Posts Tagged ‘Derek Rishmawy’

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:

rishmawy

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.

Me:

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.

Another reflection on providence

January 5, 2016

This covers some ground I’ve covered many times before (even in last Sunday’s sermon), but it bears repeating. This is my comment in response to a post on God’s providence by Reformed thinker Derek Rishmawy. As I tell him, I mostly agree with his post.

If you think I’m wrong about any of this, please feel free to tell me why.

Conservative evangelical United Methodist pastor here. (Sorry to modify the kind of Methodist I am, but they come in a wide variety these days, unfortunately.) Even as a Wesleyan, I really like this post. Thanks.

You write the following of our Arminian emphasis on free will and how love must be freely chosen: “More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.”

I would only add that we Arminians wonder why God must eternally decree that these things come to pass. Why can’t God foresee that they will come to pass when free human beings (however corrupted by sin their freedom may be) exert their will in this way—and then plan accordingly? We believe strongly that God redeems and transforms evil for good.

Regardless, like you, I’m sure, I don’t see nearly so great a difference between God’s “causing” and God’s “allowing” as many Christians see—especially my more progressive clergy colleagues. If you want to start a fight with them, tell them that “everything happens for a reason” (even if, as you indicate, the reason will likely will be unknowable to us). From my perspective, this is obviously true.

If we believe that God answers prayer and grants our petitions at least sometimes (even most progressives in my denomination say they believe this), then what happens when God doesn’t grant our petition? Do we say that God doesn’t have the power to do so? Do we say “that’s just the breaks, kid” because whether God does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary? Or do we say, “God heard our petition, considered it, and chose not to give us what we asked for”—and here’s the inevitable conclusion—”for a good reason”?

But as you say, if we knew what God knows, and we were as good as God is, we would understand the reason and praise him for it.

What’s the alternative to this? My progressive colleagues end up implicitly saying (as far as I can tell) that God doesn’t really do much of anything—except, you know, be with us (whatever that means) and suffer alongside us (whatever that means). Providence isn’t real. God’s hands are tied.

Thanks again. I like your blog and the Mere Fidelity podcast. I listen to it whenever it comes out.

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:

rishmawy

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.

A nice defense of penal substitution

November 18, 2014

In this fine blog post, “The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitution Atonement,” Derek Rishmawy answers every objection to PSA that I’ve read.

The objection that’s closest to my heart—in that I struggle with it myself—is #4: How is moral guilt transferable from sinful humanity to Christ? I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said that it’s far more important to understand that it happened than to understand how it happened. After all, we’re delving into the deepest mysteries of God. Why do we imagine it would be easy to understand?

Even still…

Although the transfer of guilt accords with scripture, especially the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53, it isn’t quite satisfying to answer, “Because the Bible tells me so.” As an evangelical, I’m willing to live with that answer if that’s all I’ve got, but Rishmawy offers much more.

We already believe that Christ represents humanity in so many other ways, including the fact that Christ wins his victory over sin, evil, and death on our behalf—and his appeal to early Church Father Irenaeus’s view of recapitulation is precisely on point. Proponents of the “Christus Victor” theory of atonement could hardly object that Christ can represent us in this one way but not in the other.

The key for Rishmawy is this: whereas a merely human being can’t suffer moral guilt in place of someone else, Christ is no mere human: he is also fully God. This is why courtroom analogies break down. What Christ does on the cross is unique, without adequate analogy, because he is fully human and fully God.

Here’s Rishmawy’s full response to this objection:

4. Classically, some have objected that PSA is morally repugnant because moral guilt is not transferable. It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. In response to this, some have noted that some forms of debt are transferable. People can pay off each other’s financial debts all the time. Why not Christ? Well, as long as it is thought of financially, yes, that seems unproblematic. But moral debt seems different and non-transferable. We are not usually supposed to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. At this point, it seems that a few things ought to be made clear.

First, Jesus is the Christ, not just any other person. Christ is not just a name; it is a title meaning “Messiah”, the Anointed King. In the biblical way of thinking, kings of nations stood in a special representative relationship with their people. As N.T. Wright says, when you come to the phrase “In the Messiah” in the NT, then, you have to think “what is true of the King, was true of the people.” So, if the King won a victory, then so did the people, and so forth. The King was able to assume responsibility for the fate of a people in a way that no other person could. This is the underlying logic at work in the Bible text. We do not think this way because we are modern, hyper-individualists, but he is the one in whom his people are summed up.

Though sadly this gets left out of many popular accounts of PSA, this is actually what classic, Reformed covenant theology is about. Jesus occupies a unique moral space precisely as the mediator of the new covenant relationship. Most people cannot take responsibility for the guilt of others in such a way that they can discharge their obligations on their behalf. Jesus can because he is both God and Man, and the New Adam, who is forging a new relationship between humanity and God. This, incidentally, is just a variation on Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (re-headship). As all die in Adam, so all are given life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-20). If Christ dies a penal death for sins, then those who are in Christ die that death with him (2 Cor 5:14). His relationship is, as they say, sui generis, in its own category.

This is where modern, popular analogies drawn from the lawcourt fail us. We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.

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.