Roger Newell, Responding to God in an Authentic Way

Roger NewellRoger J. Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University. Dr. Newell completed his doctoral studies under Professor James Torrance in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God. Her response to is exemplary.

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: As I understand it, you were the first American student that James Torrance had in doctoral studies in Aberdeen.

Roger Newell: Right, that was 1978. I arrived just a little bit after Professor Torrance came the previous semester to be the professor there, after having been the teacher in Attenborough, Scotland, for quite a few years. It was a great opportunity and privilege to be one of his early students, to attend his seminars, and to get to know him as a mentor and as a friend.

JMF: You mentioned that he instilled the passion in you for pastoral ministry…

RN: Right. The time I went there, I was thinking maybe I wasn’t sure if I was going to do pastoral work or just pursue teaching. But having studied with Professor Torrance, I became more aware of a call that I really did want to pastor. He inspired in me a sense that the parish, the local church, is the laboratory where people come to know the living God and we become participants in that and roll up our sleeves. That was very significant, and I wanted to do that.

JMF: So you spent a little over a decade in pastoral ministry before you began teaching in George Fox.

RN: Thirteen years.

JMF: That would bring to your theology a real, practical, meaningful, tone that we don’t often see in theology.

RN: I was also fortunate in having studied with Ray Anderson at Fuller Seminary. Ray had made it important, and modeled for this same kind of connection and integration between pastoral care and pastoral work and the best theology one can articulate.

JMF: We had the privilege of having Ray on this program. In some of the writings you’ve done, you’ve written about the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel. Gabriel announces to Mary what’s going to happen to her and then her response to that, and then you tied that in with our response. Could you talk about that?

RN: The reason I started in with the story of Mary as a way of trying to understand how a person responds to God is because, in a way, she’s the first one in the Church who has the word spoken to her by the angel. She’s the one through whom the Word becomes incarnate. Her response becomes, in some ways, a way to begin to understand what it means and how you and I can learn many years later to be begin to respond. She is a great example to see what is going on in learning how to respond to God. I wanted to start with her.

JMF: One of the things with Mary that you point out is that her response is not some ideal, high, moral, Christian, so called, godly response, as we think of that sometimes – she’s a little worried about it, upset, to some degree – there are all kinds of questions she has, it’s a very human response.

RN: Yes. If we take the halo pre-arranged off her, then it’s important to realize that she, as the text says very clearly, was deeply troubled. She is a young woman going to her prayers, as a devout, young Jewish maiden, and what she got in her prayers that day was not what she was looking forward to, and it wasn’t expected, and the text is clear that she was deeply troubled by what happened, and she was also afraid.

If they had wanted to make her into some kind of an idealized portrait, they would have air-brushed that very human response away. But instead, there it is, and this is how she responded. It’s part of her journey to then saying, “I’m the handmaid of the Lord, and let it be to me according your will.” It’s all included, and that’s an important key, an important thing for us to remember – that there is no perfect way to respond to God except to be genuine and honest before God. If there’s fear, if there’s trouble – things going on in my life – that’s part of what I openly and honestly bring to the table. God accepts that.

JMF: In preaching and teaching that, we tend to hear the admonition that jumps us right to the very end – let it be unto me as the Lord has spoken, without acknowledging the fact that there is a journey to get to that spot. It’s a human journey, and the honesty that you spoke of, being a part of what we are able to have as a part of our response – admitting to God, dealing with God, like Jacob did – this wrestling with God over issues, is part of the Christian experience. That has become lost in some of the liturgy and some of the teaching and preaching we hear today.

RN: I suppose it’s inevitable that we jump too quickly to the last word, and we don’t always listen to the next-to-the-last word. We hurry to the happy ending, maybe, or the perfection, and the real journey that people have sometimes is telescoped or narrowed. Maybe that’s part of the fact that in our culture everybody’s in a hurry. The pastor’s in a hurry, he wants to have perfected saints. Sinners are very messy to deal with, and if you could clean them up more quickly, maybe everybody’s job would be a little easier.

But for whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to be how we are formed. To try to prematurely, or shrink-wrap Christians and make them saints, in a way that’s artificial, like hot-house plants, doesn’t seem to work. We may have to begin to unlearn the false responses that we make to God because we think everybody expects them of us. But they aren’t from our own hearts. We have to sometimes unlearn those manufactured approaches and learn to respond to God genuinely as did Mary.

JMF: You talked about the “ought” and the “should,” how did you put that…

RN: The danger is that, in the urgency or the anxiety we preachers sometimes have to get people to the bottom line, we can pressurize people to make the response we think they ought to make… Maybe we lack confidence that God is going to do what he intends to do, and so we feel like we have to pull the strings a little bit. So we can put pressure on people, and as a result, instead of letting people respond to the good news, we have this twist, and sometimes we turn the good news into “should” news.

This is something that’s been talked about, I think very perceptively, by C.S. Lewis, and why he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. He says that one of the things he thought that was inhibiting people from really hearing the gospel is that… He talked about the stained-glass window in Sunday School associations, whereby one was told, one ought to be grateful to God, one ought to be thankful. And having heard this so often, it caused the person to focus on themselves and their response, rather than on the object, the reality of God, which naturally evokes a response. Inadvertently, we in the church too often turn the good news into “should” news. It’s not our intention, but what it means is the recipients take their eyes off the source and try to manufacture a response that we think is expected, and ironically, that cuts off our feelings, and our feelings freeze up.

JMF: Don’t we do that a lot, especially in worship: we try to make ourselves feel something, we’re not sure exactly how we should feel, but we know, not to be holy and not to be sanctimonious or something, and so we try to will ourselves into the right feeling – and, as you say, our attention is totally on ourselves instead of on the object of our worship.

RN: That’s right, and the problem is that we become self-centered in our worship, either focusing on our virtue, in patting ourselves on the back and thinking well done, or we become focused on our failures, our inadequacies and whether our self-centered response to God becomes inflated, congratulating ourselves, self-righteous on the one hand, or we become discouraged and deflated and put ourselves down on the other. Both are ways of getting in the way and not being responsive, trying to create some kind of virtue in ourselves.

This always leaves us frustrated, either in a negative way or a positive way – the Pharisee thinking, “Thank you God that I’m not like other people. Wow, I’m really good at this responding to God.” Or on the other hand, a person who feels like, “Everything I do is hopeless, and I can’t.” Like Martin Luther, when he was a monk, whatever he did wasn’t good enough. He was constantly berating himself and criticizing himself and he had made himself miserable

JMF: Jesus told a parable about two sons. One responded right away with the right words by saying, “I go, sir” when his father told him to go work in the field. And the other one refused, but in the end, the one who responded with the wrong words is the one who did what he was asked, and the other one didn’t.

RN: Right. Even though he said he would, and so the words came easily, but actions, once the father looked the other way, were nowhere to be found. It reminds us of how important our response is meant to be: not just a verbal one, but with our whole hearts. The second sentence is a great example of somebody who took him a while. At first he let his father know (was it his father or the master, I forget), “I’m not doing this.” But it percolated, he thought about it, and he was honest and genuine in his initial, “No,” but as he thought about it, he thought, “I think I’m going do what I was asked.” That had integrity.

JMF: We have a fear of responding in a way other than rightly, and that contributes to wanting to look at ourselves and analyze how we’re responding, how we’re thinking. But aren’t we freed to respond freely and honestly, if we remember that it isn’t our response that matters. Jesus has already responded for us perfectly as the human who stands in for us before the Father. If we can rest in that, we don’t have to worry about or think about or second guess how we’re responding.

RN: Yes. I’ve been wrestling with the whole relationship between God’s reaching to us and coming to us and our responding to this. I’ve been re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his wrestling with this issue in his little book, The Cost of Discipleship. He talks about the danger of cheap grace – grace that comes without any response on our part, because it’s all been done for us. He says, this is what’s wrong with Germany. He’s writing in 1937, when Fascism has basically taken over a country of good doctrinally Lutheran justification-by-faith Christians. Somehow their response seems to have been perverted. He is trying to recover a sense of response that has integrity.

This is where he makes a great point that grace is absolutely free. It’s absolutely free, but it’s always costly, because it cost God everything. It cost him sending his own Son, so therefore, it could never be had by us by anything other than by a deep response of gratitude and thanksgiving – that is far more than verbal.

Professor Torrance used to bring this home in an important way when he talked about God’s grace being unconditionally free. But he says, as a result, the response is, “Therefore,” not “If you.” It’s not, “If you believe, if you have faith, I will love you, and so on.”

But because our God, in Christ, has loved us and given us himself so freely, therefore, we want to respond. That freedom to respond is evoked by the reality of God – not by some sense of obligation on my part to earn merit, but the most natural way of responding to such a good gift.

JMF: It’s freeing to know that our response is taken up by Christ, in such a way that it matters and that it’s healed. There’s a tendency toward carrying unnecessary guilt and carrying an unnecessary burden of second-guessing everything we do and worrying that God might not be accepting us and is probably fed up with us and is angry at us. But how freeing is it to know that as we respond, out of gratitude and a heart of appreciation for one who has healed our responses and made them right, when I’m thinking rightly about that, it keeps me in a channel of rest and freedom. The less I’m focused on myself and how I’m responding, the better I respond. It’s when I’m focused on myself and my responses that I seem to be heading to the edges all the time and bouncing down the river instead of going down the middle.

RN: Absolutely. Another way that helps me understand this better is to be aware that my response to God is always an accompanied response. It’s not initiative. It’s not me taking charge. It’s not me asserting myself, but it’s learning, like those people we read about in Scripture, to realize that my response, whether it’s initial fear, initial hesitation or initially being deeply troubled, is accompanied.

This is part of the importance of the humanity of Jesus, that Jesus became human, fully human. Whatever response that we make is never autonomous, or on our own, but it’s shared with Jesus himself, in his own humanity connecting with our humanity. That is part of the freedom and the freeing experience of knowing that my response is not isolated, in some kind of splendor of its own religiosity or whatever, but is taken hold of and brought before God the Father by Jesus the Son.

JMF: You’ve written about Apollinarianism, which you call functional Apollinarianism, and how it affects our worship patterns and even contemporary music. Could you describe Apollinarianism and functional Apollinarianism, and how does it affect our worship patterns?

RN: This is a complicated issue … maybe we could get into this little bit further later on. But what I would say now is that Apollinarianism focuses on the sovereignty or the deity of Christ, but forgets or sets aside the real humanity of Jesus. Sometimes this affects us when we have a worship experience, when we go to church, in which we have forgotten that Jesus is truly human and Christ in his humanity accompanies us in our prayers, in our worship. We have forgotten that we have a priest – a priest in his humanity who accompanies our worship, again to the Father.

But if we don’t have that sense of Jesus as humanity and we just have a sense of Christ’s exalted Lordship, then we sometimes think, I’ve got to substitute, I need to somehow intercede for myself, or maybe my pastor has to somehow become the bridge. We can inadvertently put all our marbles on these very frail humans – myself, or my pastor, or whoever – to somehow create the connection between ourselves and God, and we end up with a functional Unitarianism in our worship and our prayers….

JMF: Which is as though Jesus is high and exalted, and we think of him that way, and we re-create the gulf between humanity and God by focusing on Jesus as high and exalted…

RN: Pure deity. God alone, God only. The uniqueness of our faith as Christians is that God has in Jesus become truly human as well as truly divine.

JMF: He is the bridge and the mediator as a human being. [RN: That’s right.] Many people think of Jesus as being human when he was on earth during the Incarnation itself, and then when he’s resurrected and ascends to the Father, he’s not human anymore – now he is the exalted God, with God, and we lose the human connectedness, but in fact, he remains human…

RN: Yes. This is a very profound and important thing, that our humanity has been taken up into God through Jesus, and our humanity is no longer apart from Jesus. This is a tremendously important thing to think of. The implications continue to to multiply as we ponder what this means. Certainly, part of what it means is that my human response to God should never be seen in isolation from Jesus as accompanying me in his humanity. This is the great theme of the book of Hebrews, that Jesus is our high priest, who in all things knows what we’re going through, he’s tempted as we are and yet without sin. He knows what it’s like to be human, and he knows that from the deepest place of what it means to be a human being – in terms of all our human frailty.

That is the humanity he has worn and recovered and then taken up to God. That includes me and all my awkwardness, my brokenness and my imperfections, as well as my strengths. That’s been accompanied, and that’s what I’m learning to offer back up to God. Not in a way that’s uniquely set apart…in some kind of isolated offering to God. It’s this communion, a communion of love, with the human Jesus.

JMF: We’re one with him as he is one with the Father. There’s no other way to be human except to be human in Christ – where we live and move and have our being in him and not just as the exalted, resurrected One, which he is, but as the human being – the glorified human.

RN: Even in his glory – remember those wonderful words from Charles or John Wesley – rich wounds he had visible above and beauty glorified – even in his being exalted, his wounds are still visible – his humanity has not been discarded as being something extraneous to the Incarnation, extraneous to the reality of God, but has been brought together again. This is the healing, the bringing together of heaven and earth, where God’s will shall come, and his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus is the firstfruits of all that. He is going to take all creation with him, and he has done that. And he will do that, but it’s an accompaniment now. Creation will no longer be cut off and separated from the Redeemer – from its Creator and Redeemer.

JMF: Reminds of one of the last scenes of Jesus in the Gospels, with the disciples, after his resurrection… They’re out fishing, and he’s on the shore, and he wants them to come and have breakfast with him. This is the resurrected Christ, it’s very intimate …

RN: And very physical [JMF: … real], eating food, and this part of the sheer earthiness of our humanity, and this is included.

JMF: You are working on a new book?

RN: Yeah. The things we were talking about initially, about Mary and the meaning of her response… This has been one of the great challenges for me, to try to make sense out of it… encouraging discipleship, encouraging others to grow and develop as a pastor, and in my own journey to be faithful to Christ in a way that becomes and continues to be healthy and real and not artificial and contrived in order to earn approval – from either others, or one’s congregation, or from God. But rather comes out of a heart of genuine response to the good news.

I started with Mary, but I’m really trying to make sense out of what I see as a tremendous gift that C.S. Lewis, in his writings, has given the church about teaching people how to respond to God … and in his instance, how to respond to literature. What is it about? Why was Lewis such a great reader? Why was he so receptive that he could get to the very heart of what he was reading and pull out what really mattered?

There’s a wonderful wisdom in his whole approach to literature, which I think he learned, and it came to him in his own journey of faith – he learned to recover a faith that he lost to the “should” news, and he learned how to recover and receive again the grace of God as he went through a very difficult time. You know, losing his mother to cancer as a young boy and then his father virtually as well, because his father sends him off to boarding school, and he becomes an atheist.

All the while he was trying to be open and exploring what life is about, but he had some relentless willingness to be open and to ask awkward questions of reality and of himself, too, and ask questions of himself, and eventually this leads him back to faith. Applying some of those lessons, which he, as a world-class literary critic, a wonderfully gifted reader, applying that to learning how to be open in reading of Scripture, our sourcebook.

JMF: Like many, I’m a big fan of C.S. Lewis’ writings, so I’m looking forward to that; I hope it’s published soon and can’t wait to read it.

RN: Thank you, me too. I’m working away, trying to get it in a presentable shape.

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Last modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 8:29 PM