For those who have not been with this blog for years, or to save others from too many wild goose chases, I’m going to do a series summing up some of the positions I’ve come to and discussed in the now-three-years since I began Nailing it to the Door. These are not settled positions. I’ve learned a lot in dialog with many of you, and I do not expect this process to stop. This series represents where I am today.
I am not proposing a new creed or statement of faith. I have written before that I think the very act of defining a creed is an error on at least two fronts: first in that creeds tend to reduce faithfulness to a collection of intellectual propositions to which one must assent, and second that all-too-often the creed is used primarily to exclude dissenters from fellowship or service.
If there is a single phrase that would capture many of the conclusions to which I have come over the past few years, it would be this:
None of us knows as much as we think we do, about God or about ourselves.
By this I mean that we need to release many long-held dogmas from the death-grip in which they’ve been held. I find it highly paradoxical that the school of Christian thought which shouts the loudest (at least to my ears) about God’s greatness and our inadequacy is the very school which insists on some of the most rigid doctrines about God and us (I refer, of course, to Calvinism). To me, an understanding of God’s bigness and my smallness requires me to hold those things I *do* think I believe with a much gentler grip, recognizing that where God is concerned, none of us really “gets it.” Many are fond of quoting the maxim “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I agree. Much of what I have written and will continue to write, is to advocate for the proposition that there are very … very … few essentials.
A great deal, though not all, of my departure from classic Christian (particularly Evangelical) thinking can be summed up in the mnemonic ROCK. Each of the following sections will be elaborated in its own post in the coming days…I’m not defending the theses here, I’m just enumerating them. The four “ROCK” concepts are:
Rightly Dividing the Word:
Applying the term “The Word of God” to the Bible is erroneous and unsupported by the Biblical text. The Bible contains words of God to humanity, other words of humans to God, and a great deal of narrative about God’s interaction with humanity. Responsible exegesis involves (in part) discerning which is which, and then giving due primacy in doctrine to that subset of the text which is actually God’s words. It also involves reexamining–and appropriately softening, correcting, or dismissing–any teaching which is based on extracontextual or extrabiblical sources…including a great many dogmas of the “church fathers.” Rightly divided, the Bible leaves a great many questions that later theologians have presumed to answer. We need to gain the humility to accept that if the Bible does not answer a question, no matter how reasonable or valid that question might seem to us, the answer is not necessary to faithful obedience to Jesus.
Open View of God:
Seriously interacting with Biblical accounts of God’s dealing with humans requires us to confront a picture of God dynamically interacting with his creation. While the Calvinist view maintains God has deterministically ordained all things, good and evil; and while Arminianism suggests God has granted humans free will to accept or reject him, but nevertheless he knows what each of us is going to do (which, I argue, is merely determinism behind a veneer of freedom as only what is determined can be foreknown); the Bible portrays a God who actually changes his mind and his actions in interaction with people. Reconciling these apparent contradictions (and the existence of evil) requires significant mental gymnastics for both Calvinists and Arminians. On the other hand, accepting that God well and truly delegated some choices to humans (and other creatures), and knows the outcomes instantly when they happen but not before (“omniscience” being the knowledge of all that is knowable…that is, all that is), greatly simplifies the question of human accountability and the problem of the existence of evil, all the while being far more faithful to the textual narrative, without in the slightest denying or denigrating God’s sovereignty or power. The perspective that God has left some choices to us that might genuinely go more than one possible way, is commonly called the Open View of God, or Open Theism.
Classic theory of the work of Jesus on the cross focuses primarily on the concept of Jesus’ death paying the penalty required by God for humanity’s sin. This doctrinal system is commonly known as “Penal-Substitutionary Atonement” (PSA). PSA is largely based upon an erroneous interpretation of the Jewish sacrificial system, and desperately anti-contextual reading of the Epistles, in particular Romans.
A more Biblical understanding centers the work of Jesus in his resurrection, not his death, and recognizes that both are the lynchpin of Jesus’ battle with Satan and the powers that have aligned themselves against God. This perspective recognizes that sin is not merely the failings of humans, but the corruption of a whole swath of creation (maybe all of it) by God’s enemies, the Principalities and Powers of which the New Testament writers spoke. Jesus’ death and (more especially) resurrection were key battles in that war, in which we are now engaged with God in fighting to take back territory and citizens occupied and enslaved by the enemy (Christus Victor = “Christ the victor”). Paradoxically, as the weapon of Jesus’ victory was to take on death and defeat it by rising anew, so our greatest weapon is to take on hatred and defeat it with his love, for our weapons are not carnal.
Kingdom of Jesus Christ:
The salvation of Jesus is not simply a future escape from earth to heaven, but rather his naturalizing us into citizenship in his kingdom (the new creation) here and now. As God breathed into Adam the breath of life in the first creation, so Jesus breathes into his disciples the Breath (Spirit) of new life in the new creation. With our new citizenship we are now aliens in this present enslaved world, and we (individually as citizens, and collectively as embassies or outposts of the kingdom) are called to work as reconciling ambassadors and members of a divine resistance, participating with Christ to take back his territory and his people from the slavery under which they now live. Our goal is not to get people “believing” in a “religion;” it’s to help people to recognize who is their true king–to bow the knee to Jesus as Lord now, and then to join us as citizens of Jesus’ growing kingdom.
There are other issues, in addition to ROCK, that I will revisit in this series, among them:
- Neither Jesus nor the apostles used the threat of hell in their evangelism of the “unsaved.” If they didn’t need it, we don’t either. In fact, a Jesus perspective on hell is more of a warning to those who claim to be his, but who are driving others away from him with their “religion.”
- Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to convince the Apostles that “greatness” and authority and power were not his way. Whether or not the Apostles ever got the message, the church that followed them clearly did not, as evidenced by the hierarchical patterns of authority that were instituted by at least the second or third century A.D. and remain to this day.
- The doctrine of the Trinity, insisted as “orthodox” by the vast majority of Christians, is at best an oversimplification of concepts that the Biblical texts leave vastly more ambiguous. Insistence on the fourth-century formulations of Christ and the Holy Spirit, though they were done (in part, at least) to counter genuine error, erred themselves in going far “beyond what is written” in Scripture itself. (This is an inflammatory claim; I encourage the reader to see this post on Christology and this on the Holy Spirit before lighting the flames on my stake).
As I visit these issues over the next few weeks, I will probably come back and update this post with links to the various detailed articles, so that this document can become somewhat of an index to my credo (non credo?). I look forward to your challenges!