The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

“Listen to what your heart is telling you.”

I had the delightful experience of attending a middle school play recently: Cinderella and the Candy Kingdom. It’s the usual Cinderella story, but set in a world of chocolate, sugar and sweets. Plenty of puns made it a very fun show: the wicked stepsisters of Cinderella were named Kit and Kat. The prince of the kingdom was named Reese, who rarely appeared without his squire, Hershey.

While Hershey won the audience with his consistent jokes and eager banter, it was Prince Reese who brought home the underlying meaning of the play. In the world of the Candy Kingdom, everyone loves sweets: first dessert, second dessert, third dessert. Whip cream and chocolate syrup on everything. You get the idea. Yet the young prince has a secret: he doesn’t like sweets. In other words, he’s not like everyone else. He doesn’t belong. Not only that, he’s in line for the throne, but isn’t the “right kind of prince.” Continue Reading..

To Explain God as Unexplainable

A winding, uncertain path

“Quia de deo scire non possumus quid sit, sed quid non sit, non possumus considerare de deo, quomodo sit sed quomodo non sit.”

This is St. Thomas Aquinas’ introduction to his whole Summa Theologica: “Since we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not, we cannot consider how God is but only how He is not.”

At different points in my life, I’ve been pretty sure that we can know exactly who and what God is. We could define him quite precisely. We could come up with a list of attributes. We could name a bunch of names written in an old dusty language: “Jehovah Jireh,” “Adonai,” or “Yahweh.” Of course, we had only a vague idea what those words meant, yet we felt quite confident using them. We pulled out the good book and felt we had not just a good handle, but a definite handle on who God was and what he was like.

Yet the further I travel on the road of faith, the more I learn about the divine mysteries, the more I realize it is just that: mystery.

Anthony de Mello recounts how the great Karl Rahner, in one of his last letters, wrote to a young German drug addict who had asked him for help. The addict had said, “You theologians talk about God, but how could this God be relevant in my life? How could this God get me off drugs?” Rahner said to him, “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.” And talking to a group of theologians in London, Rahner said, “The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.”

De Mello concludes: “Unexplainable mystery. One does not know, one cannot say. One says, “Ah, ah…” That is what is ultimate in our human knowledge of God, to know that we do not know.”

It is a strange comfort, this unknowing. It is threatening, to be sure. But also comforting.

This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us, notes de Mello: “Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless. A Hindu priest once had a dispute with a philosopher who claimed that the final barrier to God was the word “God,” the concept of God. The priest was quite shocked by this, but the philosopher said, “The ass that you mount and that you use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. You use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it.” You don’t need to be a mystic to understand that reality is something that cannot be captured by words or concepts.”

To know reality, de Mello states, you have to know beyond knowing.

Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he stated in Mark 10:15: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” We must become as little children. Because children are in a place of wonder, and see things afresh. We see things and think we know. And sometimes, our knowing is what gets in the way.

Crime and Punishment

We’ve been looking at atonement theories over the past few weeks: When Jesus Died – A Conversation on Atonement, Wonder-Working Pow’r, and A Soothing Aroma.

The big question is: how do we understand/interpret Jesus’ death? This might seem a merely academic debate that should stay behind church doors between some old, dusty theologians. But I’m interested in the issues because there are societal and cultural realities that are shaped and guided by certain theological views – and this impacts all of us, whether we are people of faith or not. Today we are drawing from two books that seek to show how certain atonement views have helped to shape the world we live in. First up, J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement:

Atonement theology starts with violence, namely, the killing of Jesus. The commonplace assumption is that something good happened, namely, the salvation of sinners, when or because Jesus was killed. It follows that the doctrine of atonement then explains how and why Christians believe that the death of Jesus—the killing of Jesus—resulted in the salvation of sinful humankind.

In much of the world generally and in the United States in particular, the prevailing assumption behind the criminal justice system is that to “do justice” means to punish criminal perpetrators appropriately. “Appropriately” means that the more serious the offense, the greater the penalty (punishment) to be imposed, with death as the ultimate penalty for the most serious crimes.

There is a pervasive use of violence in the criminal justice system when it operates on this belief that justice is accomplished by inflicting punishment. Called retributive justice, this system assumes that doing justice consists of administering quid pro quo violence—an evil deed involving some level of violence on one side, balanced by an equivalent violence of punishment on the other. The level of violence in the punishment corresponds to the level of violence in the criminal act.

Satisfaction atonement assumes that the sin of humankind against God has earned the penalty of death but that Jesus satisfied the offended honor of God on their behalf or took the place of sinful humankind and bore their punishment or satisfied the required penalty on their behalf. Sin was atoned for because it was punished—punished vicariously through the death of Jesus which saved sinful humankind from the punishment of death that they deserved—or because the voluntary death of Jesus paid or satisfied a debt to God’s honor that sinful humans had no way of paying themselves. That is, sinful humankind can enjoy salvation because Jesus was killed in their place, satisfying the requirement of divine justice on their behalf. While the discussion of satisfaction atonement involves much more than this exceedingly brief account, this description is sufficient to portray how satisfaction atonement, which assumes that God’s justice requires compensatory violence or punishment for evil deeds committed, can seem self-evident in the context of contemporary understandings of retributive justice in North America as well as worldwide systems of criminal justice.

In other words, our theology (our view of God) shapes our sociology and public policy (our view of each other, and how to live together).

Not convinced yet? Keep reading. The following is taken from Ted Grimsrud’s new book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, published by Wipf & Stock in 2013. Grimsrud shows how certain theological views (especially God’s response to human sin) came to shape political realities, in particular, crime and punishment:

Justice became a matter of applying rules, establishing guilt, and fixing penalties—without reference to finding healing for the victim or the relationship between victim and offender. Canon law and the parallel theology that developed (in the early Middle Ages) began to identify sin as a collective wrong against a moral or metaphysical order. Crime was a sin, not just against a person, but against God, against God’s laws, and it was the church’s business to purge the world of this transgression. From this understanding of sin, it was a short step to assume that since the social order is willed by God, crime is also a sin against this social order. The church (and later the state) must therefore enforce order. Increasingly, focus centered on punishment by established authorities as a way of doing justice.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the cornerstones of state justice were in place in Europe, and they drew deeply from the underpinnings of retributive theology. New legal codes in France, Germany and England enlarged the public dimensions of certain offenses and gave to the state a larger role. Criminal codes began to specify wrongs and to emphasize punishment.

The primary instrument for applying pain came to be the prison. Part of the attraction of prison was terms that could be graded according to the offense. Prisons made it possible to calibrate punishments in units of time, providing an appearance of rationality in the application of pain.

Between the mid-1800s and the 1970s, the practice of criminal justice in the United States evolved away from strictly retributive justice. David Garland, in his important book, The Culture of Control, argues that the “penal-welfare” model gained ascendancy among criminal justice professionals, with a concern for rehabilitation of offenders and a diminishment of focus on strict punishment. This model, however, never received widespread support among the general population. Because politicians  for a long time found it disadvantageous to try to intervene in criminal justice issues due to conventional wisdom that criminal justice was a no-win issue to be identified with, the prison system was allowed to pursue its own agenda.

However, with a significant increase in the crime rate in the United States after World War II, politicians discovered that “law and order” rhetoric actually gained them popularity. (See the documentary: The House I Live In [streams free online or on Netflix] for more on how Nixon and Reagan especially used this rhetoric, culminating in the “War on Drugs”).

The logic of retribution that became embedded in our criminal justice practices by the nineteenth century, even though it was mitigated against somewhat during the penal-welfare era, has returned with a vengeance in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. As summarized by legal scholar William Shuntz, “No previous generation of Americans embraced the version of retributive justice that has held sway in the United States over the past thirty years… Only in the last decades of the 20th century did most American voters and the law enforcement officials they elect conclude that punishing criminals is an unambiguous moral good. The notion that criminal punishment is a moral or social imperative—the idea that a healthy criminal justice system should punish all the criminals it can—enjoyed little currency before the 1980s.” In the retributive model of justice, crime has come to be defined as against the state, justice has become a monopoly of the state, punishment has become normative, and victims have been disregarded.

Going back to the Middle Ages, penal theory helped reinforce the punitive theme in theology—e.g., a satisfaction theory of atonement that emphasized the idea of payment or suffering to make satisfaction for sins. Retributive theology, which emphasized legalism and punishment, deeply influenced Western culture through rituals, hymns, and symbols. An image “of judicial murder, the cross, bestrode Western culture from the 11th to the 18th century,” with huge impact on the Western psyche. It entered the “structures of affect” of Western Europe and “in doing so, . . . pumped retributivism into the legal bloodstream, reinforcing the retributive tendences of the law.” The result was an obsession with retributive themes in the Bible and a neglect of the restorative ones—a theology of a retributive God who wills violence.

The paradigm of retributive justice that dominates Western criminal justice is a recipe for alienation. By making the “satisfaction” of impersonal justice (or in theological terms: “God’s holiness”) the focus of society’s response to criminal activity, the personal human beings involved—victims, offenders, community members—rarely find wholeness.

Moreover, the larger community’s suffering only increases. Instead of healing the brokenness caused by the offense, we usually increase the spiral of brokenness. Offenders, often alienated people already, become more deeply alienated by the punitive practices and person-destroying experiences of prisons.

Garland portrays our “culture of control” in criminal justice as a new form of segregation. We focus on on rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders, but on identifying and isolating offenders. “The prison is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety.” That this “segregation” has a decided racial aspect in the United States is confirmed in Michelle Alexander’s powerful book, The New Jim Crow. (This one is a must read!!!)

Present dynamics emphasize the difference between offenders and law-abiding citizens. Garland writes, “being intrinsically evil or wicked, some offenders are not like us. They are dangerous others who threaten our safety and have no call on our fellow feeling. The appropriate reaction for society is one of social defense: we should defend ourselves against these dangerous enemies rather than concern ourselves with their welfare and prospects for rehabilitation.”

James Gilligan, former director of psychiatry for the Massachusetts prison system, draws on his experience working closely with violent offenders to critique retributive justice in our criminal justice system. “A society’s prisons serve as a key for understanding the larger society as a whole.” When we look through the “magnifying glass” of the United States prison system, we see a society focused on trying to control violence through violence, a society that willingly inflicts incredible suffering on an ever-increasing number of desperate people.

There is much more to be said, of course, and these are complicated matters with many causes and effects. A few questions in closing:

  • Are you surprised at the possible connection between atonement theologies and criminal justice practices? Do you think it’s a legitimate connection?
  • Can you think of other ways to view forgiveness and wholeness that breaks out of the crime/punishment narrative? Are there biblical texts that support your view?
  • What other questions are on your mind regarding atonement issues?
A Soothing Aroma – Atonement, part 3

A Soothing Aroma – Atonement, part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about atonement.
Previously: When Jesus Died and Wonder Working Pow’r.

Today I want to get into the background of sacrifice in ancient Israelite practice. Stephen Finlan, professor of NT at Seton Hall and Fordham (and whose work inspires much of this post) notes that “For many centuries, sacrificial practice and interpretation in Israel resembled that of Israel’s neighbors: Canaanites, Moabites, Babylonians and others.”

A sacrifice often involved the killing of an animal, most often a bull, a goat, or a lamb. Sometimes birds such as doves were offered. Sometimes grain offerings were offered. At base, sacrificial meat was considered “the food of the deity.” In Numbers 28:2, YHWH calls it, “My food, the food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor.” The phrase “pleasing odor” occurs 42 times in the Hebrew Bible. Finlan notes that figuratively it means a sacrifice that God accepts, but its literal and older meaning is smoke that is tasty to God. The verbal root of nuah (which occurs in the phrase ‘pleasing odor’ or reach nichoach) means rest, so it is a restful or “tranquilizing” aroma, pacifying God’s anger, as is evident in Genesis 8:21, where “Noah’s sacrifice assuaged God’s wrath.”

A soothing aroma
A soothing aroma

Finlan extrapolates:

This is what the term “propitiation” means: appeasing and making peace with someone who is angry. Sacrificial ritual preserves this idea of the offering being persuasive or even coercive, but other ideas are added to the understanding of sacrifice. The food-offering gets described with the more dignified label of gift, thus emphasizing respect and obeisance rather than manipulation. However, we must notice that the gift still consists of the culture’s best available food items, just what an anthropomorphic god (and one capable of being persuaded) would want.

What’s interesting is that there are varying threads of how sacrifice is perceived in the Torah (or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) by its various authors. One of the authors (or one group of authors) is labelled P by scholars. P, notes Finlan, is uneasy with the notion of God smelling the sacrifice, of ‘receiving pleasure from the sweet aroma.’ Perhaps too archaic a notion, or perhaps they’re trying to modernize the reasons for carrying out the sacrifices. So they bring in a new concept: sacrifice as a kind of technology for spiritual cleansing, not for persuading God. Impurity is taken quite literally, as a stain on the sacred installations and altars of the Temple needing to be removed. God will abandon the Temple if impurity is allowed to persist. Impurity stands – in this view – for disorder, for a kind of spiritual chaos. Ritual sacrifice then, is seen to restore order, and is protective, rather than propitiatory.

Another author of the Torah, H (standing for Holiness Code), reintroduces anthropomorphism, and repersonalizes the cultic transaction. For H, it is the attitude of God that matters most. The role of blood remains, but is lowered in importance. The notion of the pleasing aroma returns, but here it is added with a ransoming effect. 

Finlan summarizes:

So we have three distinct concepts: sacrifice as a food-bribe (indicated by the “sweet aroma” in J [standing for JHWH – originating from the German in which Y’s are J’s]); sacrificial blood as a spiritual detergent (P’s purification idea); and sacrifice as ritual payment (H). Blood has literal, payment value in J and H. It has supernatural power in P and H.

The ritual was the means by which forgiveness was attained. No ritual, no forgiveness. The social corollary is: no professional priesthood, no forgiveness.

And if you perform the ritual wrongly, or are unauthorized in performing the ritual (not part of the priesthood), there is a narrative of divine violence upholding the mythology of holiness, says Finlan. Note the stories of Uzzah, who reached out to steady the ark of the covenant and was struck dead, or if you offer the “wrong fire” (or strange fire) as Aaron’s sons did: also struck dead. Or if you are a non-Aaronid and you approach the incense altar: “fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense” (Num 16:35).

In light of this, it is no surprise that independent prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist meet strong resistance from the professional priesthood. Why? Because a God who says, “come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) can grant forgiveness without the intervention of the ritual class, and this is a threat to their power, authority, and reason for existence.

So the argument around atonement as found in the Hebrew Scriptures often boils down to two views: a) propitiation, or persuasion, appeasement, a payoff or gift meant to soothe God’s anger; and b) expiation, a wiping-away, a cleansing. Most scholars would concede that both ideas are present, though they argue about which is primary and which is secondary. Most hold to the idea of appeasing God’s anger (propitiation) is the older, or more primitive view. But in light of the development of the priestly class, expiation or cleansing due to lack of holiness later took the primary focus.

There is much more to say along these lines, but in light of this cursory overview of sacrifice, what are your thoughts? Do any of these reflect the kind of God Jesus seems to represent? Is it possible to hold to an ancient Near Eastern view of God’s anger needing to be appeased through blood being spilled? Do you think Jesus thought of himself, God, or his own mission in light of any of these views? Or was Jesus more in tune with an independent prophet, outside the establishment, like Isaiah or John the Baptist? If so, does it make sense to define his life and death in terms of establishment ideas? Or would it be even more radical if Jesus was echoing the idea that the God is so loving and forgiving, that he can be approached directly, apart from the priestly class, without sacrificial or ritual intervention, that indeed, God “desires mercy, not sacrifice”?

In Session: Pub Theology 101

In Session: Pub Theology 101

A Guide to Cultivating Meaningful Conversations at the Pub

You’ve heard about people gathering at the pub to talk about God and faith, and wondered, why aren’t I doing this? Now you can, thanks to this new guide by Bryan Berghoef, author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God. Here Bryan walks through all the steps to beginning your own Pub Theology group, from choosing a location to deciding what to talk about. (You’ll have to make your own decision as to whether you prefer an IPA or a stout). And the best part of this new book: hundreds of discussion topics and questions, sorted by category–such as art, belief, death, morality, philosophy, politics, science, and world religions, to name a few–that Bryan has compiled from over five years’ worth of pub discussions.

So what are you waiting for? This is the inspiration you’ve needed, and the resources to boot, all for less than the price of a pint!
—Book description at

Pub Theology 101
Hot off the press!

My new book, Pub Theology 101: A Guide to Cultivating Meaningful Conversations at the Pub, is out TODAY for Kindle for only $2.99! (Go to Amazon page)

After my first book, Pub Theology, came out, I began to hear from people all over the country—some leading similar groups, others wanting to get one going. The constant request was: what do we talk about? Do you have some topics for us to get started?

I have compiled all of my topics, questions, and quotes from facilitating Pub Theology sessions for the last five years into one handy ebook, all sorted by category, as well as some tips and suggestions for best practices. And I’m making it all available for—have I said this—less than the price of a pint (or a tip to the bartender.) This is a must-have resource for anyone leading discussions at the pub!

You can carry this handy guide with you on your Kindle or smartphone and pull it out whenever you’re looking for something interesting to talk about with friends, or when prepping for facilitating a Pub Theology session (or Theology Pub, or Theology on Tap, or even Scripture and Scotch, as I heard the other day).

Quotes from Bob Dylan, Søren Kierkegaard, Mother Theresa, Mark Driscoll, Thomas Aquinas, Rob Bell, Kester Brewin, John Piper, Peter Rollins, John Calvin, the Talmud, the Buddha, Plato, Demosthenes, Immanuel Kant, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Tim Keller, Richard Rohr, Jesus, the Shepherd of Hermas, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Walter Wink, John Frame, Elizabeth Gilbert, Oprah, C.S. Lewis, Doug Pagitt, Blaise Pascal, Ludwig Feuerbach, Leo Tolstoy, Paul Tillich, and. . . many many more questions that I’ve written or others have shared with me —all gathered here, for your pub theologizing pleasure.

So what are you waiting for? Get your copy now!

I should also mention—there’s no marketing plan and no major publisher behind this, it is totally word of mouth and grassroots, so share on your Facebook page, Tweet it, pass it along to friends. If you know anyone who might benefit from this resource—let them know!

*Also, if this resource proves helpful to you, please leave a review at Amazon!

Don’t have a Kindle? You can get a free Kindle reading app for your Mac, your PC, your tablet, iPad, phone… Or, you can convert it to Nook or other another eReader format at Calibre.

From Chad Schuitema, facilitator of Pub Theology Lafayette:

“Everything you need to start your own Pub Gatherings – except the courage! The enormous amount of questions and discussion starters have helped me not only with each week’s gathering, but have helped me come up with my own as well. A much needed resource!”
God Doesn’t Need our Help, But He Asks for It

God Doesn’t Need our Help, But He Asks for It

James K. A. Smith wrote a new blog post this morning: God Doesn’t Need Our Help. And since, per usual, no comments are allowed, I thought I’d respond with a post of my own.  And, per usual, your comments are welcome!

He begins with this notion that there is now a “new apologetics” afoot in Christianity to make the faith more palatable in an age of intellectualism and postmodernity:

In our age of post-Christian anxiety, where so many worry about young people leaving the faith and the implausibility of Christianity in a secular age, we get a new apologetics.  The goal of the new apologetics is not to prove or defend the puzzling and scandalous aspects of orthodox Christianity.  Instead, the goal is to show that “authentic” Christianity, or the “true” Gospel, is not offensive–that the “God of love” worshiped by Christians is pretty much the God you would want.

I’m guessing that the efforts he has in mind are generally emergent-style approaches, such as Brian McLaren’s “Naked Spirituality” or Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”  These folks make God so warm and fuzzy as to remove all objectionable content, Smith is arguing.  One wishes he would provide specific examples, and then counter with a better approach.  He does gloss over a few such theological touchstones like hell and the atonement, but fails to articulate what he feels is an insufficient understanding, or how he would like it framed.

He goes on to note the dubious path of this ‘new apologetics’:

That presents a challenge, of course, but the challenge is not located where you might think.  Instead of spending its energy on articulating, explaining, and defending the coherence of biblical, historic Christianity (including all the “hard truths” that attend it), the new apologetics expends its energy convincing the skeptic that all sorts of aspects of “Christianity” are, in fact, non-essential accretions or downright deformative perversions of “true” or “authentic” Christianity.  This is undertaken in the name of removing “intellectual hurdles” to the Christian faith.  If you look again at how many new apologists frame their “reconsiderations” of hell, or the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrine of original sin in light of evolutionary evidence, or traditional Christian sexual ethics, I suggest you’ll often find they “frame” their project something like this: “These are aspects of Christianity that are just not believable today.  But that’s OK, because it turns out that they’re also aspects that are not really biblical and not really Christian.  So don’t let those things stop you from believing.” [Then cue your favorite tale about “Hellenization” or “Constantinianism” or “fundamentalism” here.]

Where to begin?  First of all, most efforts I am tuned in to that are rearticulating the faith have nothing to do with making Christianity more palatable, but with honest attempts to engage the biblical and historical material, and go where the evidence leads.  He intentionally twists this around, noting that many begin with deciding something is not believable, then attempt to justify it biblically and historically.  Is there any evidence that this is the actual motivation of these “new apologists”?  It is quite a charge to make, and we might wish to have this in hand before agreeing to the point.

Smith wishes that this new approach would spend its energy “articulating, explaining and defending the coherence of biblical, historic Christianity (including all the “hard truths” that attend it).”  Yet the hard truth here is that a single, unified “historic Christianity” simply doesn’t exist.  It’s a convenient fiction by which we tell ourselves we are simply walking the path that began with the first disciples undistorted down to our day.

As Harvey Cox notes in The Future of Faith: “When I attended seminary, most historians conveyed the impression that once upon a time there was a single entity called “early Christianity,” but that gradually certain heresies and schisms arose on the margins and disrupted the initial harmony.  In the last few decades, however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous.  There never was a single “early Christianity”; there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown.”

Speaking Of…

Are some folks interested in changing theology to make it more ‘believable’?  Probably.  That may well be true in certain cases.  But many, many folks I study and read are simply interested in studying the biblical and historical record to know what a text or doctrine actually meant when it was written, and the context in which it arose. The consequences for theology only come later, if at all.  It strains credulity to imagine this hard work of studying, gathering and analyzing all the evidence from linguistic, archaeological, cultural, literary and historical sources is done simply for the sake of inventing a more believable Christianity!

In fact, Smith himself would prefer us to begin with the answers, pay attention only to evidence that supports his version of orthodoxy, and ignore everything else.  Which does the very thing he claims the “new apologetics” does: it makes Christianity more palatable for his particular audience.  Smith teaches at Calvin College, a private, Reformed institution.  [Cue your favorite tale about “John Calvin” or “Heidelberg” or “ham on buns.”]

This version of the faith is meant to be more amenable to his audience, precisely because it is the same version that his students’ parents hold and the same version his administrators hold, not to mention the donors who fund the whole enterprise.  In seeking to display honest attempts at understanding the Bible and church history as dishonest marketing efforts for Christianity, Smith succumbs to his own charge: he defends the status quo under the guise of honest theological discussion.

Instead of having a response to those who may look at early church doctrine and the influence of Hellenization (i.e., being shaped by Greek thought and philosophy), he wants us to ignore it.  Instead of acknowledging the troubling political realities surrounding the church councils at which some of the core doctrines of “historic Christianity” were founded, Smith would prefer us to just ‘take their word for it’ and carry on, because ‘there’s nothing to see here.’  Who cares if Nicea was presided over by a corrupt Roman emperor who had power and national unity in mind rather than any real interest in theological accuracy?  That’s no business of ours!  Our charge is to assume they got it exactly right, and continue to uphold the “hard doctrines” upon which our forebears spent so much personal capital.  Speaking of ignoring intellectual challenges.

Listen to Calvin College’s own statement of its calling, as articulated by Neal Plantinga:  “We [Christians] learn to distrust simple accounts of complex events and to be prepared for the place human irrationality has in the course of human history. All this equips us to understand the world in which we are to be peace agents. Just as no CIA agent would be sent to an area of which she was ignorant, so it’s folly for us to expect to serve and transform a world we do not know.”


Smith argues that such a “new apologetics” (which, by the way, is a convenient title for something that doesn’t exist) avoids intellectual rigor, but it is clear enough that he is the one advocating for ignoring historical realities that might challenge one’s doctrinal heritage.  Yet to articulate that would ruffle some institutional feathers (something a few of his colleagues learned is not to be done).

I hate to break it to Jamie, but there is no “new apologetics.”  However, there is renewed interest in discovering more closely what was going on in the first century in Galilee and the Ancient Near East, what was behind early church councils that codified doctrines for all time, and what it might look like to live out a meaningful Christian faith today.

Old Faithful

Smith then goes for the bread and butter of his audience:

But it seems to me that this sort of project is predicated on a particular account of faith that is often left implicit.  In particular, it seems to assume that if someone is going to come to believe the Gospel they must be convinced since their belief is a matter of their choice.  Or at the very least, the intellectual hurdles that stand in the way of their believing must be removed.  If we do that, then the way is clear for them to choose to believe. The new apologetic, in other words, is fundamentally Arminian, perhaps even Pelagian (and yes, I know the difference*).  The drive to eliminate intellectual and “moral” hurdles to belief is a fundamentally Arminian project insofar as it seems to assume that “believability” is a condition for the skeptic or nonbeliever to then be able to “make that step” toward belief. While this might confirm a lot of prejudices, it should be said that this is an odd strategy if one is an Augustinian or a Calvinist–since in an Augustinian account, any belief is a gift, a grace that is given by God himself.  So if God is going to grant the gift of belief, it seems that God would able to grant and empower a faith that can also believe the scandalous.  In other words, God doesn’t need our help.

Here Smith attempts to resuscitate a long-dead theological squabble because he knows mere mention of the word “Arminian” still might rankle a few folks in West Michigan.  To get non-Reformed folks up to speed: Arminianism is based on the theological ideas of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) and his historic supporters known as the Remonstrants. It is known as a soteriological sect of Protestant Christianity. The crux of this  Arminianism lay in the assertion that human dignity requires an unimpaired freedom of the will.  In other words, one can choose faith or resist it.  One can choose to follow Jesus, or not. (Seems fairly obvious on the face of it).

Ah… but how do we pair this common sense, seemingly obvious reality with the doctrine that God has elected people before they were born for either heaven or hell?  Forget common sense: nobody chooses Jesus.  Jesus chooses you.  In a word, Arminianism attempted to give people dignity, to show that faith is not a farce, and that God, in essence, hasn’t rigged the game.

But let’s wake up to the fact that such arguments are about things that have little or nothing to do with a life of actually following the very earthy (and earthly) Jesus of Nazareth, whom one can scarcely imagine had time for such esoteric theological squabbling.  Smith is worried we might violate a theological construct from the Middle Ages that almost nobody cares about today.  Rather than constructively present a coherent theological impetus for engaging the world and society today, including concerns about peace and conflict, environment and ecology, and human sexuality, Smith would rather us look worriedly over our shoulder at a conflict from 600 years ago about something that no one can figure out conclusively anyway.

But Smith knows this much: in Calvinistic circles, accusing your opponent of being an Arminian ends the argument.  Case closed!  They’re heretics, so they’re obviously wrong.

In Closing

Jamie Smith’s conclusion: God doesn’t need our help.  He can choose us or not.  He can save our world from ecological or military disaster just fine without us.  He can grow his church without us (wait, I thought we were the body of Christ… but I digress).  Why worry about new constructive efforts for living out the faith today?  Why bother with things like Christian education?  Why even write blog posts on the topic?  Such human efforts are surely irrelevant in the face of this austere and omnipotent Calvinistic Zeus. God must be genuinely grateful for such an eloquent defense of his inscrutable ways (though God knows he doesn’t need it).

Much of this seems contrary to the picture one finds in the Scriptures: a God who willingly partners with humanity, and sets them as caretakers over his entire creation (The original Hebrew hides this line in chapter 2: “Just kidding, Adam!  Don’t need you at all.  Especially if you mess things up.”).

All through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures God not only needs our help, he asks for it.

A Jewish perspective (which, by the way, precedes later “heretical” developments like Pelagianism or Arminianism by just a wee bit) is that God has chosen to partner with humanity.  That he does, in fact, need us, and has chosen to need us.  To say otherwise is to belittle the hard fought efforts of people such as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and many, many other unheralded people of faith who work hard every day to bring a bit of God’s healing into this broken creation.  And more specifically to Smith’s point on belief: God has used men and women to carry the message of the gospel to people far and wide so that they would believe, from the very beginning.

As Jesus said to Paul on the road to Damascus:
“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

God doesn’t need us?  Someone forgot to tell that to Jesus.

No Interpretation Needed? Part 2

Last post we asked if it is possible to just read the Bible and understand what it says without having to ‘interpret’ it.

It’s a nice-sounding option, in theory.  Unfortunately for us, that option doesn’t exist.  In fact:

Is not every devotional reading (silent), every sermon (spoken), and every commentary (written) an interpretation or a series of interpretations of a biblical text?

We cannot escape interpreting the Bible.  We are not God.  Therefore, we are relative (conditioned by factors that are neither universal nor unchanging).

The entire history of Christian thought shows that Christians in different times and places have interpreted and understood the Bible differently.

Even at any given time and place, such as our own, is there not always a “conflict of interpretations” between, among, and within various denominational and nondenominational traditions?

approaching the text

If it were as simple as reading it and understanding it, there would be less divergence within Christianity.  But the reality is that there are manifold ways of understanding the text, just as there is no end to the number of denominations and traditions within Christianity.  This does not mean anything goes, or that all interpretations are valid – but merely that the text is rich, deep, textured, and from another time and place, meaning we should never become too strident nor certain that we have ‘the’ interpretation or have it all figured out.

We might be tempted to think that at one point — earlier in history, like in the early church — it was clear and everyone understood it the same.  James K.A. Smith reminds us this was not the case:

For Christians, many of the anxieties of hermeneutics (the theory and process of interpretation) are nothing new.  Well before we were haunted by the specters of Derrida and Foucault, the Christian community grappled with the conflict of interpretations (to say nothing of the Jewish/rabbinical precedents).  One can see such conflicts embedded in the New Testament narrative itself.  In Acts 15, for instance, we see a conflict of interpretations of “the law” — and we see a community grappling with interpretive difference in its midst.  Despite a common mythology, the early church was not a hermeneutic paradise; rather, debates about what counts as the tradition have been integral to the Christian tradition.  The early church was not a golden age of interpretive uniformity; rather, the catholic councils and creeds are the artifacts of a community facing up to the conflict of interpretations.

But often enough, as we noted last time, people simply deny that interpretation is necessary and unavoidable:

“We encounter this general attitude when we offer a viewpoint about, say, some controversial moral or political question to someone who (1) doesn’t like it and (2) doesn’t know how to refute it (perhaps deep down knowing that it is all too much on target) and so replies, “That’s just your opinion.””

Similarly, an unwelcome interpretation of some biblical text may be greeted by the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…” In other words, “You interpret; I just see what is plainly there.”

This, however, is simply not the case.  We all interpret.  It is impossible to do otherwise.  We read words or speak words, they combine to form meanings, and we interpret what that meaning is.

This “no interpretation needed” doctrine says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible.  Often unnoticed is that this theory is itself an interpretation of interpretation and that it belongs to a long-standing philosophical tradition that stretches from certain strands in Plato’s thought well into the twentieth century.  This tradition is called “naive realism” in one of its forms.  It is called naive both descriptively, because it is easily taken by a common-sense perspective without philosophical reflection, and normatively, because it is taken to be indefensible on careful philosophical reflection.  (Westphal, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?)

So is there no one ‘right’ interpretation?  Well… there is the original intention of the author, and then the original intent of the Holy Spirit… and certainly we must hold that God knows what he meant (means) to say.  But the point holds: we are not God.  Therefore, there is always a distance between us and that truest understanding of the text.  This is where faith and community comes in, and Merold Westphal, in his terrific book, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?, sounds this note exactly:

We need not think that hermeneutical despair (“anything goes”) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have “the” interpretation) are the only alternatives.  We can acknowledge that we see and interpret “in a glass darkly” or “in a mirror, dimly” and that we know “only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all, to the Holy Spirit.

My friend Chris put it in very nearly the same way, in response to my first post:

Reading the Bible doesn’t require any special study; understanding it is another matter.

Anyone can “get something” out of just reading the Bible (or any other piece of literature). But if we’re concerned to do our best to “get” what the author(s) intended, then we have a lot of work ahead of us, especially dealing with a collection of ancient books written in ancient languages from ancient and diverse cultures with ancient and diverse systems of law, morality, and religion. If that work is beyond us, then we at least have the work of learning from the experts.


So should you read the Bible on your own, in light of all this?  Yes!  Of course.  God will speak.  Just be sure you check with your friends (and maybe a good commentary) before you say, “God told me…”

No Interpretation Needed?

Are you skeptical about biblical interpretation?  Does it seem that someone can just “make it say anything?”  Are you one of those who would prefer to just “read it for what it says”?


You’re not alone.  Many are intimidated by the vast amount of study some seem to think reading the Bible requires.  Can’t I just take the “plain sense” of a text and arrive at what God is trying to say to me?


See? It clearly says right here...

When someone encounters an interpretation of the Bible she doesn’t like, she may respond with, “Well that’s just your interpretation.  My Bible says this instead…”


After all, much easier to dismiss someone’s interpretation (which involves a bit of their own thinking), than to actually dismiss a passage of the Bible itself.  So perhaps we are better off trying to rest on the “Bible” instead of an “interpretation.”



As Merold Westphal puts it:


“Common sense . . .  claims to “just see” its objects, free of bias, prejudice, and presuppositions (at least sometimes).  We can call this “just seeing” intuition.  When [this] view of knowledge and understanding is applied to the Bible, it becomes the claim that we can “just see” what the text means, that intution can and should be all we need.  In other words, “no interpretation needed.”  The object, in this case the meaning of the text, presents itself clearly and directly to my reading.  To interpret would be to interject some subjective bias or prejudice (pre-judgment) into the process.  Thus the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…”  In other words, “You interpret (and thereby misunderstand), but I intuit, seeing directly, clearly, and without distortion.”




Westphal refers to an ad for a new translation of the Bible billed as so accurate and so clear that the publishers could announce: “NO INTERPRETATION NEEDED.”  The ad promotes the “revolutionary translation that allows you to understand exactly what the original writers meant.”  (Unfortunately he doesn’t mention which Bible made this claim).


The “no interpretation needed” approach says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible.


What do you think?  Is interpretation unnecessary?

Pub Theology Recap January 5


Great night at the pub last night.  Nine of us grabbed a pint and settled in for a good discussion, huddled around the table as if seeking respite from the snow drifts just outside.

Jesus and Mohammed

A. showed up, who promptly styled himself ‘kinda the local guru.’ Then quickly thought better of it and shifted to ‘kinda the local guy.’ He’d been reading up on the history of Islam and noted to us that “Mohammed had to work hard.  He fought with people, he had enemies, he bled.  He worked to establish a religion.  Unlike Jesus.  Jesus didn’t have much opposition.  He had it easy, just healing people and floating on the water.  Mohammed though, man… that guy…”

I asked him if he had converted to Islam, with this newfound admiration of the prophet (PBUH).  He said no.

After that little soliloquy we hit the sheet. First question, “Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?”  Most people admitted that they did not.  R. said that she often takes the New Year as a time to take stock of where things are in her life and seek to continue to grow both personally and professionally.  I noted that I sort of do the same.  N. (who brought the pretzels) noted that her son always resolves to give up crack cocaine.  That way he never fails to live up to his resolution.

We spent some time discussing why resolutions tend to be individual (we can’t make anyone else do something), but also noted the benefits of making resolutions with someone else or with a community of some sort (accountability, mutuality).  We wondered about a couple in a relationship making resolutions.  S. noted that she sort of does that with her husband, but that then they tend to pursue the resolutions individually, or each in their own way.  Yet there is something about a communal effort that can create energy and certainly can hold one to what one has said.  The other S. noted that companies and organizations often do the same thing but call them ‘goals’ or ‘plans.’

Then the question (contributed by C., who was down in Kzoo doing PT South) was: “Should Pub Theology have a 2012 resolution?”  At this point the question of location came up, with RBB’s upcoming move to 16th Street.  We had heard that the pub portion of the new location was not going to be as big a priority, so it is unclear whether there will be adequate space.  There is talk of something new coming into the Warehouse district to take RB’s place, perhaps Short’s or someone else.  It would be tempting to stay.  Another possibility is the new Filling Station brewery coming in by the library.  In any case, Pub Theology resolves to keep meeting (wherever we end up) and being the place in Northern Michigan for beer, conversation, and God.

Topic 2: “Individualism is a poor container for the Gospel.”

This was generally agreed, as S. (with the glasses) noted that “We can’t all play a solo at the same time.”  The other S. (reading glasses) noted that individualism tends to cause people to apprehend what they believe is true about the world and why, rather than take someone else’s word for it, or simply buying into the community’s agreed upon take, and tends to cause people to move away from faith, so yes, it is a poor container for the gospel.  B. highlighted the fact that Christianity is not meant to be an individualistic faith.  It is not simply ‘my spirituality’ or ‘me and Jesus.’  Rather, it is meant to be experienced in community, lived out in community, and that when a group of people together take following Jesus seriously, and live into the Gospel, and live out the Gospel, that it is a powerful statement to those looking on.  R. worried that such a focus on community would drown out people’s ability to be individuals.  That there would be space for the ‘other’, whether that is someone divorced, or gay, or recovering, or whatever.  B. noted that ideally the Gospel is inclusive and calls for a community that is open. Such a community ought to reflect the diversity of individuals who all come together because of who God is and because he has made and called each of them.  It was concluded that there is such a thing as good individualism, and good communalism, but that both can go awry if we are not careful.

Topic 3: “In light of the 2012 end of time idea, do you think the redemption of Christ will come in this world — or does it require a new world?”

S. noted that there were 3 billion people on the planet when he was born, and there are now over 7 billion.  R. (who refuses resolutions) noted that “The world will end.”  B. asked, “Who here thinks they will live to see the end?”  Most people said no.   But then N. (who was back at long last! and brought the chips) blurted out, “What are y’all talking about?”

As the rest of the table continued to debate the end of the world, I got up to get another pint.  This time a Dark Squirrel Lager.

The last three questions all sort of related:

4. What would have to happen for the believer not to believe?

5. What would have to happen for the unbeliever to believe?

6. Is theology (or what kind of theology is) compatible with belief in the constancy of nature?

I don’t have time (or the recall) to give you the rest of the conversation.

But a few highlights:

R. asked, “Why does it say unbeliever?  Shouldn’t it be nonbeliever?  What does unbeliever mean?”

N. (chips) pleaded, “Damn it!  Call it Spirit, energy, essence, whatever!  We all believe in it.”

N. (pretzels) noted, “It’s time to start preaching the stuff we’ve known for 200 years.” (referring to biblical scholarship that is often known about by seminaries and preachers but kept from the congregation because ‘they’re not ready for it’.)

And a couple more from the ‘local guru’:

“I think about time differently than most people.”

“Are any of you communists?” (This out of nowhere, in the middle of a completely unrelated discussion)

“Do you think it’s better to show weakness, or to hide weakness?”

And that’s a wrap!  If you were there and care to fill us in on more of what happened, feel free.  If you weren’t there, but have any thoughts on the above topics – post them below!

Confessions of a Postconservative

I recently started reading Roger Olson’s book Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology.  But then, I suppose I start reading a lot of books.  Finishing is another matter.

In the introduction, he references a 1974 book by Jack Rogers, then a Fuller Theological Seminary professor.

“Conservative” is a good word.  It marks continuity with the past, preservation of enduring values, holding on to what has been proven with time.  In this sense I am still a conservative.  I want to “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).

There is another sense in which the word “conservative” is used.  The dictionary defines “conservative” as “tending to favor the preservation of the existing order and to regard proposals for change with distrust.”  Being conservative in that sense leads to conservatism.  That is the sense of being conservative which has marked much of my past.  That is the sense of being conservative which I want to put behind me.  That is the sense of being conservative which confuses Christianity with our culture.  Salvation is not found in the status quo.  From apostlic times Christians have challenged the existing order.”

Rogers’ book was originally supposed to be titled: Confessions of a Postconservative Evangelical.  Apparently the publishers felt that was too provocative.  It was published as: Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical.  He was just ahead of his time.

Olson notes that the original title seems more appropriate, given the content of the book.  He begins his own book, mentioned earlier, with this statement:  “The thesis of this book is simple but controversial:  it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative.

I just picked the book up, so I’m not far into it, but the beginnings prove promising.

What do you think?  

Do you resonate with either Olson’s or Rogers’ statements?

There are certainly ways in which I am conservative, in some of the ways Rogers suggests.  I think it is impossible to be a parent and be otherwise.  But there are also deep and profound ways in which the conservatism in which I was raised has had to give way to a more progressive outlook on theology, politics, and society.  How did this happen?  One of the biggest influences has been simply reading the Bible and studying the text.  As a recent Christianity Today poll noted:  “Frequent Bible reading can turn you  liberal.”  Who would have thought?