“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” – Martin Luther King
From the second book of the Bible, we are given a powerful story.
That God’s people came to the land of Egypt under the protection of Joseph, the long lost son of Jacob, who secured the prosperity of the land against terrible famine, all because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. But after many years, the Israelites multiplied and the Egyptian Pharaohs grew forgetful of who Joseph was and what he did for the Egyptian people years ago.
So, a tyrant Pharaoh arose, who turned and enslaved the Israelites. He forced them to build its temples and pyramids from bricks, hearkening back to the tower of babel. In Scripture the figure of Babylon, the idolatry of empire itself, has many names: Assyria, Greece, Rome, Egypt.
Empires always put power before people. Empires always but money before humanity. Empires always justify terrible oppression as maintain order.
Pharaoh worried that the Israel were getting too numerous for their Egyptian overloads to contain, and in order to keep Egypt pure and powerful, he ordered the genocide of all the baby boys of Israel.
The narrative tells of one boy, Moses, who survived the genocide by being floated in a reed basket down the river, to be picked up providentially by Pharaohs daughter and raised as her own.
This boy, Moses, grew to be a man, and when he learned of the truth about who he was and what the pharaoh had done, murdered a slave master, and fled into exile.
Moses’ outrage tried to solve oppression with violence, and it did not work. Violence never ends violence.
In exile one day he happened upon a mysterious burning bush. It was ablaze but was not consumed. The mysterious sight spoke to him, identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he had heard the cries of the people in slavery, and was now going to act.
What shall I call you, Moses asks? “I am that I am” the presence answered. The un-nameable, uncontrollable, freedom of being and root of all existence itself, the Great I Am, this being is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
Moses is commissioned reluctantly to go and tell the new Pharaoh, his half-brother, that God wants him to let his people go. God wants liberty for his people. God want liberation for all people.
Pharaoh, who believes he is god, refuses, and so Ten Plagues rain down to break the tyrant’s resolve. First the sacred Nile turned to blood, then frogs and lice spread, then disease and boils, hail and locusts, then finally darkness covered the land, and then it says that Pharaohs’ resolve was finally broken in the Passover as the angel of death himself descended and visited the death of the firstborn boys back against Egypt.
Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israel to go. But as they left, however, he recanted.
He assembled his army to re-enslave the people and slaughter them if need be. The people fled and then found themselves pressed up against the sea, nowhere to run. No weapons to fight, no soldiers or chariots. All hope was lost.
But then as the story goes, God opened up the sea, walls on either side, dry land in the middle, so that the Israelites could escape.
The Egyptian army rallied to pursue, but as they made their way into the divide, God let go the walls of water, washing the army away.
The Israelite slaves were now free, free without every picking up a sword on their part, free to live, more importantly, free to worship and follow their God.
So, Exodus 15 recites the praise of the people for God rescuing them.
I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea…
The Lord is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him…
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name…
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
Our readings for this unity service looks at the God we worship (Ex. 15, Psalm 118, and Mark 5). God who is strong, majestic, holy, awesome in glory. It is this very God that is on the side of the weak and the oppressed. It is this very God that opposes the proud and will brings down the powerful. It is this very God who has promised to end the presence of evil in this world.
This is important to say that this story is more about who God is than about the spectacle of walls of water crashing down on unsuspecting Egyptian soldiers. Hollywood loves to fixate on the imagery of chariots and walls of water, whether Moses is played by Carleton Heston or Christian Bale, but Hollywood often forgets the theology.
Martin Luther King said it best:
The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and of unjust exploitation. (King, Strength to Love, 78)
This is a narrative that we see through Christ as we look at evil in the world, which reminds us of God’s ultimate victory over evil and how we are invited to live that out in part today and awaiting a final day of God’s liberation.
1. There is real, radical, systemic, and cosmic evil in our world today.
One might think this is an obvious point. Just turn on the news and you are bombarded with messages about corrupt politicians, poverty, wars and disasters.
But why do we think anything is or can be evil at all – and not just merely unfortunate?
Again, this seems obvious but just as God has become a suspect belief today, so with him, also the belief that there is actually good and evil.
One atheist Neuroscientist wrote that empirically there is no good or evil technically, just nature that we prefer and nature that we don’t. The world, disasters and death is neither moral or immoral. It just is. As far as human nature, there isn’t evil or good, so much as proper functioning brains and malfunctioning brains.
Coincidentally, he is not to big on the idea that humans have free will either.
Our culture has placed its trust in the power of the empirical, and as a result, with belief in a transcendent God out of the picture, so also, slowly with that good and evil.
The world as it is is all there is. It is not evil or good, it just is.
Why is there meaning as opposed to meaninglessness?
Why is sacrifice more virtuous than comfort and apathy
Why is compassion preferable to domination?
Why is good preferable to evil?
Why is life preferable to death?
We are learning that these cherished hopes we have as humans and more specifically as Christians, they are not natural givens. They are not sitting there obvious to the disinterested observer. They are seen by faith. They are produced within a particular community that looks to God for what is most true and meaningful, most ultimate and good.
It is faith in a God, who made the world good, that we know that there is a primal innocence and beauty residing in all reality, and that as humans have made the decision to rebel and reject God’s life and goodness, evil and sin has deformed our world.
Some might say God obviously does not exist because of all the evil in this world. I think it is the opposite. We can only see that there is something called evil in this world by believing there is something good beyond the world.
If God exists and God is good, we know is not the way it ought to be.
2. When we consider evil in our world, we have to contend with the evil within us.
When we know God’s will is goodness, truth, beauty, life and hope, then we look at the world and see that it has radical, systemic, and cosmic evil.
But when we say there is something wrong with the world out there, the scriptures us push to turn our attention from the evil out there to the evil in here, in our hearts. The in excusable evil we do.
This evil is found in the capacity of human beings that in light of all our education and knowledge, all our collective wisdom and arts and religion, and all our power and technology we will still choose the path of annihilation, knowing full-well its harm.
When we know the vast waste and depravity of violence, we still go to war.
When we know that more is accomplished in unity, we choose division.
When we know the benefits of facing hard realities, we still choose to cling to our delusions.
In this story of Israel and Egypt, if we are really honest, we must realize that we are more often Egypt than Israel.
So often we read the Exodus story saying we are the Israelites in a spiritual bondage. The reality is we are more accurately the Egyptians. We are more often oppressor than oppressed. We are members of one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.
We sometimes smugly accuse our neighbors to the south of injustice, but we Canadians have to realize our own nations sins.
Our corporations have stripped the resources away from people in South America and Africa.
Our banks have suffocated the economies of many Caribbean Islands.
We have used our military to even overthrow democratically elected leaders and even Christians leaders in other countries, all to secure our wealth.
I am no internet conspiracy theorist. These are all facts in plain sight. The question is do we have eyes to see these realities?
Underneath our facade of a nation of peacekeepers and human rights is a disappointing track record of exploitation that we Canadians turn a blind eye to because we don’t want to know where our products come from or what is ensures our economic comforts.
We are more like the Egyptians then the Israelites. Many good Egyptians of conscience probably sat ideally by as Israelites died building temples and pyramids. They probably did the same thing we are going. Throwing up our arms and saying, “Oh, well,” and turn a blind eye because they did not want to sacrifice their comforts..
To be human from the standpoint of faith is to know we have a primal goodness, but also the terrible capacity to forsake that goodness.
We as Christians know that while our faith pushes us to love more and pursuit truth more and justice more, but we also are aware that our hearts can also contort our religion into instruments of apathy and self-righteousness.
We do this when we offer prayers that we don’t intend to act on.
We do this when refuse to reach out to the broken in our communities.
When we cling to our own comforts rather than living sacrificially.
When we shut out the world so that we don’t have to have compassion on it.
We look out at the world and we condemn its evil, we look at our country and we realize we are living in a modern day Egypt. And they we look at our churches and we have to realize we are no better.
3. God’s answer to evil, our evil, is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ
What happens when we see evil in this world and we realize that we also have that same evil within our hearts? What do we do when we realize we are more like Egypt than Israel?
The book of exodus is a narrative that gets retold, recited, and re-enacted throughout the Bible, particularly the New Testament. If we don’t read the Exodus through the New Testament we are left realizing we belong drowned in that sea rather than safe on that shore. We deserve sorrow not these songs.
But Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures. Jesus is our exodus. Jesus shows us true exodus.
This story of Passover is re-enacted and fulfilled in the last supper and the cross.
This is important because for the exodus story to apply for us, we need to place ourselves in the seats of the disciples. And what did the disciples do? They failed just as we failed. They turned from Jesus. And so often we do to. The disciples that ate with Jesus, knew what was good more than anyone else, they sinned. That is the beginning of the church.
Judas betrayed. Peter denied. The others fled in fear. The people of God were complicit in the murder of their messiah. The law of God was manipulated to execute to their own deliverer. To see radical evil in our world and in our hearts, we need not look any further than what happened to Jesus at the cross by those whom he came to save.
The world denied Jesus, but the more troubling part is that we denied Jesus.
And so, the words are ever more powerful that on the night of the Passover, the night the disciples remembered this exodus event, this was the night Jesus was betrayed, Jesus became our the Passover lamb, to liberate us from our own sins.
His body that we broke, was broken for us.
The blood the people of God shed, he embraced as a path to forgive them of the very sins they were sinning against him. A new covenant.
No vast sea was split the day Jesus was nailed on the cross but the veil was torn, a greater cosmic event occurred: God forgave his enemies, us, God atoned for sins, our sins, even as we murdered him. God embraced death so that we could have life. God chose to suffer as one cursed so that all who cry out forsaken would know they are not.
And as the Gospels say, here the Scripture were fulfilled.
To read exodus through the cross is to know that Jesus died for Pharaoh just as much as Moses. Just as Jesus died for Peter who denied him, he died for you and me that fail to follow him.
To read this narrative of Pharaoh being thrown into the sea with his soldiers through Christ is to realize that Jesus fulfilled this by accepting that punishment for evil on himself not visiting it back on those that deserve it.
To read exodus through the cross is to know that God’s way of dealing with evil is not with bringing disaster on the perpetrators but by bringing healing.
To read the exodus Passover through Jesus shows us a God that does not want to kill his enemies, but rather a God who loves his enemies, overcomes them not with force but with forgiveness, such that even the Roman guards by the cross cried out, “Surely this man was the son of God.”
At the cross the great evils of this world that nailed Jesus to a Roman execution pike did not prevent our Savior from being fully obedient to the Father and fully willing to forgive us. That is how evil was defeated.
And three days later, the Father raised Jesus from the died, overturning histories judgment.
The resurrection was the overturning of death itself. The weapon of evil and fear, empire and tyranny was disarmed that day.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
Jesus overturned our sins that day too. He appeared to those that betrayed him, the disciples, and announced peace to you.
Death, sin, and despair have lost. They destiny is oblivion, and our destiny is liberation.
When we lose hope in ourselves, when we are overwhelmed at the sin in our hearts, we know that we worship a God that would gladly accept the death penalty in order to bring us to him.
When we look at our world, its systems of oppression and corruption, the cogs of death that keep turning, we know we worship the God of life, who raised Jesus from the dead.
Hell reigns, but not forever.
Oppression reigns but its days are numbered.
Death reigns but it realizes now it is the one that is mortal.
Sin is here but it has been defeated.
Christ has had his definitive victory that Easter morning for the tomb was found empty. The grave could not contain him.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
The question then is how to we live this victory?
4. How do we live out the victory of the resurrection?
We are called to sacrifice. When we know that God has given us salvation and the enduring presence of his love, we take our liberation and use our freedom to take up our cross. No one is liberated until everyone is liberated. And the highest freedom is not material mobility but spiritual strength. That is only possible by follow Christ no matter what.
Martin Luther King knew this. Oscar Romero knew this. Maximilian Kolbe knew this. Jim Elliot knew this. All the martyrs that have given their lives for Christ, the Gospel and his kingdom of truth and justice will tell you this.
There can be no path to resurrection without the cross just as there cannot be any path to freedom without sacrifice. And this sacrifice is freedom.
We must be sorry. This freedom begins in repentance. There is no solution to the terrible evil in this world until we take responsibility for our own roles in further it. We are called to acknowledge that we sin and we need forgiveness. We repent because we need restoring.
The Gospel gives us that counter-intuitive truth that humility is liberation. Liberation from ourselves.
We are called to serve. The only way our world will become a better place is by good people acting differently. For use to move out of our culture’s default setting of selfishness and apathy and ignorance.
As Desmond Tutu said, God has no body but ours. God has no hands and feet but ours. God uses our eyes to look upon the oppressed. He uses our ears to listen to those suffering.
Are we, brothers and sisters from different traditions of Christianity, ready to be Christ’s body again?
Lastly, tonight, we are called to sing. That is what we are doing today at this unity service. When we worship a God of perfect goodness and power and love, we see the world differently. If we don’t continue to meet together, to pray together, to recite Scripture together, we will grow weary along the difficult path disciples must way.We need each other.
When we worship together in the unity of Christ, we show a divided world that there is hope beyond the fragments.
And so, please stand with me and let us renew are hearts by praising our God with this inspiring song, “The Right Hand of God.”
So, if you have been tracking with this review, I began by summarizing the story of The Shack and remarking how I simply do not see a lot that people should be upset about. It is robustly trinitarian, Christ-oriented, a free-will theology with forgiveness at the centre. It is a narrative written by a man who obviously does love Jesus, and has an amazing testimony of working to understand that through pain and suffering and brokenness.
In my second part, I noted that The Shack has gotten a lot of bad criticism. I think a lot of this comes from a mentality similar to the fundamentalist one I had, so I offered bits of autobiographical information where I noted the irony that much of what I thought was “conservative” in my more narrow tradition of upbringing, ironically, when I started reading broader in the tradition, was found to be unorthodox. Here we will explore some of the objections to The Shack to point that out.
Here we go… Allow me to put on my theologian hat, since technical objections warrant technical responses.
God as a mother: God appears as a woman named Papa. Some people lost their minds about this. However, the Bible does use motherly imagery, which I argue at length here. And it is important to note that if a mother’s love and femininity are good, they can and should be used to communicate God’s love and goodness. The same God is a shepherd, a warrior, a rock, and a fire. To refuse to use these metaphors undermines the goodness of women and replaces God’s love with patriarchy. Notably, there have been accepted teachers of the church, like St. Julian of Norwich, a gifted mystic, who records theological vision of God as mother in her Revelations of Divine Love. In The Shack, God appears as a woman, but that is because God appears to Mack, who had an abusive father, with the love that he already understood. By the end of the book, after Mack forgives his father, Papa appears as a father as well.
Non-hierarchical nature of the trinity: Some got upset at the idea that the trinity in The Shack is submissive to each other, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, etc. While Scripture does have the Father directing the Son, who in turn responds obediently, that is just one contour. Jesus is the Word of the Father, such that when you look at Jesus, you see the Father. Their identities converge. The Son has no authority but the Father’s, but the Father has no Word but the Son. John 17, one of the most clear passages of trinitarian relations in the New Testament, has Jesus saying that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. They glorify each other. It is reciprocal and reflexive, not one-sided. It is language of mutual possession similar to Song of Songs, “I am my beloved and he is mine,” or the mutual ownership of 1 Cor. 7:4. St. John of Damascus noted that the persons of the trinity are not individuals, but are persons through each other, thus an inherent mutually and equality is implied. Augustine and Athanasius both insisted what the one member of the trinity has and does, they all do together. This is enshrined in the Athanasian Creed. To depict mutual submission in the trinity, I think, is getting at the unity and mutuality of the trinity that the greatest trinitarian thinkers have affirmed.
Constructing a hierarchy between Father and Son is quite dangerous. It is often used to legitimate hierarchy between men and women, which is easily abused. Often, those that support this hierarchy also deny that there are women leaders in the Bible. It is very problematic when it comes to the cross as we will see, but it falls into a kind of sub-ordinationism. If God is God because he is sovereign and has authority, if you define God that way, then the Father has sovereignty and authority over the Son, effectively making him more “God” than the Son, which is why St. Athanasius resisted that so heavily. Does not the submission of Christ in his love, the tenderness of Christ on the cross show God as well? There is nothing the Father has that the Son does not. This also makes the death of Jesus, his weakness of the cross, a scandal to God. That is obviously a problem…
Not penal substitutionary atonement?: As I said, the unity of God in the trinity is very important. It is especially so for the view of the cross. Young wisely depicted the Father as having the marks of the nails. He is reminding us, perhaps unwittingly, of Augustine’s dictum: what one member does, they do together. Obviously not all of God died, or else there would be no resurrection, but the cross was a trinitarian act. The cross shows the entire character of God. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, there is no God that can be known apart from the cross. Father, Spirit, and Son are cruciform love.
Young seems critical of what is called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Now, all Christians hold that the death of Jesus saves us from our sins, but there are many particular theories about how this happens. PSA is complex parsing of the atonement that emerged in the theology of the reformers like John Calvin. At its most basic, it holds that God had to kill a substitute, namely Jesus, in order to atone for sin. It is largely absent in the early church because they used other readings, notably a kind of ransom view. So, historically, there is more than one way to read the work of the cross.
Personally, I resist using language of PSA, not because there aren’t any passages that suggest aspects of it (like Gal. 3:13), but because the cross is understood by several metaphors and strands of logic, each valid: obedience, military , sacrifice, priestly, legal, ransom, economic, kinsman redeemer, etc. They are distinct but overlap, and offering one grand theory often sloppily forces the proverbial circle into the square hole. There is substitution imagery and sacrifice imagery that has nothing to do with punishment. In the OT, it is not commonly understood that the animal sacrifice (or grain for that matter!) is being punished in the person’s stead. If Genesis 22 has anything to say, it speaks more about God already in his mercy providing than God in his wrath needing something to punish. The sacrifice was not for God, but for human conscience (Heb. 9), cleansing guilt. Shedding of blood has everything to do with sealing an new covenant and cleansing, not necessarily punishing something. In Mark 2, Jesus is able to forgive sin by mere pronouncement, no sacrifice necessary, so the logic of crucifixion rests elsewhere.
I find there are a number of scriptural themes that PSA does not incorporate well. No one ever talks about how Jesus lifted up is a means of healing like the bronze serpent (John 3:14). It becomes extraneous. The fact that the cross discloses Jesus as the King of the Jews (God’s messianic identity), the Son of Man and Son of God, the true Prophet and Priest, all in event of the New Exodus, New Passover, the day of the in-breaking kingdom (Daniel 7), all that is shoved off as the husk to be peeled back to get to PSA. If it is skin and not backbone, why are these themes the very substance of the narrative in the four Gospels? The New Testament does not think in “theories.” It thinks in rich figures.
The Gospel of Mark fundamentally understands the cross as something Jesus’ disciples must do as well, which I find PSA often undermines (the cross is something only Jesus as sinless does). In Mark, Jesus is not propitiating God; he is giving a ransom to the dark powers, redeeming people from demonic slavery (Mark 10:45). And if the punishment of sin is merely death, there is no reason why Jesus had to die on a cross or be tortured. He could have died at home in his bed. Jesus is living out his teaching of becoming last for his disciples to follow, forgiving when sinned against in the most ultimate way, against the demonic forces of betrayal (the people/disciples), religious hypocrisy (the temple), and empire (Rome). It showed that God’s character and our character is not one where we inflict eye-for-eye, but turns the other cheek and blesses our enemies (this is central to Peter’s atonement theology in 1 Peter 2:20-25). This kind of love is the in breaking of the kingdom of heaven itself. Many conservatives miss that for the New Testament and the early church, unanimously, the cross was teaching Christians non-violence as the primary response to evil (see Ron Sider’s book).
Perhaps that is too complex for some. Let’s just stick with one reading. Young, I think, helps those that hold to a PSA word the doctrine more carefully (for an excellent modern statement of PSA, people should read Pannenberg’s in his Systematic Theology). Pop PSA too often makes God the problem, and no one should be happy about that. The cross came to heal us, not fix God’s wrath. The cross is not Jesus in his love saving us from the wrath of God the Father. Jesus is providing a way that we are not punished ultimately, yes, but it is not Jesus saving us from the Father. This severs God’s being. All of God is loving, including the Father, and all of God can be wrathful, including Jesus.
The Father did not abandon Jesus on the cross. This misunderstands Psalm 22, which is not about a sinner but about the persecuted righteous, the messiah, crying out to God for vindication (which the resurrection answers). This was important to the martyrs of the early church. The cross is the call to martyrdom (this is why Stephen’s stoning in Acts mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion in Acts), and the martyrs will enter eternal life. The Cross is Jesus’ way, God’s way, and also our way. It is the way to heaven.
God was fully present in Jesus at the cross. God was at one with sinners as the Son is showing the cross-shaped love of the Father for sinners. God in his love, one with Jesus, bore the penalty of the law, which was not functioning according to God’s will for it (so says Galatians – it was hijacked to only create condemnation, not grace). This tangibly shows that our sins were forgiven, that God loves sinners, and Jesus rose from the grace on the third day to show that the curse of death had been beaten. This is why the gospel has everything to do with the resurrection in Acts 13. So, here Young I think invites us all to word our doctrines of atonement better.
Religious inclusivism: The Jesus character in The Shack references how he is using all systems of religion and thought to being people to the Father. Some accused Young of pluralism. I think this is simple missional contextualization. God meets us where we are at, using the concepts we are used to. Think Don Richardson’s Peace Child.
If it is not that, I would insist, that some kind of religious inclusivism (that God’s mercy does extend beyond the bounds of the church) is completely acceptable. I would point out that religious inclusivism is implied in Acts 17, where Paul insists the Athenians are actually worshiping God already as the “unknown god” on one of their altars. Paul then invites them to put away idols and see God more clearly in Christ. He even quotes a pagan poet as evidence of this truth, that all people are God’s children. The Bible has an intuitive awareness that there are those that are outside the covenantal relationship with God that do in fact get it and do in some way participate in the kingdom of God, whether Melchizedek in the OT or the centurion in the NT. This does not undermine the missionary call of the church to make Christ fully known. While Christ is the only way, St. Justin Martyr, a second century apologist, held that if the Logos is eternal, ever-present, he is using all things everywhere to bring people into knowledge of himself. If they do not hear of Jesus explicitly, it makes sense that God, in his mercy, would judge them according to the amount of his truth they were told and accepted. There are, of course, difficulties with this view, but no more than the assertion that those who have never heard the Gospel will perish without any chance of believing. Call it liberalism if you want, but at the end of the day, inclusivism is the oldest view of the church, espoused by a man, one of the first public defenders of the faith, who also gave his life for the faith.
God as universal father: Central to Young’s theodicy is that God is a loving father to all people, trying to bring even Missy’s murderer to repentance. There are some that deny this truth despite it being explicit in Acts 17. Clearly they have never read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, who sees God universal fatherly love as part and parcel with the incarnation. I would argue this truth is the bedrock of Old Testament ethics and central to the Gospel as Paul sees it in Acts 17. I have argued for it at length here.
Universalism: The final objection I saw is that The Shack is universalist. This is true, not going to deny that. Young is a universalist, but I would point out that there are forms of universalism that are considered historically orthodox. Only one form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople. It was highly speculative and relativistic: “God will save everyone, so who cares!” There are noteworthy universalists that were upheld as orthodox like Gregory of Nyssa or Julian of Norwich. Norwich held to a hope that “All will be well.” It was a universalism of mere prayerful hope, which i think most of us do have, particularly at funerals where someone died under tragic circumstances. At the end of the day, we are all in God’s merciful hands, and we pray that the mercy we were shown as sinners will be the same shown to everyone else.
Nyssa is a more important case. Many western believers do not know him, but he was the most important bishop and defender of orthodoxy of his day; the “Flower of Orthodoxy” was his title. He confidently thought that universal salvation was the only logical possibility of God’s total victory over sin. He was not corrected because he was robustly biblical in his views and his doctrine lead him deeper into prayer, mission, and obedience to Christ. If we know a tree by its fruit, this sounds like what good doctrine should do! You might insist that there are passages in the Bible that speak about eternal punishment (he would insist that too), but what cannot be argued against is that Nyssa’s arguments were read and accepted by the community of the faithful. Their decision might be fallbile, of course, but the fact of their decision makes the interpretation plausible, the acceptable range of Christian faith. So entrusted was his judgment that he was a final editor the Nicene Creed (which notably says Christ will “judge the quick and the dead,” it does not say how!). Historical facts are historical facts. If orthodoxy is the historic bounds of what the creeds mean for acceptable reading of Scripture, there are versions of universalism that are and have been accepted.
Now, perhaps you do not agree with these readings, that is fine, Augustine would have probably hated Nyssa, but at the end of the day, both were accepted. That is the bounds of orthodoxy. Those that hold at the possibility that all may be saved and those that hold to the possibility of eternal punishment are both in those bounds. I would argue that both need each other to counter their extremes. We can never take God for granted, and we can never give up hope on sinners.
This is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy: it has forgotten so much of this history and reflection on Scripture. It has forgotten the breath and beauty of what the saints have to teach us.
Sometimes the people pointing the fingers have three fingers pointing right back at them.
For sake of argument, take a hardline Calvinist like John Piper. Now I think this guy has character in spades, and I do think he is a legitimate Christian, a great preacher and teacher, but if we are going to play the heresy hunting game with historic orthodoxy, I often get confused at the free passes Calvinists give themselves.
Piper, like most Calvinists, is an overt double-predestinationist, the idea that God elects some to be saved and others not, without any choice in the matter.. While a type of universalism was condemned (and many may accuse me of splitting hairs when I say only one form was condemned), so also was a form of double-predestinationism. Double predestination was seen as undermining freewill and God’s love, something that all the fathers saw as the supreme characteristic of God. Augustine’s radical follower, Gottschalk, was condemned at a local council for holding this, whose decision was treated as universally acceptable. Calvin was highly influenced by this form of radical Augustinianism. Yet, Calvinists really don’t want to talk about this.
Piper has gone on to insist that since God is fundamentally sovereignty (not love as the church has universally held), God causes evil for his own glory. To me this is a perilous opinion. How is God holy if he causes evil? If God is in Christ and Christ is sinless, I have a hard time thinking God would commit a tragedy humans are bound by the Word of God never to do in order to be holy. Also, I have heard him say that he cannot recite the entire Apostle’s Creed because he does not think Jesus descended into hell. He has reasons for this (a peculiar reading of 1 Peter 3), but the matter rests: he cannot affirm even the most basic statement of Christian orthodoxy, yet all his pals are okay with this.
Why is it okay? Well, the Bible is able to correct what we think is traditionally orthodox, which is what I think he would insist. I would affirm that too, but that means the term “orthodox” can become molded by the wax nose of biblical proof-texts. In principle anyone who argues something with bible verses against a creedal norm cannot in principle be condemned. Arian had biblical reasons for his theology, so again, the definition of orthodox as a historical descriptor must be maintained, even if modestly. Perhaps Piper is biblical, but not orthodox. Is he comfortable with this? Or perhaps orthodoxy is being applied with an uneven standard.
Perhaps orthodoxy is more than words.
I bring this up to remind the reader that I do think both Young and Piper are legitimate Christians, both of which with their respective imperfections. I am merely using them as foils in the naive hope that one day we might all actually have grace on each other. Perhaps a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven would be to have people of each other’s ilk coming together and just saying, “I get where you are coming from. I do see Christ working in you.”
Perhaps propositional orthodoxy is just one tool to gauge and nourish our relationship with God among others. After all, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). The second part is perhaps most important and it is in the heart.
Yes, doctrine is important, but remember that Peter confessed Jesus to be the messiah, yet he was then rebuked because the deeper meaning of that for Peter was a notion where it was a scandal that Jesus had to go to the cross. His correct confession did not save him from denying Jesus. Only Jesus’ grace saved him in the end. Words can only go so far. Good doctrine nourishes relationship with Christ and living out Christ, but it cannot replace it. There is no verbal test for having a heart that follows Christ. Only discernment can see if a person has a heart of humility, love, and forgiveness.
I met Paul Young once at a conference. He is a remarkably down to earth and a genuinely, humble guy. He told us that a speaking engagement of his was protested by other Christians. In the heat of the day, some of them were fainting from the heat. So, he brought out some water to them personally. They did not even know who he was, so he struck up a conversation. He revealed his identity to them, and asked, “Is there a single person here that has read my book?” Not a soul. He kindly asked if they would at least do that. He did not have a problem if they disagreed, but he would hope that they at least listened. They shrugged. As he went inside, he heard them go right back to their angry chanting.
I know some people that have great “theology,” but frankly do not have a relationship with Christ. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. I know some people that have the heart of Christ, following him daily, that frankly believe some pretty erroneous stuff. Personally, if pressed, I would take the later over the former. I’d take a Christ-like heart over a person with Christian ideas.
So, here is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy, (it by no means applies to all evangelicals): a tradition that has often become so narrow and detached from the rest of historic Christianity, members of it anathematize positions that Christianity has long held. The obsession with being correct, its isolating and alienating mode, ironically, can deafen the ear and corrupt the heart, the true source of relationship with Christ and with others.
Don’t like the movie, The Shack? That is fine. It does have its cheesy moments. The book is not fine literature. Young is no Dostoevsky. Condemn it; refuse to read it; refuse to be open to what a fellow believer is trying to show you about Jesus, and frankly, you are missing an opportunity for a movie with a clear depiction of the Gospel to impact people. Your loss and others. But it is worse than that…
When it comes to The Shack, Paul Young might not have all his doctrinal ducks in a row (I wonder who next to God perfectly does), but it should be apparent that he does follow Christ and deserves the decency that implies. So many times Christians shun each other creating fractions in Christ’s body. We bicker while his body bleeds.
If to love a person in part is to listen to them, I know that the close-minded are often the close-hearted. If the summary of the law is love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself, we have a lot of half-Christians.
As Paul tells us, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal. 5:6).
Perhaps the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy is also the scandal of evangelical charity, a scandal we are all implicated in.