Seeing the Truth About Jesus and Us with C. Baxter Kruger
In this interview, Dr. Kruger explains that Jesus is the center of all things, and God’s plan for our adoption, planned before the foundation of the world.
JMF: One of the things you’ve talked about in your books and in your lectures has to do with fishing, baseball, all the fun things of life – that these are all NOT separate from being a Christian, that Christianity involves everything we do, and all of us.
CBK: One of the disasters of the modern Western tradition is the separation of sacred and secular. When you begin with the proper vision of Jesus Christ, you realize that this Incarnation thing is for real – that God (the Father, Son, Holy Spirit) has no interest whatsoever in drawing us into a non-human relationship. God became human. The Son of the Father became flesh and established a relationship with us. Through the vast majority, the sum of God’s time on earth, he was a carpenter. He wasn’t even involved in “ministry.” I’d dare say, he’d built more tables than he preached sermons.
We’ve got to recover this vision – the point of Christianity is not to escape our humanity, the point of it is to see the Trinitarian life is being given to us and the way that this is expressed is in and through our ordinary human experience – I mean from making fishing lures …
My daughter-in-law came out one day years ago and she just stood there and watched me paint one of these lures, and she said to me: “Dad, how did you come up with the idea of doing this? How did you do the tails, how did you do the colors, how did you do the eyes, how did you get the scales, how did you think this up?”
It was probably one of two times in my life where I got it right the first time. I just said, “Laura, I’ve got a friend who loves to fish. Every time I get around my friend he shares his ideas with me, and nothing thrills him more than for me to carve his ideas into being.”
She said: “Do I know your friend?”
I said, “Sure, you do.”
“Is it Steve Horn? Is it Clayton James?”
And I said, “No.”
“Who is it?”
“This friend loves flowers, and cooking, and crawfish boils, and music and laughter and dancing and fellowship and music and soccer.”
She said, “Who are we talking about?”
I wish I would have had this recorded, because it was absolutely precious. It was a confession of faith. She said, “You’re talking about Jesus, aren’t you?” It was a confession of faith by a daughter of the Bible belt where “this is almost too good to be true.” She knew it was true. She knew Jesus is involved in our humanity – that’s where our humanity comes from – it’s from the Father, the Son, and Spirit.
I said, “Laura, when you sit down and play music and you feel the joy of that – what I want you to understand is that music doesn’t start with you. It’s not your music. It starts from the Father, Son, and Spirit – that’s where harmony comes from. They share it with you and you get to express it. I get to express it in being a lure-maker, or a theologian or a dad, or a friend, or a baseball coach – or just having coffee with friends. It’s the way in which God lives out the Trinitarian life in and through us, in and through our human experience. When we recover that, we get our humanity back.”
That’s one of the things that’s destroyed the Western Church. People are bored sick with it. Who wants to go and be involved in a thing where we leave our humanity at the door? I remembered distinctly as a child in a Presbyterian church (which I loved when I was growing up – I didn’t mind going to church at all. I loved it.) But one thing that bothered me from day one is I can remember my dad and my best friend’s dad, named Tuck Williams – who had the most distinctive laugh in the world, they would stay outside of the building as long as possible (and most all of them smoked in those days), and they would smoke their last cigarette and my aunt Polly played the organ and she hit a certain part in her interlude and all the men outside knew that was time to go to church. I can remember looking back and watching them step over the threshold and they all changed. I could hear them laughing, and they stepped inside, and they went in their “we’re-going-to-worship-God” mode. They got real serious, real earnest, real artificial. I thought, “There is something disastrously wrong here.” As if God is embarrassed by our laughter. As if the Father, Son, and Spirit didn’t come up with laughter.
Part of my journey in my life is to connect the dots between the humanity of riding bikes, our romance, our sex, our making lures, our inventing dishes (food, I mean) – understanding how God relates to that. Incarnation is staring us in the face and I think, “Where have we been? What have we been talking about for 2,000 years? This should be the message that we proclaim from the rooftops all the time.”
JMF: You’ve written about the “ultimate lie.” What is the ultimate lie?
CBK: In one word, the ultimate lie is “separation.” Underneath every religion and philosophy in the world is the lie of “separation” – that the human race is separated from God. Then it becomes a matter of “OK, how do we get back to God, or how do we get God to us?” Now we have a series of variations on a theme: “How do we get across the divide from where we are to God, or how do we get God to bless us here?”
CBK: Rules, faith, repentance, works, crystals, charms, I mean, you name it: prayers, you can make a list over here of all the things human beings must do to get to God. That creates a very powerful group in the middle who decides what this is. You look at the idea that separation – I think it’s a flat-out denial of Jesus Christ and the Incarnation! God is come to us. God has embraced us in Jesus. Why are we talking about separation? It’s like we’re going to pretend that there’s no Incarnation, and that Christianity is just a variation on this theme, so what we’re going to do to get across the great divide to God is that we’re going to believe in Jesus. Or we’re going to have a special kind of repentance that’s different from all the other religions or philosophies.
I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. The news is not that we can get to God. The news is not that we can receive Jesus – an absent Jesus – into our lives. The stunning news of the gospel is that Jesus has received us into his life. He’s received us into his fellowship in his life with the Father and the Spirit. That’s been done and that’s who we are.
We don’t start with separation, we start with union. Now we have to rethink everything in the universe, because we have built into our default settings – as fallen people, and those who are influenced profoundly by Greek philosophy – we have our default settings of separation, separation, separation.
JMF: We are not worthy…
CBK: We are not worthy, we’re not good enough, we’re not going to make it, a whole series of those kick in, and so you ask a person who they are, you ask any person in the United States of America. “Are you good?” There is not one person you will get who will say, “I am good.”
I say, if you can’t stand in a mirror in your bathroom and look yourself in the face and say “my name – and I am good, with the goodness of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, because I do not exist alone.” There is no just Baxter. The only Baxter there is, is the Baxter who exists in Jesus in his relationship with me. So in the core of my being, is not that old Calvinist doctrine of total depravity – at the core of my being is Jesus Christ “union-ed” with me and with us in the world, and I am good with their goodness. I am good with the goodness of the Father, Son, and Spirit and their beauty.
The next question is: If that’s true (and it is), or since that’s true, why is my life still a mess? That’s where we’ve got to think through a whole new way of talking about what sin is, which is NOT new! It’s the early church – it’s John, it’s Paul. We’ve been trapped in Augustinian dualism – it’s been handed down to us…
JMF: What’s an Augustinian dualism?
CBK: OK, I’ll give you the Cliff notes.
JMF: Yeah, that’s what we need.
CBK: The first thing we need to talk about is that the early church – in the time of the apostles and right after that – the thing that they knew for sure, that they were prepared to (and did) die for – was, whatever else we say, the man Jesus Christ is God. We know this is the Lord – we’re not giving this up. That’s number one.
Number two, they realized that Jesus prayed to the one he called Father and they realized he was anointed in the Holy Spirit – and that there is a relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit. They were not trying to develop a doctrine of the Trinity – they started catching an enormous flak from the Greeks and the Jews, being accused of polytheism and tri-theism and things like that. So the early church began to develop its understanding and it said: “We are not giving up on the deity and humanity of Christ” and so, what’s his relation with the Father, what’s his relation with the Spirit? – and they worked out the doctrine of the Trinity. They came to see, over against the Jewish view of oneness and over against the Greeks’ view of the indivisibility of the thing called God or the ONE – the early church came to realize that the deepest truth about God is this relationship with the Father, Son, the Holy Spirit.
It’s not sad, it’s not boring, it’s not religious, it’s not dead – it’s alive, it’s creative, it’s other-centered, it’s about acceptance, in the light, and life and love, and it’s beautiful – and that’s what’s fundamental about the being of God. So if you peel back the onion of divine being, so to speak, and you come to the core of God-ness – you find relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Augustine knew that, and so he’s got this beautiful treatise on the Trinity that he wrote, but he was also steeped in Neo-Platonism and the premise of Neo-Platonism.
Just hang with me, this is important. The premise of Neo-Platonism is: whatever else you say of God – or The One – it’s indivisible. There is an essence at the bottom of this thing or behind it all that is indivisible. So it can’t be relational. Augustine is trying to develop a Christian vision, at the same time maintain his Neo-Platonism – and so what he offers to the Western Tradition is really two Gods. You got the Father, Son, and Spirit, and then you got the deeper truth about the being of God. Just like through a back door – beyond the Trinity. What being is this essence of God? What is the deepest truth about God – it’s not relationship. What is it? For Augustine, it had to be absolute, total sovereignty. For the rest of the Western tradition, steeped as it was in Roman law and jurisprudence, it became a legal view of holiness.
I don’t mind saying that the holiness of God is the deepest truth about God – but what I mean by holiness is a Trinitarian vision. Holiness is the utter uniqueness and the beauty and the goodness and the rightness of their relationship – that is the whole essence – is the wholeness of the relation, and their love, and their mutual passion and delight.
JMF: You’ve called that the “great dance.”
CBK: Yeah. I tried to find a similar phrase to talk about that, and “the great dance” is an ancient phrase that you find in the church. C.S. Lewis uses it a couple of times in some of his books, and I thought that’s what we can use to describe, in a snapshot, the life of God. It’s a great dance, it’s not boring and sad – it’s not self-centered, it’s not narcissistic, it’s not about separation – it’s about fellowship, and communion, and love.
But then you’ve got this thing over here that’s deeper than that. You say, if we just stayed there – if we just stayed with Irenaeus and Athanasius and gone with the Trinity through our history, then the next thing we would realize was that, “MAN, this relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit – now, I know why Paul says we are predestined to adoption as sons and daughters.” It makes perfect sense. If God is like this, then adoption is the main point, and off we go and running. Our challenge for listeners is go find books in the Western tradition that have been written on the subject of “adoption” – in 1500 years – and compare that with the books that have been written on “justification.”
The apostle Paul said that the Father’s eternal purpose for us is to include us in this relationship. We don’t have 1500 years of discussion about this. Why not? Because over here [on one side] the “deepest” truth of God is holiness – not Trinitarian holiness, not relational holiness, but holiness conceived in terms of moral law and jurisprudence.
JMF: And that concept of God separates us from God – now we’ve got to find a way to get there, so we use Jesus as the bridge that we walk across to get there.
CBK: There you go. Off we go, and our “family conversation” for 1500-some-odd years talking about the Holy God (which is true, God is holy) but not that kind of “Holy” – holy in this [on other side] relational way. When Jesus says, “Be ye holy as God is holy,” he’s not talking about this stainless-steel, antiseptic, squeaky-clean, boring kind of holy. He’s talking about “be whole,” be relationally together, be one, be in fellowship and communion, be unique in this. But over here [on the first side] we’ve got this holiness of God: stainless steel, moral rectitude, perfection – this God then calls the shots for the entire discussion.
JMF: That’s just a concept, a Greek idea… That isn’t what the scriptural revelation of God is.
CBK: Well, we’ve gone and found Bible verses to support it. That’s why we’ve never even thought about the stunning news. How stunning is it, that the only reason the human race exists is to be included in the Trinitarian life of God. I want to talk about that. I want a conversation about that. Give me 1500 years to talk about “adoption.” And let’s bring that into “this is the vision of God – as Father, Son, and Spirit” as opposed to “God is the stainless steel, holy God who’s not interested in relationship at all.”
JMF: That gets into all these areas that you’re involved with – scientists, doctors, lawyers, counselors, teachers – all these various expressions of human life and thought, energy, development, technology – all of that is wrapped up in who we are, who has God has made us to be – the whole cosmos.
CBK: We have not talked about the real foundation for what we are talking about here. We’re talking about some good implications – but the real foundation of this is WHO Jesus is. Who is this person Jesus Christ?
What has happened to us is that we think of Jesus as a typical American individual – he lived, he died, he rose again, he did things for us, out of grace and love. But Jesus, when we go to the New Testament – the first thing you find is Jesus is the Father’s only Son. That’s the shocker. That’s the mind-blowing thing. That’s why the apostle Paul begins every one of his epistles with the reference “to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The mind-boggling thing about Jesus was not his power or his miracles, or even his courage to confront the system. Prophets did that. The mind-boggling thing about Jesus in the New Testament in the first instance is he is the one who has this relation with the one he calls Father – Abba, Father – and he is the recipient of “thou art my beloved Son in whom my soul delights.” This is unique, this is unparalleled biblically. Jesus addresses God as Father, there is no reference in the Old Testament, there is no reference in any of the ancient literature that we know about – to this day that we found – where any individual ever called God “Father.” Jesus calls him, “my Father,” and the Father calls him “my Son.”
And so point one: Who is Jesus? He is the Father’s true Son. The second thing that’s stunning about Jesus is: He is the Anointed One – the long-awaited Anointed One. He alone in biblical history is anointed with the Holy Spirit without measure as a permanent gift. So what do you make of this? He is the Father’s Son, and Anointed One, and so that’s where the church has led over its pilgrimage to see that this is not something that the invisible holy God back here just arbitrarily decided one day, “I’m going to be super gracious, oh, it’s Jesus and Mary – this is revelation to us in our darkness of our character, in the way of being of God (as Father, Son, Spirit) from all eternity.
JMF: We usually hear that presented as kind of an after-thought. God created a perfect world, sin entered and God said, “What am I going to do about this?” So he sends…
CBK: Plan B. Jesus becomes Plan B. The final point in terms of the larger picture, the third thing we see in the New Testament, in terms of answering the question “Who is Jesus” is he is the one in and through and by and for him all things were created and are sustained. The presentation of the New Testament to us is that Jesus is a Person who exists in three relationships: relation with the Father, relation with the Spirit, and relation with the whole creation. The question is: when this Son, this Father’s Son, this Anointed One became a human being, did he break ties, did he become the classic American individualist – all alone? Or, did he come in his relation with his Father? Did he come in his anointing with the Spirit? And did he come in his connection with the whole human race and the whole creation?
The Christian answer to that is “Jesus held on and brought all of this together in himself.” He is the point of relationships; he is the point of view. So if you’re going to speak the “name of Jesus Christ” biblically and in the tradition of the apostles, you’re saying “Trinity,” and you’re saying “humanity,” and you’re saying, “cosmos.” You’re saying that the Triune God and the human race and the universe are not separated, but bound together in relationship – that’s who Jesus is!
To deny his relation with his Father would mean Jesus has relation with us, but he has not included us in his relation with his Father. But no, that is not true. He is in relation with his Father, he is anointed, he’s brought all of this together – and so that becomes what I call the truth of all truths – that’s our Christian heritage, that’s how to think as a Christian – is to start there. When you speak Jesus’ name, you say, “No separation,” you say, “union,” you say “covenant relationship” forever. Now we can re-think everything we thought we knew, in the light of Jesus.
JMF: There is a concept in the Christian preaching, what you typically hear is, you’re a sinner, you’re separated from God, you do this or that, and then God will accept you. You’re saying that this is not the place to start at all.
CBK: Jesus is not a footnote to Adam, in his Fall. The apostle Paul says that we’re predestined to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. That’s before the fall – that’s before creation. That adoption is the purpose of God for creation, and our adoption through Jesus Christ was the plan from the get-go, from the beginning. We’ve made the Fall the central thing of which God is relating to, when the central thing that God is relating to is actually the Incarnation and the accomplishment of our adoption in Jesus Christ – that’s the point. Now we’re going to re-read the Old Testament and creation in the light of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, is coming to establish a relationship with us, who are basically dirt. We are going to go from non-being, from dirt, to the right hand of God, we cannot do any of that – the Father’s Son can do it, and that’s what is he is going to do. He is going to anoint dirt with the Holy Spirit – that’s the plan from the very beginning.
We can see that the Fall is not the thing that sets God’s agenda. What sets the Father’s agenda is his purpose for us in Christ. The Fall means is it’s going to be a bloody mess. It’s going to be loud crying and tears, as Hebrews 5 puts it. It’s going to hurt. This is a quagmire of darkness and chaos and pain and brutality, and Jesus is going to suffer. In the genius of the Father, Son, and Spirit, they take our human response of rejection of God – rejection of Jesus, abuse, trauma, universal total rejection (with the possible exception of the three Marys and John the apostle, but basically, total universal rejection) and establishes a relationship between the Father and the human race at its very worst – and includes that broken human race in this Trinitarian life. That’s at the heart of the gospel.
Now we can go back and understand what sin is. Now we can go back and talk about faith and repentance, and heaven and hell, and what the church is, what the distinction between the church and the world is, eschatology, election. Because what’s happened in Jesus Christ, what has happened in his Incarnation is not plan B, that the Father thought up real quick after Adam botched it. Jesus is the eternal Word of God. Jesus Christ as the Father’s Son incarnate, as the Anointed One, as the one in whom he has gathered the human race – this Jesus is the eternal Word of God, this is the Alpha and the Omega, this is not Plan B, this is Plan A. This is the first and only Word and the first and only plan.
Now we have a hermeneutic as Christians on how to address and re-think everything that we thought we knew. That’s our calling as Christians – to take this Jesus Christ seriously.
JMF: In the light of that, how would you present the gospel? Let’s say you have a two-minute presentation of what is the gospel, the heart and core of the gospel, how would you put it?
CBK: Slight variations. In quick conversations, I just say you belong to the Father, Son and the Spirit, you always have and you always will.
JMF: So that’s the starting place?
CBK: You start off with you. You start off with the relationship that Jesus Christ has established with the human race. It’s real. Our problem is… (I take these [thick-lens eye glasses] with me everywhere I go.) [Put on eye-glasses] Our problem is we just cannot see it. It makes no religious sense to us. It didn’t make any sense to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were looking over at Jesus and saying, “Jesus, your vision of God is wrong.” That’s what we do. That’s what’s sin is. Sin is saying to Jesus, “Your vision of the Father, and your vision of the Spirit, and your vision of the relationship that you’ve established between the Father and the Spirit and the human race is just unfit – it’s wrong. Jesus, you need to repent.” Sin is insisting that Jesus Christ repent and change his mind and his vision, and come and line up with us in our darkness.
Jesus says, I have come into the world as light so that you may not remain in the dark [remove glasses] but will see what is – what he has established in himself. So in terms of proclaiming the gospel, I want to make sure that people understand that you don’t begin with separation. Jesus has established a relationship with you and he called you to walk in it. He says, you can live in this [put on glasses] and you can insist on imposing your vision on the world, on your wife and children and people around you or even on your own denomination if you choose. But it’s going to be miserable as hell because it’s not real. What’s real is the world [remove glasses] that the Father, Son, and Spirit has established.
So faith is saying to Jesus, I want to participate in your way of seeing things, not my way [put on glasses]. And repent and say, Jesus, rip these things off [remove glasses] quick, and reconstruct my basic vision, reconstruct my mind, renew it thoroughly, here it is, I don’t want to see things the way I see them anymore. I want to see things the way you see, I want to live with you in your world, I want to participate in your relationship with the Father, and your relationship with the Spirit, and your relationship with the human race and your relationship with the cosmos.
JMF: So repentance is seeing things the way they really are, it isn’t changing something that makes God change toward you.
CBK: Exactly, it’s metanoia [the Greek word for repentance, meaning “change of mind”]. It is a radical change of the way we perceive God, the way we perceive ourselves, the way we preserve the cosmos. It’s a radical reorientation. Be transformed in your experience of life by the renewal of your mind, by the renewal of the way you see things.
If you want to live in this [put on glasses] world, with its vision of God as the stainless-steel holy version, and we are all sinners and broken and we can’t get to God and God doesn’t want us anyway. But Jesus is there and has opened the path – if we want to live in that world, we can live in that world.
But what Jesus is saying, No, come to me, come to me if you are heavy laden and I will show [remove glasses] you who the Father is, and you can live in my relationship with my Father with me. You can live in my anointing with the Spirit. You don’t have to achieve this, I give this, I’ve included you in this.
That’s the dogfight of human history. If Jesus is not Plan B, as he is Plan A, then that gives me as a theologian a basic three-fold structure to human history: We’ve got creation or the beginning or preparation. You’ve got fulfillment in Jesus in his person, and now you’ve got revelation. So human history is a time in which God is creating space and place for us to be, to live out our theories, to insist on our way [wear glasses] and to suffer the consequences, so that we could come to know [remove glasses] as a race who God really is, who we really are and learn to participate in it, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. It takes time. If you’re a parent, you know it takes time for your children to come and see some things.
JMF: The doctrine of the Trinity lies at the heart of really understanding who we are in Christ, but it’s a doctrine that just kind of sits on the shelf – it’s not really put forward, we don’t take it seriously…
CBK: Isn’t that the saddest thing in the world, that the doctrine of the Trinity has been marginalized? The most beautiful thing in the universe – is the way the Father loves his Son, and way the Son loves the Father, in the fellowship of the Spirit and that great dance of life, that beauty, that goodness, that other-centric love and care is put over some religious insurance manual that nobody wants talks about.
JMF: It’s always there in the Statement of Faith and the Statement of Beliefs, there is always the statement that we believe that God is three in one and so on, and yet it’s not central to teaching, and what you are talking about here as our part in this relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit having been brought into it, this doesn’t…
CBK: The Spirit is calling the church to repentance, to change its basic mind and to come back to its original vision, because the whole Augustinian split – that’s one problem that gets introduced, but when we don’t see that God is Father, Son, and Spirit (and that’s the truest truth about God, there is nothing deeper than that relationship), then we’re often running in a family conversation that’s going to lead us over here [motion to a spot] into separation, into this fear-based model, that’s going to crucify us all on the inside, making us a relational disaster. We come back here [another spot] and start, we then see that relationship is what the whole thing is all about. We’re going to be having a relational theological discussion that integrates our humanity and our life from the very beginning, and adoption is going to be a main thing, and the question how do we live this up? How do we live this up globally?
The church is called to be the place, the fellowship, the group of people – within the world of darkness, that group of people raises its hands and says, Jesus, you have your way with my mind here. You come and teach us, you transform the way we see things, and we want to work out the economic, the environmental, the ecological, the relational, the international, the political, the scientific, the cosmic implications of who you are Jesus Christ – as the Father’s Son, as the Anointed One, as the one who’s drawn the human race and cosmos together to himself, we want to think out the implications of that, we want to see what it means for our marriage, we want to see what it means for the economic theory, we want to see what it means for the environment. We’re going to throw everything we have into that, because we believe that if we think through a marital or relational understanding in the light of Christ, we’re not afraid that it’s going to lead us into a divorce problem, or fragmentation of relationship problem. We believe that it’s going to lead us into wholeness. We’re not afraid to say that Jesus is the one in whom all things are held together.
Let’s think that through – why are we afraid? The church is afraid now because we’ve been backed in the corner. We’ve been backed in the corner because we’ve lost the vision of Jesus that has been handed on to us by the apostles. Recovering that, we end up having this thing – many people might perceive it arrogance, but it’s really the apostolic swagger. My friend David Upshaw talks about this thing called the apostolic swagger. They knew, they knew that Jesus was not a theory. He was not just another Platonic form. They knew that this is the one in and through and by whom and for him all things were created and are all things held together. They knew that if we follow him with our minds and hearts, this is going to bring healing and wholeness to us, this is going to liberate us. They were not afraid. They gave their life joyfully in the service of that revelation.
About C. Baxter Kruger
PhD in 1989 from Kings College, University of Aberdeen, studying under James B. Torrance. He is president of Perichoresis, a non-profit ministry.