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Making Theology Accessible

Making Theology Accessible

One of my concerns as a publisher is making the material accessible to everyone who is interested. This means learning to communicate ideas about our faith and about God clearly and effectively. I am certainly not a master of this goal, but I believe it’s always worth pursuing.

One person who has mastered it, I think, is Dr. Bruce Epperly, and I recently recorded a series of short videos with him. I particularly asked about the presentation of process theology. Process theology is often looked on as obscure, a pursuit of academics and not of pastors and persons in the pews.

Some time ago I asked Bruce to produce an introductory book on process theology for Energion’s Topical Line Drives series. This means a presentation in about 12,000 words. Some friends told me this was impossible, but Bruce did it, and it has become one of our more popular books.

In any case, here is Bruce’s answer about accessibility of theology.

Distinguishing Process Theology and Open Theism

Distinguishing Process Theology and Open Theism

Garden Time
© Tonyd | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I have been asked whether I accept open theism or process theology. The fact is that I accept extreme uncertainty about the way God relates to space and time, but that I think the process theologians come closer to the way the Bible story seems to read while traditional theism seems to come closer to the assertions Bible writers make about God.

In a way it’s much like my view on the Calvinist-Arminian divide. I think there is scripture on both sides, with the Bible writers moving forward without much concern for resolving the tension between sovereign control and the true free will of creatures, both of which are affirmed in scripture, I believe. God thus remains both outside of time and yet interactive within it; both in control of all that takes place, yet impacted by events chosen by people.

It seems to me that one cannot read the story of God’s action in this world in scripture without seeing the evidence of interaction. If nothing else, Jeremiah 18, to which I refer frequently in my Eschatology series, which explicitly says that God will speak in one way, yet if the people involved change their minds, God will change his. God repents.

Now I’ve heard plenty of ways of explaining this, but none of them feel “settled” to me, so I won’t use the word “heretic” anywhere on the spectrum. Well, I rarely use that word other than with intended humor in any case. I’ve been dubbed Henry the Heretic, (usually) in a friendly way!

Let me summarize these views on God’s relationship to time broadly:

  1. Calvinism – God is sovereign over all and predetermines all that takes place. There are, in fact, a spectrum of views on the details, but this is an intended (over)simplification.
  2. Arminianism – God foresees all, and predestines as he foresees. There are a variety again of ways of seeing the details. This view, along with Calvinism, preserves omniscience in the sense of God knowing every details of what will take place from start to finish, from  the end to the beginning.
  3. Open Theism – God could know all of time, but has created space-time, and us in it, in such a way that he does not. In other words, he limits his own knowledge and therefore can interact with us. There are again quite a number of ways of expressing or explaining this relationship. I owe this one to a conversation with Dr. Richard Rice, author of The Openness of God (no longer in print, reprinted as God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Freewill), but I am relaying the gist by memory, not quoting any of Dr. Rice’s work.
  4. Process Theology – God is inextricably linked with creation and is not so much in control as we might like to think. Free will is, as I understand it, an integral part of everything and God does, in fact respond. For a bit more detail I’d refer you to Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, which I publish.

My personal position remains in the open theism camp, with a very strong sprinkling of “I don’t really know” thrown in. It’s just that for me those things short of open theism do not adequately express the view of God that the overarching Bible story expresses, while process theology seems to be a bridge too far for me. But as you can see by the fact that I cite a book I edited and published, not to mention requested from the author as a source on process theology, I hardly regard it as the dangerous heresy that many do.

In fact, one of the things I have become more and more convinced of as I work as a publisher is that people’s actions are not very directly related to their doctrines. I once would have thought that Calvinists would not be that involved in missions, because God has predestined everyone. Yet they carry out missions with vigor. I might have expected Arminians to be less likely than others to “blame God” for every little thing that happens, yet they do precisely that. Both Arminians and Calvinists will talk about their prayers changing the course of hurricanes, surely something at least as predetermined as a human life.

“Orthodox” theologians, by which in this one quoted instance I mean both Arminians and Calvinists, as they both assert full sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, and free will, doubt that process theologians will pray, and certainly, if they pray, will not expect God to act. Yes they do, as do open theists.

In fact, if we observed behavior, we would likely find ourselves dividing Christians very differently from the way we do with regard to doctrine. I hope, in this case, to have done some distinguishing without further division!

Was Jesus Really a Healer?

Was Jesus Really a Healer?

9781938434136sBy this question, I meant to ask whether Jesus actually cured people of illnesses, not whether he accomplished spiritual healing. I asked the question of Dr. Bruce Epperly, author of the book Healing Marks, when I interviewed him last night in an excursus to my series of studies on the gospel According to John. Here’s the video:

I’ve found it quite interesting to discuss Bruce’s views on this with other Christians. His theology, as a process theologian, is different from what you will hear in most churches, especially those which hold healing services. Yet the actions are similar. He describes a different spiritual process (no pun intended), shunning the word “supernatural,” and yet he is describing something very similar to what I hear from charismatic believers.

I have been called “liberal charismatic,” because I take a fairly open view of doctrine (though I don’t think it is unimportant), and also believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are as available today as they were to the early church.

So what do you think? Was Jesus a healer? Can healing take place in churches today?


Are Panentheists Atheists?

Are Panentheists Atheists?

Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God

Updated 17:09 central time to fix video link.

Last night I interviewed Dr. Bruce Epperly, process theologian, as an excursus to my study of According to John using Google Hangouts on Air. I’m following the book Meditations on According to John by Dr. Herold Weiss, but I wanted to talk to Bruce about his book Healing Marks, in which he discusses the healings recording in John 5 & 9. More relevant to this extract, however, is his book Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.

Since there has been some recent discussion of panentheists in particular, and liberal Christians generally, I thought would be nice to hear an actual panentheist answer the question. I started my interview by asking Bruce: Are you an atheist? I’ve extracted his answer to this and posted it to YouTube. Here it is:

Now I do not embrace process theology or panentheism, but I’m also not allergic to either term. It seems to me that one of the great tensions in scripture is between the story, which often reads very much like panentheism as Bruce noted, and the theological affirmations, which tend to separate God from the world more. I’m not sure that this tension is not valuable in itself, in that it keeps us from being too certain of our answers. We can see both in action, as God repents of making humankind or bargains with Abraham about how many righteous people need to be found in Sodom for that city to be spared. Both stories speak as if God doesn’t actually know the answers ahead of time. Yet at the same time we have the affirmation that he knows the end from the beginning, and indeed some scriptures that seem to say that he predetermines all. I see a parallel to the “God is sovereign” and “people have freewill” affirmations. Many Christians affirm both (whether they are Calvinists or Arminians), but explaining how they work together is much more difficult.

For those who watched the interview and would like to know where I started with this discussion, James McGrath’s post Is This Atheism? is a good place to start. In fact, it links to one of my points in turn. I’m also planning to post another excerpt from the interview, in which I ask Bruce whether Jesus was a healer. His answer there might be enlightening in connection with asking whether he’s an atheist!

Reminder: Interview with Bruce Epperly on Healing, Panentheism, Process Theology, Truth, and …

Reminder: Interview with Bruce Epperly on Healing, Panentheism, Process Theology, Truth, and …

I’ll be interviewing Dr. Bruce Epperly on these subjects tonight in a Google Hangout on Air. I note with interest that some of these questions have come up in a post by James McGrath on Exploring Our Matrix, which in turn, links back to one of mine. It must be a hot topic!

Come join us! The Q&A app will be active so you can ask your questions as well.


Reflecting on Today’s Sunday School Discussion

Reflecting on Today’s Sunday School Discussion

9781631990021Today my Sunday School class, The Way at First UMC Pensacola, will spend a second week discussing Process Theology after reading Bruce Epperly’s little introduction (Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God).

Last week we spent most of our time on definitions. Asked to relate Calvinism, Arminianism, Openness Theology, and Process Theology, here’s what I came up with. Perhaps my more theologically inclined readers will tell me how I did.

  • Calvinism – God created the universe and foreordained all that would happen. He knows the future both because he does it, and because he is above space and time, transcendent.
  • Arminianism – God created the universe, and the people in it have real free choice, an impact on what happens, and God elected those who he foreknew would choose salvation. As with the Calvinists, God is seen as separate from the universe, not bound by time and space.
  • Openness – God created the universe as described by the Arminians, but has chosen to work within the universe and not to know. It is as though all time and space is available for God to see, but he chooses not to see all time, and thus works with us as though he lacks this form of foreknowledge. (Note: I have also heard openness express as “God knows everything there is to know, but the future is not there to know. I got the definition I used through an interview with Dr. Richard Rice of Loma Linda University and am using it from memory, so I wish to credit him without blaming him for the way I shortened it!)
  • Process Theology – God is entangled with space and time, expressed by panentheism, i.e. the universe is entirely in God. Process theologians talk about God’s action much as openness theologians do but without the same transcendence. (Note that this is not the same as pantheism, in with the universe and God are the same.)

One of the questions I will ask today is this: How much difference does your belief on these various systems make in the way you relate to God and to others? Is this important or trivial?

My own comment is that while I personally don’t find Calvinism scripturally acceptable (though I certainly understand where it comes from scripturally), I have never had difficulty working with Calvinists in ministry and mission. (A few of them have difficulty working with me, I suppose, but really not that many.) So while I’m Arminian with a certain sympathy for the openness position, I don’t consider this some sort of test of fellowship or faith. The reason is simple: I don’t think I know the answer. I see in scripture God interacting with people as though the outcome was in doubt. I see statements that sound much more static. I see humanity’s free will and responsibility asserted. I see God’s absolute sovereignty asserted. I don’t think we really know how they relate in actuality.

So on something that is so contentious, and I think so subject to error, a bit of humility is in order.

Next week we’ll begin studying my own book When People Speak for God. Other than my study guides to Revelation and Hebrews, I’ve rarely used one of my own books as the basis for a class discussion. Fun!

The Lively Inspiration of Scripture

The Lively Inspiration of Scripture

A Living Bible. Process theology affirms the lively inspiration of scripture. God was at work in the communities that shaped our written scriptures and in the various writers who penned the library of texts we call the Bible. Profoundly historical, biblical inspiration varies from verse to verse and chapter to chapter. Some biblical messages have universal applicability; others are time bound and, frankly, no longer relevant to our current scientific, ethical, and theological understandings

. (Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, 19)

This is from the material we will be discussing in The Way Sunday School class at First UMC Pensacola tomorrow.

We’ve completed our study of Ecclesiastes, and are moving to the opposite end of the theological spectrum with this new book. We’ll spend two weeks on this small book, and then we’ve decided to continue with a study of my book When People Speak for God.

One of the goals of this class is to look at a variety of viewponts, learn and evaluate.

On Deepening Progressive Theology

On Deepening Progressive Theology

As you can see in the header, I use the labels “passionate moderate” and “liberal charismatic.” The first is one I adopted myself, the second was bestowed on me by an enemy, who combined the two things he liked the least in order to describe me. Nonetheless, it has an element of truth. I even used it in the subtitle of a book.

But one of my complaints about liberal Christians has been that they (or we) are often much more certain of what we don’t believe than of what we do. Comments such as “we don’t take things so literally” or “we see that as more of a story” are used to cover wide swaths of theological thinking, but often the speakers don’t actually have any idea what that “less literal” meaning might be.  I have always known of serious progressive theological thinkers, and enjoyed their writings. Unfortunately, I’ve also known the other variety.

So I like to see efforts to further define liberal or progressive theology, such as The Eight Points in Process – A Theological Vision – The Way of Jesus by Bruce Epperly. It is just the first article in a series, and it looks very promising. I see serious theological reflection written in terms that anyone can understand. For example:

An early Christian spiritual leader, Iraneaus, proclaimed that the “glory of God is a fully alive human being.” From this perspective, Jesus is the fully alive one. The light of God focused on Jesus in a special way, giving him a unique message, spectacular healing energy, unhindered hospitality, and prophetic action. We follow Jesus’ Way not only because of his teachings but because of the power, wisdom, and healing he channeled.

Though this uses some vocabulary that may wave red flags for some people, it addresses a serious issue. Can Jesus be reduced to just a great ethical teacher? If you are one of the people who find the vocabulary troubling, I’d suggest reading it again and then thinking of some phraseology from the gospel of John.

I personally find process theology to be a bridge too far, but I do find much here that is helpful. I’ll definitely be following this series through to the end.