Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2015
The question of how to understand the peaceable message of Jesus in relation to less than peaceable pictures of God in the Bible and in the Christian tradition has challenged ethically concerned people of faith almost since the very beginning.
The arch “heretic” Marcion in the second century after Jesus infamously jettisoned the Old Testament and much of the New Testament in his effort to sustain an authentically Christ-centered faith. Though Marcion’s proposed solution to the problem probably made things worse, his impulse to support a coherent view of God and Jesus together is understandable and perennial.
The spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists certain have a stake in this on-going conversation. By lifting up Jesus’s life and teaching as normative and by accepting high claims for the authority of the Bible, we really can’t avoid questions about how to harmonize what seem to be powerful tensions among the various sources of information about God.
In recent years, the broader Christian community has seen an uptick in interest in revisiting these themes. Prominent writers such as John Dominic Crossan (How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation) and J. Denny Weaver (The Nonviolent God) are very recent examples of dozens of books that have been written in the past two decades that struggle, often very helpfully, with the theological (as in doctrine of God) implications of interrelating the peaceable impulses of Christian sources with the more violent aspects of how the tradition has presented God.
A welcome contribution to an important conversation
For those, like me, who welcome this conversation and think we still have a ways to go to achieve a genuinely faithful resolution, Bradley Jersak’s new book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (Pasadena, CA: CWRpress, 2015), will be seen as a singular contribution. Jersak does significant original thinking. Perhaps even more importantly, he writes accessibly in a book aimed at a broad audience. Jersak writes about deep issues in a clear and lively style reflecting the combination of his academic training (a PhD in theology and present vocation as a professor) and two decades work as a pastor and church planter. His own varied ecclesial journey (early life as a conservative Baptist, a stint as a Mennonite pastor, current connection with the Orthodox Church) is seen in his empathetic and inclusive sensibility.
The accessibility of Jersak’s efforts begin already with the very title of his book. It captures his basic argument quite well: The resolution to the tension between Jesus’s peaceable message and other, more violent, images of God is simply to side with Jesus. This book is an exercise in thinking consistently about God in light of the message of love and mercy proclaimed and embodied by Jesus—the incarnation of the true God of the Bible.
One of the strengths of Jersak’s book is the gentleness of his incisive critique of problematic images of God. He acknowledges his own past adherence to those views, which helps him to recognize their attraction. He suggests that in a broad sense we may think of God in two ways—a God of “will” or a God of love.
By “will” or “willful,” Jersak means a God who is in absolute control, a God who is free and powerful to do only what he wants. Such a God has either subservient followers who do God’s will or enemies who rebel against God’s control. This image of God tends to understand God as a punitive judge and a dominating force. Jersak admits that parts of the Bible portray God in this way—but such a willful God ultimately is a big problem and is incompatible with the portrayal of God we find with Jesus.
The God of love
It is the articulation of this portrayal of the God of Jesus that Jersak focuses his main energies on. Unlike many theologians, he does not hold the God-as-will and God-as-love images in tension. Rather, he argues that only the God-as-love image adequately captures the message of Jesus about God. Only the God-as-love image does justice to traditional Christianity’s confession of Jesus as God Incarnate, the second Person of the Trinity. And only the God-as-love image provides present-day Christians with a truthful and life-giving object of worship.
Jersak uses two technical theological terms, “kenosis” (self-emptying, self-giving, servanthood) and “cruciform” (“cross-shaped,” revealed in how Jesus accepted his cross as the consequence of his way of life), to describe how God is “Christlike.” The way to resolve tensions between God as all-powerful and the world as nonetheless broken is to reconfigure our notion of “all-powerful” in terms of God’s self-emptying love seen most clearly in Jesus cross-culminating life. Jersak refuses to allow for any distance between Jesus and God in terms of how they exercise power and deal with sin and evil.
Hence, Jersek’s is not a punitive, retributive God. The third section of the book, cleverly titled “Unwrathing God,” draws heavily on the gospels and writings of Paul to explain how “wrath” is actually an expression of God’s love, not its counterpoint. This leads to transforming the notion of “atonement”—it’s not about Jesus as receiving the divine punishment due to us as our substitute. Rather, it’s about the extraordinary expression of God’s mercy in Jesus life, death, and resurrection. “Wrath” is not God’s active anger but God’s respect for human choices and allowing for intrinsic consequences when we refuse to live in the mercies of God.
The book culminates in Jersak’s summary of a presentation originally called “The Gospel in Chairs” and now titled “The Beautiful Gospel” (Jersak’s presentation of this is available on YouTube as this that by his colleague Brian Zahnd). Two chairs are used to symbolize humanity and God. In one version of the gospel, God turns away from humanity after humanity turns from God. In the “beautiful” version, God never turns away but only awaits the return of human beings (reflecting Jesus’s “gospel in miniature” story, the parable of the Prodigal Son).
A few questions
I can imagine many readers of Jersak’s book responding with a “yes, but….” They would say he does a fine job of conveying the heart of the gospel as found in the message of Jesus. But they would be uneasy with how thoroughly he resolves the Jesus/God tension (a classic, fairly recent articulation of the need to stay with the tension is Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace). This is not my response, though. I affirm Jersak’s way of resolving this tension.
I am grateful for the forceful, clear, accessible message this book so effectively conveys. Along with Jersak’s lively, gentle, and vulnerable writing style, and his strong analytical chops in making his case, he also helpfully ends each chapter with questions for reflection and a centering prayer.
If I have questions or concerns, they are only on the level of emphases. Though Jersak engages the Bible in depth, this is still most of all a book written in engagement with the theological tradition. He does not very directly engage the biblical story as a whole—that is, he is not very attentive to the Old Testament. It is notable that in the powerful culmination of the book, chapter 14’s presentation of “The Beautiful Gospel,” Jersak does show how the story of Jesus is anchored in the larger biblical story—but this element is mostly ignored in the argument leading up to the culmination.
Though the message Jersak conveys clearly has social ethical ramifications, and he gives no hint that he would want to diminish those, the focus of the book seems to me to be a bit more apolitical than close attention to biblical emphases would seem to warrant. That is, Jersak is engaging the theological stand of the Christian tradition—and Christian theology, at least since Constantine, has taken great pains to remain safely apolitical. So the conversation tends to remain on a theological rather than social ethical level.
I’m grateful for this book and expect to return to it often as I develop my own version of the beautiful gospel that will probably emphasize the Old Testament and social ethics more than most of the writing on the God/Jesus tension has. Brad Jersak has not given us the last word, by any means. He certainly wouldn’t claim that he has. But his is a good and vitally important word. Let the conversation continue.