Consumer Christians, and God’s Love with Paul Louis Metzger
Dr. Metzger talks about participation in the triune life of God.
JMF: I’d like to talk about your book Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology. You edited this book and worked on bringing the authors together. What themes did you see emerge in the preparation of this book?
PLM: I’d like to preface that by saying a little bit about what the book did in terms of bringing together these respective contributors and what the aim of the book was. It was to bring together many contributors who shared interest, passion, conviction on the subject of Trinitarian theology and to look at most, if not all, the major doctrines in what is called systematic theology from the vantage point of Trinitarian thought.
For example, prolegomena, which is first steps in theology, the first foundational guidelines of how you’re going to do theology. What does that look like from a Trinitarian perspective? The doctrine of revelation, what does that look like? The doctrine of the image of God or the divine attributes or perfections, the sacraments or ordinances, and on it went, to ethics. We dealt with various subjects, sin and grace, all from this vantage point of Trinitarian theology. That was the aim of the book, and I was encouraged by the consistency and the integrity of the work as a whole with the different contributors and the themes that appeared and continue to appear.
That brings us to the question you were asking. I think a key thing that would appear at various points would be participation — participation in the triune life of God (and we’ll come to that later as we’re discussing issues of grace and how that gets us beyond legalism and even burnout in ministry, things of that sort) but that issue of participation in Christ. God does everything through the Son and the Spirit. That is a key aspect of Trinitarian thought.
Colin Gunton (the book was dedicated to his memory as a Trinitarian theologian) liked to quote Irenaeus, the second-century theologian who said that “God does everything though his two hands, the Son and the Spirit.” That was a key framework, a key aspect that continued to appear — that God works always through the personal mediation of the Son and Spirit. The personal dynamic — the interpersonal nature of God — has import for how we live, for issues like revelation, where we look at the Bible relationally. We understand sin and grace…non-relational in the case of sin, from a relational perspective in the case of grace. All those things came into play…and atonement — understanding the atonement from the standpoint of this Trinitarian relational matrix.
Those are some of the themes that appeared and reappeared in the book. Others have said that they felt that it was a fitting tribute to Professor Gunton, who was my theological mentor from my doctrinal studies days and whom I miss dearly… He’s had an impact on multitudes of people across the world. I’m just grateful for the privilege of having worked under his supervision for a time.
JMF: I’m sure a lot of people will find that book both encouraging as well as a great resource for understanding Trinitarian theology and its practical impact. Your latest book is Exploring Ecclesiology, which you co-authored with Brad Harper, and it’s subtitled An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction. Can you tell us about that one?
PLM: The book Exploring Ecclesiology is framed by way of a Trinitarian and eschatological vantage point. Those are the two angles, if you will, from which we approach all the different subjects that you would hope to find in an introductory text on the doctrine of the church, which is ecclesiology, the study of the church. We deal with the sacraments or the ordinances, when we deal with issues of order in ministry, worship, and culture, and mission all from the standpoint, in one way or another, from a Trinitarian and kingdom vantage point.
Dr. Brad Harper did his work (on George Ladd) from the University of St. Louis for his doctrinal studies. So that Laddian paradigm of the “now and not yet” enters into play when we look at the church. In many contexts, especially amongst dispensationalists in America (I have a great respect for dispensationalism, and I teach at a school that’s historically that, but…) often those in the dispensational tradition have not seen the church itself as a kingdom community because [in their thought] the kingdom is all future and it’s Israel.
So this was unique in that sense, to talk about the gospel of the kingdom, the church is the community, the eschatological community of the Triune God, and that has practical import when you’re talking about such issues as race and the like. I have alluded to this in some of our previous segments — the church must live now in light of what will be. So we use Harper’s words, thus bringing the future into the present. We live now in light of that eschatological reality in the present context — the now of the not yet, so to speak. The church must be seen, as others have argued, as a concrete manifestation of the eschatological kingdom.
There is also that aspect of Trinitarian thought in that we must see ourselves (this is how the book starts out with the first chapter) as a being-driven community. The first chapter is “the church as a Trinitarian community,” the church as a kingdom community, so to speak…and so the church as a Trinitarian community, the being-driven church. While I think that Pastor Warren’s purposes for Purpose Driven Church are biblical, I don’t see a problem with them, I think more foundational than purpose and activity is being, communion, relationality.
We should all be purposeful, but you can be purposeful in a variety of ways. What about the baby who doesn’t have much purpose in life, or the elderly person who’s not able to function very well? They might not be seen to have much purpose, but they’re still loved, and they’re in relationship, I would hope, in the church. But we often look at people pragmatically, in a utilitarian way, of what benefit we can gain from them if they attend our church? What are they going to put in the offering plate, or what kind of tools or gifting might they have? We want people to bring their resources and gifts and talents to the church, but do we care for them as persons in relationship?
We have all these churches that are called “community church,” but, as a friend of mine in London said, “The very thing people want most they find most difficult to give — communion.” We all want it, but it’s costly, and it causes for a lot of consternation, because we usually don’t want to build the kind of community that’s needed, and that calls for a lot of sacrifice.
Relationality must be at the core. The Trinitarian framework of our churches being the people of God — because that’s what we are biblically, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body and bride of Christ, those things, the household of God. Most of those images, if not all of them, are framed relationally, organically, and not by way of institutional frames of reference.
I hope that as we’re inviting people to our churches, that they’re coming not because we have the best programs in town, which I think can play into the consumerism — who has the best children’s programs, who has the best latté, who has the best coffee bar, on and on it goes. Instead of that frame of reference, it should be “come be the people of God with us,” — participational, relational. That’s key to the book.
Yet, as George Hunsberger, a leading figure on missional theology, has said, “So often in America the church is viewed as a vender of religious goods and services…” It’s the commodification of human identity [turning people into commodities] and of spirituality and of consumerism. What we’re trying to get at is that the church is the human community, the people of the Triune God, and we must live as that people in the here and now.
I will mention one other point that brings us into the issue of contemporary cultural considerations, and, as you mentioned in the introduction at a few points in our various talks, I edit a journal called Cultural Encounters, which is a biblically informed Trinitarian engagement of contemporary culture and its various manifestations. I have a real burden for that, and it flows out of an institute I direct called “New Wine, New Wineskins” at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland.
With that cultural framing, we did a lot of the chapters, follow-up sections, as well as a major chapter in exploring ecclesiology, from this cultural vantage point. In America the church is often seen as a voluntary association of religious individuals whose true allegiance lies with the state, the market, or the nuclear family rather than being seen as the people of the Triune God, the kingdom community of the Triune God. I think we need to move beyond that idea of voluntary association of religious individuals where we pick and choose the churches we want to attend and we find our true identity with the state, the market, or even the soccer family motif, of finding that people are more connected to those after-school or weekend programs than they are to being part of the people of God. There are many reasons why that’s a problem — partly the way America is framed from its founding but also a contemporary consumer problem.
These themes emerge and re-emerge in the book. We’re hopeful that it will be of help not only to evangelicalism but to the broader church as well, because it is also an ecumenical book concerned for the church at large. We’re hopeful that it will help the evangelical community become more ecclesiastically framed. With all of our emphasis on individuality, it’s hard for us to see the church as something other than the people of God. We so readily look at it as a means to an end of helping our own individual spirituality, and God’s concern is first and foremost for the church. I’m not the bride of Christ, I’m not the body of Christ, I’m part of the bride, I’m part of the body. The church’s concerns must file away at my own concerns in the church.
JMF: What advice would you give pastors who want to shift their focus from legalism to grace, from an inward kind of a theology to a Trinitarian theology?
PLM: As it relates to the doctrine of the church and the like? I think for one, when we’re talking about the church as the kingdom community of the Triune God and God as a holy lover, we must always see that we have to get beyond this idea of sin management — that we’re going to church to manage our sin, to keep it under lock and key and close the doors. In fact, we don’t even deal with our sin in the church. There’s a lot of dysfunction. It’s like being an alcoholic. (I have friends and loved ones who struggle in that way, so I don’t mean this in any demeaning manner, but they don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t think about these things.) That pertains to a variety of issues in the church. We don’t have safety, we don’t have authenticity, and we have to create a safe environment where people can be authentic and really deal with issues.
One of the things we get at in Exploring Ecclesiology is that we need to see the church as not simply a sanctuary of saints but also a hospital for sinners. As Martin Luther made clear, we are both unrighteous apart from Christ but also righteous — but only in Christ. So we have to keep that dialectic in mind, if we’re to move beyond behavioral Christianity. We have to acknowledge that we’re all broken people saved by God’s loving grace, and we’re on this journey together. We’re not finished products, and we need to love one another and see truth and holiness relationally.
So also with truth, instead of having a guard-keeping mentality of gate-keeping, and if anyone doesn’t line up theologically, we’re going to oust them, using doctrine as a means of how do we help people grow in the truth of Jesus Christ? We need to have a mindset that we’re about relational truth, not truth as some kind of doctrinal position that we simply recite and stick on a wall. No, it’s articulating what it is we believe and the reality of God in whom we participate. It’s from a relational framework.
I believe that does help us get beyond behaviorism and legalism and to really work with people…disclosing to them first and foremost in preaching and in other ways this idea of who God is revealed in Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, as God is a holy lover and is someone who longs to have communion with us. To understand who we are as the church in relationship to that God, I think that’s exciting and where I would hope that pastors would increasingly move to invite people to taste and see that the Lord is good in the communion of his saints.
JMF: If there was one main thing that you’d like to get across to people about God, what would that be?
PLM: I would long for people to know, and not simply to know cognitively, but to know experientially, that God and Christ truly loves them. I look out at the faces of people when I share about God’s holy love for us in Christ and the Spirit and that God loves us dearly, and I can often see in people’s eyes a longing, a sense of longing, “If only that were true, I wish that were true, I want that to be true.” We live in a culture today where there’s so much dysfunction in the family and in society at large, people don’t know what it’s like to be loved, to be cared for faithfully and for the long term, for the long haul. Show me a child who is secure, and I’ll show you a child who is loved. Show me a child who’s insecure, and I’ll show you a child who has not been loved.
The apostle Paul, when he was Saul, was all about trying to perform, was all about trying to gain merit and worth and security. I think he struggled with these Pharisaical teachers about the circumcision laws, who were trying to take people away from security in Christ toward insecurity, and Paul was all about moving beyond that, because he had been in that frame of reference for such a long time. Jesus would come on the Damascus road and love him, transform him, make him his own, make him someone who had a calling, a purpose, and life in him. Those who are forgiven much love much.
I’ve often had, and still struggle with, insecurities. It’s often in my hard times — not the good times, in my hard times, that I have found that God truly loves me and that God comes close. When I’m thinking, “If I go through these hard times, how will I ever make it?” I have found time and time again that he is there to sustain and to lift me up and to draw me into a closer relationship with him through his Son. I don’t mean this as “pie in the sky” impractical spirituality. This is, to me, the most important thing.
For the people I mentor in the internship program with New Wine, New Wineskins, the thing I want for them is what I want for myself too, is that whenever they’re ministering, from whatever vantage point, it’s not that they’re trying to measure up and to make something of their lives, but everything would be not from measuring up, but from the measureless overflow of God’s love in Christ. Again, Romans 5:5. I love coming back to that text. It was a key text to Luther, a key text to Jonathan Edwards, and a key text to Saint Augustine. “The love of God is poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
It’s that love that creates faith, because if a child doesn’t trust the parent, they’re not going to believe in that parent. If they don’t think that that parent loves them, they’re not going to trust. It’s only when they know that their parent cares for them and is living it out, that the child really trusts. It’s important for ministry, vitally important. How many people are in our chairs, in the pews, in the pulpits, who really don’t think God loves them? They’re performing in order to try to get at that. I can’t wave a magic wand and make that happen for people. I think it comes through the trenches, the difficulties of life experiences, and being loved by other people in the church. What we need is people who come alongside us and say, just as Christ has accepted us, Romans 15:7, “So I accept you.”
I had a very painful past. I was rebellious as a youth and went through a lot of self-doubt going into the ministry. A pastor, mentor of mine, said, “I accept you, Paul, and I love you, and I care for you, and I believe God’s hand is upon you.” He spoke the words of Christ to me in the love of Christ, and mentored me and secured me in that love because God does use his people to that end. We need one another to confess our sins to one another, as the New Testament talks about, and also to encourage and exhort one another, but from a relational vantage point of moving forward participating in the triune life of God and his story, and that we’re a part of that story. It’s amazing to me. That’s good news.
JMF: Where do you see the church, or where would you like to see the church in general in the U.S. ten years from now?
PLM: I hope that as the church…I long for this, I pray for this…that we would be beyond the performance frame of reference of the driven-ness toward success. While I want us to be good stewards, I think a lot of times we’re trying to play the role of God in the numbers games that we play, and one church competing with another church.
It’s often subtle, sometimes not so subtle, but performance-based spirituality. Pastors go to conferences; the question that’s often asked of them is, “How big is your church?” If their church is small, they lose value. That’s the kind of thing that is really problematic. Then that pastor brings that pressure back to the churches, and then they start viewing people as means to an end of growing the church, rather than they themselves are the end as the church — the people of God are.
For an academic like myself, is it publish or perish? Or is the writing I do simply gratitude of delighting in God’s love and having a burden to express that, and not looking to how I can build my resume? I have the struggles, too, pastors have their own struggles, but then, how does that shape itself in the lives of parishioners in the congregations — that performance of measuring up, measuring up, and not making, not making it?
The call to sanctification in the churches should not be, don’t be who you are — be what you’re supposed to be. That’s not how the apostle Paul spoke. It was, “Be who you are, not what you once were.” We’re calling on people to be who they are in Christ, and to be that together with them, and to move into that safety and authenticity bound up with the holy love of God in Christ that secures us in the Spirit poured out in our lives and in our hearts. That’s what I would hope for the church to move into, and the reconciliation that that entails on subjects as we’ve talked before on moving beyond racism and classism divisions and the like, and moving toward a unity that’s a reconciled unity in the power of the Spirit to the honor of Jesus for the Father.
JMF: What do you see as some of the causes for legalism and behaviorism in Christian churches?
PLM: I believe people-pleasing is a huge problem. I think of the Gospel of John. I’m working on a book on that subject with InterVarsity, and one of the things that keeps coming up is that they love the praise or the glory of humans rather than the praise and glory of God, whereas Jesus loved the Father’s praise. He longed for the Father’s affirmation. He had it — it wasn’t something he had to go and seek after, but that’s what concerned him is, was he pleasing his Father. That filial connection, that love relationship of the Father and Son, it kept Jesus immune to people-pleasing in his human state. It kept him from that evil.
Paul says strongly in the Galatians epistle, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men or of God? If I am still trying to win the approval of men, I am not a servant of Christ.” He says, “You foolish Galatians, having begun in the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” He talks in that same book about how he had to rebuke Peter because Peter would not associate with the Gentiles in table fellowship, because he was afraid of the Judaizers, or what his own people might think of him, and that enslaved him to a godless passion.
As Martin Luther and others have talked about, we need to be enslaved to a godly passion controlled by the Spirit. That’s not legalism, because those who are controlled by the Spirit, they’re not enslaved to the law of sin and death, but they live by the fruit of the Spirit, “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Again, that comes from the book of Galatians. People pleasing, I think, causes us to look inward, trying to compensate, trying to cope, because we’re trying to win the approval of people who are out to win their own approval. That’s not freeing – that’s enslaving in a very dysfunctional manner. People-pleasing is a huge problem.
There’s also the legalism that’s bound up with performance-based spirituality. One of the things that Trinitarian theology involves is this key theme of participation. We’ve talked about it in different segments, but my own dean, Dr. Robert Redman, has talked about how there’s so much ministry burnout…people talking about what they need to do for God, what they must do for God in ministry, instead of what they do in God. You know, “Abide in me and my word…abide in you.” You know, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus says.
So it’s participation. We live in God, not simply live for God. God doesn’t even see us simply through Christ, he sees us in Christ. Paul’s key phrase, “en Christos,” in Christ. That would be the vantage point that guards us from legalism. It guards us from a performance-based spirituality. I’m excited about what’s going on in your own movement. I believe it’s a movement of God’s Spirit. I seldom see a vibrant concern for Trinitarian theology, and I cannot say enough how encouraged I am by what you’re doing, and I encourage you and those who work with you, Mike, to keep moving in this direction, because you’re an encouragement to me, you’re a good challenge to me and to many others to keep the faith and to press on in terms of Trinitarian thought, because it’s not life-taking, it’s life-giving.
It’s made all the difference in the world to me because it’s not a program, it’s not a product that we sell to people — this is our God! God is a triune communion of persons — eternal, holy, life-giving, and he calls us to participate in God’s story for eternity. That is what I’m willing to live and die for. This is good news to me, and you guys are leading the charge by the Spirit of God leading through you to move in this direction. I can only pray God’s richest blessings on you in this profound work, so thank you.