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The Servant God

The conversation taking place on my previous post—specifically the comment referring to open theism—has got me thinking about some of my writing and reflection I did on the topic during my university days. I spent an entire undergraduate thesis under the supervision of a self-described “atheistic Jew who is angry with God” advocating open theism as a response to the problem of evil.Looking back on some of this work, I realize—not surprisingly—that the project was characterized by a certain naïveté. Back then, I seemed to have implicitly expected that God could be figured out and placed in neat conceptual packages that dealt with any and all challenges and difficulties. I no longer harbour such illusions.

At any rate, I was snooping around in some of my files today, and came across some interesting passages I highlighted dealing with the nature of God, the scope of his knowledge and power, etc. I was drawn, in particular, to this one from the late Clark Pinnock, whose book Most Moved Mover set me to wondering about some of these things during my university days:

The conventional attributes [of God] rise and fall together. If God is personal and enters into relationships, God cannot be immutable in every respect, timelessly eternal, impassible, or meticulously sovereign.

The gospel does not invite us to think of God in abstract ways and then seek the presence of this deity in Jesus. Instead, it presents the coming of God’s Word in a servant who humbles himself and becomes obedient unto death. Besides redefining what humanity means, the revelation redefines what divinity means.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: “If God is personal and enters into relationships, God cannot be immutable in every respect, timelessly eternal, impassible, or meticulously sovereign.”

    These sound like evangelical concerns to me: personal, relationships, immutability, etc.

    In seminary a theology professor explained that evangelical theology begins with the Bible. I don’t think that is true. It strikes me that evangelicalism begins with something like philosophy and culture. Today the emphasis is on moral philosophy. Much emphasis is placed on defending God to people who have modern moral sentiments, so much emphasis that that becomes the starting point for theology. I think evangelical theology is largely disconnected from the Bible, just like liberal theology is. Evangelical theology tends to be moralistic, like much, but not all, liberal theology has been.

    Re: The Gospel “presents the coming of God’s Word in a servant who humbles himself and becomes obedient unto death.”

    I think this is evangelical too. Humble servant, obedient. The image is piety, evangelical moral piety. I don’t think that is what the gospels describe, even while Jesus’ death is justified partly through the Isaiah passages about the suffering servant. The gospels, and the epistles, appear to describe the coming of the messiah that the prophets foretold, and with that coming, as one who has read the prophets would expect, the imminence of the Day of the Lord and the restoration of Israel, the Kingdom of God.

    Divinity is not redefined. The claim that it is redefined is also evangelical, but not biblical. Such belief can only be maintained by an ongoing lack of reading the Bible closely, including importantly, the Old Testament on its own terms rather than reading it for lessons on piety.

    May 2, 2011
    • Larry S #

      thanks for this post Ken

      I think you make some valid important points. as someone raised in the ethos you describe albiet seasoned with a dusting of anabaptism – I plan to think about what you’ve writen. You post reminds me of a phrase from a recent Regent lecture I’ve listened too. The good professor said, “if thats what you think the text means, you’ve been reading with devotional lenses.” (I can’t remember what the text was about).

      By the way, at times when I read your views and you speak about your liberal upbringing/theology I’ve thought some similar things about what you’ve written. our grids show up. I really like the last bit of your second last paragraph.

      My goal is to try to become aware of the grid through which I come to the texts. you post helps (not that i agree with it completely 🙂 )

      (I’ve been a tad busy and have not been tracking all the content of these threads. and I’m not looking to start anything with this post. just reflecting and doing a bit of musing. )

      blessings

      May 3, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    As Ryan pointed out on the previous thread, cultural predispositions influence opinions. True for Catholics, true for Evangelicals. Though I only have a peripheral, mostly media informed view of the Evangelical community, I would tend to agree with your professor, Ken, at least in so far as the beginnings of the movement are concerned.

    I think of early Evangelical expression as a biblical orientation that looked to literally apply ancient verse to modern context; Fundamentalism. Over time one sees the emergence (pun intended ?) of a community influenced as you say by philosophy and culture.

    On one level I am thankful for an Evangelical faith that has challenged me to consider the quality and nature of my personal relationship with Jesus. One can easily hide behind ritual and rote in corporate expressions of the faith. On the other hand a right inward disposition is only useful to God and man if it turns itself outward and becomes “other” serving in the service of God. There is more to our part of the bargain than just saving our own souls. I think then that modern evangelicals, while errant in some of their particulars, particularly with regard to the cultural excesses they are to willing to give a free pass on, are right to press for a more inclusive and generous orthodoxy.

    In the end I have chosen to believe that all Christians will come home, all will become Catholic again. I honestly don’t think I’ll live to see it but I hope to come back when it is a reality. 🙂

    As for open theism, I say no. As I understand the term, it is faith with a “but maybe not”.

    May 3, 2011
    • Ken #

      I can add this to the history of Christian fundamentalism, American evangelicalism, and evangelicalism generally. Perhaps you know this already.

      In in early 1900’s in the northern Presbyterian Church in the United States, some Christians became concerned that some of their pastors did not believe in the resurrection, the virgin birth, the atonement, and several other things that were historically part of the Christian confessions. And it is not just that they did not believe it fully, or just have doubts, they wanted to preach a different message based on liberal theology. The concern Christians made a list of ten essential tenets of the faith that they wanted ministers to preach. They wanted to eject the ministers who refused. This became a huge fight within the denomination and eventually the concerned Christians lost the fight and left the denomination. Their critics derisively called them “fundamentalists.”

      In about the 1940’s some ministers who had been part of denominations or independent churches that adhered to beliefs like those of the “fundamentalists” broke away from their roots to start evangelical churches. An early important leader was Billy Graham. They did not break away from the fundamentals, but they broke away culturally. They wanted to be more accepting of contemporary culture (and music) than an earlier generation had been.

      Evangelical is also a term that has been used in the U.S. and internationally interchangeably with Protestant. In that context it represents the claim that we are saved by grace through faith and that our theology should begin with the Bible. These are polemical claims, aimed at the Roman Catholic Church.

      May 3, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks Ken, no I did not know this. It dovetails nicely though with the Catholic perspective that inordinate Protestant exegesis and it’s multiple hypothesis lead to fundamentalist over reaction. Polemic from our side of the street. 🙂

        My first experience with Americans and Evangelicals was a pleasant one. I was a small boy in the 60’s and the quaint Ontario town we used to cottage in (Minden) was in those days, home to a nearby ” big tent revival”. (Do they still do those things?)

        Me, my sister and my cousins were sternly forbidden to participate inside if offered to us but we were allowed to go on the grounds and meet with other kids. My lasting impression was of friendly, noisy people who generously fed us hot dogs, potato chips ( seemed like they were a side dish for everything) soda pop and the only vegetable that ever made sense, corn on the cob.

        These people may or may not have known Jesus they way he was supposed to be known, but surely their menu was heaven sent. 🙂

        May 4, 2011
  3. Hi Ryan,

    I like the quote from Pinnock. The conventional attributes of God need rethinking. If we see the bible as a story with direction, whose central story is the story of Jesus and if Jesus is the express image of God, then should not our ideas of God be gotten primarily from the central story, and then the rest of the story be interpreted in the light of this central story?

    Jesus came in the form of a suffering servant whose unconditional love for others (and especially for the poor and outcasts) created opposition from the religious and political principalities and powers (e.g. Pharisees and Herodians) and this led to his death at the hands of imperial Rome.

    Jesus’ unfailing love for his enemies led to his death on the cross and God set his seal on his vulnerable love by raising Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is the promise of the eschatological triumph of redemptive love.

    So should we not view the power of God (not as top down power), but the power of redemptive love expressed in the form of a suffering servant? Should we not view the omnisicence of God (not as a’ know it allness’) but as the infinite wisdom of God that includes the foolishness of the cross?

    If we see God in Jesus, do we not see a God who loves his enemies, a God who is compassionate to the ungrateful and the wicked?

    Shalom to you, to Ken and to Paul,

    John Arthur

    May 3, 2011
    • Paul Johnston #

      Beautifully rendered, John. I hear so much truth in what you say. Shalom. 🙂

      May 4, 2011
    • Thanks for this, John. You’ve given us a good and compelling example of allowing the person and work of Jesus to shape our understanding of divinity.

      May 4, 2011
    • James #

      It is nice to see an actual proponent of a belief explaining it. Thanks for that John.
      I don’t know much more about process theology than I am learning here, but the sense I get from this exposition is that it trades off the some aspects of Jesus character against others. While Jesus did not seek vengeance on His enemies during His earthly life and teaches us to turn the other cheek- that is not the full picture. Jesus, both in the Gospels and expanded in the Revelation- is also the avenger of evil. I have a sense that this is overlooked in process theology.
      Traditionally Anabaptists understood that they have no part in the administering justice and vengeance on earth- Kingdom people are confined to the ethic of love and forbidden to use violence. They did not, however remove that aspect from the character of Jesus or God. It would appear that process theology tries to.
      I don’t think that we have any right to pick and choose those aspects of God’s character, as described in the Bible, that happen to fit our sensibilities. God is unequivocally the God of love- but He is just as unequivocally the God of justice.

      May 4, 2011
      • Ken #

        Process theologians (Cobb and Griffin, for example) do not appear to be concerned that their theology does not conform to the description of God in the Bible. At the seminary I attended, liberal and radical theologians, including process theologians, favored eliminating most of the Bible because they believed it was untrue and harmful.

        May 4, 2011
  4. Hi James,

    I do not hold to process theology but to creative love theism. Unlike process theism, I believe not only in the immanence but also the transcendence of God. I also hold to creation ex nihilo.

    Furthermore, I believe in both the wrath of God as well as the final judgment. But unlike those Christians who see God as violent and as one who exercises retributive punishment, I see God as nonviolent and one who seeks restorative justice rather than retributive justice.

    However, if people walk the path that leads to destruction (i.e. they do not walk the path of agapic love) then they reap the consequences of what they have sown. God’s wrath is not like human anger but is his settled disposition against human sin, rebellion and injustice.

    Paul uses the phrase “the wrath of God” in Romans 1and three times he says “God gave them over” to follow their own evil desires. I take this to be his meaning of the phrase “wrath of God”.

    Concerning the final judgment, I see that it is the compassionate Saviour who is coming again in power and glory to judge the living and the dead. In Mattew 25, this Jesus still has compassion for the marginalised and outcasts. He says that the way we will have treated them in this life is the way we have treated him.

    We need to read the book of Revelation non-violently. See John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”, ch.12, for an outline of such an approach and Mennonite theologian, Ted Grimsrud, has a whole series of articles on the book of revelation amplifying Yoder’s pacifist approach on his blog at http://peacetheology.net/.

    Creative love theism (Open theism) magnifies the love of God by seeing God as he is in Jesus, but love does not eliminate “wrath” and “judgment”. However, it does re-interpret these concepts in the light of the central story of God’s redeeming love.

    Shalom to you all.

    May 5, 2011

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