Archive for October, 2013

God can’t feel your pain

Posted: October 29, 2013 by J in Bible, Church, Pastoral issues, Theology

Can God feel anything?

We’re currently preaching through Exodus at our church, and we’ve come up against a problem in our doctrine of God. Maybe you can give me some advice about this.

We’ve title the series: LEARNING the NAME of GOD. We’re saying, here’s where Israel first gets to know who the god of their fathers is. He reveals his name to them: I AM WHO I AM, and he reveals himself to them through his actions.

Now here’s the problem: the first thing we hear about God in Exodus, once the story gets going, is,

The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew. Exodus 2

Four similar verbs: God heard, God remembered, God looked and God knew. A chain of actions all pointing to one thing: this god’s close identification with the sufferings of his people. The last verb is the most suggestive: the same term used for sexual intercourse, amongst other things. It suggests God entering in to the experience of the Israelite slaves.

Next Moses encounters Yahweh for the first time, and God introduces himself to Moses with these words:

I have looked on the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,  8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh…   Exodus 3

So much repetition. Notice what this god hammers away at in his introduction to Moses? How deeply moved he has been by the Hebrews’ sufferings – that’s what. Literally moved: he has come down, because he knows their sufferings.

So this is Moses’ first impression of Yahweh, this is how God presents himself up front: the god whose heart feels the pains of his children. The god of compassion.

Perhaps you can sense my dilemma.

1500 years of Christian tradition has taught us about God with a capital G, God the proper noun. We all know who we mean when we say capital G God. And that God, is impassible. He does not, cannot feel pain, he is ‘without… passions’ (Westminster Confession). “Sorrow and pain, therefore, of their very nature cannot be found in God” (Aquinas). “Wherefore,  when we hear that God is angry, we ought not to imagine that there is any emotion in him…” (Calvin Institutes)

Capital G God doesn’t feel our sufferings.

And yet here is this unknown god in Exodus, nobody knows yet who he is. But the first thing they learn about him is how strongly his heart is affected with compassion, i.e. with sharing the pains of his people. And this is the Exodus: the seminal moment in the life of Israel the nation. Whatever happens at this moment is definitive. This character trait, compassion, defines Yahweh from this moment on. He is the god whose heart is moved.

So which should I teach my people? The church’s doctrine of capital G God, whose heart cannot suffer? Or the god of Exodus, who wants the people to know that his heart does suffer with them?

This is not a rhetorical question. It’s true that I find impassibility shocking and incomprehensible. But I have heaps of respect for the tradition and teaching of the church through the ages. And when there has been widespread agreement, as there was for so long on impassibility, I am loath to dismiss the teaching. And yet I can’t see how to hold on to it and teach Exodus faithfully.

Can anyone help me here? Does our god feel anything?

We in Sydney are in mourning this week following the announcement that Richard Gibson, one of Moore’s best talents, is leaving us to take up the position of Principal at the Brisbane School of Theology.

‘Gibbo’ as he is known to all, made a big impact on the whole student body at Moore, and not just be making us sing Nana Mouskouri. He was a constant prophetic voice calling us to compassion and heart-connection in our faith. At Moore that was a rare and important voice.

He was also one of the really outstanding teachers and scholars who inspired his students to excel in Greek, Church history, NT studies, and pretty much everything he turned his hand to.

Gibbo gave me the most intelligent essay feedback of anyone who marked me. He was also available to talk things over before and after assignments – also rare at college in my experience.

Gibbo was also the preacher that inspired us with the possibilities for communicating the gospel in a fresh and challenging way.

A bunch of us decided we’d better learn to preach while at college, so we started a preaching group which met weekly. Who do you think we approached for help? Gibbo agreed to tutor us, which he did for the next 2 years, as a volunteer. His comments were so often insightful (not to say cutting) and helpful. If we have avoided being terrible preachers post college, it’s largely due to Gibbo’s teaching.

I want to say a big THANKYOU to Gibbo for the value he added to my education, and for his friendship and encouragement over those years.


Gibbo was so multi-talented that the loss for Moore is great on a number of fronts.

In fact, it’s been a time of departures for Moore. Over the past couple of years it has lost so many of its big guns. Consider this list:

Brian Rosner

Con Campbell

Barry Webb

David Peterson

Peter O’Brien

John Woodhouse

GULP! That’s a huge depletion of talent. These were the guys who were publishing scholarly stuff, stuff that people wanted to read. These were the internationally known names. And now Gibbo. And others have left as well.

College now would be a very different place to the one I attended just three years ago!

Stop running events!

Posted: October 22, 2013 by J in Church, Mission, Theology
Tags: , ,

At my church we just ran a big community event. Big for us: a few hundred local people came along. 

So it might seem strange for me to be saying this: but here in Sydney one of our biggest problems in trying to do mission is ‘events’.

For many people, when you say ‘mission’ or ‘outreach’ they think ‘event’. It’s just assumed that that’s what you’re talking about.

In my beloved Sydney Anglican diocese, some of our senior figures have been planning a new outreach campaign. It’s called Jesus Brings. I haven’t heard the details of it, but I’ll bet you anything you like that it’ll revolve around – you guessed it – events.

And as such – I’m going to make a prediction here – it will be just as ineffective as the last Sydney campaign was – which also revolved around events.

My team means well. We really do care about reaching Sydney. But we just haven’t got the foggiest about how to do it. So we simply keep on doing what we’ve always done: more events. Never mind if they’ve never worked!

A few moments’ thought will suggest a whole bunch of problems with relying on events as your main approach to outreach.

1. They’re not relational. Most of the huge amounts of time and energy involved in running an event are spent doing non-relational organising. On the day, if new people come, there’s limited chance to get to know them. They haven’t come expecting to make friends anyway. Unless you have pretty sophisticated follow-up, you’ll end the day with no new connections.

2. They’re often anti-relational. When we do evangelistic events, we expect visitors to listen to what we have to say before we have listened to them or got to know them. In fact, we make them listen instead  of us listening at all. They go home having experienced one-directional communication: they got talked at. That’s quite off-putting, sends a negative message about how much we value them as people. To put it bluntly, in any other setting we would think that behaviour rude. Yet we inflict this on our neighbours again and again.

3. Our events don’t feel like a service to the community. Mostly our events are about achieving an agenda of ours. Nobody out there is asking for them. We go out and try to get people to come onto our turf to join in what we’re doing. The end result is, we have not improved our reputation in the community, or gained any credibility ‘out there’. No one feels more positive towards us or towards Jesus in the end.

4. Events distract us from real outreach.  Real outreach starts with living alongside people and giving yourself to them in costly loving relationship. It’s about being a servant to your neighbours. Finding out what it means to be a blessing and then being that. It means taking the risk of real friendship with people different from you, on their terms, on their turf. Real outreach is day-to-day, week-to-week. It’s about having an open home and a welcoming lifestyle. Hospitality. Neighbourliness.

While we’re doing our big events, we’re not thinking about any of those things. And anyway, we’re too busy to do them. After the big event, we feel, ‘Job done. We’ve done our outreach for this term. We can go back to normal.’ And so we don’t bother with real outreach then either.

Our people don’t feel like they need to take the trouble to make relationships, because they can just put a flyer in a stranger’s letterbox instead. It’s so much safer and easier! And we can feel like we’ve ‘done’ outreach! The event gets us all off the hook.

5. Events on their own are bad theology. They don’t point to the gospel of Jesus, but rather away from it. The message entrusted to us is not about a god who drops in for a visit, makes a big impression, and then leaves again. It’s about the God who has come among us as one of us forevermore, who lived in our streets and ate at our table, who stood with us all the way to the grave. And who is still one of us, present among us.

Events have the wrong shape to help people understand the gospel. They are the wrong sort of thing. Unless they happen in a context of real, local, lifestyle outreach.


Cancel them all for five years. We need to radically repent of this silly, unhelpful behaviour, and give ourselves the space to learn about real mission. It’s not easy to give up an addiction – cold turkey is probably the only way to do it. We need our people to have the chance to ask the question, what are we doing about outreach? – so we can start giving some proper answers, and putting out some real challenges to ourselves. Let’s clear out the clutter of events so we can make room for new patterns that promote healthy connections with our communities.

We will never reach Sydney until we stop running events.

Then later on, if we must have events again, they can at least happen in the context of a lifestyle-outreach church community. And by then we might have more of a feel for which sort of event will help, and not hinder the mission.

There is an interesting tension in the Jewish Scriptures in the area of sin offerings and required sacrifices. They are there, they are expected by God, but yet the are often disparaged and pushed to one side, again by God. Sacrifices are necessary to preserve God’s favour and blessing, yet they are not the thing that secures that blessing, nor are they mainly aimed at securing blessings in the first place. It’s pretty ambiguous. Let’s take a look.

There is extensive material in the Torah about sin offerings and propitiatory sacrifices of various kinds. Obviously Leviticus is home territory for this, but there are also the important passover requirements in Exodus, as well as scattered material in the other books. The idea of these offerings is that they in some sense ‘cover over’ the sins of the people, and so make them clean in God’s sight. The sacrifice leads to blessing.

This basic concept (sacrifice –> blessing) is absolutely traditional for Ancient Near Eastern cultures. The gods needed feeding. Humans could feed them through sacrifices. That would make the gods happy. And if you scratched their back they would hopefully scratch yours.

Gods were easily offended and hard to please. If things went wrong for you, you have probably got on the wrong side of a local deity. You’d better calm him/her down with sacrifices. If you wanted something good to come to you (say, a good crop), you made a sacrifice and hoped that would do the trick.

The structure of the transaction (and it was thought of as a transaction) was generally: sacrifice first, receive payoff later.

In the Torah, it seems as though that traditional ANE structure might be functioning. But the Psalms mess this up quite a bit.

The psalms were designed largely for temple use. So if any writings were going to reference sacrifice you’d expect it to be the Psalms. But here we find a few surprises.

First, there’s not very much about sacrifice in this temple liturgy. The language is there, but it’s hardly the dominant theme in the Psalter. Interesting…

Even more interesting is what is said about sacrifices when they are mentioned. The traditional ANE view gets a nod, once:

May [YHWH] remember all your offerings,
and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices. (Psalm 20:3)

But after that, things go in unusual directions. For one thing there is this anti-sacrifice theme:

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required. (Psalm 40:6)

Not strictly speaking, true. But this is poetry, so we’ll give a bit of licence. This motif comes back a few times:

For you have no delight in sacrifice; (Psalm 51:16)

There are many times when the psalmist promises to make a sacrifice. This seems to be a category allowed for in the Torah: a vow offering (Leviticus 7:16). These vows are often made in the context of distress or crisis. Superficially this resembles other ANE sacrificial practices: sacrifice if things go wrong. But actually it is structured quite differently: the offering is always envisaged as coming at the end, after Yahweh has acted. The structure looks like this:

crisis –> prayer including vow –> deliverance –> sacrifice

This gives sacrifice quite a distinctive function compared to other ANE traditions: it is a thank offering. It is not propitiatory, to atone for past offences. It is not ‘contractual’, seeking to secure God’s blessing. Rather than motivating God to act, the offering acknowledges the saving action he has already carried out.

And this structure, this thanksgiving approach to sacrifice, is what the psalms everywhere encourage:

Whoever sacrifices a thank offering honours me. Psalm 50:23
And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. Psalm 107:22

By placing the sacrifice at the end of the event,  the psalms shift the emphasis or meaning of sacrifice away from the propitiatory sin offering, away from ‘contract fulfilment’ or ‘performance of set duty’, and toward ‘joyful response’. The duty is one incurred voluntarily, by the psalmist who makes the vow. 

The ‘anti-sacrifice’ theme pushes in the same direction.

What about this vow though? Doesn’t it function like a substitute sacrifice, bringing us back into ‘contract’ territory? Not quite.

The vow is part of a prayer. It does not seem to be treated as a downpayment, nor is the sacrifice vowed described as a delayed ‘payment for services rendered’. Rather, the vow functions as part of a prayer. The vow tradition channels Israel to seek God in prayer when in need, rather than in sacrifice. What matters most at that time of crisis is to connect with God at a personal, relational, verbal level. Yahweh is to be appealed to as one who is known, and who is already well-disposed toward his people.

The sacrifice promised is classed in the category of voluntary offerings. It is the way to properly acknowledge what God has done. There is no question of an equal contract here: the same thanksgiving offering could apply for small deliverance or great. Israel cannot buy God’s favour: all they can do is return thanks to him in retrospect. This is not a payment: but a continuation and consummation of the fellowship that began earlier in the crisis-prayer.

The restructuring of the sacrificial tradition of the ANE around vows, is a core achievement of the Psalter. Not only do many psalms encourage such vows, but very many more move from crisis to thanksgiving. And the whole Psalter moves from the early cries of King David through to the extended ‘symphony of praise’ in the last dozen or so psalms. For of course, the main thing about a thanksgiving offering is the thanks itself. And so the Psalter enshrines in liturgy the place of these offerings in the life of Israel.

In these ways the Psalms push God’s ancient people away from reliance on sacrifice in times of crisis, and towards reliance on Yahweh directly, in prayer. God is not hungry. He does not want their meat: he wants their hearts.

I’ve just finished this extraordinary book. I’ll try to review it later, but for now I can say that it’s one of the biggest books I’ve ever read.

Actually it’s a small paperback – Gunton is always brief, that’s why I love him – but the achievement, the project he undertakes is overwhelmingly massive. Just restructuring a world view to improve on that of the West over the past 2 millenia – that’s all.

What does it mean to have being? What does it mean to be a created being? What does it mean to be a particular person? What does it mean to be human? What is human society? Does community matter more, or the individual? Why can’t our societies and institutions maintain a respect for the ‘other’? What place do truth, beauty and science occupy in the created order? Are they important? How is the human world related to the material non-personal world around us (i.e. to nature)? How should we behave towards it? How does God’s Triune nature inform our understanding of the world he made?

Yup, all the biggies. Gunton tackles the lot. He attempts a coherent, unified world-view that incorporates and speaks to all these issues.

The book’s structure is simple enough: first half he critiques the views that have prevailed over the past 2000 years. Shows how they got us into the mess we’re in. First half tears down. Second half he goes in reverse order, proposing a new model to tackle these issues. A view derived from God’s trinity.  Second half rebuilds. Overall a chiastic structure.

It’s breathtaking. The scope of it, that is. I can’t quite believe that one man has attempted all this. In one book! Other Gunton books are big. But not quite this big.

AND it’s explained simply enough for a non-philosophy type like myself to get it. Remarkable.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever be competent to critique this book. But I have to say I found it pretty persuasive. Trinity of God is a good place to start when talking ontology!

I’ll need to read it again. Of course.

The One the Three and the Many goes straight into my top five most important ever books.