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)


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)


  1. Marcus Borg, “Holy Week: Two Different Meanings” []
  2. Tripp York, Donkeys and Kings: And Other “Tails” of the Bible, p. 43 []
  3. Adapted from “Triumphant Entry (Palm Sunday)” Litany in African American Heritage Hymnal,
  4. Adapted from the Book of Common Worship, “Palm Sunday”.

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 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.”



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.”

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.


Fighting the Virus of Classical Theism: Richard Rice and The Openness of God’s Bold Rejection of Divine Impassibility

Last month, I traveled to San Diego, CA for the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. More specifically, I attended the SBL/AAR annual conference to present a response paper in the second session of the Open and Relational Theologies group, which was commemorating 20 years since the publishing of The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Richard Rice, William Hasker, and David Basinger. Three of the original authors of the book (John Sanders, Richard Rice, and David Basinger) were there in attendance and presented reflections on the last 20 years.

Why commemorate The Openness of God (OOG) [1]? Because that book signaled a theological shift in U.S. American Evangelicalism, which has few parallels. It was a bold vision that made claims about God that were shocking to the evangelical theological establishment and still shock many evangelicals today.

The Openness of God and the Theological Virus of Classical Theism

So what did The Openness of God claim? I’ll let the authors of OOG explain:

“We decided to present [the Openness of God] in book form for several reasons. First, no doctrine is more central than the nature of God. It deeply affects our understanding of the incarnation, grace, creation, election, sovereignty and salvation. Moreover, the doctrine of God is full of implications for daily living. One’s view of God has direct impact on practices such as prayer, evangelism, seeking divine guidance and responding to suffering. […]

These inharmonious elements [the inconsistency between Christians’ beliefs about the nature of God and their religious practice] are the result of the coupling of biblical ideas about God with notions of the divine nature drawn from Greek thought. The inevitable encounter between biblical and classical thought in the early church generated many significant insights and helped Christianity evangelize pagan thought and culture. Along with the good, however, came a certain theological virus that infected the Christian doctrine of God, making it ill and creating the sorts of problems mentioned above. The virus so permeates Christian theology that some have come to take the illness for granted, attributing it to divine mystery, while others remain unaware of the infection altogether. This book, we hope, will be a needed antibiotic to aid the healing process, bringing about a healthier doctrine of God.” [2]

Several things to note here. First, the authors of OOG claim their presentation is a doctrine of God. Yes, it’s true that one of the most important aspects of Open theism [3] is the openness of the future, which could be thought of as a doctrine of creation. But the authors of OOG do not hesitate to claim that Open theism is also a different view of God’s nature itself. Make a note of this.

Second, the authors of OOG contrast their doctrine of God with the “classical” and “traditional” view of God (p. 9). In fact, the authors mention the “inevitable encounter between biblical and classical thought in the early church.” They do not caricature Greek thought (as they are often accused); they acknowledge that this syncretism had some good intentions. They, however, are clear that those good intentions do not excuse the consequences, which they boldly call a “theological virus.” They believe Open theism is the “antibiotic.”

Third, it’s important to also note that the authors of OOG knew that their doctrine of God would have far-reaching implications, implications on other doctrines and even on practices. They say so explicitly.

OOG was a bold critique that earned the authors a great deal of criticism. Their most vocal critics were from among the New Calvinists who had secured then (and still have today) a great deal of political power in Evangelicalism. But they also received criticism from Classical Arminians as well. Both of these camps of Classical theists saw Open theism as a threat to their doctrine of God.

In the very first chapter of OOG, author Richard Rice begins to set out the “classical” and “traditional” view against which Open theism is contrasted. Against the caricature of Open theism most people conjure, it may be striking to some that Rice draws a bullseye around the doctrine of impassibility as a prominent feature of the virus, not just exhaustive definite foreknowledge. He writes,

“According to [the “traditional view of God”], God dwells in perfect bliss… essentially unaffected by creaturely events and experiences. He is untouched by the disappointment, sorrow or suffering of his creatures. Just as his sovereign will brooks no opposition, his serene tranquillity knows no interruption.” (p. 12)

According to Rice, Open theism stands in contrast to the view that God “dwells in perfect bliss,” “essentially unaffected’ by the suffering of creatures, with no “interruption” to his “serene tranquillity.” This is, in fact, the traditional doctrine of impassibility Rice is describing. And it is Open theism he is saying rejects it. He could not be more specific when he surveys the biblical data from an Open theist perspective:

“The biblical descriptions of divine repentance combine elements of emotion and decision to provide a shocking picture of the divine reality. They indicate that God is intimately involved in human affairs and that the course of creaturely events has profound effects on him. It stirs his feelings and influences his decisions. His is variously happy and sad, joyful and disappointed, disposed to bring blessing or judgment, depending on the behavior of human beings. […]

Such an interpretation conflicts, of course, with the popular and theologically entrenched idea that God lies utterly beyond the reach of creaturely experience, serenely untouched by our joys and sorrows, overseeing the inevitable fulfillment of his will irrespective of human actions.” (p. 34)

This view Rice calls the “popular and theologically entrenched idea” is synonymous with Classical theism and the “theological virus” for which Open theism is an “antibiotic.” The virus says God is “serene” no matter what happens to human beings. But the antibiotic says God is sorrowful over sin and injustice. The virus says God is “untouched” by human joys and sorrows, but the antibiotic says God’s feelings are “stirred”.

Rice addresses the inevitable push back from those infected with the virus. They will claim that these anthropomorphisms are “unworthy” of God. Surely we cannot take these descriptions “literally”.

“[I]t is difficult to see what, if anything, would remain of the idea of God in the wake of such sweeping denials. They would deprive it of any meaningful content. If human beings and God have nothing whatever in common, if we have utterly no mutual experience, then we have no way of talking and thinking about God and there is no possibility of a personal relationship with him.” (p. 35)

Evangelicals, in particular, are fond of talking about enjoying a “personal relationship with God.” But evangelical theology which abstracts God from human experience makes such a “relationship” impossible. Open theism seeks to cure this disease that prevents Christians from speaking honestly about a relationship with God.

But how can Open theists speak so authoritatively about God having human-like experiences? How can Open theists justify this univocal God-talk? Is it not impious to speak of God having human-like experiences? Many who are infected with the virus are convinced it is. They will condemn Open theists for denying God’s “transcendence,” God’s “glory,” or God’s “equanimity.”

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is Jesus.

Jesus, the Cross, and the Open View

OOG not only boldly asserted that Open theism serves as an antibiotic to the theological virus of Classical theism, it also boldly asserted that it was radically rooted in and truer to the revelation of God in Christ.

“The familiar word incarnation expresses the idea that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. According to the central claim of Christian faith—”the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14)—this particular human life was the most important means God has ever used to reveal himself. The fundamental claim here is not simply that God revealed himself in Jesus, but that God revealed himself in Jesus as nowhere else. In this specific human life, as never before or since, nor anywhere else in the sphere of creaturely existence, God expresses his innermost reality. Accordingly, from a Christian standpoint it is appropriate to say not only that Jesus is God, but that God is Jesus. For Christians, Jesus defines the reality of God.

The incarnation reveals many things about the character of God. The fact that God chose to express himself through the medium of a human life suggests that God’s experience has something in common with certain aspects of human experience. If human life in its fullness and complexity, with social, emotional and volitional dimensions, represents the supreme expression of God’s own nature among the creatures (Gen 1:26-27), it is reasonable to infer that the distinctive features of human experience are most reminiscent of the divine reality. It would therefore seem that God, like us, is personal existence. If so, then God enjoys relationships, has feelings, makes decisions, formulates plans and acts to fulfill them.” (p. 39)

What a bold proclamation indeed! Even many Christians will chafe at this claim. They will object to Jesus’s life, ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection begin the definitive and authoritative revelation of what God is like. They want to look other places, because if God is like Jesus, then suddenly their entire picture of God is upended. God’s “transcendence” cannot mean that God lives in some kind of “bliss.” And God’s “glory” cannot mean that God is untouched by human suffering. Where would one even come up with a doctrine of “equanimity”? So, they simply relativize Jesus. They brush him to the side. Surely there are better ways to think about God than through the lens of Jesus!

But Open theist author of OOG, Richard Rice, says no. He even has the audacity to suggest that Jesus’s parables have something to teach us about God’s character and nature!

“[Jesus’s] parables suggest that God’s feelings involve a broad spectrum of emotion, and they relate God’s experience to ours in a very interesting way. They show us, first, how like and then how unlike ours is [to] God’s experience. God’s love is like ours in its openness to pain and joy, but his capacity for these experiences is greater than anything of which we are capable. […]

So the open view of God draws some important parallels between divine and human experience, but it does not by any means equate the two. God is like us in being sensitive to the experiences of others, but radically different from us in the profound depth of his feelings. Like traditional theism, the open view of God affirms divine transcendence, the radical difference between God and all things human. But whereas traditional theism seeks to safeguard God’s transcendence by denying divine sensitivity, the open view of God does so by maintaining that his sensitivity and love are infinitely greater than our own.” (p. 42-43)

This emotional “sensitivity” to the experiences of human beings that Rice repeatedly mentions is in contrast to the prevailing theory of God (i.e. “Classical theism”) which holds that God is emotionally insensitive. But Rice clearly argues, if we get our picture of God from Jesus, this theory cannot be true. On Christ-centered grounds, Rice rejects the traditional doctrine of impassibility.

But someone will object that God’s emotional experience is only changed an “infinitesimal” amount since God is “infinite.” But Rice specifically says the opposite: God’s emotional life is profoundly moved by human experiences. God’s capacity for emotional sensitivity is greater, not less than human capacity.

The ultimate evidence for God’s emotional sensitivity and vulnerability for Rice is the Cross of Jesus Christ. For Rice, this is where God himself is depicted as suffering. God himself is acted upon and pained by human sin. God himself suffers and is crucified in Jesus Christ, God the Son.

“The idea of a suffering God is the antithesis of traditional divine attributes such as immutability and impassibility. It contradicts the notion that God is immune to transition, to anything resembling the vicissitudes of human experience. To quote Leech again, ‘The cross is a rejection of the apathetic God, the God who is incapable of suffering, and an assertion of the passionate God, the God in whose heart there is pain, the crucified God.’ Strange as it seems to some, this idea faithfully reflects the central affirmations of the New Testament concerning God’s relation to Jesus. Identifying God with Jesus leads ultimately to the conclusion that what Jesus experienced in the depths of his anguish was experienced by God himself. If the Word truly became flesh, if God was indeed in Christ, then the most significant experience Jesus endured was something God endured as well. The cross is nothing less than the suffering of God himself.

A careful look at the center of Christian faith, the life and death of Jesus, thus supports the idea that God is intimately involved in the creaturely world and experiences it in a dynamic way. His is aware of, involved in and deeply sensitive to human events. His inner life is not static or impassive at all. It surges with powerful emotions.” (p. 46)

Wow, what a claim! The Cross of Jesus, according to Rice, reveals truth about the “inner life” of God himself. This is sure to challenge Classical theism’s belief that God is “impassible.” But Rice is fully aware of that. He makes his direct claim: “[God’s] inner life is not static or impassive at all.”

What a bold vision of God Open theism is—and what a needful one in today’s world. I’m grateful for the courage the OOG authors demonstrated by putting forth this vision 20 years ago. I hope and pray that they will continue to stand by this vision, even amidst the fight against the virus of Classical theism which continues to threaten to infect Open theists. I hope and pray Open theists continue to resist the virus and don’t become its casualties.


1. Hereafter, The Openness of God will be abbreviated “OOG”.

2. Clark Pinnock, et al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 8-9.

3. “Open theism” along with “the Open View” are alternative labels for the “Openness of God.”


Meet the Eastern Orthodox Kenoticist Who Helped Pioneer Modern Passibilism: Cross-Centered, Trinitarian Theology

Paradox_Suffering_God_coverRecently, I’ve been reading this fantastically comprehensive treatment of divine impassibility by African theologian Amuluche Gregory Nnamani called The Paradox of a Suffering God. The first section of the book is simply historical analysis of apatheia (the Hellenistic axiom of divine impassibility) from ancient to present times. Nnamani covers everything from Greek philosophy, where the concept originates, to how the axiom mutates by the time of the Protestant Reformation.

Considering how adamantly some folks have argued that “kenoticism” is at odds with Chalcedonian “orthodoxy”, imagine my surprise when I learned that a Russian Orthodox theologian made a significant contribution to modern passibilism.

His name is Fr. Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov (Серге́й Никола́евич Булга́ков) and he lived from 1871 to 1944. According to Nnamani,

“Bulgakov understands kenosis essentially as self-giving, which he believes characterises the mutual act of love in the inner-Trinitarian life. God’s kenotic relationship to the world (in the creation and in the works of salvation) is constituted by virtue of an outflow, an extension of the inner Trinitarian selfless relation of love. Creation, which is also a divine kenotic act, like the Incarnation, is grounded in and occasioned by by the self-fulfilling kenotic act of the Trinitarian Persons and precisely in the nature of their self-sacrificial love, which is ever reaching for the other. In contrast to Hegel, he conceives the three Persons as becoming fulfilled in their mutual self-sacrificial love, so that God’s relationship to the world does not bear any sign of dependency.” [1]

Precisely countering the argument that kenoticism entails a “dependency” in God, Bulgakov teaches that the Godhead is “fulfilled” by mutual relationships of self-sacrificial love. Sound familiar?

But, it gets better! Bulgakov also sees the Cross as the center of God’s Trinitarian self-revelation. He he is in his own words:

“The Cross is God Himself in His revelation to the world, God’s power and glory… The Cross is the sacrificial essence of love, since love is sacrifice, self-surrender, self-abnegation, voluntary self-renunciation for the sake of the beloved. …there is no bliss in love except in sacrificial self-surrender which is rewarded by responsive fulfillment. The Cross is the exchange of love, indeed love itself is exchange. … The Holy Trinity is the eternal Cross as the sacrificial exchange of Three, the single life born of voluntary surrender, of a threefold self-surrender, of being dissolved in the divine ocean of sacrificial love. …Love itself, God, in the eternal Cross surrenders Himself for the sake of His love. The three points in which the lines of the tri-cross end are images of the three divine self-subsistent Hypostases, and the point of their intersection is the co-inherence of the three, the Trinity in unity in sacrificial exchange.” [2]


That’s good theology!

And, apparently, according to Nnamani, this Bulgakov is kind of a big deal.

“…Bulgakov’s contribution to the interpretation of the kenotic motif, and in fact that other Russian kenoticists, is enormous. The Russian kenoticism has the value of conceiving the kenotic motif in a wider scope and also positively as a divine act of self-revelation. In this way it escapes the pitfalls of both the mediating and Hegelian kenoticisms; and by interpreting the inner-Trinitarian kenosis as a mutual self-giving, which is complete and self-fulfilling in itself, he effectively evades the weakness of Hegelian kenoticism, namely, of making God dependent on the world process. …by doing so, he leaves room for creation to remain a free act of God: and God retains His sovereignty.” [3]

I just thought some folks should know about Fr. Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, the highly influential, Eastern Orthodox, kenoticist theologian.


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!


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 []

– “Young, Restless, Reformed” – []

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.


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!



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


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.


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:

– “The New Calvinism” by PBS []

– “Young, Restless, Reformed” – []

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.



Justo González and the Politics of Impassibility, Part 5

We’ve finally arrived at the fifth and final installment of this series on the ‘politics of impassibility,’ looking deeply into an important book: Mañana [1] by world-renowned, Hispanic theologian and historian Justo González. Be sure to check out the rest of the series

In part four, we drew readers’ attention to the ninth and tenth chapters of Mañana: “On Being Human,” “And the Word Was Made Flesh” respectively. Part four focused on chapter nine and so we’ll now turn our focus to chapter ten.

The Constantinization of the Church Meets the Stubbornness of Jesus

González begins chapter ten with a look back at Nicea. As he did in previous chapters, he commends the bishops for their resistance to the Arian attempt to import the Greek concept of deity (i.e. immutability, impassibility, etc.) into Christian theology by unequivocally affirming the fully eternality and divinity of Jesus Christ. They proclaimed Jesus “very God” and “of the same substance with the Father” to silence any notion that God is ‘above’ the feelings and movement (i.e. passibility) of human life. Messiah Jesus of Nazareth, who was fully human and fully divine suffered, therefore it is true to say God suffered.

Nevertheless, González laments that the council did not go far enough in preventing the “Hellenization—and therefore the Constantinization—of God.” (p.139) By this González means that by utilizing the Greek concept of “essence” (ousia) to describe the divine nature, the bishops inadvertently imported a “basically static” conception of God into the history of the revelation of the dynamic, Living God of the Bible. This, he marks as an important misstep. He traces this error back to the beginnings of Christianity’s adoption of Greek philosophy and metaphysics:

“Although the Council of Nicea, in affirming the eternal divinity of the Word, avoided the extreme ‘Constantinization’ of God, it did not go so far as to state that immutability is not a characteristic properly to be applied to the Christian God. On the contrary, in speaking of the ‘essence’ (ousia) of God, it did imply that God could most properly be spoken of in terms of the Greek notion of substance, which is basically static. Therefore, the process begun two centuries earlier with Justin—and even before that with Philo—and of which the Trinitarian controversies were an expression, was not stopped by the Council.” (p.139)

Recall that González is keen to expose the socio-political ramifications of the Christological debates. So he immediately moves into charting the process by which Christian theology began to be de-Christianized.

“Such Constantinization was a relatively simple matter. After all, ‘No one has ever seen God.’ All that was necessary was to bring about a change in people’s minds as to who God is. In order to do this, the Greek notion of being was readily available. By showing the ‘rationality’ of this notion—on the basis that only the fixed and given is strictly rational—and the anthropomorphism of the images with which Scripture and early Christian theology described the living God, the exponents of the theology of the status quo were able to do away with a great deal of the biblical picture of an active, just, loving, and avenging God. At the same time, allegorical interpretation dehistoricized the Bible, and thus God’s activity in history was transmuted into perennial and supposedly ‘higher’ meanings. The pharaohs of the Roman Empire and of Western Civilization became the ‘new Israel,’ while secretly hoping that God would not upset the applecart of society, as had been done in Egypt of old.” (p.139)

A living God of the Bible, who acts in history, is filled with passion, love, and justice was despised by the Greek. A God who suffers on the Cross was “foolishness” to them, says Paul. (I Cor. 1.18—25) The only proper way of conceptualizing God was as unmoved by this creaturely world of movement, untouched by the passion that affects human beings, unsullied by the evil of matter. So, to the Scriptures had to be stripped of those unsightly anthropomorphisms which depicted God as being moved by compassion, anger, love, and justice. Such notions weren’t “rational” enough!

At the same time this is going on, the Scriptures are also being decoupled from their historical context in the life of the nation of Israel. Then the promises made to a beaten and battered tribe can be appropriated by one of the empires who beat and battered them! Pharaoh is transformed into Moses and Rome is transformed into Israel!

There’s just one small problem with that scheme: Jesus.

Messiah Jesus of Nazareth stubbornly stands in the way of Constaninization. His story—which is also the story of our redemption—clings unrelentingly to the historical context in which it took place: “…Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate…” Jesus’s story refuses to be transformed into an empire-building program.

“…there was one irreducible fact that refused to be Constantinized. This fact was Jesus, the carpenter from Galilee who was called the Christ. Although ‘no one has ever seen God,’ here was one whom people had not only seen but also heard and even touched (I John 1:1). Here was a historical figure whom one must take into account.

Great pains were taken to mitigate the scandal of God’s being revealed in the poor carpenter. His life and sayings were reinterpreted so as to make them more palatable to the rich and powerful. Innumerable legends were built around him, usually seeking to raise him to the level that many understood to be that of the divine—that is, to the level of a superemperor. Art depicted him as either the Almighty Ruler of the universe, sitting on his throne, or as the stolid hero who overcomes the suffering of the cross with superhuman resources and aristocratic poise.

Even after all this was said and done, there still remained the very real and very human figure of the carpenter crucified by the ruling powers, crying in his distress, and yet declared to be ‘very God.’ This was and is the stumbling block that no form of Constantinian theology can overcome.” (p.140)

Gnostic-Docetism: Another Way to Relativize Jesus

Fear is a major impediment to freedom. The children of Israel clung to the idols of Egypt out of fear of what it would mean to follow YHWH into the desert as a free people. Yes, freedom is risky—and following the Living God entails risk—but there is no better risk to take! The Greek conception of God, the essentially static, unmoved, unfeeling god is more secure for those too anxious to follow the untamed God.

“Freedom and dignity are always costly, as the Israelites discovered when they began missing the leeks, onions, and security of Egypt. To follow the living God means that one—an individual or an entire people—must abandon the security of all idols. It means taking the initial risk of believing in this God who is like no other god. And it means taking the further risk of challenging structures of injustice and oppression, trusting that the living God shares in the struggle.” (p.140)

If the Jesus who is rooted in history is not so easily Constantinized, then there is another way to relativize him: Gnostic-Docetism.

There is a false piety to placing God outside our experience. God is “too great” to suffer as we suffer. God is “too holy” to be moved by our suffering. The world of matter is beneath the Supreme Being, such a god cannot even be thought to muck about in it. This way of thinking leads to a Christ who only Seemed to be human, but was really only divine all along.

“Jesus did not really come in the flesh but only appeared to do so. This view of Jesus, called docetism, had great appeal for many Christians, for it seemed to exalt Jesus by declaring him to be a purely heavenly and divine creature.

Likewise, according to the docetists, our suffering and death, as well as all the injustice and evil that exists in the world, are not important. Our bodies are prisons holding our souls in this material world and clouding our vision of spiritual realities. But when all things are consummated, our bodies and indeed all matter will be destroyed, and there will be nothing but spiritual realities.” (p.141)

“…docetists seemed to be giving Jesus greater praise than did the more orthodox Christians, who insisted that Jesus was a human being, who needed to eat just as we need to eat and who was capable of suffering just as we suffer.” (p.142)

This is often the case with Christological heresy: it errors in an attempt to preserve Jesus from his own humanity. “Surely Jesus whom we worship as God cannot be thought to suffer, since God cannot suffer,” is the thought. That’s how the false god of Greek philosophy attempts to relativize the God of the Bible and the Jesus of the Gospels. But the real Jesus isn’t so easily pushed around.

“The most important stumbling block gnosticism found in its way was the person of Jesus Christ. The Gospels and Christian tradition made it quite clear that he was no ethereal phantom flouting in the clouds and speaking mysterious words. On the contrary, the Gospels spoke of him as being born at a particular time and place. They spoke of him as growing, eating, sleeping, weeping, perspiring, bleeding, and even dying. The Fourth Gospel affirmed that ‘the Word was made flesh.’ Indeed, the Christian message could be spoken of as that ‘which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands.’ (I John 1:1). The notion that the supreme revelation of God had taken place in such a person made it clear that spiritualist escapism was not the Christian way […]

Docetism, while seeming to glorify Jesus, in truth deprived him of what in the New Testament is his greatest glory: his incarnation and suffering on the cross. In the last analysis, what docetism denied was not only the reality of the incarnation and the suffering of Jesus but the very nature of a God whose greatest victory is achieved through suffering, and whose clearest revelation is in the cross.” (pp.142-143)

Gnostic-docetism attempts to preserve the immutable, impassible god of Greek philosophy—which projects those attributes upon the powers the be. God becomes emperor-like so that the emperor can become god-like. But is the solution to deny the eternal divinity of the Word?

Rugged Individualism and the Self-Made God

Christological heresies that deny the eternal divinity of the Word are called “adoptionism” because it is presumed is “declared that Jesus was ‘mere man’ who somehow had been adopted into divine sonship.” (p.144) But rather than being the cure to Constantinization, this heresy is also used to oppress the powerless. González connects adoptionism to the myth that ‘anyone can make it.’

“Those who belong to the higher classes have a vested interest in this myth, for it implies that their privilege is based on their effort and achievement. But those who belong to the lower classes and who have not been propagandized into alienation from their reality know that this is a myth, and that few that do make it are in fact allowed to move on in order to preserve the myth. […]

Adoptionism is seen as an alienating doctrine by those who realize that their society is in fact closed. One of us making it is important; but it does not end the basic structure of injustice, which is the real issue. The one who ‘makes it’ must be more than simply another one of us, more than the proof that oppression is not all that real after all. The one who ‘makes it’ must also be the expression of a reality beyond our closed reality. Jesus Christ must be more than the first among the redeemed, more than the local boy who makes good. He must also be the Redeemer, the power from outside who breaks into our closed reality and breaks its structures of oppression. He must be more than the ‘adopted son of God.’ He must be God adopting us as sons and daughters.” (pp.144-145)

It’s clear that adoptionism can be just as oppressive as docetism, but for different reasons. Both heresies fail to declare Jesus’s full divinity and full humanity simultaneously. Hence, Chalcedon.

The Chalcedonian Parameters

At Chalcedon, the church declared that “in Jesus Christ, and for us and our salvation, the divine and the human have been joined.” (p.145) But because of the infiltration of pagan, Gentile philosophy, “human” and “divine” held contradictory connotations:

“In effect, what the church had done in accepting the notion of God as impassible, immutable, infinite, omnipotent, and so forth, was to define God in terms of negation of all human limitations. We are finite; God is infinite. We are subject to change; God is impassible. Our power is limited; God is omnipotent. God is whatever humans are not, and vice versa. These mutually exclusive understandings of both divinity and humanity were known and defined a priori, quite apart from the incarnation. […] “The inescapable paradox of the incarnation, that this particular man is also the universal God, is turned into a contradiction when the terms of the union are stated on the basis of a supposed a priori knowledge of what it means to be human and what it means to be divine.” (pp.145-146)

Rather than starting from where Scripture points for God’s self-revelation (i.e. Jesus, particularly on the cross), some Christians started out (and still do to this day!) with a unbiblical notion divine and human as mutually exclusive categories. If the Incarnation and Cross of Jesus are a Christian’s starting place for God’s self-revelation, then the truth is that divinity and humanity aren’t contradictory and have been joined. God does suffer! Humanity can be glorified!

Chalcedon only set the parameters: Jesus is at once fully God, fully human. But at least two ‘schools’ emerged that worked out that formula slightly differently. They were the Alexandrian and the Antiochene. The Alexandrian ‘school’ had what’s been called a “unitive” Christology—meaning, they were sure to affirm both Christ’s divinity and humanity. However, their articulations often bordered on docetism. The Antiochene ‘school’ had what’s been called ‘disjunctive’ Christology. They “insisted on the full humanity of Jesus, and also on his full divinity, but feared that too close a union between the two would result in the humanity being swallowed up in the divinity.” (p.146)

While these schools are emerging, Arianism has not been fully eradicated. So, in an attempt to explain the joining of divine and human natures in Christ, Apollinaris (of the Alexandrian school) came up with a compromising articulation:

“Jesus was physically human, but that psychologically he was purely divine. […] According to [Apollinaris], the mutable body could be joined to the immutable Son, thus preserving both the union of the divinity and humanity and the immutability of the Son.” (p.147)

Building on González’s previous chapter on human nature (see part four of this series), he points out the error of Apollinaris’s view:

“Apollinaris’s view of the incarnation in fact denied that God had been joined to a true human being. A human being is not just a body in which a mind resides but is both a body and a mind. What Apollinaris proposed was a partial incarnation. The consequence of such a partial incarnation would be a partial salvation.” (p.147)

Then González quotes Gregory Nazianzen who said, “For that which [the Son] has not assumed He has not healed.” Thankfully, Apollinarianism as rejected at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

The next heresy to form because of disjunctive Christology was Nestorianism. Since Nestorius held the same mutually exclusive categorical conceptions of divinity and humanity that the pagan, Gentile philosophers taught he objected to the use of the term “theotokos” (bearer of God) for Mary, Jesus’s mother. Nestorius could not reconcile Jesus’s human and divine natures, so he sought to preserve them both by keeping them separate—so separate in fact that his view was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Instead, the church adopted the doctrine of communicatio idiomatum “…the doctrine that in the incarnation the union of divinity and humanity is such that what is predicated on one can be also be predicated on the other.” (p.148) Nestorianism is a heresy because, “the constant distinction between the two ‘natures,’ without a real union between the two, denied the reality of the incarnation.” González shows why Nestorianism is a particularly unbiblical heresy:

“Nestorianism has never been a temptation for Hispanic Christians. The reason for this is that we feel the need to assert that the broken, oppressed, and crucified Jesus is God. A disjunction between divinity and humanity in Christ that denies this would destroy the greatest appeal of Jesus for Hispanics and other groups who must live in suffering. […] The suffering Christ is important to Hispanics because he is the sign that God suffers with us. An emaciated Christ is the sign that God is with those who hunger. A flagellated Christ is the sign that God is with those who must bear the stripes of an unjust society. […] Nestorianism denies that God took these up. For this reason, the Nestorian Christ can never be the Lord of our devotion.” (pp.148-149)

There is only One in heaven worthy to be receive power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and praise: the Lamb Who Was Slain! (Revelation 5) If Jesus did not truly suffer as both God and human, he is not worthy to be worshiped as the Savior or Redeemer.

“If in Jesus the human is swallowed up in the divine, to such a point that he no longer functions as a human being, his sufferings are sham and are not like ours. He did not bear our sufferings, and therefore we cannot find vindication for those who now suffer. The Crucified One must be truly crucified. […] He must be divine, for otherwise his suffering has no power to redeem, and he must also be human, for otherwise his suffering has nothing to do with ours. And the two must be joined in such a way that his true humanity is neither destroyed nor swallowed up in his divinity.” (p.149)

Toward a Biblical Christology

González does not leave readers with all the many ways Christology has run aground the biblical witness and relied upon the appearance of human wisdom for truth about the nature of God. No, he closes out the chapter by constructing a way forward that relies upon God’s self-revelation in Christ for the truth about divine and human natures. It turns out, the Bible is hand in this regard:

“…we do not know who God is, nor what it means to be fully human, apart from divine revelation. We must not approach divine revelation with a preconceived notion of God and accept in that revelation only that which agrees with such a notion. In the Older Testament we have the revelation of who God is—or, more precisely, of how God acts—as well as of what it means to be human. This revelation, and in whom the true meaning  of full humanity is also revealed. Therefore, we must not approach the person of Jesus Christ with an a priori notion of what it means to be divine—in this case drawn mostly from the Greek metaphysical tradition—or with an a priori notion of what it means to be human. The proper starting point for Christology is neither theology nor anthropology—nor a combination of the two—but Jesus himself as Scripture witness to him.” (p.151)

“God’s very being is love, for-otherness. This is the Trinitarian God. This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. What Jesus has done is precisely to open for us the way of love, to free us so that we too can begin to be for others. In being for others we are most truly human. And in being most truly human we are most Godlike. Indeed, God did become human so that we could become divine!” (p.155)


  1. Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon, 1990) []

Justo González and the Politics of Impassibility, Part 4

This is the fourth part of our series on Justo González and the politics of impassibility. (If you’re just tuning in, be sure to check out parts one, two, and three.)

Two the best chapters in Mañana [1], are chapter 9: “On Being Human,” and chapter 10: “And the Word Was Made Flesh”. In these two brief chapters, González accomplishes something most theology scholars could devote dozens of books to and not address nearly as thoroughly. In the span of 30 pages, González takes readers through a seminary degree’s worth of insights into human nature, church history, Scripture, and Christology. But that weren’t enough, he continues to integrate the socio-political nature of faith into his discussion.

In this fourth part, I’ll attempt to synthesize González’s thought on human nature from chapter 9, the implications it has on Christian theology, the church, as well as the socio-political ramifications. Let’s dive in!

What is Human Being?

All Christian doctrines can be misused to oppress people. But the doctrine of humanity has been particularly useful in this regard. González clearly and concisely shows just how this can be accomplished. The first step is to dissect the human being into “parts,” rather than considering a person a united whole.

“The Bible is not interested in the body and the soul, or in the body, the soul, and the spirit, as constitutive parts of the human creature. The Bible is not interested in how many parts there are to us or to how they relate to each other, but rather in the divine purposes for our lives, and how we can be obedient to such purposes. As José Ortega y Gasset would say, ‘A human being is not a thing, but a drama.’

“…the Bible nowhere says that the soul is immortal. On the contrary, Jesus speaks of one who can ‘kill the soul’ (Matt. 10:28). In most cases, the Bible uses the term ‘soul’ as another way of speaking of one’s entire being, without any attempt to distinguish it from the body or to enter into discussions as to how many parts constitute a human being.”

“…the soul and the body are not two different parts of a person but rather the same person as seen from different perspectives. A human being is not a soul that has taken up a body, nor a body to which has been added a soul, but a single being who is at the same time both body and soul.”

“The Bible does not speak of human beings as divided into two ‘parts’ or ‘substances.’ It speaks rather of a single entity that is properly understood neither in purely materialistic terms nor in purely spiritual terms. The entire human being is body, and the same human being is soul. A disembodied soul is not a human being, just as a ‘dis-souled’ body is no longer a human being.” – p.126-127

At this point, it might not be clear to some how one’s view of the human being has any bearing on Christology, let alone politics. That is because of the pervasiveness of the myth of abstract theology. One’s view of the human being supposed to be neutral. González will dispel that myth and connect the dots.

“…the common understanding of the human being as consisting of two (or three) parts is not a sociopolitically neutral notion. On the contrary, it has been used and is still used to justify oppression. Once one divides human nature into two parts, one physical and the other psychical, it is a simply matter to move on to the affirmation that the higher element in our life is the psychical. At least by implication, the physical is then downgraded and seen, if not as evil, at least as less significant or less human. Thus from the division of the human creature into two substances follows the hierarchization of those substances.” – p.128

Just as soon as people start dividing up the human nature into “parts,” the discussion naturally flows into an ordering of priority. In the history of Western philosophy, the “soul” or “mind” has always been valued above the body in the exact same way Plato envisioned the abstract forms being greater than their physical manifestations. The hierarchization of soul/mind over the physical body is classic, Greek dualism, and it has dramatically influenced Christian theology and politics.

For example, González cites Pope Innocent III’s use of this dualism to assert the ecclesiastical priority of authority over the state:

“As God the creator of the universe established two great lights in the heavens, the greater to preside over the day, and the smaller to preside over the night, thus did he also establish two great authorities in the heaven of the universal church… the greater, that it might preside over souls as if they were days, and the lesser, that it might preside over bodies as if they were nights. These are the pontifical authority and the royal power.” – p.128

It’s difficult not to hear the echoes of “Plato’s Cave” in Innocent’s description. The bodies over which the royal power has jurisdiction are less real than the souls over which the Church rules. Thus the mind-body hierarchization is carried over and applied politically.

But González also notes that this dualism not limited to Christian theology and politics.

“…quite apart from issues of church and state, this hierarchical understanding of the relation between soul and body contributes to a similarly hierarchal understanding of society.” – p.128

The hierarchization of human nature also contributes to a hierarchization of human achievements and activities. The prioritization of the mind-soul to the body means those with education, those who enjoy the “vocation of leisure” (as philosophy was known in Plato’s era of Athens), those who study and teach in universities, are superior to those who toil in fields or perform manual labor. This harkens back to the “impassibility” that the philosophers in Athens exhibited toward the slaves who built the city and toiled while they reclined to philosophize on abstract ideas.

“On this basis [mind-body dualism], men who have been doing their theology in universities and libraries have tended to look down upon the women who cook their food and the minorities who collect their garbage.”

“The hierarchical ordering of the soul and body is then joined to the racist and sexist notion that women and people of darker skin are best suited for physical pursuits, whereas white males are best suited for the intellectual life. The obvious conclusion is that the present ordering of society—and of the ‘traditional’ household—is grounded on human nature and ought not to be questioned. But it is clear that it can and should be questioned.” – p.129


González draws upon the Genesis narrative of creation to correct dualism and also construct a positive account of human being. In this section, he confronts hierarchical relationships between men and women as well as between humanity and the creation.

One of the most profound insights González shares in this section is that essential and complete human nature is “being-for-others.” Humanity was created to be in relationships with ‘others’. It was not good that “man” be alone. Instead, God created humanity in a system of relations in which humanity has a vocation of “dominion.” This “being-for-others” nature is critical to understanding humanity’s vocation of dominion because it is directly related to humanity’s creation in the image and likeness of God.

“…the very verse that speaks of human dominion over creation puts that dominion in a certain context: ‘Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion…’ The dominion is after the likeness of God’s dominion. And God’s dominion, as we have already seen, is dominion in love. God does not rule the earth and humankind as a tyrant. God’s very nature is being-for-others, love.” – p.131

Sin as For-Other-ness Breaking

From there, González goes on to show the effect of sin on human being.

“In Genesis 1:26-27, it is both the male and the female that are to have dominion. But in Genesis 3, after the fall, the man claims dominion over the woman by giving her a name not his own. In this naming, they are alienated from each other. They are no longer ish and ishshah. Now she is Eve, named by Adam. Their intended for-otherness, based on their being ‘fit’ for each other, ‘as in front of’ each other, is now disrupted. Thus is the society of dominance born, in which we are alienated from one another. In such a society, it is not only the ‘other’ that is lost. We are all lost because we have lost our for-otherness, and God has rightly said ‘it is not good’ for us to be for ourselves.” – p.134

Criminalization, Sexualization, and Privatization

González points to at least three ways sin has been distorted by culture and therefore the fundamental disordering of human nature has been misunderstood. First, sin has been associated with crime. When political and ecclesial authorities conspire to amass power, they conflate sin with crime. In this way the religious condemnation of sin supports the political status quo.

“The almighty God is turned into an ally of the mighty in our society, thus creating an almost invincible alliance. But sin is not always crime, and crime is not always sin. This has been very clear to Christians who have been a minority within any given society. In the early church, to be killed for refusing to obey the law that required the emperor be worshiped was no sin but was rather the crown of Christian faithfulness. Moses and his followers broke the law of Egypt, from whose standpoint they were criminals. Early Christians, by having a common table at which master and slave ate together, broke the law of Rome. Martin Luther King, Jr., broke the laws of many states.

All these people should unashamedly be called criminals. They broke the law. When caught—and some of them wished to be caught—they were legally condemned. We may now say that the laws by which they were condemned were unfair. But it was the law, and they broke it. They were outlaws for God. In this they followed the same path as that convicted outlaw and executed criminal, Jesus of Nazareth.” – p.134

Sin has also been reduced to sexual misconduct. This can serve as nothing more than a smokescreen that protects the powerful who exploit the poor and a reasserting of mind-body dualism.

“Although theologians repeatedly tell us that sin is much more than improper sexual activity, in our common parlance ‘sin’ is almost equated with that subject. And yet if we were to read the entire Bible, listing on the one hand those texts that seek to regulate sexual practice and on the other hand those that seek to limit and regulate property rights, we would find that the latter outweigh the former. The God of the Bible is concerned with the misuse of property at least as much as with the misuse of sex. Yet we hear very little in the church about the misuse of property. What we hear is vague, such as the notion of ‘stewardship.’ But we are not told that the ‘maximization of profit’ is condemned by God because it violates the rights of the poor (see, for instance, Deut. 24:17-22; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22) This selective preaching and teaching is not mere coincidence. Nor is it because sexual sins are more common. It is rather because we have learned to interpret “sin” like so many other elements in biblical doctrine, in a manner that is less offensive to the powerful.” – p.135-136

This sexualization of sin also relates back to the mind-body dualism:

“The philosophical tradition in which that hierarchical understanding developed held that the goal of wisdom was to have the mind be totally in control of the body and its passions.” – p.136

In this we can hear the echo of the pagan, idol god—the passionless, “impassible” god is thought to be the highest imaginable perfection. Thus, the Christians who adopted this foreign god as their own, began being molded in its image:

“Since in sexual activity the body takes control over the mind, such activity came to be seen as the opposite of the life of wisdom and virtue. When such views were introduced in the Christian church, they became one of the main impulses leading many Christians to a life of celibacy.” – p. 136

Who better to represent the impassible god who is free from “passions” than a celibate priest who is thought to be from the “passions” of sexualized sin?

But this sexualization of sin also contributed to a view of sin that divorced it from matters of economics.

“Such privatization of sin contradicts the very nature of our humanity. It is ‘not good’ for us to be alone. An individual alone is not the person God intended. We are created for-otherness. It is only when that for-otherness takes place that we are the human beings God intends. This for-otherness is for God as well as for creation and for other human beings. We stand amid God’s creation, as part of it and responsible to it and to others as the concrete expression of our responsibility toward God. As in Ortega y Gasset’s famous dictum, ‘Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia’ (I am I and my circumstance). Sin is the violation of that for-otherness. Sin is the violation of God’s image in us, which is precisely the image of God’s for-otherness.” – p.136-137

What it means to be human is to be a united person of soul and body given a vocation of dominion that reflects God’s very image and likeness: God’s for-otherness. The dividing of the human being into parts precipitates dualism which leads to political oppression. Sin has been associated with society’s crimes, sexualized, and privatized. But each of these distortions misses the fundamental nature of human being. We were created to to reflect God’s for-otherness. Economics is an indispensable and inseparable aspect of human for-otherness.

In part 5, we see how González relates these insights to the Word Made Flesh. Stay tuned.

  1. Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon, 1990) []