Is Wesleyanism a “human-centered” theology?

Is Wesleyanism a “human-centered” theology?

I have almost zero interest in the age-old fights between Reformed and Wesleyan-Arminian theologians.

I was trained by some fantastic Reformed theologians in seminary, and my general view is that the various theological “tribes” need to be continually balanced by a dialogue (and a missional engagement!) with one another.

That said, one of the common critiques against my own tradition (Wesleyan-Armininianism) is that it represents a “human-centered theology.”

The idea here is that God’s grace is invariably minimized by any belief in a measure of human freedom to accept or reject the gospel–however enabled that freedom is by the work of the Spirit.

Is that true?

The fine folks at Seedbed just released this video in which I address the subject.


 

Check out my new book (Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements), now available at Seedbed.com.


 

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Decorum, the unforgivable sin

Decorum, the unforgivable sin

This past Sunday, I preached on the “foot-washing passage” from the end of John’s Gospel (video here).

Just before his betrayal, Jesus takes up the basin and the towel to demonstrate the full extent of servant-hearted love. He washes the filthy feet of those who will soon abandon him.

Yet when Christ comes to Peter, Jesus is rebuked for an outrageous violation of decorum.

After all, foot-washing was reserved for servants, not Messiahs.

            “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet” (Jn. 13.8).

To allow such an embarrassing breach of etiquette would be akin to hosting the Queen of England at your house, and then asking her to do the dishes and the laundry.

But Jesus’ response is clear:

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

While there are many lessons to be gleaned from the passage, I chose to focus on this single moment: the embarrassing breach of “cultural decorum.”

My point was that while “decorum” (i.e., a concern for respectable appearances) is often a good thing, it is not always so. And in some cases, it may actually keep us from experiencing God’s grace.

In this way, decorum is the unrepented sin of the “respectable.” It is the sin of the suburbs—because we value appearance over healing.

Thus the strange, and apparently heretical title: “Decorum: the Unforgivable Sin.”

To be clear, I don’t think any sin is unforgivable from God’s perspective. Still, there are certain attitudes that lead to a lack of repentance and forgiveness from our side—because we refuse to set aside a concern for “respectable appearances” (decorum), and give Jesus access to our “dirt.”

To be served and known (and touched!) like this can be embarrassing and awkward.

Yet while Peter thinks he is honoring Christ by withholding his smelly feet, he is actually cutting himself off from grace.

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

How often do we do that?

“If I admitted that I have a problem, an addiction, or a hidden darkness in my life… then folks would never look at me the same.  After all, I am a respected member of the community. What kind of message would that send? I’ll work on it alone.”

“If I admitted the extent to which I’m struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or crushing loneliness, it would be embarrassing for all of us. And after all, it can be awkward to share such things, even with a pastor or a friend.”

“If I approached someone and asked for prayer—specific prayer—for what’s really going on, they might think less of me.  Or worse yet, they might think that I just want attention. ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”

Respectfully, I call “bull.”

(Even if that violates your sense of pastoral decorum.)

To be sure, there are breaks in etiquette that are problematic–even sinful. “TMI” can be a problem. And there are ways of sharing struggles (publicly, with the wrong person, or in the wrong way) that are inappropriate. Obviously.

But none of that changes the fact that, in some cases, spiritual healing depends upon a willingness to risk embarrassment, to be served, to be known, and to give Christ (and his appropriate representatives) access to our “dirt.”

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

After all, only those who have experienced God’s servant-hearted grace can pass it on to others.

 


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/284719005″>Decorum: The unforgivable sin</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user16738618″>Grace Community Church</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Thanks to all those who shared their embarrassing moments to help with my sermon intro! Apologies that I only had time for a few of them.


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God is not male (or female)

God is not male (or female)

For Christians, one danger of not knowing the tradition is the chance that you might set out to defend it with great boldness, only to discover that you are actually contradicting it.

Like, blatantly.

We might call this the Saul of Tarsus model of apologetics: boldly going in the wrong direction. And for the record, I’ve done it.

I was reminded of this danger recently as I watched an online argument in which a few Christians argued quite strongly, on “conservative” grounds, that “God is male.”

Yet the irony is that if you showed up at the councils of Nicaea or Constantinople with that argument, they wouldn’t call you a conservative; they would call you a heretic.

In fact, the Christian tradition has never claimed that God is male.

On the contrary, God is beyond gender, not least because God does not have a body.

“THEOS” AND THE FATHER

To be sure, Jesus (the second person of the Trinity) is male—and Scripture is clear that he retains his maleness to this day. After all, he ascends bodily to heaven. Yet while Christ is fully divine, the term theos (“God”) is almost always a reference to the first person of the godhead (a.k.a., the Father).

Things get confusing, of course, because “Father” sounds pretty “male” too. Yet the tradition has always viewed the label as a metaphor, just as it has the masculine pronoun “he” when used to speak of God the Father.

As with all metaphors, these come with a whisper of “it is” and “it is not.”

In other words, when applied to God, such labels shouldn’t be over-literalized. To call God “Father” doesn’t make him “male” any more than to call God “Rock” (Ps. 18.2) makes him a lump of granite out of which to make a countertop.

AN IRONIC CONTRADITION

As at least one person pointed out during this online conversation —there is an ironic contradiction in the (so-called) “conservative” contention that God should be seen as male.

In its simplest form, the contradictory logic runs like this:

  1. Sex and gender are connected to “bodily” realities.
  2. God does not have a body.
  3. Still, God is male.

To be clear, I actually agree with the first two points (as I’ve noted elsewhere: here and here). Yet to try to add the third point to the list is about as consistent as yelling “Meat is murder!” one minute, and “Down with vegans!” the next.

It’s contradictory.

And it has no precedent in orthodox theology.

ON FEMININE METAPHORS

Since God is not male, the next question is often whether we should complement our masculine pronouns with female ones.

In truth, the Bible does supply some feminine metaphors for God. These include likening God’s protective heart to that of a mother bird sheltering chicks (Ruth 2.12; Ps. 91; Mt. 23.37). While Isaiah likens God’s cries to those of a woman in labor (42.14), and God’s comfort to that of a mother with her children (66.13; 49.15).

Even so, Scripture stops short of calling God a “she.”

To do so in the ancient world may have risked certain problems in a culture filled with fertility cults, goddess worship, and copulating deities.

If one were going to supply a feminine pronoun to one person of the Trinity, the Spirit would be the most likely candidate. After all, the Hebrew word for “Spirit” is feminine; and the Greek is neuter. Yet not even this means that we should think of the Spirit as predominantly female.

To do so, would be to make the same error that was previously made with the unorthodox conception of “the Father.” And it would also be to forget that masculine and feminine nouns (in Greek and Hebrew) do not equate with “male” and “female.”

After all, the Greek word for “table” is feminine, but this hardly means that we should think of that thing you sit around for dinner as having “xx” chromosomes.

As the feminist theologian Sarah Coakley notes, to speak of the Spirit as a “she” may not even be advantageous to the cause of women’s equality—first, because it could simply replace blanket male stereotypes with unhelpful female ones, and second, because the church has often (tacitly or overtly) subordinated the Spirit to the other members of the godhead.

This too runs counter to orthodox theology– and it has resulted in what Coakley sees as the Spirit being drawn and painted as an ever-shrinking “pigeon” in our hierarchal artwork.

CONCLUSION

In the end, one takeaway from all this is that it is important for Christians to actually know the tradition before seeking to defend or overthrow it.

And on this matter especially, the tradition is not nearly as “patriarchal” as one might have been led to think.

Likewise, it is important to remember the “otherness” of God when discussing such matters.

To cite Karl Barth: “God is not ‘man’ said in a loud voice!”

And the same goes for “woman.”

 


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Why camp matters

Why camp matters

This past week, I had the privilege of serving as the senior high youth speaker at Cedar Canyon Wesleyan Camp in Rapid City, South Dakota.

It was a great experience.

OKWUers
Some of my favorite college students

Admittedly, I have never considered myself to be a typical youth speaker.  I am a college professor, an introvert, and a user of sermon illustrations that ranged (last week) from Soren Kierkegaard to David Foster Wallace.

Still, I marveled at how God used the time, not just in the lives of campers but also in my own life. The thirteen-hour drive home was a worshipful experience—which is saying something.

Cedar Canyon is a special place.

Cedar sign

It’s beautiful, set near the Black Hills of South Dakota.  And the Wesleyan camps there are planned and led by some of the most dedicated and enjoyable youth workers I’ve ever met. The music was phenomenal and the college teams served admirably.

band
Our tremendous and servant-hearted band from an unnamed university in Indiana

On many nights, leaders worked till wee hours of the morning prepping for the next day’s activities—e.g., packing pantyhose as powdered “paint bombs” to be used at Rec. time (just like the early church).

I mention all this because I sometimes hear church leaders talk about moving away from camps as a way to engage young people.  I get it.  They can be a ton of work. Some “boutique camps” are so expensive that one practically needs a FAFSA or a trust fund to attend.  And it is often alleged that such experiences trade on emotionalism, a suggestive state, and a lack of sleep to “manufacture” conversions.  That happens.

But it’s not what I saw last week.

What I saw was a group of counselors, youth pastors, and staff that genuinely care about young people, and each other. For days on end they planned, prayed, and worked their butts off to create an environment that was safe, fun, and spiritually rich.

As always, the results are up to God. Yet it was humbling to watch young people come forward to trust Christ, pray for one another, and sign their names on giant boxes to signify a call to ministry.

box

God used our week, and I was thrilled to be part of it.

Here’s a video that only covers Tuesday!

 


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Jordan Peterson’s strange version of Christianity (part 2)

Jordan Peterson’s strange version of Christianity (part 2)

“A Jungian gnosticism that is essentially Pelagian at key points.”

That was my claim in “part one” of this series on the Christianity of the now-famous Jordan B. Peterson.

(If you missed part one, go back and read it (here) before continuing.)

I should begin, however, by admitting that I have already changed my mind about one aspect of my prior post.  I said there that Peterson’s version of Christianity is “strange”—and I even used that word within my title.

I now regret that word choice.

Because, in some ways, it is the lack of “strangeness” within Peterson’s theology that makes it different from my own.

Historic Christianity is, after all, quite odd by human standards.

We assert belief in an unseen, all-powerful, and all-loving God despite a world awash with evil.  We affirm the inspiration of Scripture despite the many oddities contained therein.  We believe in a “Trinity” and in a Christ who is fully human and fully divine.

Thus, most heresies can be seen as attempts to resolve the strangeness of the faith, so that it reconciles more easily with whatever form of human “reason” now in fashion.

But while I recant my “strange” word-choice—I maintain the part about the “Jungian gnosticism” with a dash of old Pelagius.

Now to explain those terms.

“JUNGIAN GNOSTICISM”

Unlike his mentor, Freud, who dismissed all religion as an “illusion” based on “wish-fulfillment” (I want a strong and loving dad, so: “Accio Heavenly Father!”)—Karl Jung took seriously the utility of religious “myths” and archetypes.

So too Peterson.

Yet an important point in both Jung and Peterson is how quickly they divorce the biblical material from history, even as they homogenize it with all other pagan myths.

Hence, when Peterson talks about Genesis (or Jesus in John 1), he ends up concluding that the Babylonian Enuma Elish tells us pretty much the same thing—and in more interesting fashion.

After all, the Babylonian account is way-more Quentin Tarantino.

For Peterson, Marduk seems as good as YHWH, who makes great wonders out of chaos.

There is some validity to the comparison, since every first-year OT student learns the similarities between the Enuma Elish and Genesis. (Even as they also learn the massive differences!)

The problem, however, is that neither Peterson nor Jung need their sacred texts to be historically rooted in any sense.  They merely need the “knowledge” (gnosis) to gleaned from a psychoanalyzed decoding of them.

Thank-you Marduk-YHWH!  

Having read your tale, I too will go into The Unknown and make great wonders out of chaos, like when people try to force me to use “Ze” and “Zur” as pronouns.

(While one may agree on the pronoun point, the way of reading Scripture is deeply flawed.)

In both Peterson and the gnostics, “salvation” comes not through a flesh-and-blood person, but by the knowledge to gained from an intellectual guru who alone can decipher Scripture’s hidden meanings.

As Irenaeus long ago argued (c. 180 AD), that’s a bunch of hooey.

Now for the link to old Pelagius.

“WITH A DASH OF OLD PELAGIUS” 

In its particulars, Peterson’s version Christianity is of course quite different from that of the 4th c. Pelagius (thus I don’t want to “lump” them incautiously). Even so, a commonality exists in the downplaying of the necessity for supernatural grace.

Such grace is, I must admit, a very strange thing—but one cannot have Christianity without it.

For Pelagius, Christ-given forgiveness was not required for salvation, since what humans really need is to “buck up” and live responsible lives as Scripture commands us.

In other words, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” (Rule 1); “Tell the truth” (Rule 8); “Set your house in perfect order… ” (Rule 6)—each from 12 Rules for Life.

None of this is bad advice, mind you. And if it prevents even one resentful young Incel from  shooting up a middle school, we will all be grateful.

Yet as Charlie Clark notes (here), Peterson’s whole self-improvement project is driven by a form of macho pride, and a conspicuous absence of the sine qua non of Christianity—“grace.”

So what does Peterson think you should do?

You should act like a dominant, alpha lobster and assert yourself: “Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least the same right as others.” As a man, you’ve won the game of life when you present yourself as “a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.”

While such testosterone-laden preaching may produce external changes, it also has a cost.

As Clark concludes:

Peterson is, in fact, precisely the character that [C. S.] Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, one of those teachers who,

“appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity—that is, by Pride.”

So:

Just as theological and social conservatives have too often compromised with sub-Christian political movements to prop up the illusion of a Christian nation, they would now put their hope in Peterson—at best, a good pagan—to teach their sons morals.

This is an enthusiasm born of desperation.

But to make his Pelagian error is to put our faith in ourselves rather than in Christ.

The righteousness that Jordan Peterson preaches is self-righteousness and it is not saving. The Pride it nurtures will prove spiritually fatal. The church owes young men better guidance than this.

CONCLUSION

My broader view of Peterson is more positive (See “part one“).

After all, we need not agree with someone entirely in order to learn from them. So let’s give our “sons” some credit for being able to separate the good from bad. Peterson has many noble points.

Still, at the end of the day, I must acknowledge that my brand of Christianity is far stranger than his. It holds that Scripture gives us not just disembodied ideas on how to “make order out of chaos” but a re-embodied Jew who is, himself, the hope of the world.

And it contends, quite strangely, that we require far more than Stoic admonitions on how to be good, “upright Lobsters.”

We need more than “good advice”; we need good news.

Jordan Peterson’s strange version of Christianity (part 1)

Jordan Peterson’s strange version of Christianity (part 1)

Sixty million.

That’s approximately how many views Professor Jordan B. Peterson now has on his official YouTube channel. Which, by my count, makes him the most famous professor since Albus Dumbledore.

Not that I’m jealous.

While few folks had heard of Peterson just three years ago, he has since sky-rocketed to international fame for his critique of political correctness run amok (see here), his thoughts on personal meaning and motivation, and his new bestseller: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (which, as best I can tell, is a kind of Purpose Driven Life for western, twenty-something males).

It may also have helped that Peterson’s voice, by his own bemused admission, sounds like a Canadian Kermit the Frog—that is, if the world’s foremost puppet-amphibian were to swap out every verbal “Hi-ho” for a “Dostoyevsky” or a “Solzhenitsyn.”

JP kermit

A CONTROVERSIAL (CHRISTIAN?) GURU

Peterson is also controversial.

He is loathed by certain Leftist groups.  His path to fame came by challenging the Canadian Government’s forced use of transgender pronouns.  And his very mention has become a kind of Shibboleth in a culture war that seems increasingly “terrorized by the fringes” (whether Right or Left).

But none of that is what I want to talk about.

This post (and however many that follow it) is on Peterson and Christianity.

Because while waffling on whether he calls himself a Christian (“It’s complicated,” he says), Peterson takes the Bible seriously, as evidenced by his mammoth YouTube walk through the Old Testament.

As he states:

The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of western civilization … Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we … should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.

On human sin, he says:

Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. And with this realization we have … full legitimization of the idea … of original Sin.

And on one occasion, he even claimed to view Jesus as a member of the Trinity

So why the somewhat snarky title to my blog post?

SOME POSITIVES

To be clear, my claim is not that Peterson is toxic, or that the extreme claims against him are fair or accurate, at least based on my limited exposure to him (see here for a critique of those who fail to listen carefully to him).

I actually appreciate some of his emphases:

  • The crucial value of free speech
  • The danger of radical postmodernism
  • The abiding value of the Judeo-Christian narrative
  • The flaws in fundamentalism
  • The need to take “big questions” beyond the college lecture hall
  • And the necessity to reach the so-called “lost boys” of the west, before they are snatched up by dangerous ideologies like those of the “Incels” and the Alt-right.

I am not even claiming that Peterson is not a Christian.

My point is that he is simply wrong about what Christianity is.   

And I say that not as one of the many self-appointed internet heresy-hunters (shouting from a basement bunker beneath a pile of R.C. Sproul books), but as someone with a PhD in theology. Hence, this is quite literally the only aspect of Peterson’s program on which I am qualified to have a reasonably well-informed opinion.

This, then, is my thesis:

While Peterson talks often of the Bible and the need to “pick up your damn cross,” he also misconstrues some of the most basic claims of Christianity.

The result is kind of Jungian gnosticism that is essentially Pelagian at key points. And his approach to Scripture makes him something of a re-mythologizing “Joseph Campbell” for a tribal, YouTube culture.

(Rest assured, I will define these clunky terms more fully in “part 2”.)

For now, I’ll just get the ball rolling.

“AND THE GREATEST OF THESE IS ‘TRUTH’ (AND INDIVIDUALISM)”

Two quick examples:

In a recent interview with the atheist-neuroscientist, Sam Harris, Peterson argued (laudably) that the Judeo-Christian narrative ought not simply be discarded as a vestige of an intolerant and un-scientific past.  It has abiding value.

But when pressed on what that value is, Peterson’s Christianity gets strange.

His claim, from a biblical perspective, is that Christianity matters for at least two reasons:

  1. It “makes the group subordinate to the individual.”
  2. It posits truth-telling as “the highest moral virtue.”

In his words:

the truth speaks chaos into order in the most beneficial possible way. And that is the fundamental ethical duty.

Unfortunately, neither of these claims are accompanied by even the barest attempt at biblical support.  And at least one of them is flatly contradicted by the New Testament.

Let’s start with the second point: True speech as the highest “Christian” virtue.

RIGHTLY ORDERED LOVE > TRUE STATEMENTS

For both Jesus and Paul, it is not “truth-telling” but rightly-ordered “LOVE” that is the highest moral virtue (See Mk. 12.30 and 1 Cor. 13).

And while we ought not pretend that the two concepts are competing in a “hierarchy of dominance” (one of Peterson’s favorite phrases), it bears noting that one may actually speak true phrases in idolatrous and sinful ways.

To take just two examples: See Satan’s accurate quotations from the Bible when temping Christ (Mt. 4). Or secondly, the religious leaders’ turning of the Law into a “projectile” to be aimed at Jesus, with a woman’s life becoming little more than ammunition (Jn. 8).

So, no…, “the highest moral virtue” of Christianity is not truth-telling.

THE BIBLE AND THE INDIVIDUAL

Now for Peterson’s claim about the Bible making “the group” subordinate to “the individual.”

This too is rather odd.

To be honest, I can’t think of a single verse that would unambiguously support the claim–though there are a few that might be taken as such.  Jesus leaves the “ninety-nine” to find the “one” (e.g., Mt. 18.12); and he makes the individual’s allegiance to earthly groups subordinate to allegiance to him.  But this doesn’t seem like what Peterson is talking about.

For him, almost every conversation eventually returns to a critique of “Neo-Marxism.”

And while I dislike Marxism as much as the next guy, I get the sense that Peterson is a bit too liberal with his slinging of the label (In my view, adding slippery prefixes like “Neo-” and “Quasi-” is often a sign of lazy thinking).

As an ancient text, the Bible simply doesn’t buy into our Individualist vs. Collectivist dichotomy. That’s a modern thing. Scripture has a “participationist” ontology–and it’s better than both Individualist and Collectivist imbalances (See, for instance, the work of Colin Gunton in the published version of my PhD thesis ([here].)

This participation framework is rooted in the nature of the Triune God–who is neither a lonely individual, nor a faceless “collective.”  This God has space within himself for other “persons,” without obliterating their particularity.

Hence the New Testament speaks NEVER of “Individuals” on a lonely hero’s journey (as does Peterson), but of a knit-together family, called the body of Christ.

For such reasons, Peterson’s claims about these two distinctly Christian contributions turn out not even to be Christian. That doesn’t make him evil or “a heretic”–but it does make his version of the gospel somewhat strange.

(As for the clunky labels in my thesis, those will have to wait till next time.)

“Hi-ho.”