Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

Richard Rohr on Atonement

Two generations ago, the landmark theologian in our tradition (Nazarene), H. Orton Wiley, wrote that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was inconsistent with Wesleyan (Nazarene) theological commitments, and therefore could not be our atonement theory. Franciscan priest and thinker Richard Rohr is also concerned that penal substitution has led western Christianity down very negative pathways. He writes,

“For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033– 1109] and has often been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”). Scotus agreed with neither of these readings. He was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, blood sacrifice, or necessary satisfaction, but by the cosmic hymns of Colossians and Ephesians. If Scotus’s understanding of the “how” and meaning of redemption (his “atonement theory”) had been taught, we would have had a much more positive understanding of Jesus, and even more of God the Father. Christian people have paid a huge price for what theologians after Anselm called “substitutionary atonement theory”: the idea that, before God could love his creation, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for a sin-drenched humanity. Please think about the impossible, shackled, and even petty God that such a theory implies and presents.  Christ is not the first idea in the mind of God, as Scotus taught, but a mere problem solver after the sad fact of our radical unworthiness….

We have had enough trouble helping people to love, trust, and like God to begin with, without creating even further obstacles. Except for striking fear in the hearts of those we sought to convert, substitutionary atonement theories did not help our evangelization of the world. It made Christianity seem mercantile and mythological to many sincere people. The Eternal God was presented as driving a very hard bargain, as though he were just like many people we don’t like. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and forgive his own children— a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe….

Scotus, however, insisted on the absolute and perfect freedom of God to love and forgive as God chooses, which is the core meaning of grace. Such a God could not be bound by some supposedly offended justice. For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could not be a mere reaction to human sinfulness, but in fact the exact, free, and proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul says in Ephesians (1: 4). Sin or problems could not be the motive for divine incarnation, but only perfect love! The Christ Mystery was the very blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1: 1)….

It is no wonder that Christianity did not produce more mystics and saints over the centuries. Unconsciously, and often consciously, many people did not trust or even like this Father God, much less want to be in union with him. He had to be paid in blood to love us and to care for his own creation, which seems rather petty and punitive, and we ended up with both an incoherent message and universe. Paul told us that “love takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13: 5), but apparently God was the big exception to this rule. Jesus tells us to love unconditionally, but God apparently does not. This just will not work for the soul or mature spirituality. Basically when you lose the understanding of God’s perfect and absolute freedom and eagerness to love, which Scotus insisted on, humanity is relegated to the world of counting! Everything has to be measured, accounted for, doled out, earned, and paid back. That is the effect on the psyche of any notion of heroic sacrifice or necessary atonement. 9 It is also why Jesus said Temple religion had to go, including all of its attempts at the “buying and selling” of divine favor (John 2: 13– 22). In that scenario, God has to be placated and defused; and reparation has to be paid to a moody, angry, and very distant deity. This is no longer the message Jesus came to bring.

This wrongheaded worldview has tragically influenced much of our entire spirituality for the last millennium, and is still implied in most of the Catholic Eucharistic prayers. It gave lay Catholics and most clergy an impossible and utterly false notion of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness— which are, in fact, at the heart of our message. The best short summary I can give of how Scotus tried to change the equation is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Christ was Plan A for Scotus, the hologram of the whole, the Alpha— and therefore also the Omega— Point of cosmic history.”

Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (pp. 183-187). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.

Sex, God, and North American Christians

North American Christians are experiencing all kinds of rumblings and changes in the culture around us regarding sex. A Nazarene university president who has shown himself to be wise, thoughtful, compassionate and Christlike is Dan Boone, who recently wrote Human Sexuality: A Primer for Christians. (This must win the “Least Inspiring Title Award of the Year.”) On the back cover Boone says that amidst all the new experimentation regarding human sexuality, Christians most often are found angrily condemning or fearfully quiet. Instead of that, he contends we should be in the middle of this societal conversation: “We have something to say about the body, singleness, chastity, dating, marriage, and same sex attractions. Not all of us will agree with each other… but informed conversation will trump angry judgment and fearful silence every time. My prayer is that you will begin to explore a theology of human sexuality.”

This sounds just like Dan, who has always called for charitable discourse. Something to know about Dan, he is not a fundamentalist calling for gay people to be ejected from church. Neither is he simply swallowing the narrative currently in vogue in the West regarding human sexuality and freedom. By allowing the culture to set the parameters regarding our conversation about human sexuality, I once heard Dan say, we have forced ourselves to try to come up with answers that aren’t from within the Christian story.  A friend gave me the book, and the first place I opened to said this:

“Sex is good, but it is not the end goal of life.  ….If intimacy and sexual behavior are essentially one and the same, I suspect one of our favorite virgins, Jesus, must have lived a half-life. I would also suggest that another of our favorite virgins, Mother Teresa, missed the essence of life and lived as a lonely, loveless, half-person. The idea that human intimacy is fulfilled only in sexual intercourse is a leap of disastrous proportions. Jesus, Mother Teresa, and a lot of my single adult friends are among the most alive people I know. The human need is not sexual intercourse; it is intimacy – to be known, loved, touched, understood, and cared for.

Sex is good. Yes. ….Trinity is not ashamed of naked human bodies…. Christians shouldn’t walk around blushing when the topic of sex comes up. Sex is the gift of our Creator. But when we connect the need for human intimacy with sexual drive, and assume that these two are automatically and inextricably woven together, we are in the wrong story.”

This is classic, vintage Dan. Thanks for writing something for us, Dan. I look forward to the read.

Holiness

Sometimes a word has been firebombed so hard by mis-usage, I wonder if it can even be re-habilitated for usefulness without waiting a generation. I have often wondered this about the word ‘holiness.’ The Church of the Nazarene in the U.S. has wrestled for all of its history with the annoyance that when you define holiness with specific do’s and don’ts, these are tied to specific time-and-culture variations, and so when those two things change, the rules you set up often look petty and/or legalistic. (I don’t’ think all rules are bad, I’d love us to keep some – how about the Ten Commandments for starters!)

When the robust, powerful biblical word ‘holiness’ then gets defined with a strong attraction to specific rules that look largely legalistic to many of your own people, we lose the good things that word can bring to us.

So I was happy when I saw a couple of chapter titles in a recently published book put out by Nazarene Publishing House. One is by Tim Green and called Shalom: The End of Holiness and another is Thy Kingdom Come: Holiness and The New Creation by Carl Leth. Both of these titles make me happy, as I think wholeness, shalom, and God’s intention for humanity are three of our best images for defining holiness.

The book is called The Heart of Holiness: Compassion and the Holy Life.

Why Nazarene scholars won’t embrace inerrancy

So I received in the mail one of those little books who people with a burning message on their hearts find the resources for which to mail a copy of their book to every pastor in America, or, in this case, every pastor in a particular denomination. This book was mailed to Nazarenes, and addresses Nazarenes specifically and by name throughout, arguing that the C/N has walked away from an inerrancy view of Scripture and that we are in grave danger. Nazarene theology texts, and even letters and emails to and from Nazarene theologians, from both today and several generations ago, are quoted throughout.

I read the whole thing while grilling some fabulous tilapia (give your tastebuds a shot of shalom and baste with McCormick’s Baja Citrus mix). There were no new arguments here, just the same ones we are familiar with: if you can’t trust the bible in every single assertion, no matter how far from the subject of salvation, you can’t trust it for ANYTHING. (Somehow, I have been able to be deeply in love with Jesus, and follow Him intentionally and in every way I can think of, all these years, without believing in the kind of inerrancy the author does… but that’s not good enough). The author does, however, with his selected texts, cause it to appear that Nazarene theologians once, several generations ago, held a strict inerrancy, but then those same theologians moved away from it within their lifetimes.

And that’s the thing. There’s a reason Nazarene scholars won’t embrace a strict inerrancy (we hold that it is inerrant in all things pertaining to salvation). The reason is that we can’t unlearn things we know about the Bible. We can’t unlearn all the places throughout the Scriptures where it is apparent we are not dealing with the words dripping from God’s own mouth, Qur’an-style. Paul can’t remember who all he baptized. People who bash enemy infants’ heads in on stones are blessed. Paul requests his coat be brought, cause its chilly. Paul says “now the following words aren’t from the Lord, they are my opinion…” The Book of Daniel is a hodge-podge cut and paste of languages and first-person, third person, with several dating issues, highly unlikely to have been written by one person named Daniel. It’s clear the Pentateuch really is comprised from multiple sources. Big deal, what’s the problem? I don’t’ have time to list the examples. The author of the mailed-to-you-free! book does the typical inerrant argument: if Jesus referred to Moses as the author of the Torah, then the documentary hypothesis can’t be true! This is such a strange idea, as if Jesus’ goal were to correct any historical or cultural or scientific misunderstandings  his generation entertained! And ignores basic concepts of how language works. (I call my son’s car ‘Tanner’s’ even though it’s legally mine.)

So anyway, here’s my takeaway. Nazarene scholars won’t embrace the fundamentalist inerrancy view, because of the evidence right in front of them as they look at the Scriptures.  Apparently our early scholars also came to that conclusion as the evidence stacked up in front of them. Interesting, to me, is that hundreds of years ago committed Christians were noticing the same things in the texts – including Adam Clarke, John Wesley, John Calvin and Matthew Henry! Our fundamentalist friends indicate you can’t really embrace the Scriptures and follow Jesus without strict inerrancy, but history shows that plenty of people do.

‘Noah’ and Evolution

Every time I hear Christians get upset about the theory of evolution, I am reminded of 1616 when the Church said you could not be Christian if you believed the Earth revolved around the sun. And then I think of the Christians during the American Civil War who accurately argued that the Bible explicitly portrays slavery as a normative part of human life and tells slaves to obey their masters. And then I think about C.S. Lewis’ comment that if we told someone in the Middle Ages that we did not believe the universe was made up of The Spheres nor did we believe in the Divine Right of Kings to rule, they would have said we couldn’t possibly be Christian.

I’m not sure why, outside a literalist reading of the poem/hymn/origin stories of Genesis 1 and 2, so many Christians are so upset by the idea that God could use evolution as one of his tools. Several Nazarenes have been working on this, and here’s a paragraph from the Church of the Nazarene’s page  on Wikipedia:

Consistent with the position of classical Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley, several contemporary Nazarene theologians, including Thomas Jay Oord, Michael Lodahl, and Samuel M. Powell, have endeavored to reconcile the general theory of evolution with theology. There are an increasing number of Nazarene scientists who support theistic evolution, among them Karl Giberson, Darrel R. Falk, and Richard G. Colling, whose 2004 book, Random Designer, has been controversial within the denomination since 2007. At the most recent General Assembly, held in Orlando, Florida in July 2009, there was extended debate on a resolution to adopt a more fundamentalist view of the doctrine of Creation based on a more literal view of the Bible, however this resolution was defeated.

One of my absolute favorite moments in the movie Noah is when Noah says to his family hunkered in the ark during the storm, “I am going to tell you the first story my father told me.” And then he extinguishes the candle he is holding, plunging the room into darkness, and begins reciting a close approximation to Genesis 1. Suddenly on screen, as you listen to Genesis 1 recited, you see the universe come to be, plant and animal life evolving in fast motion, in step with Noah’s recital of the creation of fish, birds, small creatures, etc – it’s an impressive display of the glory of God. For me, portraying animal life developing through evolution didn’t reduce the majesty of God’s Creation one bit. Intriguingly, the film does not portray humans evolving.