Christian, learn to say “perhaps”

Christian, learn to say “perhaps”

Tucked away on page 1,351 of N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, there is this gem of statement:

            “To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps’.”

In context, Wright is speaking of the fact that for Paul, moments of unambiguous divine revelation were rarer than we might guess. They happened, but not constantly. Whereas pagans believed in divination, consulting the entrails of animals, and any number of other techniques for receiving certitude, for Paul it was different:

“As often as not, Paul sees the divine hand only in retrospect. For the present, the attempt to discern divine intent carries a ‘maybe’ about with it. Maybe, he writes to Philemon about Onesimus, this is the reason he was separated from you. To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps’.”

For me, “perhaps” is intriguing for a slightly different reason.

It seems to occupy a kind of sacred middle ground between the two extremes of doubt and false certainty.



On one extreme, we face the arrogant temptation of claiming to know more than we do. This can lead to dogmatic pronouncements on things that should probably held more tentatively. After all, in theology especially, we are talking about a mysterious and unseen God, not plotting the schematics for a circuit breaker. As Neil Plantinga writes, “besides reliability, God’s other name is Surprise.” And as Paul proclaimed, “we see now as through a glass, darkly” – we know “in part” (1 Cor. 13.12).

Yet the opposite extreme is equally unsavory. Across from false certainty is the sinkhole of pervasive skepticism. After the Enlightenment, empiricism demanded quantifiable data for every aspect of one’s worldview, and many were swallowed in an ocean of unbelief. In my view, this is not appealing either. Nor does it succeed in meeting its own criteria for verifiability. Here, the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet still have force: “There are more things in heaven and earth [O Richard Dawkins] than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

But the irony is this: Both certainty and skepticism have something in common: both bow before the idol of “proof” and make their sacrifices.

And in the middle, sitting quietly, is “perhaps.”


What exactly do I mean by this? In truth, one could easily locate faith or trust as the midpoint between doubt and certainty. This makes sense. Yet for my purposes, I take trust to be an act of the will (or heart), whereas perhaps is more an exercise of the imagination. Faith says “yes” to core convictions of the creed, while perhaps stands upon this platform in order to peer into more uncharted territory: the blank spaces on our maps.

In doing so, it offers a hopeful, humble, and biblically-informed “what if?” Yet unlike the proof-obsessed alternatives of doubt and dogmatism, perhaps does so with the proviso that “this could very well be wrong.”

It is a kind of sacred speculation, on the basis of more firm convictions.


In fairness, there are times when perhaps is not a helpful word. It can be used to indulge absurdity or unbridled speculation. “Perhaps, as some say, the earth actually sits on the back of a giant (unseen) turtle,” and if asked what this turtle stands on, the answer is straightforward: “it’s turtles man, all the way down.” Yeah… I doubt it.

Likewise, as a Christian, I choose not to endlessly mull over the “perhaps” of questions that have already been decided in my own mind. Thus I do not agonize continually over the possibility that “Perhaps God is not Love,” “Perhaps Christ did not conquer death,” or “Perhaps ‘morality’ is just an evolutionary adaptation.” While such questions are quite real for many, the anchor of my own faith keeps me from endlessly rehearsing them.


Yet in other instances, the ability to entertain unlikely possibilities can be crucial.

Imagine, for instance, that you are a first century Jew who has been taught (from the Bible) that Yahweh is “One” (Deut. 6), that only God can forgive sins, and that no human should be worshipped. Then a traveling Rabbi visits your town, and starts saying things that seem to rub against all this.

“Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8.58);

“I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10.30); and

“[I have] authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mk. 2.10).

What do you do?

Apart from God’s Spirit, and a profound ability to say “perhaps,” the answer is clear: You reject the strange Rabbi, you join the throng of confident doubters, and you cite Bible verses to show that it is justified.

Simply put, none of the earliest Christ-followers could hold on to both monotheism and the worship of the risen Jesus without the ability to do some fairly thorough reimagining. At some point, they had to say something like the following: “Well…this doesn’t seem to fit at all with what we’ve been taught, but perhaps God is doing something we had not expected. Perhaps we shouldn’t just reject it.”

For my own part, this thought experiment is particularly convicting. I am a theology professor, which means that if I had lived in the first century, I might have been one of the “teachers of the Law” who frequently interrogated Jesus. Given this, I sometimes wonder what my response would have been to this strange Rabbi saying strange things.

I know myself. I am not optimistic.

I too have trouble remembering that God’s other name is “Surprise.”


So while sacred speculation is not without pitfalls, there is justification for Wright’s pregnant sentence:

Sometimes, to believe in providence, means learning how to say “perhaps.”







Someone Reviewed my Book! (And Some Thoughts on Good Criticism)

Someone Reviewed my Book! (And Some Thoughts on Good Criticism)

Well, it happened.

Last week, I learned that my recently published doctoral thesis had been reviewed in an academic journal (Augustinian Studies). For seasoned scholars, such things are hardly news. You write a book. It gets reviewed. That’s how it works. But this is my first academic book, so for me the news was met with two equal and opposite emotions:

  • “Sweet!  Someone actually read it!” And:

  • “No!  I bet they torched it!”

Actually, the review was fantastic (full text below; reposted with the Journal’s permission):

Lincoln Harvey, of London, was both thorough in his treatment of my book, and incredibly complementary toward it, calling it “something of a manifesto against all-or-nothing readings of both Augustine and Gunton.” Mission accomplished.

But that’s not the only reason for this post. If it were, I’d feel an uncomfortable proximity to this story from the Babylon Bee: “Christian Author Models Humility by Retweeting only 75% of Compliments.” (To be clear, that’s not me. I’ve reposted 100% of my positive reviews.)

Here’s the serious point: All of us who make things—whether art, or websites, or handcrafted Amish furniture—crave honest feedback on our work. We need it. Yet the process of being critiqued is scary. Indeed, at the popular level, this is truer than ever, especially in the age of that dreaded invention: the “internet comment box” (acceptable literal translation of the Greek word “Gehenna”).

Sadly, in our culture, the thoughtful summation and evaluation of ideas is increasingly replaced by bombastic rhetoric, and a desire to distort others in exchange for points in a game that doesn’t actually exist. Of course, this also happens in academia (just with better grammar), but perhaps there are some lessons that the internet, or the world at large, could learn from the more cordial world of academic journal book reviews.

None of these are creative, but they are important:

  1. Before responding, try to understand.

This should be a no-brainer, but alas it is not. To understand takes time. And we feel dangerously short on that. After all, there are viral videos to watch. No need to read the article; just post a comment. It avoids the hassle of actually thinking.

  1. Don’t distort.

When interacting, we should be able to summarize another’s argument so accurately that they will at least know that they’ve been heard. One thing I appreciated about Harvey’s review, apart from the positive comments, is that he had obviously read my book, and then accurately represented it. The alternative is called “bearing false witness,” and it is a sin regardless of how many “likes” you get for doing it.

  1. Affirm something.

Almost every academic review finds something to affirm. I even read one that praised the quality of the pages and book binding. (Not a joke.) Some of this is mere politeness, but imagine how different our political or social discussions would be if we implemented this approach. Maybe I can’t agree with the economic policies of, say, Bernie Sanders, but I can at least affirm that he believes them, and that he feels a moral obligation to follow through on them. That’s more than I suspect of many candidates. (FYI: Don’t take that as an endorsement.)

  1. Critique the idea, not the person.

Some ideas deserve to get hammered. And there is even a place for satire and sharp retort. Just read the Hebrew Prophets. Moreover, when someone’s rhetoric has become dangerous or abusive, they deserve to be lambasted and even lampooned (see here).

Yet a further point that book reviews tend to model well is the general rule that we ought to critique ideas, and not people. To thoughtful observers, ad hominems reflect more poorly on the speaker than the target. And when the Bible calls us to “Judge not” it is often speaking of the unseen motives of another heart. We can’t know those. So we shouldn’t presume. Colin Gunton called this “the disgraceful Freudianizing of one’s opponents.” And he was right.

  1. Recognize that flawed ideas are sometimes the most interesting, and the most needed.

Boredom is a form of evil. And when arguments persist in hugging the shallows of conventional wisdom, that’s what they are—boring. In my own field, some of the most needed and interesting works have been deeply flawed. Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor is a prime example. The history is reductionistic, and the theological implications are dubious at certain points. Yet it was sorely needed. Despite weaknesses, it awakened scholars to a neglected theme of the atonement (Christ’s victory over the forces of evil), and that was what mattered.

A work can be manifestly flawed in certain ways, and yet profoundly helpful in others. Thus we must move beyond the gladiatorial options of “thumbs up” (winner!) or “thumbs down” (kill him!). Caesar did that. And he’s not Lord.


In the end, I’m glad for a positive review. But I’m even more thankful that someone took the time to model the above points. May we do likewise.

Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty (Part 2 of 2)

In part one of this post, we highlighted a claim by Greg Boyd about divine forgiveness.

As Boyd argued, the idea that God forgives our sins, and the idea that Jesus paid the penalty for them cannot both be true.  They are incompatible, at least as he sees it.

His argument involved the following analogy:

“If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”

For starters, there are several things that I appreciate about Boyd’s work. We both have disagreements with aspects of Reformed theology (though I am not an Open Theist), and his book The Myth of a Christian Nation has great points about how (according to the subtitle) “the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.” In addition, Boyd does a fantastic job of communicating theology in ways that are understandable to the average person, and his emphasis on the Christus Victor model of atonement is often very helpful. I like him.

Yet on the present subject, I think there is good reason why this is not a particularly common argument (are there others who make it?).

The main problem, in my view, centers on a false assumption about what forgiveness entails.

The crucial question is thus: Does the forgiveness necessitate that no punishment may be handed down for the offense? Boyd assumes so, but this seems obviously wrong.

Consider, for example, the parents who (incredibly) choose to forgive the murderer of their child. While this is an amazing act of grace, it by no means implies (as Boyd seems to assume) that all penalties must be waived for the crime. Indeed, no thoughtful person would respond to the parents’ action by proclaiming: “Well, it’s very nice that you did that, but it is not forgiveness, because the criminal is still in jail.”

In this regard, Boyd is simply wrong about what forgiveness means. It need not be antithetical to all legal consequences.

Moving back to the many biblical examples, it is telling that Israel’s absolution often comes after (or alongside) the enactment of certain covenantal penalties—things like exile, or a defeat at the hands of enemies. Here too forgiveness need not imply a total lack of punishment. Often, as with Christ, it comes through the shedding of blood (Eph. 1.7). And in the case of penal substitution, the assumption is that divine faithfulness to the covenant means that our forgiveness comes because God himself decides to bear the curse of the Law.

In the end, Boyd’s claim seems to misunderstand both the meaning of forgiveness in our contemporary culture (e.g., the example of the forgiving parents), and its meaning within the biblical and covenantal narrative. Of course, this does not prove that penal substitution is correct—it could well be wrong for many other reasons—but it does show that this particular claim has some false assumptions.

On a related note, one thing I have appreciated in the recent growth of analytic theology—as exemplified by folks like Tom McCall and Oliver Crisp—is a concern to be a bit more careful about such issues of terminological precision and argumentative rigor.

While this concern is not unique to analytic theology, it is sometimes stunning (as in the above example from Boyd) how quickly theologians make sweeping conclusions without ever clarifying or mounting an argument for what a given concept actually means. In fairness, most all of us have been guilty of this.

Thankfully, though, there is one thing that Boyd’s argument get’s right: with God there is forgiveness.


On a related note, if you are interested in an introduction to analytic theology, Tom McCall’s new book (An Introduction to Analytic Christian Theology) is a great read.

Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty? (Part 1 of 2)

Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty? (Part 1 of 2)

For those who are interested in theology, here is another atonement post with a question to consider:

In the Bible, God is a forgiver.

As Psalm 130 states:

If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,

Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness (vss. 3-4a).

Dozens of passages could be added to this, but as Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”

So here is what may seem like a strange question:

  • Can we really say that God “forgave” sins if Jesus paid the price for them?

For many Christians, one meaning of the cross is that Christ willingly bore the penalty that we deserved. Therefore, there is “no condemnation” for us (Rom. 8.1), because Jesus was condemned in our place. This is referred to as “penal substitution,” and it sometimes focuses on the idea that sin’s price was paid in full.

Yet for the contemporary theologian Greg Boyd, this runs counter to the Bible’s claim that God “forgives.”

As Boyd argues, forgiveness is “the release of a debt.” Yet:

“If God must always get what is coming to him in order to forgive (namely, “a kill”), does God ever really forgive?”[1]

Boyd thinks not. And for him, this is yet another reason to abandon penal substitution for more coherent understandings of atonement (see more here ). As he explains:

“If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”[2]

So what do you think? Does Boyd’s point resonate with you? Why or why not?

While I would not claim that penal substitution is somehow the “most important” model of atonement, I am currently looking at some objections to it for a chapter in a larger book. Hence the repetition of the penal substitution questions.

This question builds on two previous posts (here and here), which examined a related objection  involving the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are new, see those prior posts for further context.



[1] Gregory Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 104.

[2] Gregory Boyd, “The Danger of the Penal Substitution View of Atonement.” Re|knew. November 20, 2014. Accessed April 2, 2016.

Burn your silo; find a home

As Walter Lippmann said:

“When everybody thinks the same, nobody thinks very much.”

I love that statement, but it’s also convicting.

The gist is simple: There is profound danger in surrounding yourself with voices that sound strangely like your own. It’s called the “echo chamber,” and the result is the assisted suicide of critical thinking.

As I heard a wise man say:

“If you only read the books you write, your ‘truth’ will always be slanted.”

These days, the slant goes by many names:

  • confirmation bias,
  • the herd mentality,
  • tribalism, and
  • a silo culture.


In a silo culture, homogenous items are kept safely together, and safely separate from all else. There is little meaningful communication between silos, and few doors or windows. And as the Cold War taught us, “silos” now have a further purpose. They are for launching missiles in the direction of opposing silos.

Photo by Patrick Feller

Both meanings are fitting. Silos are symbols of separation, and of mutually assured destruction.

And whatever your position on particular social or political issues, you have to admit one thing: Our culture has embraced its silos.

Take, for instance, the way we get our “news”:

In prior eras, there were a few respected voices: Cronkite, Murrow, Brokaw. They were biased, of course (for everyone is biased), but we mostly drank from the same wells.

Not today. Now, we have our “silo-sources.” They have been carefully designed by market research to suit our preferences and our prejudices. Not too hot. Not too cold. They’re “just right”—with a steaming side of confirmation bias.

Are you a raging liberal who thinks George W. Bush would have been a Bond villain if only his IQ was higher than a Texas hunting dog? Enjoy the echo chamber of MSNBC.

Or maybe you think Obama is a secret Muslim who simultaneously loves gays and beer and Sharia law (think about that…). Good news. You too have Cable News corroboration. It’s fair and balanced. No tribalism here.

Unfortunately, we are now discovering where silo-sources leave us (see the current presidential frontrunners).

My point, however, is not about our news or politics.

It’s about community, friendship, and the kind of relationships that actually help us think.

Here’s my big idea:

While tribalism can be deadly, there is great value in belonging to a tribe.

While silos separate us, we still need homes.

Humans need community, and some of that community should be like-minded. That’s not a bad thing. To accomplish anything, we need shared vision. We need spouses and friends who see the same truth we do, just as we need voices to challenge our assumptions. To deny the value of all like-minded groupings is to cast oneself adrift on a sea of loneliness and isolation. That way lies cynical inaction.

There is value in belonging to a tribe, and I certainly have mine.

As a follower of Jesus from a particular segment of the Christian family, I am part of an admittedly peculiar (and imperfect) people. It is a bounded set, which means that it has fences, unique problems, and beliefs that we hold in common. That is as it should be.

In one sense, to have a tribe is to have a home, and homes are good.

Homes have doors and windows, and perhaps a welcome mat. In good homes, outsiders are welcomed with hospitality, and family members are bound together by more than shared opinions. In homes, there are lines of communication with the outside world, and not just the “Red Phone” for launching missile strikes! In a home, insiders leave and return, preferably on a daily basis, in order to embrace the outside world.

Because while we should have homes, we were never meant to hole-up there. Agoraphobia is a disorder—and a fear-based way of living.

Here’s my point: When tribes become tribal, homes become silos, and fences become unwelcoming walls (“y-uge beautiful walls”…perhaps paid for by Mexico). And that is bad for everyone.

It is killing civil discourse, and it is the assisted suicide of critical thought.

“When everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks very much.”

It’s time to burn our silos, while also finding homes.