I am frequently asked why anyone (including Jesus, the apostles and countless martyrs throughout the ages) would bother sharing the gospel if there is no hell. Before we even go there, I would hasten to ask, "Who told you there's no hell?" Of course there is.
Now as for the nature of hell, that's another matter. The idea of hell as 'eternal conscious torment' in an everlasting lake of fire is abhorrent to many who've experienced the fathomless depths of God's love, or have at least thought through the irrationality of its contradictions, or studied the competing images of divine judgment within Scripture. But that doesn't mean there is no hell. Have you been inside Burma's borders? Or experienced the front lines of a Middle East war zone? Or visited a sex-trafficking brothel? I know those who have and they assure me absolutely: hell exists.
I'm not a universalist, but I do believe in hopeful inclusivism. That is, we cannot presume that all will be saved, or that any would be lost, but love obligates us to hope and pray that the mercy of Christ would have the last word on the Day of Judgment. If so, what is the point of evangelism?
I think the difficulty in perceiving the point of evangelism if there is a hope that one day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess and glorify Christ as Lord exposes something awful about our perception of the Gospel and what Evangelism is.
This excerpt is from Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thalassium 60: On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ (CCSG 22:73-81). It is a minor paraphrase (for readability only) of the translation by Paul Blowers and Robert Wilken (St. Vlad's Press, 2003).
Scripture teaches us two ways of knowing God, two kinds of knowledge of divine things.
First, there is what we might call 'relative knowledge,' which is rooted in human reason, ideas and conceptions. Relative knowledge lacks the kind of direct, experiential perception that we get by active engagement or a living encounter. This relative knowledge is what we typically use to order our affairs in our present daily lives.
On the other hand, there is a second kind of knowledge--a truly authentic knowledge--gained only by actual experience, apart from and beyond human reason and ideas. This authentic, experiential knowledge gives us a direct perception of God through participation in his life by grace.
We will ultimately attain this second way of knowing in the next life by participation in God's nature ('theosis'), as he transforms us from glory to glory into the image of Christ. This will be a supernatural and unceasing process.
Scripture shows us how the relative knowledge based on reason and ideas can be a useful motivator, increasing our desire for the participative knowledge acquired by active engagement.
Further, they teach us that this active, experiential knowledge through participation, which gives us direct perception of God, can supplant (replace, displace) the relative knowledge based in reason and ideas.
The great sages go so far as to say that it's impossible for rational knowledge of God coexist with the direct experience of God. Or for human conceptions of God to coexist with the immediate perception of God.
'Rational knowledge of God' uses analogies from created beings in the intellectual contemplation of God. Similarly, 'conceptual knowledge' means all the simple knowledge of God drawn from created beings. But 'immediate perception' involves actual experience, through participation, in the supernatural life of God.
We use this kind of distinction with every other kind of knowledge as well, since our direct experience of something suspends our rational knowledge about it. And our direct perception of things makes our conceptual knowledge useless. This kind of 'experiential knowledge' refers to is based in firsthand, active engagement, which surpasses all reason.
So when we speak of 'immediate perception,' we are referring to our participation in whatever (or whomever) manifests itself to us beyond all our human-based analogies and conceptions.
This may very well be what the Apostle Paul is secretly teaching when he says, 'As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will disappear (1 Cor. 13:8). Clearly he is referring here to that knowledge which is found in reason and ideas, which disappears in light of the direct experience of intimate encounter.
I see this tension in the biblical story of Calvary, at once a crucifixion and a Cross, the intersection of goodness and affliction, of torture and hope. At Calvary, we see the violence of religious fanaticism married to national security ... and we see the humility, forgiveness and self-giving love of God.
I hear this tension in Augustine, who is quoted in the movie, Calvary, as saying, "Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned." Calvary the movie is a profound and powerful tale of an Irish priest (played by Brendan Gleeson) who receives a death threat during confession and is warned to get his house in order over the course of a week. During that week, we see two themes intensify towards the climax.
First, we see how Gleeson represents goodness and sincerity. Even his would-be killer, the victim of long-term childhood sexual abuse by a priest, says, "There's no point in killing a bad priest ... but killing a good one. That'd be a shock." In that sense, Gleeson's character (Father James) serves as a Christ figure--and each character in the drama defines his or her own spiritual condition by their response to him. The truth of their lives become transparent through their attitudes and actions towards the priest.
"Having read Holy Scripture very carefully, you should also read the holy Fathers who interpret the Scriptures. You will receive no less delight from reading the Fathers than you do from the Scriptures. The Fathers develop the hidden meanings in Scripture and with their own writings help us to understand what we did not before. Because of that philosophic axiom that all men by nature seek knowledge, we must say that great delight follows naturally when we learn about hidden and unknown matters. This is why there will be ineffable joy and gladness that will come to your soul from the interpretations and the words of the holy Fathers. You too will be shouting, as did David, those enthusiastic words in the Psalms."
-- St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel
I've been noticing a number of comments and articles on the internet that discourage 'cherry-picking' the Fathers, by which the authors mean that we shouldn't proof-text whatever we want to argue using the Fathers out of context. I agree with this, but those articles also seem to undermine the importance of the Fathers and can dissuade people from reading them at all.
Andrew Klager and I were chatting about this today and he suggested that we should run an idea by you [Fr. Michael Gillis]. The idea is a two-fold question: If we wanted to encourage people to really read the Fathers, without just cherry-picking, but actually absorbing how they thought:
a. What reading list would you suggest ... which foundational books or works might give readers a good start. For example, core readings that I might include are Athanasius, On the Incarnation; Chrysostom, Divine Liturgy and Paschal Homily; Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, Maximus the Confessor, Four Hundred Chapters on Love. I also like people to compare and contrast Gregory's Homily on the Beatitudes with Chrysostom's, to get a sense of the depth and variety. I'm getting asked about this more and more, so a list from you would be grand, and especially for my own sake!
b. But Andrew also mentioned that you would have good suggestions or principles on how to read them, so that we aren't just proof-texting. He gave the example of consensus: some things are one-timers, but other truths come out over and over (e.g. the defeat of death). Do you have a short-list in mind for such interpretations?
Many thanks, if you have time to help,
Brad / Ireneaus
I think the bigger problem is our culture’s tendency to establish “rightness” in texts. If we are not proof-texting the bible, then it’s the fathers. I think people need to be retrained to look inwardly for truth and then to have it confirmed by authoritative texts. The fact that St. John Chrysostom, or even St. Paul, says something has no meaning out of context—not the context of the text, but the context of my life. Truth cannot be objectified (and remain very true). The truth in the text must enlighten the truth already in one’s heart, thus confirming and strengthening it.
So if I say, “St. Porphyrios says…”, The actual authority of the statement lies not so much in St. Porphyrios' authority to establish objective correctness (as if because St. So and So said it, the discussion is over). The authority of the statement is established by its alignment with what is true and my alignment with that truth. This is particularly the case in matters that seem to be easily objectifiable (like what one should wear or eat or say or do or not do). Here by proof-texting we merely replace the Law of Moses by another law, but not the Law of Christ.
On the one hand, there is the matter of consensus; which helps us deal with error. It helps us say “no, that is not in the main stream of what the Church has said or thought.” However, consensus may have little meaning in helping me find Grace, help and strength in the words of a particular Father for my life and my struggles to walk with Christ right now. Perhaps an excellent example of this is St. Isaac the Syrian, whose universalist-like love for all creatures is not absent from some of the other Fathers of the Church, but neither is it mainstream. So, my biggest problem is the cultural tendency to look too much to the authority of texts to establish matters of theology that are principally matters of heart, which must rather be confirmed by the texts of the Church.
Having said this, as you know, I am a fan of texts. I think everyone should read the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch and the stories around Polycarp. The Rule of St. Benedict was very influential in my journey and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Life of Anthony, and bits of Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, and certainly homilies of Chrysostom and Basil (on social justice). I also like Augustine’s Confessions (it’s accessible to everyone). Then I would also include some more contemporary fathers like “Wounded by Love” by St. Porphyrios or the Life of St. Nektarios of Pentopolus by Soto, and of course some St. Silouan of Athos.
You know, I noticed that most of my suggestions have to do with my journey and my personality. I’m not very interested in theology—Athanasius’ On the Incarnation was boring to me. However, I find spirituality quite encouraging. God “speaks” to me through writers who only depress some others. So, another part of the puzzle of coming up with a patristic reading list is that what will speak profoundly to one person may be only boring or even depressing to another. (I wonder if Murray Dueck would get something out of Shepherd by Hermas—being the dream interpretation fellow he is).
Anyway, I always encourage people to start somewhere and read widely—not feeling like they have to pretend to be getting something out of what they are reading when they are not. Sooner or later they will probably stumble across writers that will speak to them.
I’ve written about other books that have convinced me of the viewpoint of Evangelical Universalism, that hell, though real, does not last forever and ever. This book had some ideas in it that are new to me and answered some of my last points of doubt. It is the book I will now recommend to evangelicals who have studied theology and are concerned about believing what the Bible teaches.
It’s interesting to me that Bradley Jersak was especially strong in explaining a Universalist view of Revelation – yet he is not dogmatic about his views at all. He sounds more like I did when my eyes were first opened to the possibility that this might be true, that this might really be what the Bible is teaching.
Here’s his explanation in the introductory chapter, “Presumptions and Possibilities.” First he explains three theological views about hell: Infernalism, that unbelievers will be tormented forever and ever; annihilationism, that those who go to hell will be completely consumed and no longer exist; and universalism, that hell won’t last more than an age and will eventually be emptied out, and God will be all in all. He goes on to give his own perspective:
We all have a bias. The important thing is to recognize your bias and be able to defend or explain it. As a “critical realist,” I spend a good deal of time and energy studying my biases – how they emerged, and how they influence my thinking. Rather than pretending to be perfectly objective, I confess that since my early days as a terrified infernalist, I have developed a strong preference for hope. I hope in the Good News that God’s love rectifies every injustice through forgiveness and reconciliation.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori
"It is sweet and fitting to die for your country."
Horace, Odes (III.2.13)
Vivid memories of words, pictures and emotions haunt me over thirty years later. High school English, my senior year and Mr. Howell is perched on the front corner of his desk. He’s using poetry to paint traumatizing portraits of the ironically mislabeled ‘war to end all wars.’ Words become pictures—teenage soldiers ‘floundering’ and ‘fumbling’ in the muddy, bloody trenches of the Second Battle of Ypres. They’re devising makeshift masks of urine-soaked rags against the apocalyptic horror of mustard gas attacks. Mr. Howell, now weeping, recites an excerpt from William Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum Est:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning ...
Dulce et Decorum Est? Sweet and fitting? Owen goes on to bitterly describe the convulsive gargling of ‘froth-corrupted lungs’ and says NO! Participants in ‘the Great War’ would never recount such a lie to children who dream of doing or being something glorious.
The Greek poet, Horace, who coined the phrase, had never seen chemical warfare. Neither had we until network news brought us images from Syria last year—hundreds of civilians, including children, wrapped in death shrouds awaiting burial. Barbaric. Inhuman. But remember who it was that first invented and employed gas attacks: supposedly ‘Christian’ nations at the height of industrial civilization, mutually destroying one another in the greatest human disaster since the Black Death (1348-50). Nine million dead before all is said and done.
Wilfred Owen knew the futility of war. Like Mr. Howell, an English teacher by profession, Owen enlisted after visiting wounded soldiers in a hospital. He fought for two years, was injured, but then returned to the front. Three months later, on Nov. 4, 1918, he died in a machine gun attack, exactly one week before the war ended.
The following is a dialogue between Brad Jersak and Peter Hordern, about Pauls' use of retribution language (in 2 Thessalonians 1), rhetorical criticism and the nonviolence of God.
Peter: I'm continuing to wrestle with the idea of God as nonviolent. I feel like I see the truth of God's nonviolence through Christ and his teachings, particularly on forgiveness. However, then I also read what Paul writes, especially in his epistles to the Thessalonians, which refer to end times and Gods punishment.
What do we do with that? Is it our wishful thinking that God really is as loving as we want Him to be? Or do we pass off Paul's writings as a man trying to encourage a church in persecution with Gods justice, in order to give meaning to their suffering? Are there different translation possibilities? What do the words 'punishment' that Paul writes about really mean?
Brad: I do have some thoughts about this, as did certain church fathers like Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD). First, he pointed out that Paul never uses the Greek words that we'd associate with retributive 'punishment,' but rather, always uses words best translated 'correction.' Let's start with him. The following is an excerpt from my book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut:
Clement’s importance, in my mind, is that he clarifies the New Testament language for “punishment.” (cf. esp. Paed. 1.5; 1.8 ANF 2). Clement insists that God’s “correction” (paideia—Heb 12:9) and “chastisement” (kolasis—Matt 25:46) is as a loving Father, only and always meant for the healing and salvation of the whole world. He denies that God ever inflicts “punishment” (timōria—Heb 10:29—vengeance) in the vengeful sense, a word Jesus never used. Watch how Clement ties judgment to correction with a view to redemption:
For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the universe by the Lord of the universe, both generally and particularly. . . But necessary corrections, through the goodness of the great overseeing Judge, both by the attendant angels, and by various acts of anticipative judgment, and by the perfect judgment, compel egregious sinners to repent. (Strom. 7.2 ANF 2).
... One can see how Clement read God’s corrective acts through the parental love emphasized in Heb 12:5–11, where we read that God disciplines those that he loves as dear children. For Clement, Providence uses corrections (padeiai) or chastisements (kolasis) when we fall away, but only for our good, only for our salvation. But God does not punish (timōria),which is retaliation for evil. (Strom. 7.16 ANF 2).
God deals with sin through correction, not punishment. That’s Clement, that’s Hebrews, that’s Hosea. The chastisements of God are disciplinary: not because divine justice demands satisfaction, payback, or wrath, but because a patient God is raising beloved children who tend to learn the hard way. The hardest lesson we learn is the lesson of the Cross: the jarring revelation that somehow each of us is complicit in the crucifixion of perfect Love (Zech 12:10), yet in love God forgave us (1 John 4:9–10)...
The Cross is a revelation of God’s love, our violence, and Jesus’ power to forgive and redeem—all at once. Don’t miss this point, because it marks a major fork in the theological trail. For centuries, I fear that we veered when Clement already had it right.
The grand enigma of human life is not suffering, but affliction. It is not astonishing that innocents should be killed, tortured, flushed from their countries, reduced to misery or slavery, imprisoned in camps and cells—since we know there are criminals who commit these acts. Neither is it astonishing that sickness imposes long periods of suffering that paralyze life and make it an image of death—since nature is subject to the blind play of mechanical necessity. But it is astonishing that God has given affliction the power to take hold of the very souls of innocents and to seize them as their sovereign master. In the best case, the one marked by affliction only keeps half his soul.
Those to whom one of these blows has happened—after which they struggle on the ground like a half-crushed worm—have no words to express what has happened to them. Among the people they meet, even those who have suffered much, those who have never had contact with affliction (properly defined) have no idea what it is. It is something specific, irreducible to any other thing, like sounds we cannot explain at all to a deaf-mute. And those who themselves have been mutilated by affliction are in no state to bring help to anyone at all, and nearly incapable of even desiring to help. Thus, compassion for the afflicted is an impossibility. When compassion truly produces itself, it is a miracle more astonishing than walking on water, healing the sick or even the resurrection of the dead.
Affliction constrained Christ to beg to be spared, to seek for consolations from men, to believe his Father had abandoned him. It constrained a just man to cry out against God, a just man as perfect as any human nature can be, perhaps more, if Job is less a historical person than a figure of Christ. ‘He laughs at the affliction of innocents.’ This is not a blasphemy; it is an authentic cry wrenched from anguish. The life of Job, from one end to the other, is a pure marvel of truth and authenticity. On the subject of affliction, anything that differs from this model is more or less stained with falsehood.
Affliction renders God (God seems) absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent that the light in a completely dark cell. A sort of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that in this darkness when there is nothing to love, if the soul ceases to love, the absence of God becomes definitive. The soul must continue to love in the void—or at least want to love—be it even with an infinitesimal part of itself. Then one day God comes to manifest Himself to them and reveals the beauty of the world, like God did in the case of Job. But if the soul ceases to love, it falls into something here below that is nearly equivalent to hell.
This is why those who precipitate affliction on people who are not prepared to receive it are killing them. On the other hand, in an epoch like ours when affliction is suspended over all of us, bringing help to the soul is only effective to the point of preparing it for affliction. This is no small thing.
In recent months, I have been receiving more and more inquiries from friends expressing interest in joining the Orthodox Church. One factor drawing them is increased exposure to the way Orthodox theology represents God as more compassionate and restorative than they had previously understood. So too, they find the Orthodox account of the Cross to be very healing, especially seeing how the God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself through self-giving love. Further, they've grown interested in the openness of some of the early church fathers to alternative interpretations of divine judgment such that eternal conscious torment is not a required dogma. Some find the combination of mysterious and tactile worship aesthetically alluring. The cool beards also contribute. And of course, when a credible witness seems to be flourishing in that context, post-evangelicals think of Orthodoxy as a potential option. Hence the interest among those who've watched my journey. I'm glad for this.
So if you're thinking of joining the Orthodox Church, here are some suggestions that others gave me which may help you avoid wasted time, frustration or disappointment. These are gleaned from hierarchs, priests, teachers and lay people who've guided others along. There's a healthy order that benefited me greatly.
That's right. We're not in a rush to sign up members (especially from other churches) or join the church growth movement. There is no rush. There is no pressure. If you're meant to become part of the Orthodox Church, God will draw you along. It's better to let God ripen you for the move until you feel you'll 'go to seed' if you wait any longer. But many stages precede that decision.
If you've visited an Orthodox service, that's excellent. But it's more important initially to befriend an Orthodox priest who is willing to walk you through the endless 'what about this?' questions that you certainly should have. This relationship will be vital because by the time you're chrismated, you'll want to love and trust this person as your spiritual father and shepherd. If your priest is hospitable to you, patient with you and can provide answers to your questions that satisfy, then you're on your way. From his point of view, this may be the beginning of your catechism ... not in some stiff kind of discipleship course, but over coffee chats and prayer retreats and through whatever reading he recommends.
This period of investigation is not the time to set aside your struggles with elements of Orthodoxy you resist.
Definition: MASHUP (n.) -- a musical track comprising the vocals of one recording placed over the instrumental backing of another.
I love mashups. The definition above tells you what they are, but doesn't tell you what they do, which is to say, how they function. And how they function is often the funnest and most clever part. When a melody is very familiar, we will come to associate a message with the melody itself. If, then, someone does a mashup with lyrics from a song that carries a very different message, the incongruity can be very striking. The combination then acts ironically or satirically to provoke thought, to drive home an inspiring message or even provide prophetic-social commentary. When you add video to the mix, the effect is amplified even further.
Allow me to give you two examples that are not only ingenious but also quite moving. After these examples, I want to introduce you to the oldest known mashup in history (thanks to Dr. Matt Lynch for directing me to it). But please walk with me through the two modern samples first, because each carries its own forceful point.
Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun
Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I'm one.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now I'm found
Was blind but now I see.
Tears came as I saw that prodigal, stooped in shame, returning home to a father -- God -- to receive grace rather than condemnation, hospitality rather than punishment. Where there was ruin, there was restoration. I knew the song and thought I knew about grace, but amplified by the original melody, the gospel truly felt ... AMAZING! This is the power of great mashup. And that particular arrangement has been a powerful combination in venues that increase the effect even more. For example, I read about the tragic death of a disreputable biker whose friends played this version at his funeral. Imagine a congregation of gnarly hog-riders in leather blubbering along without shame? Actually, I've seen it ... and it was a rare beauty!
If you'd like to pause here and listen to that arrangement, let me introduce you to 'The Blind Boys of Alabama,' who really nail it.
Back in the day, when the early Church first came to faith in Jesus as Messiah but still relied entirely on the Hebrew Scriptures as their only ‘Bible,’ gospel preaching focused on the myriad of texts fulfilled in Christ. They saw Jesus everywhere in what would become the Christian ‘Old Testament.’ Indeed, we read how Jesus himself perceived His life as woven across the whole fabric of Jewish narrative, hymnology, and prophecy (Luke 24:13-35). For decades, the continuity between the Jewish narrative and the Christian revelation was a continuous wonder of discoveries.
But by the end of the first century, believers were also noticing some disturbing discontinuities as well. They noted the disparity between the image of the Father revealed in Christ with the violent images, actions, laws and judgments associated with Yahweh on display throughout the Law, the Writings and the Prophets. It seemed impossible that the God whom Jesus called Father could be responsible for the pattern of hatred and atrocity often described in the text and ascribed to His name.
The issue was so acute that potential solutions triggered schism. Believers attempted three major contrary approaches. The Gnostics preserved the perfection of the Creator God by assigning OT destruction and retribution to lesser gods and demiurges—distortions of God’s will. They included Yahweh among this secondary, violent company. Others, like the Marcionites, could not bear the discontinuity and ultimately abandoned the OT altogether as sub-Christian and unfit for continued use as authoritative Scripture in the Church.
The Church fathers and mothers who represent orthodox Christian belief rigorously rejected these answers … but they did not ignore the question. They only came to peace with the Hebrew text by nodding to its literal origins but interpreting its meaning spiritually or allegorically. Origen systematized this hermeneutic, but he really represents the standard approach of the early scholars en masse. Spiritualizing the Bible was deemed necessary in light of the obvious (to them) discrepancy between God as “the man of war” (Exodus 15:3) and Jesus as “the Prince of Peace.” Up until the Imperial reign of the Holy Roman Empire, the great conquests texts of the Bible stood as real contradictions to the Cross of Christ unless interpreted figuratively as our spiritual battle with a spiritual enemy, a la Ephesians 6.
I recently glimpsed a Facebook post that said only, 'I hate foodies.' I had no idea what a 'foodie' is so, fancying myself a researcher, I googled it. I discovered a whole new world of grand obsessions (especially with longevity) and frightful intrigues ... most of all, the conspiracies (fictional or not) around GMO food.
If I told you, "You should never question your president or prime minister," what would you say?
If I told you, "You should never question authority or the use of violence by authority," would you buy it?
I hope you would balk.
It's troubling then, when those in spiritual or political authority react when someone questions the actions of the state of Israel with the charge of anti-semitism ... and especially so when those raising objections include Israeli Jews and former IDF veterans. So often, the immediate response is that they are self-hating Jews. And why? For questioning their own government's domestic policy?
But what's especially strange is that Christians (not Jews) in another nation (not Israel), would hold an ideology that says, 'How dare you question Israel!' To fail to question anyone about anything creates the very conditions to which our Jewish sages have warned, 'Never again!'
Yet our own Canadian party leaders have rushed to assert unquestioning support of Israel's policies, politicizing their support, seemingly to position themselves for the sake of their political careers, as if this amounted to 'support.' To be clear, 'questioning' is not 'anti-' anything ... it's actually the most important part of processing Israel's long-term peace and security.
Fear not -- Ron Dart's collection of essays does not question Israel. It faithfully examines and questions the phenomenon of Canada Christian Zionism.
This article was inspired by and in response to Andrew Klager's piece on The Contradictory, Convenient, and Self-Serving Impulses in Selective Biblical Literalism. He addressed the buzz to and fro regarding Michael Gungor's supposed departure from 'biblical orthodoxy.' Nothing new under the sun. But I've noticed some oddities about this phrase 'biblical orthodoxy' in its popular usage.
First, I like 'biblical.' I like 'orthodoxy.' I work very hard to be both, especially seeking to attend to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers. I seek to align with them rather than bringing something novel.
But something happens around that phrase, 'biblical orthodoxy,' when the two words are brought together and particularly in the kind of contexts where they're then used.
1. When the tagline 'biblical orthodoxy' comes up, also too frequently it's used in the context of condemning someone according to one's own standards of what that means -- or at best, according to some modern confession of faith from one's particular religious club. By nature, 'biblical orthodoxy' is a measurement, which is to say a judgment, which is to say, the grounds for condemnation -- based less often on whether something is biblical or orthodox, but sadly, on whether the target in question falls within the critic's personal range of acceptable belief. In other words, 'biblical orthodoxy' tends to mean 'me' or 'what I know to be [un]true because I [don't] believe it.'
2. 'Biblical orthodoxy' is generally used as a synonym for 'biblical literalism,' which as Andrew points out, isn't terribly biblical. To be truly 'biblical,' one must take the Bible far more seriously than literalism allows for. 'Biblical' should imply a careful examination of authorial intent, ancient contexts and especially the profound nuances of various genres. Typically, literal-ism does violence to the Scriptures with its so-called 'plain reading' of the text ... too often a trendy cipher for a surface examination of the words for how I want to apply them. My caution is that we double-check how 'biblical' our 'biblical orthodoxy' is when hauled out to crucify someone.
I think it would help when we hear the words 'biblical orthodoxy' to ask, 'What do we mean by biblical?' to ensure that we really are being biblical in the truest sense.
In these days where theological pendulums swing wildly, I’ve been giving special attention to errors – sometimes grave – that occur through over-corrections. As people of faith, I’m well aware of how Christian doctrine and practice has frequently steered wildly out of one ditch, only to veer across the road and plunge into another gulley on the opposite side. Sometimes we oppose something toxic, only to poison ourselves with a corresponding error from the opposite extreme. Or in retrieving something we had previously lost, we swallow the bathwater with the long lost baby.
With that in mind, I want to reconsider how my very necessary rediscovery of spiritual reality may have also opened the door to ill-advised ancient mythologies—errors that Judaism had already expunged thousands of years ago. Herein, I will lay out my concern in stages for the reader to weigh, test and fact-check. I’m claiming nothing definitive here … I am not teaching so much as raising the question for further examination.
In his classic work, The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, the Hebrew scholar Yechezkel Kaufmann lays out the superiority and genius of Judaism vis-à-vis the pagan worldviews of the day. He treats the Jewish conception of the universe as a radical departure and contesting revelation—rather than a mere evolution from—ancient polytheistic conceptions. Points 1-3 below are Kaufmann’s claims, which may be overstated, but should certainly be attended to by Christian scholars.
 I was introduced to Kaufmann’s work through Dr. Christine Hayes’ course, “Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible),” lecture 2, which is entitled “The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Biblical Religion in Context.” Cf. http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145/lecture-2.
OpenWTC (Westminster Theological Centre) is offering a free 10-week online course, TH49X1: Living the Christian Story.
This course is designed to be accessed anytime, anywhere online from 23rd June onwards. Brad Jersak will be teaching the NT section.
To register for the course, click here:
To download the course syllabus click here:
Free Will, the Nous and Divine Judgment
A Critical Analysis of Three Visions of Universalism
I’ll say it again at the outset. I’m not a universalist. But some of my friends are … some of my evangelical friends, some of my Orthodox friends. So I ask them questions about that. This is not flirting (as Lewis and Barth were accused of), but simply being fair. In the name of ‘discernment,’ I’ve encountered a LOT of name-calling, dismissiveness, intentional misrepresentation and caricaturing. “Earth to Matilda!” – that’s not discernment. We can and must do better than that. Surely we could at least build bridges (from both ends of the chasm!) long enough so that listening could displace lobbing.
In this article, I’m trying to address fairly and critique carefully three brands of universalism, which I’ll call popular universalism, Reformed universalism and apokatastasis. Although I personally self-identify as a ‘hopeful inclusivist’ (cf. Kallistos Ware and Hans Urs Von Baltasar), I think it’s important to fairly distinguish and assess these points on the universalist spectrum, for they represent quite a broad range and some extremely different convictions about Christ, redemption and human response.
It’s also an important exercise for me: can I fairly represent a view to which I don’t hold with both enough charity and accuracy such that the universalist (in this case), can say, “Yes, that was fair.” Or at least, “not exactly, let me explain.”
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