Proverbs 18:13 says that “The one who gives an answer before he listens—that is his folly and his shame” (NET Bible). For the most part, Proverbs are statements of general, rather than absolute, truth. This particular proverb is, perhaps, quite close to being absolutely true, on the order of Ivory soap (99.44%). However, there are exceptions, and I believe what I am going to do in this review will serve as a legitimate exception. I am going to provide a review of a book which will be coming out next month and which I have not read. The book is by Brad Jersak, and the full title is A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel. I will be writing this review based on parts of the book that are already accessible online (here): the foreword to the book by Brian Zahnd, the table of contents, and a few sample pages. And figuring into my review will be my previous acquaintance with Jersak’s writings. So, to start off, I will give you my one sentence summary of the book’s thesis: We need to have a God who is more Christlike; therefore, all those things that you don’t like about the Old Testament God, and that don’t line up with your idea of what Christ is like, you may safely ignore and even jettison. I begin by looking at Zahnd’s foreword, which will actually take up most of this review.
Zahnd begins his foreword with these two paragraphs:
What is God like? What an enormous question. For those of us who believe that God is somehow at the foundation of existence, meaning and self-understanding, it’s an all-important question. So how shall we answer? Our options are endless. Human inquiry into the divine has produced a vast pantheon of gods—from Ares to Zeus. Of course, the Christian will instinctively look to the Bible for the definition of God. I understand this instinct and in one sense it is correct; but it may not yield as clear an answer as we think. Even while speaking of the ‘God of the Bible’ we can cobble together whatever vision of God we choose from its disparate images. That we do this mostly unconsciously doesn’t help matters.
Even if we restrict our inquiry into the nature of God to the Bible, we are likely to find just the kind of God that we want to find. If we want a God of peace, he’s there. If we want a God of war, he’s there. If we want a compassionate God, he’s there. If we want a vindictive God, he’s there. If we want an egalitarian God, he’s there. If we want an ethnocentric God, he’s there. If we want a God demanding blood sacrifice, he’s there. If we want a God abolishing blood sacrifice, he’s there. Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test—it reveals more about the reader than the eternal I AM.
There are a number of strange things about these first two paragraphs. First, note that Zahnd doesn’t actually give a ringing endorsement of the Christian’s instinct to look to the Bible for information as to who God is and what he is like, noting that “in one sense it is correct.” Frankly, I am at a loss here to figure out how in another sense it might not be correct. Where else would Zahnd suggest we derive our information?
Second, I do not understand the problem with trying to understand who God is by taking account of all the statements, imagery, and descriptions of God given in Scripture. His description of this attempt as “cobbling together” a vision of what God is like seems unnecessarily pejorative. Wouldn’t that be exactly what anyone would do when trying to understand another what another person is like?
Third, when Zahnd suggests that when we read the Bible, “we are likely to find just the kind of God that we want to find,” it is certainly true to some extent. There’s plenty of evidence for this in the history of biblical interpretation. And, below, we will see plenty of evidence for this in Zahnd’s own attempt to construct a picture of God. But the way he lays out the rest of the paragraph is highly problematic. To take his first example, he says, “If we want a God of peace, he’s there. If we want a God of war, he’s there.” But this only sets up a false dichotomy. I don’t go to the Bible to find a God of peace. And I don’t go to the Bible to find a God of war. I go to the Bible to find God. And, lo and behold, when I find God there, I find out that he is a God of peace. And I find out that he is a God of war. He is a God of peace, and he is a God of war. This is what God has revealed about himself. Going on to the rest of his examples, God is a compassionate God, and God is an avenging God (better than Zahnd’s pejorative use of the word “vindictive”). God is no respecter of persons, and he has also chosen to work through particular persons. God demanded blood sacrifice, and God has also put an end to blood sacrifice after offering his Son as the final blood sacrifice.
I find all these descriptions of God in the Bible, and I am prepared to accept them all. So, when Zahnd says that the Bible is more like a Rorschach test, telling more about the reader than about God, my reply is that this is the case, primarily for those who are unprepared or unwilling to accept the totality of the biblical revelation. In other words, I think Zahnd has described himself here, for he is not prepared to accept the biblical testimony about God. But he has not described those who attempt to read the biblical testimony faithfully, those who believe that God’s ways are higher than our ways, his thoughts higher than our thoughts, and that we cannot use our own simplistic dichotomies to describe a God who is not either/or, but one who, beyond our too simple categories, is both/and, those who believe that the Bible constitutes “the whole counsel of God.”
Zahnd goes on to say this:
What are we to do? How are we to discover God as God is? As a Christian, pastor and preacher, I would like to recommend we look to Jesus for our answer to the question. Or let me say it this way: What if God is like Jesus? What if the personality of God is identical to the personality of the man called Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels? Jesus audaciously made this claim: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” What if that claim is true? Wouldn’t that be good news? Ah, that is the good news! God is like Jesus! This is Christianity, which is not to be confused with ‘biblicism.’ As Christians we worship Christ, not the Bible. The Bible is the inspired witness to the true Word of God who is Jesus. What the Bible does infallibly is take us on a journey that culminates with Christ—but it is Christ who fully reveals God. Or we can say it this way: The Scriptures ultimately bear witness to Christ, and Christ perfectly bears witness to God. While we are searching the Bible to find out what God is like, the Bible is all the while resolutely pointing us to Jesus. The revelation of God could not be contained in a book, but it could be contained in a human life—the life of Jesus Christ.
God is like Jesus. Jesus is the Message of God. Jesus is what God has to say. Jesus is the full and faithful witness to how God is to be understood.
So many problems: where does one begin? I cannot deal with them all. Here are just a few.
First, there is this all too familiar and, by now, very tiring, appeal to another false dichotomy. The Bible isn’t the word of God; Jesus is. It’s Christianity versus biblicism. It’s Jesus versus the Bible. And though Zahnd doesn’t actually say it in this paragraph (he will later, as we will see below), it’s the way God is described elsewhere in the Bible versus what Jesus looks like in the gospels. According to Zahnd, we need to be Jesusistic rather than biblicistic. Of course, a huge problem for Zahnd, which I’m sure he knows but does not clue you into here, is that our source for knowledge as to what Jesus looks like is . . . well . . . drum roll please . . . the Bible! So what Zahnd really means here is this: “I am going to take one part of the Bible, the place where Jesus says that the Father is just like him, and I am going to use that part to negate the parts of the Bible that I don’t like and that I don’t think line up with what I think Jesus looks like.” Yes, Zahnd is right on target with that Rorschach analogy.
Second, it is important to note here that Zahnd is speaking misleadingly when he says that “The Bible is the inspired witness to the true Word of God who is Jesus. What the Bible does infallibly is take us on a journey that culminates with Christ . . .” The use of the term “infallibly” is designed to sound orthodox, while actually masking over the fact that Zahnd understands the content of what is narrated to be very fallible. What he really means is this: In some unclear way, the Old Testament is an inspired, infallible record of human fallible and mistaken attempts at understanding who God is and what he is like; they are human projections onto God, and in many, many cases, these projections were completely mistaken. In other words, this is really a nonsense sentence, very far from the understanding that any Jew or Christian of this time period, or Jesus himself, would have had of the Old Testament.
Third, Zahnd, and Jersak as well, are attempting here to make one statement of Jesus assume a hermeneutical burden that it cannot bear. Do they really think that when Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” he is saying that there is absolutely nothing else in the entire rest of the canon that informs us about the character of the Father? Surely, Jesus came to show us the Father, but he did not come to show us another Father. Indeed, Jesus came to show us the Father, but he did not come to negate the revelation of the Father that had already been given. Whatever Jesus meant, he did not mean, “You can forget about all those things that you already know about God from the Scriptures”—Scriptures, by the way, which Jesus said could not be broken, which Jesus said would never pass away, which Jesus said we would die if we did not have them, which Jesus said provided the script for his role as a suffering, dying, and rising Messiah.
And what I have just said here leads to third problem with this tack. Not only does it ask us to read Jesus against other portrayals of God in the Scriptures. It also asks us to read Jesus against Jesus. This will become clearer later on.
Zahnd goes on to say:
Jesus didn’t come to save us from God (as some deplorable theories would lead us to believe)—Jesus came to reveal God as Savior. Jesus didn’t come to enable God to love us—Jesus came to reveal God as love. Jesus didn’t come to reconcile God to the world—Jesus came to reconcile the world to God. If Jesus’ life is the definition of God, the defining moment of Jesus’ life is the Cross. As John Cihak observed, “being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, the Christform upon the Cross is the clearest revelation of who God is.” As an evangelist I can do no better work than to point to Jesus on the Cross and say, “Right there! That is what God is like.” God is not like Caiaphas needing a scapegoat to take the blame. God is not like Pilate requiring an execution to satisfy justice. God is like Jesus, absorbing, forgiving and taking away the sins of the world.
In case you can’t tell, in this paragraph Zahnd is being critical of penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrine that Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins when he was crucified. Zahnd, however, caricatures that position when he refers to Jesus “saving us from God,” or Jesus coming to “enable God to love us.” I don’t know a single person who believes in penal substitutionary atonement who would put things this way. This is simply a very unfair way to characterize the position which he thinks he understands and disagrees with. The Scriptures are very clear that God sent Jesus into the world for the very purpose of saving us, and that he sent Jesus into the world because he loves us. At the same time, the Scriptures, in both testaments (even in those red-letter portions), tell us very clearly that God will punish sin and sinners. God, in spite of his willingness to punish sin, has, in Jesus, acted to reconcile the world to himself. So, in no way should Jesus’ actions be characterized as Jesus saving us from God. That would be tantamount to talking about a person on trial for a crime which they actually committed as in some way being “saved from the judge,” or being “saved from the justice system.” Rather, as Karl Barth put it, God has, lovingly in Jesus become the “Judge judged in our place.”
Interestingly, in another article on Zahnd’s own website, again in a pejorative caricature, he says the following:
What the cross is not is a quid pro quo where God agrees to forgive upon receipt of his Son’s murder. What the cross is not is an economic transaction whereby God gains the capital to forgive. These legal and fiscal models for understanding the cross simply will not do.
Caricature aside, it is absolutely incredible that Zahnd can declare that “these legal and fiscal models for understanding the cross simply will not do.” This denigrates two millennia of understanding Christ’s atonement along these very lines. Further, in what many people consider to be the best and most popular Christian hymn written in this century so far, the Townend/Getty song, In Christ Alone, this legal, fiscal model shows up expressly:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For every sin on him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.
But now Zahnd comes along and tells us this understanding, “simply will not do.” Of course, the real truth is that this understanding has been “doing” very well for two thousand years, and is, in fact, still “doing”!
Next, Zahnd says this:
A return to the revelation that God is revealed in Christ could not be more timely. Western Christianity is in a crisis. It can no longer retain credibility and be transmitted to succeeding generations on the authority of tradition alone. Critical questions are being asked and Christianity must gain its adherents based on its own merits. Fortunately Christianity is up to the task. But not just any Christianity; the Christianity up to the task is the Christianity grounded in the confession that Jesus is the icon of the invisible God. I am in full sympathy with those who find “Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God” Christianity repellent and in need of being jettisoned. I too have pitched the theologies of an angry, retributive deity back into the dark sea of paganism. The good news is that buried under centuries of misconstrued Christianity there is a beautiful gospel just waiting to be discovered.
This paragraph has a number of problems, only two of which I will deal with.
First, Zahnd refers to his sympathy with those who find Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” repellent and in need of being jettisoned. And then he says that the whole idea of God being angry or engaging in acts of retribution needs to be returned to where it belongs, “back into the dark sea of paganism.” The attitude here is absolutely incredible. Zahnd here declares that his own understanding of who God is and what he is like is more advanced than those of twenty centuries worth of Christian theologians, hymn writers, preachers and evangelists—greater than Irenaeus, Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, D. L. Moody, P. T. Forsyth, James Denney, G. Campbell Morgan, Billy Graham, Carl Henry, A. W. Tozer, John Stott, J. I. Packer, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I. Howard Marshall, N. T. Wright, Tim Keller, and I could go on and on here and give name after name after name. All of these figures in church history have held to this “repellent,” “pagan” idea that God will engage in retributive punishment against sin.
Ah, but this is not all. This idea of God’s retributive action against sinners is found in many Old Testament authors. Some of these would be Moses, David, various psalmists, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. If you were to attempt to “de-wrath” the Old Testament, you would be pulling on a thread, which if removed, would end up unraveling the entire Old Testament.
But the idea of God’s retributive violence is also articulated by many New Testament figures, such as John the Baptist, the Apostles Paul, John, Jude, Peter, and the author of Hebrews. And, of course, this idea of retributive violence is also articulated by Jesus—the Jesus who tells a parable about an unmerciful servant who, after being shown mercy, fails to show mercy himself, and of whom it is then said, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” But then, Jesus, as it were, steps outside the parable and declares, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt 18:34-35). Here is Jesus, showing us the Father, the Father who is just like Jesus, the Father who will engage in acts of retributive punishment. But evidently, according to Zahnd, we should regard this teaching of Jesus as repellent and pagan. Zahnd’s construal here is highly problematic.
The second thing in this paragraph, which is similarly problematic, is the idea that “buried under centuries of misconstrued Christianity there is a beautiful gospel just waiting to be discovered.” Recalling all those names again—Irenaeus, Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Edwards, Whitefield, the Wesleys, Watts, Newton, Spurgeon, Livingstone, Taylor, Moody, Forsyth, Denney, Morgan, Graham, Henry, Tozer, Stott, Packer, Lloyd-Jones, Marshall, Wright, Keller—evidently, none of them were ever able to discover this beautiful gospel. They were delusional that they were actually preaching the beautiful gospel of Christ, as, of course, also were all the millions and millions of converts won to a misconstrued, repellent, and pagan Christianity under their ministries. But, thankfully, now we can have a much more enlightened understanding of this gospel on account of books like the one under review here. The claims are astounding.
Before I leave dealing with this foreword by Zahnd and go on to say about a few things about the actual book by Jersak, I want to call your attention to two Old Testament passages in Exodus 20:5-6 and Exodus 33:18—34:8. First, In Exodus 20, in the giving of the Ten Commandments, we come across this statement in vv. 5-6:
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
What I want you to notice is that here we have a self-revelation, a self-description of God in which he refers to himself as a God who is both retributively punishing and lovingly merciful. There is some debate here as to whether the phrase “thousand generations” should actually be rendered like that, or simply translated as “thousands.” But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that “thousand generations” is correct. If so, the “loving mercy” to “retributive punishment” ratio is overwhelming: 1000:4; i.e., 250:1. Yet, despite the overwhelmingness of this ratio, you cannot simply eliminate the lower number. There is divine retributive violence/punishment in the Old Testament.
Then, later, in Exodus 33 near the end of a section dealing with the golden calf and the fallout from that incident, Moses, feeling emboldened, asks God to give him a display of his glory. God’s answer to Moses is that he will cause all his goodness to pass in front of Moses, and that he will proclaim his name, the LORD, before Moses. But Moses will not be able to see God’s face. He will have to position himself in a cleft in the mountainside. When the Lord passes by in front of Moses, the Lord will put his hand in front of Moses’ face so that he will not be able to see the revelation directly. What Moses will actually get to see is the “afterwards,” the “after-glow” once the Lord has passed by. But this visual aspect of the account is not what is important. What is important is the audio that Moses gets to hear. The next morning, Moses does as he has been instructed. The Lord passes by, and this is what Moses is privileged to hear, from the Lord’s own mouth:
“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.
Notice four things about the Lord’s self-proclamation here. First, it is easy to see its relationship to the passage we read earlier in Exodus 20 in the giving of the Ten Commandments. Second, we again have that “loving mercy” and “retributive punishment” distinction, though not necessarily with the same ratio (again, whether the word “generation” should be in the translation is debated). Third, notice that both halves of the ratio are expanded. The “loving merciful” half is further described as “slow to anger,” “abounding in love and faithfulness,” and “forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” And the “retributive punishment” half is further described as not leaving “the guilty unpunished.” Finally, notice what Moses does after receiving this revelation, this self-description of God. Verse 8 tells us that “Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped.” Maybe he liked that part about loving mercy for a thousand generations. Maybe he didn’t like that part about the retributive violence to the third and fourth generation. Regardless, he fell on his face and worshiped. The proper response to the God described in these many, many passages as a God who will engage in the punishment of the wicked is not that of repellent disgust toward a pagan deity. The proper response is worship. And this response of praise and worship toward God because of his righteous acts of wrath against, and punishment of, the wicked goes right through both Old and New Testaments.
The Jesus who comes to us in the New Testament is one who comes in grace and truth. He, unlike Moses, has seen God face to face. He is, indeed, a fuller revelation of God, his image, his likeness, the radiance of his glory. But he did not come to image for us a different God, or another God than the one who was already revealed in the Old Testament. That Jesus would have denied the God described in the Old Testament as being truly God is absolutely unthinkable. To think otherwise is Marcionism, the second-century heresy that threatened to destroy the young church. Against this heresy, Irenaeus maintained strenuously that the God described in the Old Testament was none other than “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (a phrase which occurs variously in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies some fifteen times).
And this, then, brings me to the actual book by Jersak. There are just a few quick points I wish to make, since most of what I wanted to say has already been said in my treatment of Zahnd’s foreword, and I trust that the foreword is reflective of the contents of the book.
(1) First, to reiterate, I think the thesis of the book is flawed from the very start. To say that God is just like Jesus, though true enough in itself, is saying too far too little about the God who has revealed himself throughout the entire biblical canon. The statement by Jesus simply will not bear the hermeneutical weight which Jersak wants to put on it. Jesus was by no means saying that he had come to challenge, contradict, and denigrate God’s self-revelation in Israel’s Scriptures.
(2) Jersak’s attempt to “unwrath” or “dewrath” God will not be successful. It has been tried in the past, it has failed, and it is not going to succeed now. One of Jersak’s primary arguments here will be that the wrath contained in Scripture is simply our own wrath against ourselves, the consequences of our sins, the proverbial falling into the pit which we have dug. This is sometimes known as the “deed-consequence” theory, that God does not actively punish sin or sinners, but sin brings about its own punishment. This theory has been proposed before, especially by a minority of wisdom literature scholars. And there is a certain amount of truth to it. But the theory simply will not account for the sheer wealth of passages that portray God as being very actively involved in, orchestrating, planning, and executing justice and punishment on the wicked. And as the majority of wisdom literature scholars point out, this idea doesn’t even hold for the entirety of the wisdom literature. It is true that sin brings its own punishment, but it is not the whole truth.
(3) In two different ways, Jersak’s volume will be an attack on the very possibility of a biblical theology. First, it strikes at the very heart of understanding the Scriptures as presenting a unified narrative of God’s workings in his world. Every couple of years I teach a course I have entitled, “Motifs in Biblical Theology.” The course is devoted to tracing themes, motifs, imagery, and type-scenes throughout the Bible in order to discover the contributions they make to our understanding of who God is, what he is like, and other areas of theology. One book I always have the class read as a model of how to do biblical theology is Tremper Longman and Daniel Reid’s book, God Is a Warrior. The book, as you can tell from the title, traces through both Old and New Testaments the theme of God as a warring deity. Longman and Reid are able to trace this theme through both testaments precisely because the biblical text has absolutely nothing negative to say about God’s warring activity. If the God portrayed in the Old Testament, a God who engages in warfare against Israel’s enemies, and even against Israel herself, a God who over and over again engages in retributive violence against the wicked—if that God was an embarrassment for Christ, or the apostles, or any other New Testament writer, there is no record of it in the New Testament, absolutely none. Indeed, rather than being embarrassed by it, the biblical writers celebrate it; they worship God for it. And this is the very reason why Longman and Reid’s book is not about God as warrior in the Old Testament, but God as warrior in the Bible. God is a warrior in the Gospels, in Paul’s letters, and especially in the book of Revelation. Indeed, Jesus is the divine warrior in the book of Revelation. Is God just like Jesus? Yes he is! But I am afraid that Jersak’s book will not recognize this continuity, and, in the process, will cut the ground out from under the possibility of a biblical theology.
(4) The second way in which the volume will be an attack on biblical theology is on account of the wedge it will attempt to drive between the God of the Old Testament versus the Christ of the New Testament. As I mentioned above, the second-century heresy that threatened to tear the church apart was that propounded by Marcion. Marcion did not like the wrathful God of the Old Testament, and considered it impossible to understand that the God described in the Old Testament was one who could said to be the Father of Jesus Christ. That God was not a good god; he was a monster. When Christ came into the world, he came to disabuse us of the notion that the Old Testament God was the true God. Rather, Jesus came to introduce us to an “unknown god,” a God who could only be known through the person of Jesus. Now, on the one hand, this might sound like a Christian confession. After all, didn’t Jesus, in John 14:6, say that no one could come to the Father except through him? But, it is obvious in the Gospel of John that the Father of whom Jesus speaks is the God of the Old Testament. (Aside from this, Marcion didn’t believe John’s Gospel was canonical). Again, this is the very reason why, in Irenaeus’s writings, in which he defends orthodox Christianity and attacks heretical Marcionism and Gnosticism, Irenaeus is at pains to emphasize that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately, Jersak will not be able to make that confession. He may be able to say that, for the most part it is true, or that in many respects it is true; but he will not be able to honestly say that the God portrayed in the Old Testament, in its entirety, is the God and Father of Jesus. And that destroys the very possibility of constructing a biblical theology. Now, I imagine that Jersak will take exception to my implied suggestion that he is a Marcionite. Indeed, he will be able to say that he likes a lot of what is said about God in the Old Testament, maybe even most of it. He just will not be able to accept the parts where God is engaged in retributive violence. But that is just my point. God’s word will have to be subjected to Jersak’s criteria before he is prepared to accept it. God will have to satisfy Jersak’s conditions before he is worthy of worship. To paraphrase a famous statement from the nineteenth-century theologian, Charles Hodge, and changing the name of the heretic, it’s not so much the ghost of Marcion I fear, it’s the ghost of semi-Marcion!
(5) My last point is this: as convinced as I am that Jersak’s book will get the Old Testament God wrong, I am as much, if not more, concerned and convinced that it will get Jesus wrong. And this will happen by necessity. Marcion did not stop at cutting off the Old Testament; he also, as I mentioned in a recent blog post, used his scissors on the New Testament as well. Of the New Testament epistolary literature, he accepted only the letters of Paul, except for the pastorals. Of the gospels, he accepted only Luke. And even for these books he eliminated any positive references to the Old Testament. And the reason he had to do this, in addition to getting the Old Testament God wrong, was that he also got Jesus wrong. He could not fit Jesus, as he really is, into his theology. This is the fear I have about Jersak’s book. The Jesus which Jersak presents to us, I fear, will not conform to the Jesus presented in the gospels in their entirety. So, should you decide to buy this book, here are the questions you will need to ask: Will the book deal carefully, responsibly, and honestly with the texts in which Jesus describes either God his Father or himself as engaging in retributive violence against the wicked? Will the book deal responsibly with the passage I mentioned above in Matthew where Jesus tells us that his Father will deal retributively with those who, having been shown mercy, refuse to show mercy? Will the book deal responsibly with Jesus’ declaration that all the wicked deeds of Israel’s ancestors will come to its culmination in the current generation’s crucifixion of Jesus, and that God will bring judgment against the nation for this, a judgement that will consist of the destruction of the temple and of the city of Jerusalem, and the loss of many lives (Matt 21:33-44; Luke 20:9-18)? Will the book deal responsibly with Jesus’ declaration that God himself, or the angels at God’s command, will cast the wicked into hell (Matt 8:11-12 and parallels; Matt 10:28 and parallels; Matt 13:41-43)? Will the book deal responsibly with the nearly thirty other texts in which Jesus talks about God’s punishment of the wicked? Will the book deal responsibly with the texts in the book of Revelation, which can only be seen as pictures of divine violence (e.g., Rev 4-8; 18; 19)?
I fear this will not be the case. For, as I see it, despite Jersak’s setting up of Christ as the criterion as to how we may understand who God is and what God is like, what actually happens is that Christ himself is made subservient to another criterion, a principle to which Christ has to conform. This principle may be variously termed as the principle of non-violence, or non-retribution, or non-wrath. In other words, the Christ which Jersak wants us to see as defining who God is, must also be a Christ who conforms to Jersak’s idea of what Christ has to look like. And if for some reason, in some thirty texts in the gospels, Christ gets out of line and doesn’t conform to the principle, then those texts will, somehow or other, have to be explained away. Perhaps these texts are just metaphors that we can disregard. Perhaps they are projections of the gospel writers onto the person of Christ. Perhaps they are textually corrupt. Perhaps they fail to meet the criteria set out by the Jesus Seminar. But they must not be allowed to stand and to mean what the church has thought they mean for two millennia.
So, I do not expect this book, as far at its main thesis is concerned, to serve a helpful purpose. I’m sure the author will say lots of good things. But, overall, what I really expect from this book will be the causing of significant harm. Not only will it attempt to drive a wedge between the Old Testament and the New Testament, between the Father and his Son, Christ Jesus; but it will also attempt to drive a wedge into the New Testament itself, between “good” New Testament passages, and “bad” New Testament passages. And, most dangerous of all, it will, of necessity, end up driving a wedge between “two Christs,” separating the “good” Christ from the Christ who, as some have put it, “just wasn’t quite able to lift himself out the Jewish culture’s inherited understanding of God,” the Christ whose perceptions of the Father “were unfortunately limited by the Jewish cultural milieu.”
Will my pre-review turn out to be correct? I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I leave you with these words of Irenaeus (emphasis mine):
Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord (as David also says, “But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth”), entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it—the elders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, [arguing] from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavour to bring in another Father, setting over against [these punishments] what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment, and all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not, and that it were better for them if they had not been born, and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the judgment than for that city which did not receive the word of His disciples. (Against Heresies 4.28.1)
It is plain that the Father also is Himself the same who was proclaimed by the prophets, and that the Son, on His coming, did not spread the knowledge of another Father, but of the same who was preached from the beginning. (Against Heresies 4.11.4)
April 28, 2015
Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this article. Loved your style in this one.
I heard Brad Jersak speak at an NAB church in Manitoba a few years ago, talking about “Listening Prayer.” What he described sounded to me like what might be called ‘personal prophecy’ and made me very suspicious of his whole program. The Church does indeed need to be warned about this. Thanks for a good pre-review.
You are certainly welcome, Jeff. Thank you.
Just found your site, I’ve enjoyed your contributions over at Pete Enns site. Reading this reminded me of that quote from Carson, “Damn all false antitheses to hell.” I can’t believe how many times recently I’ve seen something similar… Premise: “Jesus is loving.” And on that basis alone, the conclusion is drawn that he could not have taught or believed in hell or any other sort of retributive punishment from God.
I’ve started reading Bradley’s book, and would that he would follow his own advice: “A God who is real and alive must exist beyond my own puny understanding, bigger than any box in which I try to contain him…” Maybe God can truly be both loving and just, one who both redeems some and punishes others, and can be both even if it doesn’t fit Brad’s own understanding or the box Bradley has developed that says God can either redeem or punish, but not both. Later in the box Brad defends his idea that Jesus wouldn’t believe in hell by saying “that would make no sense.” Maybe God exists beyond Brad’s [and my] puny understanding…
Hi Daniel, perceptive comments here. Jersak talks a big game when it comes to the idea of God being bigger than us; but then, when it comes to actually showing that he means it, he utterly fails. He still reduces God to a deity who has to conform to his own finite conceptual categories. Thanks.
P.S. you hit the nail on the head regarding Jersak’s redefining Christ. If Christ is to reveal who God is, then Christ will require some major redefinition in order to get to the God that Bradley wants to arrive at. I’ve already noticed numerous examples of this in the book thus far.
Yes, I have often remarked that those who do not like the OT God, and want to reinterpret that God exclusively through the person of Jesus and the “red-letter” portions of the gospels–it eventually becomes quite clear that they don’t really like the red letters all that much either.
Thank you for this thoughtful and very helpful critique Mr. Shepherd. I’m so thankful for people, like you, who use their God-given talents and gifts to safeguard the truth. So often, I’m confronted by people who, through eisigetical gymnastics, try to squeeze the scriptures into their own frameworks. It grieves me that such people can become so convinced of their own ideas that no amount of reasoning can persuade them of what’s actually true. I’m hopeful that your efforts here will help some. I’m also hopeful, and anticipating with joy, the day of Christ, when all our faulty interpretations and hermeneutical methodologies will be made right and clear and perfect. Out of curiosity, did you ever end up reading the whole book? If so, do you have any plans of a follow-up blog post? I, for one, would be eager to read your thoughts. Be encouraged, Mr. Shepherd, I do believe Irenaeus would be proud of your work. May you be blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ryan, thank you very much for your comments. You and I have already communicated privately. But I thought I would go ahead and say here that I did, indeed, read the rest of the book, and I found that my pre-reading review of the book was in fact spot on. I’ve debated whether or not I wanted to do a complete review of the book, and I have finally decided that I should. So, over the next few weeks/months, I do plan to do a multi-part review. Thanks again for your kind comments, especially your ones about Irenaeus; that was very gratifying. Blessings.
Thanks for the review. Some very good food for thought.
I have a question for you: Is the God and Father or our Lord Jesus Christ violent?
It’s a simple yes or no question. Please don’t explain or qualify your answer. I would appreciate if you answered with a simple yes or no.
I have enjoyed this. Did you ever end up doing a full review of this book? I can’t seem to find it.
Hi Russell. I’m glad you found this helpful. No, I never followed up to review the entire book. But I can say that I was indeed correct in my initial assessment. Blessings.
After such an analysis I would think you owe it to all of us to read the book. It is available on Amazon. Please address why the closest disciple to Jesus would write “No one has ever seen God, but God the one and only, who is at the Father’s side has made him know.” NIV John 1:18 Also, why would John the Baptist be quoted in John 3:31-36, “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. It sounds like John is saying what we know is only from the earth. Now God has come to earth to reveal himself in his full nature and person.
So, I recently came across Brad Jersak through the teachings of Jamie Winshop. It appears Jamie and his wife Donna wrote a chapter in Brad’s book “IN: Incarnation & Inclusion, Abba & Lamb.” I enjoyed your article, and I was curious if you had reviewed Brad’s latest book. I know several people who promote Jamie, and I have enjoyed his teaching, but I am concerned that his views may not be based on Scripture. He has a lot of good stuff on identity, but it appears to be more focused on learning who God made (past tense) you to be vs being made new. It seems subtle, but I think it is important.