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Prophetic Detox: A Review of Morgan Guyton’s book How Jesus Saves the World From Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redeeming Justification

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

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

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

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

Deepening Hermeneutics

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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Treasures in the Attic: A Brief Review of Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd

When Old Wineskins are New Again

In Mark 2.22, Jesus said,

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

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

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

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

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

Potter’s Wheel Prayer

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

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

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

A Journey into Maturity

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

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

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PDF available at Academia.edu

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

When Blueprints Fail

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

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

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

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

How would you have answered her?

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

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

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

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

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

A Timely Book from a Well-qualified Thinker

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

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

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

Seeking a Better Solution to the Problem of Evil

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

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

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

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

The Science of Randomness and Free Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problematizing Divine Permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will Oord solve the problem?

The Landscape of Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oord helpfully summarizes the pros and cons of this model:

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

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

A Friendly, Open Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, however, it makes little sense to say ‘sovereign freedom’ allows God to create in an unloving way. It makes little sense, for instance, to say that God voluntarily decided against ‘exercising meticulous providence.’ If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say ‘God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.’ If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.

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

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

God’s Kenotic Essence

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

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

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

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

“God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.”

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

What the Bible Says God Can’t Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Distance from Process

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

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

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

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

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

Those Pesky Miracles

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

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

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

Conclusion: Deepening the Discussion

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

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

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PDF version available at Academia.edu

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How Not to Worship a Black Hole: A Review of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed by Austin Fischer

CASCADE_TemplateAuthor: Austin Fischer
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Cascade/Wipf & Stock (2014)
Language: English
ISBN: 9781625641519

Amazon

Official Website

Over the last 15 years, I’ve engaged in far more discussions, “debates,” and arguments over the subjects of election, predestination, free will, determinism, foreknowledge and the like, than I’d actually be comfortable admitting. Some Christians care very little for these subjects, not simply because they are anti-intellectual or want to avoid conflict, but because they don’t understand what they have to do with their picture of God’s character. For me, however, these subjects have been critical. I’ve heard it said regarding theology that for many people—but perhaps particularly for certain personalities—one’s head and one’s heart have to agree, in order for that person to genuinely worship God. When it comes to these subjects, that has always been my desire: to worship God with my whole self. That is why I have never been able to either stomach emotionally nor substantiate intellectually the God constructed by Calvinism. I both cannot find it taught in Scripture, nor can I love and worship the portrait of God it paints.

That is not to say that I don’t recognize that many millions of Christians can and do. In the process of honing my own views, I have learned a great deal about Calvinism from Calvinists themselves. I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy many long-term relationships with Calvinists, including mentoring and professorial relationships. The vast majority of the Calvinists I’ve interacted with in person have been thoughtful, godly people. (Some unfortunately have not been). Online, however, I cannot say the same. The vast majority of the Calvinists I’ve interacted with through the medium of the internet have come across as arrogant, militant, and intellectually dishonest. That is perhaps why I continue to read books on this subject. A part of me is still deeply puzzled by the phenomenon of New Calvinism 1. In fact, it surprised me that I was not aware of this book sooner. While I’m normally one of the first to hear of books rebutting Calvinism, I didn’t know this book existed until a Facebook friend named Taylor Scott Brown began posting quotes from it as he was reading it. A few weeks later, my friend Erik Merksamer (aka “Mixmaster Merks”) read the book and lent it to me. So now that I’ve read it myself, I’d simply like to outline the book for anyone who might read this review before making a decision about reading it, add some of my own thoughts here and there, and give it my hearty recommendation.

An All-too-familiar Story

One of the reasons Fischer’s book packs a disproportionately powerful punch into such a compact container is that he leverages his own story, his own theological pilgrimage, in the deconstruction of Calvinism—and it is a story with which many tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Christians in the U.S. can intimately relate. It is the story of a young evangelical searching for a deeper, more meaningful connection with God who finds it in the austere and pietistic teaching of Calvinism. However, like Clark Pinnock before him 2, Fischer recounts his journey in and out of Calvinism. Also like Pinnock, Fischer’s journey will coincide with a journey through evangelical academia and evangelical Christian culture in North America.

Better to Feel Pain Than Nothing At All

Right away, Fischer explains what enticed him to embrace Calvinism in the first place (and it wasn’t irresistible)—Fischer actually recalls that he resisted quite a bit. A part of him appreciated Calvinism because it ‘put him in his place.’ But another part of him resented Calvinism for ‘rubbing his nose’ in his fallen human nature. This is a common first-blush response to Calvinism: It hurts. so. good. The pain of being told you are not the center of the universe, and that God is, feels authentic and true. In contrast to the prevailing culture in North America, which seems to be obsessed with convincing young people in particular that self-esteem is the most important part of an emotionally healthy life, Calvinism rebels and teaches that self-esteem is sinful and ungodly. Furthermore, many millions of young evangelicals have unfortunately also discovered that the message of the church in North America is not much different from the message of the world. Churches cater to their congregants, giving them ever more cushy chairs (not pews!), coffee and bagels in the lobby, maybe even a full mall-like campus to peruse, but definitely an encouraging and “relevant” message for them to ponder on their commute back to their comfy suburban homes or to work the next day. “No!” says John Piper and his Calvinism. “God is the Center! Not human beings!” Fischer was sure this was true, and Calvinism was the vehicle that delivered the message.

Allow me to press pause on Fischer story thus far to make an important observation. The claim that God is the center of the theological universe for Christians just plainly isn’t exclusive to Calvinism, no matter how much Calvinists may shout that it is. Non-Calvinists have not deliberately nor accidentally replaced God with themselves as the Creator and Sustainer of their lives, let alone the universe. This is simply a talking point used by Calvinists to contrast their position with those of others, as well as an attempt to present their view as unique. Well, it simply isn’t. All Christian theology claims that God is the center around which our universe theologically revolves. “Free-willers” (as non-Calvinists are sometimes called in the book) are not essentially nor merely idolaters who reject God as God. Now, back to Fischer’s story.

The Good and Necessary Consequences

Once Fischer had succumb to the weight of Calvinism crashing down on him, he then squirmed under the pressure of its ‘good and necessary consequences.’ What of suffering? (aka ‘the theodicy question’ or the ‘problem of evil’) Here is where many Calvinists either dig their heels in and go so far as to say God ordains, and renders certain, all injustice, all disasters, all crimes, and all sin. Or, Calvinists will equivocate at this point, and plead ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox,’ like it”s a Get Out of Blasphemy Free Card.

Fischer is far too polite and nuanced to say what I’d say on this point: The good and necessary consequences of the Calvinist’s portrait of God is a monster the likes of which the most evil depot or tyrant in history pales in comparison. Hitler has nothing on the God of Calvinism! Pol Pot was a boy scout compared to the God of Calvinism! Every single day, somewhere in the world, human beings experience torture, starvation, brutal violence, sexual abuse, and the God of Calvinism is ensuring every second of it happens! Such a “God” is not only not worthy of worship; such a “God” is worthy of only our contempt and righteous indignation.

If you’ve spent any amount of time discussing these subjects with Calvinists, you will inevitably arrive at the point in the conversation when the Calvinist plays the “God’s-Ways-are-Higher-Than-Our-Ways” card. Fischer is told only “liberals” start from what God “should be like”, and read the Bible in that light. In other words, only “liberals” have presuppositions. (Preemptive posturing). Fischer is told that what he thinks “love” and “justice” and “goodness” mean is not what God thinks they mean. Our concept of these things is tainted by our total depravity. But, for some strange reason, Fischer isn’t convinced:

“It’s fine to say that God’s goodness does not directly correspond to human notions of goodness, but what exactly could I mean when I say God is good? In what sense was God good if he had done something like creating people so he could damn them? Pardon the pun, but if that is good, what the hell is bad?” (p.24)

And even though Fischer has successfully stumbled upon some of Calvinism’s incoherence, he doesn’t directly confront the underlying fallacy of the principle supposedly derived from Scripture. Calvinists like to quote Isaiah 55.8-9:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 neither are your ways my ways,”
 declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
 so are my ways higher than your ways
 and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

But Calvinists forget to put these two verses in context. God is calling Israel to repentance, so that God can forgive Israel and establish an “everlasting covenant” (v.3). In the verses immediately preceding verses 8 and 9, it reads,

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
 call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
 and the unrighteous their thoughts. 
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
 and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”

The way in which God’s ways are higher than human ways, and God’s thoughts are not human thoughts, is in God’s unmatched and unfathomable mercy. The people of Israel do not deserve God’s mercy, but God is freely offering it. That boggles the human mind, which demands retribution. Instead of retribution, God offers amnesty. We cringe at the thought! We balk at his ways! But God says, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways higher than your ways.” This is as far from God saying “My concept of goodness is to damn people to hell before humanity was created” as is conceivably possible. It is the complete opposite in fact! It is God saying, “My concept of goodness is to extend mercy and pardon to people who deserve to go to hell.” And yet, this is where Calvinists run to justify their belief in what Calvin himself called the ‘horrible decree.’

Fischer stumbled upon the good and necessary consequences of this picture of God, and he is rightly disgusted. Next, Calvinism will undermine his trust in the Bible that is supposed to teach him Calvinism.

The Philosophical Tail Wagging the Biblical Dog

I once attended a debate between two well-known and published seminary professors, one a Calvinist and the other a Free will theist. The Calvinist prefaced his comments by saying, “You [Free will theists] let the philosophical tail wag the biblical dog.” The Calvinist was referring to the difference between the Calvinist’s view of “free will,” also known as Compatibilism 3, and the Free will theist’s view of free will, also known as Libertarian free will 4. What the Calvinist professor obviously failed to recognize is that both perspectives on free will are philosophical constructs which are not explicitly taught in Scripture. Such a claim is merely more preemptive posturing: “My presuppositions are better than yours!”

In Fischer’s experience, the philosophical presupposition that allowed Calvinists to claim that God’s love, justice, and goodness have no human analogy served to completely undermine his trust in the supposed source of Calvinism: the Bible.

“If Calvinism is right and we are so unbelievably wrong about God’s love, justice and goodness due to our humanity, why would we think we are right about God’s integrity and truthfulness in revealing himself in the Bible? In fact, in light of how wrong we (apparently) are about love, justice, and goodness, is it not only possible but probable that we are equally wrong about God’s truthfulness and integrity? […]

In a strange turn of events, my Calvinism had taken back the very Bible it had once given me. The theology that had trumpeted the Bible’s inspiration and authority had now discredited both.” (p.33-34)

It appears that, for Fischer at least, Calvinism wagged the biblical dog by the philosophical tail so hard, the tail broke off and the dog went hurdling through space. Oops!

Building Your Theological House Upon a Rock

Fischer’s journey deep within Calvinism has now left him numb and depressed. He has lost the basic capacity to simply contemplate Jesus on the Cross and say “thank you!” All meaning and beauty has been drained out of the Gospel and all truth has been stolen from the Bible. But Fischer is not content to remain a cynic. He refuses to be merely another demolitions expert, skilled at deconstructing theological systems. He desires a theological home, a tribe with whom he can build a life of faith that is not only intellectually satisfying, but also energizes a life-giving relationship with God. So he spends a near-equal amount of this brief book constructing a healthy, biblical, theological home for battered and weary refugees from Calvinism like himself.

This is perhaps the point at which I was most proud of Fischer. If I were listening to these chapters preached from a pulpit, I’d be that guy shouting “Amen!” and waving my Pentecostal ‘hanky’. Fischer wants a Christian theology, not just any old theology. So he begins where Christians begin: with the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah. I loved that Fischer exposes the unpublicized truth about Calvinism’s hidden God behind Jesus Christ crucified. This is one of Calvinism’s best kept secrets. There are a lot of New Calvinists these days who talk about being “Christ-centered,” but this is simply not honest. Calvinism’s essential tenets do not allow a person to see God in the face of Christ crucified. “Where do you see God as Jesus is being crucified?” (p.45) And this truth also exposes the violence Calvinism does to the Trinity:

“This sets up a rather awkward dilemma in Calvinism wherein God the Father is making people suffer and God the Son (Jesus) is healing people of the suffering the Father is inflicting. How was I supposed to believe God would inflict eternal suffering on people for sins he ordained they commit, when Jesus (the exact representation of God) always healed people of their sufferings? For me this was neither mystery nor paradox, but sheer divine schizophrenia. It opened up a fissure in the very heart of God by splintering the Trinity, setting up Father and Son in opposition to one another—the Father crucifies sinners while the Son is crucified for sinners.” (p.47)

Jesus, the Biblical Picture of God

Once Fischer is disabused of the Calvinist portrait of God he goes back to the Bible with a renewed passion to construct a biblical theology centered on Jesus. This, it turns out, was much more intuitive than he imagined. The whole Bible points to Jesus, and more specifically it points to Jesus on the Cross.

“…all four Gospels unremittingly hone in on one twenty-four hour period as the center and climax of not just the story of Jesus, but the story of Israel, of humanity, and all creation. […] And if scripture teaches us to look first and foremost at Jesus in the Gospels, and the Gospels train us to focus on the crucifixion, it would seem clear that the cross offers us the deepest glimpse into the very heart of God.” (p.45)

In the light of the picture of God created by the Crucified Messiah, subjects like free will, God’s sovereignty, God’s love, the image of God in humanity all begin to make sense for Fischer.

At the center of the universe, there is not a black hole of deity, endlessly collapsing in on self, but a suffering, crucified, mangled lamb, endlessly giving away self.” (p.50)

The Dog with the Least Fleas

Another highly admirable aspect of the new theological house Fischer has found, is that he can be honest about its faults. Fischer does not present Free will theism as a flawless destination where all Christians should land. He readily acknowledges that it too has mysteries and “monsters in the basement.” However, it should be clear by now, that whatever bullets he or you or I will have to bite to affirm Free will theism are far less problematic than the fatal bullets of Calvinism. No perspective this side of the Age to Come will be perfect. But Fischer would urge us not settle for a theological house built on the quicksand of Calvinism.

One of the challenges Fischer points to is a perennial favorite for Calvinists: the topic of “earning one’s salvation” or “boasting.” For the uninitiated, Calvinists contend that apart from monergism, the view that God unilaterally acts in spiritual regeneration with unconditional election and irresistible grace, humanity has in some way “earned” their salvation by having the ‘ultimate decision.’ This human response, Calvinists contend, is the “works” against which Paul railed and the Reformation protested, and that such a decision entitles humans to boast of their righteousness in heaven. Against this charge Fischer summarizes common Arminian rebuttals, including a recent version by Roger Olson.

Let’s take another brief break from Fischer’s story to interject a note on the fundamentally faulty premise upon which the Calvinists’ entire reasoning rests. The Calvinist reads Paul’s letters (where the dreaded “works” comes from) through the lens of the Protestant Reformation. But Paul simply was not a sixteenth century Protestant reforming the Roman Catholic Church. Paul is a Hellenistic Jew forming the first-century Church out of Jews and Gentiles. The “works” against which Paul rails aren’t Catholic indulgences, but the keeping of the Jewish Torah. And the keeping of Torah wasn’t an attempt to “earn salvation,” but a badge of privilege which Jews thought entitled them to salvation. Once one realizes that Paul is not arguing against the medieval notion of storing up righteousness by doing ‘good works,’ but is instead arguing against the practice of excluding Gentiles from the community of Christ based on their cultural-ethnic identity, one is disabused of the “works righteousness” boogeyman. 5

A second challenge Fischer acknowledges is divine foreknowledge or the omniscience of God. Here, Fischer slightly disappoints me. In one of the only references to Open theism in the entire book, the view is not properly explained and is lumped in with the dilemma of God creating a world in which he foreknew so much evil would result. Since so much of this book was so well thought through, I’m going to give Fischer the benefit of the doubt and conclude that the oversight of including Open theism in this dilemma is due to a lack of understanding. However, it’s clear from his endnotes that Fischer has read Is God to Blame? by Greg Boyd in which he would have at least been exposed to Open theism on its own terms. Nevertheless, Fischer here compromises the integrity of his new building by installing a faulty load-bearing beam.

Open theism, when understood correctly, actually relieves the very tension Fischer here ascribes to it. Having a “very good idea” of what might possibly result in the future (which is how Fischer mostly correctly characterizes the Open view), is worlds apart from the Classical Arminian position of Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. The Classical Arminian finds him or herself caught on the horns of the same dilemma as the Calvinist. God’s foreknowledge of the future is “definite.” This means all of what God foreknew about humanity’s fall into sin, the grotesque evil that human beings would inflict upon each other, and the eternal damnation that awaits all who ultimately reject God was Certain before the world was created—even though Classical Arminians affirm the Libertarian free will that Calvinists abhor. What little relief Libertarian free will has granted Classical Arminians in granting human beings responsibility for their choices, has been wrenched back from them by the doctrine of Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. In either case, whether God causally ordains all evil (as in Calvinism), or whether God simply foreknows it as a certain (as in Classical Arminianism), the result is the same: The question of why create the world to begin with towers over their views like an ominous dark cloud.

However, the Open theist simply doesn’t face the same dilemma. In Open theism, the future of humanity was neither fixed from eternity by Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge nor by causal predetermination. Instead, God created the world with genuine possibilities to actualize or not actualize. In Open theism, a world is a place where the evils which have occurred did not have to necessarily. This cannot be said of either Calvinism nor Classical Arminianism. Therefore, Fischer’s haste to lump Open theists in with other Free will theists as having to confront this dilemma was ill-informed. 6

With a New House Comes New Furniture

Fischer’s journey is not yet completed. He, like us, will continue to contemplate the God revealed in Jesus and will no doubt grow in his knowledge and understanding of that God. However, as a result of his exodus from Calvinism, Fischer has gained a new posture toward theology that will serve as critical furniture in his theological house. Fischer has learned some humility.

Back when Fischer was a Calvinist, he had all the answers. Even as a freshman in college, Fischer thought he was ready to graduate because parroting John Piper’s answers to complex theological conundrums made every challenge simple: “God was the self-glorifying, all-determining reality who did everything for his glory, and I knew it because the Bible told me so. Can I have my diploma now?” (p.19) But after he’d journeyed to the center of the black hole he’d been worshipping and barely escaped with his faith, he learned to walk with a limp.

See, Fischer learned that certainty can be an addictive idol. Certainty can become a person’s security instead of God. And the God of the Bible isn’t as interested in making you secure in your certainty as he is interested in inviting you to join him on an adventurous and risky mission. The God of the Bible is not a tame lion who is boringly predictable. The God the Bible might choose not to show up in the whirlwind or the fire. The God of the Bible might choose to show up in the most unlikely places, like a peasant, refugee baby or an executed Messiah.

Chapter 9 of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed shows that Fischer has built into his new theological house the furniture that will support a healthy life of faith. He recognizes that his perspective is subjective and always will be. He recognizes that his experience will be different from that of others. He also recognizes that while he may not have it all figured out, his love for God compels him to keep speaking and teaching what God has taught him.

Recommendation

Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed is by far the most succinct, scholarly, accessible, and engaging refutation of the New Calvinism I’ve read—and this area is something of a specialization I’ve developed. In 108 pages, Fischer manages to pack his own journey in and out of Calvinism, poignant reflections on some very complex theological challenges, and memorable pithy phrases into an immensely readable package.

This book is for any evangelical who has brushed up against the New Calvinism in any form.
If you are a Calvinist, read this book!
If you are not a Calvinist, but you have been frustrated by less-than-pleasant interactions with Calvinists, read this book!
Or even if you know nothing about Calvinism, but have heard that term tossed around flippantly, read this book!

This book should be required reading in every evangelical Christian college in North America from now on. And from now on, I’m going to be recommending (and perhaps even distributing) this book to any and all interested parties. Thank you, Austin Fischer, for writing this vitally important book at this critical time.

__________________________________

  1. As Scot McKnight and Austin Fischer both explain in the book, it’s difficult to choose a label for the phenomenon of the recent surge (in Western countries) of adherence to the five doctrines summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P. (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). This set of doctrines constitutes the most succinct expression of what is called “Calvinism.” However, there is still much debate on whether a person must adhere to all five doctrines to be considered a “true Calvinist.” Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear whether the recent up-tick in adherents to this system of soteriology should be called “Neo-Reformed,” “Neo-Calvinists,” “Neo-Puritans,” “New Calvinists,” or something else. For my part, I have probably used any one of these monikers for this same group. However, in Against Calvinism, Roger Olson makes an excellent and succinct case for why “Reformed” is not a good descriptor for this group since even Classical Arminians are “Reformed” and even many non-Arminian Reformed Christians do not center their faith around TULIP. What does characterize this group is that it is overwhelmingly white, Western, middle-to-upper-class and identifies with the teachings of figures like John Calvin, John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, and others.
  2. In 1989, Clark Pinnock published an essay entitled “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology” in a book titled The Grace of God, The Will of Man (Academie Books, an imprint of Zondervan). In this essay, Pinnock details his journey from “five-point” Calvinism to a form of Arminianism that would later come to be known as “Open theism.” As of 3/9/14, the essay can be accessed at:[http://www.pinpointevangelism.com/libraryoftheologycom/
    writings/calvinismarminianism/FromAugustineToArminius-Pinnock.pdf
    ]
  3. Compatibilism
  4. Libertarianism
  5. For more on why ‘works’ in Paul do not equate to ‘earning one’s salvation,’ I recommend these books by N. T. Wright:
  6. For more on Open theism, I recommend these books:

 

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God’s Future Has Arrived in Jesus: A Review of Prototype by Jonathan Martin

prototypeAuthor: Jonathan Martin
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Tyndale Momentum (2013)
Language: English
Pages: 256
ISBN: 9781414373638

Amazon

Official Website

 

About the Author

I think I first encountered the work of pastor Jonathan Martin when I read a powerful blog post he wrote reconciling his views on the “politics of Jesus” (i.e. (Neo) Anabaptism) with his love for Martin Luther King Jr.’s ethics of social justice. When I later found out he was Pentecostal, I was even more  intrigued by him. Very rarely, if ever, have I encountered a person who combines Pentecostal spirituality with sophisticated social-political ethics. After that, I began listening to his church podcast: Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC. [1] Since then I’ve been a vocal advocate. Which is why I have been excited to read and review Prototype.

Sidenote: Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church and author of Sun Stand Still, writes the forward for Prototype and at one point appropriates the metaphor of this blog, calling Martin a “theological graffiti artist”. I have to say, Furtick dodged a bullet with that one. If he hadn’t been applying that description to Martin, you’d be reading a very different mention of Furtick right now, and it would not have been pretty! You’re safe for now Furtick, but watch your step!

About the Book

Prototype is one-third personal memoir, one-third church planting testimonial, and one-third systematic theology. Skillfully woven together with highly evocative writing are stories about ecstatic experiences, complex theological concepts expressed in layman’s terms, conversion testimonies, creative biblical interpretation, and disarming humor. What holds all these disparate elements together is the personality of the author—a self-proclaimed member of a community of “liars, dreamers, and misfits”—and the person of Jesus Christ, who is “the prototype of a new way to be human.”

The book starts out with both Jesus and readers in mind, exploring “Identity”, “Beloved”, and “Obscurity”. What does the life of Jesus have to do with the life of the Christian? What if the Gospel stories weren’t just for Sunday School class, but were also the very substance of Christian discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership development? And, also, if Jesus is God, what can Christians learn about the character of God from Jesus? The radically Christ-centered approach of Prototype is nothing new for traditions like Martin’s Pentecostalism or the (Neo) Anabaptist tradition with which he also resonates. But traditions which have sidelined Jesus for a more Paul-centric Christianity may find Prototype quite confrontational. Martin doesn’t mince words about Jesus’s call to discipleship, including his call to nonviolence.

Of late, it’s been fashionable to criticize ministers and authors who challenge people to “radical” forms of discipleship. I find this critique comes almost exclusively from the Paul-centric New Calvinist camp and from traditions comfortable with Christian culture wars. In contrast to those authors seeking to reclaim a bygone golden era, when Christianity in the U.S. was allegedly pure, Martin’s theology seems to be tailor-made for a generation that craves the experiential nature of Pentecostal spirituality, along with the inherent rootedness and heritage liturgical traditions bring, but also possessing an ethic of social engagement that is not co-opted by U.S. politics. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Martin has been a student of Stanley Hauerwas. In Martin’s faith one can see both passionate, intellectual curiosity as well as humble, honest obedience.

The book continues to build on the pattern of Jesus’s life and ministry in the middle chapters (“Calling”, “Wounds”, and “Resurrection”) with an emphasis on discovering the Christian’s engagement with the world. What implications do the sort of crowd Jesus attracted have for how we are to live? What implications do the wounds and vulnerability of Jesus have for how we are to serve?

Once readers are safely along for the ride, Martin curates a tour of nearly all the central components of a thoroughly fleshed-out ecclesiology. Martin devotes an entire chapter to an aspect of traditional Christian worship that might be the last thing you’d expect to read in a book written by a Pentecostal pastor: “Sacraments.” Martin’s approach is genius—using themes of “touch” and “bodies” and quirky science fiction analogies to explain heady, nuanced theology. Readers won’t know they’ve become sacramental until it’s too late! Then, Martin wraps up the book with two excellent chapters (“Community” and “Witness”) which exhort readers to embody the Kingdom values of Jesus among the church and among those in our surrounding communities.

Jonathan Martin’s charming, folksy, Southern writing style, like his speaking style, lulls his audience into a state of comfort, like a veteran physician with excellent bedside manner, just before he injects the penetrating needle of sharp theological insights and arresting spiritual reflections. Prototype is about Martin’s journey with Christ, with his Pentecostal heritage, with the church community he founded, and with his own questions about faith, purpose, and meaning. Prototype is also a map by which others can embark upon their own journeys. Martin beckons readers to trust Christ with their lives, act in ways that require insane amounts of faith, wrestle with tough questions and the messiness of life, all while resting in the goodness of God’s love and grace. Somehow, in all this, he is able to strike just the right balance between prophetic challenge and pastoral encouragement. He refuses to sugar-coat the raw realities of hurt, pain, and disappointment he and others have felt in the Church, while simultaneously rejecting any impulse to turn his back on the family that has made him who he is today. Prototype is both a way forward for the Church, as well as a return home.

Personal Notes

Reading Prototype at this stage in my life is nothing short of providential. Given that I am in the early stages of church planting, and share many if not all of Martin’s theological convictions, it felt as if every chapter had been written with me in mind. In particular, reading “Obscurity” felt as if I had wandered into Renovatus Church, and pastor Martin had called me to the front and prophesied these words to me directly:

“You may think you’re in the wilderness because you’ve been cursed or abandoned by God. But if you’re in the wilderness, I’d like to suggest it’s because you are desperately loved.” (64)

I also deeply appreciated Martin’s endorsement of a more “sacramental” view of baptism, Eucharist, feet-washing, and anointing with oil. Since I have only come to hold the sacramental view in the last three to four years, it was affirming and encouraging to read another minister with a Pentecostal background taking that position.

In the same way, I have also come to hold an “open table” position with regard to the Lord’s Supper, and was greatly encouraged by Martin’s words. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding and fear in the Church around the meal Jesus gave us as a gift.

“We come to the table not because we are holy, but because we are in need of His holiness. We come to the table not because we are strong, but because we are weak and in need of His strength.” (165)

In countless ways, God’s Spirit ministered to me through reading this book, and I have no doubt that it will be used in a similar way in the lives of many others.

Praise and Recommendation

As a “recovering Pentecostal” [2], I was particularly appreciative of Martin’s approach to his own beloved tradition throughout Prototype. He does not place it on a pedestal, nor would he ever dream of renouncing it. Instead, he holds on to its honesty and simplicity, while also embracing elements of more theologically rigorous and historical traditions. Martin’s Pentecostalism is a Pentecostalism with which I think many readers will find affinity. Likewise, Martin also relies heavily on a theology of “realized” or “inaugurated” eschatology. Fans of N. T. Wright or John Howard Yoder will also find in Prototype much common ground with perhaps even more accessible language.

For these reasons, and many more, I would recommend Prototype unreservedly to any Christian or non-Christian seeking to better understand this Man who was God (called Jesus) and the New Creation he ushered in—the future of God that is crashing into the present even now.

________________________

  1. Since the writing of this post, Jonathan Martin is no longer the Lead Pastor of Renovatus Church. He is currently a Teaching Pastor at Sanctuary Church in Tulsa, OK.
  2. Giving credit where credit is due: I learned this quirky label from a friend and mentor in New Orleans, Rev. Earl Williams. He had been a long-time Pentecostal before he joined the African Methodist Episcopal tradition.

 

Torn_Justin_Lee_Banner1

The Story that Subverts the Myth: A Review of Torn by Justin Lee

Torn_Justin_LeeAuthor: Justin Lee
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Jericho Books (2012)
Language: English
Pages:
ISBN: 9781455514304

Amazon

“For a gay guy, Justin Lee is incredibly straight-laced.” That’s what I kept thinking as I read Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. I realized about half way through the book, that I was waiting and looking for the “edge” that a gay Christian author is supposed to have. I expected him to be super-opinionated, angry, vitriolic even. Why is that? It quickly dawned on me that, even though I was reading this book from a place of openness, I was nevertheless projecting my own stereotypes of gay people onto Justin. Oh how wrong was I. Justin Lee is the nicest, ‘goodie-two-shoes’ you should ever expect to have written a book on such a controversial topic. He couldn’t have had more grace and nuance. He couldn’t have broken more molds.

Does that mean I agree with every conclusion at which Lee arrives? No, not necessarily. But what it does mean is that Torn is not a book that can be easily dismissed. Lee is careful to present his story and his perspective in a very winsome way. One of the reasons Lee’s story is so powerful is because of its clear ring of authenticity. Antagonistic readers will have a difficult time claiming Lee isn’t completely sincere. Lee doesn’t come across as “having an agenda”, like the common caricature of the homosexual community holds. And Lee professes devout faith in Jesus. That is why this book will challenge any reader who thinks their position on human sexuality is unshakable.

Hearing Lee’s Story

Torn is mostly Lee’s story, which I think is a brilliant way to present his perspective on a contentious topic. I’d suspect most of Lee’s audience haven’t heard the story of a gay Christian in its entirety. Chances are good they’ve met a gay person at one time, or have a gay acquaintance. But, for the vast majority of Lee’s readers, the idea of a gay Christian is probably an oxymoron. This is precisely the false dichotomy to which Lee points in his subtitle: the “Gays-vs.-Christians” debate. For most conservative Christians in the United States, the idea that a person cannot be gay and Christian is a foregone conclusion. Torn represents a significant challenge to that idea. For starters, Lee spends a good chunk of the book explaining and re-explaining (which is actually more necessary than you might think) that many conflicts over whether a person can be gay and Christian are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of definition. When Lee says he’s gay, he doesn’t mean that he practices homosexual sex, he means that he is attracted to other men. In other words, for Lee, being gay means that he is same-sex oriented. This is in contrast to so-called “ex-gay” ministries, that Lee spends a lot of time talking about. These ministries purport to “cure” homosexuality, by which they mean they teach people not to act on their attraction. However, they market themselves (or at least they did when Lee was involved) as curing same-sex attraction, orientation, altogether. This is shown to lead to their downfall, when many prominent leaders and “success stories” admit they continue to be attracted to the same sex. And many who thought they were “cured”, weren’t. So, for readers, one of the biggest take-aways is clarity around definition. This small distinction alone is a significant piece of the puzzle!

Lee’s story also breaks nearly all the stereotypes, which are a big part of the problem. For Lee, “misinformation” is the root cause of the “Gays-vs-Christian debate”. He believes, and I think rightly, that if Bible-believing Christians would simply hear his story with open minds and hearts, they would see that a lot of what they’ve believed has been incorrect. For example, Lee directly confronts the theories that homosexuality is a result of sexual abuse, distant fathers, overbearing mothers, sinful depravity, or any combination of these. He also attempts to show that there are very good reasons to believe that homosexuality is biologically hardwired from birth. One of greatest marks of Lee’s humility was when he admitted that the science is inconclusive—something that “ex-gay” theorists with far less data supporting their ideas have been reluctant to acknowledge. I found that to be a strong demonstration of Lee’s Christian character.

Lee’s story is not unlike the stories of many, many Evangelicals, who have grown up in suburban, Bible belt, U.S. culture. And in many ways his childhood was a lot more “normal” than many of them! As he recounted all the many privileges he enjoyed as a child, I tried to think of anyone I knew who had it as good as he did, but I could think of no one. The only difference that might exist between Lee’s and the stories of other Evangelicals, is that Lee discovered he was gay. Demolishing the stereotype that gay people “choose” to be gay, Lee walks readers though his agonizing journey to realizing his same-sex orientation. I can’t imagine any readers envying his predicament. And yet, no matter how dark it seemed at times (and for Lee it did get very dark), the one thing that sustained Lee, was his faith. It was perhaps his faith that saved his life!

The ‘Clobber Verses’

In Torn, Lee not only tackles the psychological misinformation and breaks common stereotypes about gay people, but he also the challenges the common understanding of the ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to the biblical data on homosexuality. Some call these the “clobber verses” because these are the verses that are routinely trotted out as iron-clad evidence that homosexuality is a sin and against God’s will. In Lee’s own story, he recalls countless times, while he was still in deep inner turmoil over his newly-acknowledged same-sex attraction, when he was in desperate need for Christian love and support. But, instead, as soon as he told his friends and ministers that he was gay—out came the “clobber verses.”

There’s no doubt that the academic Evangelical community will rip Lee’s exegesis to shreds and re-affirm their traditional interpretation. There is no doubt they will say “Lee isn’t a trained exegete.” And they are right! However, that fact actually worked in reverse, much like how the perceived weakness of Jesus was actually his power. Because Lee isn’t a seminary-trained Bible scholar, readers can hear in his account of how he approaches these passages, his reverent fear, not scholastic hubris. In Lee’s section on the relevant Bible verses, I trust that the reader will be struck by the humble and sincere way that Lee approaches the Bible: as God’s word, to which he must submit and obey. Lee is not looking for “loopholes” or “excuses” to be gay. In fact, at one point, after fighting for many years not to be gay, but surrendering to the fact that he is regardless, Lee submits himself to God in prayer in a way that brought this reader to tears. I couldn’t help but think, “If I were gay, would I have the humility and reverent trust to submit myself to God like that?” Lee not only showed me how a gay person submits himself or herself to God, Lee showed me how a Christian submits himself or herself to God.

As you might expect, Lee discovers that the traditional interpretations of the common passages used to condemn homosexuality aren’t as clear cut or straight forward as they’ve been made out to be. This will likely not come as a surprise to anyone younger than 40. We who have developed Christian faith in a postmodern world, have already learned what so many in modernity failed to recognize: Everyone who reads the Bible, interprets the Bible. And our interpretations are always, necessarily, filtered through the lenses of our experiences, our social location, and our prior theological commitments. There is no avoiding this fact. Does that mean that the Bible can mean anything whatsoever? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that if you have never read or listened to the story of a gay Christian man like Justin Lee, you might project your stereotypes about gay people onto the Bible, just like I projected my stereotypes about gay people onto Lee as I began reading Torn.

Critique & Praise

Torn doesn’t end the discussion about homosexuality and Christianity, but I’m sure that wasn’t Lee’s intent. I’m confident Lee intended not to end the conversation, but to advance the conversation beyond empty rhetoric and misinformation. So, that isn’t really a critique. I will say this: I was disappointed in Lee’s reductionistic understanding of “the Gospel”. The few times he does attempt a description, it is apparent that he has fallen prey to a different type of misinformation. Lee’s “Gospel” is a gospel of personal forgiveness and a ticket to heaven. The gospel he articulates is what Scot McKnight calls the “soterion gospel” which he and N. T. Wright have devastatingly opposed in many of their writings, not least of which is The King Jesus Gospel. This disappointment left me with a nagging question: How much more powerful would Lee’s testimony and perspective have been if this whole conversation had been couched in a more robust, theologically-rich understanding of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God? Perhaps we’ll never know, or perhaps another will come along who will offer a perspective on living as a gay Christian with an eye toward the renewal of all things.

I was also a bit disappointed that Lee does not interact with the words of Jesus around sexuality and marriage. For me, Jesus’s words are of utmost importance, since they are the words which called forth the apostles who wrote the other passages Lee covers, and the words of the One who fulfilled the Old Testament. In particular, I would have liked to have heard Lee’s take on the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seems to reaffirm the Old Testament assumption that marriage is between a man and a woman. That would have been nice.

Overall, I thought Torn was brilliantly subversive. Lee uses his own story: the story of a “normal” Evangelical, with all the trappings of that subculture, to show that gay men aren’t as other as they’re made out to be. And he uses his own journey of faith to challenge and subvert the myth that being gay and being Christian are antithetical. If anything, Lee demonstrates that as a gay man, he has had to trust in his relationship with God in many more moments of crises than most straight Evangelicals have had to. And as a gay man, Lee finds himself in beautiful solidarity with the Man who was despised and rejected, acquainted with sorrows. For Lee, being gay is an indispensable part of his faith journey because it is a part of that way God has shown himself faithful to Lee. This is a story that every Evangelical can celebrate and enter into.