I’m one of the “pod-rishioners” of the popular Michigan pastor Greg Boyd. One thing I love about Greg is his earnestness in wrestling with aspects of the way the gospel has been framed that bother him. He’s very open about the fact that it’s often inconclusive wrestling. A lot of times I agree with him on the problem he’s identified but differ on the solution. One such occasion was several weeks ago in his sermon “Does God play favorites?” Greg confronted the infamous favorite verse of Calvinist double-predestinarians, Romans 9:22, where Paul talks about people who are God’s “objects of wrath created for destruction.” I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way that Greg dismantled this verse, because its context points to a much better answer than just saying “This seems out of character with Jesus’ nature” or making a comparison with Jeremiah’s potter house prophecy in Jeremiah 18, which were Greg’s two approaches. Continue reading
One of the theories Doug Campbell advances in The Deliverance of God is that the “Romans Road” account of salvation which has dominated American evangelical Christianity for the past half-century cannot really be blamed on Martin Luther or John Calvin. The Romans Road is paved through the reconfiguration of the Reformers’ theology to fulfill the “decision for Christ” salvation formula of Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and all the sidewalk pamphleteers of the Four Spiritual Laws, who are more indebted to the 18th century political and economic philosophy of John Locke (and others like him) than the Reformation itself. In other words, the debate is not where we think it is: John Calvin vs. Jacob Arminius over the question of free will. They have both been repurposed according to a set of 18th century British presumptions about capitalism, rationalism, individualism, and liberal democracy. Continue reading
I was originally thinking about going after Mark Driscoll’s complementarianism by comparing him with Juan Gines de Sepulveda, the 16th century Spanish theologian who argued that the massacre of the Indies was justified because of the divine ordenamiento de mandar y obedecer (ordination of command and obedience) by which humans are divided by God into masters and slaves. I still plan to write at some point about the “divinely ordained” racial complementarianism of the colonial New World and how 16th century human rights activist Bartolome de Las Casas faced a much more uphill argument against Sepulveda’s Biblically airtight defense of slavery and colonialism than feminist Biblical scholars face today against people like Driscoll.
But when I saw Driscoll’s response to Rachel Held Evans’ (somewhat opportunistic) attack, it sounded humble and genuine enough that I reproached myself for wanting to be yet another blogger taking a swing at his low-hanging fruit. Continue reading
Three years ago I responded to a post on my church history TA David Fink’s Facebook page. I quickly started arguing with a friend of David’s named Paul who was basically on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from me: he was a Calvinist. I decided to add Paul as my Facebook friend because I wanted to have at least one Calvinist friend so I could try to understand them better and possibly grow in my faith as well. Well we argued for three years and had fascinating and sometimes overly volcanic conversations. We called each other hell-bound heretics at least a few times and unfriended each other earlier this year after a particularly intense exchange.
Well when I found out I was coming up to the Twin Cities for a family reunion, I knew that was where Paul lives so I added him back as my Facebook friend because we had talked many times about how cool it would be to get a beer one day, and I still wanted to try to do that.
So last night, my cousin David and I went to a Granite City in a suburb of Minneapolis to meet Paul and a woman named Georgia who is the daughter of Paul’s former senior pastor and another online friend I made (whose theological views tend to be more compatible with mine).
We sat in a booth together from 11 until they kicked us out well after 1 am, enjoying one of the most epic spiritual conversations I’ve had in a long time. The thing that we all share is a ferocious hunger to know and understand God. We were able to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the reformed and Wesleyan theological traditions along with just sharing exciting “kingdom moments” from our lives.
One of the things we talked about is the Hebrew concept hesed (חסד) which is translated into English as “mercy” (or “loving-kindness” in KJV) and has a connotation in Hebrew of the kind of love you have for your family. I believe that God created hesed between the four of us as we sipped beer together and tried to understand what this whole Jesus thing is about. And I really feel like hesed is what God has been trying to accomplish in the human community by reaching out to us through Christ and continuing to build the εκκλησία of people who have been called out of the world and into God’s family.
One of the greatest enemies of hesed throughout Christian history has been the tendency to turn faith into a big old never-ending argument. Augustine and Jerome were utterly nasty to one another. John Wesley was every bit as opinionated and self-righteous as John Piper. The pamphlet wars and papal bulls of past centuries were just as nasty as the blogosphere is today.
I often accuse Calvinists of idolatrizing their doctrine and losing their sense of mercy, but I’m just as bad. I think I’ve got atonement and divine justice figured out and I’m just as quick to throw the heretic label around as the Gospel Coalition. I’m very passionate about trying to understand God but that can so quickly turn into a passion for cynically shredding other people’s genuine convictions. I genuinely want to prevent the demons and bogeymen of “fundamentalism” that have oppressed me from hurting other people. I hate it when I encounter descriptions of God that seem wooden and insulting to people’s intelligence. I want for the truth to be something that has an answer for Foucault and Zizek and Badiou and Agamben and all the other postmodern thinkers because I honestly think they’ve got a piece of the truth too. But I’m realizing that people like my Calvinist friend Paul are on the same journey I am. They’ve read different books; different caricatures of God have frustrated them and caused them to defend a different dimension of God’s identity more ferociously; but this in no way makes their passion for truth some kind of evil bourgeois conspiracy which is what postmodern criticism has taught me to label everything I disagree with.
God rescues us from the unfair caricatures we make of other people by creating hesed between us. When people are family, you can love them even if their opinions drive you crazy. My uncle is an extreme tea partier far to the right of Sarah Palin. He’s also a soft-spoken, good-natured guy who loves to play with his grandkids. Even though I can’t talk to him about certain things, I love him. God has created hesed between us.
I thank God for my friends Paul and Georgia and my cousin David and the amazing conversation I got to share with them. I think God has a different purpose for each of us which is why he has shaped us with very different upbringings and sensibilities and life stories. I hope to hold onto the hesed that God has created between us and to resist my tendency to presume and caricature and oversimplify the views of Calvinists like my friend Paul in the future. מלך חסד יהוה
I hate megachurches probably about as much as Cain hated Abel for similar reasons. I’ve got sacrifice envy. How is it fair that those megachurches are experiencing 300+% annual growth when I’m working my butt off and reading my Bible and journaling constantly and trying to follow the Spirit’s lead and fasting every freaking Monday and our church’s worship attendance is down 15-20% in the year since I arrived. Don’t say “It’s not about you,” because I know that. But God for whatever reason likes their lambs better than He likes our grain. And if I were in a field with a megachurch pastor with nobody else around, I wouldn’t kill him but I might throw a rock in his general direction (if it was a she I wouldn’t).
Ever since I became a Methodist, I’ve hopped from one struggling church to another. Part of the reason I put myself in the associate pastor pool after seminary was because I figured that churches that could afford associate pastors wouldn’t be struggling. I know this is a really lame thing to admit. Well I was wrong anyhow. Nothing makes me more furious than going to megachurch websites and seeing that for each of my 6 job responsibilities they have a full-time pastor with an administrative assistant. How do they get so much freaking money?!!!
I wish I could stop asking what are they doing right that we’re doing wrong.What makes people who go to their churches pick church over soccer instead of picking soccer over church like the people on our membership rolls? Is it because they have self-serving, middle-class worshiping theology? Is it because they’re more evangelical than we are which means they actually believe in what they’re doing rather than being mildly embarrassed by it? Is it because their preachers aren’t Garrison Keillor corny? Or is it really all about their fog machines and pyrotechnics? I wonder if it boils down to the fact that people want to feel like winners so they join a winning team. Of course the horrifying thought I have is that God might actually be using the megachurches to accomplish His will.
I want to believe that megachurches are just an expression of the worst kind of American bourgeois spiritual consumerism and the people who go there are mindless sheep. But then I go to their websites and it turns out that they have hundreds of small group Bible studies meeting each week which makes me wonder if small groups really were the engine that actually grew them and not just a bunch of hype and glossy advertising campaigns that my church can’t afford.
It kills me when their pastors’ bios make them sound like decent people who aren’t plastic, when there’s nothing cryptically Calvinist-sounding in their statement of beliefs, when they have women who are pastors and not just preschool directors, and especially when their senior pastor has a degree from the same seminary I went to. And then I check out their sermon videos and the pastor’s rambling on for 45 minutes (Why are thousands of people so willing to sit through that? Don’t their kids whine about being hungry or needing to use the bathroom? I get in trouble for going more than 12 minutes). And some of their sermons actually sound intellectually stimulating and they throw around names like Karl Barth and Henri Nouwen (I refuse to name-drop; maybe I should start doing it).
When the Bible talks about Cain and Abel’s sacrifice, it says that God “gazed with favor” upon Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s (the Hebrew word is sha-ah, not that you care but just so that you know I looked it up). Oftentimes preachers try to moralize the rejection of Cain’s sacrifice which is completely asinine because it has no support in the text. Of course Calvinists delightedly hold this up as an example of God’s preordained blessing and cursing since that’s apparently something to celebrate.
Anyhow here’s my baseless theory. I wonder if Cain’s sacrifice just didn’t catch fire but Abel’s did. Assuming there’s some actual historical event that’s the source of this legend, that would be the basis an observer would have for saying God favored one sacrifice over the other. Maybe fat burns better than wheat. Makes sense to me! In any case, Cain’s sin comes after the sacrifice; it’s not somehow part of it. And God actually tries to comfort Cain afterwards. I feel like it’s the same voice God uses to approach me: “Why are you angry and why is your countenance fallen? If you do good will you not be accepted? But if you don’t watch out sin is lurking at our door. You must not let it master you!” But God, what if I’m trying to do good and follow you and I’m NOT accepted?!!!
Maybe I’m not supposed to judge myself or judge the megachurch pastors for their success. Maybe its not because they’re right or because they’ve sold out either. Maybe their sacrifice is just catching fire while mine isn’t and the takeaway message isn’t for me to pick apart what they’re doing cynically or desperately look for something to emulate but to focus on the struggle to which I’ve been called, love my people the best I can, and listen for God’s guidance.
Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog piece that encouraged me about her yearning for an uncool church to be a part of. I definitely think there’s something charming and more authentic about not being in an environment of worldly success. I can actually talk to people who are hurting and not rush them along. My favorite part of my worship service is the last song when I dance with about 5-6 preschoolers in the aisle. If we ever do get big, I’m going to be adamant that nobody try to stop those kids from dancing in the aisles. There’s no way to watch that and not feel touched by the Holy Spirit. I wish more people were there to see it. I wish I didn’t care how many people were there to see it. I just don’t want anybody at my church to lose their jobs. If that weren’t a factor, I would have more peace, or so I tell myself.
I hope that God has mercy on our simple offering of wheat. I’ve had it said to me and I’ve said it to other people that God doesn’t expect success, only faithful obedience. I’m trying to learn how to believe that. Heal me of my envy, Lord. Help me to stop hating on Abel.
I want to hypothesize that the basis for the opposing perspectives in the “Rob Bell debate” that has swept through evangelical Christianity lies in different understandings of the doctrine of justification by faith. The concept of justification by faith is developed throughout the Pauline epistles. The following two passages seem to capture it the best:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
To put in a nutshell, justification by faith means that we cannot earn “peace with God” through our efforts. Whatever the “faith” is that saves us, it is the “gift of God” rather than “the result of works.” But how can you believe something without making an effort to believe it? It would seem that there’s inherently an effort involved in having faith at least if it means making a decision of some sort. The different resolutions to this puzzle are the three major strands of evangelical Christian thought.
1) SINCERE PERSONAL DECISION-ISM
This is a term I would coin to describe the understanding of faith typically offered by Baptists and other proponents of human free will who think that God dishes out heaven and hell in response to whether or not we have made a “sincere personal decision” to follow Jesus. We have faith if we have responded to Christ’s atonement by “deciding” to accept His salvation. The problem with this perspective is that the “personal decision” becomes the work that “earns” salvation, which violates the principle of justification by faith.
2) PREDESTINED FAITH INSTILLED BY GOD
The Calvinist resolution of the puzzle of justification by faith is to say that God predestines our ability to have faith. The reason our faith is not itself a work is because God plants it in those who have been predestined to have it. God decides to damn or bless us based upon a decision God made before the beginning of time. This way of describing God is a stumbling block for many people but it does resolve the problem of justification by faith.
3) LIBERATION FROM SELF-JUSTIFICATION
The Wesleyan approach to this problem is to say that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has more to do with persuading us that God loves us than persuading God that He should forgive us for our sins. We are justified by faith because faith in God’s mercy is what liberates us from the prison of self-justification, a state in which we seek in vain to earn God’s approval through our works. So faith is not a work because we’re not proving anything to God with our faith; instead we’re liberated from thinking that we have something to prove to God. As a Wesleyan, I would say that self-justification itself is hell because it inherently creates an irreconcilable separation from God. The purpose of the cross’s atonement is to break us free from self-justification so that we can enter into God’s holy presence without fearing or hating God.
I don’t think that “sincere personal decision-ism” can avoid the heresy of works-righteousness. While Calvinism seems doctrinally orthodox, I worry that it creates an unnecessary stumbling block by making God look like He “unfairly” rewards or punishes us for His own behavior. Though I recognize that God’s mode of existence as Creator is not analogous to ours as creature, I don’t think most people including myself can get our heads around that reality. The other problem I have with both Calvinism and “sincere personal decision-ism” is that they aren’t guarded enough against the real dangers of self-righteousness/self-justification, which is the miserable state of being that I think Christ’s justification saves us from.
The purpose of all doctrine is discipleship. Jesus says that what matters is our fruit. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, all scripture’s purpose is for “training in righteousness.” Paul also tells Timothy in 2 Tim 2:23 to “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies.” What matters about what we believe about salvation, heaven, hell, etc, is the impact it has on our Christian discipleship. Paul writes that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” If our theological debates serve the purpose of puffing ourselves up, then they are of Satan. If they serve the purpose of building the church and helping people get past their stumbling blocks, then they are fruitful.
This doesn’t mean that we jettison all controversial teaching so as to accommodate worldliness. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t be controversial just for the sake of feeling more hard-core in our beliefs than other believers. The time when it’s appropriate to be controversial is when discipleship would be compromised otherwise. That’s all for now.