Saturday, June 13, 2015

A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak

This is a long review because the author proposes a new theological construct and I do not feel he has adequately presented his case. There are many problems with it.

Jersak's proposal is that, since Jesus in His incarnation was the exact representation of God (Heb. 1:3), we are to develop our view of God, His character, from the life, death and resurrection of Christ. God has shown us exactly what He is like, Jersak argues, in the flesh and blood human we call Jesus. “God is, was and always will be exactly like Jesus.” The Old Testament and epistles are to be reinterpreted in light of Christ's incarnation. The result is a self-giving God of love and humility, not coercive nor controlling.

There are a few underlying assumptions Jersak has made. “I've come to believe that Jesus alone is perfect theology,” he writes. “...Jesus Christ is the perfected and perfect revelation of the nature of God because he is God. There is no revelation apart from him.” “God is fully revealed in Jesus.” One underlying but unstated assumption is that Jesus in His incarnation revealed all there is to know about God. I see several problems with that. If there is no revelation apart from Jesus, why do we have the epistles? Why did the NT authors write anything other than the gospels? Why did Paul need to go to the desert to receive revelation as he could have just interviewed eye witnesses of Jesus' life? Why did John receive revelation on Patmos? Another unstated assumption is that we have in the gospels all that Jesus revealed about God. That is just not the case. John 21:25 tells us that recording all Jesus said and did would take books and books and books. What we have in the gospels is a tiny bit of what Jesus revealed about God, what He said and did. To establish a theology of the nature of God from a tiny bit of the possible information is just not valid.

Another assumption is, if Jesus is the exact representation of God's being (Heb. 1:3) then God is exactly like Jesus. “God is like Jesus,” Jersak writes. “Exactly like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.” “God is perfectly revealed in Christ.” But even Jersak admits, “Certainly the fullness of the divine nature is concealed in some ways in the Incarnation.” He also says, “So, in the flesh and blood person of Jesus, we have the only life ever lived that perfectly reveals the true nature of God, as far as it can be revealed in a human being.” By Jersak's own words, some of what we could know about God was not revealed by Jesus. God is not exactly like Jesus because there are aspects of God not revealed by Jesus. Something else to consider about Jersak's assumption is that Phil. 2:7 tells us Jesus took on a form (or nature) of a servant. One needs to address the “form” or “nature” Jesus took on while in a human body and how that relates to God's nature. A statue might be the exact representation of a man, but it is a representation, not the man. Jersak says the incarnation reveals self-emptying, self-sacrifice and servanthood as who God really is. Yet Phil. 2:7 says Jesus took on the form or nature of a servant. If servanthood is a character trait of God, why did Jesus have to take on the form of it? Jersak also says “Humility is an eternal attribute of God...” Yet Phil. 2:8 says Jesus humbled Himself. Why would He need to do that if humility was already a trait?

One other issue. Jersak does not look at all the acts of Jesus as recorded in the gospels and what they reveal about God. “God is neither coercive nor controlling,” he writes. So Jersak does not address Jesus cleansing the temple. Jesus made a whip and drove people out (John 2:15). Is that an exhibition of not being coercive? (And does that not tell us something about God's holiness and sin?) Jersak does not look at Jesus rebuking the storm (Mark 4:39), resulting in the wind stopping and it becoming calm. Isn't that an example of Jesus controlling nature?

There are a few more issues in the book that have problems.

Developing a theodicy, Jersak writes, “...when God through the Logos (John 1) created the universe, he relinquished control to natural law.” If that is the case, how did God produce the Egyptian plagues, divide the Red Sea, and make the day longer for Joshua? How did Jesus calm the storm or even heal people? How did Jesus command demons, created beings, to leave a person and enter animals? Don't all those examples indicate that God and Jesus have authority over and can (and do) control creation and created beings? (By the way, the view, that God created the universe and then remains apart from it and lets is run itself, is called deism.)

Here is another issue. “God is never arbitrary about who receives his mercy and who doesn't,” Jersak writes. Yet Paul, when explaining Jacob and Esau, quotes Exodus, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Rom. 9:14b)

Probably the hardest hurdle for Jersak to overcome in developing his theology is the accounts of God's wrath in the Old Testament. In Jersak's theology, God's wrath becomes “a metaphor for the consequences of God's consent to our non-consent. That is, God's wrath (the metaphor) is that he allows us to resist him, and includes our experience of all the fall-out that ensues.” (Italics in the original.) He summarizes, “Wrath is a metaphor for the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God.” When Jesus speaks of God's wrath, such as in parables, “...he uses it ironically,” Jerask says, or he uses it as “a concession to our conceptions of wrath...” And Paul? Jersak writes, “...wrath to Paul is not the seething malice of an angry God, but rather, the deadly consequences of our own sin, namely death or perishing, whatever that includes.” (This is beginning to sound like karma.)

If God does not exhibit wrath, then from what are we saved? Jersak writes, “God sent Jesus into the world to announce the good news of peace, to turn us from wickedness and save us (from ourselves).” When Jesus talks about giving His life as a ransom, it is a metaphor. Jersak sees no God who needs to be appeased, no wrath that needs to be satisfied. “God did not need to be reconciled to us – he was never our enemy.” “My own conviction,” he writes, “and that of the historic church, is that God was not punishing Jesus on the Cross at all.” What Christ did was unwrath us, that is, delivered us from “the process of perishing under the curse and decay of sin.” 

Jersak does not address the sacrifices God required in the Old Testament to cover sins and what that implies about appeasing God when sins have been committed. When writing about the Reformed view of God as sovereign, Jersak writes, “It is not a fanciful interpretation of Scripture.” “This way of seeing God really does appear plainly in the Bible.” He admits, “Even significant swaths of biblical literature don't line up well with the Christ of the Gospels.” So how does Jersak deal with those passages in the Bible? We need to read those passages “with fresh eyes and gospel lenses,” he says. We are not to “allow literalism to corner us.” He suggests, “ our false images of God can be overcome by a shift from biblical literalism to a return to Christ himself as our final authority...”

Sometimes we need to be aware of whom Jersak quotes. For example, he quotes Saint Silouan the Athonite to confirm that “The Son of Man has taken into Himself all mankind...” It is important for readers to know that Saint Silouan was Greek Orthodox, and therefore believed in theosis, that is, becoming divine. He also refers to the writings of Pastor Gregory Boyd, a proponent of open theism.

One should also check his biblical references. Writing about the wages of sin being death, Jersak admits, “that's ledger language, wrath language. But Christ doesn't balance the ledger; he nails it to the Cross (Col. 2:4)! He utterly removes it.” Actually, it's Col. 2:14 and the verse is clear, it was the charge against us that was done away with and nailed to the cross, not the ledger itself.

Missing from Jersak's proposed theology are character traits of God I think are very important. One is holiness. Isaiah and Revelation both record beings saying of God, “Holy, holy, holy.” Another is that God is just (2 Thess. 1:6). The writers of Hebrews and Deuteronomy say God is a consuming fire. These character traits of God have much to tell us about how God exhibits His love and mercy and should not be ignored.

There is one area in the book where Jersak is spot on. He reminds us God exists independent of our view of Him. Jersak says we tend to develop an image of God out of our own temperament and then try to find Scripture to verify it.

It would be nice to believe in the God Jersak describes, only self-sacrificing, loving, giving, consensual. But I must believe in the God as He is revealed in the Bible, all of the Bible. He is first of all holy, holy, holy. He is righteous. He is just. He is a consuming fire. He is all of that while, at the same time, He is love and merciful. It is a glorious mystery.

You can watch a video of the author here.

I am taking part in a blog tour of this book and you can read other reviews here.

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He is on the faculty at Westminster Theological Centre (Cheltenham, UK), where he teaches New Testament and Patristics. He also serves as adjunct faculty with St. Stephen's University (St. Stephen, NB). He is also the senior editor of Christianity Without Religion Magazine based in Pasadena, CA. You can find out more at www.bradjersak.com.

CWR Press, 352 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book through Litfuse for an independent and honest review.
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