Weeping Willows because they appear sad and are frail. I loved what Oord said about this model: “…we should be wary of worshipping the entirely inscrutable God because we never know who the devil he may be!”

Most models of providence occupy the center of the frame. But even toward the center of the shot, there is much texture. The closest comrade to Oord’s proposal is the one employed by most Open theists. It is the model of divine providence Oord calls “God is voluntarily self-limited.”

Oord helpfully summarizes the pros and cons of this model:

“In sum, I find the model of providence as voluntarily self-limited attractive in many ways. I like that it says love motivates God to give freedom/agency to others and to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe. But I can’t embrace the model fully because its view of voluntary divine self-limitation leads to a major problem: If God has the ability not to give freedom/agency or not to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe, God should sometimes use those abilities, in the name of love, to prevent genuine evil. A loving God would become un-self-limited, if God were able, in order to stop evil. Claiming that a God capable of control nevertheless permits evil leaves crucial questions unanswered.”

This criticism of the voluntary divine self-limitation view is powerfully damning. How can one claim that God is love, has the ability to prevent evil if God so chose, and yet has not prevented such horrifying evil as have been described? As Oord indicates, this model leaves too many people scratching their heads asking, “what kind of love is that?”

A Friendly, Open Debate

One proponent of the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is a friend of Oord’s. He and Oord have collaborated on a number of projects, including the OPEN 2013 theology conference at which Oord and I were co-directors. Dr. John Sanders was a fellow keynote speaker with Oord (along with Greg Boyd) at that conference, and has was also a participant in the 2007 Open Theology and Science conference where I first met both of them. Dr. Sanders is one of the few Open theists who have written a full-length monograph on Open theology. His is entitled The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, and it’s one of the most comprehensive.

Both Sanders and Oord are committed to a conception of God that is centered around God’s dynamic relational love for the world. Both Sanders and Oord also agree that the future is partly ‘open,’ meaning partly made up of possibilities/contingencies that are yet to be actualized. Both Sanders and Oord agree that God’s nature is love and that Jesus reveals God fully. However, as Oord shows in chapter six, “Does Love Come First?”, Sanders and he differ on the logical priority of God’s nature of love and God’s sovereign will.

“Up to this point in my summary of Sanders’s version of open and relational theology, I completely agree with him. I might articulate some points slightly differently, but we both endorse main themes of open and relational theology. We agree on so much!

I disagree, however, with Sanders’s view of how God’s love and power relate. I also disagree when Sanders says God allows or permits genuine evil. These disagreements matter when it comes to thinking about how God acts providentially in a world of randomness and evil.”

Oord’s critique of Sanders’s view is weighty. He follows Sanders’s logic to its end and arrives at the conclusion Sanders excludes. Both Oord and Sanders agree that God’s nature of love is the kind of love that does not coerce. As Sanders puts it, “love does not force its own way on the beloved.”

Oord agrees. But Oord questions why Sanders is unwilling to follow his own logic to its end. If God’s nature is love, and love does not “force its own way on the beloved,” then how can Sanders conclude that God sometimes intervenes to control creatures against their will? Would this not be an action precluded by the constraints of God’s nature? Here’s how Oord puts it:

“If God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, however, it makes little sense to say ‘sovereign freedom’ allows God to create in an unloving way. It makes little sense, for instance, to say that God voluntarily decided against ‘exercising meticulous providence.’ 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.

To put it in question form using Sander’s [sic] own language, why should we think  a loving God who ‘does not force the beloved’ is truly free ‘to tightly control every event that happens’? Why should we think a loving God is free to control others entirely, even if God never exercised that freedom? If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved.”

Oord has a strong point. What value has it to say God is love, and that love is noncoercive, if we also say that God can be coercive any time God wants? The proposition that “God is love” is stripped of all meaningfulness. What kind of “love” would that be?

God’s Kenotic Essence

While the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is the closest to Oord’s own, he nevertheless makes it clear where the two differ. In his model, God’s nature is in fact the constraint on God’s power and will. God is essentially kenotic. So, understandably Oord calls his model of providence “Essential Kenosis.”

While those already familiar with kenosis may recognize it as a subject confined to christology, the history of theological exploration does not bear that out. For example, in his book The Paradox of a Suffering God,

African theologian Amuluche Gregory Nnamani highlights the development of kenotic theology throughout church history. In particular, Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, American philosopher Geddes MacGregor, Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and even German theologian Jürgen Moltmann espoused forms of the “essential kenosis” view. Each affirm Oord’s central thesis, that God’s nature is “uncontrolling” (i.e. kenotic) love, and that God cannot deny God’s own kenotic essence.

However, Oord does offer a unique formulation of this view and makes it far more accessible to the layperson. Oord uses common parlance to explain esoteric theological concepts better than most theologians. For example, he writes,

“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.”

What’s important to note about the logic of Oord’s proposal is that God’s nature of love constrains what God is capable of doing. This is where those with leanings toward classical theism will begin to feel very uncomfortable. They will want God to be unlimited, even by God’s own nature. But Oord’s case is sound biblically and logically.

What the Bible Says God Can’t Do

It may come as a shock to classical theists, but it’s true that Scripture says God’s actions are constrained by God’s nature. Scripture says that God cannot lie because God’s nature is truth (Numbers 23.19; Hebrews 6.18; John 1.14, 14.6, 17.17). Scripture also says that God cannot be capricious because God’s nature is faithful (I Samuel 15.29; Psalm 89.35). Scripture also says that God cannot change like shifting shadows because God is light (James 1.17; I John 1.5). What all these constrains imply is what Oord makes explicit: “God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will.”

In fact, as Oord makes explicit, Open theism, like all Christian theology, looks to Jesus as the fullest revelation of God’s character and nature. Oord quotes the late Clark Pinnock, whose Open and Relational theology was explicitly Christ-centered and Cross-centered.

“ ‘God’s true power is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ,’ says Pinnock. ‘In this act of self-sacrificing, God deploys power in the mode of servanthood, overcoming enemies not by annihilating them but by loving them.’ This means that ‘the power of love is the power that wills genuine relationships.’ and this view ‘is certainly not a diminished or inferior view of power.’ ”

Oord’s proposal follows in the tradition of postconservative evangelical theologians like Pinnock in allowing Scripture to challenge the models of providence that have been constructed by classical theism. Jesus breaks these models wide open.

“…theologians today use kenosis primarily to describe how Jesus reveals God’s nature. Instead of imagining how God may have relinquished attributes when becoming incarnate, many now think Jesus’ kenosis tells us who God is and how God acts.”

And, once again, Oord points to the cross of Jesus as God’s supreme self-disclosure in history:

“We especially see God’s noncoercive power revealed in the cross of Christ, which suggests that God’s power is cruciform…”

Oord’s model of providence is cruciform-centric, and that makes Oord’s model both thoroughly biblical and thoroughly Christian.

The Distance from Process

Some of Oord’s more well-read and studied readers will wonder what, if anything, separates Oord’s “Essential Kenosis” view from Process theology, which is adamantly rejected by conservative evangelicals who believe it limits God to an unbiblical extent. Oord answers this concern in a very brief statement—perhaps too brief.

“The other view standing near essential kenosis says external forces or worlds essentially limit God. This view gives the impression that outside actors and powers not of God’s making hinder divine power. Or it says God is subject to laws of nature, imposed on God from without. God is caught in the clutches of exterior authorities and dominions, and these superpowers restrict sovereignty.

This view seems to describe God as a helpless victim to external realities. Some criticize this view as presenting a ‘finite God’ because outside forces or imposed laws curb divine activity. While I think we have good reasons to think God’s power is limited in certain respects, this view places God under foreign authority. This God is too small.

Essential kenosis stands between these two views. It rejects both voluntary self-limitation of God and the view that external powers, gods, worlds or laws limit God. Essential kenosis says limitations to divine freedom derive from God’s nature of love.”

Conservative evangelical readers who find Process theology repulsive may not find Oord’s disclaimer sufficient. They may demand more distance. However, I think Oord does sufficiently detail the specific distinction between his view and Process: from where derives the limitations on divine sovereignty. Process says the laws of nature external to God; Essential kenosis says from God’s own nature.

Those Pesky Miracles

All of this talk of constraints on the sovereign will of God and limitations on God’s ability to intervene in the world naturally lead to the question that will be stirring in the minds of any knowledgable reader by this point: What about miracles?

Traditionally, miracles have been conceptualized as divine “intervention” in the world. In fact, some have defined a miracle as the violation of the laws of nature by God. But Oord’s model of providence will not allow such definitions. But neither are such definitions logically necessary or biblically warranted. Theologians like N. T. Wright constantly remind us that the distinction between what is called the “natural” world and the “supernatural” is an artificial divide invented during the so-called Enlightenment. Scriptural theology knows no such distinction. In fact, Wright and others would argue that such a distinction is a heresy in the same vein as Gnosticism. It is dualistic, and runs the risk of denying the goodness of creation or the reality of the Incarnation. However, Oord does not heavily lean on this kind of argumentation. Instead, he chooses to argue positively for the cooperative nature of miracles by pointing out that all the miracles detailed in the Bible involved willing agents who cooperated with God. Even the miracle of the Incarnation famously involves the “yes” of Mary to God’s plan.

In chapter eight, “Miracles and God’s Providence,” Oord works hard to assuage readers’ fears that he has cut miracles out of his model of providence. He clearly hasn’t. However, when it comes to how God providentially works with inanimate matter, it was not always clear why God could not coercively control it. In all the strong argumentation this book provides, this chapter felt the least strong.

Conclusion: Deepening the Discussion

Open and Relational theology has long provided adherents a more coherent model of divine providence than theologically deterministic models. In fact, Open theism in particular has provided many Arminians with a much need dose of logical consistency. However, Open theism has long struggled with its familial relationship to conservative evangelical theology, which has caused it to seem defensive at times. Perhaps this is an expected response to the alarmist classical theists who loudly condemned it as heresy. But Tom Oord’s project is not defensive. He is willing to follow the logic and the biblical data to the most consistent conclusion. He will no doubt receive criticism from both conservative evangelicals who wish to preserve their view of divine sovereignty as unilateral coercive force, and from Process theologians who will find his proposal insufficient for other reasons. Regardless, what is clear is that The Uncontrolling Love of God furthers the conversations and confronts all sides with important questions about our models of divine providence and their implications for the problem of evil. I’m very grateful for this contribution to that on-going discussion, and highly recommend this book to anyone exploring these subjects.

If I had one criticism for Oord, it would be that Open and Relational theologies like this “Essential Kenosis” continue to conceptualize providence and the problem of evil apart from important aspects of human life like community (ecclesiology), politics, missions, and social justice. I would have liked to see Oord at least point in those directions. Essential kenosis has the potential to be a liberating model for those who have all too often been the victims of societies that are emulating a “sovereignty” of coercive and violent control.

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PDF version available at Academia.edu

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The Bible is Not a Database: 
A Very Brief Reflection on Biblical Interpretation 
in the Digital Age

A few years back, I misplaced something, and instead of thinking, “Where did I last see it?” I unconsciously thought, “I’ll just run a Spotlight search for it” …as if every item in my house (and presumably the rest of my life) was indexed in Mac OS X. That was the moment I realized using computers had literally changed the way I think. Even though I’m the furthest thing from a luddite, I was forced to acknowledge that the affect technology was having on me (especially on how I think) was not entirely positive. I was becoming more aware of a specific example of how the practices in which we participate form the way we think. And this new way of thinking, in turn, affects all we think about—including the Bible.

When it comes to our understanding of Scripture, how we access the Bible matters a lot. Technological changes in the way we read and interact with Scripture change our conception of Scripture’s purpose.

“The medium is the message.”

For example, in the fifteenth century, a revolutionary new technology fundamentally changed the way people we able to engage with Scripture. The printing press made it possible for an individual to possess their own, personal copy of a Bible translation. This fundamentally shifted the way people interacted with Scripture. Scripture transitioned from being heard in corporate worship to being read in private. When that happened, our expectations of Scripture changed too. Rather than expecting the community to interpret the Text together, the new expectation that emerged was that the individual will interpret the Text, well, individually. This new expectation of private interpretation radically transformed the way we understand the Bible.

Today, another technological advancement is shifting our expectations of the Bible. And it’s just subtle enough that we may not notice it. Because of the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of web servers, we’ve now moved on from merely approaching the Bible as a book to be read (and therefore interpreted) privately, to approaching the Bible like a Database.

The database is a fixture of our digital lives, whether we realize it or not. It’s running in the background of all our most beloved online destinations. It powers our digital quests for both enlightenment and entertainment. This hidden dimension of the Web is what enables us to quickly access information that we would otherwise never unearth. We no longer have to read off long URLs when we want to direct people to a particular page of a website. We simply direct them to the site’s home page and recommend some concise keywords (e.g. “For more information, go to NPR.org keyword ‘Fresh Air’ ”). Many people don’t even bother using a website’s own search feature to find the information they’re looking for, they just use a search engine like Google. In fact, we no longer ‘search’ for pages on the Internet, we “google” them.

What formative power does this new practice (empowered by the database) have on our way of thinking?

For one thing, it makes us “queriers”.  When a person submits their keyword search into the search field of a database-driven website, they are “running a query.” The user has a question and the magical database elves run around finding the answer. You and I come to the Database with your questions, and we have faith that the Database has the answer.

This new way of thinking poses a serious problem for how we understand the purpose of the Bible. Approaching the Bible like a database fundamentally misunderstands Scripture’s nature. The Bible does not promise to answer our every question. In fact, the Bible has its own agenda and isn’t particularly interested in catering to our whims.

Imagine someone picking up a novel and looking for the search field. They then think to themselves, “I don’t want to read this whole book. I’m not interested in the plot, or the story the author is trying to tell. I just want to know the age of the main character. Why can’t I just ‘google’ the answer to my question?”

Well, the reason one cannot simply ‘google’ the answers to one’s Bible queries is because the Bible is a Story, with a plot, and the particular Story the Author is telling is what matters, not our questions. When we fail to recognize this, we will inevitably misuse the Bible.

To understand what the Bible teaches, one has to understand the Story the Bible is telling.

To know the answers the Bible supplies, one has to know the questions the Bible is addressing.

The Story of the Bible is about God and God’s Kingdom.

The Bible is the Story of how the Creator God is restoring the whole creation.

The Bible is the Story of the how the Rescuing God is redeeming all of humanity.

The Bible is the Story of the God of Israel’s relationship to a particular people (Israel+Church) in a particular time and place (the ancient Near East).

The Bible is NOT the story of modern, Western people.

The Bible is NOT the story of the material origins of the universe.

The Bible is NOT the story of human sexuality and its rules.

The Bible is NOT the story of the United States of America and its exceptionalism.

If you run queries like the Bible is a database, what will come back is: “no results found.”

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Emotions, Wisdom, and the Vulnerability of God

It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged here, but I’ve had a lot going on in my life. I took a new ministry role requiring me to move from the East Coast to the West Coast; I’ve been serving as ‘solo pastor’ in my new role while the Lead Pastor is on sabbatical; and I finally graduated from seminary. So, yeah, I’ve been a little busy. But, I’m taking part of my precious day off/sabbath to write a brief post on emotions, wisdom, and the vulnerability of God because these themes have come up in so much in my spiritual formation lately.

Intelligence without Emotions is Artificial

In seminary, I attended a technology and theology conference hosted by Gordon-Conwell. Most of it was benign. Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of ‘robots will kill us all’ talk. But one presenter made an indelible mark on my memory of the event. Rosalind Picard spoke on the role of emotions in her robotics research. Picard is a follower of Christ, a tenured professor at MIT in the Media Lab, and a pioneer in robotics. She single-handedly created the field of “affective computing.” I remember when she was speaking about artificial intelligence and how the greatest breakthrough she’s made in all her research was discovering just how vital emotions are to intelligence. In fact, they are inextricably linked. This astounded the Gordon-Conwell crowd, made up mostly of white men. Like other evangelical institution, in its exploration of theology, Gordon-Conwell has fallen victim to the false dichotomy that pits the emotions against the intellect and presents emotion as the enemy of reason. Picard directly confronted that mistake and presented a compelling case against it. She argued that emotions are actually critically important to intelligence.

Gnosticism Revisited

This theme is also touched on in Justo Gonzales’s Mañana. (I wrote a five-part analysis of this brilliant, game-changing book) In it, he discusses the theological and socio-political ramifications of dualistic anthropology. If we theologize the dichotomy of emotions against intellect, we commit the same dualistic error the Gnostics made, and the Platonists before them. Human beings are whole, integrated beings, not souls trapped in bodies, and not ‘passions’ fighting against ‘mind.’

God is Vulnerable

Furthermore, Dr. Roberto Sirvent has written a fantastic book entitled Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine (review forthcoming), in which he directly confronts the unbiblical doctrine of impassibility. Impassibility is the mistaken notion that God is incapable of emotion, or being moved by creatures, because God is unchanging. This notion is derived from Stoic and Platonic philosophy and has no support in the Scriptures. But many (if not most) classical theists affirm this idea since it is implied in many other aspects of classical theism, such as immutability, timelessness, and exhaustive definite foreknowledge.

However, Sirvent’s contention is devastating to this doctrine, at least for Christians. He contends that the doctrines of impassibility and imitatio Dei are incompatible. Imitatio Dei is the biblical teaching that God is worthy of imitation and that imitating God is the highest good for human beings (e.g. Eph. 5.1, 3 Jn. 1.11, etc.). These two are incompatible because for a human being to imitate divine impassibility would be immoral. In fact, to lack empathy for others would direct violate our call to love others as God has loved us. God’s action in Christ wasn’t merely rational, it was holistic! The Word became flesh and dwelt among us! The Word didn’t just deliver information about God; the Word embodied God’s very being in human flesh—emotions and all! Therefore, Sirvent calls on readers to embrace vulnerability, both human and divine. Because without vulnerability human beings cannot participate in the divine nature of trinitarian, perichoretic love.

Emotions Organize Rational Thought

This point about the importance of emotions to intelligence was further reinforced for me this past weekend in an unlikely source: a Disney animated movie for children/families. Inside Out. The movie was funny and well-made. My kids loved it. But more than that it was brilliant. Pixar felt it was important to consult real psychologists on the science of emotions and thought. What they discovered confirms what Gonzáles and Sirvent and many others have been saying for a long time.

“…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations.

But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

http://nyti.ms/1JIQ9F5

Application Time

So, what does all this mean for you and me. Well, for starters, it means a new perspective on God for some. For some, to think of God as passionate is anathema. Some filter out God’s emotions from the biblical witness in a vain attempt to domesticate God, to make God more like the ‘unmoved mover.’ But, alas Athens still has nothing to do with Jerusalem. For these folks, their view of God must change. God is supremely revealed in the empathetic and wholly invested Person of Messiah Jesus. Jesus was emotional and so is God.

Second, this has huge implications for how we approach spiritual formation and ministry to others. Rather than viewing discipleship as the downloading of information into our brains, discipleship is more biblical conceptualized as the formation of our whole lives—our minds, our emotions, our wills, our relationships—everything that makes us who we are. And this holistic, integrate approach to anthropology has direct implications for how we minister to others. We are called to provide for others what God has provided for us, the way God has provided. That means we’re to love the way Jesus love. That means we’re to feed the hungry, heal the sick, cast out demons—we’re to both announce and enact the Kingdom of God! And just as Jesus entered into our world not only mentally and intellectually, but also emotionally—we too are called to enter into others’ worlds emotionally. We’re to empathize as we were empathized with.

Finally, this has real socio-political implications as well. As Gonzáles has shown us, when we dichotomize the human being, and dichotomize God, we end up dichotomizing the polis as well. We prioritize the educated elite above the poor and oppressed. Our policies privilege majority culture and majority gendered persons. We end up thinking that people don’t deserve holistic care for their bodies. We devalue lives.

Step one to seeking the shalom of the world is understanding God and human beings the way God has revealed them both. God is a passionate, empathetic being, as revealed in Messiah Jesus. Human beings are made in the image of the God of pathos. And Jesus-disciples are called to imitate the God revealed in Christ.

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Cruciformity or Idolatry: Reflections on Michael Gorman’s “Counter-Imperial Theoformity”

I. Turning from Idols to the True and Living God (I Thes. 1.9b)

People are not their positions. Positions are ideological affirmations a person holds at a give time, but which a person can also renounce or just grow out of. If you have been journeying on a theological pilgrimage for any significant amount of time, your positions have no doubt evolved. If they haven’t, I would question how critically you’ve examined those beliefs, and whether you’ve interacted with the best alternative views.

It is not a shameful thing to renounce mistaken or inferior position in favor of superior and more accurate ones. Yet, for some, it is resisted as if it meant one is weak or simple-minded. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is the weak and simple-minded who cling to mistaken and inferior positions out of stubbornness, anxiety, or intellectual laziness.

One theologian for whom I have great respect is Clark Pinnock. I was first introduced to his thought through an essay he wrote called “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology.” In this essay, he detailed his intellectual and spiritual journey away from New Calvinism (5-Point) [1] while a professor of theology in a seminary affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention which had recently taken a decidedly Calvinistic and Conservative turn. Pinnock’s journey toward a “true and living God” away from the static, “Unmoved Mover” of New Calvinism was inspirational to me and mirrored my own journey of theological exploration.

Pinnock was not afraid to acknowledge that his views had changed, and he was not afraid to admit they were still evolving—even until his last days in this age. Pinnock was not a coward; Pinnock was intellectually courageous!

Unfortunately, some people have a difficult time not over-identifying with their current positions. Often this is because there are relational and psychological reasons for the death-grip hold they have on their position. This stubborn and recalcitrant clinging can make fruitful discourse at best a minefield and at worst relationally fatal. The person with the death-grip hold on their cherished belief has made of their conception of God an idol that is praised in itself.

Idolatrous beliefs don’t necessarily make a person immoral or intellectually inferior. Idols happen when a person’s conception of God is not centered in the self-revelation of God in the Person of Jesus Christ—and particular on Jesus’s Cross. Good, well-intentioned Christians can easily hold idolatrous conceptions of God due to the pervasive and relentless influence of Western culture, which wars against a Crucified God. Nevertheless, our task as theologians is not to allow our particular cultural context to be determinative of our conception of God. Rather, we are to let the picture of God produced by Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition—the God self-revealed in the Crucified Messiah—to be determinative, supreme, and final.

II. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology

Dr. Michael Gorman [2] is a celebrated theologian and prolific author. Among his many wonderful books are Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb Into the New Creation and Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross. One of his latest books is Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (hereafter “Cruciform God”). [3]

In Cruciform God, Gorman thoroughly exegetes Philippians chapter 2, the famous hymn the apostle Paul includes in his letter to the Church at Philipi. This hymn is what Gorman calls Paul’s “Master Story,” [4] and Gorman believes Paul’s soteriology is primarily “narrative” in nature. In Cruciform God, Gorman demonstrates that in Paul’s narrative soteriology, justification by faith happens in the process of a person participating in the cruciform (cross-shaped) character and nature of God. And Gorman goes on to demonstrate that, since God is cruciform in Godself, this process of participating in “cruciformity” is also the process of becoming more like God—the ultimate expression of which is called “theosis.” Therefore, for Gorman, cruciformity is theoformity.

There is neither space nor time enough in this brief post to give this masterful work of Gorman’s the treatment it deserves. However, I do wish to outline an important section of the book which pertains to idolatrous conceptions of God, the cruciform God revealed in Christ, and what Gorman calls “counter-imperial theoformity.”

III. The Idol of “Normal” Divinity

One of Gorman’s contributions for which I am most grateful is the precision with which he pinpoints from whence idolatrous conceptions of God derive. He locates them in a conception of power that is corrupted by cultural influences. Because of the context of empire in which the world has been situated since Babylon, a default view of power has been associated with coercion and control. This conception of power has become intuitive” for most people because of empire.

For some Christians this conception of power is baptized and given the pious-sounding nickname “sovereignty” in a vein attempt to make it appear biblical. Nevertheless, Gorman rebukes those who claim we must hold God’s majesty “in tension” with the humility of God we see in Christ. Instead, Gorman claims the only majesty of God is precisely that which issues forth from the face of the Crucified Lord Jesus.

“Because God’s majesty and God’s relationality cannot be separated, we must understand God’s majesty in light of God’s revealed relationally. We do not simply hold majesty and relationally in tension; with Paul, we must see them in concert, a unison revealed in the power of the cross. God is not a god of power and weakness but the God of power in weakness.” (p. 33)

It is difficult to say it more succinctly and beautifully than this:

“The counterintuitive God revealed in Christ is kenotic and cruciform, the Eternal vulnerable and self-giving One, the God of power-in-weakness.” (p. 32)

But this vision of God is unattractive to those who idolize the power of empire. Such “Christians” don’t want a Crucified Lord, with all the suffering and pain it entails. No, they would like to skip that whole nasty episode in Jesus’s life. They claim to still be “Christ-centered” but by this they mean a generically broad idea of “Christ” which relativizes the Cross. Gorman addresses this directly:

“…the cross is not just one theophany among many; it is the definitive theophany… Unfortunately, however, the embedded theology of most Christians still revolves around a non-cruciform model of God’s power, and a crucial corrective is needed.” (p. 34)

Gorman does not mince words, a non-cruciform vision of God’s power is idolatrous. God in Christ did not endure the Cross as a superfluous exercise. No, as Gorman says, the Cross is the “definitive theophany“. This will no doubt chafe against those who still cling to the imperial vision of divine power, what Gorman calls the “idol of ‘normal’ divinity.”

“In light of [the counterintuitive kenotic character of the God of the Cross], we must affirm that the ‘normal’ ‘civil’ god of power and might is an idol, and it must be named as such. This god is not the Lord God revealed in Jesus Christ and narrated in the theopolitics of Phil. 2:6-11. […] military power is not the power of the cross, and such misconstrued notions of divine power have nothing to do with the majesty or holiness of the triune God known in the weakness of the cross. The ‘civil’ god, though perfectly ‘normal,’ is not only unholy; it is an idol.” (p. 34-35)

IV. Kenosis and Chalcedon

Some Christians have misunderstood kenosis (that powerful word found in Phil. 2). They have made it into a bogeyman word, a word that (for them) equals a “low Christology.” Gorman won’t let such misunderstand stand. In two ways, he expounds upon what it means for God to be kenotic. First, he explains that “kenotic” and “cruciform” are “inseparable and overlapping in meaning, though not quite synonymous.” [5] This means that to deny Christ’s kenosis is to deny Christ’s cruciformity. Since no Christian could nor world deny Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, the “kenosis” of Christ is likewise undeniable. Second, Gorman expounds upon the correspondence between cruciformity and kenosis:

“By ‘cruciform’ I do not mean that God is constrained in being or act by a particular (Roman) form of death, namely, crucifixion. Rather, I mean to say that because Paul’s understanding of God’s kenotic character is inseparable from the revelation of that character in Christ’s cross, we must define this divine kenosis with content derived from Paul’s narratives of the cross, especially voluntary rejection of power/privilege and humble self-giving.” (p. 28, footnote 67)

For Gorman, the divine kenotic character isn’t optional, but essential. The revelation of God in Christ’s Cross makes this so. Kenosis is not a sudden shift in God’s character. No, precisely the opposite! Kenosis is the expression of God’s eternal nature.

“Some may object […] that the assertion about God’s essential kenotic character limits God’s freedom, making kenosis a divine necessity rather than a free act of love and grace. While I want to maintain with the Christian tradition (and Paul) that God in Christ acts in freedom and grace, I also want to maintain (with Paul, I think) the corollary, if paradoxical, conviction that if the cross is theophantic, kenosis must be something other than one of several options on the divine table.” (p. 36, footnote 36)

Therefore, Gorman directly refutes the claim that a kenotic Christ (and a kenotic God) somehow violates the Chalcedonian definition (which its more fanatical proponents don’t realize is thoroughly paradoxical). He writes,

“Kenosis is the sine quo non of both divinity and humanity, as revealed in the incarnation and the cross of Christ, the one who was truly God and became truly human. His preexistent and incarnate actions […] had essentially the same character. As Chalcedonian and therefore anachronistic as this claim will sound to some, it seems to be the inevitable conclusion of the line of thought we have been pursuing; it is Chalcedon with a Pauline, cruciform twist.” (p. 36)

V. True Humanity as Counter-Imperial Theoformity

All of Gorman’s exegesis and theopolitical analysis leads him to view the process of becoming more like Jesus—being formed into the image of the Son—is the process of cruciformity, because the Son is essentially cruciform. But, further still, Gorman concludes that this process of becoming more cruciform is also simultaneously the process of becoming more fully human and more godly. For Gorman, the telos of humanity is theosis, as is customary in the Eastern traditions. This glorification is not found in some blissful indifference to suffering. Rather, it is found in the process of being molded into the image of the Crucified Messiah—the only perfect revelation of the Living God.

“To be fully human is to be Christlike and thus Godlike in this kenotic and cruciform sense. Cruciformity, it turns out, is really theoformity.” (p. 36)

Salvation/justification for Gorman is being caught up—participating—in the divine nature. This process of participation is precisely the same process of cruciformity and theoformity Paul’s been describing all along. “The emphasis [of theosis] is on transformation by union, or participation […] Kenosis is theosis. To be like Christ crucified is to be both most godly and most human. Christification is divinization, and divinization is humanization.” (p. 37)

This participative process—cruciformity, theoformity, theosis—is thereby the way Jesus-disciples resist conformity to the ‘pattern of this world’: the idolatrous vision of power created by empire. The community of Christ is the location where the Spirit of God forms Jesus-disciples into the image of the Son (cruciformity) who is the image of the Father (theoformity) whereby the sons and daughters of God are revealed in glorious transformation (theosis). “The goal of the Christian community is to allow the life and Spirit of this God, rather than the imperial spirit of domination and acquisition, to flow in and through it — to participate in God.” (p. 37)

VI. Conclusion: Salvation is Union with the Kenotic, Cruciform, Triune God

The telos of humanity is to be united with the God whose very nature is revealed definitively and finally on the Cross of Christ. Christ has shown us the character and nature of God, and that character and nature is both kenotic and cruciform. Christ has also called us into participation in that character and nature—into cruciformity and therefore theoformity. Participation in the kenotic, cruciform nature of God is rejection and renunciation of the idolatrous gods of power worshipped by empire. Cruciformity is Counter-Imperial Theoformity.

“…because Paul says that Christ was in the form of God and that this equality with God was properly expressed through the kenosis of incarnation and crucifixion, we can say that the structure of [Phil. 2] is causative: ‘because…” Thus Paul compels us to rethink God and to speak of a cruciform God […]

The incarnation and cross manifest, and the exaltation recognizes, both Christ’s truth divinity and his true humanity, all of which leads us in a Chalcedonian direction, though with a Pauline (cruciform) twist. […]

We then contrasted this counterintuitive view of God with popular notions of divinity that focus on power, especially military power, and offered it as the foundation of a counter-imperial lifestyle. To be truly human is to be Christlike, which is to be Godlike, which is to be kenotic and cruciform. Theosis is the process of transformation into the image of this God.” (p. 39)

Praise and Glory, All Honor and Power be to the Kenotic, Cruciform God Revealed in the Cross of Christ! Amen!

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1. The tenets of New Calvinism can be summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P., which stands for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. For more on New Calvinism, see:

Against Calvinism by Roger Olson

– “The New Calvinism” by PBS [http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365215800]

– “Young, Restless, Reformed” – [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html]

2. Michael J. Gorman is the Raymond E. Brown Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He joined St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute of Theology faculty in 1991, becoming Associate Dean of the Ecumenical Institute and a member of the Seminary faculty in 1993. He was appointed Dean of the Ecumenical Institute in 1995 and served in that capacity through June of 2012. Prior to taking the Raymond E. Brown Chair, he was Professor of Sacred Scripture and, before that, Professor of New Testament and Early Church History.

Dr. Gorman is a New Testament scholar who specializes especially in the letters, theology, and spirituality of the apostle Paul. His additional specialties are the book of Revelation, theological and missional interpretation of Scripture, the gospel of John, and early Christian ethics. In addition, he has a strong interest in the relationship between church and culture.

Dr. Gorman earned his B.A. degree summa cum laude in French from Gordon College in Massachusetts. He received the M.Div. and the Ph.D. cum laude in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where he was also a teaching fellow in New Testament and an instructor in New Testament Greek. He has also been a visiting professor at Duke Divinity School, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Mars Hill Graduate School.

3. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009).

4. Cruciform God, p. 2.

5. p. 10, footnote 6.

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God is Loving Savior, the Savingly Loved One, and Saving Love Itself: Reflections on Moltmann’s “Doxological Trinity”

Some Christians think God became a Savior only after the historical crucifixion of Messiah Jesus of Nazareth. For these Christians, God is not a Savior essentially, but incidentally. “Saving” is an activity God could do without; it’s not something God “has to do.” God is a Savior as a result of historical events, not because it is who God is in God’s very nature. If humanity has not sinned, Jesus Christ would not have been ‘necessary,’ and God would not be a Savior.

Depending on your theological perspective, this belief could either appear common sensical or absurd. If you’re coming from a Western, conservative, evangelical (Protestant) perspective, you likely find the belief that God became a Savior obvious. And it might be equally obvious that this is why Christians should worship God—because God has saved Christians by the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. This makes sense to Western Christians because of Western culture. It is the individualism of Western culture that distorts salvation history into God’s “plan of salvation” for humanity. And it is the consumerism of Western culture that makes God’s praise about the salvation humanity has received. God is does what God does because of us, and we worship God because of what we get from God.

Western Christians will argue that they hold this view for two important reasons. First, they claim that this view preserves and secures God’s “freedom.” They argue that were God a Savior in God’s very nature, God would not be “free” to not save humanity. They claim this would introduce “necessity” into the nature of God. Second, they claim that it safeguards salvation as a gracious gift from God. Were salvation not something which God have withheld from humanity, salvation would no longer be “grace” (a gift) freely given. Thus, they speculate that God does not need to provide salvation; God is self-sufficient in Godself.

However, in chapter 5 of The Trinity and the Kingdom, Jürgen Moltmann directly confronts this conception of God in a section called “The Doxological Trinity.” [1] He makes several arguments, which dismantle this view, rooted in Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and the doctrine of the Trinity.

I. God Does What God Is

“God is love.” – 1 John 4.16

Moltmann begins his critique with background on the historical, theological disjunction of the Godhead by the use of the speculative labels “immanent Trinity” and “economic Trinity” to distinguish between the saving activity of God in the world as opposed to who God is in Godself.

“Ever since the repulse of modalism through Tertullian, it has been usual to distinguish between the economic and the immanent Trinity. The economic Trinity designates the triune God in his dispensation of salvation, in which he is revealed. The economic trinity is therefore also called the revelatory Trinity. The immanent Trinity is the name given to the triune God as he is in himself. The immanent Trinity is also called the substantial Trinity.” (p.151)

This distinction in God effectively creates two “trinities”: one Trintiy who is self-sufficient, Pollyannish, indifferent to the world, and one Trinity who incarnates love in the Person of Jesus Christ. Why these two “trinities” have not met one another, who can know? But the distinction is justified by the assumption that we can only know what God is like in God’s “economic Trinity” while only learned theologians can tell us what God is like in God’s “immanent Trinity”. This theological division in the Godhead mirrors the political division between the scholastic clergy and the pious laity. Only the clerics can know the “secret” nature of God, while laypersons are given the breadcrumbs from the theologians’ table.

But Moltmann will have none of that!

“This distinction cannot mean that there are two different Trinities. It is rather a matter of the same triune God as he is in his saving revelation and as he is in himself. Is this distinction between God for us and God in himself a speculative one? And if it is speculative, is it necessary?”

Great question Jürgen! I have a feeling you’re going to tell us!

“This distinction between immanent and economic Trinity would be necessary if, in the concept of God, there were really only the alternative between liberty and necessity. But if God is love, then his liberty cannot consist of loving or of not loving. On the contrary, his love is his liberty and his liberty is his love. He is not compelled to love by any outward or inward necessity. Love is self-evident for God. So we have to say that the triune God loves the world with the very same love that he himself is.” (p. 151)

Some of the Christians conceptualize God as completely self-sufficient in Godself, to the point that creation is less than an afterthought. This is the classic “Pollyanna” god. The god who does not care about the suffering of the world, about injustice, or about evil. This god is content in his own self-love and bliss.

But does this conception of God correspond to the God revealed in Jesus Christ—the Jesus Christ who came into the world to destroy the works of the Devil, the Jesus Christ who healed and delivered humans from disease and demonization? Of course not! Everyone and anyone who has read the Gospels can clearly see that the Evangelists intend to teach that Jesus’s birth, ministry, teachings, life, death, resurrection, and ascension reveal a God with the same character and nature. The conception of a self-loving, blissful, Pollyanna god in the sky is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

“The notion of an immanent Trinity which God is simply by himself, without the love which communicates salvation, brings an arbitrary element into the concept of God which means a break-up the Christian concept. Consequently this idea safeguards God’s liberty nor the grace of salvation. It introduces a contradiction into the relationship between the immanent and the economic Trinity: the God who loves the world does not correspond to the God who suffices for himself. Before the unchangeable God, everything is equal and equally indifferent. For the loving God, nothing is a matter of indifference. Before an equivocal, an undecided God, nothing is significant. For the God who in his love is free, everything is infinitely important. But the immanent and the economic Trinity cannot be distinguished in such a way that the first nullifies what the second says. The two rather form a continuity and merge into one another.” (p. 151-152)

Moltmann exposes the inadequacy of the theological disjunction of the Godhead. It does not accomplish what its proponents believe it does. It does not safeguard grace or God’s freedom. Instead, it enslaves God in a prison of lovelessness. It shackles God inside indifference and apathy. God can only love Godself. God doesn’t have enough love for the world.

In place of the diminished God of this “immanent” and indifferent god, Moltmann places the united Trinity whose love is infinite and more than enough for the world. In the love of the united Trinity, everything is significant and infinitely loved. What a more glorious and praiseworthy vision of God!

II. God Saves Us By Giving Us Godself

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” – 2 Pet. 1.3-4

This united Trinity upon which Moltmann expounds is revealed in Salvation History as the Loving Savior, the Savingly Loved One, and Saving Love Itself. The united Trinity is also the God worshipped in the Church of Jesus Christ. Here, Moltmann turns to church history and historical theology. He addresses the theological disjunction of the Godhead from the standpoint of worship.

“The other and specific starting point for distinguishing between the economic and the immanent Trinity is to be found in doxology. The assertions of the immanent Trinity about eternal life and the eternal relations of the triune God in himself have their Sitz im Leben, their situation in life, in the praise and worship of the church:

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost!

Real theology, which means the knowledge of God, finds expression in thanks, praise and adoration. And it is what finds expression in doxology that is the real theology. There is no experience in doxology that is the real theology. There is no experience of salvation without the expression of that experience in thanks, praise and joy. An experience which does not find expression in this way is not a liberating experience. Only doxology releases the experience of salvation for a full experience of that salvation. In grateful, wondering and adoring perception, the triune God is not made man’s object; he is not appropriated and taken possession of. It is rather that the perceiving person participates in what he perceives, being transformed into the thing perceived through his wondering perception. Here we know only in so far as we love. Here we know in order to participate. Then to know God means to participate in the fullness of the divine life. That is why in the early church the doxological knowledge of God is called theologia in the real sense, being distinguished from the doctrine of salvation, the oeconomia Dei. The ‘economic Trinity’ is the object of kerygmatic and practical theology; the ‘immanent Trinity’ the content of doxological theology.” (p. 152)

Since the united Trinity is love, and love is essence of the saving activity of God in the world, it is clear that God’s salvation is God’s giving of Godself to humanity—the participation of humanity in God’s very nature of love. There is no greater gift God can give humanity than Godself. God is not a means to some other end. No! God in God’s Cruciform Love is the telos of Christian faith!

“In doxology the thanks of the receiver return from the goodly gift of the giver. But the giver is not thanked merely for the sake of of his good gift; he is also extolled because he himself is good. So God is not loved, worshipped and perceived merely because of the salvation that has been experienced, but for his own sake. That is to say, praise goes beyond thanksgiving. God is recognized, not only for his goodly works but in his goodness itself. And adoration, finally, goes beyond both thanksgiving and praise. It is totally absorbed into its counterpart, in the way that we are totally absorbed by astonishment and boundless wonder. God is ultimately worshipped and loved for himself, not merely for salvation’s sake.” (p. 153)

When we worship God, we gives praise and glory and honor to God not merely for the saving activity of God, but even more profoundly for who God is in Godself. God is the love in whom we live, move, and have our being as persons and as God’s children (Acts 17.28)! God is the ocean in which we swim! The Crucified Christ is the One by whom, for whom, and to whom all things have existence (Col. 1.15-20)! There is no greater experience of salvation than the exuberant, ecstatic shalom that overflows from being caught up in the triune love who is God.

III. God is Faithful to Godself

 “[God] cannot deny himself.” – 2 Tim. 2.13

Since God does what God is and God saves humanity by giving us Godself, God’s being is consistent with God’s saving activity. There is tautology in the Christian concept of salvation. God is love and God saves by giving humanity the saving love that God is.

This correspondence between who God is and what God does reinforces our trust in God. God is Truth and God is true to Godself in the communication of God’s self. This is why we can trust that God’s promises are true and God’s Word is Truth.

“It follows from this interlacing of the doctrine of salvation with doxology that we may not assume anything as existing in God himself which contradicts the history of salvation; and, conversely, may not assume anything in the experience of salvation which does not have its foundation in God. The principle that the doctrine of salvation and doxology do not contradict one another is founded on the fact that there are not two different Trinities. There is only one, single, divine Trinity and one, single divine history of salvation. The triune God can only appear in history as he is in himself, and in no other way. He is in himself as he appears in salvation history, for it is he himself who is manifested, and he is just what he is manifested as being. Is this a law which infringes God’s liberty? No, it is the quintessence of God’s truth. God can do anything, but ‘he cannot deny himself’ (II Tim. 2.13): ‘God is faithful.’ Consequently we cannot find any trinitarian relationships in salvation history which do not have their foundation in the nature of the triune God, corresponding to him himself. It is impossible to say, for example, that in history the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father ‘and from the Son’, but that within the Trinity he proceeds ‘from the Father alone’. God’s truth is his faithfulness. Consequently we can rely on his promises and on himself. A God who contradicted himself would be an unreliable God. He would have to be called a demon, not God. The true God is the God of truth, whose nature is eternal faithfulness and reliability. That is why the principle behind the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is:

Statements about the immanent Trinity must not contradict statements about the economic Trinity. Statements about the economic Trinity must correspond to doxological statements about the immanent Trinity.” (p. 153-154)

Therefore, in conclusion, there is no Polyannish, “unchangeable”, indifferent, god in the sky—that conception of God is either an idol or a demon. The only God who exists for the Christian is the God revealed in Jesus Christ—the God who is Cruciform Love.

God is Loving Savior because of who God is (self-sacrificing Love), not because of who humanity is (sinful). The Cross doesn’t make God a Savior; the Cross reveals that God Already Is (and Always Has Been) a Savior.

Glory and Honor and Praise, all Power and Majesty be to the God who is Cruciform Love—the God whose eternal nature is made known in King Jesus!

Amen.

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1. Jürgen Moltmann, _The Trinity and the Kingdom_ (Fortress Press, 1981), 151-154.

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Dancing, Arson, and a Plain Reading of Scripture: Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer Debate Two New Calvinists in Chicago

Last Wednesday, Zondervan and the Sojourn Network (a New Calvinist church planting group) partnered to sponsor a debate on Calvinism in Chicago. The debate featured four participants: Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones representing Calvinism, along with Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer representing non-Calvinist Christian theology. The reason Zondervan was involved is because the debate was designed as a promotional event for the two New Calvinists’ book: PROOF: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace published by Zonderan.

Debate Participants

Daniel Montgomery is a local pastor of a New Calvinist church in Louisville, KY affiliated with Mark Driscoll’s “Acts 29” church planting network. He received his ministerial and theological education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a school known for its outspoken, New Calvinist president Al Mohler. Timothy Paul Jones also received his education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, even being awarded a doctorate. He is well-known in conservative and New Calvinist Baptist circles for writing and lecturing on Christianity.

Representing non-Calvinist Christian theology were two pastors and authors: Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer. Zahnd pastors Word of Life Church outside Kansas City and is the author of several books including his most recent book: A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. Austin Fischer is a pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, TX. He is author of the book: Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism.

“New Calvinism”?

When the subject of “Calvinism is raised in conservative Evangelical circles, someone will inevitably launch the “Not All Calvinists are like that” objection. So, before the first commenter on this post embarrasses themselves, let me clearly say: It is a given that not all Calvinists are alike. And everyone grants that there is a diversity of views even among Calvinists. The specific type of Calvinism that is being discussed in this post—the kind promoted at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—and the kind espoused by the two representatives in the debate Wednesday is “New Calvinism.” This particular form of Calvinism has been made popular by, and is embodied in the teaching and ministries of, such popular figures as Mark Driscoll and John Piper. It is sometimes (I think rightfully) called Neo-Puritanism because it more resembles the views of Jonathan Edwards than John Calvin. New Calvinists do not share the emphasis that Calvin himself had on Christology and ecclesiology, for example. Instead, they are fixated on soteriology. Preferring to call their views “the Doctrines of Grace,” [1] New Calvinists take their soteriological system to be synonymous with “the Gospel.” This is why a group of New Calvinists have called themselves “The Gospel Coalition.” Calvinist preacher and New Calvinist hero Charles Spurgeon famously said, “Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”

What’s the Debate?

Space does not permit an exhaustive definition nor historical exposition of the New Calvinist movement. So, I’ll constrain my description to the areas around which the debate was formed.

Proposition 1

First, New Calvinists emphasize their own interpretation of Scripture regarding the doctrines of Election and Predestination. They teach that God is meticulously in control of all that takes place in the universe. Calvinist thinker R. C. Sproul encapsulates the New Calvinist’s view of divine “sovereignty” this way: “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” Therefore, all that happens in the universe and throughout history is 100% God’s doing, God’s will.

This obviously raises significant concerns when one considers all the evil, oppression, and injustice that has taken place in history and continues to take place even now. That’s why the New Calvinists more often than not refuse to acknowledge that this belief makes God the “author of evil.” Instead, New Calvinists claim it is simply a mystery how God can be “sovereign” (in their absolutely controlling conception), while also morally good, and yet evil still exists. They confess however that they are “comfortable with that tension.”

For non-Calvinists, this “tension” is incompatible with the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ crucified for all people (including his enemies). That is why the first “proposition” up for debate in Chicago on Wednesday was whether or not the New Calvinism was congruent with a christocentric vision of God.

Proposition 2

Secondly, the so-called “Doctrines of Grace” (aka T.U.L.l.P.) also constitute a view of God’s redemptive activity called “monergism.” The Monergist view holds that the redemption is an act of God entirely and completely independent of any response from human beings. From the New Calvinists’ perspective, if any response from human beings is involved in the redemptive work of God, God will not receive maximal “glory” for redemption. So New Calvinists reject “synergism,” which posits that human beings are granted the capacity to respond to God’s free offer of saving grace. For New Calvinists, redemption is accomplished through God’s eternal “decree” which occurred before creation, and through God’s “irresistible” grace. So, the second proposition debated was whether or not the cause of repentance and saving faith is monergistic or synergistic.

Observations and Comments

Whenever I watch a debate like this one, I tend to question the moving parts: the participants, the format, the moderator, etc. In this case, it seemed particularly lopsided in favor of the New Calvinists. The moderator, Mark Galli of Christianity Today, is a Calvinist and regularly writes on the subject. At one point during the debate he even quipped that he should be receiving royalties from the sale of Austin Fischer’s book, since its title riffs of the now-famous title of a Christianity Today article chronicling the rise of New Calvinism (“Young, Restless, Reformed”) which he claimed to have created. Even the venue favored the New Calvinists, since Missio Dei Church is part of the Sojourn Network of which Daniel Montgomery is Co-Founder and President.

Yet, even though the venue and moderator both favored the New Calvinist participants, Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd clearly owned the debate right from the start. From Fischer’s opening statement, in which he forewarns listeners to look out for an “avalanche of euphemisms” when it comes to what Calvin called the “terrible decree”—namely Reprobation [2]—Austin and Zahnd controlled the tone and content of the debate.

Austin’s prediction was impeccably correct. Montgomery and Jones never once tried to defend Reprobation, but consistently spoke of God’s election only of those predestined to be saved. That is, until, Timothy Paul Jones eventually and surprising confessed “Yes” to “Double Predestination” . To the uninitiated, this confession was meaningless. But, to those aware of Calvinist jargon, this confession is devastating. Double Predestination is the belief that God predetermines the destiny of both the Elect and the Reprobate. This is precisely what most Christians find appalling, and what the Church Catholic has condemned in councils and among both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. This is, most assuredly, a heresy to the Church Universal.

But the New Calvinists continued unrepentantly with their completely predictable presentation. They appealed to Ephesians 1, Romans 9, and John 15.16 like they were trump cards. They proceeded as if this were an undergraduate dorm room at Southern Baptist Seminary. But they were severely mistaken. With two metaphors, Fischer and Zahnd dismantled their arguments and pointed to a Jesus-looking God.

The Fire-fighting Arsonist

The first killer metaphor was employed by Fischer. He wanted those who would watch this debate to know that despite the New Calvinists’ clever attempts to disguise it, the reality is that whatever condition they claim God is saving humanity from, their theology necessitates that God caused it. If it is true, like the Calvinists claim, that God rescues a group of preselected people from the tortures of their conception of hell, it is only because God “ordained” that humanity would be damned in the first place.

Fischer’s metaphor of God wanting the world to “burn down” conjures the image of the firefighter who has a narcissistic pathology which tempts him or her to start the very fires he or she is charged to rescue citizens from. This firefighter puts lives in danger only for the “glory” of being the one who swoops in to the rescue.

The reason this metaphor is so damning (pun intended), is because the New Calvinist routinely use the idea of God “saving some” from hell as the pinnacle of their argument for God’s redemptive glory. “Everyone should go to hell for their sins” Calvinists routinely shout. But, this is only just if human beings are responsible for their sin. In New Calvinism’s conception of why people go to hell, it isn’t because they have sinned and must suffer the consequences. No, it is because God “ordained” that they would sin and suffer the consequences before God brought creation into being. If any theology “robs God of glory,” it is the one that makes God out to be a psychopathic firefighting arsonist.

Making Baptists Uncomfortable

The second killer metaphor in this debate was utilized by Brian Zahnd. Zahnd is no novice at debate and as a veteran preacher his rhetorical skills are masterful. With one metaphor he shifted the imaginations of listeners and buried the New Calvinists beneath a conceptual mountain they could not uphold. In reference to the redemptive work of God, Zahnd compared God’s electing call to a dance. “Anything but *dancing*!!” cry the Baptists. But Zahnd would not let up. He compared the New Calvinists’ monergistic view to a sad image of God dancing “forlornly” with a mannequin. It will be difficult for anyone who watches this debate to remove that image from their imaginations. Here Zahnd borrows from some excellent and ancient theology. The image of God dancing harkens to mind the doctrine of perichoresis: the inter-penetration of the Persons of the Godhead of one another. This is pictured as a dance into which humanity is invited to join. But if the New Calvinists’ monergism is correct, God has elected to dance with a mannequin: the inanimate figures who only resemble responsible persons. What a devastating picture! The New Calvinists never recovered.

The Two Very Worst Calvinist Arguments Ever Uttered

But, if I’m being fair, Fischer and Zahnd didn’t only win this debate because these two metaphors overshadowed anything Montgomery or Jones said. No, to be fair, the New Calvinists did a tremendous job of presenting the very worst arguments in favor of their views, and that was just as responsible for their defeat as the skill of their opponents.

For example, one argument Montgomery made repeatedly was that Fischer and Zahnd simply were not employing a “plain reading” of Scripture. At one point he asserted this bizarre accusation three times in the span of a minute. The problem with this assertion, of course, is that a “plain reading” of Scripture doesn’t exist. There is no such thing. This rhetorical move has been made famous by Fundamentalists: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” But this approach to biblical interpretation is nothing short of an illusion. Every person who comes to the Scriptures does so from their subjective perspective. There is absolutely no guarantee any thing that is “plain” to one person will be plain to another. Here, the New Calvinists assume their particular, subjective reading of Scripture is the “plain” reading.

This is not just a failure for Montgomery and Jones. No, this is a failure for evangelical hermeneutics. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary should be ashamed of themselves after watching that debate. Montgomery and Jones should march back to their alma mater and demand every cent they spent on their M.Div. and Ph.D. respectively. There is no justification for how they can be trained in biblical interpretation and remain that misguided outside of gross educational negligence or intentional indoctrination.

But, unfortunately, their disastrous arguments did not end with presumptuous interpretation. They also attempted to pile guilt onto Fischer and Zahnd for “questioning God.” To the New Calvinists, their interpretation of Scripture is synonymous with God himself. To question their interpretation is to question God. That is why throughout the debate, both Montgomery and Jones attempted to shame Fischer and Zahnd by rhetorically asking them the question Paul poses in Romans 9: “Who are you O man to talk back to your maker?” Ironically, it was not Fischer and Zahnd who dripped with arrogance, it was the New Calvinists. They arrogantly equated their interpretation of Scripture with God’s authority itself.

Bill Cosby Reacts to New Calvinism from T. C. Moore on Vimeo.

Concluding thoughts

Obviously, Wednesday’s debate will not settle the matter for many if any. In fact, it may serve to intensify the debate for some. But what’s clear is that two of the brightest lights in the New Calvinism movement hosted a debate that heavily favored them for the promotion of their new book on Calvinism and lost. The debate wasn’t close.

Hopefully, what will come from this will be more substantive future discussions. I’d personally like to see the New Calvinist move beyond arrogant and presumptuous shaming. If New Calvinists can acknowledge that they approach the Scriptures like everyone else, with presuppositions, then a more fruitful discussion may be had. But until then, the same old proof-text wielding debate will continue to repel thoughtful Christians.

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1. The tenets of New Calvinism can be summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P., which stands for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. For more on New Calvinism, see:

Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (Read my review here: http://www.academia.edu/1181701/To_Kill_a_Tulip_A_Review_of_Roger_Olsons_Against_Calvinism)

– “The New Calvinism” by PBS [http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365215800]

– “Young, Restless, Reformed” – [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html]

2. Reprobation is the doctrine which holds that God predetermines who will be punished in hell for eternity before God created the universe. These people never have a chance to repent; they are “damned” before their birth.