All posts in Theology

  • Who Killed Jesus?

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    Who Killed Jesus?
    Brian Zahnd

    Two years ago during Lent I preached a series of sermons grappling with the horror of the cross. Why was Jesus murdered? Why was he tortured? Why was he crucified? And most pointedly, who killed Jesus? Throughout this Lenten series I made it clear that God did not kill Jesus. Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers — a term used by the Apostle Paul to describe the very powerful, the very rich, the very religious, the institutions they represent, and the spirits that operate within these institutions. Jesus was put to death by the structures of political, economic, and religious power represented by Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and Joseph Caiaphas. In the Gospel narratives we see the Roman governor, the king of Judea, and the high priest acting in demonic concert to execute Jesus. God did not kill Jesus; human culture and civilization did. God did not demand the death of Jesus — we did.

    These Lenten sermons on the cross turned out to be surprisingly popular. I’ve discovered that most Christians are deeply relieved to learn that the forgiveness of our sins is not predicated upon God killing Jesus. Most people take it as good news to learn that child sacrifice is not part of God’s plan to save the world. Due to the popularity of these sermons a Bible college invited me to participate in a public debate on whether or not God killed Jesus. My debate opponent held to John Calvin’s theory that God had to expend his anger upon an innocent victim before he could find it within himself to forgive sin.
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  • God Is Not A Monster

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    God Is Not A Monster
    Brian Zahnd

    There are monsters in this world, but the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not one of them.

    Yes, Virginia, there are monsters. We have an imagination for monsters because we know of their existence. Venomous and vicious beasts were a daily peril for our earliest ancestors. Volcanoes and tsunamis can swallow whole cities. Hurricanes and tornados roar from the heavens, leaving hell in their wake. Epidemics of disease are lethal predators taking their pitiless toll. Worst of all, there are monstrosities of men — conquerors and warlords, tyrants and despots — galloping across history like ringwraiths bringing conquest, war, famine, and death. We can imagine monsters because we have met them.

    But the living God is not one of them. Not the God who Jesus called Abba.
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  • Slippery Slopes and Fixed Ropes

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    I have a three hour layover in the San Francisco airport. So…

    Slippery Slopes and Fixed Ropes
    Brian Zahnd

    The “slippery slope” trope is a favorite among fundamentalists. Basically the argument goes like this: The moment you move away from fundamentalist Biblicism you’re on the slippery slope of liberalism and will wind up sliding down into a crevasse with the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher and John Shelby Spong. According to those who believe that serious theology is a slippery slope, you’re either with fundamentalists and young earth creationists like Ken Ham or you’re sliding down the mountain with new atheists like Christopher Hitchens. Of course, this is a ludicrous false dichotomy. But it carries a ton of intimidation. Just about the worst thing you can call an evangelical pastor is a liberal. The only thing worse is to go Def-Con 4 and drop the H-bomb: Heretic!
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  • Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright

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    Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Conversation with Derek Vreeland
    Brian Zahnd

    Derek Vreeland is my friend and a fellow pastor at Word of Life. He has written a book on N.T. Wright’s latest “big book” — Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Derek’s book, Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright is a 118 page summary of Wright’s 1,700 page behemoth. Here’s what I’ve said about Derek’s book:

    With Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright Derek Vreeland has rendered us a great service. N.T. Wright is the most respected New Testament scholar of our era and his work on the theology of Paul could not be more important. But the fact remains that many are not up to the task of wading through 1,700 pages of dense scholarship. Derek Vreeland’s reader’s guide is an excellent distillation of Paul and the Faithfulness of God and thus a true gift.

    Recently I sat down to talk with Derek about this project. Here’s our conversation:

    BZ: How important is N.T. Wright to you personally and to the church at large?

    DV: Wright has become the rockstar theologian of our generation. He is as influential in our generation as C.S. Lewis or Karl Barth were in their generation. I think we can understand his wide-reaching influence in a couple of ways. He is biblical theologian grounded not in a particular theological tradition, but in the historical context of the New Testament. He wants to reconcile the divorce between theology and history. I appreciate systematic theologians who can work with the biblical texts and help construct a cohesive picture of what the biblical writers were trying to do, but sometimes our system forms too rigid of a grid and we actually miss the heart of what the biblical writers were trying to say. Wright has pledged no allegiance to one particular theological system, so his books seem to speak to people across the spectrum of Protestant traditions. He also has the rare ability to communicate effectively at both the academic level and the popular level. His academic books like Paul and the Faithfulness of God are filled with countless footnotes where he interacts with so many scholars and his popular books like Simply Christian speak on a level that the average churchgoer can understand. For me he has become my hero. His interpretation of Jesus and Paul within the context of first century Jewish world have revealed a Jesus and Paul who have everything to do with my life as a 21st century pastor.
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  • George MacDonald’s Spiritual Journey (And Mine Too)

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    George MacDonald’s Spiritual Journey (And Mine Too)
    Brian Zahnd

    “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded George MacDonald as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote him.” –C.S. Lewis

    “I can testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence…and it is by George MacDonald.” –G.K. Chesterton

    George MacDonald (
    1824–1905) was a Scottish novelist, poet, preacher, mystic, lecturer, theologian whose writings have had an enormous influence on many Christian thinkers, including C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. In my own spiritual journey I would list George MacDonald’s Lilith as a top ten influence.

    George MacDonald understood as clearly as anyone that salvation is not so much a conferred status as it is a lifelong journey — a continual pressing into the revelation of God in Christ. But to be a public theologian, thinker, writer and on an ever-evolving spiritual journey, rankles the self-appointed gatekeepers of religious certitude. Thus George MacDonald was regularly (and wrongly) accused of heresy for simply not toeing the line of the Scottish Calvinism predominant in his day.

    In the mid 1860’s George MacDonald received a letter from a troubled reader asking why he had lost the “old faith” and embraced what many regarded as “unorthodox” views. MacDonald’s candid reply is brilliant and beautiful and I would like to share it with you. (Plus, as one who has often been criticized for moving beyond an earlier fundamentalist/charismatic certitude, MacDonald’s defense will aptly suffice as my own.)

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  • Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God

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    Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God
    Brian Zahnd

    Oh! Ephraim is my dear, dear son,
    My child in whom I take pleasure!
    Every time I mention his name,
    My heart bursts with longing for him!
    Everything in me cries out for him.
    Softly and tenderly I wait for him.

    –Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:20)

    The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.
    –Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God

    Two pieces of literature. The prophetic poetry of Jeremiah and the revivalist preaching of Jonathan Edwards. I know them both well. First let’s look at Jeremiah.

    In this beautiful passage Jeremiah channels God’s love for Ephraim. Who is Ephraim? Ephraim is Israel in the 7th century BC. More importantly, Ephraim is Israel in its worst spiritual and moral condition. Ephraim is idolatrous, adulterous, backslidden, covenant-breaking, sinful Israel. But Ephraim is still the child of God and Jeremiah reveals God’s unconditional love for sinful Ephraim.

    Centuries ahead of the full revelation of God that will come with Jesus, Jeremiah reveals the heart of God toward sinners. Toward me. Toward you. At your worst, at your most sinful, at your furthest remove from God and his will, God’s attitude toward you remains one of unwavering love. Why? God is love.

    But many Christians struggle with a deeply embedded concept (theology) of an angry, vindictive, retributive god. Somewhere along the way they picked up a Sinner’s In the Hands of an Angry God paradigm. And it has left them deeply damaged.
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  • A More Christlike God

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    A More Christlike God
    Brian Zahnd

    What is God like? What an enormous question. For those of us who believe that God is somehow at the foundation of existence, meaning, and self-understanding, it’s an all-important question. So how shall we answer? Our options are endless. Human inquiry into the divine has produced a vast pantheon of gods — from Ares to Zeus. Of course, the Christian will have an instinct to look to the Bible for the definition of God. I understand this instinct and in one sense it is correct; but it may not yield as clear an answer as we think. Even while speaking of the “God of the Bible” we can cobble together whatever vision of God we choose from its disparate images. That we do this mostly unconsciously doesn’t help matters. Even if we restrict our inquiry into the nature of God to the Bible, we are likely to find just the kind of God that we want to find. If we want a God of peace, he’s there. If we want a God of war, he’s there. If we want a compassionate God, he’s there. If we want a vindictive God, he’s there. If we want an egalitarian God, he’s there. If we want an ethnocentric God, he’s there. If we want a God demanding blood sacrifice, he’s there. If we want a God abolishing blood sacrifice, he’s there. Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test — it reveals more about the reader than the eternal I AM.
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  • Love Never Ends: A Meditation

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    Love Never Ends: A Meditation
    Brian Zahnd

    Why is there something instead of nothing?
    The only answer I can imagine is Genesis 1:1. In the beginning God…
    But why would God say, “Let there be light” and initiate Creation?
    The only answer I can imagine is God is love.

    What is light? God’s love in the form of photons.
    What is water? A liquid expression of God’s love.
    What is a mountain? God’s love in granite, so much older than human sorrow.
    What is a tree? God’s love growing up from the ground.
    What is a bull moose? God’s love sporting spectacular antlers.
    What is a whale? Fifty tons of God’s love swimming in the ocean.

    As we learn to see Creation as goodness flowing from God’s own love—
    We begin to see the sacredness of all things.
    As Dylan and Dostoevsky say, in every grain of sand.
    All of creation is a gift — a gift flowing from the self-giving love of God.

    Why is there light and oceans and trees and moose and whales and every grain of sand?
    Because God is love — love seeking expression in self-giving creativity.
    Unless we understand this we’ll misunderstand everything and misspend our lives.
    In our misunderstanding and misspent lives we harm Creation—
    Including our sisters and brothers, all of whom bear the image of God.
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  • Saint Augustine and Me

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    Saint Augustine and Me
    Brian Zahnd

    It was June 4, 2000. A beautiful Sunday afternoon in early summer. I was sitting on my front step reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions. At that time I hadn’t yet begun to explore the Church Fathers, that would come four years later. But I was reading classic literature. I had given up on the trite tomes of pop Christianity. I already knew what they said. In a desire to read something of worth I had returned to the treasures of classic literature that I had first learned to love in Mrs. Zaft’s high school literature class. I had read a fair number of the classics, but I had never read Confessions — the first, and perhaps greatest, spiritual autobiography in history. I had decided to read Augustine’s Confessions for basically the same reason that I read Milton’s Paradise Lost or Melville’s Moby Dick — because it was an established classic in the canon of Western literature. And it is a remarkable book. The whole autobiography is a 350-page prayer. The book begins with this prayer:

    You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: Great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing his mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

    “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Those words resonated with me. Sure, I was a Christian. But I was also a man with a restless heart. A year earlier I had turned forty while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Now I was beginning to think about the second half of life…and I was restless. I had plenty of success, but I was restless. I was still searching and the clock was ticking. I feared I was running out of time. As I read Confessions Augustine told me his story.

    He was born November 13, 354, the oldest son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, and raised among the aristocracy of the late Roman Empire in North Africa. He told unflinchingly of his somewhat profligate youth. He told of teaching rhetoric in Milan and writing speeches for the emperor. His genius was evident. He told in detail of his quest for truth in the dualistic religion of Manichaeism and his eventual disenchantment with it. He told of hearing the sermons of Ambrose that pointed him in a new direction. He told beautifully of his dramatic conversion on the day he heard a child’s voice singing in the garden, “take and read,” and how when he turned at random in the New Testament he read Paul’s words, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” He told of how he and three other friends chose to enter a monastic life. He told of becoming the bishop of Hippo. All along the way there were the profound musings of a philosopher on the nature of time and memory, and more importantly, the prayers of a Christian seeker exploring the mysteries of God.
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