The Powers, “the Mystery of Created Freedom”, and Hart’s Pointless Deal with the Devil

that all may be savedDavid Bentley Hart wrote a book on Universalism, That All Shall Be Saved. I won’t attempt a full review, critique, or summary of his main arguments, as you can find those elsewhere (see Myles Wentz and Douglas Farrow). That is far beyond the scope of this piece. I’ll skip comment on his handling of Scripture for others, even though that’s a foundationally critical place to engage the argument. I’ll also mostly leave to the side his characterizations of other theological traditions, tone, etc. except to say that it’s much as one would expect from Hart except to the nth degree. The first thirty pages or so are something of a tour-de-force in well-poisoning and rhetorical posturing.

Instead, I want to point out a couple of issues with the book that I don’t think are entirely resolved; a couple of lacunae in the argument, especially in relation to some of his earlier positions regarding God and evil. Perhaps they are not insurmountable, but so far as I can see they lead to some very troubling consequences for folks buying into his program. 

Whence the Fall?

We begin with a problem that stems from one of his central arguments. I already rehearsed the heart of it on Twitter (as one does), but essentially I’m curious what the issue of the angelic fall does to his argument against the freewill defense of hell.

I’m summarizing and butchering terribly here, but Hart basically argues that the libertarian conception of freedom often invoked by the free-will defenders of hell is impossible and incoherent. No will is that radically, spontaneously “free.” The will is ordered toward ends, specifically the chief end of the Good, who is God. True freedom is the realization of our nature and end, ergo, union with God. Even the bad we will, we will confusedly, thinking it a good, and so forth; nobody wills the bad as the bad for themselves and so on. Furthermore, it is incoherent to see that sort of deliberative power to reject God and turn towards evil with finality as necessary to the concept of freedom when looking at Christ, who certainly had no capacity or potential to reject God and yet was fully human and perfectly free. Not only that, God’s relation to human wills as the transcendent one, interior to all reality, the Primary Cause to all secondary causes, is not like one agent among others, but is rather the One who can actually move wills without violating their freedom and so forth. Great. So far, so Augustinian/Thomist (and, dare I say, Reformed?).

From there the basic logic then is, given all that, “who, in the face of the presence of God, his glory, his love, his goodness, etc. is going to resist that Good forever? How can those wills not eventually be purified, transformed, and turned to reconciliation and repentance? Who can imagine a will resisting that transformative presence of God forever? Keeping your eyes closed to the blazing glory for eternity?”

Here’s where my initial question arises: in a number of places, Hart makes a big deal about the place of demons, the rebellious powers, the Archons, or fallen angels in his account of what it is Christ came to defeat (TASBS, 205). Indeed, he very explicitly pins much of the blame for why the work is such a messy, horrible place on these powers who exercise of a “sphere of created autonomy” against the Kingdom of God and his will, even if only for a time (The Doors of the Sea, 62, 65).

The question that arises is what do we make of their freedom? On the assumption that as finite creatures Archons/powers/fallen angels have the same sort of will that Hart argues is the only sort of will that makes sense for rational agents to have, how did they fall? How did they turn from the Good that they presumably were beholding, maybe not directly, but more clearly in the heavens than humans on the earth? For humans, Hart likes Ireneaus’ suggestion that we’re dealing with an initial child-like immaturity that rendered them susceptible to temptation and deceit by the Tempter. And that’s fine. But does something like that hold true for the unfallen angels who presumably were not in the same position as our first parents? Who fell with a presumably greater knowledge of God as well as un-tempted from without, as it were?

I know the force of Hart’s claim for us is largely eschatological–that in the end, even if it takes ages, folks will see the glory and be transformed–but given the force with which he argues for the unthinkability of ultimate rejection and the way our wills work, it really does end up making any sort of fall or defection for creatures such as the angels unthinkable and insane.

We’re left, then, with a couple of other options. Maybe God created them wicked? Or he willingly-knowingly-given-his-omnipotence-and-omniscience-permitted/ordained their fall? It seems like one of those follows despite Hart’s rejection of those options, or something like the freedom Hart is rejecting is not as illogical as all that.

Of course, someone might suggest he can appeal to the irrationality of the Fall as some sort of surd, the mystery of evil. But that doesn’t seem to close the lacunae here, because that would fall right into the hands of his infernalist opponents. If you’re willing to admit the surd of the irrationality of sin and the defection from the Good on the front end, does that not admit the possibility of unending recalcitrance on the back end?

Now, I get that the Fall is a natural limit case for any theology, and that this probably not insuperable, but it seems to present an analogy for the kind of choice that Hart thinks is unthinkable. A lacunae in his approach to the big story of Christianity that raises other questions in its train.

The Risk of Freedom and Theodicy

Turning to one of those questions, as I already suggested, reading this work by Hart pointed me back to the issues involved in his earlier anti-theodicy theodicy, The Doors of the Sea. In that work he goes about trying to do two things: answer atheistic skeptics of the goodness of God in the face of evil as well as correct what he considers to be defective attempts to defend God’s honor.

He famously (at least among his fans who quote him relentlessly on this point) invokes Ivan’s argument in The Brothers Karamazov, against any sort of explanation, justification, or defense of God’s dealings that would make the tortured suffering of an innocent child a necessary ingredient in the totalizing, absolute harmony of the cosmos and the ultimate plan of all things to unveil the fullness of God’s glory in either a deist, semi-Hegelian, or even Calvinist form. 

This involves recognizing that much evil is simply unredeemed, damned, not intended for good or as a component of some necessary good. God permitted it, sure, but does not purpose or cause directly or indirectly the evil of the world. Much is of it is utterly pointless and totally irredeemable. You can take comfort looking about at various tragedies in this life and tell yourself, “God had no specific reason for that to happen. It just did.”

And so the Powers and an appeal to their realm of created freedom are an important component of the portrait. This is because Hart especially wants to reject any option that sees God’s sovereignty either as a direct or total cause of the tragic eventualities of history in the fallen world. In their disobedience, humans have handed over rule of the world, in a sense, to the powers who are a serious, partial cause of the injustice of history. Indeed, created freedom as a whole figures quite prominently as his non-explanation explanation of evil:

“As soon as one sheds the burden of the desire for a total explanation — as soon as one has come to see the history of suffering as a contingency and an absurdity, in which grace is ever at work but upon with it does not depend, and has come also to see the promised end of all things not as the dialectical residue of a great cosmic and moral process, but as something far more glorious than the pitiable resources of fallen time could ever yield–one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God: or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it. But, then, since there can be not context in which such a judgment can be meaningfully made, no perspective from which a finite Euclidean mind can weigh eschatological glory in the balance against earthly suffering, the rejection of God on these grounds cannot really be a rational decision, but only moral pathos.” (69)

The thing that has always been curious to me with this is the way Hart rages at theodicies of another sort, he basically ends up affirming some sort of freewill theodicy because the union of souls is worth the risk. The “union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful” that to the eye of faith, it’s basically worth all the carnage, all the death, all the destruction, the abuse and tears of Ivan’s little girl, because the gift of being and the ultimate gift of being in communion with God outweighs it, despite however much Hart says we shouldn’t let this affirmation degenerate into a banal confidence in God’s great plan.

A few things are worth noting here. First, this doesn’t sit well with his rejection of the freewill defense of hell. There the moral pathos overwhelms that judgment that the risk is worth the beauty. And that’s not totally inconsistent. In one it is the calculus of eschatological glory v. earthly suffering and not final, eschatological glory v. final, eschatological suffering. Indeed, he works through the calculus and says as much (82-87). Even still, it’s not just that he judges the damnation of a single soul weightier in the balance than, say, Stalin’s wide-scale butchery, the massacre at My Lai, the killing fields of Cambodia, or the slave trade. It’s that in his telling in the 4th Meditation of TASBS, the mystery of created freedom becomes quite a bit less mysterious and not quite as glorious a gift so as to raise questions about it’s earlier justification of even earthly suffering.

Indeed, given what Hart says in TASBS, the “risk” he appeals to in TDOTS essentially evaporates. In critiquing the free will defense for hell, he very forcefully argues for God’s ability to providentially order every eventuality such that he could move all wills freely to choose him, or really, just about anything, given the coincidence of omnipotence and omniscience. Relatedly, earlier Hart presses the point of God’s power to the point of rejection the distinction between antecedent and consequent will in God to get God off the hook (TASBS, 82). If creation ex nihilo and the doctrine of eternal damnation are true, the evil of damnation is folded within even his positive intentions for creation, since “[u]nder the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent.” 

My point here is that under this “canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience”, this supremely efficacious providence, this will that can work interior to all other wills without violating such wills, the “risk” involved in the mystery of created freedom is essentially eliminated, along with the coherence or purchase of that defense. The suffering that followed only did so by God’s knowing-and-able-to-do-something-about-it-but-didn’t will from all eternity. Not only that, a God with that sort of power and that sort of relationship to the universe is one eminently capable of preventing a fall and bringing free creatures into unity with himself without the pain, suffering, and consequences of brought about by either human freedom, or that of the powers. 

A Pointless Deal with the Devil?

In this way we begin to see that a freewill defense or theodicy such as Hart gives us in TDOTS does not really get us much further (if at all) than, say, someone appealing to a mysterious, meticulous, inscrutable plan for the whole. At this point, I’ll just repeat myself and note that when it comes to evil, unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it.  Either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it occurring or he does not.

On this point even the Arminian (or Hartian) and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (free will or freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably/possibly unknown) providential purposes. If you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, and so forth, you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil and even that specific evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one. The untimely death of your wife and child have no particular purposes in God’s economy. They are just collateral damage in a marvelous, but thankfully quite broad and general plan.

At which point, though, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. God willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order for a reason. And so they are knowingly connected, included within the purchase price of that good by a God powerful enough to have stopped it or ordered things differently, even if they were ultimately unnecessary to it. Even Hart’s universalist portrait, where God can say, “All’s well that ends well,” the final beatitude and glory of God being all in all, every soul, comes with the same price tag.

Perhaps Hart could have recourse to some sort of felix culpa defense of evil? Only with evil and sin do we get Christ and his marvelous, redemptive victory over evil. Indeed, in some places I thought I saw hints of it. But overall it would not fit with his rejection of the notion that God might have any need of sin and death to manifest his glory (TDOTS, 74). 

Similarly, that rejection would seem to rule out the notion that perhaps only on this particular schema of history, with all of its bloodshed and horror, could God bring into union with himself every single created soul. Or even that the Lord wanted these souls, who could only be the particular persons-in-relation-who they are after being forged in the fires of history, to be the body of Christ. For again, that would seem to make evil necessary to the revelation of God’s glory.

And so, if we are to believe Hart’s earlier statements about the gratuity of evil, then these instances (really, aeons) of unnecessary, unredeemed, and pointless suffering constitute their own form of horror within the Christian story Hart is telling. By Hart’s own standards it seems another “secret compromise with evil,” only in this case, there was no point in making the bargain at all. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Justification by Michael Horton, 2 Volumes

justificationIt’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, but I had to break radio silence to write up a little notice about Michael Horton’s new, 2-volume work, Justification. It’s the fourth entry in the New Studies in Dogmatics series edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain, and it does the series proud. I won’t mince words, it’s in the top three books of the year for me, if not the top spot. (I’d have to check the notes to remember what else I read). I have read a lot of Horton, but this might be his magnum opus.

Being two large volumes (375 pp and 493 pp) I won’t attempt to give you a comprehensive summary of the work. Nor will I adjudicate some of the intra-Reformed debates that do poke out in certain chapters. I’ll leave it other reviewers to take up some of those important, critical questions. Instead, I’d rather just highlight a few strengths and commend it to you in general.

First, Horton’s just a good writer. It’s always worth noting when an academic knows how to write clean sentences that do not strain a reader’s patience. The years of popular writing alongside dogmatic exploration come in handy here, helping you along when you might be tempted to turn to the wayside in some of the denser pieces of analysis.

Second, I like that Allen and Swain gave him space to play. Two volumes sort of blows the proportion of the series out of the water. But justification is such a hotly disputed matter, with several, important movements in 20th Century scholarship, numerous reinterpretations, many, related historical and exegetical desiderata in need of comment, it’s wonderful to have something of a one-stop shop like this coming from him, so that’s great. (Oh, also, in case you’re wondering, all of this space does give him room to stretch his legs and distinguish these two volumes from his earlier work, Covenant and Salvation, so it’s not just redundant for those who have read it.)

Third, turning to the volumes proper, I have trouble deciding which I liked better. I think I probably benefited personally from the first more, though, simply because I was less familiar with the material. It’s essentially a history of the doctrine, exploring it from the patristic period through the Reformation, paying close attention to figures like the earliest fathers, Chrysostom, Origen, and Augustine, on to Medieval figures (Aquinas, Ockham, Biel, etc.) to the Magisterial Reformers. One quick benefit here worth noting, is that while the Fathers were diverse on justification in many respects, Horton shows that the Reformation doctrine is far from a novum, having a great many theological taproots into the first centuries of the church. It is not, however, a comprehensive account going deep into the early modern and modern periods, distinguishing between the continental Reformed, the Puritans, later Lutherans, Pietists, developments, post-Schleiermacher, etc. So, historians looking for more, will still have to look elsewhere on that score.

All the same, a lot of what Horton does is put on his Big Story Deconstructor hat, and through careful attention to mostly primary texts,  recent disputes about the Scotus Story, the nature and supernature distinction in Aquinas and other Medievals, etc. dismantles components of some of the prominent academic and popular narratives told by folks like Milbank, Gregory, etc. about how the Reformation is the result (and facilitator) of the rise of nominalism, individualism, and sundry other ills of modernity. In fact, Horton goes so far as to argue that the Council of Trent’s teaching on justification more proper represents the “triumph of nominalism,” besides showing at length how far the council varies from even Augustine’s or Aquinas’s account of the grace of justification (neither of whom even held the Reformation doctrine).

I have to say, Horton taking a hammer to so much of the bad, anti-Protestant polemics is satisfying to watch. It’s an irenic hammer, not given to spleen or invective, but a hammer, nevertheless. (Don’t miss the footnotes!) He also just dispels a lot of mythology around the Magisterial Reformer’s approach to the doctrine, rejecting any number of modern, false dichotomies, and spurious charges repeated even by some modern Protestants.

With volume two, though, Horton turns the corner from history into actually articulating a positive, dogmatic and biblical account of the doctrine, driven by properly exegetical and theological argumentation. And I’ll just say, this is an example of constructive doctrine done well. Here he doesn’t just repeat the Reformers, but engages at length with recent New Testament scholarship (largely in Paul, but also the Gospels), delving into Old Testament roots of the doctrine, Biblical theology of the covenants, 2nd Temple texts (Qumran, the Rabbis, etc.), and lexical and semantic examinations of key terms in Paul. Alongside a retrieval of the Reformers, you’ve got exegetical dives into key texts touching on disputed issues like ‘works of the Law” in Paul, imputation, union with Christ, the pistis Christou debate, the role of works in justification, the place of resurrection, and a surprisingly comprehensive, multi-faceted, false-dichotomy-busting account of atonement that’s worth the price of the volume.

In doing all this, he’s able to draw on and engage with the heavy-hitters and critics of the “Old Perspective” in Pauline studies (Wright, Dunn, Sanders, Campbell, Bates, Hays, Barclay etc.) there is still exegetical life in the bones of a fairly classic, Reformed account, that can hold its own against both New Perspective and Apocalyptic perspectives. Additionally, I was pleased to see Horton put Barclay’s and Sander’s recent work on 2nd Temple Jewish accounts of grace, to show just how closely the Reformation disputes between Catholics and Protestants around grace mirrored some of the differing accounts of grace on offer at the time of Paul in the 2nd Temple period.

I’ll also add that one of the advantages of having worked his way through the history of volume 1 first, Horton is able to show the way so many of recent, New Testament scholarship’s criticisms of Reformation accounts of the doctrine simply fail to make contact with their object, by dint of caricature and misunderstanding. What’s more, it enables you to see the way some of the biggest moves in Pauline interpretation by Biblical scholars have, themselves, been funded by modern, theological programs (Barthianism, etc.) every bit as dogmatic as the Reformation accounts they were trying to replace. In which case, it’s another good example of the way historical theology serves as an aid (indeed, a necessary ingredient) in the exegetical and dogmatic task.

I’ve said this before, but my original dive into Pauline studies was through New Perspective scholars (Dunn, Wright, etc.), and it’s been a slow process of unlearning so much of what I “knew” to be true of Reformation perspectives and their viability today. Here, again, the polemic is irenic, but necessary (and don’t miss the footnotes!). For anybody looking for an up-to-date, go-to volume that does that in conversation with recent developments, Horton’s volume 2 is now the place to look.

I’ll add a couple of notes here on who to read it: if you a student interested in justification, a scholar working on the issue, etc. no-brainer.

If you’re a pastor, and you think you don’t have time, or you feel you’ve dealt with the doctrine before (back in seminary, all those years ago…), you might be surprised at how much you can still gain with the engagement with contemporary scholarship and close exegesis of several passages. I got to preach out of Galatians this last week at my church and Horton’s work was reverberating in the background of my sermon at several points. There’s a lot of academic, heavy-lifting, but this is theology that preaches.

Finally, I’ll say that if you’re a Protestant who is thinking of swimming the Tiber for any reason (theological, historical, aesthetic), you should strongly consider digging into Horton’s work first.  (Also, if you’re a Roman Catholic who is genuinely interested in reading a strong, Protestant account of this crucial doctrine, it’s worth it for you too–you can say you’ve read one of the strongest accounts out there.) The matter of justification is one of key doctrinal issues dividing the two branches of Christianity and it is not something that can be brushed aside quickly, but ought to be faced squarely and wrestled with at length. Yes, the book is long, but it’s worth the time to think these things through carefully before making such a weighty and momentous decision.

I add this only because I find that often (not always!), folks who are thinking of leaving, or who reject Protestantism, have not actually read the best (or classic) accounts of the doctrine, and so are “leaving” the theology of their Protestant youth group, or the popular accounts of salvation you pick up in a pietistic, revival night. And by comparison, yes, they’re weak–you wonder how such a thing account of salvation could have ever fired the minds of the Reformers. But, of course, they’re not the real thing. This is.

Alright, I’ve left out much that could be said, but I think I’ve said enough for now. The work is excellent, worth your time and money, and should make an excellent Christmas present to any theological student in your life.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers

preaching and preachersI allow myself few reviews during the school semester, but I wanted to take a little pause between papers to highlight a new Herman Bavinck book. James P. Eglinton, lecturer in Reformed Theology at New College in Edinburgh and author of the groundbreaking study Trinity and Organism, has just edited and translated a little volume Herman Bavinck on Preaching & Preachers. In it he collects a couple of lectures on the nature of Eloquence, the place of the sermon, reflections on language and preaching in America, as well as a translation of the only published sermon of Bavinck’s we have. (Apparently Bavinck mostly preached from sparse notes, or without any.) Eglinton also includes a helpful short biography of Bavinck as a preacher, introducing the work as a whole.

We ought to be grateful to Eglinton for filling this gap in the literature. Many of us have benefitted from the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and have seen it bear fruit in our preaching and teaching. Still, very little on has been available on Bavinck’s own theology and practice of preaching, which grew out of his exposition of the Reformed emphasis on the Word of God as a means of grace.

I won’t give a full-dress review, but a couple of points stand out in Bavinck’s assorted reflections.

First, Bavinck highlights the centrality of good preaching to the practice of ministry. If God works through his Word, then the task of preaching cannot be shirked, minimized, or given short shrift in a pastor’s ministry. Yes, there are differences in natural talents and ability according to God’s providence and gifting, but Bavinck assumes that the call of every pastor is to learn to practice, develop, and grow as an orator in order to present the Word with as much persuasive power to the hearts of their congregations as possible.

Bavinck was troubled even a hundred years ago at the new competition the pulpit had in newspapers, lecture halls, speaker circuits, and so forth. If preachers did not rise to the occasion, the danger is that the Word of God would be drowned out by every other voice under the sun. (One only wonders what he might have made of our new social media order.) Pastors may have other tasks, but they were called to rise to the occasion nevertheless, and strive to proclaim the Gospel with power.

This is not a matter of mere technique, though. “Eloquence” may involve the training of your voice, your delivery, and so forth, but it doesn’t mean engaging in cheap speaking tricks or faux theatrics. Nor is it a matter of a dazzling display of knowledge, stringing quotations and literary references together for grand effect. Bavinck is scathing of the sort of affected mannerisms and arrogant displays of knowledge paraded in many pulpits of the day.

No, eloquence is a matter of the unity of argument, description, and persuasion aimed at the heart which are ultimately effected only when they come from the whole person. In other words, it is knowing something deep in your own bones and honestly using every power at your disposal (linguistic, rhetorical, emotional) in order to convey it with force to the heart of your hearers. Which is why eloquence requires study, practice, a sense of poetry, and an integrity between the preacher and his message that can’t be faked. Eloquence in preaching is a holistic virtue that is developed over time.

Bavinck, of course, sees Scripture itself as central to that task. And not just because it is the matter to be preached. Bavinck sees in Scripture a formative power which, when studied and soaked in, trains a preacher in eloquence. It has the sort of simplicity, emotional resonance with the whole of life, poetic form of course, and moral power which can instill within the preacher a confidence necessary to go up and declare the Word of the Lord to the people of God.

Another striking point about Bavinck’s reflections is how contemporary they seem. In more than one essay he complains about the problems facing the pulpit. Shortened attention spans, the aforementioned competition from other forms of media and opinion outlets, a general sense that the service of God in the Church is less important than getting out there in the world and “doing something,” and so much else.

There are a few ways of learning from this. First, there is the realization that in many ways the challenges of contemporary preaching are less contemporary and more perennial than we realize. There has always been an issue with boredom, with attention-span, with weak attendance, with spiritual listlessness, etc. and so pastors ought not feel uniquely put upon in our age. This is why the wisdom of the past—such as the kind represented in this book—is still of use. Indeed, it can help us slow down and stop from jumping on every bandwagon fad we’re tempted to adopt in our desperation and fear.

Second, in those places where there are some unique challenges in the modern age, it helps us have a sense for how long this has been developing. Also, even in those places where it is dated, it shows us how Bavinck tried to encourage his students to respond on the basis of deeper theological principles which can continue to guide us even as the specifics change.

Finally, for fans of Bavinck, I’ll just say that a lot of the same features you love about his Reformed Dogmatics show up here too. The broadness of mind and learning, the beauty of speech, and the Scriptural basis.

With all that said, I obviously think the book is worth your time if you’re regularly teaching and preaching God’s Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tradition as a Telescope Not a Dirty Window

genesis imageIn the introduction to their new translation of Genesis, Genesis 1–11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators, Samuel Bray and John Hobbins explain various aspects of their translation philosophy. For instance, they emphasize rendering words consistently which keeps intratextual ties tight, clear, and without leaving the reader to wonder why a change occurred in the text where none actually does. Or again, they play special attention to how the translation sounds when read aloud, impacting the experience and encounter of the reader with the text.

Commenting on their willingness to let the reception-history of translation play a role in their own translation, using traditional phrases drawn from earlier renderings, they say:

This translation is traditional in a further sense: it takes seriously the reception of Genesis as scripture. It has become conventional for translators to seek to recover what the text was, without the distraction (or taint) of what the text would later become. Some might consider the intervening millennia a dirty window, and desire to see the text in the clear light of day. That is a good and worthwhile pursuit, but it is not the only one.

Here the reception of Genesis as scripture and its history of interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, are taken as a telescope; they do not eliminate the gulf between us and this distant text, but they let us see further and better than we can see on our own. And if Genesis may be interpreted as part of a broader corpus of Scripture, it may also be translated with attention to that corpus. After all, to make a translation is inescapably an act of interpretation. Thus, this translation reads Genesis in a broader corpus of Scripture, one that in the translators’ tradition includes the New Testament.

In practical terms, later meanings are not forced on a clear text. Instead, translation choices are made, at least in a few key instances, that allow the reader to participate in the long conversation about Genesis down through the centuries. The reader is in a position to see the Old in the New and the New in the Old. And, as noted above, the renderings of the Tyndale-KJV tradition are favored (e.g. Gen 3:15 “He shall bruise your head”). At present, it is not conventional for a translator to be candid about considering the later reception of the text. It was not always this way. When Archbishop Richard Bancroft distributed rules for the translators of what would become the King James Version, he included: “When a Word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the Propriety of the Place, and the Analogy of the Faith.” (10-11)

I find this view eminently reasonable and applicable beyond even translation of the text. Tradition can cloud. Tradition can impede. Tradition can stultify. But it need not always do so. Tradition can also clarify, guide, give insight, and function as a telescope rather than a dirty window. Hence the wisdom of engaging with the history of interpretation and the history of doctrine when preaching, teaching, and formulating our own.

Soli Deo Gloria

Newsworthy with Norsworthy: BZ Review Podcasts and a few Clarifications

sinners in the hands picAlright, hopefully this is the last thing I write on this Brian Zahnd review. After the review went up, Luke Norsworthy at the “Newsworthy with Norsworthy” podcast asked me if I wanted to come on and chat about it as he was going to talk to Zahnd as well. I heard he was a good dude, so I did. And it turns out, he was good dude. I had a great time with him, which you can listen to here.

He also had Zahnd on, who responded to my review on this episode. Now, with that out, I just wanted to write up two or three clarifying explanations both to some general criticism I have received as well as in response to a couple points on podcast response.

Length and “Pop” theology.

First, on the length of my review. Yes, it was long. Probably a quarter of Zahnd’s book. Some (not Zahnd, but some) have suggested that the response was all out of proportion to a popular level book.

I have to say, first, the subject of Zahnd’s book is related to my research here at school and it’s about things I have already written about at length on this very blog. So, it’s not like I took a week obsessively writing this thing from scratch or something. This really wasn’t a personal animosity thing. Listening to him, I think I’d like to grab a beer and chat music and theology. What’s more, there are people I do actually dislike whom I wouldn’t respond to at length like this. It was really a function of the importance of the issues as well as my personal interest in them.

Second, I don’t think that just because a book is pop-level it doesn’t deserve careful attention or scrutiny. Zahnd may not be an academic theologian writing for an academic audience, but he is a pastor-theologian who has clearly thought about these issues at length and is writing for the Church—for people in both his pews and those of others—which is a role I take seriously. In which case, in many senses it matters not less, but more since it is a work of theology people will actually read.

I think there is often a dismissiveness with which some academics (or academicish bloggers) write off pop-level works as beneath their time or attention, which is not simply arrogant but short-sighted. As Zahnd said, he wrote a book for truck drivers, which is exactly what pastors should be doing. Maybe it’s because I still think of myself as a college pastor who snuck into grad school, but I don’t think that same audience is beneath my attention, and neither is the sort of book that they’ll be reading.

I don’t say that all grad students or professors should be reading and reviewing popular books. Some really do serve the kingdom best by focusing on academic-level works. I do think that more should consider wading into popular debates. We probably need more who consider themselves doctors of the church, not simply professors. Indeed, if some did that more often, I think we might see less of a disconnect between the “theology of the pews” and the “theology of the academy”, which sets up the sort of bad preaching in Evangelical circles which Zahnd’s book is reacting against.  Incidentally, that means we’ll have to be willing to critique our own tribe more in this regard as well.

Finally, I do think it’s important to engage the “best” versions of a certain kind of theology and not just pop-level versions (assuming academic works are able to handle things with greater precision and sensitivity). So the people popular authors quote, not just popular authors. That said, I don’t think the one activity rules out the other. For instance, reviewing Zahnd’s book doesn’t rule out later reviewing Gregory Boyd’s book, whose name has been brought up constantly as the real interlocutor (which I’m not sure is quite fair to Zahnd), nor vice versa. What I think is probably important is not reviewing Zahnd and then just wiping your hands and saying, “It’s basically the same thing, so dealing with popular, I have dealt with the academic.”

Jesus’ Parables, etc.

Turning to the podcast, Norsworthy brings up my point about Zahnd not addressing various of Jesus’ parables beyond the Prodigal Son, which assume or teach retributive justice. He mentions Matthew 25 and the sheep and the goats, which Zahnd points he deals with, and that’s why I didn’t fault him for ignoring that one in my review. That said, he dealt with it in his chapter on hell and so his treatment wasn’t pitched at the issue I was concerned with, but rather how he relates it to his view of the afterlife.

My point with the various other parables which didn’t get brought up is that there is a consistent teaching of retribution even in the parables of Jesus which fits with the OT portrait as well, not so much the view of the afterlife implied. It is that issue with which I was concerned, as I’m not particularly interested in using the parables as a Polaroid of the last judgment either. So, I guess I just wanted to clarify that.

Calvinism, etc.

As for the rest of his comments about the Reformed system, I’m happy to let the review sit as is. I don’t think it commits me to going everywhere Edwards does, nor to the “4-year-olds deserve torture” view of things. I’ll simply note, though, I mostly quoted non-Calvinists and focused my review on issues I would have had trouble with back when I was an Arminian who hissed at the name of Calvin. I’ve had several non-Calvinists say they agree on those things, with even an Eastern Orthodox chap or two among them. So, I probably fit the “polemical Calvinist” mold in writing the review, but I don’t think my concerns can simply be chalked up to being a polemical Calvinist.

“Neo-Marcionism” and the “Gospel”

Finally, Zahnd had two main complaints where he thought I was unfair or being overly harsh. First, he objected to the “Neo-Marcionism” label, as well as my one line about the “gospel and God” being at stake.

Now, I really didn’t want to be unfair. I hope I wasn’t. But I guess I’ll just reiterate that I am using the Neo-Marcionism with qualifiers to note a couple of important theological analogies with distinction. Mark Randall James engages that helpfully here in this article. That said, I’m not married to that term, so if there is a more neutral one available, I’m happy to use something less inflammatory. But I’ll just say that nearly every one I think of is going to probably be objected to as I am trying to flag something problematic about his hermeneutic.

As for the “gospel and God” being at stake, I’ll just repeat what I said on the podcast: Zahnd writes as if our understanding of God and the gospel is at issue. In that sense, I am just agreeing with him. I thought that in trying to correct bad, harmful portrayals of both God and the gospel he thinks distort both, he over-corrected and distorted both. I think that’s just a fundamental disagreement we’re going to have. Which is just life in the Church before Jesus comes back and corrects us both, I suppose.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd (Long Review)

sinners in the hands pic

(The review that follows is lengthy, so I’ve linked a PDF copy here.)

Introduction

“God is wrath? Or God is love?” This dichotomy printed in bold on the back drives the argument of Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Zahnd is the pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He’s made a name for himself among the progressive Evangelical set for his powerful preaching and his no-holds-barred rhetoric against his opponents on issues like Calvinism, just war, and so forth.

This book continues the trajectory. As the title signals, Zahnd’s driving interest is to proclaim the good news that God is not fundamentally a God of wrath such as the one Jonathan Edwards preached in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” There’s nothing petty, vindictive, vengeful, punitive, or violent about him—instead he is a truly loving God. He doesn’t sit there disgusted with sinners. He’s not one of the angry, dark gods of the pagan myths.

God is the one we see in Jesus Christ—the true Word the Father has spoken—crucified by the world’s sin, all the while holding out the forgiveness of the Father. God’s singular disposition towards the world and towards his creatures is a pure, benevolent, non-violent love. There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore—Jesus is what God has to say and Jesus is forgiving love.

Along with this positive message, of course, there is a heavy critique of a variety of teachings Zahnd believes incompatible with this news of God’s singularly loving nature: Old Testament violence such as that of the Canaanite conquest, the notion of God’s personal wrath, any sort of atonement connected to penalty or satisfaction, any sort of reading of Scripture (or view of Scripture) that supports them, as well as some doctrines of hell, and the end-times.

Reactive Theology

Now, normally when I review books, I try to find some positives before moving to critique. So, here’s one: Zahnd is an effective writer and you can tell he’s probably one hell of a preacher. Also, you can tell his main heart is for people to know and trust God. I don’t doubt that for a minute.

Beyond that, the negatives of the book heavily outweigh the positives. On the whole, it is a rhetorically-explosive collection of false dichotomies and theological half-truths aggressively pressed against misrepresentations, gross caricatures, or extreme examples. Zahnd relishes aggressive, unfair rhetorical flourishes and seems incapable of representing any of his opponents fairly.

I’m not trying to be harsh or a jerk, but in this case, Zahnd shot first. He pulls no punches talking about the sadistic, cruel, bloodthirsty,  “monster God” he opposes—and presumably those teaching penal substitution, etc. believe in. Nor does he mind delving into some unfair, armchair psychologizing about people who need to believe in such things, explaining their views in a light they’d be reticent to own.

Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that he is very explicitly writing against his old self. By his own confession he was a fire-and-brimstone, turn-or-burn evangelist, who prayed to have visions of hell so he could preach it more earnestly. It sounds unhealthy and I’m honestly happy he’s moved past some of that. But it’s also a very unrecognizable portrait of the theological psychology or logic of millions of those believers who hold versions of positions he is criticizing by way of reaction. In which case, the choice presented to the readers is a false one. In that sense, I suppose it’s a different sort of “turn or burn” message.

It’s an example of something I’ve talked about before. Often when someone changes views, it looks like “I used to believe position X for stupid, hateful reason Y. Reason Y must be the only reason to believe position X,” only here it’s “I used to believe position X in this stupid, hateful way, ergo, this is the only way to believe X.” It’s a failure of the intellectual imagination that comes when you absolutize and project your theological experience onto others.

Now, I’m not saying Zahnd is imagining problems with the doctrines he’s writing about. Nor am I denying they’ve been poorly handled in the past (and present). I’ve wrestled a long time with many of them and tried to critique and correct these walking caricatures myself. My point is that Zahnd’s cure for this diseased theology is the sort that ends up killing the patient.

Though the review that follows is long—stupidly long, really—I can’t engage all the points or serious errors he makes. Instead, I’ll simply note that if you’re interested in the difficult subjects of wrath, judgment, Old Testament violence, the cross and so forth, even the end times, and the fate of people in other religions, Joshua Ryan Butler has written two very fine, sensitive (and readable!) works on the subject The Skeletons in God’s Closet, and The Pursuing God, which do all that Zahnd is rightly attempting to, without making the serious mistakes Zahnd does in the process.

Finally, despite the length and force of the review, I have tried not to be unfair. If I have spoken falsely anywhere, I do ask for pardon.

Well, with that all said, let’s get on with it.

Scripture and Jesus

Instead of Edwards’ portrait of a God holding people over the fires, disgusted, ready to respond to sin in retributive wrath, Zahnd wants us to see God as Jeremiah portrays him:

Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
declares the Lord. (Jer. 31:20)

A beautiful passage to cling to, to be sure. The problem, though, is that Zahnd admits there are plenty of texts in Scripture that go on at length about God’s retributive wrath and anger towards sin, so, “if you want to find passages like that in the Bible, you can” (9). “If we want a vengeful God of retributive wrath meting out violent justice upon his enemies…we can find that depiction of God in the Old Testament” (35).  How does he deal with them?

Well, there are at least two strategies. Zahnd’s account of Scripture is actually very important to the revisionary work he’s trying to do, so I’ll camp out here for a bit first.

Zahnd: Jesus, not Joshua

The first is to make a wedge between the Bible and the Bible. So, we have all these texts about God’s love, the portrait and reality of it in Christ and so forth, but then these texts about wrath, violence, and even the “genocide” of the conquest of Canaan. Here he poses a trilemma: (1) we accept the genocide of the conquest as commanded by God and worry that God is a “monstrous” God who could ask it of me, which is abhorrent; (2) we admit that God can change and develop and deny God’s immutability, which is heresy; or (3) we admit we need to start reading our Bibles differently (26).

Zahnd suggests we should opt for door three. But what he means by “read the Bible in a different way”, means less a rereading of those verses, and rather a rethinking of the nature of Scripture. Instead of reading it flat with the OT as authoritative as the NT, or as a unified, seamless book, we need to resist making “the Old Testament univocal.” We need to see that is gives us many portraits of God, not just one (14), and “they’re not all in perfect harmony” (15). Does God require animal sacrifice or not? Leviticus seems to think so, but David seems to suggest otherwise (Ps. 40:6). We can’t make all the texts sing together.

That’s because for Zahnd the Old Testament is “a journey of discovery”, of “progressive revelation” (15), where Israel slowly came to learn to know her God until the point where Jesus arrives (31). God didn’t change, but Israel’s understanding did. For a time, God allowed Israel’s “Bronze Age” assumptions about the violent gods who fought and punished to get baked into their conception of God as they told the story, but slowly they came to know better. And finally, Jesus shows up and “closes the book on vengeance.”

God says, “Listen to my Son” on Mt. Tabor and sometimes the Son who teaches us to love our enemies, forgive them, and turn from violence overrules and contradicts Moses and Elijah, whom he supersedes (57). We need to recognize parts of the Bible may be wrong, sinful even, and obsolete, but “nothing about the risen Christ is obsolete” (61). When Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4, he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor but leaves out “the day of vengeance of our God”, improving Isaiah’s message by purging it from a nationalist lust for retaliation (41). Jesus’ Sermon the Mount, not Joshua’s conquest, is authoritative for Zahnd, since he is a “Christian, not a Biblicist” (60). And Jesus, the true and final Word of God, comes telling us about a God who is like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who forgives without anger or atonement, and whose judgment is never retributive.

Reading the Bible this way, then, saves our view of God and saves us from ever being tempted to use texts of judgment or war to justify our own wars against our enemies. And so on.

Revisiting the Wedge

Obviously, I can’t do the whole argument justice, but you get the drift. So, is there really a problem here? Call them Legion, for they are many.

First, when it comes to Zahnd’s Canaanite wedge, I’ll just note that people use just about any sort of text to justify going to war and violence against their enemies. People often forget some of the most cited texts justifying the Crusades were not the Conquest narratives (not really cited at all), but Jesus’ own words about abandoning all, suffering loss of riches, health, and life for the sake of following Christ and loving their brethren—which in this case meant going to liberate Eastern Christians and the Holy Land who had been overrun, slaughtered, and oppressed by Muslims. I’m not defending or critiquing the Crusades here. My point is that if “these texts have been (mis)used to justify violence and war” is a valid criterion for grabbing the scissors, Zahnd might lose more verses than he wants.

That said, I do think we need to re-read the Scriptures. Justifying genocide isn’t a great option, nor is a mutable God. But Zahnd’s simple trilemma gives the reader no sense that there are other ways to re-read the Bible. And that’s exactly what scholars have done, helping us to see that the conquest narratives are not describing divinely-sanctioned genocide (a freighted word which appears nowhere in the Bible).

But Zahnd never utters a word about developments in understanding the way hyperbolic, Ancient Near Eastern war rhetoric shapes the narratives, or about the Biblical emphasis on driving out the Canaanites from the land instead of killing them, or the emphasis on the forewarning given them, or of God’s patience, or any of a half-dozen other important exegetical, historical, and theological considerations OT scholars and theologians have raised to help us better understand these texts. Instead, your option is to read them the way Richard Dawkins imagines Christians ought to, preparing yourself for God to show up commanding genocide at any time, or avail yourself of Zahnd’s scissors.

(Incidentally, Paul Copan & Matthew Flanagan’s book “Did God Really Command Genocide?” deals extensively with all the issues Zahnd raises, including more. In the meantime, here’s a good article by Copan, and another by Alastair Roberts. Oh, and again, Butler’s book.)

Jeremiah the Split-minded Idolater?

Beyond the wedge, though, there are other problems to Zahnd’s approach towards accommodation and progressive revelation in the Old Testament. I believe in both doctrines, but Zahnd’s specific versions yield severe problems.

First, recognizing multiple voices in the OT need not yield contradictory cacophony. It’s possible to discern a complex polyphony among the choir of the apostles and prophets, which is indeed harmonious when seen in light of the Old Testament’s fulfillment in Christ. More on that later. Still, Zahnd’s portrayal leaves us not only with Old Testament authors in dialogue with each other, but even divided contradicting themselves. Because there isn’t a major prophet that doesn’t have glorious prophecies of redemption and love right alongside devastating texts of retribution and judicial wrath.

Take Jeremiah. Yes, we’ve got the agonized cry of love in Jeremiah 31. But also, chapters upon chapters of threatened judgment at the hands of enemies God will call from the North as judgment on their idolatry:

Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place,
upon man and beast,
upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground;
it will burn and not be quenched. (7:20)

Such judgment is what Jeremiah depicts him as enacting in the Exile and judgement of Judah:

Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!’ But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their evil and make no offerings to other gods. Therefore my wrath and my anger were poured out and kindled in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, and they became a waste and a desolation, as at this day. (44:4-6)

Or again, even in his prophecy of salvation and hope in chapter 31 we find those terrible, retributive texts:

All your lovers have forgotten you;
they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
the punishment of a merciless foe,
because your guilt is great,
because your sins are flagrant.
15 Why do you cry out over your hurt?
Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great,
because your sins are flagrant,
I have done these things to you.
16 Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
and all who prey on you I will make a prey.
17 For I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal,
declares the Lord,
because they have called you an outcast:
‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’ (Jeremiah 31:14-17)

Here the Lord promises to heal and save and bring them back from exile, yet he nonetheless claims credit for bringing the nations in to judge them “because your sins are flagrant.” What’s more, his merciful salvation will consist in punishing the nations whom he used to judge them since they did so sinfully.

Which Jeremiah ought we believe? The one in this verse in chapter 31, or the other verses in chapter 31? The one that sounds most like Jesus, says Zahnd. We’ll get to Jesus, but stop and think for a moment about what this means about God’s revelation in the Old Testament. He gives his people prophets—and makes a really big deal about not prophesying falsely in his name and misrepresenting him (Deut. 13, 18; Jer. 18). But then apparently allows all of them to grossly misrepresent him to Israel for hundreds and thousands of years, giving them true testimony about him right next to false testimony in the space of a few breaths?

Really think about this. Does that make sense in light of the huge premium God places on not making up false idols and representations of him (Exod. 20:4)? And yet Zahnd’s theology of progressive revelation and accommodation would have us believe that right at the center of Israel’s Scriptures God tolerated an idolatrous depiction of him as a “monster” of the worst sort—a far greater issue than imagining his strength to be symbolically represented by a calf.

Accommodations: Augustinian or Socinian

This is where we come to the difference between the sort of accommodation taught by the Augustinian tradition, and the later Socinian revision. In a nutshell, it’s the difference between telling your kid babies come from the love of a mother and a father while skipping some of the details, or telling your kid babies come from the stork. One is accommodation as adapted but true communication, while the other is a (white?) lie.

Now, God has accommodated himself to us in Scripture, both in general because of our cognitive differences, but also even allowing for some cultural and historical accommodation. That means all language about God in Scripture is anthropomorphic and analogical. What’s more, it also means that God may patiently work in different times and places in less than ideal ways. Jesus says Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of human heart (Matt 19:8), and even Calvin followed this insight teaching that the OT slavery laws were moral accommodations and limits for a harsh time, which God purposely intended to pass away with the old dispensation.

Or when it comes to things like the sacrificial system—the heart of Old Testament religion—Augustine says that, yes, it is a form of religion adapted to the time and place, but it is an appropriate adaptation. It’s the same religion before Christ, whose signs and figures point ahead to Christ, but a God-ordained similarity so that there is basic unity of God’s ways and works across dispensations, or stages in covenant history. On this view of accommodation, God does not lie, nor does he abandon his people to lies about his character. And this progress of revelation is that of a continuing, unfolding storyline told by a self-consistent, self-revealing Author.

Zahnd’s approach is still more radical. Instead, he takes what amounts to an old-school, German critical evolutionary view of the Old Testament as developing primitive religion—scrubs some of the worst anti-Semitism originally associated with it—and repackages it as the complex option which honors the Bible’s mystery, Jesus, and so forth. What’s really going on is that instead of seeing the tensions, wrestling with them in order to be blessed with a fuller portrait of God, you get the easy resolution of finding out the early Biblical authors (with their primitive, “Bronze Age” ideas) were just grossly and radically confused about God the whole time, inadvertently lying about him. And God was letting them.

Zahnd would rather admit contradiction for the sake of simple consistency (or, simplistic) and shave off any hard edge that doesn’t fit instead of doing the hard work of thinking through a complex consistency which incorporates all the evidence. It is the classic example of a canon within a canon, of chopping verses to make it fit your system—of implicitly telling God to shut up because you don’t like what he’s saying.

I know Zahnd is not trying to rehash “liberal, sloppy, pick and choose theology” but push deeper into the revelation of Christ (97). The thing is, that’s not really fair to classic liberal theology. The old-school liberals were careful and always claimed a deeper fidelity to the person and spirit of Christ and the Father he came to reveal, over and against the mere letter of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Despite his best intentions, Zahnd’s project ends up treading some old, liberal ground in a way that would make Albrecht Ritschl and Adolph Harnack proud.

The Spirit of Marcion

Here I sense, as the great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel said of the German historical critics in his own day, “the Spirit of Marcion, hovering invisibly over many waters, has been brought to clear expression” (The Prophets, 390). Zahnd explicitly repudiates Marcion (60). And it’s true, he doesn’t have a total rejection of the Old Testament, he believes in a unity between the God of Israel and the God of Jesus, the Creator and the Redeemer, etc. But let’s be honest, chalking up Old Testament portraits of God, the sacrificial system, etc. to leftover “Bronze Age” religious impulses isn’t a good non-Marcionite move.

Marcionism isn’t just a matter of a strict dichotomy between OT and NT, but also certain judgments about what is fitting for God to do. Go read the church Father Tertullian’s The Five Books Against Marcion or Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. It’s not simply a matter of a Creator God versus a Redeemer God, but rather whether a good God could also be a God who has wrath and executes judgment against sin.

For that reason, it’s appropriate to see Zahnd’s hermeneutic as a sort of cross-Testamental, Neo-Marcionism. Both Marcion and Zahnd tell us that looking at Jesus means massive, sweeping portions of what the prophets and apostles testify about God (in both Testaments) is categorically false.

And to be honest, I am not so sure he can keep the two Gods together cleanly. I’ve argued this before, but in the Old Testament, YHWH just is the God of the Exodus and is known by what he did there, not just the salvation, but the plagues and forceful judgments (including the death of the firstborn). That’s at least as “violent”, if not more so than any Conquest text. And yet, if Zahnd is right, God couldn’t have performed any of those acts of judgment.

In which case, confessing the God of Israel as the God of Jesus Christ becomes a much dicier proposition.

(Since posting, Mike Skinner has critiqued the Neo-Marcionite label, and Mark Randall James has defended it.)

Jesus v. Jesus?

Which brings us to Jesus. Zahnd’s big trump card is Jesus, or rather, a particular reading of Jesus and a hyper-Christocentrism that even Barth would shake his head at. It is a version of what Andrew Wilson has called the “Jesus-Tea-Strainer” v. the “Jesus-Lens.” Let’s leave aside whether the Sermon on the Mount amounts to a call for pacifism. I’ll concede it for now. There are plenty of Pacifists who don’t project that pacifism up into the heavens. The question before us is whether that non-violent, non-retributive Jesus Zahnd holds up, doesn’t just strain out Old Testament texts, but also New Testament texts including some of the witness of Christ?

For instance, Zahnd holds up Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Father as the ultimate portrait of God’s loving, non-retributive nature (Luke 15). And I love that parable. I love grace. I love forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s heart. I’ve preached that to my students week in and week out.

But what of Jesus’ other parables? In the very same Gospel of Luke, Jesus also tells the parable of the Vineyard Owner and the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-18). At the end of it, after the tenants kill his son, Jesus asks, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyards to others.” Lest we miss the point, the Vineyard Owner is God in this story, the Father who avenges himself on the foes of his Son.

Or again, at the end of the parable of the Wedding Feast, Jesus says those who come unprepared will be thrown out of the party into the darkness (Matt 22:1-14). Or again, in the parable of the faithless servant who abuses the other servants in his master’s absence. This one is actually pretty grisly, with Jesus declaring that upon his return, “The master will cut him in pieces and make him share the fate of the disobedient” (Luke 12:46).

Even more shocking, think of the parable where the King ends up throwing the unmerciful servant in jail to be tormented for his lack of mercy; Jesus ends that one saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35). This is the punchline to his parable on why we ought to forgive our brothers just as God does. Jesus apparently saw no contradiction between threatening retribution against a lack of mercy.

Of course, you may argue that single-parables aren’t the way to do theology, in which case, I’d agree (hint, hint). But surveying a variety of the parables, you’ve got a pretty good blend of Old Testament-sounding retribution in Jesus’ portrait of his Father.

Jesus also speaks directly of Old Testament accounts of retributive justice and affirms them. In Luke 10, his woes against Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum presumes that the judgment against them was from God and that they stand under similar threat. Similarly, in Luke 17, Jesus talks about the judgment coming at the end and compares it to the judgment of God which came against the world “in the days of Noah” as well as “in the days of Lot”, which Genesis clearly attributes to God. And yet Jesus doesn’t repudiate it or explain it away but says such a judgment will befall when the Son of Man returns again.

I could go on with text after text where Jesus pronounces or threatens judgment, or assumes that a principle of reciprocity and retribution (more on which later) is at work in God’s dealings including his own future works as the Judge (John 5), who will send his angels to “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matt 12:41-42) at his Second Coming. Incidentally, this is probably where people got the idea that the Second coming of Jesus might involve a bit more judgment than his first coming. Not their need for vengeance or simply a bad reading of Revelation (172); Jesus seemed to say so himself.

This also seems connected the answer to Jesus leaving off the day of vengeance line from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4. The problem with Jesus’ contemporaries was not that they were confused in thinking God would judge their enemies, or that Roman oppression was damnable and needed punishment. Their mistake was excluding themselves from the category of sinner who stands under judgment alongside of them. They didn’t realize that if the Day of the Lord’s judgment came at that time, they would stand condemned alongside them. They were wrong, because they were unwilling to see themselves as recipients of undeserved mercy, being offered the same chance to repent, as well.

Jesus v. His Personally-Anointed Apostles?

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Jesus disciples seem to have no problem speaking of God’s retribution and judgment.

Luke thinks God directly struck down Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) as well as Herod (Acts 12:20-23).

Or think of the apostle Peter, whom Zahnd highlights as holding up a high view of Christ (58), since he was “an eyewitness of his majesty” who walked, talked, was commissioned, and inspired by Jesus to bear testimony that we “Listen to the Son” (2 Pet. 1:16-19). In the same letter Zahnd cites, Peter dedicates the next chapter to warning against false teachers and heretics who have condemnation waiting for them and “their destruction has not been sleeping” (2:3). Indeed, God will judge them as he condemned the wicked angels casting them into hell (2:4), flooded the world in Noah’s day (2:5), and turned Sodom and Gomorrah into ash as an example of what happens to the ungodly (2:6). The hits just keep coming when you press on into chapter three where Peter assures his readers God’s present lack of judgment is just God being patient (3:9), but don’t worry, his fire is ready for “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (3:7). Essentially, the whole book is, Be righteous, don’t worry, God is going to punish your persecutors.

Paul similarly encourages persecuted believers that God is going to punish their persecutors, “since God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day” (2 Thess. 1:6-9).

Paul speaks plainly of God’s future judgment whereby God “will render to each according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:6-7).

What’s more, in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul references OT acts of divine judgment against sin—23,000 being struck down, God sending serpents, the Destroyer, etc.—and says, “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” (v. 11), as a warning for us not to similarly test Christ. Indeed, if you read him closely, he is arguing that Christ himself is the agent of judgment in these OT texts. So, yes, Paul agrees with Zahnd that Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, but contrary to Zahnd, he makes a connection between Christ and the OT narratives which puts Christ in the middle of them, instead of using Christ to gut them. Paul says, don’t test Christ the way Israel tested God in the Wilderness, otherwise you will provoke him to jealousy (10:22), and presumably judgment. The example works because presumably the same God is at work.

Maybe He Meant All of It

Look, believe me when I say I am not obsessed with judgment, wrath, and so forth. It shows up in my preaching only as often as it does in the text. And to be honest, I worry about playing it up, so I’ll often tip-toe. Still, when I survey a lot of these texts—and there are many more—I have to ask: is Jesus, the perfect image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15-20), teaching a Monster-God? Is Paul? Is Peter? I mean, those guys knew him. They had special revelations from him. They encountered him from heaven and performed miracles in his Spirit. Did they miss something? Did they just not read enough Rene Girard, or what?

What’s more, am I ready to clip these texts too? Are they all part of the dialogue that we can’t harmonize so we have to choose?

Or maybe texts about retribution and wrath in both Old and New Testament are more than just petty vindictiveness or simple bloodlust? Zahnd touches on some of these texts later with his other defusing tactic—and we’ll get to that in a moment—but we need to reckon with the fact that all of these texts are there in the New Testament from the mouth of Christ himself and his apostles from whom we’re allegedly getting our “Jesus is What God Has to Say” theology.

Perhaps Jesus’ fulfillment, completion, and, yes, abrogation of some of the Old Testament (as a covenant) is not one of contradiction and supersession, but is a lot more continuous than we might initially be comfortable with. Maybe when Jesus said that the Scriptures “bear witness about me” (John 5:39), and that “Scripture cannot be broken” because it was “the word of God” (John 10:35), he actually meant all of Scripture? And when “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27), he didn’t use a red pen to cross half of it out?

Upon reviewing the material, then, it seems ultimately quixotic to try and pit Jesus against his Bible on the subject of wrath, retribution, or judgment.

Well, these points made, that leaves us to actually wrestle with the issues surrounding the meaning of these terms.

Wrath, Retribution, and a Forgiving God

As I mentioned earlier, Zahnd has a couple of moves regarding wrath, retribution, and so forth. One had to do with rethinking how much of Scripture reveals God and suggesting it’s less than we think. The other is to rework our notions of things like wrath and judgment to suggest they’re not what we think they are.

Metaphorical Wrath

Take his treatment of wrath. He rightly notes that much of the challenge of God-talk is the issue of speaking of the infinite God with finite language, concepts, images, and so forth. Older theologians spoke of depictions of God’s emotions, body parts, and so forth, as anthropomorphisms, or anthropopathisms. Or again, God takes up many names and images for himself in Scripture (farmer, hen, husband, tower, etc.) to talk about God’s activities, stances, and relations towards his creation. Zahnd notes this—though he lumps it all under the concept of metaphor—and he says this is the reality we’re dealing with when it comes to God’s wrath.

“The wrath of God is a biblical metaphor we use to describe the very real consequences we suffer from trying to go through life against the grain of God’s love” (16). Or, quoting Brad Jersak, it is “the divine consent to our own self-destructive defiance.” In other words, it’s the pattern of cause and effect at work in the world which brings bad consequences down upon bad choices—the stomach-ache after the food-binge, the counter-punch to the punch thrown, etc. Psalm 7 offers the clue:

God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day.

12 If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and readied his bow;
13 he has prepared for him his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.
14 Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.
15 He makes a pit, digging it out,
and falls into the hole that he has made.
16 His mischief returns upon his own head,
and on his own skull his violence descends.

Here Zahnd sees the Bible tipping its hand that we should understand language of active, personal judgment and indignation on God’s part as a way of speaking of human duplicity caving in on itself (18). And that just is what is the wrath of God. But, really, “God’s spirit toward you is one of unwavering fatherly-mother love” that is never actually mad at anyone (19), even if his withdrawal lets them suffer consequences from time to time. Don’t literalize the anger metaphors.

Passive Wrath Is Not the Whole Story

Now, as far as it goes, this isn’t that bad. It’s clear in Scripture that much of God’s judgment has the shape of God “handing us over” to the consequences of our sin (Romans 1:24-25).  Scripture also talks about God handing people over to their stubborn hearts (Ps. 81:12), or hardening their hearts in response to their own self-hardening (Deut. 29:4) and so forth. One sees it also in the narratives in Genesis or the latter prophets, especially with the way sinful power politics goes bad for wicked Israelite kings. Older theologians used to call this the “passive wrath” or passive judgment of God to distinguish it from varieties of active judgment, whether direct or indirect.

In any case, the strain is strong enough that in the middle of the 20th Century some Old Testament scholars like Gerhard Von Rad and Klaus Koch questioned whether the Old Testament or books like Proverbs even had a retributive doctrine, suggesting we should talk about “Act-Consequence” schemas, or a “destiny-producing sphere of action.” On the New Testament side, scholars like A.T. Hanson and C.H. Dodd argued similarly that in Paul, the wrath of God had become a mere metaphor for the impersonal process of cause and effect much as Zahnd suggests.

As initially tempting as it is, the model was heavily critiqued, though, by scholars such as Leon Morris, R.V.G. Tasker, and Old Testament scholars on a number of levels. For one thing, the model is flawed as a total explanation of the Biblical material. Many of the same biblical authors who portrayed sin as bearing evil fruit in this fashion, such as Genesis, the rest of the Torah, and the Latter Prophets also contain numerous examples of direct acts of divine judgment (the Flood, the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, consuming Korah, plagues, etc.). The same is the case throughout both the Old and the New Testament. While the Biblical authors saw cause and effect at work, they also testified to clear instances of the active intervention of God.

Second, theologically, this paradigm doesn’t adequately reckon with the fact that God is the Creator and sustainer of the world order. Yes, Zahnd talks about it as God’s permission, but overall this is a distancing and depersonalizing God’s relation to negative consequences. But Aquinas reminds us that “the order of the universe, which is seen both in effects of nature and in effects of will, shows forth the justice of God” (ST, 1.q.21, a.1). God created the universe in such a way that it works according to his own moral righteousness and he freely sustains it as such. God’s permission is not mere permission, but always in accordance with his good works and ways. Even if “God does not actively inflict punishment…the punishment is retributive because the punishment consists in a harm that the sinner incurs due to the harm that the sinner has inflicted” (Matthew Levering, “Creation and Atonement”, Locating Atonement, 62). God sustains the world in such a way that negative consequences to sin reflect God’s judgments about good and evil.

Put it another way, even the consequences of sin are upheld by God in God’s world precisely as just punishment for sin.

Indeed, look at Psalm 9:15-16:

The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught.
The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.

The Psalmist, goes out of his way to do the opposite of what Zahnd is suggesting. He wants us to know that when the nations get caught in their own trap, it’s not just circumstances working out—“The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment.” God claims personal credit for consequences too.

Active Wrath, Passive Wrath, and Just Retribution

And here’s where I think we need to see that passive wrath and active wrath shed light on one another. Zahnd looks to reduce wrath to a mere metaphor for God’s consent to our suffering the consequences of sin. Why? Because it seems a little more hands off, and I think we can all agree to the fairness of sort of receiving back upon yourself the consequences of your actions. What injustice is there about giving you what you’ve chosen? You choose idols, then receive the terrible dehumanizing degradation that idolatry leads to. Choose violence? Get war. Choose self-centeredness? Get the terrible loneliness, anger, and despair that narcissism leads to. Choose adultery? Get divorce.

I want to suggest we see this principle at work even in his active judgments. I believe Ray Ortlund Jr. has called this a “fearful symmetry” of judgment. So, for instance, when Israel decides to cheat on God with the idols, his active judgment through the nations is the historical manifestation of the spiritual reality they’ve chosen. All of the blessings of protection, life, beauty, and goodness are connected with relational wholeness with Yahweh. Reject Yahweh’s covenant and you’ve essentially rejected these things. When you reject God, he gives you not-God, and that is a terrifying, but just judgment. Roll that principle out into the rest of the Bible and you begin to see the way this helps us understand even those more active, seemingly-extrinsic moments of direct, eschatological judgment by God upon sinners. Indeed, we see this in Romans 1, where Paul’s talk of God’s “handing over” of sinners to passive judgment and ends with a litany of sins. Paul says not only that these sins lead to bad consequences, but that it is “God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32).

Instead of reducing all talk of active wrath to passive wrath and a mere metaphor for consequences, we can begin to appreciate the fairness, the non-arbitrariness, the non-petty, the non-vindictiveness, the justice of all of God’s judgments in Scripture.

Analogy and Anger

Let’s turn again, though, to the issue of wrath or anger in God. It’s admittedly a very complicated subject that has been treated a few different ways in church history, even in the Reformed tradition I typically appeal to.

It’s important to note that generally, the theological tradition spanning from Fathers like Ireneaus, to Augustine, to Aquinas, to Reformed types including Calvin and Turretin (who are credited with coming up with penal substitution), all affirmed God’s impassibility: God is not subject to overwhelming passions which cause his nostrils to flare, or his testosterone to pump. God is perfect, immutable, spiritual, and independent of all things. Whatever God’s wrath is—if it is an affection somehow “in God”—it can’t be just like ours.

As Tertullian noted, no human affection or emotion—even the positive ones like mercy, compassion, etc.—ascribed to God can simply be read back up into God since “in the human being are rendered just as corrupt by the corruptibility of man’s substance” but we should know that “in God they are rendered incorruptible by the incorruption of the divine essence.” This is why we ascribe these things to God anthropomorphically and know that our language about him is analogical, so we must purge it of anything unworthy of God—including pettiness, vindictiveness, and so forth.

I would tentatively suggest we think of the anger or wrath of God as something akin to a mode of the eternal God’s encounter with the fallen world—specifically the reality of sin. It is his negative evaluation of it and will to make an end of it in judgment.

Love and Wrath Are Not Opposed

Here we’re getting closer to an answer to the questions on the back of the book, “Is God wrath? Or is God love?” The Bible (and the tradition) seems to say that God is love, therefore God has wrath.

Let me put it this way: Is God love? Yes. Is true love righteous? Well, yes. Is it not righteousness to promote good and oppose evil? To stand against evil? To even hate evil? Yes. I mean, that’s what Paul tells us to do (Rom. 12:9). So if God is the sort of love that is righteous love, will his love not include a white-hot opposition to evil? Yes. Well, there you go. The love that God is involves God’s inherent, innate opposition to, hatred of, and will to oppose sin because the love that is the life of the Triune God is a love which is righteous.

Let me put it this way: Jesus is God in human flesh, come in the power of the Spirit. If you want to know what God’s love is like when translated into a human key, you look at him. Well, Jesus had wrath. When the Pharisees opposed his healing of a man in bondage because it was the Sabbath, “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” and healed him anyways (Mark 3:5). That same blindness and self-righteous wickedness provoked him to angrily pronounce woes against them before the people (Matt 23). And that same zealous anger, jealous for God’s name, leads him to pronounce and enact God’s judgment on the Temple (John 2). God’s love in the flesh flips tables.

If you want to know that the perfect love of God isn’t opposed to the righteous anger or wrath of God, just do what Zahnd keeps telling us: look at Jesus.

The Wrath of God as the Care of God

Of course, Zahnd’s worry is a punitive, petty God ready to let loose a lightning bolt, of whom we always have to be fearful because we never know what he’s going to think. He worries anxious vengeful hearts have projected a monster God up into the heavens (91). And that is a real worry. I’m sure people have taught God that way. But it’s not the only worry.

In a world wracked with sin, with oppression, with outrages like slavery, ISIS slaughtering innocents, oppression of the poor by the rich, crass militarism, corruption and greed which grinds the weak into the dust, Fleming Rutledge asks, “Where’s the outrage?” (The Crucifixion, 129). For the weak, for the underprivileged, for the outcast, the problem is not that of a punitive God, but of a distant God who seems to let things go with impunity. Or worse—who’s too weak to do anything about it. In other words, the corresponding danger is projecting a 21st century Western, Rogerian, therapeutic, purely affirming God out of our fear of shame and guilt, who lightly puts our hearts at ease, but can’t rightly deal with the sin of a broken world.

Here is where Abraham Heschel’s insight is crucial: “The secret of anger is God’s care” (The Prophets, 374). Divine anger in Scripture refers to “righteous indignation, aroused by that which is considered mean, shameful, or sinful” (363). Or again, “Anger is an emotion attendant upon God’s judgment, but not identical with it. It is the personal dimension of God’s justice” (376). And so Heschel argues we must recognize, “Divine anger is not the antithesis of love, but its counterpart, a help to justice as demanded by true love” (381).

Language of wrath and anger in God in Scripture speaks to the fact that God takes humanity’s works seriously—for good or ill. There is always in him the profound, unshakeable, unalterable goodness and love which is utterly opposed to sin, corruption, idolatry, murder, rape, lynching, pride, and all manner of ungodliness as well as a willingness to do something about it. If God does not look at the shooting of an unarmed black man, or the kidnapping of a child, or the systematic subjugation of nations and people groups with something analogous to anger—what is wrong with him?

Miroslav Volf still has one of the best comments on the issue worth quoting at length:

            I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of  God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pp. 138-139

This is not a mere lust for blood. It’s not petty. It’s not vindictive. In the heart of every Image-bearer is a knowledge that injustice deserves and cries out for an answer. And the God who is truly love is disposed to give it. Indeed, this is something he has promised us—He is a God who “who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exod. 34:7). He has covenanted with the world (Gen. 9) and with Israel that he will answer sin with judgment.

(For a more careful examination of wrath and love, see the linked article by Tony Lane “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God.”)

Retribution and Truth

This promise brings us to the issue of retribution and punishment. Zahnd thinks God’s judgment is only restorative, never retributive (44). I think based on the texts I reviewed above, that the Bible (both Old and New Testaments, including Jesus) teach that retribution has a place in our theology of judgment. Indeed, I think there is a false dichotomy there.

Retribution, as I’ve been saying, is not about vindictiveness, or pettiness, but rather is about notions of desert and truth. Purged of sin, it is a matter of reckoning—of naming sin as what it is and treating it as it deserves. When Peter says we call “Father” the One “who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds” (1 Pet. 1:17), retribution is that impartial judgment applied to wicked deeds. As an aspect of distributive justice, it is God paying out what is due.

Looked at from another angle, Oliver O’Donovan has suggested we think of retributive punishment as an aspect of “attributive” justice—as a matter of truth-telling about persons, about acts, about offenses. When society punishes murder with prison time (or even the death penalty) it is saying something about the act of murder, about the value of the victim, and about the status of the victimizer. To leave sin unpunished is to lie about—to say that the victimizer was right to do what they did, that their victim didn’t deserve better, and that the act of taking their life was a lite thing.

Whichever way you take it, it names a reality which, in light of the atrocities of the 20th Century—the Holocaust, the Killing fields of Cambodia, the Klan lynching black men in the Jim Crow South, child sex scandals in the Church—cannot be waved off. Indeed, it seems callous to write off people clinging to the promise that the blood of their loved ones will receive an answer as merely people trying to cling to “their religion of revenge” (43). The comfort of God’s judgment and retribution is that I don’t have to cling to revenge—I know that God will have an answer to every crime, so I can let it go (Rom. 12:14-21). God takes personal vengeance out of our hands, not because he eschews retribution altogether, but because he is the only one who can ultimately be trusted with it. I can rest knowing that because God is not a liar, he will tell the truth about sin and do the truth just as he said he would.

Disarming Sin by Taking “sins” Seriously

At this point we come up against the problem with Zahnd’s attempt to swap in Rene Girard’s -end-the-scapegoating atonement theory. Zahnd thinks seeing the cross as a penal substitution “fails to take sin seriously” (106), because it makes everything a matter of alleviating our personal sin debt, but leaves “the principalities and powers to run the world.” In other words, the deep problem with our world is the massive powers of systemic injustice and violence which penal substitution leaves untouched. Instead, we should see the cross as the exposure of all our violent systems of power which led to the scapegoating of the Son of God. It’s the end of sacrifice because it reveals the violent, sacrificial logic of the systems we’re caught in, so “once we see it, we can repent of it, be forgiven of it, and be freed from it” (114). Sort of a neo-Abelardian, Moral Exemplar deal (and yes, I know even Abelard wasn’t an Abelardian). There is no real atonement, only enlightenment.

The problem here is that Zahnd’s solution doesn’t really reckon with the fact that our problem is both Sin (as power) and the guilt of sins that need an answer, a reckoning (Fleming Rutledge is right to emphasize both). Having our violent systems of power exposed is a good thing, and something the cross does do. But having systems exposed does not give an answer for specific crimes by specific sinners against specific victims committed within them. The cross as God’s condemnation of sin in Christ says that every name is known and the cry of every victim will get a reckoning.

Second, it’s not just about dealing with the guilt of victimizers out there but with my own guilt, my own shame, my own crime that needs an answer. I know it’s cliché to refer to Anselm’s line to Boso “You have not yet considered the weight of sin”, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Zahnd goes on a tear of rhetorical questions about whether people really deserve the tortured judgment of the cross (108). And when you think about your grandma (if she’s like mine), or a five-year old kid, sure, I balk. But this is also right before Zahnd tells us that it was human society, violence, selfishness, greed, and lust for power (in which we are all complicit) that managed to take the Son of God—pure love incarnate—lacerate, beat, and torture him, and then drive nine-inch nails into his hands. That’s some pretty dark sin.

And what’s crazy is that it actually does dwell in some very average people. We always think Auschwitz was a matter of Nazi soldiers and Hitler. If you study the history, it was also a matter of bakers and butchers and school teachers and professors and good, simple church folk handing over their neighbors to the charnel house.

Concern with personal guilt and complicity is not petty, which is precisely why we have Psalms of personal as well as corporate confession, provisions in the sacrificial law for the same, and texts in the New Testament as well. 1 John tells his flock to confess their sins that they might be cleansed and forgiven (1:9), and the assurance of that is we have an advocate in Christ (2:1), who has made atonement (expiation or propitiation) for “our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (2:2).

This is Christ the righteous, not only exposing systems of Sin, but dealing with the sins, the crimes, the atrocities of real sinners. This is precisely why I have assurance in those moments of guilt and doubt—I know that my “sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.” For that reason, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Dealing with sins is also at the heart of the exposure of the powers going on in Colossians 2:15, which Zahnd appeals to. He ignores the fact that it follows right after verse 14 which states that we have been forgiven because he has “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” Christ disarms the principalities and powers through exposure, yes, but also by robbing them of the power of accusation. This is how “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down” and why the saints “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:10-11). They no longer fear death—the ultimate threat of the powers—because they no longer fear God, for their sins no longer stand between them. (On all this, see Jeremy Treat, The Crucified King, chapter 4).

Once again, Zahnd gives us an false binary that is unhelpful and should set aside.

Retribution and Restoration

Speaking of false binaries, also note that affirming God deals in retributive justice does not rule out God’s restorative justice. Even in punishment intended to reform a prisoner (or even a child), there is an element of retribution—it’s only right to do so if the person actually deserves it. There’s no call to subject them to any treatment against their will if it were not in some way merited.

When it comes to the atonement, satisfaction theories or penal substitution are making precisely the claim that God miraculously accomplishes his restorative justice precisely by way of his retributive justice enacted in the cross. God doesn’t have to put aside his law to save law-breakers. He can be just and the justifier of the ungodly (Rom. 3:26) who punishes sin while reconciling sinners to himself.

And let’s just add that admitting a retributive moment in the cross does not for a minute mean you must ignore the restorative value of his saving life, his resurrection, or ascension into the heavenlies. This is why Zahnd railing against purely retributive justice of petty appeasement is a red herring (84). He’s arguing against a position no classic penal substitution advocate holds. So Herman Bavinck: “we must reject the notion that Christ was solely a revelation of God’s punitive justice” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3., 369). Indeed, restoration to right relationship with God through forgiveness and the renewal of our nature was always the aim. So even if they didn’t use the language, penal substitution advocates have always taught God’s restorative ends in atonement.

God’s Own Justice

With all these points in view we can also see why Zahnd’s combative jabs about the demand of God’s justice in the cross are misplaced (102). For one thing, it’s not about God being bound by the chains of some standard of justice outside of himself (“goddess Justice”). No, the demands are God’s own just as the Law is God’s own. It is about God not denying himself (2 Tim. 3:13), to keep his word in both salvation and judgment.

As the Church Father Athanasius (not Augustine or Anselm or Calvin) notes in On the Incarnation (4), it is God who promulgated the law connecting sin and death in the Garden and it would be “monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation” (7.1). Alvin Rapien notes, “There is a logic at work here within Athanasius’ proposal: the law of death cannot be undone because God must remain consistent with the very law put in place by the Divine.” Athanasius believes that the God who casts his word and his law aside is the true monster.

A Forgiving God?

But we still might have trouble holding together the truth that God’s fidelity to himself and his word requires the punishment of sin as well as the fact that he’s a forgiving God. Doesn’t the one nullify the other? Is payment the opposite of forgiveness? And didn’t Jesus show us what God is like? In which case, didn’t he walk around simply forgiving sins without requiring atonement all the time (103)?

I’ve tried to deal with these objections elsewhere, but briefly, a few points since it’s so important.

First, I would argue that Jesus is able to walk around forgiving sins precisely on the basis of his own future sacrifice, just as God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins through the Temple system was all pointing to and dependent on Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the cross.  In that sense, as the Mediator, the efficacy of Christ’s work is trans-temporal.

Second, Jesus walking around forgiving sins demonstrates God’s forgiving heart, yes. Hear me—God is a forgiving God. God is inclined towards mercy. His heart delights in reconciliation. God doesn’t have to be convinced to love us. In fact, contrary to Zahnd’s cheap-shots, John Calvin never taught that God had to “expend his anger upon an innocent victim before he could find it within himself to forgive sin” (101). Instead, he taught that, “by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ…” since God loved us first.

            “…because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain his creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace.” (Institutes, 2.16.3)

All the same, we need to understand two things. First, it’s possible to distinguish God’s disposition to forgive from the actual accomplishment and enactment of forgiveness. Second, the accomplishment of God’s forgiveness will, of necessity, look different from ours. How could it not? He’s God.

God is uniquely related to all of humanity as “also Creator, Maintainer, Ruler, Sovereign, Lawgiver, Judge, and so on, and it is one-sided and conducive to error if one takes one of these names—disregarding all the others—to be the full revelation of God” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, 372). And so, yes, our forgiveness is the mere cancellation of a debt—the assumption of the burden ourselves and not making the other pay. But the debt of sin to God is not a simple financial matter. Nor is it a mere relational fault one can set aside. It is against God as he is the guarantor of justice for the entire world.

Instead, the marvel of God’s forgiveness at the cross is that it’s both like and unlike our forgiveness. As the Messiah, representing Israel and thereby the world, God himself assumes responsibility for our sin by becoming one of us, taking on its burden, suffering the curse of death on our behalf. And in this way, he actually wipes out sin’s guilt and debt himself on the cross. Only God’s forgiveness, then, is the sort that erases guilt and debt in an absolute sense. The cross shows us who God is, yes, but it also shows us what God does—he accomplishes forgiveness in his own body and blood.

We may wonder at the mechanics of representation, or how things are accounted—and I think there are decent answers connected to union with Christ, etc. that start to get at it—but at this point we do come to the summit of a holy mystery; the glory of the Incarnation itself.

Truly Confessing the Scandal of God Crucified

Which brings me to Zahnd’s critiques of atonement theories as “attempts to reduce the scandal and mystery of the cross to rational and utilitarian formulas” (82), which nullify the shock, the horror and sublime glory of the Christian confession that on the cross we see God crucified.

The irony here is that’s essentially what Zahnd’s been doing throughout the whole book. The Old Testament chop-job, revising wrath down to mere metaphor, shrinking judgment, and so forth. Then—and this is the kicker to end all kickers—doing this as part of a program to swap in Rene Girard’s 20th Century, Western European scapegoat theory of atonement to explain the cross. Girard’s mimetic theory of sacrifice, violence, and culture is insightful as far as it goes. But as we’ve seen, it simply can’t go far enough to do justice to the message of the New Testament. Even in Girard’s own discipline of comparative literature, it’s been derided as a reductionistic “theory of everything on the cheap.” Which is part of why it’s so tempting to non-specialists, but typically ignored by actual anthropologists or specialists in the literature of sacrifice. Heck, even other hardcore, pacifist, anti-penal substitution advocates like Darrin Snyder Belousek, and Gregory Boyd don’t touch it. Because it’s the dictionary definition of attempting to give an a priori “nice, tidy” explanation of culture, sacrifice, and the cross. (For a theological critique, see Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross, 133-151.)

No, Christian faith is scandalous precisely because it looks at the human travesty of justice, the godlessness of the cross, and calls it the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Paradoxically it sees an innocent man crucified by lawless men and confesses nonetheless that this man was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); it confesses that “God has human executors of his justice who are nonetheless not exonerated from the blame of their actions” (H.U.V. Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 110). It recognizes the great revelation of God’s Fatherly love (Rom. 5:8) when God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). That somehow God is most pleased with the Son’s obedience at that moment when he willingly gives his life to suffer the penalty for disobedience, only to take it up again (John 10:17). That the cross isn’t just God choosing to forgive in the face of the violence of his enemies, but God accepting upon himself the judgment for the violence of his enemies in their place and as their forgiveness.

That is scandal. That is mystery. That is the account of the cross which honors the glory of the Son revealed in being lifted up before men to bear their sin and shame, and in so doing drawing all men to himself (John 12:32).

Claims to the contrary, affirming a doctrine such as penal substitution is not a matter of painting ourselves into a theological corner to maintain the logic of the system (108). It is a matter of taking God at his word, who reveals himself on every page of the Scriptures to be, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7). This is the God whom Jesus claimed to be, when he confessed that “before Abraham was, ‘I AM’” (John 8:58), because he is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). This is precisely who he reveals himself to be in the unity of judgment and forgiveness, and ultimately, love, on the cross.

It is him we aim to confess, not simply our systems, but Christ crucified and risen. I will preach, sing, and even boast that this Christ is “the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth” (Jer. 9:24). I will trust his hands to love, to forgive, to hold, and to heal.

Conclusion

As I said, I still haven’t dealt with all of the various criticisms and problems in Zahnd’s work. (I do think I’ve covered a number of them here in my mega-post on penal substitution.) All the same, it felt necessary to engage at this length and depth, not out of spite or animosity, but really, because the subject matter is so important and the stakes are so high. This gets said about far too many issues, but in this case, the gospel—and God himself—really is at stake. With that in mind, I pray this is helpful for the teaching and preaching of the gospel in the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

 

“God Is” by Mark Jones (Review)

God isJesus Christ testifies that eternal life is “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). With his latest book, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God, Mark Jones aims to help you attain a little more of that eternal life now in the present.

I know of no better way to summarize the thrust of the work than Jones’s own preface where he writes:

“The true and living God is too much for us to bear, to handle, to conceive, to adore, to know, to trust, to understand, and to worship. The Incomprehensible One is simply too much for us in every conceivable way.

However, that the Son became flesh makes our human nature appear lovely to God. But he also makes God appear lovely to us. Take away Christ, the God-man, and we are reprehensible to God and he to us. But in Christ, God is well pleased with us and we with him.

We look at God through Christ, who makes the attributes of God more delightful to us.” (11)

Here is the heart of the work. Our greatest good is to know God. But God is beyond us, so he comes to us in Christ and reveals himself to us. God Is, then, is an exposition and introduction to the attributes of God whose signal contribution is keeping them tied squarely to the person and work of Jesus.

In many ways, Jones is following up works like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, and giving them a Christological twist. But that’s not all. Unlike more recent, academic treatments, in the style of the great Puritan and Orthodox thinkers like Charnock, Watson, and Leigh, Jones has also made it his aim to connect each attribute or “doctrine” to applications or “uses” in our daily lives, loving God and our neighbors.

For instance, when Jones treats the patience of God, he turns to key Old Testament texts which testify to God’s forebearance, his willingness to restrain judgment so that sinners might be saved and his purposes would stand. But then, he turns to point out Christ’s death on the cross is the key to God’s patience. There God enacts his justice against all the sin formerly past over, saving sinners, but maintaining his holy nature. As application, Jones points us to the comfort of knowing God’s patience with us through Jesus, which then points us to the way we ought to be patient with others.

Or again, speaking of God’s glory, Jones points to the essential glory of God, the display and sum of his attributes in all of their beauty, as well as “glory” we ascribe to God in praise. But then, he turns to Christ and speaks to the way he displays the glory of God in human flesh. This, in turn, gives rise to a very careful discussion of the unique glories which Christ has as a composite person, the Godman, as well as his glory as the mediator who accomplishes salvation on our behalf.  By way of application, Jones points to our joy in worship of a great God, the beauty of being able to commune with this glorious God in Jesus, and our hope to experience this glory in person when Jesus returns in unveiled glory.

Jones goes on like this for some 26 chapters, touching on God’s independence, justice, love, holiness, immutability, and so forth, as well some surprising “attributes” like God’s name, his triunity, and his being “anthropomorphic.”

I’ll just be blunt and say it’s a good book that I think most should consider buying and reading. Jones is a friend, but I have worked my way through every page these last couple of weeks as devotional literature and found it very challenging and encouraging. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly whenever I want to think or write on a particular attribute of God. That said, I’ll add a couple more notes.

First, a word about style. The subtitle calls it a “devotional guide”, and I did use it as a sort of devotional, but you should know that’s a bit misleading. Indeed, I suspect Jones didn’t pick that subtitle. What I mean is that while the book is not an academic work, it’s not what passes for much popular, devotional literature, either.

The chapters are short, maybe 5-7 pages, but they are dense with theological instruction, biblical citation, and (fantastic) quotations from theologians like Watson, Charnock, Leigh, Pictet, and occasionally a “modern” like Bavinck. He’ll do little historical dives and let you know about debates regarding the necessity of satisfaction for atonement, or the way the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) play into our understanding of an attribute. Distinctions like ad extra and ad intra are sprinkled throughout.

Now, I think this is a very good and helpful thing. I really hope more popular theological literature moves in this direction. And if you find yourself intimidated at that thought, I would encourage you to read it anyways and allow yourself to be challenged. Still, I just figured I’d let you know.

Second, if you are a pastor who is struggling to think of ways to connect theology, and especially the nature of God, to your people in the pulpit and in your counsel, I think this is a good model to look at. You don’t have to follow Jones everywhere he goes either in application, or even in particular content points. But what he is doing is modeling a way of tracing the impact of how we think about God into every area of our worship and life.

We were made “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The aim of the gospel is God in Christ. He is our great end and our great joy. Reading God Is, is not a bad place to pursue more of him.

Soli Deo Gloria