Friday, November 05, 2010


[I]f we were studying the Bible together over a period of time, we could trace the maturation process among biblical writers regarding God's character. In some passages, God appears violent, retaliatory, given to favoritism, and careless of human life. But over time, the image of God that predominates is gentle rather than cruel, compassionate rather than violent, fair to all rather than biased toward some, forgiving rather than retaliatory. In this more mature view, God is not capricious, bloodthirsty, hateful, or prone to fits of vengeful rage. Rather, God loves justice, kindness, reconciliation, and pace; God's grace gets the final word.

People who are part of what is often called fundamentalism today, whether Christians, Muslims, or Jews, often find it difficult to acknowledge this kind of progression in understanding across the centuries. If anything, they feel obliged to defend and give priority to the early, raw, more primal, less-tested and -developed views of God, minimizing or marginalizing what I am calling the more mature and nuanced understandings.

So the God of the fundamentalists is a competitive warrior - always jealous of rivals and determined to drive them into defeat and disgrace. And the God of the fundamentalists is superficially exacting - demanding technical perfection in regard to ceremonial and legal matters while minimizing deeper concerns about social justice - especially where outsiders and outcasts are concerned. Similarly, the fundamentalist God is exclusive, faithfully loving one in-group and rejecting - perhaps even hating - all others.

The fundamentalist God is also deterministic - controlling rather than interacting, a mover of events but never moved by them. And finally, though the fundamentalist God may be patient for a while, he (fundamentalist versions of God tend to be very male) is ultimately violent, eventually destined to explode with unquenchable rage, condemnation, punishment, torture, and vengeance if you push him too far.

-Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, pages 101-102
The fundamentalist God is also a being that can ultimately only be feared, not loved. Under such a deity every activity of the Christian life - worship, evangelism, charity, etc. - is an act of appeasement, driven by the need to escape unspeakable punishment (or to rescue others from that doom). Even the most conservative Christian would never verbalize it in that way, but when Hell is defined as an eternal state and salvation is viewed as the "fire insurance" that must be obtained to avoid it, declaring one's love for God becomes first and foremost an act of survival and only secondarily one of devotion.

In most evangelical churches the reality lies somewhere in between; the New Testament is given enough weight that God's love can sometimes be understood. But the Old Testament's God of wrath still lurks just beneath the surface, unwilling (or unable) to show any mercy to anyone who doesn't offer verbal assent to the correct creed. The perceived need for an inerrant Bible precludes the possibility that its early books might be the product of a more primitive understanding of God, rather than a timeless portrait to be placed on an equal plane with the example set by Christ.

If perfect love casts out fear, then perhaps any doctrines that lead to fear need to be reconsidered. Such growth in our theology need not suggest that God has changed, merely that our understanding of God has matured.


Doorman-Priest said...

Our view of God is an indication of our spiritual maturity.

Well put.

brian said...

Eugene, as always, appreciate your commentary. Well said, and great addition to Brian MacLaren's comments. You always express clearly what's on my mind as well, and wish I could get out there. So I thank God for your journey and talent with writing.

Have trouble at times figuring out how to post without the anonymous option, but I am a real person who wants to encourage you to keep up the good work!

This post was a God-send for me today, as I still struggle with my fundamentalist past, despite all I've learned over the years. It's always good to see evangelicals (and those with such backgrounds) becoming more faithful to the Bible's whole message as they appreciate that there are multiple voices within scripture that we need to wrestle with.

Yes, Brad Jersak's book on hell is excellent, and on this posting, 3 books which have helped me are:

William Countryman, Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?

Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?

Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.

I find a good principle in discerning scripture (and those writing about scripture) is 1 Thessalonians 5.20: "Do not despise prophesy, but test everything, and hold on to that which is good." Paul wrote to the collective body and it is thru' collective debate that we will come to discern better what scripture is telling us.

As Paul said, "We see thru' a glass dimly." And here is where the Light of Jesus shines thru'. If something doesn't match the Love of God or Jesus' character, it likely is too much creating a god in our own image, or projecting bits of our tainted egos onto God's character. I find it helpful to substitute "God" e.g., for "Love" in the 1 Corinthians 13 passage to get a better grasp on God's character, if God truly is Love as John says.

And so, stumbling over Paul's claims of a God of wrath and heart-hardening of some and mercy to others in Romans 9, I have to wonder how this matches Jesus' claim that God makes the sun to shine and rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, and his expectation that we love our enemies. Does God expect us to do something even God cannot do?

Do I let Paul overshadow Jesus' message, or do I use Jesus' life and teachings to weed out what in Paul's prophesying needs testing to determine what is good and what's not in line with God's ways. It is the very thing you and MacLaren advocate: that we see the evolutionary understanding of God over time.

So thanks again for your willingness to contribute to the wrestling and dialogue.

Eugene said...


Thanks for the encouragement, and for adding your thoughts to the discussion. As you said, some of the things the Apostle Paul wrote can be problematic if we fail to interpret them through the lens of Christ's teachings. Without that, and without fully understanding the cultural contexts that Paul was writing from (as we ultimately can't beyond a certain point), the result is a legalistic and sometimes irrational faith.

It also quickly becomes a dead faith, when all matters are declared settled and further discussion is cut off. Fortunately there seems to be a growing number of people who recognize that the discussion is ongoing, and that God still has more to show us. So here's to the ever-continuing adventure.