Posted by: rogermitchell | September 19, 2012

Tackling old-time theological monsters

Apologies for some silence after the previous flurry of material. Writing, friary life, conferences and project development have taken up the more recent weeks. As I previously mentioned I’ve been trying to fix a few IT techy problems too. So no more video blogs for another week or two I suspect. In the meantime recent blog comments have raised the existence of a few theological monsters waiting round the corner, and I thought it would be good to clarify my approach to them in advance. Phil Townend, commenting on my outline to chapter five of the coming book puts it like this:

“Rereading the latest blog, I’m aware of all the scriptures that fly around in my head as I’m reading, backing one view or another of, say, the rapture or Israel, etc., often quite confusing – and I’m already committed to a kenarchic view! Clearly, whatever battleground you choose to argue on, the normal pull from most of your readership will be back to the perceived ‘solid’ ground of the biblical text. That is then not just about what is written, or even how to interpret it, but also how we treat the scriptures as revelation. There is no avoiding this battlefield and I’m wondering how you will tackle these great old-time theological monsters in both books and the course?!”

Actually, I’m hoping for a wider audience than those with already decided ideas about the biblical text, so in contemplating who I need to avoid alienating unnecessarily I am giving myself a pretty wide field! I have set my perspective out in a number places, including at various points on this blog, for those up for digging around. But simply put, my position is a pragmatic one based on my own faith experience of the testimony of Jesus. That is to say that I believe the Jesus of the gospels to be both the Jesus of history and the God of eternity.

For those who are eager to explore some theological work on this, I devote quite a bit of chapter seven of my book Church, Gospel & Empire to it. I develop N. T. Wright’s critical realism to explain how and why I regard the gospel accounts as historical, and I develop Graham Ward’s practice of entering the gospel narrative wide open to encountering Jesus there by means of what he calls an economy of response. This deliberately elevates the emotional and relational encounter of the reader with the personal components of the story, and submits the doctrinal and intellectual challenges to those encounters. It is on the basis of my own existential encounter with Jesus, my recognition of him as the Jesus of the gospel testimony, my commitment to follow him, and my ongoing encounter with him in daily life that I believe him to be both the particular human of history and the God of eternity. Without spelling all the theological details out, I find that this leads me to both an incarnational and trinitarian standpoint.

This in turn means that I happily construct a harmonious character for Jesus based on the gospels, and then argue from that character to the character of God, and not the other way round. Anything that doesn’t fit with that I disregard as at best irrelevant and at worst erroneous. I explain this approach in chapter six of Church, Gospel & Empire. So if you take doctrines of the atonement, for example, that drive a wedge between the character and person of God and Jesus, so that God is offended and Jesus is appeasing that offence, they can’t be right, as Jesus and the Father are of identical character. Jesus would either need appeasing as much as his Father, or his Father would be ready to be the appeasement as much as the Son.

Of course this standpoint means that the other parts of both Old and New Testament scriptures are submitted to the gospel testimony. They neither stand alongside it, nor is it submitted to them. I will attempt to spell all this out as clearly as possible in chapter five of the coming book. I don’t, of course, claim that this is the only possible approach to scripture. But it does seem to be a consistent, practical and intelligible one.


  1. I just want to say, I truly appreciate what you are doing here, (and hope kindle editions of everything become available).

    It might be important for you to know that this journey of yours is not happening in some clinical vacuum but is impacting thinking of very real people on the ground.

    People who are struggling with the residue and over reach of empire that is ecclesiastical and charisma driven (a potent mix for power).

    Our hope cannot be anything less than someone infinity greater than us, who knows what its like to be us.

    I’ve begun to say that Jesus of the gospels is the litmus test for our theology of the old…and our hope of the future, his behavior will be the same yesterday today and forever.

  2. I love your comment on the atonement Roger. It’s the first time I’ve read something on that subject that resonates with my spirit (and that I understand). I need to read chapter six again. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for that succinct capture once again of what it’s all about, Roger. You must be feeling a bit of deja vu at some questions and comments after months of painstakingly tackling many of the ‘matters arising’ via the blog. But it’s the nature of the beast, Im afraid! The theological challenge is so fundamental – especially in the arena of what Calvary means – and Im sure more and more people will be coming fresh to it all, looking in on what you’re saying. So some things will need saying again and again. Profound thanks from me for all you are doing. God bless!

  4. Not sure if this is relevant, but I have recently been reading about Orthodox Theology, and it seems that they may have something to say on the atonement front. Seemed similar in some ways to what you were saying, and it certainly seemed critical of some of western thinking which it felt was at variance with the nature of God.

  5. i have recently read and loved two books by kenneth bailey – jesus through mediterranean eyes, and paul through mediterranean eyes. the first challenges our sunday school and westernised view of jesus in a gentle way just by bringing out a much wider interpretation of some incidents in the biography of jesus. but more directly linked to what you said here is a section in the second book which challenges the doctrine of penal substitution, or at least the more extreme views of it. he talks about god not being divided against himself and uses a powerful analogy about a mother with her son who had been disobedient in the kitchen.

    i really feel this has to be the way forward with theology – this man doesnt seem to me to be some pastor out to make a few bob out of his new ideas, but he appears to be what i lovingly call a “bible nerd” who studied in depth some of what are potentially some of the most boring documents out – rabbinical teachings around the time of the gospels. praise god for bible nerds !

    another book that is around but i’ve not yet read “healing the gospel” by keith flood so cant comment on the detail but the discussions about the atonement do seem to be very alive. like anything else i imagine they will have to over state their case to get heard and some of us will pendulum swing in one direction or another. i do hope the debate doesnt get polarised into yet another of those ridiculous situations taking sides and for and against, that should have more in common with the school playground than healthy discussion in love in a mature church.

    • Thanks for this Liz, and the book recommendations. Also for your hope that love rather than squabble will characterise discussions! School playground wouldn’t be too bad! It’s the battlefields and excommunications of empire I’m hoping we’ll continue to avoid. If the heart of theology is a trinity in love relationship which first creation and then incarnation extended to us, then love must be the deep magic!

  6. Sounds really interesting reading, Liz. I was given some extracts from a book by a catholic writer (can’t remember the name or lay my hands on the text right now) which so much echoed Roger’s views on kenarchy and specifically the atonement it was sort of uncanny. But truth will out! Clearly, this understanding about the heart of the Gospel is not only a recovery of what was lost but also an unveiling of what is hidden – overshadowed to obscurity by the mainstream quasi-Christian ideology that suits and sustains empire. As always, there will be many out there who have been faithfully carrying for years the flame for this authentic Christianity we are now discovering afresh. Elijahs are never alone!

  7. Very interesting and exciting points of view there Roger. I totally agree that some views on atonement drive a wedge between Jesus and God. I have been impacted by C. Baxter Kruger’s books ‘God is for us’ and ‘The Undoing of Adam’ and the Eastern Orthodox classical viewpoint on the atonement called ‘Christus Victor’. I love what God is doing today in reforming our orphan view of Him.

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