- 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 hearing God(published )
Hi Chris. Reading your thoughts and questions here and thinking back to our conversation the other night, I think I’m starting to get a better sense of where you are coming from and what you are trying to wrestle with. Hopefully this will be helpful. :) In Western culture (meaning, basically, European and European-derived culture), we have tended for the last several centuries to think of our world as having two “levels” or “spheres” or whatever: the natural and the supernatural. Some people think of these two spheres as overlapping or interacting a lot, some think that they do so only a little, some think that virtually never do, and some even think that the supernatural level doesn’t exist at all (this would include atheists, for example). In most Pentecostal and charismatic circles, this two-storey view of reality is the starting point for understanding how God interacts with us. Pentecostals and charismatics will insist that there is lots of interaction between the natural and the supernatural, and therefore that we should seek to interact with God supernaturally as much as we can. In this way of thinking about things, revelation from God obviously needs to be categorized as a supernatural event, an intervention in which something crosses over from God’s side into our side. Hearing God, therefore, should be a strange experience. One should be able to recognize “the real deal” in part by the how it is weird and doesn’t feel like our natural ways of perceiving, thinking, knowing, learning, etc. The Pentecostal understanding of receiving the gift of tongues, in which it is thought of as a distinct event when a person has this spiritual ability bestowed on them that they would not naturally have otherwise, is an example of how this plays out. However, this two-storey view of reality is actually very problematic for Christian faith and practice. Among (many!) other problems, it creates a relentless pressure towards expecting that God’s interactions with us will be rare and fleeting. If we consider God’s actions to be essentially alien to the natural world, then they are by definition abnormal and unusual. But Jesus didn’t think that God’s interactions with people were unusual. He taught his disciples to expect that God would interact with them, and that this would be NORMAL for them. Why? Because material and spiritual were not two separate sorts of reality existing in different realms or planes of existence or whatever; rather, they were simply aspects of one, single, unified reality. The Holy Spirit’s coming to the disciples was remarkable not because it indicated a metaphysical change, but because it indicated a relational change. The God from whom we had been estranged by our sin was now no longer a stranger to us. He has begun interacting with us all with a new intimacy and closeness, and so his people have begun to experience his Spirit with us in a way unlike before. This isn’t an incursion of the supernatural into the natural world, but a reconciliation with the God who has always been all around us. So, God’s interactions with us, including the sorts of interaction that we usually describe as him speaking to us, are how things are supposed to work. We human beings were made for this sort interaction from the very beginning. Our physical and mental processes are designed precisely AS the way for us to interact with God. He always intended to interact with us using the equipment he gave us, and as we become reconciled to him, he does that. So, imaginative impressions (e.g. visions and dreams), reading and pondering (say, the Bible, but also other things), experiencing stuff for ourselves, listening to the stories and wisdom of those who have gone before us in the Christian journey, and all the other human things we do to learn are EXACTLY how we learn from God. Heck, even when God does some astounding thing—burning bush, dramatic healing, pillar of fire in the desert, whatever—we still have to perceive and understand it with the same physical and cognitive faculties that we use to perceive and understand the presence and meaning of a hamburger on a plate. It is based on this kind of understanding of how God interacts with us that the Vineyard adopted the practice of using expressions like, “I’m seeing this image…” or, “I think God wants to say…” when sharing what we feel God is revealing to us. We know that we are all of us in the process of learning to hear him well, and that even though he speaks infallibly we are fallible listeners. It is also based on this kind of understanding of how God interacts with us that we say, “Everyone gets to play,” meaning that everyone can hear from God, pray for God to act, and participate in whatever God is up to. All human beings have the natural capacity to interact with God. We need only be reconciled with him and start relating to him in an interactive way. The upshot is that learning to hear God isn’t about him overriding or bypassing our normal ways of knowing, but about learning to recognize his guidance, direction, and revelation in what we see, think, imagine, hear, and feel. It is a matter of the content, not the form.
- Holy Spirit
- image of God
- The Significance of the Cross of Christ, updated (published )
When my daughter was almost three years old, I realized that it was time to start explaining the gospel to her. But how does one explain the gospel well to a child that young in a way that will actually make sense to them? It isn’t easy! But I recognized that if I, with all my years of studying theology, could not explain the gospel to a preschooler, then I didn’t really understand myself. So I set my mind to it and thought a long time about how I could express it in a way that made sense to her. In the end, I came up with this formulation, which I like to call “the gospel for the preschooler”: Jesus died and came alive again, so that one day he can make everyone who dies come alive again. He is going to make the whole world good, and he wants us to help! That’s what the gospel really is, once you get right down to it. Everything else is elaboration, implication, and details. And the gospel for the preschooler seems to have worked. When I told my daughter the gospel this way, she understood it. It took hold in her and has continued to grip her soul to this day. She gets it. But let’s look a little more closely at the gospel here, and take notice of what its foundation is. “Jesus died and came alive again so that…” The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus are the basis for all the gospel. Everything depends on them. This is a holy night. It is a strange and terrible holy night. On Easter Sunday we will gather here again to celebrate the holiest day of the year, the day of Resurrection, the day when hope and joy arise victorious. But it is not yet Sunday. This is Good Friday. And it is indeed Good. But not Good like we usually think of good. This is a Good whose goodness runs too deep and too strangely for any of us to grasp fully even after a lifetime of contemplation. For the goodness of Good Friday is the goodness of the Cross. When I was a young Christian, I was presented with two ways of thinking about the Cross and what it meant that didn’t always seem to fit well together. Sometimes the focus would be on the awfulness of the Cross. This might involve concentration on the physical agony, or on the profound irony that this was happening to the Son of God. Other times the focus was on how the Cross was good news for us, because it was done in order to make our salvation possible. So far, so good; all of this is true. But where things went off the rails was when people treated the Cross as happy news, joyful news, straight-up reason to smile and laugh, like the Resurrection. In fact, it often seemed like the Cross was the whole gospel, that the sum of the gospel was “Jesus died for me, therefore I’ve been set free.” You’ll notice how something has dropped out in that version of the gospel. There is no Resurrection in it. And because of that, the Cross has been forced to do the job that belongs to the Resurrection. And when that happens, we can no longer understand the Cross for what it really means. “Jesus died and came alive again,” is the foundation of the gospel, and when we remember all of that, we will begin to be able to understand the true, full, terrible, and wonderous meaning of the Cross. Let’s take a moment and imagine two alternative possibilities. First, imagine the Cross without the Resurrection. Imagine if Jesus had died and had not been raised. Then the Cross would have been nothing more than one more example of meaningless suffering, just some bad thing that happened. It would have been the death of the Son of God, true enough, but it would only mean that God had lost and death had won. And we wouldn’t even know about it, anyway. Jesus would have been forgotten, except maybe in some footnote in some massive dusty tome on the history of the Roman Empire. God would have failed, and we wouldn’t even notice. Now imagine the Resurrection without the Cross. Suppose Jesus had lived to a ripe old age and then died reclining on a couch, talking and drinking wine with his disciples until he slipped off into sleep, and had then been resurrected. That would still be a source of hope, because it would still be God overcoming death with life. But it would be a very different hope. That would mean nothing more than that life goes on, and sure, sometimes some bad things happen, but it’ll all work out okay in the end. There would be no hope in that for the restoration of the broken. “It’ll all work out okay in the end,” is not much of a gospel. “Jesus died and came alive again” is the foundation of the gospel, and we need both parts to understand the gospel properly. The Resurrection is the source of the hope, while the Cross is what shapes and forms that hope. The Cross is what gives the Resurrection hope its character. The Cross tells us how the Resurrection hope works. The Cross is why we can trust that the Resurrection really will be a hope for the healing and transformation of even the worst. So then, if we want to understand the Cross, we need to see in it the ultimate expression of how God deals with evil, with suffering, with pain and violence and fear and cruelty and hate. We often ask ourselves, when faced with some evil thing, “Why?” We try to deal with evil by explaining it. If we can just make sense of it, we think, then it’ll be okay. We try to turn evil into a philosophical problem, because philosophical problems are abstract and take our minds away from the concrete. This doesn’t really help, of course, but it is what we keep trying to do. But God does not treat evil like a philosophical problem to figure out. God treats evil as a practical problem to solve. The Cross is the ultimate demonstration how God deals with all that is wrong in this world. The Cross shows us the answer to the question: “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?” You see, 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, the chaos, the darkness has proven to be inexhaustible, and now the void is changed. Resurrection life arises where there was only death, new life where there was only destruction, because God is there, too. This is why the Cross is good news. Suffering begins as meaningless. It has no ultimate reason behind it. It doesn’t belong in this world. But the Cross shows us that God will take our suffering and make sense out of it, literally make sense where there was none before, by creating good out of it. The Cross, that unspeakable horror that we ourselves inflicted on the Son of God, is, thanks to the Resurrection, now the sign to us that all the suffering, evil, fear, hate, cruelty and pain that afflict us in this world will be changed and transformed. Your suffering will become a wellspring of new life. Nothing is beyond hope. Our pains will not be washed away as if they had never happened. The Cross signifies that we, in all our brokenness, will be made whole.
- The way of Christ is hard(published )
One should not seek to receive divine glory and blessing lightly. We want and need to be glorified like Jesus, which means the glory we seek looks like getting one’s head kicked in. It is a path suitable only to the desperate and the brave.