- On the meaning of orthodoxy and heresy(published )
Words like “heresy” and “orthodoxy” often trigger a distrusting response when people hear them, and for good reason. Many people have abused them as bludgeons, as though orthodox meant “I’m right and good” and heretical meant “You are wrong and evil.” But there are other ways to use those terms that are better, proper, and truer. Maybe the following will be helpful. Orthodox doesn’t mean “this idea is right.” It means “this idea helps us stay rightly oriented toward Jesus.” Gregory of Nazianzus (old dead guy, pretty important in the history of Christian theology, but don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him) once said it this way: “To be only slightly in error is to be orthodox.” Orthodoxy isn’t “right,” it is just “getting close(r).” The truth remains still mysterious and beyond our ability to fully grasp. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.1 1 Indeed, it is common in the Christian tradition to say that any claim to fully comprehend the truth of God is not only ridiculous but downright blasphemous, because that would be claiming to have a mind greater than God. If you hear someone saying that, or using the term “orthodox” as if it meant that, back away, because whatever they’re teaching has a deep flaw somewhere in its underlying agenda. Heresy likewise doesn’t mean “this idea is wrong,” let alone “this idea is evil.” It means “this idea interferes with one’s ability to follow Jesus well.” It means there is something about the idea that is fundamentally incompatible with the gospel of Jesus, and so holding that idea will trip us up as we try to follow him. For example, the idea that Jesus was the first creature God made is a problem because it distorts the gospel fundamentally. If Jesus is God (the orthodox view), than all the things Jesus did were the gracious acts of God to save us. We receive them as his lavish gifts of love that he poured himself out to give so that we could receive abundant life, not as something we earn by our efforts. And so following Jesus’ way means pouring ourselves out, even and especially when it costs us, in order to lovingly benefit and give life to others. But if Jesus is the first creature, then salvation is precisely something earned from God by a creature. It isn’t God’s gift, but a reward. To be like Jesus then is nothing other than a matter of being perfectly righteous (in the worst sense). It is no longer matter of love and gift, but a matter of rights and rewards. So, don’t think of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” as weapons—and call people out if they are using them that way!—but rather as terms indicating “helpful for fostering Christian discipleship” or “unhelpful for fostering Christian discipleship.” I think you’ll find this to be a much more life-giving way to engage with the matter. [Slightly modified from the original here]
- On the flawed soteriology of the “sinner’s prayer”(published )
Recently, Daniel Heck made this statement: My problem with the sinner’s prayer really is that it is functionally super-Pelagian, even though it acts all anti-Pelagian. Funny the way we tend to become what we hate. When I’ve heard people use the sinner’s prayer for evangelism, they usually say a bunch of anti-Pelagian stuff about how nothing you do can set you right with God, etc etc etc, and then they say, actually, you know, there is exactly one thing you can do. Say this prayer. I responded thus: Regarding the sinner’s prayer and its associated problems, the underlying issue is the warped concept of salvation that it rests on. If one thinks that “being saved” means God saying “OK, when you die you’ll get to go to heaven,” and therefore that one “gets saved” in some punctiliar event—whether that is saying a certain prayer, or being baptized, or whatever—then this problem inevitably arises. Either we are in some irreducible sense responsible for causing that all-important event to occur, or else we have no role or responsibility because God just does it all himself. (Evangelicals are used to thinking of this dilemma as Arminianism vs Calvinism, but that is just one among the many permutations it has taken.) In contrast, things get much better when one recognizes that salvation means “everything being made good.” In one real sense we are still looking forward to our salvation, when Jesus returns to raise the dead and renew all things. In another real sense our salvation has already been won for us, because everything Jesus did the first time he came has enabled and initiated the salvation we are looking forward to. And in another real sense, we are in the midst of being saved now as the Holy Spirit acts among us today bringing specific instantiations of transformation and renewal into life now on the way toward the final transformation. In this past-present-future structure, there is no single moment when a person moves from a state of being unsaved to a state of being saved. There may be moments of conscious decision, of course. But those are moments where one decides to become an active participant in God’s ongoing project of saving the world and therefore becomes part of that group of people who reasonably expect to see salvation coming to pass in their lives and world now and ultimately in the future. They are moments of consciously entering into the ongoing salvation story. But if this is the case, then no one event is the cause of anyone’s salvation. What Jesus did is the cause, what Jesus will do is the cause, and what the Spirit is doing now is the cause. Our actions are caught up into this process and contribute in real ways to the result as he weaves them in, but our actions do not cause the process to occur any more than the threads cause the weaving to occur.
- On why “fully” is a bad description for divine presence(published )
In response to the statement that “If God’s presence was fully with us then surely the evil and alienation and suffering would end.” That depends on what “fully” means. Does it mean “concretely,” “observably,” “manifestly,” etc.? Does it mean “deeply,” “intimately,” or “in the heart”? Does it mean “transformationally”? “Gloriously”? “Victoriously”? “Ubiquitously”? Something else? If we are using quantitative metaphors (fully, partially) to talk about how concretely or manifestly God is present, then no, God being fully present doesn’t mean the end of the old order. It doesn’t get any more concrete and manifest than the incarnation—one could literally see, hear, and touch God in Jesus—and that did not bring the old order to its end. If we are describing God’s presence with quantitative metaphors as a way to discuss how he relates to us, then once again, no. The Holy Spirit dwells in us already (corporately and individually) and is “closer to us than our own hearts,” but the old order is not ended thereby. Paul does use quantitative metaphors to talk about how the Spirit’s presence now functions soteriologically (i.e. as a downpayment on our future inheritance of glory), but this indicates how our salvation is not yet fully realized, not that the Spirit is only partially present to us. The Holy Spirit’s real, full, and true presence in us today is precisely what enables us to face the ongoing reality of the old order with faith that evil, alienation, and suffering will end. If “fully” means “gloriously” or (more to the point) “victoriously,” then the statement is true. God’s ultimate triumph over evil will mean the end of the old order of things. ... But does God’s “full” presence properly mean his being triumphantly present? Was God less present at the stoning of Stephen than at Peter’s healing of the lame man outside the gate called “Beautiful”? Was God less present on the cross than at the transfiguration? Perhaps we need to understand the relation between God’s presence and the existence of evil in a different way. I suggest that it’s not a matter of how much God is present vs. how much evil and suffering there is. “How much” is not the right sort of relation at all; it isn’t a matter of degree, but of mode. The right question is “In what way is God present in the midst of this suffering and evil?” Or better, “How is God acting in the midst of this suffering and evil?” The cross requires us to see God himself nailed to it, God himself surrendered to death and submitted to it. Our God does not negate evil. He does not make it as if it never were. No, he takes it, goes into it, and from the depths, he changes it! He rises from the grave not as a negation of death, but as the subversion and transformation of death. He rises with the nail scars in his hands and the gash in his side, but now they are wounds of glory. They have not disappeared; they have not ceased to be wounds inflicted on him by nails and spear. But they no longer hold the power of death, for they have been transformed into wellsprings of life. The life that flowed out of those wounds into the void has proven to be inexhaustible, and now the void is changed. Eschatological new life arises where there was only death, new life where there was only destruction, because God is there, too. So, do we still see suffering and evil in our world because God is not fully present? No. Our world still contains brokenness because God is currently present in a mode of kenotic redemption, subverting evil into good and transforming suffering into new life. We look forward to the day when this work will be complete and he will be present in the mode of glory, having won his victory via transformation rather than negation. But in the meantime, we suffer not because he is only partially present, but because he is not yet finished the work he is doing in us and our world.