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Thinking about a Crucified God

Thinking about a Crucified God

My company, Energion Publications, recently released a book What’s God Really Like?. It’s endorsed by Brian Zahnd;

In What’s God Really Like?, S. J. Hill invites us to become fascinated by God and, in that fascination, to move beyond the fear-based themes that have so often distorted our image of God. With a focus on Jesus and Scripture, Hill paints a portrait of a God who is “holy wild” and overflowing with generous love and contagious joy. This book is a welcome and timely remedy to the unworthy portraits of God that have too often haunted our imaginations.

Brian Zahnd
Lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO
and author of

Another Energion author, Allan R. Bevere, posted the following video, a sermon by Brian Zahnd. I think all of these go well together!


The Value of Theological Disagreement

The Value of Theological Disagreement

Earlier today I posted links to a video by Andy Stanley and a response by Michael Brown. Some people have commented on this issue indicating that it was unfair to “attack” Andy Stanley about his views.  (These were not on my blog post or its Facebook link; the controversy is widespread.) I have a few comments on this.

  1. There are those who claim that one has to listen to the entire series in order to get the context and respond. I would disagree. If you make a short video, be prepared to be challenged based on the content of that video (or audio file or blog post, for that matter). I think there is sufficient material in Stanley’s presentation to which one can respond.
  2. It’s interesting that one is expected not to respond to Stanley, yet Stanley is critiquing quite a number of other Christians. I do not criticize Stanley for doing this. If you’re going to assert that X is true and Y is not, you’re going to critique someone.
  3. As in #2, those who critique Stanley are in much the same position. If they are to assert that X is true and Y is not they will obviously be offering a critique of those who hold Y.
  4. Which leads to my main question: Why is it wrong to question theological statements, especially sweeping ones that are offered as a critique of other Christian positions?
  5. As for the “Marcionite” argument, we’re in a standard name-calling situation. For some reason, we think that by labeling someone we have responded, and, on the other hand, by defending ourselves from a label, we’re defending our position. Forget the label; ask whether the viewpoint is correct, or whether it can be improved upon.

I believe it is very important to discuss theology, and discussion involves the assertion that some things are less right than others. The idea that we can never point out what we believe is an error in the teaching of another is ludicrous. Now if we arrogate to ourselves the ability to judge someone’s salvation or their standing with God, that’s another matter. But to assert that some things are true is by nature to assert that others may be less accurate or perhaps untrue.

In this issue, I actually go farther than I perceive Michael Brown is going. I don’t believe there is a singular, straightforward distinction between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. I believe that there are many cases of God changing the way in which he relates, as God carries out God’s plan to save humanity. Thus the Christian Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments should be read as a single story. There are points of distinction, but they occur in a variety of ways and are usually envisioned ahead and then their interpretation grows afterwards.

I object to simply dismissing a portion of scripture. You have accomplished nothing of value, I believe, by unhitching the New Testament from the Old, first because they are connected by much more than a hitch. There is an earth-shattering change with the incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, but this takes place in the midst of a growing understanding of God and his actions in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we struggle to understand this completely millenia later.

As an example, many—I suspect the vast majority—of those who heard Jesus may have been surprised by his attitude toward the gentiles, and may have similarly been concerned by the church’s mission to the gentiles. Indeed, the gospels and Acts record that many were. But Isaiah (2nd/3rd Isaiah, 40-66) would not have been so shocked. One may point to differences, yet I think Jesus appears no more radical in his look at the law than Isaiah 56. So if the audience was shocked, they were missing some of the lead-up story. I think they may have been less shocked than modern people imagine. There were many viewpoints in Judaism at the time.

And if Isaiah 56 wasn’t radical enough, then perhaps Ruth or Jonah would take the place of radical scripture. Or, if we really wanted to get down to it, we might note Genesis 12:3, Genesis 17:5 (from Abram’s call and covenant).

There are certainly things that are hard to deal with in the Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament. There are also some of those in the New. My problem with a dismissive solution, broadly stated, is that the texts are still there. God has been working with people for a very long time and people have been interpreting God’s actions for a very long time.

So let’s disagree, critique, and grow. A bit of love and generosity would be good as we do so.

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Spectrums: Liberal to Conservative Is not Enough

Spectrums: Liberal to Conservative Is not Enough

nt church booksLast weekend Dave Black was our guest here in Pensacola. I recorded some videos for promotional and educational purposes and Dave also preached and talked about missions (with plenty of pictures) at Chumuckla Community Church. I will be posting some of these videos soon, but they are not quite ready yet.

Dave is a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’m a United Methodist with the dreaded ‘L’ word in my blog tagline (“Thoughts on biblical studies, religion, and living from a passionate moderate, liberal charismatic Christian”). Obviously this is some sort of liberal-conservative dialogue.

Not really. I’ve written recently about dialogue and why, as a publisher, I publish books from a variety of perspectives. In a video I produced in the early days of Energion Publications I used a triangle, with the points being charismatic, liberal, and evangelical. I would note that for this to work now it should be “conservative evangelical” as the label “evangelical seems to have lost some cohesion. This will happen to words, especially those that are perceived as positive labels.

But even those three points fail to catch some of the issues, and there’s a bit of a tendency to think of Christians grouped at the points of the triangle. One of the reasons many have trouble with labels is that people don’t fit into the center of the semantic range of a label. In addition, on different issues one may take different positions. I have political views on some subjects that seem very conservative, while on others I seem quite liberal. Similarly on theological issues I don’t try to fit all in one camp.

There are two points (I think!) in all this rambling. The first is that we don’t fit cleanly into one label on all issues. The second is that we may be able to connect with people in other camps on particular issues. In all cases (should this be #3?) this should suggest options for learning from one another.

For example, when many charismatics talk about modern revelation they use theological arguments that are also commonly expressed by liberal or progressive theologians. Not a few of those I’ve talked to want to deny any connection, but behavior and practice tell a different story. There is some theology to be learned here! Similarly many charismatics should—and do—learn biblical studies from their evangelical brethren.

Many liberals or progressives, on the other hand, don’t want to be linked to charismatics because of emotionalism or other extremes. Yet too frequently progressive biblical reflection tends to be more a matter of challenging the conclusions of evangelicals rather than developing a robust theology and application of scripture. Yes, this can be a stereotype. I have several authors in the Energion Publications list, such as Dr. Bob Cornwall, Dr. Bruce Epperly, and Dr. Drew Smith, none of whom fit the picture. And there are many more like them.

9781631990465mOne of the interviews I conduced with Dave was about his book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. Dave goes back to the book of Acts for keys to how the church should behave now, in the 21st century. And this brings up a very different spectrum: church structure.

We could make a spectrum that runs not from conservative to liberal, but from strongly hierarchical to mutually submissive, from high church to low, from central control to local. Similarly we might look for a spectrum of views on who is in charge of the church, how much, and in what way. That could run from Jesus in charge directly to a highly hierarchical view of how the lordship of Jesus is implemented in the life of the church. None of these would exclude people from any liberal-conservative, charismatic-evangelical, or any similar ideological spectrum.

My plan is that as soon as I’ve posted my interview with Dave on his Seven Marks book, I’m going to start blogging through the Marks. As I do so, I’m going to bring in points from some other authors, such as Bruce Epperly, whose book Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel also goes back to Acts to ask what we can do in the church today. Beside both of those I’m going to reference the book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations by Dr. Ruth Fletcher. There are definite differences of approach in these books, but there are also many points of contact.

So I’m going to ask two questions in my series:

  1. Can we find a way to apply these seven marks in other theological and ecclesiological traditions? (I fully believe we can, though there are places where our ecclesiology needs to change, and that’s a good thing!)
  2. More specifically, how can a United Methodist congregation look back to the New Testament and so become a more authentic witness for Jesus in the world today? There are those who would say many of these ideas are not possible under denominational rules, but I wonder. How much would a simple commitment to being “servant of all” on the part of those at the top of the organizational chart might change the reality without altering the paperwork?

So watch here over the next week. I’ll post the video and then begin the discussion. I hope I can find some people to discuss this with me vigorously. My comment policy is largely open. If you don’t threaten the family friendly nature of the blog, you can express yourself.


Follow-Up to According to John: No One Has Ascended into Heaven

Follow-Up to According to John: No One Has Ascended into Heaven

I want to follow up a bit on the study last night. I’ll embed the YouTube below for those who want to view this study after the fact. A few things occurred to me since the study.

  1. Meditations on According to JohnI’m really spending a great deal of time on the use of stories and of metaphors in discussing theology. I’m convinced that we don’t recognize the metaphors we’re using often enough. For example, it’s worthwhile to note that most discussion of substitution occurs inside the metaphor of the courtroom. It’s then important to recognize when a discussion, whether current or in scripture, occurs within another metaphor. John 3:16 occurs in a different metaphor, or perhaps more than one, and it comes after John has evoked the story of the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9). In that story, the key line is “look and live.”
  2. It’s very important to distinguish “light” as John uses it from our 20th/21st century use of that metaphor. Yes, that word is another metaphor. Jesus did not claim that he as going to provide physical light to the whole world. The modern tendency is to think of light as information and enlightenment as the reception of information. For John, and for Jesus as represented in this gospel, light is more closely connected to life. To mix the metaphors, you look up at the light as he is lifted up and you live. The healing of the blind man in John 9 links closely to this metaphor. There is light and the ability to see light.
  3. Metaphors allow us to talk about the same general subject from different perspectives. Thus one can talk about atonement using the metaphor of the battlefield, the courtroom, and the family/community without being contradictory. I would suggest that one shouldn’t mix these metaphors, at least without being very aware of what one is doing and doing so carefully.
  4. I had an excellent audience question, and this time one that wasn’t in my notes as something I might discuss. Just what was John doing? Jesus speaks so differently from the way he does in the synoptic gospels. Why? It’s a good question, and I went the right direction as I started to answer it. Overnight it occurred to me, however, that the synoptic gospels also had in mind building community. They were just more tied to an existing sayings tradition in doing so. The change, in my view, is one of emphasis. The particular kind of community building involved is one of defining oneself. What is it that we believe as a group that makes us a spiritual/religious community? There is a danger here in following the example of the community reflected in According to John. They are distinguishing themselves from the Jewish community, of which they had previously been members. Who are we apart from being Jews who believe in Jesus? We have to avoid following this line of reasoning to anti-semitism, as Dr. Weiss points out. In addition, however, we need to avoid community building that is done over-against others. There is a certain amount of “and you’re not” when one defines a community. But we need to avoid defining ourselves in a way that reflects negatively on others. The community in John had good reason—they were a persecuted minority. We have less reason.
  5. I’m very glad for Dr. Herold Weiss as a guide in this study. I’m assuming those who are joining me are reading his essays. He’s much more to the point. I’m adding a good deal of discussion of the nuts and bolts to help people think about their own theology, or at least I hope it helps. This can get boring, but sometimes wading through the nuts and bolts (intentional mixed metaphor!) is precisely what we need to do.

And here is the YouTube embed for those who may have missed it:

Link: Is the Trinity Biblical?

Link: Is the Trinity Biblical?

In my study of John last night I referred people to a post by Michael F. Bird, author of the book Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. I have been using his book as one of my theological references for the study. He responded to a review in which he discussed some of the same issues I’ve discussed. I promised a link last night, and here it is.

For what it’s worth, I believe that the trinity expresses a combination of various biblical materials and the experience of the early church in language that is demonstrably not in the Bible. I don’t see this as a problem. In general, when we write doctrinal statements of any sort, they reflect a combination of the way we read scripture, our traditions, our personal and collective experience, and of course the function of our reason. I perceive myself as seeing the connection as looser than Bird asserts, so I’m certainly willing to defend him from critics who say he hasn’t claimed enough. On the other hand, he may have claimed too much, and in this case, perhaps more than needs to be claimed.

Nonetheless his book is fun. Note also that the subtitle illustrates the point I was making. I tend to think that the more systematic our theology gets, the less biblical it is. Being both systematic and biblical seems to me almost a contradiction in terms. The Bible is not systematic. But that’s part of the fun of my current study!

Theologian Pastors

Theologian Pastors

Mostly, this is a link to Allan Bevere’s post, which builds on Michael Bird’s post.

I’m one of those parishioners who would like to hear more sermons from well-educated theologians. Even if the circumstances are different (see comments to Allan’s post), I, like John Wesley, have but a lowly MA.

But there are several things that will need to happen for this to work.

First, we will need to redefine the role of a pastor in the minds of the people in the pews. For them, preaching is less than an hour of their pastor’s work during the week. Sure, if you pin them down on the subject, they’ll admit there must be preparation time, but it’s still only a minor thing. They want to see the pastor visiting, administering the church, attending all the committees, being around for social occasions, and in some churches doing part of the maintenance work. Face it, to most of the people in the pews, theology just isn’t work.

Second, we need to learn to have the whole church do pastoral work. A nation of priests sounds alright until we need to put it into action. There are people in every church who are called to do pastoral work, such as visiting the sick and shut-ins, helping with various ministries to those in need, and so forth. There are others gifted for administration. If the work was divided between the gifted, perhaps there would be more time. Then we could have a pastor who was primarily teacher or “resident theologian.”

Third, if we get the daily non-theological work (or the theology in practice, perhaps) taken care of, we need to convince the people of the church that a theologian is a worthwhile investment. I think it would be. In fact, it is one of the few staff positions I see as necessary. In many cases, a group of churches should band together and hire a resident theologian. Then the leadership of those churches could go study with that individual, and in turn teach their congregations. The theologian, of course, should also spend time with everyone.

Fourth, if we are to reduce the separation of the academy from the church, perhaps the academy itself needs to be distributed more. Modern technology might be able to help with this, and I don’t mean largely by distance learning in this case. I mean by theologians, resident or not, giving classes in various areas that would be tracked for credit. In other words, one’s academic degree would not be accomplished entirely in the academy, and one’s academic career could not be spent entirely in the ivory tower.

I’m probably leaving dozens of problems out of this discussion, but since I don’t see us getting past my points 1 & 2, I guess that’s enough!


Defining Christian

Defining Christian

Adrian Warnock recently wrote a post on defining what is a Christian. I commented on that post, and largely had no problem with it. I’m looking forward to Adrian’s definition of an evangelical. Now Dave Warnock (no relation that I know of) has written a post critical of Adrian’s effort. Since I usually agree with Dave as opposed to Adrian (I’m a regular reader of both blogs), I paid close attention to Dave’s thoughts.

I may be wrong, but I originally read Adrian’s post from the point of view of making a personal decision. For example, when I say that I’m looking for a Christian church in my neighborhood, what do I mean? Does that include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Oneness Pentecostals? If I’m referring someone to a church for fellowship, what exactly do I mean? That personal definition is, for me, not the same as a theological definition, nor is it equivalent to saying who is saved or not (which I leave entirely to God), nor is it saying which congregation contains the better people. It’s a definition of common ground for the purpose of fellowship as a community of faith. For that, when I look for a church to join, it would be limited to those who can say the Apostles’ Creed without crossing their fingers. I know that sounds rather flip, and my theologian friends won’t like it that much, but it’s a pretty accurate description of what goes on in my mind.

I want to emphasize that I do not regard this as a condemnation of all those churches that might not fit the definition. I’m not going to join them, but that’s my decision based on the nature of my faith. I can handle lots of variation within that broader context.

In dialogue, I use a broader definition, one that also doesn’t precisely match the theological definitions Dave quotes. I simply accept as Christian everyone who claims the name “Christian.” I might not be able to handle the theology of their church community as a member, but I accept that it is not my place to decide what they are. They have to accept or reject the labels. That’s a completely different context from the first. I will (and have) explain those two viewpoints in such a dialogue, as well.

I may have misconstrued Adrian’s intent. I intended to answer the question of just what it meant to me to label myself Christian. That’s the first context. That’s how I answered the question. So having worked it through a couple of paragraphs, I’m sticking with my original response.

The third sense, a definition of Christian used in theology (a necessary effort, for example, when doing theology, is obviously a necessary activity if one is to discuss theology. But that is where I point out that I’m not a theologian in the professional sense of the word.

Not Only a Father

Not Only a Father

Tim Bulkeley is trying to generate some discussion of his book Not Only a Father. I’m a little late to the game, as many other bloggers have already linked, but I’ve been busy trying to shepherd six books through the release process. But though late, here I am.

There are two things that excite me about this book. The first is technical. Tim is presenting the book online with the option to enter comments and create discussion. I plan to do so as I manage to read the book. I encourage you to go and do likewise!

The second thing that excites me is the topic. I have a little history with this topic, ever since a doctor of my acquaintance said in a sermon that God actually had the various human organs. By virtue of that point, she believed that God must actually be male. This is, of course, an extreme view.

Very recently, however, I heard a new associate minister in a church use “father-mother God” in prayer, and there was an audible gasp in the congregation. Similarly I was strongly questioned over using “like a hen gathers her chicks” in a communion liturgy. The fact that the phrase comes from Scripture had no impact.

So I’m looking forward to continuing to read and interact with this book.


Revelation and a System of Doctrine

Revelation and a System of Doctrine

I really enjoy the last few days of work on a pending book release, because I include an opportunity to read the final form of the book at a more reasonable pace and without the constant distraction of working on editorial changes. Well, I should confess that I’m also always going crazy with production issues, but we’ll leave that to one side.

Right now I’m doing my final run through From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully by Edward Vick. It’s an enjoyable process. I’m going to comment on it a bit more later. Today I’m just going to use one quote, regarding revelation.

But the meaning of the Bible is not exhausted by being made the basis of a system of doctrine. There is much that escapes when ‘Bible’ and ‘system of doctrine’ are conflated. In fact, while by no means denying the importance of doctrine (why should a theologian do that?), one must say that if the importance of the Bible is made to consist in its being construed as a source of doctrine, it is being severely reduced, misunderstood, and indeed distorted. Revelation is not reducible to the communication of propositions, and faith is not identical with assent to propositions, in this case propositions repeating biblical statements, or being inferred or worked out from them (emphasis mine).

Note that Dr. Vick is not suggesting, as the context makes even more plain, that there are no propositions involved or that propositions have no value. Rather, revelation is much more than and other than that.

Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

I am not a theologian. On the occasions when I say this I have an important reason for saying so. Not infrequently, I thus make myself the target of a quote from Karl Barth:

Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian.

It is interesting that nobody has ever quoted the next few lines, which it seems to me they would:

How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term (extracted unceremoniously from Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction,” 40-1)!

(In searching for the source of this quote, which I’d forgotten, I found this post, which makes some excellent points based on the Barth quote. I have extracted the two snippets above from that site.)

Now I don’t disagree with Karl Barth’s comments on this issue, but I do disagree with the way in which the quote is often used.

Let me give an example from my own field–languages, specifically biblical languages. There are people who have an interest in languages. There are those who have an interest in linguistics, and who actually discuss the forms of their language or dig into details of semantics. Then there are those who make a professional study of such things.

I could make an excellent case, I think, for the claim that everybody is a linguist. We all have to communicate. We all have to deal with meaning. Thus, we all deal with semantics, whether we use that label or not. But quite frequently I will hear someone say, “That’s just semantics!” Well, if we’re dealing with an utterance intended to convey meaning, any discussion of what was meant is a discussion of semantics.

So I think it’s silly to say that a particular issue of meaning is “just semantics.” Similarly, you will, as Barth notes, hear Christians, including preachers, putting down the idea of theology, as though one can be a follower of Christ without thinking about God, or as though in thinking about God one can afford to be careless.

Yet just because someone does a bit of thinking about semantics, or grammatical forms, or phonology, doesn’t mean I’ll call that person a linguist. I studied biblical languages both for my undergraduate degree and then for my MA. I took either a year, or at least a concentrated quarter that was advertised as equivalent to a year, in 11 languages. In several languages I took much more than that. But I don’t call myself a linguist except in a very narrow sense.

Why? Because there is a difference in learning a number of languages, and in learning and thinking about the nature and structure of language. I’ve taken a number of graduate courses in linguistics, and I can tell you that while the two types of study interrelate, they are not the same thing.

Similarly, my own training is in biblical languages, not theology. I do not mean that I have never encountered theology, or that I don’t think about theology. Nor do I mean that there is no theology involved when I teach. In fact, I am generally very concerned to check my theological statements more carefully, for the very good reason that I am not a theologian.

I took an undergraduate minor in religion, but almost all of my courses there were in biblical studies. In graduate school, while my concentration for the MA in Religion was Biblical and Cognate Languages, I was required to take a certain number of hours in departments other than those in my concentration. So I took church history, in the form of a class in patristic Latin. Not to mention the exegesis course in Galatians in which I used the Greek text while everyone else used English. I’ve probably read more theology each year since I left graduate school than I did in my entire course of study.

I think that we can easily be very guilty of an equivocation in this case. What I mean by saying I’m not a theologian is that theology was not and is not my area of professional study. There is a difference between biblical languages, biblical studies, and theology, not to mention differences between different branches of theology. I consider this an important distinction to make, especially when I’m asked to comment on a matter of theology, and the questioner believes my opinion should have special weight because I know Greek and Hebrew. In theology I speak as a layman. It is, of course, worthwhile to note that I have studied more theology than the average person in a church pew, but the distinction still remains valid.

Every Christian is a theologian, I believe, in the same sense as every human being must be a linguist. It is somewhat silly to use language to disparage the meaning of language, and it is somewhat silly as well to claim that theology is unimportant as we follow Christ.

But theologian != theologian, necessarily!