Posts Tagged ‘Jason Micheli’

My old blogging nemesis is at it again

May 18, 2017

My old blogging nemesis, Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and author, is at it again. In this recent post, he describes a conversation with a father who lost his son to a tragic accident. Then he complains about Christians who tried to comfort this father with words about God’s “having a plan” for his son’s death.

Micheli writes the following (emphasis his):

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

I don’t know what he means by a “God of absolute will.” I disagree that God uses anything for “His own self-realization,” since God is perfectly, fully realized. And I hope that God gives meaning to evil and suffering. But my point in the following comment, as I’ve said many times before, is that even if God merely allows evil and suffering—having the power to prevent it—God is ultimately responsible for it.

So here’s my comment. (Micheli recently wrote a book about his own experience with what he calls “stage serious” cancer. It’s in remission.):


I can’t comprehend the complete lack of engagement with scripture in this post. Providence is an idea that’s writ large across the entire Bible, and one endorsed by the consensual teaching of the Church. I’ve read the DB Hart book. It doesn’t, in my opinion, satisfactorily engage the question.

Does God govern the universe and our lives within it, or doesn’t he? Does God have the power to prevent the death of a child or doesn’t he? As long as God has the power to prevent the death of a child and doesn’t use that power, God is not off the hook for suffering and evil. Even if we say, in this instance, “God lets the laws of physics run their course,” we still ought to “blame” God (if you insist on that word)—first because he created these physical laws, and second, because we believe that God answers prayer, at least sometimes.

We pray for our children’s safety. God grants that petition or doesn’t. If he doesn’t, how do we interpret it: Did God not hear our petition? Does he not have the power to grant it? Does he act arbitrarily? Or does he have a reason for either granting it or not? Is there some alternative I’m leaving out? Surely I don’t need to cite proof-texts to back up my position, because there are plenty—whereas, on your side, you have David Bentley Hart and the “God of the philosophers.”

In your case, haven’t you thanked God for sending your cancer into remission? Or did God not have anything to do with it?

Anyway, I’d recommend this father read Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. And you too! You may disagree with Keller, but it won’t be because Keller hasn’t thought it through. Nor is he some kind of demon from hell because he disagrees with you.

Disagreeing with a UM pastor about God’s sovereignty—surprise, surprise

May 10, 2017

Here’s a blast from the past: a blog post in which I explain my disagreement with a fellow United Methodist pastor and author named Jason Micheli. I’ve never met him, but years ago he was gracious enough to let me write a guest blog post on his blog.

Read the article that was posted on Ministry Matters, a United Methodist-affiliated website. Here is a relevant excerpt:

Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.

Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.

Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.

So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”

I commented on a friend’s Facebook link as follows:

To his credit, Jason Micheli, the author of this piece, knows how to push my buttons. Years ago, I argued with him more than once on this topic on his blog. As he so often does, he employs scripture in very selective ways to try and bolster his point. Not that we don’t all do this, but Micheli’s omissions are glaring.

For example, here are a few scriptures to the contrary: Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50 (“You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good…”); Psalm 139 and its high view of providence; Romans 8:28 (obviously); Paul’s words about his “thorn in the flesh,” which was both a “messenger from Satan” and a gift that “was given” (divine passive) to keep Paul humble; James’s words in James 1:2-4 about the purpose of trials; Peter’s words in 1 Peter 1 about the “necessity” of God’s testing us like gold being refined by fire. All these scriptures suggest that suffering, whether caused by God or merely allowed by him, happens according to God’s plan or, yes, “will.”

In fact, whether Micheli likes it or not, Job’s testing by Satan also happens according to God’s will. God literally gives Satan permission to do what he does. (Also, where does Job “curse God”? That’s what his wife wants him to do, but he never does. Another problem with Micheli, in my experience—he plays fast and loose with scripture.)

But even more, Jesus commands us (in parables and other teaching) to petition God, who, we believe, responds to us in prayer, at least sometimes. When God doesn’t give us what we ask for, we can ask why: But there is no satisfactory Christian answer to that question that implies that God doesn’t have the power to intervene, or that whether or not God does is completely arbitrary. That being the case, we can rightly assume that God has good reasons for either granting our petitions or not. If he has good reasons, then how is even suffering arbitrary?

Does Micheli believe that God had the power to prevent him from getting cancer? Or—perhaps more to the point—was God responsible (even indirectly, through doctors and modern medicine) for Micheli’s remission? I’m sure that Jason has rightly thanked and praised God for sending his cancer into remission. I believe he’s said as much on his blog. If that’s the case, then that implies that God had the power to prevent his suffering in the first place—that, indeed, God had some reason for allowing it. Just as God has some reason for sending it into remission.

Our Arminian tradition agrees: We speak of God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will”: Antecedent will is what God would will in world without sin; consequent will is what God wills in this fallen world in which we live. We know that Wesley himself held a high view of God’s sovereignty, and his disagreements with Calvinism centered on one point: whether or not God decrees or foreordains the salvation or damnation of individuals.

Where I agree with Micheli is that of course our words of assurance about God’s sovereignty and providence can sound glib when someone is in the midst of pain and suffering. By all means, an emergency room, a deathbed, or a crime scene is likely not the right time to talk to victims about the meaning of pain and suffering. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to think these things through at other times.

Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is both “pleasing” and “necessary”

March 24, 2016

Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and blogger with whom I’ve disagreed vigorously over the years on a number of issues, guest-blogged over at Scot McKnight’s blog today on atonement theology. He sees irreconcilable tension between those (many) parts of the Old Testament in which God delights in Israel’s temple sacrifices and those parts, such as Psalm 51 and prophets like Amos, in which he disdains them.

He sees a conflict, for example, between Psalm 50 (pro-sacrifice) and Psalm 51 (anti-sacrifice: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”)—as if he doesn’t notice that Psalm 51 itself ends on a pro-sacrifice note: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”

So, according to the end of Psalm 51, the problem isn’t with sacrifices per se, but sacrifices offered in the wrong spirit—without accompanying repentance. Why is that hard to understand? What am I missing? One important theme of the Sermon on the Mount, after all, is that the condition of our heart matters more than any law-abiding action on our part.

He asks the following rhetorical questions:

Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’

So wait: He thinks God might be unhappy that we’ve turned the cross into “pleasing, even necessary sacrifice”?

As for its being “pleasing,” why does he think the church has called tomorrow’s holiday Good Friday? Christ’s submitting to death on the cross is the most “pleasing” event (from God’s perspective) in human history! As for its necessity, this is one question that has separated progressive Christianity from orthodox Christianity for the past couple hundred years.

Micheli, offering a sop to Christian orthodoxy, concludes with these words:

Is our thinking, I wonder in Holy Week, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?

For me, what’s at stake is this: Does the cross of Christ accomplish something objective in reconciling sinners like me to God?

I hope so, because if my atonement depends on me—and my “broken and contrite heart”—I’m doomed!

A word about tragedies

May 6, 2015

hartI can always count on fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli to write something that gets under my skin. He did so again—although I suppose David Bentley Hart deserves more of the blame this time. Micheli was using Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea to make a point about suffering. I disagree with that particular point, as I made clear in the comments section of his blog and on a fellow WordPress blogger who commended Micheli’s post.

In response to the latter, I wrote the following:

I left a similar comment over at Micheli’s blog, but I won’t hold my breath that he’ll respond. (We have history.) I’ve read Hart’s book, and for a while I was enamored of it, not because it made much sense, but because he wrote with such force, such extreme self-confidence, such derision, how could he be wrong? But if so, how do we explain this very sentence that Micheli excerpts?

Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends.

How is this not a remarkable concession on Hart’s part—one which contradicts much of what Hart says (or what Micheli says he says)? If this is true—that God “can certainly” turn even suffering and death providentially “toward God’s good ends” (I would say “will certainly,” per Romans 8:28, but that hardly affects my point), then that implies that suffering has meaning: God is using it for his redemptive purposes. If there’s a purpose in allowing it, then that implies meaning.

Or think of it this way: If we believe that God responds to and at least occasionally grants our petitionary prayers (it’s hard to argue against this point on biblical grounds), then what are we to imagine when God doesn’t grant our petition? There are three options, as far as I can see: (1) God is powerless to grant the petition; (2) God is capricious about granting our petitions; or (3) God has a good reason (whether we know what it is or not) in not granting this particular petition.

Is there a fourth option? I don’t know what it is.

I had a clergy friend tell me, “Maybe God sometimes just lets nature run its course.” Yes, but why? If there are times when God doesn’t “just let nature run its course,” as my friend conceded that there are, then surely God has a good reason in those cases. And if he has a reason in those cases, there is, therefore, meaning in all cases.

Think about the nearly infinite sequence of cause and effect that is set in motion in all directions by even one small event, never mind an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami. Even one person’s death affects hundreds, or thousands, throughout history—people born, people unborn, people who may not even exist because of this person’s death. One “small” death changes the world. God can’t simply “let nature run its course” without intervening in some way—if in fact God loves us the way scripture says he does.

Also, I wonder if you’re not falling victim (as so many of us do when it comes to such large-scale tragedy) to “sum of suffering” arguments. What I mean is, the scale or extent of a tragedy adds nothing to the argument for or against God’s goodness. As C.S. Lewis said, “The sum of suffering doesn’t exist because no one suffers it.” In other words, the worst suffering in the world is the one person who suffers the most, and no more. The worst suffering that existed in the wake of that earthquake in Nepal was one person suffering. No one suffered more than that. While that suffering was obviously terrible, each of the dozens of people who died in traffic accidents while driving home today suffered nearly as much as anyone suffered in Nepal.

My point is, whether God lets one person die in a car accident, or one-hundred thousand in an earthquake, God is no more or no less off the hook for human suffering.

Finally, at the risk of sounding glib, heaven does balance the scales of justice. We need an afterlife for justice to be fully and finally done. That is part of our Christian hope.

“Does God Change?”

March 30, 2015

In my previous post, I took issue with any interpretation of the doctrine of God’s immutability that says God can’t or doesn’t respond to us in prayer, that God, in fact, isn’t affected by us in any way, and that God can’t experience emotions—because doing so, say defenders of this extreme view of immutability, would imply change on God’s part.

I’ll forgive the vast majority of my readers who had no idea that some Christians actually believe this, much less represent it as the one and only orthodox position on the subject. When I challenge proponents to explain why they possess such a seemingly unbiblical view, they usually make an appeal to someone else who makes an appeal the Church Fathers. I’m convinced you can make “the Church Fathers” say anything you want to—or Aquinas, or Barth, while we’re at it. “The Church Fathers” include a lot of people who say a lot of things. Even still, the Church Fathers don’t speak the Word of God.

But there I go again, appealing to the Bible! Forgive me for thinking that theology must be rooted in God’s Word, or else theology is wrong.

Nevertheless, here’s a dose of good sense from theologian Roger Olson on the topic:

I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember the shock I felt when I first encountered the idea that God cannot change—as an idea I was supposed to believe as an evangelical Christian. It was probably sometime during seminary, but it may have been before in some college religion class. I’m almost certain I never heard it growing up in my evangelical church—except as an expression of God’s faithfulness to himself and to us (viz., that God cannot become someone other than he is).

I have remained faithful all these years as an evangelical Christian theologian to what I learned in Sunday School and from my pastor and other spiritual mentors of my youth: God is faithful to himself and to us and always keeps his promises and cannot be anything but good, but he is affected by what happens in our world and by our prayers.

I was shocked and dismayed to learn that evangelical theologians, by and large, rejected that simple biblical view of God and replaced it with what I have learned to call the “logic of perfection”—that a perfect being cannot change in any way or even be affected by anything that happens in his creation.

Read the rest of this entry »

Any “doctrine” that denies that God answers prayer is wrong

March 28, 2015

Longtime readers of my blog know that I have disagreed often and loudly with fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli on a variety of issues. As I’ve said before, it’s a credit to his skill as a writer and thinker that he gets under my skin the way he does.

Also to his credit, Rev. Micheli let me write a guest post on his blog last year voicing my disagreement with him.

I believe he’s wrong—and in an important way—in this heartbreaking recent post detailing his treatment for what he calls “stage-serious” cancer. He argues, in so many words—and granted there are many words—that because of his understanding of the doctrine of God’s immutability, God doesn’t actually answer petitionary prayer.

Here is my comment on his blog:

I commented on the Facebook UMC Clergy page to this post, as you know. I’m deeply sorry that you have “stage-serious” cancer. You have the moral high ground in every argument, because, after all, you’re the one who’s going through this trial—not us. Still, you continue to write about controversial ideas, and I’m granting you the dignity of believing that you’re asking for us to engage the argument.

Meanwhile, I have and will continue to pray for you. And when I pray for you, I’m praying with the belief that God will respond to my prayer and intervene to help you in some way, not by my own power but the power of Christ in whose name I pray. It breaks my heart to think that for the sake of a bad theological idea you imagine that God can’t respond to our prayers.

Yes, bad theological idea. I know you disagree… But surely I don’t have to cite to you all the scriptures in the New Testament alone that speak of the power of prayer and God’s desire to condescend to give us what we ask for—words from the lips of Jesus himself!

You said on Facebook that your interpretation of the doctrine of God’s immutability is very scriptural. Really? Only if we anthropomorphize nearly everything that the Bible says about God’s interactions with human beings. For example, God is “slow to anger,” the Bible says repeatedly. Well, no, not really. Because anger, alongside any emotion on God’s part—including compassion—would represent change. Every scripture related to God’s feeling something toward us, therefore, is wrong.

You say that if God actually does respond to our prayers then that would imply change on God’s part. Any change would represent, for you, an imperfection in God—what you (or David B. Hart) would say is “unrealized potential.” I can’t comprehend it. From my perspective, there are morally neutral changes. God can change in ways that don’t impinge on his his character, his loving nature, and his consistency in dealing with us. This is the understanding of God’s immutability that I understand and can reconcile with scripture.

I was put on the spot on Facebook to defend the idea that God really answers prayer—not from the Bible, whose answer is obvious, but from the Church Fathers and the Reformers. It was such a weird challenge that I felt unprepared to answer it. Had I missed something so obvious in seminary? Was it true that the Church Fathers and Reformers, however much they believed in immutability, accepted your understanding of the doctrine such that God doesn’t really answer prayer—doesn’t respond to us in any way?

Obviously they didn’t! At this very moment, I’m reading, for example, Tim Keller’s new book on prayer. Throughout the book, he’s in “conversation” with the works of three thinkers on the subject of prayer—Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. He quotes extensively from all three, all of whom, it’s clear, believed that God actually intervenes in our world to answer prayer. None of them believed that doing so threatened God’s immutability.

So why are they wrong?

Does God speak to us personally through his Word?

October 27, 2014

As I blogged about last year, theologian Phillip Cary, an evangelical, would say that the only way we hear God’s voice is through scripture. How we apply this word from God to our lives is a matter of God-given wisdom, not any kind of divine revelation. I appreciate what Cary is saying: among other things, it guards against believing that the Spirit will reveal to us something that contradicts God’s Word, which is near the heart of my disagreement with fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger Jason Micheli. Moreover, whatever word we “hear” from God will never be as authoritative as the word that he’s given us in scripture.

All that to say, like Cary, I’m suspicious of Christians who speak with great confidence about what God “told” them. How do they know for sure that they’re hearing the voice of God, rather than their own intuition? If what God tells us, by contrast, is written in black and white (and sometimes red) in the Bible, then at least the answer is clear.

My friend Tom Harkins shares my concern. In the comments sections of this blog, he’s described an experience in which he heard a Christian singer-songwriter say, “The Lord gave me this next song.” Upon hearing it, Tom thought, “If that were true, then the Lord must be a really bad songwriter!”

Nevertheless, I can’t agree completely with Cary. I think all of us Christians have a sense from time to time of being “led” by God or “spoken to” by God. (The scare quotes indicate that, as far as I can tell, God rarely speaks to us in an audible voice.) I certainly have had that sense! I don’t see anything wrong with that. In my own Methodist tradition, all of us clergy have had to defend our “call” from God to the Board of Ordained Ministry. We believe that God does tell certain individuals that he wants them to go into ministry. This call seems more personal than merely saying that, given this combination of gifts, talents, and interests that I possess, going into ministry would be a wise thing to do. (As best I can tell, that’s Phillip Cary’s position.)

So I would say that the Bible is the primary means by which we hear God’s voice. I would also say that when we read scripture, we may have a supernatural encounter with God—and that the Holy Spirit may speak a personal word to our lives and situations.

But what is that experience like? How do we discern God’s voice speaking directly to us and and the situations we face through scripture? As I said in my sermon yesterday, N.T. Wright offers some helpful words from his commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16-17. He says that when Paul talks about the Bible’s “rebuking” us,

It means, clearly, that as we read scripture it will from time to time inform us in no uncertain terms that something we’ve been doing is out of line with God’s will. Sometimes this will lie plainly on the surface of the text; other times, as we read a passage, we will begin to hear the voice of God gently, or perhaps not so gently, telling us that this story applies to this area of our lives, or perhaps that one. When that happens—as it may often do for those who read the Bible prayerfully—we do well to pay attention.

This seems exactly right to me. Do any of you disagree?

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 121-2.

The false choice between being devoted to Jesus and being devoted to the Bible

October 20, 2014

Popular blogger and United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli said in a post last week—as he has said many times before—that, contrary to the Bible, including the red-letter words of Jesus, God doesn’t really have wrath toward sin. Wrath is something that we project onto God, out of guilt for our sin. (How on earth Micheli comprehends Paul’s letter to the Romans is beyond me.) Saying that he’s simply regurgitating ideas espoused by Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus (from whom, I note with pleasure, the word “dunce” derives), he argues that God doesn’t experience anything resembling emotion because to do so would contradict the idea that God can be changed by anything, including the sorry plight of us sinful human beings.

I’ll leave it to my Catholic brothers and sisters to decide whether Micheli has accurately represented scholastic theology from the Middle Ages. I couldn’t care less. There are reasons I’m not Catholic, and if Aquinas and others argue God’s “impassibility” precludes God’s having wrath toward sin (or anything else suggesting that God, like humans, experiences actual emotion) then that’s just one more reason.

As I’ve said on this blog before and as I said to Micheli last week in a Facebook thread, if our tidy theological ideas constantly grate against our best understanding of what the Bible tells us, at what point do we say, “Maybe our theology needs to be revised”?

After all, as Roger Olson pointed out when discussing this very topic, “The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.”

Regardless, given everything else Micheli has said about the Bible, no one can be surprised that Micheli preached this sermon yesterday entitled, “My Problem with the Bible.” (But really: “problem,” singular? Surely this is part one of a lengthy sermon series!)

I only wish I disagreed with the sermon more than I do. I agree that the bumper-sticker affirmation, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” is wrong. Obviously, we have to bring our best exegetical and hermeneutical resources to bear on discerning what God is saying to us through scripture. I agree that biblicism is heretical and idolatrous (although I’m sure I would disagree with his definition of it). We don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God revealed by the Holy Spirit through its words. And I agree that Jesus is the Word of God, God’s complete and perfect revelation of himself. (That doesn’t mean, however, that the Bible isn’t also the capital-W Word of God, although in a different sense from Jesus.)

But my big objection to the sermon emerges at the end: With rhetorical flourish, he lists some of the sins that a “community devoted to the Bible,” rather than to Jesus, would naturally commit. Then, by way of contrast, he concludes with this:

But a community based on Jesus Christ, a community devoted to Jesus Christ, a community that believes in Jesus Christ and believes him to be the full revelation of God- that community has no choice, no excuse, no leeway.

It has to be a community characterized by love. Humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, sacrificial love.

The kind of love defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

The Bible says that Jesus- NOT THE BIBLE- is the full revelation of God.

I believe Jesus is the Word God speaks to us. I believe Jesus has made the Father known.

So that settles it- if we want God to be known- seen- then we have no other way in this world but to love as Christ loved.

Oh my goodness! How does he not see that he’s begging the question?

By all means, let’s be a community devoted to Jesus, characterized by his example of sacrificial love, which is “defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.”

Who could disagree with that?

Except… How do we know anything about Jesus and his “humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, sacrificial love”? It’s only by reading and studying God’s written revelation of himself, the Bible! How would we know about the woman caught in adultery in John 8? How would we know that Jesus healed on the Sabbath? How would we know that John says that Jesus is the “Word,” the full revelation of God? The apostles and other eyewitnesses aren’t around anymore. We have no reliable revelation of Christ outside of scripture—unless he would argue that a believer in Jesus has some private revelation, independent of scripture, which teaches us who Jesus “really is.”

There’s no way around it, Rev. Micheli: Being a community devoted to Jesus also means being a community devoted to the Bible.

Why does it matter? Because if we’re so confident that the biblical writers, inspired as they were by the Spirit, got the parts about Jesus right—including but not limited to his “red-letter” words—then shouldn’t we be very humble about what we think they got wrong?

This is especially true considering how often Jesus himself affirms the truthfulness of the Old Testament. Please see Andrew Wilson’s excellent essay on the “Jesus Tea-Strainer” for more on the false choice with which Micheli presents us.

Sympathy for Victoria Osteen

September 3, 2014


Since I’ve become a pastor in charge of a church, I’ve become far more sympathetic with fellow pastors who are held up to public ridicule and scorn. It’s a tough job, being a pastor. And I’m not so different from other pastors—even the ones who have far larger flocks than I have. I feel an impulse to defend them, sympathize with them, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

For example, I like this guy, no matter what the comments section on YouTube says:

I’ve defended Mark Driscoll during his recent troubles, here and here.

And once again, I feel myself wanting to defend a fellow pastor, even if she’s the “co-pastor” of America’s largest church, her husband Joel’s Lakewood Church in Houston.

Victoria Osteen has been widely criticized and lampooned for these remarks:

I don’t disagree that Osteen is wrong here (see Dr. Gagnon’s even-handed, but substantial, criticism below, with which I agree). But let’s notice something: she’s clearly speaking extemporaneously. And God knows all of us public speakers risk saying dumb things when we do that! I perceive that she realizes (after she begins saying it) that she might be getting carried away in her enthusiasm. It happens! Notice her qualifying words: “I mean, that’s one way of looking at it”; “You’re not doing it for God, really.” I sense that she’s trying, in vain, to rein herself in.

But let’s affirm at least one small part of what she’s saying: True happiness is found in God alone. Christ promises us a full and abundant life now. Eternal life is not merely a quantity of life, but a quality of life. The New Testament urges us to be joyful no matter what circumstances we face. This implies that only in Christ will we find the spiritual resources necessary to be not merely happy, but deeply joyful: even as we face possible martyrdom, as Paul was in Philippians.

Given all that—not to mention the prospect of heaven or hell when we die—how is following Jesus as his disciple not, at least in part, a matter of self-interest?

So, to her point, even as we love and serve Christ, we are also doing it for ourselves.

Why not be charitable and assume this was her main point? After all, she says this is “one way of looking at it.” It’s possible she isn’t ruling out that other way, which of course is far more important. So it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. Read the rest of this entry »

The devil as a mere “propensity for blame”?

August 14, 2014
Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

You’ve noticed, dear reader, that I talk about the devil a lot. I emphasize the work of the devil, and I see demonic forces as a very real threat to our lives and world. Do I need to cite scripture to justify my interest in the subject? Yes? O.K., start here, for one small example.

While I believe I emphasize Satan in proportion to the Bible’s emphasis, I probably wouldn’t talk about him as much as I do, except as an antidote to this sort of nonsense, courtesy of a clergy colleague from Alexandria, Virginia, named Jason Micheli:

In scripture, satan (שָּׂטָן) is not a personal name or a proper noun; satan is our propensity for blame, accusation and recrimination that so easily leads to violence.

The personification of satan as Satan in scripture reveals the extent to which this spirit of blame and accusation captivate and possess us.

‘Satan’ as a malignant, seraphic rival to God, against whom the Creator struggles for the fate of creation, does not exist, for such a figure reduces God to but another object within the universe.

If ‘God’ by definition is the source of all existence at all moments of their existence, then ‘Satan’ as he’s imagined in popular piety, by definition, does not exist.

One wonders how a “propensity” talks to Jesus during his wilderness temptations, departs from him “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:12), and speaks to him throughout the gospels, through various people who are possessed by him or his minions.

Oh, I know… It’s parabolic. It’s anthropomorphic. It’s symbolic. If the historical Jesus was confused about Satan and believed—alongside chumps like me—that Satan is real, well, it’s only because Jesus was a product of his time, having emptied himself through the incarnation of any special insight about the real world that we moderns understand so much better than he did.

To which I will quote Michael Green, who said the following:

If Jesus was mistaken on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else? Perhaps his belief in the free forgiveness of God is equally culturally conditioned—is there not some talk of free acceptance before God in the Hymns of Qumran covenanters?

This kenotic theory if applied to Jesus’ understanding of Satan, proves much too much if it proves anything at all. It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us. Such eclecticism is academically indefensible, and is not a proper option for those who call him Lord and set out to be his learners or disciples. The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[†]

I agree with Rev. Micheli that if Satan were a “rival to God, against whom the Creator struggles for the fate of creation,” then by all means such a being wouldn’t exist—and if he did then God would be reduced to one object among others in the universe. But I’m sure Micheli knows that that’s not what Christian orthodoxy holds.

Good heavens, even if you don’t believe in a literal Satan, can you at least attack the actual doctrine and not the caricature?

In case Micheli doesn’t know, we Christians are not dualists or Zoroastrians. Satan and his fellow fallen angels are no “rival” to God. Like all other created things, including us humans, demonic forces are sustained into existence by the God who created them. God currently constrains their power and will one day destroy them altogether.

In the meantime, we underestimate them or reduce them to metaphor at our own risk.

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.