A More Christlike God: Thoughts on Brad Jersak’s book

a more christlike god brad jersakI read it twice. Within three months.

This, I might add, is a VERY rare thing for me as I typically only read a book once. And those books which I do re-read, I usually re-read them after a few years. So to say that I read Brad Jersak’s book “A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel” twice within three months is saying a lot.

Granted if I’m being completed honest, I must admit that it was the prospect of meeting Brad in person that prompted me to re-read the book. Brad was scheduled to be my one of my professors at St. Stephen’s University this past October and I wanted to be able to ask him some questions about his book. And yes, the books was required reading by Brad along with N.T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.” (You HAVE to love classes that require you to read the books you would read on your on! No more self-justifications of the cost – instead it is all wrapped up in the “education” bucket of the budget!!) 😀

Before talking about the book itself, it is helpful to know a bit more about Dr. Brad Jersak. As mentioned already, Brad is an adjunct faculty member at St. Stephen’s University in Canada. He also teaches New Testament and Patristics classes at Westminster Theological Centre in the United Kingdom in addition to serving as the senior editor of Plain Truth Ministries. His faith journey includes growing up within the Baptist General Conference before becoming a church planter/pastor within the Conference of Mennonites in BC, Canada. After years hanging out with the Mennonites, Brad shifted gears and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church where he has been chrismated and ordained as a Reader in the Orthodox Church (OCA) for the All Saints Monastery in Dewdney (Canada).

Brad’s Eastern Orthodox connections are very important as his book “A More Christlike God” is packed full of concepts gleaned from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. The book was also, as I found out talking to him this past October, was reviewed and approved by several Eastern Orthodox theologians. The book also received endorsements from a surprising wide range of Protestant and Roman Catholic Church authors, ministers, and priests including Father Richard Rohr, Eugene Peterson, Brian McLaren, William Paul Young, Frank Schaeffer, and Brian Zahnd.

The primary focus of the book is fairly simple – mainly that the best picture we have of God is Jesus and, as such, we should allow Jesus to influence the way in which we see God and read the Bible. While this premise sounds simple, the sad reality is that a lot of us have based our view of God on things other than Jesus. Whereas St. Paul says that Jesus is the “the image of the invisible God” [Co 1:15], we tend to split the Triune God up into three parts with a different image for each part. We have the punishing judge Father God, the nice Son (Jesus) and the crazy unknown Spirit…or we have the deadbeat dad God or perhaps the genie in the bottle God who we can influence through doing or praying the right things.

Writing from an Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, Brad challenges these different misconceptions of God while offering a picture of a loving God based upon the person of Jesus. This focus on the cruciform God (i.e. God on the cross) effectually challenges the a lot of the common theological concepts we in the Protestant world take for granted. For example, whereas the Protestant world is focused on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate of sovereignty of God and human participation, Brad offers a uniquely Eastern Orthodox viewpoint in which God consents to freedom but also engages in participation within creation.

Reading – and later talking to Brad – about this alternative to the dualism of the Protestant world was a breath of fresh air for me. A few years ago I came to the conclusion that the Calvinism/Arminianism debate had outlived its usefulness and was no longer helpful. However I was having troubles coming up with a theological alternative that I could fully embrace. And why I’m fine with living in the mystery of not knowing, I knew that my position as a pastor/teacher would require a deeper understanding of the issue so that I could help others walk the path. While I was able to find an alternative in the writings of Greg Boyd (i.e. open theism), I was having a hard time finding anything on the topic from the Eastern Orthodox side of the family (a group with which I have had a longtime love affair). The book “A More Christlike God” filled that vacuum for me – and taught me that I had in fact already been exposed to the Eastern Orthodox view on the matter, I just didn’t recognize the argument as it was buried under implicit language typical of those from the East. 😕

celtic cross sunsetConnected with the sovereignty of God and human participation topic are the issues of the atonement (i.e. what happened on the cross?) and the wrath of God. While anyone of these topics could have been a book within itself, Brad seamlessly weaves all three issues into his book while keeping the focus on Jesus and the cruciform God. I especially liked his selection on the atonement as breaks down the weakness with the penal substitutionary atonement view of most Protestants while highlighting the value of the victory of God over satan, evil, sin and death. But then again I’ve been a proponent of the Christus Victor atonement view for quite some time. 🙂

The part of the book that I have the hardest time with is when Brad seeks to un-wrath God in the both the Old and New Testament. For those who have read the Scriptures know that there are some parts of the Bible (mostly in the Old Testament) that are extremely hard to understand. Why and how could a God who claims to be love (1 John 4:8) command the total genocide of various people groups? It doesn’t make sense… which is why one of the first heresies in the church was the view that the God of the OT is different than Jesus and the God of the NT. However the early church mothers and fathers were quite clear that the God of the OT is the same God of the NT – and this God is seen the most clear in the person of Jesus. Brad puts it this way in his book:

“[T]he Bible itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents – gives us over – to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. The cruciform God will not and cannot, by love’s nature, coerce us to obey. God grants us the dignity (and discomfort) of ‘finding our own bottom’ (to use 12-step recovery terminology), the end of which is willing surrender to the arms of grace. In the Bible, the shorthand for this process is ‘wrath.’” [page 185]

I must admit I’m still pondering about the full ramification of this definition of wrath as the concept has some very powerful consequences in how we read the Scriptures, see God and live life. Yet I think it is an issue we need to think about as we live in an age of war, fear and revenge. Regardless of the consequences, the one thing I do know is that if we are going to error in how we see God, let us let us error on the side of Jesus and love.

“I [Jesus] say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” –Luke 6:27-31

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