Sunday, June 25, 2017

Lies We Believe about God

Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) by James W. Loewen is an interesting and important book. Following that lead, a few years ago I did some preliminary work on a book titled Lies My Preacher Told Me. It could have been a good book—but, alas, I didn’t get it written. Earlier this year, however, Wm. Paul Young has published a somewhat related book, Lies We Believe about God.
Young’s Theology
As most of you remember, Young is the author of the bestselling novel The Shack (2007), which I wrote about in a blog article posted on March 5. (There were more pageviews than usual on that post.)
Young also wrote the fantasy novel Eve (2015). (My May 5 article on that book got fewer pageviews than usual.)
This piece is about Young’s new book, which is not a novel but a theological reflection about God. In it, Young deals with 28 different “lies” that he thinks many people believe about God.
Young also wrote the Foreword for Richard Rohr’s new book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (2016). Among other things, Young graphically averred, 
Bad theology is like pornography—the imagination of a real relationship without the risk of one. It tends to be transactional and propositional rather than relational and mysterious. You don’t have to trust Person, or care for Person. It becomes an exercise in self-gratification that ultimately dehumanizes the self and the community of humanity in order to avoid the painful processes of humbling and trusting. Bad theology is not a victimless crime. It dehumanizes God and turns the wonder and the messy mystery of intimate relationship into a centerfold to be used and discarded.
Young thinks that many popular ideas about God are pornographic, in the way he just expressed. Those ideas express bad theology, for they are lies believed about God. So he sets out to state good/correct theological statements about God.
For the most part, I think Young did a commendable job. Naturally, there are some who disagree—and the more conservative/traditional a person is, the more they will likely disagree with Young’s theology.
Young’s Perceived Lies about God
In general, Young says that all ideas about God that depict God as in any way vengeful or vindictive are not true. All views about God that fail to embrace God’s grace, God’s unconditional love and acceptance of all people, are “lies” about God.
Further, all statements that exclude people from God’s embrace or locate them outside the reach of God’s forgiveness are also seen as lies.
“Every human being you meet, interact with, react and respond to, treat rudely or with kindness and mercy: every one is a child of God,” says Young (on p. 206).
Conservative Christians do not like Young’s emphases for two main reasons: they appear to be universalistic (everyone is forgiven/”saved”) and they deny the idea of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ.
According to Young, God does not need to be appeased. God’s wrath does not need to be assuaged. God’s righteousness does not need to be “satisfied.”
Is “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” a Lie about God?
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was held earlier this month. As always, there were several resolutions deliberated and passed at that meeting. One was titled “On the Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”
In a news article about that resolution, Bob Allen of Baptist News Global mentioned Young’s criticism of that penal substitutionary theory of atonement. As noted above, Young thinks it is one of the lies believed about God.
Is he right?
Let’s think more about that important issue soon.


  1. Sounds like the concept of fashioning god into our own image. "Our buddy who art in heaven (or DC, or wherever). Western Christianity seems to have been focused on fresh novel doctrines from way back, whether a buddy in heaven, or a penal substitution, or personal christ consciousness, or liberation warfare... Each generation seems to spin theology/gospel into its own version of make-it-up-as-you-go and call it "Christian". Surly there is some boundary to orthodoxy.

    What concerns me about saying this is that it loses the concept of my own theology and sin, and the need to love fellow believers. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Conform me into the image of Christ, Your only begotten son, to do the good works which you ordained. May I take up my cross and follow Him.

    1. Here is part of what I believe (and probably Young also believes) about God and Atonement:

      "God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them" (2 Cor. 5:19, CEB).

    2. Is there such a thing as the "Church"? (Whom Jesus Christ called to be "One".) There started off to be One Church - it had issues, which were resolved in Ecumenical Councils - one holy catholic Church. Then one patriarch broke away, and declared himself to be the One holy (Roman) Catholic church. Then there came the holy Lutheran church, the holy Reformed church, the holy Anglican church, the holy Anabaptist church. And now we have between 10,000 - 30,000 holy (and mostly independent) churches, each break off back to Rome coming up with novel doctrines, with "holy" people leading themselves (astray?). Certainly the Church has needed reform along the way, it was made of erring humans - but the earliest catechism of the first century condemned schism as anathema. What gives Young or Francis (or anyone else) authority to speak? Many doctrines of the "churches" seem to be mutually exclusive, let alone novel. Penal atonement is but the tip.

      "May they be One..."? The sad part is highlighted by the Eastern Orthodox statement, "We know where the Church is, we know not where it isn't."

  2. If atonement is so important (to the SBC) why did it take 1100 years before Anselm finally explained how it worked?

    1. Clif, I think Atonement has always been important to Christians of all kinds; the issue has been the meaning of Atonement.

      Anselm, whom you mention for good reason, was the first to develop systematically what is usually called the "satisfaction theory of atonement," which was then centuries later adopted by the Reformers, and especially by Calvin.

      To varying degrees, most Protestants have thought that the Reformers recovered the true teachings of the Bible. So the Reformers' (Calvin's or, before him, Anselm's) teaching about penal substitutionary Atonement was only elucidating what the Bible taught.

  3. There are times to talk about lies, about the liars who tell them, and the dupes who believe them. In this age of "alternate facts" there certainly are times to speak of lies. There are certainly lies told about the Bible, and about theology. Still, it is a word to be reserved for careful use when dealing with the murky depths of theology. Jesus frequently spoke in parables, which sometimes he explained to His closest followers, and two thousand years of prayer and study have overlaid the whole gospel with layers of metaphors and mystery. Sometimes we learn that something we thought we knew was not quite so, and other times a dark mystery suddenly yields to the light of day. We need to give room to ourselves and others as we each walk on the path of the pilgrimage of faith.

    Some years ago a theory became popular in Southern Baptist life that stated that the meaning of all texts in the Bible was plain and simple, and that the only reason to deviate from the true interpretation was intentional obstinance. This idea was often tied to the doctrine that the Bible is the Word of God. Others thought that Jesus was the Word, and that the words of the Bible merely pointed towards Him. Hence, a personal relationship with Jesus was more important than a specific theological interpretation of the Bible. Since we bring ourselves into any relationship, whether with a friend, a relative, or Jesus, this allows a lot of wiggle room for personal theology.

    Last night I attended Kansas City's version of Shakespeare in the Park. We did not have anyone masquerading as either Trump or Obama. What we did have was a powerful presentation of Hamlet. At a key moment Prince Hamlet has snuck up on his uncle/father-in-law, intending to kill him for murdering Hamlet's father. However, he finds the man deep in prayer, confessing his sin to God. Hamlet grows agitated realizing that his own father was struck down not in such a prayerful state, and therefore might well have gone to hell, while here was the murderer, confessing his sin and ready for heaven. In frustration Hamlet leaves the praying king in peace, to look for a better time to send the murderer's soul to hell. Now all this is not a theology many would accept today, but does that mean Shakespeare was telling a lie? Considering the way the play ends, quite possibly Shakespeare did not believe the same as Hamlet. Does that make Shakespeare a liar?

    Personally, I would go with a loose reading of John 3:14-15, where Jesus compares the crucifixion to Moses raising up the bronze serpent in the wilderness to save the people from snake bites. That still leaves questions to ask, and the odd knowledge that eventually the bronze serpent of Numbers 21:9 was destroyed because it had become the object of idolatry. Perhaps from time to time old theology should similarly be retired, so that a new way of seeing the cross can be seen. We are called to new being in Christ.

    1. Craig, thanks for your long and thoughtful comments. Let me respond to just part of what you wrote.

      Yes, as another Thinking Friend also wrote in an email, there is a problem with Young's use of the word "lie," for that word usually implies a deliberate attempt to misconstrue the truth and to mislead other people.

      The "lies" that Young writes about are not necessarily intended to mislead others. He is mainly talking about erroneous statements made or concepts believed about God. Those erroneous statements/concepts are called "lies" because they are not correct--but that may not be helpful terminology.

      However, I think it is not just a matter of disagreement over metaphors. While many of us do see much of the teaching of the Bible, including that of Jesus, to be surrounded by "metaphors and mystery" as you suggest, I think that a great many conservative/traditional Christians understand the idea of penal substitutionary atonement, for example, in a very literal (not metaphorical) way.

  4. Not sure why; but out of curiosity I decided to check what E. Y. Mullins wrote in *The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression* (first published 1917). On page 318 of my edition (apparently printed 1946) he asked: *Why was it necessary for Christ to suffer death in order to redeem sinners?* He answered: *It was a [!] necessary means to a [!] definite end.*

    In the ensuing nuanced expansion I got the impression that Mullins might allow that the death of Jesus was a necessary event because of the condition of humanity (penalty = consequence; Jesus fully human, so also his executioners), not because God desires/requires it (penalty as imposition of punishment); a substitution not as a replacement for, but as identification of Christ with humanity: more ‘in/on behalf of’ than ‘instead of’. Those (sinners) for whom his unjust death evoked (evokes) a change of heart/mind in the direction of reconciliation/right-relationship are those being/becoming redeemed.

    Not necessary in some abstract sense, but necessary because love as ‘divine empathy’ among humans requires (flesh and blood) human beings to identify with the (flesh and blood) other *because* we truly feel the suffering of the other (overcoming solipsism): a flesh and blood death as a necessary means to a flesh and blood redeeming response of ‘divine empathy’.

    And so we have, I think, Wm. Paul Young’s story of enfleshed divine love. As Mullins defined ‘penal’ and ‘substitutionary’ for himself and his time, so do we also; or perhaps let them go.

    1. Thanks for your erudite comments, Dick.

      Perhaps Mullins, as well as other Southern Baptist scholars of the past, had more nuanced interpretations of the Atonement and other doctrines than is often recognized.

      However, the popular understanding of conservative/fundamentalist Southern Baptists through the years, and now, is not so nuanced and tends to be, I believe, misleading and unhelpful for understanding the true nature of God and Atonement.

  5. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard yesterday shared these pertinent comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for raising some very interesting questions.

    "Ultimately, do we really know the nature of God? I suspect that how a person conceptualizes God is at least partly dependent on his or her own personality. A person who tends to be angry and vindictive may see God as angry and vindictive. A person who cares deeply about the weak and the poor may see God as loving and compassionate. I certainly hope the latter view is the correct one, if there is a correct one.

    "Such doubts can lead to apophatic theology, which underlies the theological thinking in the Eastern Orthodox churches. We cannot really make affirmative statements about the essence of God; we can only say what God is not. God, in the Eastern view, is therefore not knowable as an object of knowledge; He is instead experienced or made known through His energies.

    "Apophatic theology underlies Christian mysticism, which has a long tradition in both Eastern Orthodoxy and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholicism (e.g., St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross).

    "Another question involves theodicy, or God's justice. If everything is a gift and nothing in this life is ultimately earned, then salvation itself, at least according to Protestant theology, cannot be earned either. But can salvation be lost because of wicked acts? Should a person, who engages in wicked acts because of mental illness, be condemned? If God saves some persons, and condemns others, then where is the justice of God? I see this as a problem with the theory of 'penal substitutionary atonement.'"

    1. Eric, it was interesting to me that you mentioned St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, for the preacher I heard Sunday morning mentioned both of them, of course, in his sermon on "The Dark Night of the Soul."

      Concerning your last paragraph: John Calvin (who died in 1564 when John of the Cross was 22), was the main Reformer who developed the idea of penal substitutionary atonement (as opposed to much earlier ideas of just substitutionary atonement). As you know, Calvin also emphasized "unconditional election" and the "preservation of saints." Those points speak to the issue you raised in your last paragraph.

  6. And here are comments also received yesterday from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "I think he is right. Penal substitutionary atonement may have prooftexts that support it, but it does not gibe with the concept of God modeled and taught by Jesus. Should he not be our guide?"

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson, for your comments.

      I plan to write more about this in my July 10 blog article, and I may quote you in that article.

  7. Here are lengthy, and quite erudite, comments (shared with his permission) by local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet:

    "It is not a lie, any more than green is a lie. Young's accusation arises out of the perverted Modernist way of thinking about religion. It is simply a very bad metaphor, but for those in authoritarian or unexamined mindsets, it's about the best they can do. Calling this a lie is like accusing the sun of bad intentions.

    "Young would do better to offer his own, healthier, metaphor, and help others see that the penal substitutionary theory is a bad metaphor.

    "To explain away a mystery is to rationalize the incommensurable, like wanting to define pi as 3.14 and letting it go at that, ignoring the fact that pi is not a rational number but in fact, when expressed in decimal form, extends endlessly.

    "But if we must have a metaphor for our salvation, one need not rely on Abelard (who might be among the best known of those who avoided the substitutionary theory; see Tillich's discussion in Vol 2, page 172 of his 'Systematic') but recall Irenaeus, as he ends the preface to book five of 'Against Heresies': 'Sic enim et legitime eis contradices, et de praeparato iaccipies adversus eos contradictiones, illorum quidem sententias per coelestem fidem, velut stercora, abjiciens;--solum autem verum et firmum magistrum sequens, Verbum Dei, Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum: qui propter immensam suam dilectionem factus est quod sumus nos, uti nos perficeret esse quod et ipse.'

    "The later part of which I translate as 'only emulating the true and enduring Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who through His boundless tenderness, became what we are, that He might complete us to be even what He Himself is,' suggests we are saved to life eternal by our following the example or model of Christ. I read this not as substitution but as participation.

    "Where does the medieval Christian world define which theory of atonement is 'correct'? The mystery had several explanations, none solving what is incommensurable. But Modernist religion easily becomes the kind of authoritarian Fundamentalism which insists on the likes of the penal substitutionary theory as if it exhausts the meaning of the mystery.

    "To make clear I am questioning Modernism more than those sickened by it, who have been disabled from seeing better metaphors--as I said, 'it's about the best they can do'--let me quote from an interview with Brian McLaren:

    "'A young man told me he was leaving the church because we didn’t take the Bible literally enough. Then he told me, “When I was younger, I had a violent temper. I nearly killed a man once with my bare hands. If I don’t go to a church where black is black and white is white, I might do something violent again.”

    "'Now I might quarrel with this man’s understanding of the best way to deal with deep anger issues, and I certainly don’t see the world in his simple black and white terms. But understanding that his more fundamentalist way of thinking was related to a deep inner struggle with violence helped me to at least appreciate the “why” behind his convictions.

    "'I have to recall Jesus’ words about “not causing one of these little ones to stumble,” or Paul’s counsel about not judging people in disputable matters. . . . I want to be gentle with them, understanding that their current understanding may be all that’s holding them together at this point.' . . .
    [ ]"

    1. Vern, thanks so much for taking the time to write such long, thoughtful comments about my article.

      Concerning the matter of "lies," please see what I wrote in response to Craig D. above.

      As I just mentioned to Dr. Hinson above, I plan to write more about this in my July 10 article. But just a brief comment now:

      Unlike perhaps most of the people in the Episcopal Church, most evangelicals do not see statements about penal substitutionary atonement at metaphorical. They interpret it quite literally.

      So, as I understand him, Young isn't arguing with metaphorical "lies." Rather, he is taking issue with the statements/beliefs of people who say/believe concerning what they think is factual/literal truth about what Jesus did by dying on the cross.

    2. In response to my reply (above), Vern responded with another rather long but also thoughtful email:

      "I agree with you when you write 'great many conservative/traditional Christians understand the idea of penal substitutionary atonement, for example, in a very literal (not metaphorical) way.'

      "The problem is that liberals also see the question in literal ways; that's why it is called a lie. A metaphor is not true or false; it is either apt or not, more or less.

      "Calling the theory a lie or an untruth (not implying intent) is part of the same language game as calling it a truth. Both are traps.

      "The statement that ideas about God as vengeful are 'not true' seems equally to miss the point. What are we to make of biblical passages such as Deut 32:35? or the destruction of life in the Flood? or God killing the 2509 men who offered incense? or the revenge God extracts . . . .

      "Are these passages reflections, factual or not, of the way humans experience the uncertainties of human existence? To treat these statements, and the penal substitutionary atonement theory, as propositional truths, judging them either true or false perpetuates the unhealthy Enlightenment-Modernist misunderstanding of religious language (which includes the focus on 'beliefs,' alas, an inheritance from the Reformation). Using the metaphor of monotheism, a report of a unified, non-dualistic governor of the world, the the penal substitutionary atonement theory is a possible outcome.

      "The problem is the fundamentalists don't see monotheism as a metaphor, and therefore have few optional frames of reference by which to make sense out of their experience and gain a sense of how the universe works. Fundamentalists need less to be told they are wrong, but rather enticed to see multiple ways of making sense out of the mystery of experience, and to be less compulsive about making sense and more able to enjoy the mystery itself.

      "Young's work might be more fruitful if he eschewed the ground owned by the fundamentalists instead of arguing from it, and moved instead to accepting the experience and framework implied by the theory, and offered alternative visions. Maybe the does this--I am responding simply to what you have presented about his book. I don't like the title. It is not very sympathetic.

      "A chief reason why I find the the penal substitutionary atonement theory appalling is not because it is a lie but because it, as a powerful metaphor, models an often unjust justice system, extant still in America today.

      "I'm more interested in the origins and effects of conceptions like the penal substitutionary atonement theory than I am in whether it is a lie or the truth. Arguing about it on literal grounds is not a very effective antidote the poison it spreads in society and in the soul."

    3. Vern, thanks again, for your thoughtful comments. Here is my fairly brief response (which perhaps should be longer).

      I'm afraid I disagree with what you see as the problem: that is, that liberals see the question in literal ways. Young's (and my) questioning of the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, for example, is not because he (I) see that as liberal but because conservatives/traditional Protestants mostly see it that way.

      The main question is not the truth or falsity of metaphorical interpretations, which as you say can't really be called true or false, but the truth of falsity of literal, "propositional" interpretations.

      There are many (for example, almost all who believe in an inerrant Bible that should be interpreted literally) who think that all the statements in the Old Testament you mentioned are "true," historical facts. If their theological understanding of God is based upon such "facts" and the logical consequences of belief in those facts, then statements about God as being vengeful are understandable.

      But if those statements are seen primarily as the way people then believed God to be rather that as the way God really is as we claim to know because of Jesus, then it doesn't seem to me to be wrongheaded to refer to such beliefs about God based on those statements/beliefs as being "lies," to use Young's term.

      I will say more about this subject in my blog article planned for July 10.

  8. Thinking Friend Patrick Crews, who now lives (again) in Arizona, posted these comments on Facebook:

    "Years ago my position was that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement was a demonstration, not for God as if God needed a blood sacrifice, But for us, because we are so bloodthirsty.

    "Over the years I began to question that we Humans are really so hopelessly violent of heart, but then along comes the Trump Administration.

    "Anyway, I see it that many of the 'lies' we can produce Bible 'proof texts' for are presentations for our context and benefit. Otherwise the Bible is a pretty nasty and pernicious book of lies of itself.

    "To progress in Spirit, we have to follow The Word as opposed to a collection of religious tomes that we can't take literally."