Ray Anderson, God and the Prodigal Son
Dr. Anderson studied under Thomas F. Torrance at Edinburgh University in Scotland. He was a pastor, a professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, and author of numerous books. He died in 2009.
See also the interview in which Chris Kettler discusses the ministry and theology of Dr. Anderson: https://www.gci.org/media/videos/chris-kettler-the-ministry-of-ray-anderson/. For an edited transcript of our interviews with Ray Anderson, and the Chris Kettler interview about Dr. Anderson, click here.
JMF: Last time we were together, we were talking about Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, whom you studied under, and Trinitarian theology and how important that is for the walk of the average Christian.
RA: The New Testament does not use the word Trinity. But it’s like every case, we have to think out the reality of the fact that Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God.” Paul said that, “In him the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.” John says, he is the divine Logos that was with God from the beginning; he has now become flesh and dwelt among us.
If we accept that as the true narrative of Jesus’ life – the Incarnation – then we can answer the question, “Where is God in all of this?” Well, God is both above and below. Our God is entirely God as the one above us and the one with us. God is the one carried off into captivity, God is the one with them in their captivity. God is the one that comes out of captivity with them. But all the same time, God is the one above them.
In the New Testament, what was implicit or nascent has now come to birth, has now come into reality through Jesus, who can now say, “Everything that was intimated by the presence of Yahweh in the Old Testament is embodied in me, I am the temple, the temple is now within me, I embody the reality of God with you.”
If you allow yourself to think in narrative form, like a story, then you can hold that together. The real advantage of a narrative theology is that it can hold together what otherwise would simply be paradox and we’d have to come up with one view or the other. The Trinity is a way in which the narrative of God’s reality can be both the one who created the world and is sovereign above us, but is also the one that’s entered in along with us.
The problem we often face is, “how do we connect the reality of our doctrine of God with the reality of people’s lives?” I say we do that in narrative form. Every person has a narrative – it’s their life, it’s their suffering, their losses, their pain, the questions they’re raising, “Where is God in my life?” That’s their narrative.
“My God, why have you forsaken me?” – that’s the narrative of humanity. There’s also a narrative, God says, “I hear their cry” – the Old Testament. I heard them in Egypt. I love them, and because of my love, I’m going to come with them, I’m going to redeem them, I’m going to bring them out, and they will be a sign that I love, and am willing to include all the families of the earth. There is that narrative of God’s love and God’s grace. The job of pastoral ministry is to connect those two narratives.
When I first became a pastor, I was called to the home of a woman, a friend of one of my members. She was in her 30s dying of cancer – terminal stage, two or three small children. Her priest had been there and prayed and she was in pain, and in a lot of anger about God. So would I go and see her? I did.
She said, “Why would God allow this to happen?” Where is God in my life? Here I am with my small children, why would God do this to me?
I was thinking and I said, “He can’t do anything about it.”
She said, “Don’t we have to believe that God is powerful and can do anything?
I said, “No, I guess not.”
“Well then,” she said, “where is God?”
I looked on the wall of her bedroom, and on there on the wall was a cross with a little figure of Jesus on it. She’s Roman Catholic. I said, “There he is. He’s there on the cross. He’s with us. He’s with us in this very room. That’s how he comes to us.”
“Oh, she said, I never knew that before. I never realized… that is just a cross. You mean to say that that’s a sign that he is here with me now going through this with me?”
I said, “Yeah. He’s been here, he’s done this, he’s going through what you are going through. He’s experienced dying. You can do it with him, he can be with you in that.”
“Oh,” she said, “I can do it now.”
I prayed with her. She died two weeks later.
I went back, and I said, “Ok, what have I done? I’ve just denied God’s sovereignty and power over everything, because that’s what I was taught in seminary.” But her narrative of her living and dying enabled me to then look back in the tradition of the Scriptures and find that’s true, that’s also true, that’s where God was, he was with them in exile, he went into them with exile, and Jesus is the narrative of God’s presence with us in dying.
The Trinity becomes the theological way of saying, “That’s true. Everything I said is true. Because God is both God above us as Creator and Lord and God is also God with us. The Trinity is a way of simply saying, “what my narrative of faith tells me is really true.” To teach the doctrine of the Trinity apart from that narrative, it just becomes a doctrine.
So that’s how I think the Trinity is relevant – because it places God in our narrative, the narrative of God’s life, of salvation as part of our narrative story. The task of us as pastors is to bring those narratives together. If we just preach truth about God and people’s own narrative of struggle in life and faith is just left lying there, we have not connected, then we send them home without that connection.
JMF: To connect the struggle that people have when they go to church to hear the sermon, and they come away feeling more condemned than even when they got there, because they hear that God wants holiness, God wants obedience. They hear condemnation of sin – whether it’s national sin or sin in this community or sins among the congregation. They’re told we need to do better, we need to repent of your sins and improve. They come away with more of a sense of failure than a sense of connection with God. Trinitarian theology is a way of looking at God through Christ so that we see things as they are in our relation with God, as opposed to this…
RA: Yes, on other hand, we have to then press the point, if God has become human, what has God become in becoming human? God has become the sinner, which simply means without personal sin he still has a death nature, he’s going to die of something, because he has assumed death as a consequence of original sin. What God has assumed in becoming human is to assume God-forsakenness, to assume that condition. For that to be lived out is part of the narrative of the Trinity at work, so to speak. The Trinity is the work of God, it’s always something God is doing in our midst. Therefore we have to bring that into people’s lives in ways that connect with them. As I say in the book on Judas, God has in fact assumed death for everyone.
Then as Karl Barth said, ALL are reconciled. Barth in an unusual way speaks of Jesus, not as the Redeemer, but as the Reconciler, that Jesus came to reconcile humanity to God. There’s a good text for that in 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul says, “God has reconciled the world to himself, no longer counting trespasses and sins against them.” That’s Paul, not Barth, not Torrance. God has reconciled the world through Christ, no longer counting their sin against them. Paul says, we become ambassadors, now you be reconciled to God.
So Barth said, “All are reconciled, but not all are redeemed.” The Holy Spirit’s the Redeemer. Here’s where Trinitarian theology comes in. It allows us to say that God loves the whole world – God is not willing that any should perish. All are included in God’s love. No one stands outside of God’s mercy and love. Jesus came to assume humanity and death as a common human condition for everyone. All are included.
When Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I’m crucified with Christ,” every human being can say that. Every human being is crucified with Christ. Paul said, “Nonetheless I live, and I live by the Spirit of Christ in me.” That’s Trinitarian, isn’t it? God loved the world, he sends his only begotten Son that whosoever believes Jesus as the only begotten Son has reconciled the whole world, he passed through death, destroyed the power of death. Then the Holy Spirit is the Redeemer. The Holy Spirit is the one that is to transform us. Nobody gets into heaven without being redeemed. The question is, when does that happen? The case of Judas, you see, I argue that Judas was redeemed after he committed suicide.
JMF: Let me read a paragraph or two from the book, if you don’t mind.
RA: Sure. See if I still agree with it.
JMF: Judas and Jesus: Amazing Grace for the Wounded Soul. Formerly The Gospel According to Judas – that was the first edition. On page 116, in the voice of Judas:
The other eleven survived, despite their own misconceptions, and went on to become apostles of the risen Lord. Their calling may not serve as a model for your own calling from God. My own story is different from theirs. My calling as a disciple was indeed forfeited through my death. But my calling as a child of God’s Kingdom was restored and secured through his resurrection! I could not become his apostle, but I could become his friend (John 15:13-14). Jesus did appear to me as the resurrected Lord in the place where I believed there was no forgiveness, and he said to me, my choosing of you counts more than your betrayal of me! Through his grace I discovered that the calling of God by which we become children of the Kingdom does not rest upon our faith alone, but upon his faithfulness toward us.
That speaks to Trinitarian theology in the sense of our connectedness, because we’ve been made connected by God’s grace through Christ.
RA: Yes, what I did in that book, I (first of all) traced the story of Judas and Jesus (in the sense) to the very end when Judas betrays him, but then the last chapter, I wrote that as if Judas was now writing it. It starts out, Judas says, “I never had the chance to write my gospel (that’s why I called it the gospel according to Judas – the last chapter is still called that). This is the gospel I know. Unfortunately I, in my own remorse, I killed myself. I did not have the chance for that. Now is my turn. Now I’m going to tell you. I’m going to preach the gospel to you as though … even though I died, committed suicide, I’ve met Jesus after I died. And he’s brought me back to life, so to speak.”
I used Judas there, in a sense, as a preacher of the gospel from the dark side, the deep side. I discovered that in the narrative of people’s lives, more people identified with Judas than with Jesus. I’ve not found many people say, “I have real affinity for Jesus.” No, [I have found more people who say,] “Jesus – he’s up there, he’s perfect, I’m not. But Judas, yeah, I could have done what Judas did. I have felt that.”
After I published the first edition of this, one of my students was a chaplain at LA County Jail system. She went and visited, at that time, one of the brothers who had killed their parents – a famous trial that took place years ago. He said to her, “Do you think Judas will be in heaven?”
“Well,” she said, “that’s interesting, my professor’s written a book about that.” She got me to sign it, she took the copy into him. Later on she sent word to me and he said he wants to talk to you. So I got permission to go in and sit on the attorney’s bench. They brought him in shackled, and sat him down, shackled him to the bench, and he pulled out of his pocket a copy of The Gospel According to Judas. Opened it up, he had underlined it here and there and he said, “Can Judas be saved? Will God forgive the sins of Judas?”
I said, “You killed your mother and your father. You reloaded the shotgun. You blew your mother’s face away. Suppose that when you die God presents you in front of your parents and says to your parents, I give you permission to dispose of your son however you want – heaven or hell, it’s your decision. What will your parents say?”
He paused. “Boy,” he said, “that’s a tough one.” He said, “My mother will forgive me.”
I said, “Then you know that Jesus will too.”
He said, “Is that true?”
I said, “Yes. Jesus can forgive you.”
He’s still in prison and he believes that. That’s why I wrote the book. I wrote the book for people who somehow condemn themselves and feel they’ve shamed themselves. While they are not as desperate as that, still many people come to church and they carry with them a little silent guilt that’s never taken away. They go through the liturgy of confession and they believe the gospel, but they carry with them shame and guilt.
The purpose of redemption is not just to save us, justify us, because of our faith. It’s to transform us, it’s to liberate us, it’s to heal us from that. That’s the terrible thing and the heresy of legalism. It’s shaming, it’s self-condemning. It’s so contrary to the gospel that we need to eradicate it, we need to preach that gospel of grace.
People are afraid of that. They say, if Judas can be saved, then everybody can. Then we have this debate going on now, that Brian McLaren is involved in. He wrote the foreword for my book on Emergent Theology, charged with universalism – that maybe God will save everyone. If all have been reconciled, you see, you come back to the doctrine of the Trinity again.
God loves the whole world, not willing any should perish. Through Jesus Christ, the whole world had been reconciled, God no longer counts their sin against them. If God is not trying to preach against sin to people, then why are we doing that?
But, then Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, who is the Redeemer, the Holy Spirit that enters in and transforms.
Karl Barth said, “All have been justified and sanctified, de jura – the Latin word, in principle. But not all have been sanctified de facto – as a matter of fact. The Holy Spirit is the Redeemer. History is still open, it’s not a closed book.
The question then of universalism comes, “Is it possible that even after death, there can be some redemption?” Well, there are some theologians, Forsythe, a Scottish theologian said, “There will be more people converted after death than before.” He wrote that a hundred years ago. And Karl Barth says, “Be careful, don’t close the book on God. We don’t know whether or not God is a universalist. We can hope so. We have no right to say that. If anybody is a universalist and then eventually is going to enable everyone to be redeemed, only God can do that.
We don’t encourage people to wait for that. We preach the gospel now. But we should remember that universalism is just the other side of the coin of limited atonement. Calvin taught limited atonement – that only those that God had elected for salvation are actually redeemed, the rest are not.
Universalism wants to say, “No, everybody is elected and redeemed.” Both of them are sides of a coin that simply is minted out of human speculation, whereas the gospel of God’s grace is more dynamic than that. The Holy Spirit yearns and struggles with people to bring them in. The doctrine of the Trinity saves us from universalism, at the same time arguing for the universal love of God for all, and the universal act of God through Jesus in behalf of all.
But the Holy Spirit is the contingent factor there.
JMF: So part of the issue is that, with legalism, we are talking about absolution from sins committed, and we only think that far. Whereas with Trinitarian theology, we are talking about a relationship, in which not just forgiveness of sins committed, but a restoration of relationship, a healing of ourselves, our minds, so that sinfulness itself is healed, not just a “on-paper forgiving…”
RA: Yes, if we go through a worship service, whatever form of liturgy we have, if we have any – we confess our sins, we have sinned before you, God, and done the things we ought not to have done and so on, and then the pastor or someone will say, “I announce now, on the basis of your confession, you are now absolved and freed from all your sins.”
But people go home and they still feel the shame, the guilt. You went to a medical doctor and he said, “You have a brain tumor, but I’ve touched your head and I pronounced some words and you’re healed.” Well, you go home and you’re dead within six weeks of the brain tumor. The doctor could be sued for malpractice.
Forgiveness of sins and pronouncement of absolution without there being a transformation is spiritual malpractice. That’s a little strong. But the fact is, redemption means that we are being transformed from darkness into light.
What legalism does, it makes that conditional upon our faith. John McLeod Campbell, a Scottish theologian in the 19th century, he went out as a young preacher and he began to preach Scottish theology – except you repent, you cannot be saved. Every sermon started out: You are sinners, you need to repent of your sin, and now that you’ve repented I can offer you the gospel – the good news.
Next Sunday he said, “You may think you’ve repented enough, but you probably haven’t. So let’s repent again in order that I can pronounce the gospel to you.”
Sunday after Sunday, that’s what he was told to preach. Conditional repentance and salvation. He found out that the people were depressed, and filled with shame. So he started over again and said, “No, the good news is that Christ has not only died for us, he’s repented for us.”
He taught the doctrine of vicarious repentance – that Christ has taken up our lives and repented for us. Now the gospel is: Enter in and join that journey. He’s repented for you, he’s repenting with you, and your relations with him is now unconditional, it’s not conditioned upon your repentance….
But grace draws you into that relationship. Grace doesn’t just free you from the law. When Jesus said to the woman in John 8 who committed adultery, “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more” – I tell my students, supposing that in a few weeks they come back to Jesus and say, “You know that woman you let off the hook – you didn’t condemn her, she is out doing it again.”
He will say, “Bring her to me. I’m the only one that never condemned her. Then I’ll tell her, I just didn’t free her from the law, I bound her to me. Have you been discipling her?”
The gospel is not that we’re just freed from the law, to do whatever we can. No. As Paul said, we’re brought under the law of the Spirit now, in Romans 8. We’re brought into that new relationship.
It’s like a child who’s been in an orphanage. He’s redeemed from the orphanage, brought into a family. Now, the child has to learn what it is to be a member of the family. In the orphanage, he learned how to beat the system. He learned to keep the rules. He learned to manipulate the system. That’s what legalism is. It’s manipulating the system, manipulating God.
But the child brought into the family – adoption, he’s got… “No, you don’t… you can’t do that here. You must respect others at the table, you must eat when we eat, you must be part of the family life, we aren’t just here to feed you, we aren’t just here to cloth you, we’re here to make you a child of the family.” It’s going to take years.
Sanctification is like a child being adopted, brought into the family, and that’s where we are as Christians. That’s a gracious thing. Never again can you lose that.
I have an adopted grandson, and he asked his mother, it was an open adoption, so he knew he was adopted, he was two or three years old, he said to his mother (my daughter), “Someday, you and Dad are probably going to give me away, like my birth mother did.” Here’s a four-year-old saying that.
My daughter instinctively said, “We can’t do that even if we wanted to – because we took you to a judge here in Pasadena and we’ve got to sign papers and he said you can never again give him away. He belongs to you forever.”
“Oh,” he said, “Ok.” A month or two later he was with his younger brother and riding along, he said, “You better be careful. Mom and Dad can give you away, but they can’t give me away.”
That’s what adoption means spiritually, we are brought in and decisions made for us, and we’re now participating in that new family. That overcomes the threat of universalism, saying, it’s a free pass out of jail. It’s not that at all. It’s being brought in to the family.
JMF: Much of universalism has the idea that… it loses the idea that there is a necessary connection with Christ that must take place.
RA: Redemption must take place… and if universalism is simply another – the other side of the coin – it means that now everybody is now going to be saved, and God has to save the entire world.
JMF: Regardless of what they do.
RA: That’s right. Barth said, that’s preposterous – on two grounds. First of all, God is not going to bring anybody into heaven that is not redeemed. Secondly, God has to free them in the end. In my book on Judas and in my other writings I say, who makes the final… If death doesn’t determine our destiny, who does?
Well, it’s God! How does God do that? Paul said there’s a judgment seat of Christ. Two or three places Paul says, it’s Jesus that’s the final judge.
So as I told that man in prison, you are going to have to face Jesus someday like your mother, and if you believe that your mother has maternal instincts for you, Jesus has even stronger instincts for you. He died for you, he loved you, you can trust that. But I said, that’s going to be an incredible event. Jesus makes the final judgment. I ask my students, does Jesus simply read a transcript, does he read a list of names that’s handed to him, does somebody hand a list of names? “Just read the names here?”… oh no.
Jesus makes real judgment. Jesus makes decisions, eternal decisions concerning human beings after they’ve died. That’s what Paul said, he’s the judge. If everything was all decided, like Calvin said, you can have a clerk of the court read the list. We wouldn’t need a judge.
We need a judge, we need somebody. We know who that judge is. The judge is the one sent by the Father to die for us – the one who has sent his Holy Spirit to bring us into that trusting relationship with him.
That’s how the Trinity works here. By this narrative it’s not simply an empty, formal, abstract doctrine. It can only be told as a story. That’s why I use stories, I use anecdotes, because that’s how the Scripture uses narrative and story to get across these points.
The prodigal son, when does the father start to love him? He loved him all the way. The son comes back and says, I’m not worthy to be your son, and he tries to repent. He thinks that I need to come back and repent, and if I repent, at least I’ll be given a position as a slave in the house.
He comes back, he rehearsed his repentance speech – “Father, I’ve sinned against you and before heaven, I’m not worthy to be your son.” When the father sees him from afar off, Jesus said, he rushes out to meet him and he interrupts his speech: forget your speech, you don’t have to repent, kill the fatted calf, come on in, because my love… So the father has loved him.
There is a death and resurrection at the threshold of the father’s house in that parable. The son has to die to his own self of being a servant and be born again. The son is born again, so to speak. The father has a right to do that. And in fact, the son never lost his sonship. He thought he did.
That parable is powerful, and often that story is simply told as a parable to make some point without drawing out the deep theological implications of it. If we’re all prodigals, then we have a father waiting at home.
Why does the son come back to the father? If he wants just to be a servant, there are plenty of places along the way to hire himself out. What brings him back to his father to be a servant? Because there’s a homing instinct, every human being has a homing instinct, and when we preach, we’re preaching to that, we’re trying to awaken that, we’re trying to… And you don’t awaken the homing instinct by condemning. You don’t awaken the homing instinct in people to come back to the father by reminding them they’re no good.
JMF: He knows that his father treats the slaves well, too.
RA: Yeah, at least, he is that. There is something there drawing him back. Theologically, every human being has that. They have concealed it, and sometimes they’re so corrupted, it doesn’t work. But you’re preaching NOT to a sinner, you are preaching to a prodigal. And prodigals are not brought back by condemnation.
That’s how I preach that story – that’s the theological truth of it. That’s why trying to make people sinners – the only people Jesus condemned as being sinners was when they are self-righteous.
JMF: In Jesus’ preaching, and even in the preaching of the apostles and the few sermons we have, we find condemnation coming up only with the self-righteous, or in the sense of the execution of Jesus – a couple of comments about that in Peter or Paul, but in the context of … that he did this for redemption, there isn’t the kind of…
RA: Peter’s sermon on Pentecost – you killed the Messiah, but he came to save you. God graciously gave you that. That’s the good news, see. When they realize, they ask, what must we do to be saved? Well, repent! Their repentance was simply to enter into the good news – that the one you killed is your Savior. So however bad you feel about feeling that, that’s already been taken care of.
Even Calvin said in his Institutes (and I say, even Calvin, because Calvin has been treated sometimes… so maligned), “No one can truly repent except they have received the grace of God.” Repentance follows grace, doesn’t precede it.
JMF: Repentance and belief are same coin …
RA: Same, and they’re part of a new relationship. I ask my students, or when I preach, I ask, “What happens the next morning after the prodigal son came back?” I’m always curious about the next mornings. What it’s like after that?
I say, The prodigal son said to his father: “Father, I want to go back to the far country.” The father said, “What?” The prodigal son said, “Yes, I need to go back, because I said you are a bad father. I maligned you. I said bad things about you. I want to go back and say you’re a good father. I want to go back to the far country and preach the good news.”
That’s truly repentance. He tried, through repentance, he tried to gain entry again. It didn’t work. Once he was given entry graciously, then repentance follows that. So that practical implication, that’s why to me, most of my writing becomes practical theology. A theology that’s not practical, that doesn’t lead to that kind of preaching, it’s already a twisted theology.
JMF: It removes the burden… Instead of feeling like in order for God to accept me, I must do something (and we never do it quite right or well enough and so we never feel like we are accepted), the good news is that we can know we are already accepted, we are already forgiven. Now in the knowledge and the security of that, we can go about doing those righteous things….
RA: Remember my analogy of the adopted child? The child is not simply rescued from the orphanage and given a wallet and told to go out and spend the money however you want it. The child was brought in to a family. The adoption that Paul likes to use as a metaphor there – we’re adopted, we’re brought back in to a family, and that means that believing is living in relationship.
Living in relationship carries with it certain things that we believe about that. The creed comes along as a way in which we affirm – yeah, this is true, what we live is true. But if you simply want it to be truth and you are not living it, it is no longer true.
That’s where the postmodernism comes in. The postmodern tendency is to say modernity came out of Europe and the Enlightenment, and took truth in place of up here as an abstract kind of propositional thing. We’re more interested in meaning than truth. If something is true that’s not meaningful. People say, That’s all relativism, that’s purely subjective. Oh, no. The reality of God – self-revelation – if it’s not meaningful to our lives, the truth of it is irrelevant.
When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” that had meaning for them. Jesus said, “Are you going to leave also, the rest of the people have left?” Peter said, “To whom shall we go? Only you have the words of eternal life. We’re going to hang in there.”
There’s an aspect of so-called postmodernity we have to look at carefully, because aspects of it are more biblical than simply the old modernity. A lot of the theology I learned was out of modernity. Simply abstract truth and doctrine. Therefore to get back is to get back into what I call a kind of pre-modernity – get back into the biblical narrative, that’s my book on Emergent Theology.
JMF: In your book An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches, Brian McLaren wrote the introduction, and he is well known for quite a number of books…
RA: Brian’s first book that struck a chord was A New Kind of Christian. It was narrative form, a story form, in which a person was having to move out of legalism into the freedom of the gospel, and that led Brian to begin to continue to pursue this line of thought that what we need here in our so-called postmodern culture is to thread our way through the labyrinth of doctrines and belief systems that separate people. We need to find some common ground of grace for that. That’s led to raising concern for people that he is not orthodox enough. But he loves Jesus, and he is concerned that we not allow these doctrinal divisions to divide us.
These things, we can talk about those. He asked me about universalism and hell. He said, I’m willing to talk with you about that, but I’m not ready to make that the litmus test for who’s a Christian. We know who a Christian is – they are the ones that are brought by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to love the Father, we know that.
JMF: In the Emergent Church then, how would you describe it?
RA: I picked up the term Emergent Church from the contemporary literature on this. But I thought, where is the biblical narrative of that? I go back to Antioch over and against Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was a legalistic community. Lest you’re circumcised you cannot believe. They came up to Antioch, Paul says in Galatians, and the Christians up there, the Gentiles and the Jews were all eating together. When they came up and started preaching, no, you can’t eat with these uncircumcised gentiles. Peter withdrew; Peter wouldn’t eat with the Christian Gentiles. Paul said, even Barnabas was carried away by that false gospel.
Paul said, “I said to Peter, to his face before them all, that’s heretical, that legalism is heretical – it’s contrary to the gospel.” Antioch is the place where that gospel of freedom came out of grace. I trace that whole thing through my book Emergent Theology came out of Antioch in which it’s the Holy Spirit that comes through the narrative of the life of Christ, that liberates you from that. Always under attack by the legalists from Jerusalem. I’ve caricatured Jerusalem a bit, but that’s true, that the ones who attacked Paul attacked him by virtue of legalistic grounds – you’re not keeping the Sabbath, you should be circumcised.
Paul’s theology was eschatological – that is to say, the Christ that he knew was the Christ already ascended into heaven. Paul wasn’t simply a witness of the historical resurrected Christ, he is a witness to the Christ who is risen and is coming. So Paul said, it’s the coming Christ that’s our criterion, through the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the coming Christ.
So the church is emerging – it’s not emerging from the past, it’s emerging from the future. That’s why it’s changing, and that’s why the church, the last chapter in my book, is that it’s about the church that’s ahead of us, not just the church behind us.
To go back and say, the church should be just like it was in the first century. No, no. The church should be like what it should be in the final century – when Jesus comes, when Jesus comes here, yeah, that’s what I have in mind. I want women to be free to preach. I had that in mind all along. I’m glad you finally discovered that.
I want Gentiles uncircumcised be part… circumcision is over. I’m glad you discovered that. So if you take the emerging church from the future, as Paul said, that’s the biblical paradigm for that. It’s not emerging out of modernity. It’s emerging out of God’s future.
Paul made concessions for the sake of ministry. He had Timothy circumcised because his mother was Jewish, so that will help you gain entry into the Jewish community. So in 1 Corinthians 15, Luke says they tried to get Paul to circumcise Titus. He is also a gentile. Paul said, no way. I won’t circumcise Titus because to circumcise Titus is to make a concession for your legalism. I circumcised Timothy as an accommodation to the gospel.
To me, that all makes sense. But for some people, that’s inconsistent, that’s illogical. If Timothy has to be circumcised, so does everybody else. Paul said, no, it doesn’t work that way.
Pastorally, we have to make accommodations. In Ephesus, I don’t want women to teach and preach because they are carrying in with them a concept of a female deity. Other places in Rome, and Macedonia, women can teach, and Junia can be an apostle, Romans 16, no problem. But if we take certain texts out of Scripture, such as, I do not permit women to teach and have authority over men, and make that normative, we’ve already undercut the gospel of liberation.
Paul had to practice accommodation, so that we have people in our churches that carry with them remnants of tradition. We have to respect that for the sake of not offending them. Paul said, I won’t destroy someone’s faith for the sake of eating meat. I can eat meat offered to idols, but if there are people whose conscience hurts some of them on that, I won’t eat meat offered to idols. But if I’m their pastor, within a year they’ll be liberated from that.
JMF: So they don’t remain, we don’t just leave them in that.
RA: That’s right. But you have to recognize that people bring with them their own theology, and to them it’s sometimes a matter of their personal identity, and we have to sometimes make accommodations for that. That’s why even in the Reformation, there had to be accommodations made to the people that one time they thought the sacraments were the means of conveying salvation. So Luther said, we’re going to still keep two of the sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and these will be very important and the real presence of Christ is there, because we can’t simply cut people off… Learning how to walk in grace, like a child being adopted, it’s going to take a while.
Almost every one of our denominations has to go through that, and to have the wisdom, pastorally, is to have good theology behind you. If you don’t have good theology, you’re going to knee-jerk react. If you have good theology, you can say God loves everyone, Jesus has died for everyone – God is a universalist of his love. When it comes to being redeemed and joined to God, then God is very particular. God is so particular he doesn’t want unredeemed people, and he has a means for redemption – through the Holy Spirit.
JMF: Yeah, if you are going to sit at the family table, you do have to learn how to…
RA: Sure, you learn the language, you learn the custom, you learn how to respect people and to live within that, so that the family has its own rules…
JMF: But we are talking about a father who is absolutely committed to your success in sitting at that table.
RA: Yes, absolutely. Therefore, even that discipline, as the Bible says, it’s the discipline of the parent, and if you are being disciplined, as Hebrew says, it’s a sign that you are a real child and not illegitimate. People miss that and they become antinomian, they think the law is no longer is effective, we can do whatever. Paul had to deal with that in Corinthians.
No, there is the law of Christ, and unless you interpret faith and relationship with God now in terms of that familial model, being part of the family of God – the body of Christ is that family. Families have rules, but the rules are grounded in love, not in law.
JMF: In your struggle to learn obedience, you are always embraced by God’s love.
RA: Yes, and who has learned obedience better than Jesus, Hebrews 4. Though he was a son, he learned obedience. Jesus has been there, Jesus was the orphan. Jesus was brought in. Jesus has learned to live in family. He learned to be submissive to his father. If Jesus had been baptized at the age of 12 when he was out there parading all of his intellectual knowledge with the Pharisees in the temple – his mother was not impressed. Mother came back and said, where were you? You broke the family rules. Didn’t you know your father… we were looking for you? Jesus said, didn’t you know I should be in my Father’s house? She wasn’t impressed by that at all. She scolded him.
Luke said, he went back, was obedient, he didn’t show up again for 18 years. Eighteen years later at the age of 30, he suddenly showed up with John the Baptist, now he’s ready to be baptized. The obedience that took him from his baptism to the cross, he learned at home with his parents. Whatever obedience is required of us, we already have the obedience of Jesus to empower us. I don’t have to be obedient in order to be accepted by Jesus. By the Holy Spirit I’m brought into the life of Jesus in his obedience – it empowers me, is the motive for my own.
That’s difference between simply preaching legalism and conditional obedience as to the grace of Christ. The grace of Christ is not freedom from obedience, it’s a gracious obedience given to us to empower us. That’s Barth, that’s Torrance, that’s all that Torrance has tried to say – that whatever is required of us by God, has been accepted and fulfilled by us by God himself on our behalf.