Only A Christian Can Be A Good Atheist

In the last week or so I’ve been thinking about Ernst Bloch and Jürgen Moltmann thanks to a recent First Things article about the former. As Rose shows, Bloch is a fascinating Marxist philosopher who rejected Christianity’s understanding of nature and transcendence but retained a Christian understanding of history. However, I’m not principally interested in Bloch, nor can I say I have read much of Bloch (to my own shame). Instead, the majority of my knowledge of and interest in Bloch comes through Jürgen Moltmann, one of the most important German systematic theologians of the mid-late 20th century.

To give some background on Moltmann- Moltmann’s first book Theology of Hope, published in 1964, was a theological bombshell. It helped to bring the category of eschatology back into the theological landscape as a defining characteristic of modern systematic theology. In his second work, The Crucified God, published in 1973, Moltmann set out to make the cross the foundation and criticism of Christian theology (hence the original subtitle). Richard Bauckham summarizes the importance of these two works in modern theology well when he writes that Theology of Hope is “one of the most influential theological works of the post World War II era” and The Crucified God is “one of the most important modern studies of the cross.”

In both of these works, however, Moltmann is deeply indebted to the work of Bloch. Moltmann recounts in later works that his intention with Theology of Hope was to set in motion an act of theology parallel to Bloch’s Principle of Hope, but on a biblical basis. Bloch had drawn on the Exodus and other Old Testament imagery to establish hope as the framework for human life and action. However, for Bloch, transcendence had to go for this goal to be realized. In his work, Bloch argued, “Only an atheist can be a good Christian.” Only as an atheist could one reject false economic and religious gods so as to realize the political and eschatological goals of Scripture. When this happened humanity would finally be free and no longer dominated by the rule of any power, including that of God.

In The Crucified God Moltmann flips Bloch’s maxim on its head. “Only a Christian can be a good atheist,” Moltmann writes. To truly reject false economic and religious gods requires following the true God. According to Moltmann, the true God is known in the cross of Christ, which demands that everything one thinks about God, history, rulers, and power change. Because God’s being is revealed in the passion and death of Jesus, through his suffering for us and for our salvation, the true God is not known or found in his power and glory in the world and in the history of the world. For Moltmann, the gods of this world – the gods of money, power, prestige- belong on the other side of the cross of Christ, because it was in their name that Christ was crucified. Thus, Moltmann writes, “For Christ’s sake I am an atheist, an atheist in respect to the gods of the world and world history, the Caesars and the political demigods who follow them.” Following the crucified Christ means recognizing that the gods who support the dehumanization of others in the name of money, power, or the state, are idols (as Ethan has said here before). For Christ’s sake then, we must be atheists.


Peace to You: Or, Yes, God Really Loves You

RC Sproul recently answered a question unsurprisingly. The question: does God love everyone? Long answer for him is basically, God loves everyone in a certain way and that certain way is limited to acts such as sustaining the universe, “rain falling on just and unjust”, fun stuff like that. But really it is only the elect whom God loves in the way that is actually meant by the question, Sproul admits as much in his answer. God loves His Son and the elect for Sproul. But even this type of love for the elect is entirely conditional. Sproul comments, “when I hear preachers stand up and say that God loves us unconditionally, I want to scream. I want to say, then why does he call us to repent?.. he has placed an absolute condition by which he requires.” In this dreadful scenario, you are bound by the condition of repentance to meet the criterion for God’s love.

I am of the opinion that this is entirely false. Shocking. We have strong case in the New Testament which contains none of the caveats to which Sproul retreats. This is so plainly seen in Paul’s letters. I’m thinking specifically of Romans. Romans 5 should seal the deal. Let’s assume for a moment that Paul is an outlier. We are going to go through one of my favorite stories in the New Testament and measure Sproul’s position by it and, ultimately, show that – against all odds, against what we might like to believe, and against all well meaning theologians who say otherwise – the God of the Bible, the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus, truly loves humanity. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. According to Sproul, this should be enough.


Shout out to Jackie Lee.

Luke’s gospel is carefully crafted and chapter 24 is an obvious high point in the narrative. We get the resurrected Jesus on Emmaus, we get Jesus scaring the living daylights out of his disciples. A lot of fantastic stuff is packed into this chapter. But my reading of this chapter was enriched by reading Luke’s version of Jesus’ words at his crucifixion. The words of Jesus here may seem like this is some sort of Lucan revision of the “too-desperate” Jesus of Matthew and Mark, who portray Jesus crying out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Pss 22), but this could not be further from the truth. With our ears tuned to the Psalms we actually hear a Psalm of Lament in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ death.

In Jesus’ great time of distress before his death, he went to the Mount of Olives to pray. His disciples slept. They could not be bothered to join him in prayer at that time, even though he warned them that it is that they “might not enter temptation” (22.46). He was betrayed by Judas with a kiss (22.46-48). Peter himself denied Jesus, as Jesus foretold, later that night (22.54-62). While a great multitude of men and women mourned for Jesus as he went to his death (23.27), there is no reference to the eleven in this moment. Jesus’ closest friends do not follow Jesus on the road to the cross.

Pretty bad showing for the guys who hung around Jesus in his ministry. We have shown where the narrative explicitly harps on the rejection and abandonment of Jesus by his followers, but Luke narrates this implicitly in the echo of Psalm 31. In Jesus’ last moments in Luke, he both cries for the forgiveness of those in the crowd and “commits his spirit” to his Father, echoing Psalm 31. “Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach, especially to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many— terror on every side!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” (Ps 31.11-13). Jesus, echoing the broader lament of Psalm 31, evoked a story of being abandoned by those close to him. He became a “reproach” to his neighbors and an object of dread to his acquaintances. He was totally forgotten, like one who is dead. Jesus’ friends and neighbors are a cause for lament in Jesus’ death according to Luke, not just the enemies who have captured him. He was not only crying in distress because the devil and his pawns had made their final move on him, but also because of the “no” screamed by the absence of his followers.

Surprise. Jesus is resurrected by His Father and starts making His rounds. Now, it is imperative at this point for a good Federal Calvinist like Sproul that Jesus not go around acting like some hippie yoga deity that might just off and forgive those who abandoned Him. It is imperative for Sproul that Jesus make clear the condition that hangs upon what He has done in His death and resurrection (provided they were actually elect and His death atoned for their sins. Ah, limited atonement, such a balm for a restless soul!) Yet, we see Jesus do something wildly different.

Jesus’ first words to the 11 are “Peace to you!” (24.36). The eleven who abandoned Jesus are met by his declaration of peace with them. This is possible under one scenario. In Jesus’ death, in His abandonment, he achieved reconciliation between them. Jesus is able to go to his disciples without malice because of what he effected in his death and resurrection. This peace created between the two parties is a reconciliation, a narrative microcosm of God’s act in Christ. The disciples were confused, “startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit” (24.37). Before Jesus explained to them according to the Scriptures what had happened to him, they only had reason to be afraid. Not only because Jesus seemed to be a spirit, but because, as with the followers on the road to Emmaus, they had proven to be disappointed in Jesus’ death on a cross; they had fulfilled Psalm 31, seeing Jesus as an object of dread.

This isn’t Jesus being soft on sin. The enmity between Jesus and His disciples (or, the whole cosmos as Paul would say bluntly in 2 Corinthians 5) has been undone in this reconciliation. Repentance does not precede the effective death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not a condition. Repentance is a result of this reconciliation. God’s movement towards us is grounded in his eternal love and his love is not conditioned by us (John Calvin famously quoted Augustine while handling Romans 5 on this, “Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciles us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us..” Institutes, II.16.4). God shows his love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. You can say that without winking. The negative formulation of the gospel, so entrenched in certain evangelical articulations of the gospel is non-gospel. It is not a declaration of Good News, but a message about potential bad news and potential good news. Paul and Luke have no issues here. How it works out is complicated (cf Romans 11, boi) but Jesus’ death and resurrection are firm. Sproul thinks he’s being tough on sin, but he’s not. He has reduced it to faulty actions we rationally make and can rationally turn from — especially when the carrot of God’s love is dangled in front of our eyes and the rod of God’s wrath is placed on our ass.

This is not a God without judgment and wrath, but the judgment and wrath of God are a result of God’s Being as Love, revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Luke 23-24, we learn that God’s “yes” overcomes the disciples’s “no.” We learn that God rejects the disciples rejection of His Son and reconciles them, in love, before they make any moves toward Him. The Gospel, the actual Good News, is of God’s priority. It is not conditioned by us, and certainly not our repentance. There is no quid pro quo with God. “..God’s idea of Good News is opposed to circular exchange” (J.L. Martyn, The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians). The God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus loves in such a way that He arranges and enacts the appropriate judgments in order to achieve reconciliation. He has no interest in making contracts with humans to fulfill in order to be able to love them. He just loves them. This is something that can only be seen by focusing on Christ, as Calvin argues in Book II of the Institutes, but Sproul has ignored Calvin’s argument. More importantly, he has ignored the declaration of Christ.

  • ET

Faith as Eschatological Address: Jenson on Bultmann on faith

In his review of Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, David Bentley Hart writes:

So, speaking for myself, I wish to say only that I find it impossible to have done with Jenson’s work, or to cease returning to it as a challenge to refine and clarify my own understanding of the gospel…. No one of my theological persuasion, I think, who engages Jenson’s thought in earnest can doubt that it is indeed the living God with whom he has come to grips: not some fabulous metaphysical phantom conjured out of Jenson’s fixations or fantasies, but a genuine attempt to describe the God of Scripture in the fullness of His historical presence and eternal identity.

Hart, perhaps one of America’s most erudite and well-learned theologians, is famous (in the little word of theology that is) for his robust and passionate defense of “classical theism.” Jenson on the other hand is well known for his thoroughgoing revision of classical metaphysics. What is interesting about Hart’s review is that despite his numerous disagreements, Hart still acknowledges that there can be no doubt Jenson’s thought and work is a true attempt to come to grips with the Living God. This is an important point. Christian theology, especially systematic theology, must never forget that the God we are talking about is not a “metaphysical phantom,” a datum of experience, or even an axiom of history/reason, but the Living God (No one makes this point better than Karl Barth. See CD II.2). I want to flesh this out in more detail by turning to Jenson’s Systematic Theology and looking at the first half of his chapter on Jesus.

In his systematic, Jenson defines his project as “hermeneutic.” According to Jenson, the task of theology is always done from a “location within life” necessitating that past hearing turns to new speaking; this is hermeneutics. Theology’s question is always, “In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that the gospel may again be spoken?” (14). Thus, theology is both traditioned and interpretation; it is always something that begins with a received word and issues a new word related to the old word. Here we must relate this to how Jenson understands the Gospel and faith.

According to Jenson, it has been a great benefit of 20th century theology that it has learned from scripture to think of the Logos not only as the rationality of God but also as God’s Speech, creating a new theological task. Here, Rudolph Bultmann has been of great benefit in recovering a biblical notion of the Word and what it means for Jesus to be a word (a word in the lowercase sense, meaning Jesus himself as creative speech, utterance, event). The central notion posited and used by the Bultmann School to explicate what it means for Jesus to be the Word/a word was that of “word-event.” This term is meant to transcend the distinction between speech and event, doing away with the supposed ontological distinction within human history between utterance and mute events (as if these were two separate things, speech being simply descriptive of events). Instead, historical reality is constituted in the mutuality between speech and event because every utterance actually does something- it actually opens up a future of new possibilities, while within every historical event something “comes to word”- in every human event “new possibilities of bespeaking and understanding emerge.” (Ebeling, Das Wesen des christlichen Glaubens, 252).

This is important because what “came to word” in the word-event that is Jesus is faith itself. Meaning that Jesus did not just speak “innovatively” about faith, but in his command to ‘Believe!’ Jesus made faith as a way of existence possible and necessary. This, Jenson says, was Bultmann’s greatest systematic achievement- his correlation between faith and the actual proclamatory speaking of the gospel. Faith then is not a general trust in an entity called God, but what happens when the gospel is spoken and heard as an address that can only be God’s own speech (167).

As a word that addresses us, faith is an “eschatological address,” an address that opens up a future for us and (here the notion of word-event above does important work) actually creates what it speaks. It is important to note that the future that is “opened” is not a generic or unknown future (it is here that Bultmann goes astray according to Jenson) but is a future determined as fellowship with Jesus. Thus Jenson, “Jesus is the identity of the future opened by the Word of God” (171). Faith as “eschatological existence” (existence opened up to God’s future and coming) then is necessarily a “surrender of all security.” As my act, faith is a giving up of my “attained self” and a receiving of myself from God (Galatians 3:28). It is important to note that faith on this account is fundamentally receptive. As Jenson powerfully understands, “when I try to perform this act, I of course achieve the opposite, for I necessarily do it within my project of self-securing, even if in this case religiously” (167). In an evangelical/American context where faith so easily becomes a work of self-justification and security, Bultmann, following the Gospel of John, recognizes that a “person cannot free himself by his will, for just in such an act of will he would remain the man he was.” The only thing that has the power to free me is a proclamatory word spoken to me. This word according to Jenson and Bultmann challenges me to live from God’s future rather than from my possessed life, a possibility that is opened up in the event of hearing, as Godself actually happens to me (that is- as I encounter the living and free Lord).

This brings us back to the start of this post: Christian theology, especially systematic theology, must always be a discourse about the living and free God. The Gospel is not a matter of recounting and assenting to historical facts (though they are certainly important) nor a matter of religious self-projection a la Feuerbach/Freud, but a proclamation by God that undoes all security, frees me from myself, and opens me to the future of the Coming One determined as fellowship with Jesus.

Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part blog post. The second post will deal with the challenges this understanding of faith raises between history and eschatology, time and eternity.


Gone Fishin’

I passed by a book I have on the Gospel of Mark the other night and remembered a passage on Mark 1.17 from Richard Hays’s Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. That is how good books leave you, I suppose. Before explaining Hays’s comments on Mark 1.17, I’d like to show some points in Mark’s first chapter that, in my opinion, compliment what Hays is doing in that passage. Immediately following I’ll explain Hays’s comments on “fishers of men” and discuss the wider implications for Christian theology.

John the Baptist, the cousin and forerunner of Jesus, is the first character introduced in Mark’s gospel. Much of the language used to describe his ministry is deeply evocative of the theological world that Mark is drawing upon. This language first occurred to me when translating Mark in my intermediate Greek class where these kinds of comments and questions were encouraged as we translated the text, parsed the most difficult words, and wept over our lexicons. Time after time though, I found while working closely through the Greek text that Mark is setting his story within the context of Israel’s Scriptures. This is what I saw. John is first described as preaching “in the wilderness” (τῇ ἐρήμῳ). Separated from the text’s literary home, we might overlook the significance of this location. However, when we tune our ears to the conceptual world of Israel’s Scriptures we can see that he is playing off of wilderness motifs found there. The wilderness in the Old Testament is the place where Israel is placed as a repercussion of their lack of trust in God’s word. This repercussion is directly related to its distance from the promised land (Number 13-14). But, as quoted from the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of the book (this is the part of the infamous Isaiah quote that is actually from Isaiah), God is preparing a way in the wilderness: life and salvation are springing up within the judgment of the wilderness (Isa 35.1; 35.6; 40.3). As we move further through Mark 1, we see more allusions to Israel’s Scriptures on judgment and salvation. It is present even in the food John the Baptist eats. He is described as eating “locusts and wild honey” (1.6). We could, with some readers, say this is to present him as some sort of “wild man.” Or we could take note of the fact that this would be allowed under Jewish law. Yet if we keep looking to Israel’s Scriptures, we will find more in John’s appetite. Both locust and honey are allusions to YHWH’s promises in Torah about his covenant relationship with Israel. Locusts are a symbol of God’s judgment (Exodus 10; Joel 1-2) and honey is a sign of God’s promise and salvation (Exodus 3.8, think about this in relation to wilderness and promised land with “milk and honey.”). John the Baptist enacts his message in what he eats, just as prophet before him had done (Ezekiel 3.1-2, 4.9-15). He prepares a Way in the wilderness and this Way is salvation in the judgment as YHWH promised. Mark does not just do this with the forerunner of Jesus, but with Jesus himself. Jesus is “driven” into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan for forty days (hear “forty” within the context of Torah as well, 1.12-13). Jesus is presented as the one who is led into the wilderness (as Israel was), encounters temptation (as Adam and Israel did), yet prevails. This gospel is a judgment, salvation, and a confrontation with the ultimate Enemy.

Which brings me to Richard Hays’s point about Mark 1.17. Here Jesus is passing along the Sea of Galilee when he calls Simon and Andrew. The phrase he uses can be taken a number of ways. Does he call them to be fishers of men purely because this was the profession of Simon and Andrew? Is he speaking in “everyday” fishermen language they can understand so they may be drawn to him? Perhaps. There is no doubt that Jesus’ response is playing off the fishing setting in which the conversation takes place. Still, Hays sees Mark drawing on something deeper here. The use of the phrase “fishers of men” (ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων) is not entirely a new phrase for Mark’s audience; it belongs to the “encyclopedia of reception.” It is not a clever phrase about “catch[ing] outsiders and bring[ing] them into church” (24), but a reference to stories of judgment in the prophetic writings. “I am now sending out my fisherman, says the Lord, and I will catch them.. their iniquity is not concealed from my sight” (Jeremiah 16.16a,17a). This verse occurs right after a promise of salvation (16.15). Amos develops this image as well: “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4.2). Standing within this tradition we begin to see what it means to be fishers of men. The disciples are fishers of men in that they are bearers of YHWH’s eschatological judgment.

It is not through force or violence that the disciples bear eschatological judgment, but in the message and ministry of Jesus. Fascinatingly, I think Mark shows just what this means in the following stories. He shows Jesus teaching in a synagogue when a man with an unclean spirit cries out, “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (1.24). Ironically, the unclean spirit has recognized Jesus and spoken the truth. Jesus indeed has come to destroy the unclean spirit, but he does this without destroying the man where the unclean spirit dwells (Jesus continues these healing and exorcising activities in 1.32-24). This is God’s judgment and it prefigures the ministry of the gospel that the disciples take up after Jesus. God catches men in the proclamation of the crucified and risen Jesus and enacts a judgment on their situation. This judgment casts out the power of Satan, condemns the sin, and forgives the sinner.

This is fascinating to me because of how we normally hear passages of eschatological judgment and salvation over against how Mark is handing them to us. As early as the first chapter, Mark is narrating Jesus’ life in apocalyptic terms. For Mark, Jesus Christ is the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into “a territory held largely by the devil” (O’Connor). Yet, this action is able to confront sinners and pronounce a judgment upon them without destroying the sinners. This judgment is as disjointing as a fish being reeled out of its world into a world run by the fisherman, but it is a judgment that saves.

BTW: pic is from the movie Gone Fishin’ which apparently has a 4% on Rotten Tomatoes even though I remember it being a masterpiece.

The Apostle Paul and Conversion

Was Paul called or converted? This question stands at the heart of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), a significant movement that has attempted to recover Paul’s Jewishness. This question may seem banal or unimportant to the layman but it captures the heart of the debate between “new” and “traditional” perspectives on Paul and has implications for conversion within Paul’s wider theology and what “conversion” looks like today.

In 1976 Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran bishop and Harvard professor, wrote Paul among Jews and Gentiles (just a year before E.P Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism would revolutionize Pauline studies). In his book, Stendahl argued that Paul’s Damascus road experience should be understood as a “call” rather than a “conversion.” Paul’s experience has been interpreted as a conversion, according to Stendahl, only because it has been read through the lens of Augustine and Luther’s conversion experiences (and read with Western concerns in mind, namely the assuaging of a guilty conscience). Stendahl and NPP interpreters feared that traditional understandings of Paul’s experience as a “conversion” implied that, “Paul underwent something like a Christian conversion experience (a la Augustine/Luther) of remorse and repentance or, more erroneously, a change of religions from Judaism to Christianity.”[1] NPP interpreters point out, however, that Paul understands himself not as one “converted to Christianity” but as one “set apart” and “called by grace to preach to the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15-16, Michael Gorman points out that Paul’s language here echoes God’s gracious calling of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah). Moreover, any notion that Paul was guilty or remorseful before his Damascus road experience is explicitly ruled out in Philippians 3:4-6.

So, was Paul called or converted? As we have seen, the traditional understanding of Paul’s Damascus road experience as a “conversion” is clearly flawed. However, understanding Paul’s experience as a “calling” no different from that of Isaiah or Jeremiah is also flawed. As Jewish scholar Alan Segal has pointed out, “no historical prophet came around on his experience as Paul did when called to his task.” What Segal means, is that Paul’s experience radically transformed and reconfigured his understanding of God and Torah in a way that was unprecedented and not found in Isaiah or Jeremiah. Segal offers a middle ground between the NPP and traditional understanding of Paul’s experience by arguing from a sociological perspective that conversion does not necessarily mean a change of religions but a change of religious identity and community. Thus Gorman argues, “a conversion may be defined, more fully, as a radical reorientation of one’s fundamental commitment that is expressed in three things: belief, behavior, and belonging.”[2] On this definition Paul clearly was both called and converted, for surely he experienced a radical change in belief, behavior, and belonging (Philippians 3:7-11). It is important to recognize that the question of Paul’s call/conversion is not just an abstract academic argument but has real implications for how we understand conversion in the church today.

Typically, in traditional Protestant circles, Paul has been the quintessential epitome of a conversion experience. Understanding conversion through the famous conversions of Augustine and Luther, many Protestants have used platitudes like “accept Jesus into your heart” or “invite Jesus into your life” to articulate what conversion looks like.[3] This call typically follows an evangelistic sermon that has convicted the listeners that they are guilty sinners (and this guilt can clearly be known if they would simply look into their conscience/heart) who need to repent. If they do repent and “accept Jesus into their heart” then they are now Christians who have been made righteous by the grace of God. Thus, the divine-human relationship is understood in purely nominal or external- rather than participatory- terms. As Han’s Boersma has argued, the Reformation’s understanding of justification by faith alone was in great continuity with the nominalist tradition beginning in the 12th and 13th century. According to Boersma, “this continuity centered on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The imputation- according to the Reformers, a forensic (legal) declaration- was external or nominal in nature.”[4] The imputation is external or nominal because while it changes your external standing in God’s ledger (from guilty to not guilty/righteous) it does not in of itself change a person. This is powerfully expressed by Luther’s famous simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner).[5]

The problem with the traditional protestant understanding of conversion is that it understands faith and belief in purely nominalist/external terms. Faith is simply a matter of saying the “sinners prayer,” “accepting Jesus into your heart,” or “saying yes.” It is exactly this understanding of faith that has allowed for a separation between lived life/ethics and belief. The solution is not a jettisoning of “salvation by grace through faith” or requiring that works be done in order to be saved/made righteous, it is recognizing that for Paul (and the NT), “faith is a comprehensive response: trust, absolute surrender, obedience, and commitment to the covenant.”[6] It is as noted above, a radical change or reorientation in belief, behavior, and belonging. Furthermore, salvation and faith for Paul is inherently participatory in nature. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

For Paul, the life of faith is one in which Christians become partakers in Christ’s death and resurrection. As such they are not only declared righteous but they are actually delivered, liberated, and set free from sin (Romans 6:7, as Douglas Campbell argues Paul’s dikaio- language has a fundamentally liberative sense). The paradox of this freedom is that it looks like being made a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:17-18). Or as Jesus put it, “taking up your cross and following me” (Matt. 16:24).


[1] Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 59.

[2] Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 60.

[3] It is important to understand the connection between Augustine/Luther and these platitudes. I do not think a proper reading of Augustine or Luther (either their theologies or their conversions) justifies typical protestant “evangelistic calls” or the phrase “accept Jesus into your heart.” However, Augustine and Luther’s conversion experiences have risen to such a level in the evangelical cultural imaginary that they have taken on an archetypal role for what conversion is and how it operates. Furthermore, while these platitudes might be rare in more intellectual circles of Protestant evangelicalism, the critique still applies to those who use verses involving “trust,” “believe,” or “faith” evangelistically  in nominalist, non-participatory, ways.

[4] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 92-93

[5] It is important to note that the debate over continuity/discontinuity between the nominalist tradition and the reformation is an ongoing one. Both Calvin and Luther themselves contain continuities and discontinuities. That being said, I do contend that post-Reformation scholasticism and evangelicalism are highly nominalist. For an extended discussion of this debate see Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 84-94.

[6] Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 348-351.

The Problem of Paul and Jesus According to Schweitzer

“What endless trouble theology has given itself about the problem of Paul and Jesus, and what shifts it has been put to explain why Paul does not derive his teaching from the preaching of Jesus, but stands in this respect so independently alongside of Him! In doing so it is talking all round a problem, which it has first made insoluble by failing to grasp it in its completeness. The discovery that Paul takes up an independent attitude towards Jesus is misleading, unless one at the same time recognizes all that he has in common with Him. For Paul shares with Jesus the eschatological worldview and the eschatological expectation, with all that these imply. The only difference is the hour in the world clock in the two cases…

… Truth is for him (Paul) the knowledge of redemption as it results, on the basis of the eschatological expectation, from the fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus… In drawing the logical inferences from the altered world circumstances Paul is forced by the position to take, in his teaching, an original attitude alongside of Jesus. But in this he is merely recasting in accordance with the conditions of time the fundamental conceptions, derived from eschatology, which are common to them both….”

– Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle

Did Paul preach a different gospel than Jesus? The orthodox reaction is obviously “no.” Yet, this question continually shows up in New Testament scholarship, and not without warrant — the emphasis on forgiveness of sins and the kingdom of God/heaven in the gospels versus the concept of justification and confrontation with Law/circumcision in Paul’s epistles. These things don’t seem to overlap. Yet, Schweitzer is convinced that much scholarship has missed the continuity between the theology of Jesus’ preaching and Paul’s epistles because it has badly misunderstood the eschatological redemption around which both Jesus’ and Paul’s thought revolves.

For Schweitzer, the essential difference is not the gospel, but the realization in history of the gospel’s content. Jesus’ death is understood eschatologically both in the gospels and Paul’s epistles. The essential “difference” is their location with reference to the eschatological world clock. Jesus certainly preached eschatological sermons and saw his death as integral to the eschatological redemption promised by God (this is one of the key insights of Schweitzer’s “Quest”). For Paul, the issues are simply not the same as before because the eschatological event actually transforms the cosmos and creates new problems to address (I apologize, my JL Martyn is showing). According to Schweitzer, Paul believed this is what Jesus would have him preach if Jesus were still walking on earth at the time (not to mention it was the Gospel he received “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” Himself, Gal 1.12). To simply run to Jesus’ sermons before His death and resurrection is to minimize His apocalyptic death and resurrection which now is the key to everything.

Once Paul’s theology is understood as centered in the eschatological death and resurrection of Jesus breaking through in the death and resurrection of those “in Christ”, then our reading of the Gospels becomes less disjointed from Paul’s vision. Does Christ not announce the end of God’s enemies? Does Christ not bid his disciples to come and die


Evil and the “Insufferably Fabulous” World of the New Testament

“.. what the Christian should see.. is not simply one reality: neither the elaborate, benign, elegantly calibrated machine of the deists, smoothly and efficiently accomplishing whatever goods a beneficent God and the intractable potentialities of finitude can produce between them; nor certainly ‘nature’ in the modern, mechanistic acceptation of that word. Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed trough the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.

Christians sometimes find it exceedingly difficult to adopt the cosmological idiom of the New Testament, and while this is understandable in many respects, it can also yield extremely unfortunate results. It is strange enough that the skeptic demands of Christians that they account for evil – physical and moral – in a way that draws a perfectly immediate connection between the will of God for his creatures and the conditions of earthly life; it is stranger still when Christians attempt to oblige…

Perhaps no doctrine strikes non-Christians as more insufferably fabulous than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe: that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness, and the nothingness from which it was called, that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God…” 

– David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea 

Hart’s book is a response to the devastating 2004 tsunami and his words are as important now as they were then. The so-called “problem of evil” is difficult especially in response to natural disasters with which one cannot run to the earnest but doomed free-will defense. There’s much to reflect on from the above selection, but I want to focus on the crescendo. Hart believes that the eschatological vision of the New Testament has been lost or reinterpreted. This reinterpretation of the “insufferably fabulous” is not merely by the likes of Bultmann and his heirs, but by most who would call themselves Christian. While many have heard sermons claiming that the ongoing drama has two actors (God and sinful humanity), the New Testament tells a different story.

– ET

Puppets, Addicts, and the Un-Free Will

“I have been talking about the un-free will for thirty years and have never had a single person agree with me on my first attempt. People instinctively rise up against the idea. I repeat, I have not experienced a single instance, in thirty years, of anyone immediately agreeing with me that the human will is not free. (In fact, the only people who display any receptivity at all to the idea are alcoholics and criminals. And even criminals behind bars want to go back to “free-will” once they are settled into prison existence.) When I speak of the un-free will, most people wish to have a duel with me and leave me, like Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, inert on the ground.

Often when the subject of the un-free will comes up, people jump ahead of my claim. They think I am talking about predestination. They think I mean Pavlov and little dogs with bells and shocks. They think I am trying to corner them into some kind of idea that makes people into puppets. To this I say, ‘you’re ahead of the game. I am talking about one thing, and one thing only: how people actually act and whether they are under compulsion in certain situations. Please don’t talk to me about puppets until you have answered me about addicts.’”

-Paul F.M. Zahl Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life


Despite the question of human freedom and the will normally taking place in the context of conversations about predestination, Zahl rightly argues that the un-free will is the precondition for having compassion for humanity. A theology of everyday life that is faced by the desperate bondage people are subject to (bondage not only to flesh and blood but also to the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this present age Eph. 6:12) must begin with the irrepressible cry of “Help me!” The un-free will rightly understood doesn’t lead to disgust and contempt for others or myself but an utter dependence on the good and loving God who rescues.


Creator Against Creature

Ernst Käsemann, in Jesus Means Freedom,writes:

“God’s will is no secret, at least in so far as it concerns love and one’s brother. The creator whom one can play off against the creature is a fake god, and false gods rob even pious people of their humanity, as is shown times without number in the church’s history. We need to keep this very firmly fixed in our minds today. There are Christians who cry down others in the name of a theology of the resurrection, and yet at the same time – with certain reservations, of course – feel able to justify the use of the atomic bomb. It sounds plausible: a bit of genocide and word-wide destruction contrived by men is no great matter to those who are looking only to the new world. But with all their hope of resurrection, such Christians blaspheme against God who, in Jesus, sought man for the purpose of helping him not merely in the next world, but here and now. It is in this context, if anywhere, that we ought to hear, reflect on, and preach, ‘No one can serve two masters’. We cannot serve God if we are no longer concerned for our fellow men.”

Käsemann is not being dramatic. He writes in the wake of German Christianity’s overwhelming support of the Nazi regime. It is simply not enough to have orthodox theology on your side. A Nazi can recite the Nicene Creed before pledging allegiance to Hitler. We now look at Germany’s endorsement of genocide with bewilderment, but do we find ourselves worshiping a god of caprice? We forget our idols are often elusive when we (and those who surround us) frequent their temples.

This deceased New Testament scholar is clear: the god who supports dehumanization of others is an idol. Who will you serve today, God or Mammon?


Welcome to Dogmatic Work

Hey, thanks for checking out Dogmatic Work. This is a blog run by Ethan Taylor and Elliot VanHoy. We’re two theology students in Anderson, South Carolina. We wanted a place for us to work out the thoughts and conversations we’ve been having. Nothing here is original. It will all be thoughts about thoughts from thinkers that far surpass anything we are capable of on our own. This will be a place where we interact with books we’ve read and occasionally make constructive thoughts alongside them.

We think what you believe about God is of the utmost importance. These beliefs affect the way we speak about God, the texts we read about God, and the communities in which we worship God. This is why it is Dogmatic Work. We want to bring different strands of theology into critical conversation. We’re looking forward to getting some content up soon.