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

 

 

 

‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate

debateLast week Zondervan hosted a live-stream debate between some Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones) and some Non-Calvinists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). Now, while I was excited to watch, it just so happened that my internet was slow that day, so I only caught snippets and twitter commentary while it happened. Immediately afterwards I had a trip to get prepped on, so I didn’t get to watch it until this week.

Still, because a few people in different theological wings have asked me to comment on the debate, I figured I’d give it a shot. I tried to keep this brief and failed, but even with its length, I’ve limited it to some focused observations and reflections on a few issues with the first section of the debate. This is by no means exhaustive and I won’t even try to comment on all of the issues. Indeed, I’m sure many will find this utterly dissatisfying.  And that’s okay.

To begin, a word about the players.

The Players And Confirmation Bias

I’ll be honest, going into this I already had some ideas about it. For one thing, I knew very little about Austin Fischer. I knew he wrote a book about no longer being Young, Restless, and Reformed, but not much else. I thought Kevin DeYoung had a pretty incisive review of it, but honestly, I haven’t had time to read it. As for Brian Zahnd, while I was blessed and challenged by his book on beauty (which I still highly recommend), I’ve criticized him heavily before on other issues. Based on his online writing, his rhetoric towards positions with which he disagrees, especially the Reformed, is [retty belligerent and prone to violent caricature. He’s a powerful preacher who’s got a way with words and a heart for Jesus, but I wasn’t expecting much of a fair shake there.

With Montgomery and Jones, I was predisposed to root for them. Not only do I find myself in their Reformedish camp in general, I’ve favorably reviewed their book PROOF, and have been impressed with them even in their handling of serious brotherly criticism. Though I’ve never met them, I consider them friends.

I go into all of this simply to make one point: I definitely had a side going in and that affected the way I watched the debate. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case with anyone who was interested in the event, even if you didn’t know any of them. With the subject of Calvinism, like the subject of God, you’re never neutral about the arguments. One of the most perceptive comments on the whole thing came from Mike Cosper: “If you want to see some wonderful examples of confirmation bias, check out the hashtag.” A lot (most?) of us went in pumped to see Montgomery school Fischer, or Zahnd lay down his linguistic hammer on Jones.  We already knew the right answer, we just wanted to be publicly vindicated.

Debates

Which leads me to the format of debate. In my view, public debates are pretty limited. Not enough space or time can be devoted to the various pertinent issues involved, so most of the time both sides come away thinking of the other side, “Is this the best you’ve got?” To which I’d respond, “No, of course it’s not.” I know for sure that’s not the best Montgomery and Jones have. I’ve read their book. What’s more, I’m sure it’s not the best that Zahnd or Fischer have. They hinted in the direction of some more serious arguments beyond the rhetorically-freighted, one-liners they were throwing out there. Indeed, Fischer actually did some serious, responsible, exegetical work in his response to Jones on Romans 9, which made me suspect there’s more where that came from.

Calvin and Calvinism

Next, I’m going to say something that may shock most non-Calvinists, and indeed, many Calvinists as well: Calvin did not invent ‘Calvinism’.

Whether you’re speaking solely of the doctrines concerning election and salvation as they were defended and codified at Dordt (which Calvin was already dead for), or the broader complex of thought with respect to covenant theology, ecclesiology, etc, referred to as the broader Reformed tradition, you have to know that it goes beyond him. There are many other stars in the Reformed sky such as Bucer, Vermigli, Ursinus, Knox, and a host of scholastics who delved into these issues at length. I love Calvin, but as Kenneth Stewart has demonstrated in his 10 Myths About Calvinism, his exposition of election is not the only standard or normative one for the confessionally Reformed. Indeed, most of these theologians could point back to a number of top medieval theologians, including Thomas and Augustine as representatives or precursors to their own expositions.

In other words, it’s okay to be Reformed and then think you may have to adjust your exposition of election according to Scripture with respect to double, or single predestination. Many have done so even while remaining non-Remonstrant (Arminian), and so forth. So trotting out a Calvin quote doesn’t mean that Montgomery isn’t really being a good Calvinist, even if he’s cutting things in a way that Calvin wouldn’t have agreed with. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone’s going to say Herman Bavinck isn’t a good Calvinist because he humbly pushes back on the fairly common claim that the decrees of election are definitely about the revelation of God’s glory.

As a side-note, speaking of “Calvin’s system” as “beginning with philosophical theism” is, to be blunt, a blatant absurdity to anyone who’s read the current secondary literature, and knows about Calvin’s humanistic and vocally anti-speculative approach to the doctrine of God. One of Calvin’s most common targets were the theologians of the Sorbonne who engage in abstractions instead of the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, unlike most modern systematic theologies, the Institutes almost doesn’t have a doctrine of God philosophically considered, but instead treats the Trinity, and the nature of God as revealed in his works as Creator and Redeemer. To assert otherwise is only possible through gross ignorance of the subject, or in the face of the evidence.

Which brings me to the next point.

Jesus Rules and Philosophical Systems

Most Reformed are not intentionally twisting texts to get to a conclusion we’ve already decided on when it comes to the doctrines of grace. I certainly wasn’t. I still feel the weight of the arguments against it. I’ve said it before, but over the years I have only slowly inched closer to the Reformed side on this issue, quite reluctantly and usually through the side door of some alteration in my view of regeneration, providence, or something else that has a role to play here. Why? Because of a struggle to affirm all that Scripture affirms about God’s sovereignty, our choices, his decrees, our responsibility, his grace, and so forth.

See, despite ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’, most Calvinists don’t give ourselves the option of affirming an “internal conflict” within Scripture, as Zahnd talks about, and then using a very specific Jesus Hermenuetic to pick which parts of the Scriptures got it right. Because of the way we see Jesus approaching and affirming all of the Scriptures, we believe Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate affirmed and inspired the Scriptures as the Word of God written. All of it. So we’re trying to get it all in at once. I’ve made this point against Zahnd before, but if your so-called “Jesus-theology” causes you to shunt to the side texts that Jesus affirmed, or dismiss as ‘biblicistic’ efforts to incorporate all the texts to which Jesus constantly appealed, you might be doing it wrong. (Now, this isn’t to say that most Arminians do this, or even that Fischer would have done it, but still, coming back to my earlier point, this is the kind of important methodological dispute that a debate like this doesn’t give space to address.)

Plain Readings and Finding the Wright Escape Hatch

Easily the most commented on line of the night was Daniel Montgomery’s about a “plain reading” of Ephesians 1.  It was provoked by Zahnd’s earlier invitation to make sure we’re paying attention the “best” scholars, such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Karl Barth, and so forth when we make these theological judgments. Montgomery later basically said, “Yes, I understand we need to read Wright, Barth, and characters like that” but really, it’s hard to understand Ephesians 1 as speaking of anything else but unconditional election on a ‘plain reading’ of Paul, which is what we ought to get around to doing more often. To which Zahnd’s retort was, “Sure, it’s plain in your theologically-rigged ESV, with your horn-rimmed Calvinist lens, translation isn’t it?” At which point, I have to admit, I laughed. Touché, Zahnd.

Now, all of the twitter commentary about this was explosive and apoplectic. And to some degree I get it. Even though Zahnd came in kind of waving his hands about “scholarship” and so forth, seemingly writing off scholarship like that and referring to Wright & Co. as a bunch of ‘characters’ rubs me the wrong way. Still, I suppose I heard it differently because I’ve read their book. Of its 200 pages there were nearly 40 pages of endnotes showing their work in the Greek, the commentaries, and so forth (including a number of citations of Barth! in the German!). They did their exegetical and theological homework. Certainly Jones is no academic slouch. So maybe we should think Montgomery’s advocacy of a ‘plain reading’ isn’t quite what it initially sounded like. If it was, though, his practice is certainly a lot better than that.

Here’s the thing that struck me, though, with Zahnd’s earlier call for attending scholarship: Wright, McKnight, Hart, and Barth won’t necessarily save you from a Calvinist reading of Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 (or indeed, the rest of the Biblical witness to God’s sovereignty.) I mean, take myself. I’ve read D.B. Hart, and you know what? He’s mostly great, but I’ll be blunt and say he also seems to never know what he’s talking about when it comes to what Calvin or Reformed types actually say about things. When it comes to Barth, I’ll be upfront and say that I haven’t read his full doctrine of election in the Dogmatics.  Still, I’ve read the Epistle to the Romans, as well as competent, sympathetic distillations of the Dogmatics, and so forth and, you know, I’m not convinced Paul is teaching us Christ is the only Elect or Reprobate one ruling out individual election. 

Beyond that, I’ve actually read McKnight on the warning passages in Hebrews, as well as pretty much everything what N.T. Wright has to say on the subject (including his big Paul book). I’m a huge Wright fan, in fact, and back when I was very hostile to Calvinism, I dug into Wright’s big Romans commentary (especially his stuff on Romans 9-11) hoping to find an escape hatch from election. I even dug into James Dunn’s commentaries, just about everything he’s written on the New Perspective, and waded through the readings like those offered by Walls and Dongell in Why I Am Not a Calvinist looking for a way out of my Reformed friends’ arguments.

In the process I found a lot of good stuff. After that, I was much better able to set the passage in the broader framework of God’s purposes for Israel, Paul’s vindication of God’s name when it seemed that his promise to Israel had failed through their unbelief, and so forth. That said, none of these things rule out, or necessitate a non-predestinarian reading. In fact, I think they largely fit well with the older insights. And that’s a conviction I came to hold when I was fighting tooth and nail in my soul to write off more classically Reformed readings.

Finally, more positively, I’ll just say there’s a lot of good, top scholarship out there that disagrees with Zahnd’s top scholarship on the issue. For every N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, you’ve got a G.K. Beale, or a Michael Bird. For every Barth, you’ve got a Bavinck. For every D.B Hart, there’s a Kevin Vanhoozer whose trinitarian theology in Remythologizing Theology is just as philosophically-sophisticated, aesthetically-appealing, and, I think, more biblical than Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (although there’s much overlap). So inviting us to consider the great, “the best” scholars of our day, and then ripping off the names of top scholars who you think agree with you, doesn’t really get you places. Calvinists have plenty of names too.

Job, Lewis, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

Finally, one of the big issues of the night was the challenge by Fischer and Zahnd to explain why God would intentionally pass over, or create someone in order to be passed over, for salvation. Now, leaving aside the problem that unless you’re a Universalist or an Open Theist you still face a similar situation, I was fascinated by the response on Twitter, as well as by Fischer to the appeal to Job and mystery.

Faced with that challenge, Montgomery recalled what happened when Job challenged the justice of God’s judgments, or his wisdom in allowing Satan to torment him. What is God’s answer there? Well, read Job 38-42 and you’ll see it’s basically a long way of saying, “I’m the infinite God. You are a very finite, sinful human. You don’t have a scale for the difference between us. I was fine-tuning the galaxies, hanging up the Milky Way in the vast reaches of space, before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye. Why would you ever think yourself competent to understand my secret judgments?”

Ironically enough, Lewis makes a helpful point in this direction arguing for God’s rationality in the risk of gifting humans with free will:

Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

Mere Christianity, The Shocking Alternative

To some this sounds like a cop-out and I can get that. Still, I do find it interesting that Reformed theology gets dinged for being a too rationalist system, with a cold logic that leaves no room for mystery, and yet, when the Reformed do argue from Scripture that God himself says we ought not to expect to understand the mystery of his judgments, they’re charged with obscurantist irrationality.

This is why I’ve almost come to see this as sort of theological-aesthetic judgment. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering election, or you don’t.

Now, to this, Fischer may reply, “I still can’t see how anyone could argue it’s beautiful.” Sure. But most of us don’t initially see the Cross as beautiful, or wise either, until our hearts have been shaped and conformed to the paradoxical logic of the gospel. I’m not saying you have to buy election to see the beauty of the Cross. I am saying it’s not surprising that things which initially seem puzzling, weird, or terrifying to us, could eventually become beautiful to a mind submitted to the logic of Scripture.

Which is why I’d have to say I found Zahnd’s little line about rebelling against a Calvinist God a la Ivan Karamazov–returning God’s ticket, so to speak–so unhelpful. Back when I was an anti-Calvinist, and even now when I shudder to live in an Open Theist’s world, I have this thought: “Well, either God is that way or he isn’t. If he is, then that’s God and God is the standard of goodness.  In which case I’m wrong about the nature of reality, and for me to refuse to worship, love, and acknowledge his goodness–to call him a devil, and so forth–is frightfully close to explicit blasphemy light of my own fallibility and sin.”

Best to articulate the God of Scripture as faithfully as I can and leave hypothetical moral stands against the Creator to those atheists who have the time to fantasize about such things. My heart is rebellious enough without such a morally tempting exercise, despite its rhetorical force. (For more on the same topic, I’d suggest Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders piece here.)

At this point I’ve said far too much and yet not much at all. I hope I’ve not been too persnickety. I really do understand the trouble people have with these issues. What’s more, I have a terribly high amount of respect for the many thoughtful Christians who see this another way. At the end of the day, though, let me just say this: our basic posture here must be humility–to God and before the Scriptures which he has inspired by the Holy Spirit to testify to the saving Son who reveals the love the Father has decided to lavish on his children since before the world began.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Instances of NT Judgment (Or, Apparently Luke Didn’t Get the Memo)

sapphira-leclercEverybody knows that God allegedly struck people down in wrath in the Old Testament. We find dozens of instances in the Torah of God dealing out judgment in the form of illness or death, both on foreign enemies (Pharaoh & the Egyptians) as well as his own people (Sons of Korah, the snakes, etc.) for their sins. The pattern continues on through the historical prophets, as well as the the literary prophets. In text after text we see God prove that he both “kills, and makes alive” (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6), as he executes his righteous rule over the earth.

Of course, that’s the Old Testament. It’s now quite common to assert something along the lines of “Well, though the OT was really inspired (to a point), the fact of the matter is the OT authors were confused on some realities when it comes to God. How do we know this? Well, Jesus. I mean, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, who does whatever he sees the Father doing, right? So Jesus never killed anybody nor did he teach anybody to kill anybody. Therefore, we know that God’s not the kind of God who would kill anybody or ever command anybody to be killed like we see in a number of OT narratives and legal passages. Now that Jesus came, we can overlay Jesus’ picture on the OT and see clearly which parts get God right and which don’t.” Or something like that.

This is the sort of thing Andrew Wilson has dubbed the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. I’ve dealt at length  with this sort of logic before in a few places myself, dealing with the problematic theology of revelation, hyper-pacifism, and it’s contradiction of Jesus’ own views of the Old Testament. Once here with respect to some unfortunate things Brian Zahnd said, and a second time with respect to Steve Chalke and Sabbath Sticks. Still, it’s worth pursuing the line of thought from another angle.

You see, it appears to me that if this logic were true, then the New Testament writers who had seen Jesus wouldn’t have gotten God wrong, right? I mean, they’d seen him face to face and received the New Covenant blessing of the Holy Spirit in union with Christ who would reveal all things to them, right? And anybody being discipled by them in subsequent years who also wrote inspired Scriptures should have that gift as well, right? So then, if any biblical writers might be expected to get the totally non-violent nature of God right, it would be the New Testament writers.

Except for it seems that they didn’t get the memo. At least Luke didn’t. Observe:

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last.

And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. (Acts 5:1-11)

In this dark and disturbing story we see the judge of all the earth disciplining his church. Ananias and Sapphira greedily and foolishly conspired to lie to the church about their giving and in doing so lied to God himself, bringing down his judgment. Now, of course, it’s possible for you to try and speculate as to whether both Ananias and his wife both just so happened to have cardiac failures on the same day, in the same situation, (shared eating habits & whatnot), or you can accept it in line with the revelation of the OT as the hand of God.

Still, if that’s not convincing enough, jump ahead a few chapters to Acts 12:

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.  (Acts 12:20-23)

Just as in the Old Testament, the Lord strikes down a tyrant who has been oppressing his people for his pride and arrogance. If in the last story Luke left the author of judgment anonymous, here he explicitly names him: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down…” Now again, if you want to go about speculating as to whether this was a rogue angel, prone to disobey God, who nonetheless goes about defending his name…well, that’s your prerogative. It seems clear enough from the context, though, that this is to be taken as a divinely authorized judgment–angels are “messengers” bringing God’s righteous message here.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that in both cases Jesus’ followers are not the ones executing judgment. A pacifist reading of these texts is totally possible; I don’t mean to settle that issue here. What I will say is that unless you want to go around calling into question the New Testament’s revelation of the character of God as well, then you have to have an amazing level of confidence in your ability to distinguish the really inspired bits from the not-so-inspired bits–one that I’ll admit I simply don’t share. This is especially the case when I consider that the inspired author of Acts is also the inspired author of one of those Gospels I’m relying on to get my picture of the non-violent Jesus who points us to a God who never violently judges people.

Now, this may not be enough to convince you, but I do hope it at least slows you down from the overhasty judgments about Jesus & the OT we’ve been seeing lately. Buying into these claims means biting off, chewing up, (and eventually spitting out) a bit more than you might have anticipated.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Cure that Killed the Patient (Or, Sorry Zahnd, Marcionism isn’t a Better Option)

tumblr_mr9zzaTmj01rj8v6zo1_400A while back John Piper put out a video that defended God’s right to judge the Canaanites by the hand of the Israelites in the conquest narratives of the OT. He said something along the lines of “God is God, he made you and doesn’t owe you jack, so if he takes your life, you really have nothing to complain about. Also, God can use whom he pleases to do so.” Roughly.

Predictably, some people got mad. I mean, I get that. It’s a tough subject and any answer is going to be kind of awkward (although, honestly, at this point Piper could say that God loves kittens and somebody would snark, “But only elect ones, right?”). Beyond just general Facebook furor when it hit, it recently provoked a frontal-assault/response from author and pastor Brian Zahnd. For those who don’t know, Zahnd has been a rising voice on the Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Left since his book “Beauty Will Save the World” came out last year. I actually read it and loved it, even if I did have some qualms about the pacifism peeking out here and there.

Well, pacifist though he may be, Zahnd came out guns blazing with accusations of voluntarism against the monstrous God of Calvinism, and, just the slightest bit of Muslim-baiting in his provocatively titled, “John Piper and Allahu Akbar.” As you might have picked up, I didn’t love this post quite as much as the book and I’ll get to why in a minute. But first, a few quick caveats.

To be clear, I don’t particularly care to defend Piper’s views here as he is a big boy who can defend himself. Nor is this is denial that the OT narratives involving the conquest and destruction of the Canaanites require some serious consideration. They do. Actually, while we’re on the subject, I’d commend Paul Copan’s work on the subject in the book “Is God a Moral Monster?” or this summary article paying attention to historical, genre, and canonical considerations here. Finally, I too am very concerned about the misuse of Scripture to promote violence.

What I do want is to look at is Zahnd’s reponse, which, to mind, left something to be desired in terms of theological honesty as well as, well, ‘soundness of teaching’? (I don’t want to say orthodoxy, given his clear, robust Nicene and Chalcedonian faith.) Yes, I’m putting on my argumentative Reformed hat again, which I do try to stay away from, but, in all fairness, Zahnd shot first.

Well, without further ado, here are a few points in no particular order.

Yeah, never taught that.

Yeah, never taught that.

Calvin’s “Ism”

Zahnd found a cute short-hand for Piper’s theology of sovereignty, or rather, that of “Calvin’s disciples”, which he dubbed “Calvin’s Ism.” He then proceeded to rail on it, lamenting the way Piper and others would go to such great lengths to defend the “Ism” to the point of creating a monstrous voluntaristic/nominalist God whose will is what it is, simply because it is, and so forth. Don’t you know that we should look at Jesus, not what Calvin thought about Jesus?! Away with such Greek-philosophy-influenced, metaphysical barbarisms!

scumbag girardIt’s typical anti-Calvinist boilerplate that fires up the troops and so forth, so I get it. As one of “Calvin’s Disciples” though, I simply wanted to stop and point out that, as a matter of historical fact, Calvin strongly repudiated the overly-voluntaristic and nominalist tradition popular in his day at the Sorbonne flowing from theological giants like Scotus and Ockham. (Incidentally, I always find it funny when guys who basically riff off of French social theorists like Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory when it comes to the Gospel, have the gall to call out “Greek philosophical categories” in more traditional theology.)

Calvin explicitly rejected a view of God’s unrestrained will, or absolute power, divorced from God’s justice or God’s goodness. While he unabashedly defends God’s complete sovereignty over human history, he simultaneously condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power.” (Institutes 1.17.2) That’s just one among many examples.

Again, it’s a fun phrase, and when you’re driving the punch-line home, why not pick a baddie to rip on your fanbase already doesn’t like? Calvin’s perfect for that, especially since most people haven’t actually read him much. But, in this case, Zahnd should probably find another whipping boy to pin the voluntarism charge on.

Killing is Not Always Murder

Moving more to the point, Zahnd tells us that God could never have ordered the conquest and judgment of the Canaanites in the way the narratives portray it because that would involve killing which is murder and God would never order murder.

So for some this next point might seem basic: while all murder is killing, not all killing is murder. For others, this is a basic false distinction that they rejected as un-biblical a long time ago.

I’ll just say that a prima facie reading of the Scriptures, especially the OT legal code (Exod. 21), shows that while God hates human death, the law that he handed down seemed to recognize a distinction between killing and murder. Actually, very early on in the narrative of the Torah, we find out that the reason he allows for some killing is precisely because he hates murder (Gen. 9:6). Murder is unjustifiable, but executions and judgments seemed to be accounted for and even commanded by God himself in various places in the OT law and the subsequent narrative. Of course, that raises the issue of the reliability of the OT on this point.

Which brings us to the really big issue with Zahnd’s post.

Marcionism isn’t a Better Option 

See, Zahnd says we shouldn’t let something like the Old Testament slow us down when we’re thinking about these things:

And don’t let the Old Testament work you into a corner. You don’t need to defend the Old Testament to the extent that you find it necessary to justify genocide. God forbid! We can simply say this…

The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ.

This is a perfect example of what Andrew Wilson has called the “New Marcionism“, which, while not explicitly repudiating the OT the way Marcion did, insists on seeing such a radical discontinuity between the God we see testified to in the OT and that of the NT that it has much the same effect.

Let me unsympathetically paraphrase Zahnd for you to see the problem: “The ancient Israelites who wrote the Holy Scriptures got some stuff wrong, but we know better now that Jesus came. We know that Jesus would never order something like that, so we know that God didn’t order something like that, so just don’t trouble yourself about it. The verses are just wrong. I mean, sure, Jesus said that the Scriptures all pointed to him (John 5:39), and the law is to be perfectly fulfilled (Matt. 5), and we can assume he read those parts, but he couldn’t possibly have meant all of it. Sure we have parallels in the NT with Revelation and God raining down judgment, etc. not to mention Jesus himself casting down judgment of his own, but again, don’t let that trouble you. Nevermind the deeply pervasive theology of God the Warrior who goes before Israel in battle that informs much of the OT, and depends on some of those “mistaken assumptions”–just try and skip those bits. I mean don’t worry that this even figures into Luke’s telling of Acts as a conquest narrative. Just squint until you see it properly. God wouldn’t do anything like that. I mean, don’t bother trying understand the difference between God’s administration of covenant justice in Israel v. the Church because of Christ’s ushering in a new phase in redemptive-history. It’s not that the same God can manifest his eternally good and beautiful character in consistent, but historically-distinct ways. We have the much easier option of saying the Israelites just got it wrong. Simple as that. Don’t worry about what that does to undermine the authority of the OT and its ability to actually point to Jesus Christ. Please don’t trouble yourself with the way this sort of crypto-Marcionism might spill into the subtle anti-Semitism of viewing the Old Testament as an inherently inferior text like the old-school German Liberal scholars who made this sort of argument popular back in the early part of the 20th Century. I mean, no big deal.”

In a dispute with the Pharisees in John 10:35, Jesus tells us that the scriptures cannot be “broken.” The Greek word there is luo which can be translated “to destroy, to tear down, the break to pieces” (Louw-Nida 20:35).  Essentially, it can’t be ignored, released, explained away, or rendered null or void. Except, that’s exactly what Zahnd suggests we do with those uncomfortable bits.

On ‘Christocentric’ Readings (Or, The Cure that Killed the Patient)  

Here’s the thing, when your “Christocentric” reading of the Scriptures leads you to ignore or deny parts of Scriptures the way Christ says shouldn’t happen, you might be doing it wrong. Realize that this isn’t about whether we’re going to read the Bible in light of Jesus, but about how. Does the revelation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen shed light on and transfigure the testimony of God’s dealing with Israel, or simply deny, or downgrade its validity by cutting chunks out?

Of course, this goes to the deeper theological question who we’re going to allow God to be? Will we allow him to reveal himself as a God who, though simple in essence, is narratively-complex in his self-rendering in the history of Israel?  “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) Do we let Jesus be both the one who longs to shelter Jerusalem under his wings to save them, all the while forcefully proclaiming God’s impending, violent, judgment on their sins (Matt 23:29-39)? Do we allow for the full picture of Jesus to emerge, or the one we’ve shoved into our pacifistic Procrustean bed, and shave off the verses that don’t fit?

Tom needs a drink after that.

Tom needs a drink after that.

While some of us are tempted to take Zahnd’s path of essentially rejecting prior revelation as the mistaken assumptions of our spiritual fathers, Might I suggest a surer, admittedly less comfortable, course? It is a route that N.T. Wright offers up in his answer to Wilson on the issue of the New Marcionism:

“There are many many things that God does, has done or will do which are not waiting for my approval or sanction before he does them. You know that line, “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Bonhoeffer said that putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God is the primary sin in Genesis 3. They go for the knowledge of good and evil rather than what God says. Now that could just be an escape; it could just be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t know anything about God (when the whole point of the gospel is that we do know who God is, because of Jesus). However, if it’s the crucified Jesus, and if the cross means what it means in the light of the whole history of Israel, which is focused onto that, then … these narratives are the way in which all of those horrible, puzzling ambiguities, and all the awful things that happen – like Jesus saying, “what about those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” – there’s a sense that the cross gathers up all those puzzling, tragic horrible fragments of life, and says swoosh this is where it’s all going.

“I hold this within the framework I articulated this morning, which is to say: from the call of Abraham onwards, what God is committing himself to do is to act to bring about the restoration of the world, but to act through deeply flawed human beings, who constantly need to be reminded that they’re deeply flawed. That then produces all kinds of (to our mind) ambiguities. And I see all of it coming together in the cross. The cross is the moment when I see Israel’s God performing the salvific event, which is simultaneously the worst and most blasphemous act of judicial, theocidal murder than one can ever imagine. And somehow the cross itself says: these things are now reconciled.”

Of course there’s more to say, but I’ve already said too much for what’s an allegedly short blog post. (May God forgive my lies.) The end of the matter is that while Zahnd may find Piper’s alleged voluntarism to be a gross misrepresentation of Jesus by distortion, his own neo-Marcionism leaves us with a highly-abridged Bible, and therefore an abridged Jesus, which is hardly an improvement. While offering a solution to the Bible’s problematic texts, Zahnd is inadvertently administering the kind of cure that kills the patient.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #6 – Some Things to Do on Election Day

Aside from some silly, live, Facebook commentary on the debates, I haven’t spoken much about the election this year. I had a few reasons for this:

  1. My job makes it so that people automatically connect my personal judgments with an endorsement by my church and I don’t want to do that. I am sick to death of people conflating the Gospel with some particular political program. If I hear one more pastor, or church perverting the good news by making it about some lordship other than Christ’s, I’m going to snap.
  2. I am a recovering political junkie, so I decided to take this election off.  (I am still voting, though. More on that below.)
  3. Let’s be honest, I’m too busy otherwise.

Still, I figured it’d be appropriate to very quickly jot down some things you might try this Tuesday:

1. Calm down and remember that no matter who wins, Christ remains Lord.

Seriously, this is not some cheesy “Oh, God is still in control” shtick that doesn’t acknowledge the real, political implications of these elections. I get it, there are serious issues at stake. Still, at the heart of the Gospel is the acknowledgement that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”(Rom 1:4) This is what you confess in order to be saved: that Christ is the risen Lord. (Rom 10:9) The good news is that he is risen and reigning over all things in heaven and on earth, even now, no matter who wins. Michael Horton reminds us that, “United to Christ, we should be the most responsible and the least fearful people at the polls on November 6, 2012, because our King already achieved his landslide victory in Jerusalem during Passover, AD 33.” So, no matter who wins on Tuesday, keep your head, Christ is Lord.

2. Pray for your leaders like the Bible tells you to.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”(1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Paul instructs Timothy to makes sure the congregation at Ephesus was praying for “kings and all who are in high positions.” If you’re going to claim to take the Bible seriously, then pray for your leaders no matter who they are. Paul was writing this about the Roman Emperors, not godly, Christian kings, but pagans who were persecuting Christians. Peter similarly tells Christians to “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.“(1 Peter 2:17)  In the context of great persecution, Peter tells them to “honor the emperor.”

Instead of freaking out and bemoaning the election, or re-election, of “that guy”, pray for him. If you’re really interested in being a witness in our culture, lay off of the conspiracy-theory emails about a take-over of the country by “them”, whatever that group consists of in your mind, and pray that God would give wisdom, grace, and salvation to whomever comes into, or remains, in office. Remember, we are to lead a “peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”, not a panic-stricken and hysterical one.

3. Vote.

I’ve got a buddy who’s got some decent reasons for casting a blank ballot this Tuesday. I hear him and respect a position like his. Still, I do think that part of our responsibilities in being a good neighbor is voting for the common good, seeking the welfare of the city. (Jer. 29:7) We don’t do this to give our allegiance to the candidates because, in the end, our ultimate allegiance is to Christ alone, the living Lord of the universe. We do this in obedience to Christ, for the same reason we pay taxes, in order to live quiet, peaceable lives, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (1 Tim 2:2; Mark 12:17; Rom. 13:7)

4. Ask Forgiveness, Repent, and remember the Body of Christ.

Let’s be honest, too much of the American church has jacked up on this election. Far too many of us have been quick to tear apart the unity of the body of Christ for the sake of a political program. Christ made us one in himself. This was his prayer for us (John 17:21), and instead of living out that unity, we’ve been quick to vilify, reject, oppose, and refuse to recognize the Christian identity of those we disagree with politically. Echoing Paul, Brian Zahnd asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Obama crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Romney?” No. Christ is the only one who has done these things. He is the hope of the world. He is the light in the darkness. His kingdom is the one that will never fail and has no end. His reign is the reality on which our lives depend. His life is the one that draws us together, in himself, and made us citizens of a better country. (Heb. 11:16)

So, after you vote, or before, or maybe even today, take some time consider this truth. Stop, ask yourself if, in the heat of the election, you’ve forgotten that, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:4-6)

If so, you need to stop, repent, and ask forgiveness. Remember that in Christ you all are one, no matter how you vote–so ACT LIKE IT. Love each other. Treat each other with respect. You know–act like you believe the Gospel.

Bottom-line is this: don’t forget the Gospel this Tuesday.

Soli Deo Gloria