Posts Tagged ‘Brian Zahnd’

Podcast Episode #31: “One-Conditional Love”

October 13, 2018

It’s become a truism within Christian circles to speak of God’s “unconditional love” for humanity. But is this the most accurate way to describe God’s love? In this episode, following the lead of the late United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden (who first popularized the phrase “unconditional love” within theology), I argue that God’s love is best described as “one-conditional,” not unconditional.

As I warn in this episode, the difference between the two couldn’t be more consequential.

This is the second of two podcasts on the authority of scripture. 

Podcast Text: 2 Timothy 3:16-17

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, October 12, 2018, and this is episode number 31 in my ongoing series of podcasts. 

You’re listening right now to “Unconditional Love,” by the Altar Boys, from their 1986 album, Gut Level Music. The Altar Boys were a Christian punk band—yes, they had that sort of thing back in the glorious ’80s, when I was coming of age. This song was not one of their original compositions, however. It was written by two Christian musicians—the former “queen of disco,” Donna Summer, and producer-songwriter Michael Omartian. If you remember the eighties the way I do, you’ll recall that the song was a minor hit for Ms. Summer in 1983, and the music video featured the Jamaican boy band Musical Youth, who had just had a hit on MTV with their song “Pass the Dutchie.”

In a little while, I’ll switch gears and play the song “Crossfire” by Kansas from their 1982 album, Vinyl Confessions. This was the second album the band made after lead guitarist and songwriter Kerry Livgren—the writer of “Carry On, Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind”—was converted to Christianity, along with bass player Dave Hope. 

You’ll hear that song later. But I’m starting with the Altar Boys because we Christians today practically take for granted that God loves us with un-conditional love. We use that expression all the time: unconditional love. In fact, I still remember an argument I got into many years on my blog with a dear Christian friend who challenged me on the notion of God’s unconditional love. God’s love, he said, is not unconditional. And I thought his words were borderline heresy! 

Imagine my surprise, then, just a few years ago, when I read a theological memoir called A Change of Heart by a well-respected theologian—who also happens to be United Methodist—named Thomas Oden. (Oden died in 2016.) In this memoir, he sheepishly admits that he was responsible for either coining the phrase “unconditional love,” or at least popularizing and applying it for the first time to theology—and to God’s loving relationship with humanity. He said he borrowed the concept from the psychotherapeutic work of psychologist Carl Rogers. 

When Oden first began writing about God’s unconditional love, he was a progressive Christian theologian. But he changed. In the late-’60s he experienced a conversion of sorts; by his own admission, he embraced orthodox Christianity—not capital O orthodox; he remained a humble Methodist. But he was no longer enamored with innovation in Christian theology; when it came to theology he liked the old stuff. In fact, he told Christianity Today that he had a dream once in which he saw his tombstone. His epitaph read as follows: “He made no new contribution to theology.” Oden became, in his own words, an “orthodox, ecumenical evangelical.” Read the rest of this entry »

Christ is the Word of God, and so is the Bible

January 18, 2016

Here we go again… In November, I voiced agreement with Derek Rishmawy over against those who draw an overly sharp distinction between Christ the Word of God and the Bible as the Word of God. For example, popular pastor and blogger Brian Zahnd put it like this:


As I said back then,

Notice the false choice he sets up: one has to choose between Jesus or the Bible. As if we can know who Jesus is independently of scripture! 

Honestly: What can we know about God’s eternal plan of salvation, for which Christ’s death and resurrection is the climax, apart from scripture, whose authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote? Unless I’m badly mistaken, nothing at all!

Well, the issue has resurfaced in this guest post, “Is Jesus or the Bible the Word of God, and Does it Matter?” by Austin Fischer on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. My short answer is, “It doesn’t matter very much, certainly not as much as ex-evangelicals like Zahnd and others think.”

No one has convinced me otherwise, certainly not the commenters on Fischer’s post—a post with which I mostly agree, by the way. Subtlety and nuance are not widely appreciated on Patheos blogs, unfortunately. First, someone named Max commented, “If there is a Jesus different from the one revealed in the NT, then he is a fictional character created in the person’s own mind, a creation to affirm whatever that person likes and condemn whatever that person dislikes.” I agreed, saying:

This first sentence is an excellent point: We know of no Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture. So the primary way to know the Word of God that is Jesus is to read the Word of God that is scripture. Therefore, I’m not sure the distinction is as important as many people believe.

Where I say “primary,” I’m tempted to say “only.” By saying “primary,” however, I recognize that we come to know Jesus not just through information from the pages of the text, but also through the Holy Spirit speaking through them.

Often, I suspect that progressives are referring to mysticism when they say that Jesus rather than scripture is the Word of God—as if they’ve come to know him apart from the Bible.

Someone named Terry jumped on this, saying:

Brent, so you just read Austin’s entire essay and have concluded that he’s out to lunch? It seems he made a very solid case for the distinction having merit, in spite of some who have overcooked it. Are you indicating that Austin is referencing mysticism and is a progressive *which seems to be polemical)? Is the Scripture, and the Holy Spirit via the Scripture really the only ways to “know the Word of God”?

I replied:

I don’t think you’ve read my comment very charitably, but this is a Patheos blog. Fighting comes with the territory, I guess.

I agree with Fischer! I would, however, make the connection between “knowing Jesus the Word” and “knowing Jesus through the Word.” (Indeed, I think I blogged about this issue a while back and made that point.) And no, I wasn’t implying that Fischer was endorsing mysticism, and he’s clearly not progressive. That sentence was a response to the general tendency, as Fischer points out, to denigrate scripture by appealing to Jesus (only) as the Word of God. I do think Christians who identify themselves as progressive (whether they take that pejoratively is up to them) often appeal to a Jesus of mystical experience rather than the one revealed in scripture. Is that controversial?

Finally, to your last question, I don’t know. I’m really not into mysticism, so I’m tempted to say “yes.” What would any of us learn about Jesus that is in addition to, or outside of, or inconsistent with the Jesus revealed in scripture?

Terry again:

Brent, my apologies if I misread your initial comment. I think the connection you want to make is a valid one, but the overall content of your comment, to me, read as general disagreement with Fischer. Wrongly perhaps, but I read fight in your comment.

I don’t think any of us would learn about Jesus in a way that is inconsistent with Jesus as revealed in Scripture; the church being the Body of Christ puts forth at least one option whereby we could learn of Jesus outside of Scripture; God’s people could learn of Jesus, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, outside of Scripture.


But would they learn something that they wouldn’t know from scripture itself? Would they learn something that they could then write down and say, “This knowledge is as authoritative and real and true as anything else found in the Bible”? If the answer is no, then—again—I don’t see how the distinction between the Word who is Jesus and the Word that is scripture is all that important.

And on it went. You can read the comments. It’s a very important distinction, everyone seemed to say. Only no one could tell me what practical difference it made in understanding who Jesus is. All I can figure is that these Christians are coming at the question from far more conservative or fundamentalist backgrounds than myself. I’m coming from the other side—as a former progressive Christian turned evangelical. That experience convinces me that attempts to draw sharp distinctions between Christ as the Word and the Bible as the Word come from an embarrassment about the Bible and are an attempt to denigrate it and undermine our trust in it.

Rishmawy’s response to the original post was best of all. It included these words:

I’ve got little to disagree with in terms of the general points about semantic distinctions, the Image/image, etc. Indeed, part of my original post made the argument that we call the Bible the Word of God precisely because it’s a Trinitarian one, uttered by the Father, about the Son, through inspiration of the Spirit. Viewed this way, we can see that it is God’s word in terms of its origin, content, and agency. And that’s, I think, one of my points of pushback. The derivative nature of the Bible as the word comes in terms of the content. As the testimony about the Word Incarnate, we see that its secondary and derivative. That said, it’s also had through the direct, but humanly mediated activity of the Triune God. As Divine self-testimony, then, there is a sense in which it’s not derivative and secondary. It is properly God’s speech and is to be treated as such. Especially since the Scriptures as the word of God are the only way that we know anything about Jesus as the Word of God.

Bad Christian memes, Brian Zahnd edition

November 6, 2015

I’ve been critical of the theology of pastor Brian Zahnd on a couple of occasions (here and here). Courtesy of Derek Rishmawy, I encountered yet another objectionable statement, this one in the form of a meme. I like Rishmawy’s response:


Zahnd, like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Fred Clark, and many others, is a self-described former conservative evangelical or “fundamentalist” who eventually saw the light, as he sees it, and moved to the theological left. If I’m unusually sensitive to thinkers such as these, it’s because I moved in the opposite direction: After an evangelical childhood, I identified as a progressive Christian for much of my adult life—a theological turn that nearly ruined my soul. So I want to warn others: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

I also fear that many of these former evangelicals experience a political conversion prior to their theological conversion. And because they’ve conflated evangelicalism with voting a certain way, they soon abandon evangelicalism altogether—in all but name, at least. In Britain, however, from which so many brilliant evangelicals hail, this confusion of politics and theology doesn’t happen nearly as much.

N.T. Wright, for example, seems like a political lefty to me, even though he’s theologically conservative—including on hot-button social issues that, in America at least, are usually identified with the Religious Right.

So if you’re a political liberal who’s evangelical, look across the pond and find your role models! But please don’t abandon your commitment to the authority of scripture!

Be that as it may, New Zealand theologian Glenn Peoples was surely speaking of Christian bloggers such as Zahnd when he wrote the following in a recent blog post:

Self-styled progressive Christian blogs, it seems to me, are almost a purely reactionary phenomenon, rather than a constructive one. They exist as an almost visceral reaction to fundamentalism, very often to the writer’s own perceived fundamentalist past. What seems obvious to me in many discussions of Scripture in these settings is that there is a remarkable obsession with the doctrine of inerrancy – far more so than in conservative circles. The preoccupation with saying at every opportunity that inerrancy is false seems to set the agenda, so that whatever the authors of Scripture might have actually wanted to say takes a back seat to the really important message (namely that inerrancy is false).

In other words, the message from so many of these bloggers is that the Bible is wrong, or deficient, or insufficient, or unreliable, or less than fully truthful—and hardly a secure foundation on which to build one’s Christian faith.

Zahnd’s statement is a prime example of this.

Notice the false choice he sets up: one has to choose between Jesus or the Bible. As if we can know who Jesus is independently of scripture! 

Honestly: What can we know about God’s eternal plan of salvation, for which Christ’s death and resurrection is the climax, apart from scripture, whose authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote? Unless I’m badly mistaken, nothing at all!

Yes, in a sense Jesus is what “God has to say.” But apart from scripture, not only can we not know who Jesus is, we also can’t interpret what God was trying to tell us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

The whole thing reminds me of a recent online argument I had with a fellow United Methodist blogger who ridiculed me for referring to the Bible as “God’s Word.” The Bible isn’t God’s Word, he told me (as if I, having gone to mainline Protestant seminary, hadn’t heard this before); Jesus is God’s Word.

Since Jesus himself refers to the Bible as God’s Word, I believe we should, too. The Bible is God’s written-down-Word. When has the Church taught otherwise? And, yes, Jesus is the Word-made-flesh, as John’s gospel tells us. Both are true. I can’t believe that Zahnd doesn’t understand this.

Reading the Bible with a “Jesus tea-strainer”

July 10, 2014

I recommend this first episode of the Mere Fidelity podcast, which in this case is a conversation between three young evangelical theologians about capital punishment. The three are responding to a recent blog post by pastor and writer Brian Zahnd, who not only argues that we Christians should oppose capital punishment based on the teachings of Jesus, but that because of what Jesus reveals to us about God, God never condoned capital punishment in the first place—even though he certainly seemed to do so in the Old Testament.

Andrew Wilson, an English theologian who writes for Christianity Today, argues that Zahnd is guilty of applying a “Jesus tea-strainer” to the Old Testament—an increasingly popular way of reading the Bible. He explains:

So I’ve used the analogy [of the “Jesus tea-strainer”] quite often when people talk about the “Jesus lens.” By which they say, “We’re reading the Bible through the ‘Jesus lens,’ and it’s coloring what we’re doing.” I say I don’t think it’s so much a lens in some cases—it’s more of a tea-strainer: Instead of looking at things from a particular angle and then coloring your view through Jesus, instead you use a particular version of Jesus you’ve cobbled together from bits of the Gospels. And then you turn that into a fine-mesh tea-strainer, which you then try to push the Old Testament through. And only a few bits make it through and the rest of it gets stuck and left on the saucer. And actually even the Jesus in the Synoptics doesn’t fit through the tea-strainer you’ve formed because he doesn’t… he says, as I’ve already said, you read Luke 17 or something and think, “That is very hard to cohere with a progressive-y red-letter Jesus.”

By Luke 17, he means these red-letter words of judgment and divine retribution:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all – so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (Luke 17:26-30).

As Wilson’s blog post on the “Jesus tea-strainer” makes clear, there are many more such passages from Jesus in the Gospels. Given these passages, it’s hard to explain the image of Jesus so beloved by our culture—as some kind of first-century proto-hippie who went around preaching peace, love, and tolerance!

Nevertheless, the three men go on to make the case that we should approach scripture, especially those troublesome passages that prick our consciences, with great humility. As Derek Rishmawy says, around the 27:00 minute mark, before we say that the Bible writer got it wrong, let’s first assume that we’re the ones who are wrong—that we’re failing to understand what’s going on in the passage.

This is, in my opinion, a helpful approach to scripture. We give God’s Word the benefit of the doubt and assume that the Holy Spirit has inspired the biblical writers to include these difficult passages for a good reason, even when we can’t understand what it is.

No Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture

April 29, 2014

Recently, someone asked me in a text message what I thought of this Holy Week-themed blog post about atonement from Brian Zahnd, a pastor and author from Missouri. “So let’s be clear,” Zahnd writes, “the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god.” As I texted to my friend:

Oh good! I’m glad he clarified that. Because didn’t you think that’s what the cross was about?… This is a straw-man argument. Put forward the worst caricature of substitutionary atonement and then tear it apart. “Well, yes,” I would tell him, “If this were what God’s wrath looks like, then I agree that [penal substitution is] horrible.”

I write these strong words as someone who once censored a praise-and-worship song that the band performed years ago. It included this couplet (from memory): “You died upon that tree/ You killed your Son for me.” I explained at the time that this song was wrong on two counts: The first problem is a nitpicky liturgical mistake: the song addresses Jesus in the first line, and then it addresses the Father in the second. We’re supposed to be consistent throughout our prayers and songs.

The second problem, however, relates to the same thing that Zahnd criticizes: that it’s not theologically appropriate, even among those of us who endorse penal substitution as the primary understanding of atonement, to say that the Father killed the Son.

No: the Romans and the religious authorities—who represent all of us sinful humans—killed the Son. And the Son, who wants what the Father wants—namely, to reconcile sinful humanity to God—offers himself as propitiation for our sins. (Yeah, that’s right… I said propitiation! To say that Jesus was a propitiation for sin is fighting words among many revisionist-minded mainline Protestants.) I wholeheartedly endorse the words of this 19th century Anglican commentator, James Denney, whom N.T. Wright quotes with appreciation in an essay he wrote about penal substitution:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John?… Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import… But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel… Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

Regardless, Zahnd doesn’t write as if he’s aware that penal substitution could mean anything other than a vindictive “monster god” murdering his son in order to be appeased. I suppose this was the version of substitutionary atonement he learned and taught when he was evangelical? Who knows…

But it causes me to wonder: Are there really so many disaffected former evangelicals nursing wounds from their upbringing? They’re all over the place these days! Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are a couple of famous examples… Donald Miller… Rachel Held Evans… In fact, her blog—seemingly her entire writing career—is devoted to the subject of being hurt and angry about the conservative evangelicalism she endured as a child.

Aren’t there any happy evangelicals out there?

Well, of course there are. As someone who has moved in the opposite theological direction—from the liberal mainline Protestantism to conservative evangelicalism—it’s funny how differently I see problems within American Christendom than these ex-evangelicals!

My recommendation to my disaffected evangelical brethren is to stop being so American and start reading British evangelicals—most of whom are or were found within the Church of England. Some examples I know of: the late John Stott, N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Michael Green, John Goldingay, and C.S. Lewis (of course). These are Christian intellectuals who faced exile within a post-Christian culture long before we Americans did, who’ve already reasoned their way through the tough questions, and emerged on the other side with their strong commitment to the authority of scripture intact.

These are my role-models.

I only just heard of Brian Zahnd a few months ago, when someone quoted this statement from him:

God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.

The first few sentences are great: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.” But what about the last part? By all means, our understanding of God is made complete by the Incarnation, but Jesus himself doesn’t reveal anything about God that contradicts the God who is revealed in the Old Testament. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus (and the whole New Testament) teaches us to read the Old Testament in light of his revelation, but when we do, we find that it’s very consistent.

Moreover, there are plenty of red-letter words in the Bible about judgment, hell, and God’s wrath, too. It’s as if Jesus went around saying, “Your sins are forgiven,” without adding, “Go and sin no more.”

Just as there’s no God other than the one revealed in Jesus, there’s no Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture.

Not quite as pithy as what Zahnd writes I know… but still true.

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Matt Smethurst blogs about the danger of reading Jesus’ red-letter words as somehow more authoritative than the New Testament’s black-letter words. He writes:

Another related mistake is the popular tendency to imply that since Jesus is the Word of God, Scripture must be something else. But once again this is a false dilemma. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God’s Word (e.g., John 1:1-2Heb. 1:1-2Rev. 19:13and that it is God’s Word (e.g., John 10:35Acts 17:11Heb. 4:1213:7). The urge to wrest an “either/or” out of a “both/and” smells more of Enlightenment rationalism than biblical Christianity. What God has joined together, let no man separate.

As Kevin DeYoung observes:

God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripurated Word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out Word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.

Diminishing the integrity of the Word inscripturate in the name of upholding the integrity of the Word incarnate is, ironically enough, the quickest way to domesticate and diminish him.