Andrew Wilson wrote a blog post entitled “Responding to Open Theism in Fourteen Words.” Here is my fourteen word response:
According to his bio, Wilson is a pastor at King’s Church in London, which is a part of some group called the “Evangelical Alliance.” A 30-second glance at that group’s statement of faith shows they are decidedly Protestant in their theology.
Wilson would have us believe Christians didn’t understand justification for 1,500 years before Protestants came along and explained it. How odd then that he would question the apparent absence of Open theism from church history. Protestants don’t get to play the “orthodoxy” card.
Furthermore, his specific claim is false: “Even the most sympathetic advocates of open theism admit that it is all-but-impossible to find in the first eighteen centuries of the Church’s history. (The Trinitarian heretic Faustus Socinus is the somewhat uncomfortable exception that proves the rule.)”
Open theists have actually found examples of theologians and church leaders throughout church history who espouse the partial openness of the future. Dr. John Sanders’ website is one of several places online where such resources can be found. http://drjohnsanders.com/affirmed-dynamic-omniscience-open-future-history/
As it happens, John Sanders has already addressed Wilson’s criticism of Open theism’s alleged divergence from “orthodoxy” in his book, The God Who Risks:
Some have criticized openness from departing from ‘the’ tradition and a few even called it ‘heresy.’ A few responses are in order. First, ‘the’ tradition is not singular for there are multiple streams. Those who accuse us of rejecting ‘the’ tradition usually enshrine their own particular tradition as ‘the’ tradition.
Not only is 9.11 a number that immediately harkens to mind a horrific event which, for millions of Americans, called into question God’s goodness and power in the face of human free will to do evil, it is also the biblical reference of a verse in Ecclesiastes which says “chance” happens to all people.
I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
For the non-Open theist, “chance” is unexplainable. Even the Classical Arminian has to do acrobatics to explain how “chance” is compatible with Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. Is it really “chance” if God has definitely foreknown its certainty for all eternity?
So, it seems that citing one “problem text” for either side of this debate is not a conclusive rebuttal. Both sides have their proof-texts. Wilson’s citation of Psalm 139 does not end the debate.
Babies “go to heaven” (which is an embarrassingly crude phrase for a pastor to use in a post about theology) because they are innocent. Even hardened Calvinists squirm at the notion that unbaptized babies “go to hell” because of their depraved natures. That’s why most just refuse to believe it—theological consistency be damned!
Thankfully, Arminians and Open theists don’t have that problem. Most Arminians and Open theists believe in an “age of accountability” (cf. Deut. 1.39) after which persons are held responsible for their part in sin. Babies who die are united with God because they are not yet accountable. Little ones, according to Jesus, have to be made to stumble by others. (cf. Mt. 18.6)
Wilson’s fourth objection backfires. Theological determinists (aka, non-Open theists) are guilty of the same sort of evidence-denial of which Wilson accuses Open theists. Show them a passage in which God regrets or God is frustrated by an outcome God didn’t anticipate, and the excuses begin to fly. Only, with theological determinists, there are a lot more passages that need to be explained away. There are all the times God changes God’s mind. There are all the times God gets new information. There are all the times things don’t turn out the way the prophets predicted. Oops!
The Open theist, on the other hand, is perfectly justified saying “that’s one of the things that God does know” since it is the Open theist who states upfront that the future is Partly “open” and Partly “closed.” While Open theism accounts for the partly “closed” parts of the future depicted in the Text, the theological determinist has no account for the partly open portions. That’s not a problem for the Open theist; that’s a problem for the theological determinist.
In Wilson’s fifth objection, he argues that Open theism has a theodicy problem. He writes, “If X is evil, and God could stop X miraculously but chooses not to, is he not somehow choosing to allow X? If not, why not?”
This raises an important question in my mind: What’s the alternative? Is Wilson suggesting that if Open theists say that God allows some evil to happen and not other evil, God is unjust? Sure, maybe. There is also the possibility we just don’t know why some evil events happen and others are prevented. (cf. Job) Greg Boyd has actually written extensively about this in his book Is God to Blame?
The alternative proposed by theological determinists is exponentially worse. Those evil events were not allowed by God, they are determined by God. The problem Wilson describes for Open theists is not just a problem for theological determinists—it’s devastating. Such a god would be nothing less than a monster.
Wilson’s sixth objection is that God is holding everything in existence, so God is willing everything. Thomas Jay Oord has devoted an entire book to a conception of divine providence that has not occurred to Wilson for a very simple reason. Wilson can only conceptualize power as coercive. Either God is coercively causing something or it doesn’t happen. But, Oord utilizes the biblical concept of kenosis (self-giving) to conceptualize God’s power as love. God is love, not brute force. God’s nature is such that God is “uncontrolling.” God gives to creation its own autonomy through self-giving love. God is kenotic, as Jesus reveals (cf. Phil. 2).
Wilson’s seventh objection is precisely the same objection as the one Wilson posed in his fourth, “Exceptions.” It is in fact just a specific example of an “exception.” Therefore, see “Partly” above.
In Wilson’s eighth objection, he uses a subjective feeling of “comfort” he derives from his view of divine determinism. This is utterly bizarre to me. It strikes me precisely the opposite. When I have encountered circumstances that are “intensely difficulty” (as Wilson puts it), I have often thought “If God had definitely foreknown this would happen to me as a certainty, why would God not prevent it from happening?” This presents a new problem. If God definitely foreknew something awful were going to happen to me as a certainty, then there is no way God could prevent it. God would be powerless against God’s own foreknowledge! At least that’s the dilemma for Classical Arminians. There is no such dilemma for Calvinists. For them, God didn’t just fore-know it would happen—God fore-ordained it to happen. I am not someone who draws comfort from the idea that God either fore-knew and could not prevent me from suffering or else fore-ordained me to suffer. The emotion such thoughts evoke in me is not comfort, but terror. And I am quite concerned for those who would derive comfort from such ideas.
Wilson’s ninth objection is the same objection as his eighth, “comfort,” which, as we just witnessed, failed. It’s not comforting that God causes people to suffer, it’s terrifying.
In Wilson’s tenth objection, he proposes that conflicts within the Text between whether God was behind some event or Satan are only resolved if we collapse Satan into God. This seems like an odd strategy to me. By Wilson’s logic, when the Text says both God and Satan inspired some event, it is only proper to assume that it was God in both. But, one could just as easily and logically assume it was Satan in both.
Furthermore, Wilson claims God “moved” Judas to betray Jesus without any scripture to back it up. My guess is he would twist Acts 4.28 to support his claim, as Calvinists are want to do, but such a strategy only collapses Judas into God as well. Judas didn’t really do anything—God/Satan did it.
Wilson also strangely cites Paul’s thorn in the flesh as another example of both God and Satan doing something. But that’s not at all implied in the Text. Instead, what the Text says is that the “messenger” is evil, not good at all, but that even though it is evil, it can be subverted by God and Paul to create greater dependency on God’s grace. That God can subvert what Satan meant for evil, bringing good out of it, doesn’t make God and Satan buddies.
All of Wilson’s examples only seem problematic for Open theists if you share Wilson’s hermeneutics. Wilson wants to pass his hermeneutics off as the only proper ones, but they aren’t.
In Wilson’s eleventh objection, he claims that love cannot be inherently risky, as Boyd claims, since there is no risk in the Trinity. However, Wilson’s objection (again) lacks context. Boyd is specifically saying that love between autonomous agents requires risk. In order for “love requires risk” to fail when applied to the Trinity, Wilson would have to be a Tri-theist. Only if the Persons of the Trinity are autonomous agents, and not essentially united in character and nature (as orthodox Trinitarianism holds), could Boyd’s love and freedom axiom fail. It’s not risky for the Trinity to love because the Trinity is love. It is risky for the Trinity to love creation, because creation is not the Trinity and the Trinity is not creation.
When a group wants to assert its dominance over members who question the group’s deeply held beliefs, it often resorts to shaming them into submission. It portrays those who raise questions as rebellious and morally suspect. There must be something wrong with them, it is insinuated, if they are not willing to affirm our deeply held beliefs. This is the essence of Wilson’s twelfth objection. He essentially says, “There must be something wrong with Open theists if they question the traditional view of hell.” Some of us clearly remember how this played out for Rob Bell. Once a bright light in American Evangelicalism, he ran afoul of the gatekeepers when he questioned the traditional view of hell. He was summarily “farewelled.” (which is a thing now)
Why aren’t we asking why the Reformed questioned the “traditional” view of purgatory? Oh, that’s right, because true Christianity started in the 1500s. (See “Protestantism” above)
This objection fails because it is a thinly-veiled attempt to shame Open theists back into the fold, or to “farewell” them out of it.
In his thirteenth objection, Wilson touts his PhD studies of Paul (apparently). He claims that in all of Paul’s theology, God is depicted as energizing all human choices. So, again, Wilson’s objection collapses people (not just Judas this time) into God. We aren’t really agents, we are merely extensions of God. Perhaps we’re only figments of God’s imagination. How “comforting.”
But instead of inventing a new word like “energism,” they way Barclay allegedly did, why not just use the word that Paul actually uses in Romans 8: synergy. Synergy isn’t God making puppets out of us. Synergy is God working together with us.
Oh! I know why Wilson wouldn’t use Paul’s word—because it doesn’t support his objection against Open theism, it demolishes it.
In his final objection, Wilson calls C. S. Lewis as a witness against Open theism. This choice doesn’t seem very well thought-through. C. S. Lewis was an inclusivist (that apparently gets you “farewelled” by people like Wilson). C. S. Lewis believed in purgatory. (Again, “Farewell, C. S.”) And C. S. Lewis is one of the primary reasons I am an Open theist.
It was Lewis who convinced me that free will is essential to the constitution of human beings. And it was Lewis who convinced me that love is risky—something Wilson thinks the doctrine of the Trinity refutes, even though Lewis was Trinitarian. Here’s Lewis in his own words:
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
— The Four Loves
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (…) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.”
— Mere Christianity
To cite Lewis as an ally of theological determinism, merely because he said God knows “more than us,” was a very poor choice. Lewis was no determinist, even if he did believe in divine timelessness and foreknowledge. At best, Lewis was a Classical Arminian who held Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge and Libertarian free will in paradoxical tension.
But, more to the point, Wilson appears as unfamiliar of Open theism as the typical Calvinist critic. He doesn’t seem to know that Open theists would certainly affirm with Lewis that God knows “more than us.”
Today is Good Friday, the day of the Christian year set aside for prayer, deep reflection, and contemplation upon the Cross of Jesus—his suffering and death. However, I must warn you that none of the activities we engage in today will divest the Cross entirely of its mystery. The crucifixion and death of Messiah Jesus, the Son of God, is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith, alongside the Incarnation (which we celebrate at Christmas), and the Resurrection (which we will celebrate on Easter Sunday). To our Modern ears, a “mystery” sounds like a challenge. Because of our conditioning as Modern people, we instinctually think something is only a mystery because we have not cracked it yet, put all the pieces together, figured it out. But the Cross, like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, is not that kind of mystery. It’s not a case waiting to be cracked; it’s not puzzle waiting to be solved. No, the Cross is an inexhaustible mystery. The Cross is a mystery like its a portal to the incomprehensible life of God. We can never fully comprehend it, though many of humanity’s most brilliant minds have tried. In fact, it’s a symptom of our Modern disease that we constantly try to reduce the Cross to a formula, a theory, and use punchy one-liners to define it. We constrain and reduce what God has done, by trying to explain what we are called to contemplate with awe and humility. The Cross is a mystery, not a mechanism for having our guilt removed or going to heaven. So, there won’t be any attempt at an exhaustive explanation for how the cross “works” this evening. Instead, my goal is merely to invite you to stand with me in awe and humility at this great mystery.
At the same time, while we can never fully explain the Cross, or fully comprehend the Cross, there are ways that God gives us insight into aspects or dimensions of the Cross that have profound implications for our lives. Simply because we cannot know all there is to know about the Cross, doesn’t mean we can know nothing.
During the season of Lent, I’ve read a book by the preeminent theologian Dr. James Cone, entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As you can probably tell simply by the title, this book was a deeply challenging read emotionally. Dr. Cone does not hold back from describing in detail the horrific and grotesque practice of lynching which has characterized this country since Reconstruction after the Civil War until only recently. Reading this book during Lent was the most meaningful Lenten practice I’ve ever participated in. As I’ve read it, I’ve been praying. I’ve been attentive to my thoughts and emotions. That’s one of the ways we discern what God is saying to us and how God is at work in our lives—we pay attention to what’s going on, on the inside of us—how we’re being moved. We open an internal dialogue with God. What does this feeling mean, God? I’ve been asking God questions like that a lot lately. I want to invite you to do some of that discernment work this evening. As I share a few insights I’ve gleaned from Dr. Cone’s work. I want to invite you to pay attention to what’s going on, on the inside of you. Have an internal dialogue with God about what you’re feeling. I think that’s one of the ways we can make of the most of Holy Week and experience lasting transformation.
I want to share with you a few insights I’ll take away from The Cross and Lynching Tree, because I truly believe Dr. Cone’s thoughts on the Cross are incredibly timely for you and me in the United States in 2017. This American context we share right now is fraught with racial conflict and I believe that the Cross gives us lenses through which to see our world that will help us to make better sense of racial conflict and help us to see God at work.
1. De-sanitize the Cross
The first insight I’ve gleaned is that if we’re going to have any hope of making sense of racial conflict in our nation today, we’ve got to De-sanitize the Cross. Did you know we have sanitized the Cross? For tens of millions of people in the United States, the Cross is nothing more than a religious symbol that means forgiveness or grace or something like that. We make crosses out of dainty little pieces of gold and we wear them around our necks as jewelry. The Cross has become so innocuous that we hardly notice them when they are plastered everywhere! I’m a pastor and I hardly notice them!
When the Cross is plastered everywhere, and is thought of by nearly everyone as simply a religious symbol of grace and forgiveness, it’s easy to forget what the Cross originally was—Terrorism! Crucifixion was terrorism! Deliberate, calculated terrorism! Crucifixion was designed to send a death threat to all who saw it. Romans used crucifixion to terrorize Jewish people in Jesus’s day—to intimidate them, so that they would remain subservient to Rome. They used it to maintain their control over the minds of the Jewish people.
How many of you saw the movie Get Out? If you haven’t seen it, you have to. It’s an important film. I won’t give any spoilers, because I think you really need to see it. But I bring it up because of this point about mind control. It wasn’t just fear that made the terrorism of the Cross powerful—it was the sense of utter powerlessness that it rendered in any onlooker. That sense of utter powerlessness was brilliantly depicted in the movie as a “sunken place” from which a person can’t escape. When Jesus was still a small child, Jewish Galileans, Jesus’s neighbors, perhaps even some relatives, staged a revolt against Rome. The Romans decided to send Galilee a message, so they crucified 2,000 of the Galilean rebels. Crosses with people Jesus might have known, writhing in pain, along the road, as far as the eye can see. Think of the trauma that inflicted upon the Galilean onlookers. That’s a tactic designed to force people into a “sunken place.”
If we’re ever going to get insight into the racial conflict in our country, we’ve got to start by de-sanitizing the Cross. Dr. Cone puts it so well,
“As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsty for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society.” (p.31)
There was a political rally during the election season, in which a older white man violently attacked a younger black man as he was being escorted out of the stadium as a protester. Afterward, the man who attacked him was asked some questions on video. He was asked why he attacked the young man and he responded that the young man wasn’t acting “very American” and then he said that next time he “might have to kill him.” At another political rally, a man who was video recorded shouting obscenities at a protester was asked about it and he responded saying, “I can’t believe I did that. It was me, but I’m not a hateful man. I just got caught up. When I saw the video all over the news of me doing that to that young man, I was just disgusted with myself.” This is called “scapegoating,” putting all the blame and shame on a person or a group of people, and punishing or expelling them to free the community or society from their sense of their own sin. Make no mistake, scapegoating unifies people. But it doesn’t unify them in the Holy Spirit, it unifies them in the unholy spirit of accusation—the spirit of the accuser (ha-satan).
In the Gospels, we read of the crowds who cheered for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with shouts of “Hosanna” and “Son of David”. That very same crowd had turned into an angry, violent mob by Friday. They freely allowed themselves to be swept up in the spirit of hatred and violence.
The De-Sanitized Cross is a Lynching tree. We see reflected in it all the anti-creation, anti-human forces of evil that are work in our world converging on an innocent human being. That’s why Peter says to the ruling council in Acts, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (5.30)
The world-renowned historian and theologian N. T. Wright wrote,
“Anyone looking at the cross of Jesus with a normal understanding of the first-century world would think: the rulers and authorities stripped him naked and celebrated a public triumph over him. That’s what they normally did to such people.” (Paul for Everyone, p.170)
When we De-sanitize the Cross, we can see the Crosses in our own society. We can see the ways innocent people are victimized and scapegoated. We can see the powers at work, sweeping people up in hatred and violence.
Let’s do some of that attentiveness and discernment work now. How’s your internal dialogue with God going? Are you being attentive to your emotions? Let me ask you some more general questions: Who are the scapegoated in our nation today? Who are those who the powerful have scapegoated? And now, how about some more personal questions: Who have you and I scapegoated? Who do we wish to heap all of the shame and blame and guilt upon?
While the De-sanitized Cross is an instrument of terror and a death threat, the second paradoxical insight I’ve gleaned from Dr. Cone’s book is how the Cross “Dis-arms the Powers.”
2. Disarm the Powers
Colossians 2.15 is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
Dr. Cone uses a powerful analogy in the book that stuck with me. In 1955, Emmett Till was brutally lynched at 14 years old in Mississippi. Dr. Cone writes,
“If anything was remarkable about the Till lynching, it was not so much the callousness of the deed as the militant response it evoked. If lynching was intended to instill silence and passivity, this event had the opposite effect, inspiring [African Americans] to rise in defiance, to cast off centuries of paralyzing fear. The signal of this change was marked by the actions of Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, who refused to allow this heinous act, like so many similar cases, to remain in the shadows or to fade from public memory. When Emmett’s body was brought back to Chicago, she insisted that the sealed casket be opened for a three-day viewing, exposing ‘his battered and bloated corpse’ so that ‘everybody can see what they did to my boy.’ She exposed white brutality and black faith to the world and, significantly, expressed a parallel meaning between her son’s lynching and the crucifixion of Jesus. “Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition,” she cried out, “but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.” (p.66-67)
If the enemy thinks it has the atomic bomb, the ultimate weapon: Death, and it uses it, but it doesn’t work, what does it have left? Pontius Pilate said to Jesus “Don’t you know I have the power to kill you?” And Jesus essentially says back, “Is that all you got?”
The Cross is paradoxically the destruction of Jesus and the triumph of Jesus. On the Cross, Jesus somehow disarms the powers and authorities, rendered their ultimate weapon, not only useless, but uses it as a weapon against them! This is Divine Aikido! Somehow, God is able to fold the enemies’ attack back in on it. We don’t know how this works, we can’t explain it, but it has worked. For two-thousand years, Christians continue to follow Jesus even though it has often resulted in their death. Over 30 Christians were murdered by ISIS on Palm Sunday in Cairo, Egypt. But Coptic Christians will be back worshipping on Easter Sunday, because we don’t fear death.
Hebrews 2.14 says, “Since [God’s] children have flesh and blood, [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
Jesus was the scapegoat to end all scapegoating. Jesus took onto himself all the blame and shame and he absorbed it. Human beings violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and he took them. All the principalities and powers of the world tried to crush him, but he broke their power—the power of the fear of death—and he triumphed over them! The devil and the rulers and powers didn’t know their plan would backfire on them. Paul said, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor. 2.8) Jesus took it all for us, and what he gave us in its place is forgiveness, purification, new life, new humanity, oneness with God.
Here’s how Dr. Cone puts it in his book,
“God’s word is paradoxical […] a mystery that one can neither control nor fully understand. It is here and not here, revealed and hidden at the same time. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45.15) Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross. A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life.” (p.156)
You and I disarm the powers when we refuse to use the power of death, the power of the sword, coercive power.
You and I disarm the powers when we speak the truth to rulers and authorities prophetically without fear.
You and I disarm the powers when we embody the alternative new humanity created by Jesus in our communities of faith.
That’s one of the primary reasons I’m at New City Church. Because the way you and I disarm the power of racial hatred and violence is through intentionally forming and participating in interracial Christian community. The way you and I disarm the powers is by taking down the crucified ones of society from their crosses and joining with them as family. (p.161)
When we De-sanitize the Cross, we can see how it was an instrument of terror used by the powers. We can also see how the fear of death is the atomic bomb of the powers. But Jesus absorbs that blow and comes out the other side. He disarms the powers of their ultimate weapon and frees us from the fear of death.
Which leads me to the last insight I gleaned from Dr. Cone’s book I’d like to share with you. The Cross “Directs our Creativity.”
3. Direct our Creativity
One of my favorite aspects of Dr. Cone book is his commentary on black Christian art.
“The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death. There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built. In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.” (p.21-22)
Black preachers, artists, poets, musicians had a De-sanitized Cross. They saw its brutality reflected in their own lives and in the history of American racism. Part of Disarming the Powers for them was Directing their Creativity into artistic expression. Dr. Cone quotes Shawn Copeland, professor of theology at Boston College,
“If the makers of the spirituals gloried in singing of the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering. Rather, [they] sang because they saw on the rugged wooden planks One who had endured what was their daily portion. The cross was treasured because it enthroned the One who went all the way with them and for them. [They] sang because they saw the results of the cross—triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world.” (p.151)
Art is also not the only way the Cross Directs our Creativity. Dr. King is one of the best examples of how the Cross Directs Creativity into nonviolent direct action. Cone writes,
“…for King nonviolence was more than a strategy; it was the way of life defined by love for others—the only way to heal broken humanity. Hate created more hate and violence more violence. King believed that the cycle of violence and hate could be broken only with nonviolence and love, as revealed in Jesus’ rejection of violence and his acceptance of a shameful death on a cruel cross.”
“King saw the cross as a source of strength and courage, the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity.” (p.85)
As we meditate on what the Cross might have to say to our American context in 2017, I want to invite you to enter into this deep mystery with awe and humility. When we contemplate the de-sanitized Cross, we’re rightly disgusted by it; we’re rightly repelled by it. But when we see how Jesus turned what was an instrument of terrorism and torture into his own triumph over the powers, we are emboldened to confront the powers and authorities in our world. When we see how Jesus took the blow and absorbed it, overpowering death with love, we are freed from the fear of death and we can lives of hope even in the midst of a world still plagued by racism and violence. The de-sanitized Cross that disarms the powers directs our creativity into joining God in the renewal of all things. It beacons us to imagine that a new world is possible. We are empowered with courage to enter into the messy but beautiful work of seeking racial righteousness and justice in community.
Recently, I saw that Missio Alliance has published an “Essential Reading List of 2016,” and was proud to see my friends Jessica Kelley, Drew Hart, and Lisa Sharon Harper’s books make the list. Represent!
So, Missio’s list got me thinking about the books I read this year. Here’s a brief reflection with recommendations.
In preparation for a sermon series, I started this year reading works on the New Testament book of Revelation. I re-read three of my favorites: 1. Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson; 2. Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman; and 3. Revelation For Everyone by N. T. Wright. In my opinion, these are still (hands down) the best three resources on Revelation. But, I also read a few new ones. David DeSilva’s book Unholy Allegiances was excellent. It’s an accessible and brief introduction with insights backed by archeological research and empire criticism. I also read Brian Blount’s Can I Get a Witness? which is in a league of its own. It was eye-opening in many ways. Darrell Johnson’s Discipleship on the Edge was a very helpful text for preaching and full of interesting insights.
In addition to sermon prep reading, I also read several other books I think are worth recommending. My top eight are:
When the church looks back on this period in history, we will undoubtably speak of Wright’s scholarship the way we do those theologians who define an era like Augustine or Aquinas. His work is that important. He’s probably best known for deeply impacting historical Jesus studies and Pauline studies, two of the most contentious fields in modern Christian theology. But, in recent years, Wright’s work has coalesced into two discernible modes. He has his field-defining, 600+ page tomes like Jesus and the Victory of God. In these, he does extensive exegesis, engages with the work of best and brightest minds in the world, and details ground-breaking approaches to well-worn subjects. Then, his second mode are popular-level, ~200 page works for lay-persons. In this mode, he’s also made waves like with this books Surprised by Hope and Justification.
The Day the Revolution Began is a book on Jesus’s Cross in the latter (popular-level) mode. It’s around 400 pages, but it is written in his layperson-accessible style. He doesn’t name-drop dozens of scholars or parse Greek words. But he manages, in a relatively brief book, to provide readers with a high-level survey of the history and landscape of teaching on the atonement. Wright challenges sacred cows and yet remains intensely traditional. What sets apart Wright’s work from so many others is that he brings into focus the New Testament’s deep indebtedness to the Hebrew Bible and how fully immersed Jesus’s story is in the story of Israel. With Wright’s signature punchiness, he takes aim at distortions of “penal substitutionary atonement” that forsake the biblical narrative for an unbiblical one. In the end, Wright recovers all the best aspects of “PSA,” while both discarding its perversions, and providing the structure for a far better frame. That frame is Exodus and Exile; two of the most important aspects of the biblical narrative which arrive at their climax in the Cross.
This book is a must-read for theology nerds.
In Roadmap to Reconciliation, Brenda Salter-McNeil distills decades of wisdom gleaned from painstaking and miracle-producing work among Christian organizations wrestling with cross-cultural and interracial ministry into a highly-accessible, highly-practical, and brief book. On a subject as fraught with landmines as racial reconciliation, Dr. Salter-McNeil manages to both provoke and build bridges. She simultaneously confronts and comforts. She does this by masterfully weaving together powerful stories from her extensive body of work with profound biblical insights. While brief, this book is packed with potential to transform ministries who are seeking to be transformed.
This book is a must-read for any pastor or Christian leader courageous enough to engage in the Gospel work of racial reconciliation.
For his “sabbatical,” Brian Zahnd (and his wife Peri) recently walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage traveled by millions of Christians down through the centuries. But that six-week journey pales in comparison to the journey he has traversed in the last 15 years. He’s been transformed from a Charismatic (read: tongue-talkin’), prosperity-preaching, war-praying, bible-thumping, Americanized, “Evangelical,” Christian into a contemplative, liturgical, (probably still tongue-talkin’), nonviolent, sacramental, Jesus-follower. In Water to Wine, he details some of that journey and its one with which I deeply identify. I’m so grateful for how Zahnd articulates the Christian faith; it inspires and energizes me. (Read my full review)
This book is a must-read for any “Evangelical” who senses there is more to Christianity.
I’ve been waiting for and dreaming of a book like this one for years! Lord Willing? is a theodicy from the perspective of a thoughtful, intelligent woman who has personally experienced agonizing pain and loss. Far too many of the theodicies on tap today are written by men and are written to reinforce a picture of God that looks nothing like Jesus. Jessica Kelley allows us to see into the darkest moments of her life, as she profoundly struggled with God’s goodness and power in the midst of her son’s (Henry) battle with cancer. Matched only by her laser-focused, Jesus-centered theological insights are her engrossing accounts of how she experienced each excruciating moment. What sets this book apart from all others is that it doesn’t offer a “solution” to the problem of evil in the form of a doctrine—it offers a Jesus-centered framework that allows a mother watching her son slowing dying not to loser her faith. Kelley offers readers a way to see that the Jesus-looking God is at war against all evil—including cancer—and suffers alongside each of us, sustaining us in his unique love. She offers readers an alternative to the “blueprint” view of God, which makes God the cause of cancer and renders God’s character suspect. Kelley’s view is extremely well-researched and supported by Scripture. But make no mistake, Kelley’s story is also heartbreaking, so make sure you have tissues handy when you read it.
This book is must-read for everyone who wrestles with God’s goodness or power in the midst of pain and loss.
James K. A. Smith is my favorite “Reformed” thinker. I loved his book Desiring the Kingdom. And that’s why I also loved You Are What You Love. It felt to me like the lay-person’s version of Desiring the Kingdom, which I think is a brilliant move. While Desiring the Kingdom was aimed at transforming our conception of Christian education using an Augustinian anthropology and corresponding pedagogy, You Are What You Love widens the scope of his thesis to all Christian formation. Smith’s contention is that human beings aren’t primarily “thinking things,” shaped by our thoughts, but are desiring persons, formed by our deepest loves. In classic Augustinian fashion, Smith points to our “disordered loves” as the root cause of our distorted humanity. Therefore, the solution is properly ordered loves. This, Smith writes, is accomplished through the practices of Christian worship. This simple idea is power-packed. With it, Smith can diagnose all the ways our loves are being malformed by “secular liturgies,” the practices in which we thoughtlessly engage every day. Smith urges us to take back the power of habit to harness our formation and submit it to God’s will and way. Through the practices of Christian worship, we are being transformed by God’s Spirit and grace more and more into the image of Christ.
This book is a must-read for all Jesus-followers who want to be properly formed.
Morgan Guyton has been challenging toxic Christianity on his blog, “Mercy, Not Sacrifice” for quite a while now. So, while overdue, How Jesus Saves the World From Us was worth the wait. Each chapter highlights one way Morgan has conceptualized his journey out of toxic Christianity and into a deep relationship with Christ. (Read my full review)
This book is a must-read for anyone who has felt hurt by Christians or churches but still desires a relationship with Christ.
Jonathan Martin’s first book, Prototype, is a tough act to follow. But with his signature, vulnerable and poetic style, Martin offers a sequel that did not disappoint. Even though Prototype was deeply personal, somehow his second book manages to be even more personal. As Martin draws you into his story of personal loss and failure you can’t help but grow more and more introspective and contemplative. He’s a master at this. Before you know it, you are half-reading and half-praying. Martin’s pastoral ministry extends to every reader of this book and its a ministry of empowering grace.
This book is a must-read for everyone who has felt like a failure and needs to hear God’s voice speaking life over them.
This was my first time reading a work by Leroy Barber and it was a great introduction. While I’ve followed some of his ministry through my involvement with the CCDA, this was the first time I’d read any of his extended story, and it’s amazing! I was very encouraged by this book, not only as a minister but also as a Jesus-follower. I also loved the emphasis on shalom. As some of you may know, my wife is writing a book that also focuses on shalom that is due out in 2017. This book opened my eyes to even more of God’s power among us.
This is a must-read for everyone trying to follow God’s call on their lives, even when it’s deeply challenging.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday is a parable of Jesus—perhaps a familiar one for many of us, perhaps not. On the surface, this parable is fairly easy to understand. But, today, you may see some themes from this text that aren’t so self-evident. You might see how you and I can live lives alienated from God’s love. And this state of alienation from God’s love leads to alienation within ourselves and from others.
Before I knew this text was the Gospel reading for this week, I had already been thinking about this state of alienation because of how it feels in America right now. Powerful forces of division are at work in our world. So, I believe this text is very timely and has a lot of important things to say to us today.
In this text, Jesus tells a parable about two men praying at the Temple. The two main characters are very specifically chosen to be polar opposites with inherent conflict in their identities. One is a member of a group called the Pharisees. The other is one of many in Jesus’s day who have become tax-collectors for Rome. The two characters also represent these two groups.
The Pharisees were devout Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day. They had a particular understanding of how the Reign of God was going finally going to arrive in the midst of the present occupation of Israel by Rome—a foreign, Pagan, military empire. Their belief was that the only righteous response to God’s people being under the control of unclean Gentile overlords, was resistance through purity. If Jews in Israel would just maintain the purity of their Jewish identity by keeping the Mosaic Law meticulously, and especially remaining pure by not associating with ‘sinners’ like Gentiles or tax-collectors, then God would return to Zion in power through his Messiah and liberate Israel once again (like a new Exodus from Egypt).
But there were other Jewish approaches to the dilemma of Roman occupation besides resistance through purity. Other devout Jewish people felt equally strongly that the only way the Reign of God was going to arrive was if they met this invading, violent force called Rome with equal and opposite force. Only difference between Rome’s violence and the violence of these “Zealots” (as they were called), was that the violence of the Zealots was religiously-justified because “God is on their side”! (Ever heard anyone talk like that? I have!) Jesus Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus of Nazareth on that first Good Friday, was this type of Jewish revolutionary—someone the Gospel authors say participated in a violent rebellion for which he was imprisoned awaiting execution when his life was exchanged for Jesus of Nazareth’s.
Then there were Jewish people whose approach to the Roman occupation was to compromise with them—even to get rich from their violent reign over Israel. That’s what a tax-collector was doing. I’m currently reading a book with New City’s men’s group in which the author compares first-century tax-collectors to modern-day IRS agents. That is an terrible misunderstand that makes me want to demand whatever seminary he went to give him his money back! First-century tax-collectors weren’t pencil-pushing bean-counters like IRS agents—they were ruthless extortionists who profited from the oppression of their own people! If you think that the Pharisees disliked tax-collectors the way we dislike paying our taxes, you don’t understand just how much of a betrayal it was for a Jewish person to become rich by taking even more money than a person owed Rome, under the threat of violence against their own fellow Jewish people. Tax-collectors weren’t like IRS agents at all. Tax-collectors were like gangsters who you had to pay protection money to, and you hated them because they were supposed to be your brothers! In fact, tax-collectors were so hated that the Zealots would often assassinate them.
Jesus chose these two types of Jewish men for his parable because their identities as members of their respective groups were in direct opposition to each other. They had polar opposite ideas about the Reign of God, their ruling Gentile overlords, and what righteousness looks like in response.
(This is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names of groups) Who do you think Jesus would choose for his parable if he were telling it to Americans today? Without calling out any group names, think to yourself about who Jesus would have starring in his parable today?
There are dozens of fault lines in our society and world today, between groups who have as much hostility against one another as the Pharisees did with tax-collectors. It’s nearly impossible to tune in to any form of news or media without the headlines centering around the conflict between two of these groups.
Jesus’s choice of these two group representatives is very deliberate. Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (v.9 NRSV) The Pharisees would fall into Jesus’s intended audience. They regarded tax-collectors as unclean “sinners,” formally excluded from the synagogue—the center of Jewish religious and social life. Pharisees regarded their way as the only righteous way.
So, what does Jesus do with this parable? He flips the script, of course! That’s what Jesus does!
It’s the despised tax-collector who throws himself upon the mercy of God who is counted righteous before God, not the self-righteous Pharisee!
This parable isn’t a challenge to those who you and I “regard with contempt;” it’s a challenge to us. You and I are in danger of considering ourselves part of the in-group, and those people we despise as part of the out-group. You and I have made up our minds who the “bad guys” are. You and I have already counted ourselves as part of the “good guys” group. And no one can tell us otherwise!
But Jesus’s parable challenges you and I directly, on how we view ourselves and our judgment of others.
Our view of ourselves and judgment of others is warped by something that may not be obvious in this parable. But a slight reframe might help us to see how this challenge applies to us, even now.
The setting of the parable appears obviously religious (the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). But the setting beneath this setting is a Stage.
A place of worship like the Temple was a place where the focus is centered around God. But the Pharisee’s prayer betrays that he imagines himself as the main attraction, the star of the show. He’s putting on a performance.
Did you know that when Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites” in the Gospels, that term didn’t yet mean what it has come to mean for us today? “Hypocrite” was a term for an actor. It literally means “before the critics,” like someone on a stage performing for an audience. It describes someone who is putting on an act, or wearing a mask.
When Jesus calls out the Pharisees for being performers, he’s calling us all out! We’ve all grown up in a world where we’ve come to understand that people are watching us and judging us. So, in return, we watch them and judge them. We’re all critics and we’re all performers! We’re all hypocrites!
My friend Morgan Guyton is a campus minister in New Orleans. He recently wrote a book called How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. In a chapter called “Worship Not Performance,” he reframes the familiar Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin as not about disobedience and punishment, but about the loss of authentic delight in God alone and the fall into self-conscious performance for God and others. He writes,
“Adam and Eve don’t gain the wisdom that the serpent promised as a result of eating the fruit [of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil]; the only ‘knowledge’ that they gain is the fear and shame of their nakedness. They receive the curse of self-consciousness, the death of innocent wonder, which turns a life of worship into a life of performance.” (1)
These two ways of living are in conflict with each other. We can’t live in authentic delight in God alone and also live in shame and fear, performing for God and others. What happens when we live in this performance mode, is that we become alienated from God, alienated from ourselves, and alienated from others. God calls out to us, “Where did you go?” And our only honest answer is, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” To which God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” or, to put the question another way, “Who are these critics you’re performing for?”
The fear and shame that comes from self-consciousness shows up in a lot of different forms. It can show up in self-righteousness like in the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable. For some people, it shows up in cynicism or self-destructive behavior designed to say to our critics, “You can tell me what to do!” Some people’s performance is in their morality. Others’ is their correct beliefs. Others in their correct political opinions (I’m sure no one here knows anyone who thinks they have the correct political opinions in this highly contentious election season). Others justify their existence through their aptitude, their productivity, their wealth, their status, or their celebrity. This life of performance under the critics is a curse!
Not too long ago, I heard of a young woman in Australia who got headlines for quitting Instagram, which to most of us is nothing newsworthy at all. But, what made it interesting to many people is that when she announced her decision to leave social media, she had over 600,000 followers. She had so many followers, that she was getting paid to post pictures of herself with products or in certain clothes. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying in one article I read, “I’m the girl who had it all and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means nothing to your real life … Everything I did was for likes and for followers.” “I was surrounded by all this wealth and all this fame and all this power and yet they were all miserable, and I had never been more miserable.” (2)
She was alienated from her own true self. She was wearing a mask, performing for her Instagram critics and dying inside. You and I don’t have to be Instagram models to understand what that feels like. We have our own ways we perform for the critics.
Let me ask you this: What does it profit us if our performance for God or others gains us everything we think we want, but the fear and shame of putting on an act cost us our very souls?
This performance life that we can live due to shame and fear not only alienates us from God, and alienates us from ourselves, it also alienates us from one another.
Part of the Pharisee’s performance is to heap contempt on the tax-collector as a way of reassuring himself that at least he’s better than someone else.
Did you know that “Satan” is not a proper name, but is instead a description of a role in a law court? Ha-Satan means “the Accuser”. It speaks of the person in an ancient law court who brings charges against another. When we heap scorn upon another person or group of people in a self-righteous attempt to justify ourselves, we are taking on the role of the Accuser. We have the attitude, or “spirit,” of the Accuser.
In the Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they become afraid, ashamed, and hide themselves. Then God asks them if they’ve eaten of the fruit and their immediate response is to start accusing others. It’s Eve’s fault; it’s the serpent’s fault; it’s your fault, God!
The Performance Game we play when we live in the fear and shame of self-consciousness, “before the critics,” leads us to the Blame Game that divides us from one another. That’s why Jesus has the Pharisee self-righteously say “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (v.11)
The curse of self-consciousness that we live under not only alienates us from God because we feel afraid and ashamed so we hide from God—and it not only alienates us from ourselves because that fear and shame leads us to perform for God and others, wearing masks, and seeking to justify ourselves—it also alienates us from one another because we use the knowledge of good and evil to judge and accuse one another. Self-consciousness and the compulsion to perform leads to accusation and division.
(Again, this is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names) What are some of the divisions we can see in our society, and our world today, that come from us judging and accusing one another? I’m sure we can all think of several.
Recently, I began reading a new book by a pastor named Jonathan Martin called How to Survive a Shipwreck. In it, he talks about his own experience of “shipwreck”, when he had to step down from leading the church he planted and pastored for several years because of a moral failing. In one section of the book, he talks about how for so long he thought of himself as above such a failing, like it could never happen to him. He judged others and thought himself pretty righteous. But he discovered through his own shipwreck that we’re all in need of God’s mercy—like the tax collector in Jesus’s parable. Here’s what Martin writes,
“One way or the other, through illness, divorce, calamity, or death, we will be stripped away from the things that made us feel other than/apart from our fellow humans. And life itself will plunge us into the sea of our own shared humanity.
Ideally, the primary function of religion will be to loose us from our illusions of individuality and self-reliance and deliver us from the toxic fruit of ego development. But instead of equipping us to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we make entire religions out of worshipping around the tree instead. Rather than breaking down the illusory boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ insiders and outsiders, sacred and profane, religion often underwrites these boundaries, reinforces them, gives us a sense of being good guys over/against the bad guys. Instead of subverting the lie of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ religion is often a tool to make us feel special, set apart. No wonder Jesus tells the Pharisees of his time, practitioners of these kinds of judgments, that they make converts ‘twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.’ ‘Us and them’ religion is poison to the soul, and it often takes a lifetime of humiliation to detoxify us from it.” (3)
One of the ways this parable hits me right in the gut is in how I think about those with different political opinions from mine—especially my fellow Christian sisters and brothers. The temptation to judge and accuse them has been strong this election year. I know I’m probably the only one. I read an article the other day that didn’t necessarily present the arguments for why someone would support alternative policies or another candidate, but it presented how our nation has become so divided culturally between those who dwell in small towns, suburbs, and rural areas, and those who dwell in cities. And it gave me some much needed empathy for my sisters and brothers in Christ who have a different outlook on things because of where they’re from. I recognized that my outlook is also colored by where I’m from, and we all need God’s mercy.
This passage also challenges me to think about the ways I perform for the critics. It caused me to really recon with the reality that I have some critics I’m performing for from my past. Part of my drive in life is to show them I matter—to justify my existence.
How does this parable of Jesus challenge you? Take a moment to process these two questions between yourself and God. In what ways are you playing the Performance Game? And in what ways are you playing the Blame Game?
Humanity has a serious problem. We’re born into a self-conscious world. We’ve all eaten the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and so we’re afraid, ashamed, we hide, and we accuse one another. As a result we’ve become alienated from God, from ourselves, and from one another.
The Good News in this parable is the solution Jesus gives to this experience of alienation. By God’s grace, we can exercise courageous vulnerability, by throwing ourselves upon God’s mercy, and humbly accepting God’s unconditional, transforming love. No more hiding! No more performing! No more masks! No more accusation!
When we do this, we are freed from self-consciousness to live in wonder and worship of God like a child freely dancing—without any concern for how they appear. Morgan Guyton writes,
“When we’re performing for the critics, we are living the opposite of belovedness. Belovedness means living under the gaze of a God who watches us with such warmth that we stop worrying about what to do with our hands when we dance. That warmth, if we allow ourselves to embrace it, can fill our hearts with the true, genuine worship that we lost when we were children.” (4)
And Jonathan Martin writes,
“You were created in the image of God. Before you knew anyone or did anything, everything was in you necessary to live at home in divine love. However buried that image of God is within you, that part of you that knows what it is to be perfectly loved, held, and known—it is still very much there.” (5)
That’s how Jesus ends his parable: with the tax-collector, the “sinner,” formally excluded from Jewish religious and social life, “going home” right with God.
Today, we can all “go home” right with God. The Good News is that God is making all things new, recreating the world through Jesus and the Spirit. Jesus has made a way for you and I to be reconciled to God, reconciled to ourselves, and reconciled to one another. That experience of being rescued from the domination of self-consciousness and invited to participate in God’s Reign on earth is what we call salvation and what we celebrate in this meal we share together called the Lord’s Supper, or “Communion,” or the “Eucharist” (which means thanksgiving).
May this meal be our coming home today, freed from the watching critics to live under God’s loving gaze of grace. If you are willing and able, please pray with me.
Most Merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you and sinned against one another,
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors or our brothers and sisters as ourselves.
We humbly repent.
Just as your Son Jesus did, have mercy on us and forgive us;
That we may delight in your will and walk in your ways,
To the glory of your Name.
- Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity (WJK, 2016), p.10.
- Rheana Murray, “Instagram star quits social media, reveals her ‘dream life’ was all a sham,” Today (Nov. 4, 2015) [ http://www.today.com/news/instagram-star-quits-social-media-reveals-her-dream-life-was-t53721 ] (accessed Oct. 19, 2016).
- Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is On the Way and Love is Already Here (Zondervan, 2016), p.48-49.
- Guyton, p.15.
- Martin, p.70.
20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17 NRSV)
Lately, the Kingdom of God has been the subject of much discussion in Christian theological scholarship and local churches. Two biblical scholars in particular have been at the center of this discussion, with two very similar but slightly nuanced views. Those two are Tom Wright and Scot McKnight. As is evident from their names, either of their views is -ight, but which was one is right? (See what I did there?)
Space and time constraints permit only a brief and perhaps reductionistic survey of both scholars’ views. However, my ultimate aim is not merely to survey their views, but to present my own. I hope to show where I see the reign of God present and its relationship to the church.
Let’s start with McKnight. In books like Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight puts forth a proposal that we might call “ecclesio-centric.” He makes it clear that he does not find it biblical at all to speak of God’s “kingdom” activity outside the people of God. For him, God’s Kingdom is the church.
An ecclesio-centric model of the Kingdom has some appeal. It squares with a lot of Scripture. The people of Israel are often equated with God’s kingdom. And Paul often speaks very highly of the church, as the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plan (e.g. Eph. 1.23, 3.10, etc.).
However, Wright’s position also has biblical support. For Wright, Jesus is God’s-Kingdom-in-person. That is why Jesus preached the Gospel as “The Kingdom of God is near.” (e.g. Mt. 3.2; Mk. 1.15; Lk. 10.9, etc.) The church had not yet been established by Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. And yet, Jesus’s presence was the supreme sign of the Kingdom’s in-breaking. What’s more, the Risen Christ continues to be present in the world by his Spirit, revealing Christ and manifesting the Kingdom.
So, therein lies the primary point of departure. Both theologians believe that the Gospel is the announcement and enactment of the Kingdom of God. Both theologians believe that Jesus, the Spirit, and his church are central to that enactment. But there is a slight nuance in how they would view the relationship between the church and the Kingdom.
Perhaps it’s relevant to state that McKnight, though he has become Anglican of late, has for many years been one of the most prolific voices in the U.S. for what’s been called “Neo-Anabaptism.” Both the Anabaptist and Anglican traditions centralize the church in the work of God. But it may be relevant that the Anglican tradition has been more comfortable with recognizing God’s work outside the church in common grace.
In a rare, constructive dialogue with a friend on Facebook, I suggested that maybe pnuematology would have an impact on this discussion.
If one views the work of the Spirit (e.g. illumination, drawing of people to Christ, manifesting shalom, etc.) as the same work that is theologically described as the “in-breaking of the Kingdom,” then the presence of the Kingdom would overlap with everywhere the Spirit can been seen to be at work.
Pentecostals and Charismatics have been talking this way for a hundred years, of course. Where the Spirit heals and delivers, the Kingdom is present. This is also backed-up by Scripture. Jesus correlated the miraculous power of the Spirit with the in-breaking of the Kingdom.
“20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Luke 11 NRSV)
Where the Spirit is at work, Jesus claims, the Kingdom is breaking in.
Another factor that may influence one’s view on this subject is one’s conception of a kingdom. If one associates a kingdom with an institution, one is more likely to side with McKnight. But, it’s important to note that “reign” is a more accurate translation than “kingdom” for the New Testament concept.1
The “reign” of a king is much more than an institution or a group of people—it is also the ethos of that king, the values, and way of life embodied in the era of that king’s rule.
The ethos of God’s reign is pictured throughout the Bible as the presence of peace, justice, right relationships between people and God and each other, as well as harmony with God’s creation. The prophets often picture this as the end of war and violence, or as the end of predator and prey, or God’s presence as in the Temple, only everywhere (e.g. Is. 2.4, 11.6; Rev. 21-22). This vision of God’s reign is also encapsulated in the complex Hebrew word: shalom.
Wherever God’s Spirit is at work wooing, drawing people to Christ, reconciling people to one another, fostering restorative justice; manifesting God’s love in physical healing, emotional healing, providing for physical needs like hunger, thirst, safety, and freedom, God’s reign is breaking into this world.
The church has a critical role to play in this in-breaking. The church are those who gather in that shalom, give glory to God in Christ through worship, and bear witness. The church are those who embody the reign of God through our lives.
This is how the church serves as a ‘colony of heaven’ (Phil. 3.20). We manifest the in-breaking of God’s reign in our communal life. We also spread God’s reign in our proclamation and embodiment of that reign in the world. The church is to be a microcosm of what will one day characterize the whole world.
Here’s a concrete example: the Conversion of Cornelius’s Household
In Acts chapter 10, we read of a man named Cornelius who is a Gentile Centurion. (That’s two strikes). But to his credit, he is described as a “god-fearer,” which likely means he is a Gentile convert to Judaism or just a Gentile who keeps the Law of Moses. (Note: Even if he has been in-grafted into Israel, he is not yet a member of ‘the Church of Jesus Christ’). And yet, this man’s generosity and devotion are recognized by God (cf. 10.4b). God is at work in this man’s life. How can God be at work in his life? By God’s Spirit, of course. God’s Spirit is the main character of Acts. The Spirit is the One through whom Jesus continues to be present to his disciples and to act in the world.
You know how the rest of the story goes: The angel who appears to Cornelius (who informs him that his devotion and generosity have been received by God) tells him to send for Peter. Meanwhile, Peter is getting a lesson from God about Gentile-inclusion. So that, by the time, Gentile messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter is ready to go with them. Upon hearing the Gospel preached to them, Cornelius and his whole household received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was upon their reception of the Holy Spirit that Peter initiates them into the church by the sacrament of baptism.
Who would deny that the activity of the Spirit in Cornelius’s life was the reign of God breaking in? How did it happen? By the power of the Spirit. When does the church come into the equation? When Cornelius’s household hears the Gospel about Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit.
- God’s Spirit is at work everywhere in the world—even among those we would least expect (e.g. Gentile Centurions, etc.). God’s Spirit is drawing people to Christ, as evinced by the vision of the angel and the command to send for Peter.
- The preaching and embodiment of the Gospel by Peter is met by the reception of the Holy Spirit in those among whom God is at work. God’s reign is manifest in their midst.
- Then, those among whom God has been at work by God’s Spirit, manifesting God’s reign, are initiated into the church.
Therefore, the church is the culmination of the in-drawing work of the Spirit in the world, and the front lines of where God’s shalom-making reign is found.
- basileia (transliteration of the Greek) means: royal power, kingship, dominion, rule—not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom; of the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah; of the royal power and dignity conferred on Christians in the Messiah’s kingdom.
I’m currently teaching a three-part seminar among the congregation I serve on biblical interpretation. This is my second time teaching it. This time around, I couldn’t resist adding a few new slides and pages to the introductory section on translation. The occasion for this revision are the recent decisions made by the translation committee of the English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible. I find them to be incredibly serendipitous, since they afford me the opportunity to show participants a powerful and relevant example of how not to translate the Bible.
Back in August, the ESV translation committee issued a statement declaring that they had completed the task entrusted to them by God of translating the Bible. They announced that there would be no more changes made to the ESV, ever. They called this the “Permanent Text.” As you can imagine, in many people’s minds this decision sounded eerily familiar. Was the ESV translation committee pulling a King James?
“The decision now to create the Permanent Text of the ESV was made with equally great care—so that people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.
The number of changes in the new ESV Permanent Text is limited to 52 words (out of more than 775,000 total words in ESV Bible) found in 29 verses (out of more than 31,000 verses in the ESV). […] Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord […]” (1)
I only learned of the ESV Permanent Text when a Christianity Today article was shared by a friend on Facebook. Since Facebook is an infamous venue for satirical articles like those from The Onion or the new Christian satire site The Babylon Bee, I read the article’s headline and laughed out loud. “Since when does Christianity Today write satirical pieces?” I thought. But the headline wasn’t a joke. “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God.” (2) Here’s the humor: the word “translation” necessarily means that the product cannot be the unchanging word of God. So, even if inadvertent, the headline is incredibly ironic. And yet, what the article details is no laughing matter.
“One of the changes the ESV translation committee made, which they were making permanent, was a revision of Genesis 3.16. Christianity Today reported: “Genesis 3:16 was changed from “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (3)
Scot McKnight was the first Evangelical theologian I read who addresses this translation choice.
“…in this final revision they have sneaked in a translation that is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong. […] I refer to Genesis 3:16’s use of “contrary to” for the Hebrew el. In the Permanent ESV we have “contrary to” while in the Protestant-like Semper Reformanda ESV we had “for” with “and.” […] This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism. […] If I read the ESV aright, there is prescription here: women are at war with their men; men are to rule their wives. It is not description but prescription.” (4)
One of the things I teach in my seminar is that who is doing the translating matters. No one reads, interprets, or translates the Bible objectively. Each of us is necessarily and irrevocably subjective. Every person has a “Social Location.”
In my seminar, I projected a slide with photos of each member of the ESV translation committee and asked this question: Notice anything odd?
How do you think the fact that every member of the translation committee is a white male Complementarian affects their translation choices? Their race, gender, and presuppositions about gender roles affects their translation of the Bible exactly as you’d expect it would.
A few scholars even found their entire sentiment regarding translation laughable and incredibly arrogant.
“Finally, this whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance. For a committee to say that they have done the work of translation and that there is no room to improve or change their product means that they think of themselves as infallible translators, creating a “new standard” as the KJV once was. For them to say “Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord…” is to use spiritual language to couch the fact that they think of themselves more highly than they ought to and have falsely given themselves this high honor. Perhaps there will arise a generation of ESV Only people, but in this case they will need a lesson or two on scholarship, textual criticism, translation, and humility.
It’s a disgrace to use God’s name and his honor to promote this translation as a final word. God is not honored by that “gift.” We can only wait to see if the ESV establishes itself as the literary and cultural icon that the KJV became and is—but we strongly doubt it.” (5)
Less than a month after issuing their statement that the ESV would never change again, the committee released a statement completely reversing their course. They apologized for the mistake of trying to make a “permanent text,” but they didn’t comment at all on the verses in question. They simply admitted that translation is a task that is never-ending.
“We have become convinced that this decision [to make the ESV Permanent Text] was a mistake. […] [our goal] …we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.” (6)
Some Evangelical leaders have applauded the ESV translation committee for this reversal. I’m seeing a lot of that lately. A group of white men with horrible judgment defend their horrible decisions against all opposing opinions and when a critical mass of people are convinced they are wrong, they reverse their decision with a surface-level apology and people applaud them as if they are morally courageous.
Let me be clear: the ESV translation committee has done nothing worthy of praise. Nothing. They have horrible judgment and made a horrible decision and when they were sufficiently condemned and ridiculed for it, reversed their decision to what it should have been all along. That is the opposite of commendable; it’s shameful.
They have done nothing to date to address direct insights like those offered by McKnight that their translation is dangerously wrong. Nothing. Zero. Nada.
I refuse to applaud a bunch of white men who conspired to use their power and privilege to influence millions of American Christians toward their view of gender roles using their significant publishing resources and distribution networks, and when they were embarrassed, decided to walk it back …some. Nope. Not praiseworthy. Shameful.
The ESV is not an example of a pious offering of scholarship unto the Lord. The ESV is a political power move made by white men fighting the culture wars against their foes, the “progressives.”
- ESV Translation Committee, “ESV Permanent Text Edition (2016)” (accessed August 20th, 2016)
[ https://web.archive.org/web/20160820002244/http://www.esv.org/about/pt-changes ]
- Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God,” Christianity Today (September 9th, 2016) [ http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/september/after-tweaking-29-verses-bible-esv-english-standard-version.html ]
- Scot McKnight, “A New Stealth Translation: ESV,” Jesus Creed (September 12th, 2016) [ http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/09/12/the-new-stealth-translation-esv ]
- Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon, “A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible?
They Must Be Joking,” Domain Thirty-Three (September 13th, 2016) [ https://domainthirtythree.com/2016/09/13/a-permanent-text-of-the-esv-bible-they-must-be-joking ]
- ESV Translation Committee, “Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text” (accessed September 12th) [ https://www.crossway.org/blog/2016/09/crossway-statement-on-the-esv-bible-text ]
The Get Down is a Netflix series set in NYC during the late 70s/early 80s. It touches on many interrelated aspects of life in NYC during that time—from Disco to the rise of Hip Hop culture to political corruption. It also features a portrait of religious opposition to secular music in the form of Latino Pentecostalism.
Pastor Efrain “Brother E” Alicea grew up in NYC during that era, was immersed in Hip Hop culture, and his story also intersects with Latino Pentecostalism. So, in this interview, Brother E tells some of his story, reflects on the show, and shares about the ministry he’s doing with Elements Church in the Bronx.
Check out the interview:
Idolizing Greg Boyd
Many years ago, two men named Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk (I initially elected to keep these men anonymous, but have been told they would consider it “brave” of me to name them, so I’ll oblige them) became enamored with a theologian named Greg Boyd. It’s easy to understand their admiration. Boyd is a brilliant scholar and an accomplished minister. And since their admiration was not only for Boyd’s theology, but also how he was applying it in the local church, they both moved to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where Boyd’s church, Woodland Hills, was and remains. One of them even joined the church’s staff for a time, but later left the staff.
Of particular interest for these two men, was Boyd’s criticism of both Classical theism and Process theism in his 1992 PhD dissertation “Trinity and Process.” In this thesis, Boyd describes God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction”. (A phrase Tom and Dwayne have latched onto like it’s the Apostles’ Creed) This, Tom and Dwayne interpret as God’s “experience of imperturbable triune beatitude”. What this translates to is: God doesn’t experience any suffering or death in God’s self. Suffering or death cannot be attributed to God. God’s “bliss” in God’s self is never interrupted by suffering of any kind, not even sadness or pain over sin and injustice. Therefore, Tom and Dwayne abhor (for example) Moltmann’s theology of “God crucified.”
Part of their rejection of divine suffering is personal for these two. For different but similar reasons, each one finds it psychologically preferable to believe in a conception of God who does not suffer. Each finds it an indispensable part of their own personal psychological health. But another part of their rejection of divine suffering is their theological journey into Eastern Orthodox faith and belief. In this pursuit, they have adopted an interpretation of the patristic fathers’ theology that excludes divine suffering. Historical theology scholars continue to debate how much influence Greek philosophy exerted over the early theological development of Christian theology. And Open theists like Boyd (and many non-Open theists) have argued that Greek philosophy exerted undue influence on the development of early Christian theology, resulting in paradoxical statements about both “impassibility” and divine suffering. For Tom and Dwayne, there can be only one interpretation of patristic theology: Greek philosophy was right, and those streams of early Christian theology (or their interpretations of them) which embraced divine impassibility were right.
When Shattered Illusions Lead to Scapegoating
However, their project encountered a devastating blow a few years ago. Boyd, in his continued studies since 1992, came to repudiate his earlier rejections of divine suffering and began writing and preaching on God’s suffering and death on the Cross. Boyd was not saying anything new in Christian theology; he was merely teaching what Scripture reveals and other theologians interested in the liberation of the oppressed and God’s response to injustice have been saying for eons. Tom and Dwayne associated Boyd’s position with “Kenoticism” and were utterly heartbroken. Their idol had fallen. Or, as they put it, “stepped off the edge.”
This is the genesis of the current debate in which I’ve been implicated. I dared to defend Boyd’s position and have become the sole scapegoat of their wrath. They can’t take on Boyd, for obvious reasons, so they choose instead to vent their rage at me. They hurl insults at me because they continue to be disappointed in their theological hero who now thinks they are out to lunch.
In the process, these two have cut off direct communication with me and rejected any olive branch offerings of peace and reconciliation I’ve extended. Instead, they only mention me to insult me in their blog posts.
A few of the things this sad saga demonstrates are:
- The higher you place your theological heroes on a pedestal, the further they fall when they disappoint you. Don’t make idols of pastors or scholars; they’re human. God will shatter your illusions that any man (or woman) can fulfill the role only God should have in our lives.
- When you allow your psychological needs to drive your pursuit of theological truth, you will inevitably run aground of the biblical witness, reason, and even tradition. The truth is not subject to our desires for psychological comfort. Often the truth disrupts our comfort for our own good. When this happens, the emotionally mature accept the truth and adjust. The emotional immature plug their ears and bury their heads in the sand.
- It’s a tragedy when Christian men are willing to place their own egos before the call to peace and reconciliation. Tom and Dwayne profess faith in Christ yet have rejected all attempts at peace and reconciliation. Their profound sadness over the end of the their illusions about the perfection of Boyd’s theology has led to a breach of their ethical integrity.
There are many aspects of Eastern Orthodox faith and belief that are quite beautiful and there are many aspects of American Evangelical faith and belief that are quite ugly. So, I don’t begrudge anyone who has grown dissatisfied with American Evangelicalism’s utilitarianism, individualism, or dualism (for example) and longs instead for something more mystical, more rooted in the heritage of the Church. In fact, I too have grown in my appreciation for what Robert Webber called “Ancient-Future Faith.”
Nevertheless, for a few, this lust for the exotic faith of the Eastern church has degenerated into self-righteous doctrinal certitude and arrogance that has left them blind to their own radically unfaithful views of Jesus’s life and work. In other words, in their manic attempt to strain out the gnat of Evangelical shallowness, they have swallowed the camel of Christological heresy. Namely, these Wannabe Orthodox Evangelicals (hereafter WOE) have rejected divine suffering and in its place have resurrected a long-dead heresy called Nestorianism, repackaging it as “orthodox” Christology.
Nestorianism was a heresy condemned by the Church in the fifth century. It was a vain attempt to preserve the purity of the divine nature from such foul and ungodly experiences as suffering or death—(you know, that stuff Jesus did to save us). The way it does this is by separating the “human nature” of Jesus from his “divine nature”. If something seems to a Nestorian to be unfitting of God (because of their own presuppositions as to what is “fitting” of God) then that only happened to the “human nature” of Jesus. So, for example, only Jesus’s “human nature” died on the Cross. WOEs clutch their pearls at the thought of the divine nature suffering or dying. By no means! Their god is hermetically sealed off from ‘bad things’ like that. Their god is safely untouched by “human” suffering and happily pollyannaish. Their god is above all such circumstances, like a pampered aristocrat who holds his nose while passing a smelly homeless person.
But this aversion to the messiness of the Incarnate life of the Son of God is not “orthodox,” as Robin Phillips demonstrates. In part 5 of a series of posts about his exodus from Calvinism, Phillips destroys both Calvinism and Nestorianism at the same time! But, for the purposes of exposing the error of WOEs, attention will be focused on his destruction of what he calls “crypto-Nestorianism” (a very apt name indeed!). He writes,
“According to standard Chalcedonian Christology, it was not a nature that suffered on the cross (whether divine or human) but an actual divine person: the Word; the second person of the Trinity; God himself incarnate in the flesh.” 
Here’s where the blindness of the WOEs is exposed. While they scramble to protect the “divine nature” from suffering and death, the biblical witness is screaming that the Son of God died for sins! The Word became flesh and laid down his life for us!
“Natures” don’t suffer and die; Persons do!
Since Phillips is focusing on Calvinism, he critiques R. C. Sproul. But, contrary to the WOEs objections, the same criticisms are equally applicable to them.
“Sproul maintains that the second person of the Trinity did not die on the cross. In his book The Truth of the Cross, Sproul condemns the statement “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died” and adds “We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ.”
But we should not shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross because God did actually die on the cross. Human nature itself cannot suffer; only persons can suffer, and in this case it was the person of the God-man who suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day. To be consistent with his extraction of the God-man from the cross, Sproul would also have to say that Mary was not really the God-bearer, but that she simply gave birth to a human nature that was then used by a divine person in a determining fashion.
This radical separation of nature and person acts as a convenient buffer for modern-day Calvinists to separate God from the pain of the world, so that the Person of the Word is not actually experiencing humiliation on the cross, only an abstract “human nature.” The scandal of the incarnation and crucifixion that created so much discomfort for the Gnostics is equally difficult for Calvinists today. The Gnostics tried to solve the problem with a Docetism that detached Christ from materiality while Calvinists in the tradition of Sproul try to resolve the problem by a crypto-Nestorianism that sequesters the Second Person of the Trinity from the human nature going through birth and death (as Sproul says, “death is something that is experienced only by the human nature…”). However, extricating the human nature of Christ from the divine person, so that the central acts of the incarnation can be predicated of the former without touching the latter, denies the Nicene Creed’s explicit affirmation that it was “very God of very God” who was crucified, suffered and buried. The Second Council of Constantinople was even more explicit in affirming that it was “true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity” who was born and died on the cross.” 
Orthodox Christology proclaims loud and clear that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the Cross is one and the same as the death of the Son of God, the Second Member of the Trinity. In the same way that Mary is the “God-bearer,” the Cross is where God died.
Here’s how one WOE responded:
“The question is whether these human experiences are attributable not only to this ‘person’ (all Orthodox agree they are) but also to this person’s divine nature, which the Orthodox do not do. If the Son suffers humanly (in terms of his human nature), does it follow that he suffers in his divinity? If God dies in and as Christ, does the divine nature die? Does the unity of the person as subject of both natures require that we attribute to the divine nature all the experiences had by the Son in terms of his human nature (i.e., coming into existence, being nothing more than a zygote in gestation, being ignorant, suffering, dying, etc.)? No Orthodox would think so, and to accuse those who believe the person of the Son has divine experiences (in terms of his divine nature) transcendent of and so not reducible to his human experiences of asserting that ‘only his human nature and not his person’ is having these experiences is such a grievous misunderstanding of Orthodoxy it pretty much writes you out of the conversation.” 
This polemic is a smokescreen. Did you see the sleight of hand? It’s easy to miss. The same WOE had previously said this in the same post:
“As Robin rightly notes in his piece, ‘natures’ don’t have experiences independently of their subjects. It is ‘persons’ who suffer (or who are delighted, or what have you), not stand-alone ‘natures’.” 
There’s the contradiction.
Mary is “Theotokos” (“God-bearer”) because she birthed the Person of the Son of God, not because she birthed a “divine nature”. Neither did she birth merely a “human nature.” The birth that the Person of the Son of God experienced, was experienced by God—because the Son of God is God the Son. In the exact same way, contra-Nestorianism, the death that the Person of the Son of God experienced, was experienced by God—because the Son of God died and the Son of God is God the Son.
Or, as the Christian church has put it:
“X. If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity; let him be anathema.”