A Quick History of the 'Monster God'
The term "Monster God" became 'a thing' in 2014 through a series of sermons, debates and blogs, and while I can't be sure of its earliest use, one will note that its popular usage is typically tagged to Pastor Brian Zahnd (Word of Life Church and a CWR columnist). It came onto my radar through a sermon in early May entitled "Death of the Monster God," a lenten sermon on Luke 23:34, 46 (Jesus' prayers to the Father) asking, "What is God like?"
The central point of the sermon is summarized by Brian in these words:
When we look at the death of Jesus on the cross in the light of the resurrection, we are looking at our salvation. But, what do we really see when we look at the cross? Are we looking at the appeasement of a monster god through barbaric child sacrifice? Or are we seeing something else? Is the cross vengeance or love? When Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," he is not asking God to act contrary to his nature. He is, in fact, revealing the very heart of God! The cross is not about the satisfaction of a vengeful monster god, the cross is the full revelation of a supremely merciful God! In Christ we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. Once we know that God is revealed in Christ, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The crucifixion is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive, but what God endures in Christ as he forgives.
Somehow, the sermon also led to the formal "Monster God Debate" between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown at the Kansas City IHOP. He contrasted the cruciform God who became incarnate to save us from ourselves with the monster God from whom Jesus needed to save us. Much of this is clarified in his article on "How does 'Dying For Our Sins' Work?"
Zach Hoag's Critique of the Monster God:
1. God of Absolute Power
Minister and blogger Zach Hoag has picked up on this terminology and begun to apply it to contemporary issues in American Evangelicalism. I'm less interested in how he uses the Monster God motif in his critiques than in how he describes the Monster God's nature. Thus, I've mined two of his articles for clarity and definitions:
Back cover description: Books on C.S. Lewis, the Inklings, and Thomas Merton are a rare breed. This book brings together a variety of essays, from a more personal and confessional level, on the perennial relevance of Lewis, Inklings, and Merton from writers who, in many ways, have been fellow travellers on a similar pathway.
It has been said that a key aspect to cultural ‘tipping points’ is the role of those special leaders that we might label ‘connectors.’ Isolated focus groups become movements when these connectors facilitate the linking of arms across persistent divides to create relational bonds and new networks. I believe that the great writers and thinkers of the 20th century were highly creative and extraordinarily literary; they were also connectors par excellence.
For example, while C.S. Lewis stood firmly in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, his Socratic Club drew together a spectrum that drew agnostics and evangelicals into sane and productive conversations. Thomas Merton was probably history’s premier connector between Christianity and Buddhism, introducing new and lasting levels of compassionate engagement to Buddhism while retrieving their contemplative insights for the Christian community that had regressed so badly on that front.
To Lewis and Merton, I would add Ron Dart’s name as a significant ‘tipping point connector.’ For decades, he has continually compared, contrasted and synthesized the thought of an enormous variety of spiritual figures and streams (e.g. contemplative, charismatic and social prophets); he’s introduced individuals to one another who’ve forged profound working relationships and new networks (not least of which is the editorial circle of Clarion Journal).
Now, Ron has applied these qualities to coordinating and compiling this fine little booklet of essays, White Gulls & Wild Birds, encouraging us to think of Lewis, the Inklings and Merton in one breath. This wasn’t a big surprise to me until I opened the book and found far more than I anticipated … names I would not have connected either as authors or subjects. The variety of perspectives and insights is the chief selling point and deserves to be listed:
After an introduction by Dart, we have:
“My Journey with Charles Williams,” by Stephen Dunning
“Meeting the Mystery of God’s ‘Inexorable Love’ and Mercy in [George] MacDonald and Merton”
“Madeleine L’Engle’s Contemplative Vision,” by Joy Steem
“An Introvert’s Reflection on Merton’s Approach to Silence and Solitude,” by Matthew Stern
“Merton and Me in Merit,” by Jessica Lamb
“In the Footsteps of C.S. Lewis,” by Bill McGladdery
“Ruminations on the Inklings and Thomas Merton,” by Wayne Northey
“Our Journey with C.S. Lewis,” Daniel and Serena Klassen
“A Widening Vision” by Heidi Rennert
“C.S. Lewis’ Socratic Method,” by Tyler Chamberlain
What struck me about the book was that the various authors speak so personally. They are describing their encounters with these sages in the way that my Orthodox friends think of relating to the saints. Chrysostom’s interpretation of Paul began with a personal love for Paul, a sense of ongoing dialogue with him, and real transformation at his master’s feet. I get that sense in these essays: while the author’s are competent thinkers and practitioners in their own right, many of them unveil their experience of the Divine through their contemplative receptivity to the likes of Lewis, MacDonald, Merton and L’Engle.
Further, while the reading is at times devotional and contemplative, it’s not the Christianese kitsch or lukewarm pablum that we’ve come to despise. That said, the whole book is beautifully readable.
I would recommend this little introduction especially to those whose hearts have already been endeared to Lewis, Merton et al, just for the joy of it. But I can also to commend it to those wondering where to start and whether they’re up to the great classics of the last century. This text will serve as an encouraging testimonial ‘yea’ to diving in.
When bombarded with a new (to me) idea via independent sources in less than 48 hours, I tend to do a double-take. I wonder if the multiplied coincidences might be providential winks from God, calling me to pay attention. Maybe. Or maybe not. But I pay attention anyway.
So in the space of less than a day, friends and family in altogether different contexts nudged me into awareness of the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy ... I was alerted to recent examples and realized that I've often encountered it unawares. I'm recording my observations here because I think others may also benefit from recognizing this fallacy at work, especially as it pertains to faithfulness to Christ and the gospel.
The 'No true Scotsman' fallacy (faulty reasoning) appeals to purity as a way to dismiss critiques in one's position or flaws in one's argument.
The idea is that no matter what you believe or however valid the critiques against it, when challenged, you can simply move the target so that the critiques can't apply to a supposedly 'true' or 'real' example. Any evidence or examples given to verify the critique are dismissed as caricatures or 'straw men' of the 'true' version.
This kind of post-rationalization renders all criticisms invalid. It also makes the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy quite dangerous, because those who use it are no longer open to correction and become impervious to critique. That means it can also serve as a handy shield for dysfunctional movements or belief systems, especially those with a puritan bent.
You can often sniff out the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy when you offer a critique and are charged with 'creating a straw man.'
Let's use a clear and recent example that I'll use precisely because I trust this author's motives and I am inclined to agree with him. Nevertheless ...
Thomas Kidd wrote an article entitled "The 'Evangelicals' Who Support Donald Trump." It's well worth reading, both because the author raises very important questions, but also demonstrates the fallacy I'm describing.
In the article, the author attempts to deny the claim that "so many Evangelicals" support Donald Trump. He claims that the term "Evangelical" has been co-opted by those who self-profess as Evangelicals because (i) they vote Republican, or (ii) they watch Fox News, or (iii) they identify as Evangelical regardless of their theology or church involvement.
[In this article, I'm capitalizing Evangelical when I refer to the movement or tradition, whereas I use the lower-case evangelical as an adjective for those who might faithfully adhere to the 'evangel' -- the good news of Jesus Christ].
If I understand Kidd, his argument is essentially this:
Critique: Why do so many Evangelicals support Donald Trump?Counter argument: There's no need to panic, because 'true Evangelicals' would not support the likes of Donald Trump!
The author's argument is that true Evangelicals would not be so silly or shallow. He wants to say there is a big difference between true evangelicals (those who follow Christ) and the broader phenomenon or movement self-described as Evangelical. So far, so good. I think that's demonstrable.
But even if I were to offer example after example of Evangelicals (in the movement) who are both evangelical (definitely believe the gospel), yet also fit the 'Trump-Fox-'Merica' or 'Duck Dynasty Christian' stereo-type, Kidd's counter-argument is that they are simply not 'true Evangelicals.' In his own words,
It is a matter of rooting out corrupt influences which blur people’s understanding of what “evangelical” means, and more importantly, what the message of the Christian gospel is. Sorry, folks, but the gospel has nothing to do with the Republican Party, Fox News, or the United States of America.
He advises: (i) Don't panic. (ii) Do distinguish between authentic evangelical faith and American civil religion. Excellent. And yet ... while I actually agree in principle with his last statement, the article obviously commits the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy. And because it's an actual fallacy, I'm afraid the author inevitably corners himself into a wheat and tares dilemma.
First, he's created an awkward call to 'root out corrupt influences.' Awkward because I wonder who will arbitrate this 'rooting out.' Who is the 'true Evangelical' -- which is the pure remnant --that can rightfully act as judge and jury of who or what is corrupt? Who gets to determine the true definition of 'evangelical'? By what criteria is an influence considered 'corrupt'? Historically, the puritans who've thought to do so -- those confident about establishing the boundaries and dictating the rules and rooting out the impure -- well, more often than not they became the corrupting influence. Indeed, don't most of the historic heresies and modern cults begin that way?
Nor is this a new problem ... recall the parable of the Wheat and Tares? What happens if we start pulling up what we think are the weeds? (Matthew 13:24-30) On the other hand, what happens when you don't? It appears like a double-bind where either the servants mistakenly destroy the wheat or the weeds end up choking it out. Jesus opts for the latter risk. In fact, he issues a direct warning and instruction: "No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them." He was about correction rather than exclusion (and to be fair, the article can also function that way).
If we ignore Jesus' warning, Kidd's logic can actually turn on and turn out many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters. Like so:
Respondent 1: I'm sympathetic to what the author is trying to do, but I think the problems of American Evangelicalism are deep and well-entrenched. I don't find it at all surprising that significant numbers of Evangelicals enthusiastically support Trump... and they do! Somewhere along the way -- Cold War days, Moral Majority days, the rise of Fox News -- American evangelicalism confused Americanism for Christianity. It's not a small problem.
Respondent 2: I guess I am trying to defend that segment of people in our "evangelical" world -- my church, your church, our families... -- That are living out the euangelion in beautiful ways and are nothing like the typical "Evangelical." Maybe you are right... maybe the term and the majority of those who self-identify with it have morphed into "something else." Sad. [Note how the respondent must distinguish between 'typical evangelicals' and the Kidd's 'true evangelical.']
Respondent 1: I think the term "Evangelical" has become so associated with partisan politics and the culture wars that it is beyond rehabilitation. (Except in theological circles as a technical term.) [Note how this respondent concludes that the term 'Evangelical' as it is most commonly used in America is now so different to the author's historically accurate 'true evangelical' that its common usage determines its current meaning ... and must therefore be abandoned.]
Points to Ponder
It's a stubborn fact that American election cycles now feature an abundance of 'words from the Lord,' lobbying voters to support the candidate whom God has selected to serve as next president of the United States. The prophets tell us why God has “chosen them for such a time is this.” Readers might recall the grandiose oracles that foresaw the coronation of Sarah Palin as God's ‘Esther’ for the White House. It seems not to matter how often these pronouncements are proven wrong. Deniability only requires blaming the voters for their defiance against God's revealed will, and castigating the church for not praying hard enough or for being too 'lukewarm' to canvas for the candidate in question.
Track records notwithstanding, an appetite for these heavenly endorsements persists. In the record-breaking FOX News televised debate for GOP candidates, one call-in query "wanted to know if any of them had received a word from God ..." The candidates who were cornered for an answer deftly sidestepped the question to return to their talking points, but the moment came off as comically awkward, as if they'd been asked about chronic hemorrhoids or worse. Cringe-worthy.
We waited on the edge of our seats, hoping The Donald would have to respond, but alas, time ran out before that debacle. Still, he could have cited Charisma Magazine's 'Prophetic Insight' webpage, where Jeremiah Johnson treats us to this spiritual scoop:
I was in a time of prayer several weeks ago when God began to speak to me concerning the destiny of Donald Trump in America. The Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, "Trump shall become My trumpet to the American people, for he possesses qualities that are even hard to find in My people these days. Trump does not fear man nor will he allow deception and lies to go unnoticed. I am going to use him to expose darkness and perversion in America like never before, but you must understand that he is like a bull in a china closet. Many will want to throw him away because he will disturb their sense of peace and tranquility, but you must listen through the bantering to discover the truth that I will speak through him. I will use the wealth that I have given him to expose and launch investigations searching for the truth. Just as I raised up Cyrus to fulfill My purposes and plans, so have I raised up Trump to fulfill my purposes and plans prior to the 2016 election. You must listen to the trumpet very closely for he will sound the alarm and many will be blessed because of his compassion and mercy. Though many see the outward pride and arrogance, I have given him the tender heart of a father that wants to lend a helping hand to the poor and the needy, to the foreigner and the stranger."
This is truly amazing. Unlike the woman at the well, I cannot say, "Sir, I perceive you are a prophet." Megyn Kelly might have her doubts as well, given the aftermath clash between them. MeOr as one of Charisma's former contributors put it, "The lines between The Onion and Charisma Magazine have been impossibly blurred." On the other hand, what an incredible opportunity for the author and magazine to now model repentance via retraction. It happens rarely enough that it would be a newsworthy move.
In the face of prophetic shenanigans, the easiest course is cynicism. The trouble with cynicism is that while it is fashionable, witty and damnably easy, it actually harnesses a kind of prophetic insight but functions to steal hope and shut spiritual ears—the very opposite of prophecy’s intended purpose.
Speaking of cynical, whether you are mourning or cheering the retirement of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, I would point out that his scathing and often irreverent satire should not be described exactly as cynical, because like him or not, he cared deeply ... not entirely dissimilar to his Jewish forbearers (who were not averse to composing 'taunt songs'). No, I won't ask him for a 'word from the Lord.' I'm only underlining the fact that cynicism is a hope-stealer ... yet cynicism arises far more as a result of prophetic shenanigans than from those who challenge them.
As for me, I cannot just throw up my hands and renounce all prophecy as goofy, fraudulent or toxic. I actually believe Jesus when he said, "I am sending you prophets, sages, and teachers” (Matt. 23:34). We mustn’t discard God’s genuine gift out of spite for the counterfeit. In spite of the embarrassing antics of some of my brothers and sisters (yes, they are still my spiritual siblings), I mustn’t abandon Jesus' promise or Paul's exhortation: "Follow after love and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy" (1 Cor. 14:1).
But then who are the prophets and how do we identify them? If prophecy doesn't look like trumpeting Trump or playing presidential roulette, then what? How do they function and what are they saying?
I propose that when it comes to prophecy, God is at work through multiple streams or forms … even ones that don’t easily recognize each other.
Increasingly, the social prophets are speaking to environmental issues. Granted, not everyone who reacts to climate change or jumps on the green bandwagon should be identified as a prophet. But for those who actually want an authentic social prophetic ‘word from the Lord’ should very carefully meditate on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical ‘Laudato Si.’
When charismatic prophets abuse their platform for electioneering, they’ve moved beyond their ‘pay grade’ … but when they operate within the biblical parameters modeled in the NT, the church is nurtured in its love for Christ (which is the point). So, for example, while many others have slipped on political or prosperity banana peels, I’ve found Graham Cooke trustworthy in staying on point through the decades. But even more impressive, it’s not the public prophets who excel in specific, accurate prophetic messages so much as normal laypeople, faithfully sharing uplifting and inviting words of love in their local congregations.
The tradition continues today. When musicians and poets open their ears, the muse they hear is often the Holy Spirit (whether they recognize it or not). And contrary to critics who would rather they ‘shut up and sing,’ prophetic poets and playwrights are compelled to get preachy as the Spirit leads. I can’t think of a better example of a ‘national prophet’ in the spirit of Isaiah or Amos than Bruce Cockburn.
Actually, on further reflection, Cockburn combines streams to include both the social and the poetic prophetic. He has been singing and writing with blistering poignancy about political oppression, economic corruption and environmental catastrophe for decades. And while Canadians are pleased to claim him, Cockburn’s prophetic edge has cut through the B.S. wherever it’s found … his greatest hits are prophetic indictments against injustice and inequity across Asia, Central America and Africa, for example.
In a recent interview, Cockburn says,
An individual song isn’t going to change the world, but a whole bunch of people singing about an issue and encouraging people to feel the truth of an issue might result in some sort of demographic of resistance that would then affect the choices that the politicians make. And I think that’s what we hope for.
As above with the Pope’s encyclical, those who are serious about hearing an authentic prophet would do themselves a service my migrating from Charisma to Cockburn and reading his full interview with The Independent at http://theindependent.ca/2015/08/07/in-conversation-with-bruce-cockburn/
My favourite Bruce Cockburn song is A Bone in My Ear. One day I’ll ask him about authorial intent, but he’s very generous in letting listeners derive their own meaning from his songs. To me, that ‘bone in my ear’ describes the authentic prophetic voice ... it’s something too precious to allow either charlatans or cynics to steal from us. ‘The real deal’ is a pearl of great price worth searching for and clinging to because it whispers ‘rumours of glory’ to our thirsty souls. I close the article with two verses of the song that inspire hope that even today, “the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chron. 16:9).
There's a bone in my ear
Keeps singing your name
Sometimes it's like pleasure
Sometimes it's like pain
It's a small voice and quiet
But I hear it plain
There's a bone in my ear
Keeps singing your name
In my heart there's a an image
Like looking through glass
Could be looking at me
Could be looking right past
I don't like it when
I can't tell which is true
But I wouldn't trade the world
For that picture of you
Back in the day, from philosophers like Aristotle (in his Metaphysics) to theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, our best thinkers worked hard to develop rational proofs for the existence of God. Thomas summarized five of these in his massive book, Summa Theologica. The big five included:
Bear with me, I'm not going to try to prove God exists. Some of these arguments have been soundly refuted, then defended, abandoned or upgraded. Not my job. I don't know about 'proving God' rationally. But eventually I want to borrow Aquinas' argument for perfection to say something about God's nature, if you believe in God already as a faith statement. Aquinas' argument from perfection basically runs like this:
The Beautiful Gospel Conference official web page is complete and registration has just gone live. Join Brian Zahnd, Brad Jersak, Brian Doerksen and the Shiyr Poets -- Oct. 1-3 in Abbotsford.
Catch the early-bird price if you can. http://thebeautifulgospel.wix.com/thebeautifulgospel.
Derek Vreeland, Through the Eyes of NT Wright: A Readers Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Doctrina Press, 2015).
I am a fan of N.T. Wright. I've even actually read carefully (footnotes and all) some of his monstrous works and use them as texts in a few of my NT courses. So it was with glee that I pre-ordered Paul and the Faithfulness of God so I could dive in as soon as it was released. And dive in I did! That first bit on Philemon was profound and accessible. I learned worthwhile things and received great takeaways.
Then I paused and picked up another book. And another. So there N.T. Wright sits on my shelf, gathering the dust of my good intentions. How might I get unstuck and move forward. Staring at it doesn't seem to help at all.
Good news! Derek Vreeland to the rescue! Vreeland, in my opinion, is an expert on Wright (earned through study and synthesis of Wright's work into real pastoral contexts). He offers himself as a guide to the N.T. Wright / Pauline experience. And he will come to your home if you like ... at least through the pages of a 'Readers Guide.'
In a brisk 100 pages, Vreeland sums up Wright's main arguments and conclusions (yes! - like 'Coles Notes' or 'Wright for Dummies') in a readable roadmap with which to navigate Wright's gargantuan tome on Pauline theology. You could just read Vreeland and get the gist of Wright, but my sense is that the reader will also find themselves launched back into Wright with new confidence ... thus justifying the original purchase. But seriously, with Vreeland's guidance, readers will be reminded that Wright (and Paul, for that matter) are not just about academic forays into theology. This is about having our understanding deepened, our faith nourished and our churches helped--Paul's intent in the first place.
Q: I'm wondering how you read Matthew 25: 31-46. I recently attended a church that used this as a proof-text for eternal punishment, and I'm having a hard time reading it otherwise, though deep down inside I don't believe that is what Christ intended to be taught or understood. Would you explain your reading and/or point me to a study that might help me understand it more?
A: Thanks for this question. I do cover this in my book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
2 It is required in stewards that one be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court.In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.
(1 Cor. 4:2-5)
In 1972, I came to belief in Christ and consciously prayed for God's saving grace to come into my life. I was baptized on the confession of my faith in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Later, was welcomed into membership at Calvary Baptist Church. After transferring membership to Bethel Mennonite Church, I also went on staff and was ordained as a Reverend by the Conference of Mennonites in BC. My ordination was also recognized by the Christian Ministers Association after we planted Fresh Wind Christian Fellowship. Many moons later, I was chrismated into the Eastern Orthodox Church (again, upon confession of the Symbol of Faith) and later, was ordained as a Reader.
None of this allows me to claim to be Christian. Many who say, 'Lord, Lord' will prove to be strangers before Christ on the Last Day.
During the course of these assorted ministries, I prophesied in Jesus' name, cast out demons (or at least thought I did) in Jesus' name, even did the odd wonder in Jesus' name. Taught in his name, evangelized in his name, pastored in his name, counseled in his name, prayed in his name.
None of this allows me to claim to be Christian. Many who serve 'In his name,' will prove to be strangers before Christ on the Last Day.
The stubborn fact is that it not by our claims, but by our fruit that Jesus recognizes living faith. Nor will the fruit he seeks be our spiritual pedigree or our relentless religiosity. It seems that he will actually be looking for the fruit of the grace of the Holy Spirit in our lives, whatever that means.
Claiming the fruit does not allow me to claim to be Christian. Only bearing the fruit will count on the last day.
The fruit of the grace of God's spirit cannot grow from the flesh of self-righteousness, striving or zeal. It can only grow on branches grafted to the Tree of Life, the Cross of Christ. Paul sure knew this:
3 For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, 4 though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6 concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. 7 But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.
1. Simone Weil: An Astonishing Life
2. Waiting on God: Contemplation and Astonishment
3. The Goodness of God and the Affliction of Humanity: An Astonishing Cross
See 'Awaiting God' by Simone Weil, trans. by Brad Jersak and Anny Ruch. Includes an Introduction by her niece, Sylvie Weil, and enfolds both books, 'Waiting for God' and 'Letters to a Priest' in the one volume. Also available on kindle and audio books here:
Current attempts to understand the ‘violence texts’ of the Old Testament in light of the nonviolent revelation of God in Christ have been renewed with vigor in recent years.
Eric Siebert (Disturbing Divine Behavior), David Lamb (God Behaving Badly), Thomas Römer (Dark God), Paul Copan (Is God a Moral Monster?), Eryl Davies (The Immoral Bible), Michael Hardin (Jesus Driven Life) and Peter Enns (The Bible Tells Me So) are among the host of scholars who address the problem of the so-called ‘toxic texts’ of the Hebrew Scriptures in an effort to read them in the light of the Father revealed by Christ.
More recently, Derek Flood’s must-read book, Disarming Scripture, caught the attention of Gregory Boyd (who is also writing an epic tome on the topic). While I know these two teachers have much in common, Boyd took Flood to task on the question of “biblical infallibility.” He began a four-part blog critique, beginning with a post entitled “Must We Deny Biblical Infallibility to ‘Disarm’ Scripture?” Derek blogged a series of responses, beginning with his post, “A Reply to Greg Boyd’s Critique of Disarming Scripture.”
For my part, I would like to affirm both men for modeling a gracious exchange between Christians on a matter of striking disagreement. If only this were the common standard: charitable dissent without hostility. Well done, I say.
Second, to distill the exchange down to its essential feature, Boyd argued for ‘biblical infallibility’ and Flood argued against it … however, Flood rightly noted how they did not necessarily agree even on the definition of ‘infallibility,’ which could reasonably cause them to argue past each other. While the tension is in part a verbal one, I think they would both say it goes deeper than that. That is, even if they could come to a mutually shared definition of ‘infallible,’ they would still disagree as to whether the word should or should not be used as a descriptor for the Bible.
Third, this leads to a particular question that does not solve the problem, but may speak to its background. Namely, what did the early church teach about infallibility? I’ll pose the question as Derek asked it.
This strikes me as wrong. Inspiration yes, but infallibility? Do you know of any articles or books that deal with this (whether infallibility was something taught by the early church)? What does the Orthodox Church say?
Based in my late-coming knowledge and brief surveys of the early church fathers, 'infallible' was indeed a word they employed, but not with reference to Scripture. The 'infallibility of the Bible,' as best as I can tell, is a specifically Protestant notion, introduced as a point of leverage (under sola scriptura) in order to cut itself loose from the authority of the Vatican and from church tradition. An infallible Bible then becomes the final authority for faith and practice. Unfortunately, ‘an infallible Bible’ is often a code for ‘my interpretation of the Bible,’ and the schisms go viral.
On the other hand, while the early Greek fathers definitely speak of the 'inspiration of Scripture' they reserve the word 'infallible' for the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s guidance as they preserved the gospel (the ‘canon of faith’ or ‘faith once delivered’ – Jude 3) and summarized it in the creeds as they convened the early councils. That is, only God himself is the infallible Subject.
Fifty years have passed since the publication of Canada's most important work of non-fiction: George P. Grant's, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. For those have not read it, the book was written in 1965 as a true lament (in the tradition of Jeremiah the prophet) for the death of the Canadian vision.
Grant's lament, of course, was not merely a cry of despair (or one would not write at all), but rather, functioned as a wake-up call to Canada, a nation that was losing its unique identity and becoming a vassal state of American culture -- sliding into the hegemony of liberalism that spans from far right to far left in the culture wars south of the border. In part, the lament achieved its goal in triggering a resurgence of Canadian nationalism, but its echo needs to be heard again, more now than ever.
Ron Dart, Canada's leading active Grant scholar, has written a booklet revisiting these themes, entitled Lament for a Nation: Then and Now (American Anglican Press, 2015). In a series of insightful essays, Dart explores the relevance of Grant's urgent message for us today. These essays include:
Dart's little booklet displays his usual genius for synthesizing and applying Grant's work in political philosophy within his larger worldview of the primacy of the Good vis-a-vis our delusions of freedom as autonomous willfulness (a la Nietzsche). Canadian readers who have not picked up Grant's Lament would benefit in acquiring it along with this helpful guide.
God is good, without passions and unchangeable. One who understands that it is sound and true to affirm that God does not change might very well ask: how, then, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good, becoming merciful to those who know Him and, on the other hand, shunning the wicked and being angry with sinners.
We must reply to this, that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, because to rejoice and to be angered are passions. Nor is God won over by gifts from those who know Him, for that would mean that He is moved by pleasure. It is not possible for the Godhead to have the sensation of pleasure or displeasure from the condition of humans, God is good, and He bestows only blessings, and never causes harm, but remains always the same.
If we humans, however, remain good by means of resembling Him, we are united to Him, but if we become evil by losing our resemblance to God, we are separated from Him. By living in a holy manner, we unite ourselves to God; by becoming evil, however, we become at enmity with Him. It is not that He arbitrarily becomes angry with us, but that our sins prevent God from shining within us, and expose us to the demons who make us suffer.
If through prayer and acts of compassionate love, we gain freedom from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him change, but rather that by means of our actions and turning to God, we have been healed of our wickedness, and returned to the enjoyment of God’s goodness. To say that God turns away from the sinful is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind (St Anthony the Great, Cap. 150).
Vladika, might I say it this way: Impassibility can be hard to grasp if we think it means God cannot feel and therefore cannot not love. Rather, God IS love. His immutability and impassibility ensures that he cannot be constrained by externals to be other than love.
The impassibility of God means precisely that He is love and, being God, does not change from love to any passion or emotion, but His only sense or feeling is love. It is tricky to avoid saying His only emotion is love, because emotion is a purely human concept and cannot apply to the Divine. He IS love and does not become what He is not nor experience feelings and emotions that are contrary to His Being.
I would express it this way: Christ is an expression of His co-suffering love, for which the Word became what He was not in that He became human, but at the same time He did not become something contrary to His being, because Christ is the express image of God's love for humanity.
In God's divine impassibility, I take it that he could only suffer 'in the flesh' through the Incarnation. That is, God seems to enter a state of passibility [only] by assuming a human nature and [only] in his human nature. But there I have taken a step from 'in the flesh' to 'in his human nature,' because even now, Christ continues to be the eternal God-man (fully human and fully divine) -- continues somehow to identify with a glorified, incorruptible, but nevertheless human body (yes? no?). So the question is whether an incorruptible, divinized human Christ is passible or impassible. That is, since Christ remains fully human even now, does he continue to be able to co-suffer with us, or has passibility been expunged even from his humanity?
If God is compassionate (lit. co-suffering), is there a sense in which it is Orthodox to affirm co-suffering (even prior to the Incarnation) in God's nature (I'm thinking of Psalm 102(103), etc. What are the bounds of a revelation of compassion alongside a doctrine of impassibility?
One really needs to understand ‘impassibility’ as being ‘unconstrained’ - we cannot force God to do something, he cannot be moved (from without), but he is certainly capable of moving (whatever that might mean for divinity): “he so loved his world that …”
And our guarantee that this is indeed so is in fact Christ, about whom Moses is already speaking.
As I write this piece, I am still decompressing as I return from the depths of the 2015 Word of Life ‘Faith & Culture Conference.’ I’ve experienced the heady privilege of interrogating Walter Brueggemann and Brian Zahnd for days on end. Many would regard Dr. Brueggemann as the most significant Old Testament scholar of our era. He would also probably be America’s best preacher if Bishop (my designation) Zahnd didn’t already clearly fill that role. I say this not to flatter, but to urge others who could not attend to participate through their books or the conference recordings.
One of my most significant takeaways came through an anonymous Q & A query at the tail end of the final session. Brian Zahnd had waxed prophetic with a call away from the ‘Monster god’ of retribution to the Christlike God of the Gospels. In that context, the astute question raised was,
“What do we do with verses like Psalm 7:11-12: ‘God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day? Does not the God of love as revealed in Christ become angry with injustice?’”
A marvelous question! It somehow flipped a switch of blazing illumination in my dear friend. And Psalm 7 could not have been a better biblical source for a revelation of the precise nature of God’s wrath – and a microcosm of how that notion evolves across the biblical witness. In what follows, I will extend and expand on Brian’s brief but bright response.