Archive for the ‘By John Stonecypher’ Category

What Surprised Me About PATMOS

One expects certain things from a Baxter Kruger book, such as really good theology, stories about fish, the phrase “truth of all truths,” and references to Cajun cooking. In this, PATMOS delivers as expected.  Add to that some SHACK-like trini-magical realism, and the result is an edifying and enjoyable book full of Baxter’s familiar blend of God-talk and fart jokes.

What I didn’t expect was the Holy Spirit.

In PATMOS I found a Baxter Kruger book packed with pneumatology.  For years I’ve heard him mention that he’s been doing some thinking on the Holy Spirit, but I never heard him say much more than that.  Well now we can definitely say his thinking here has arrived at where it’s been going all these years.

This is welcome news for me, because I’ve had like a couple dozen pneumatologies through the years, and I’m tired of being so flaky about it. relationshipwithinnerpentecostal

Baxter has a knack for casting his line to people like me who live in theologically flaky clouds, and reeling us in to land us on something solid, something like Rock. He’s done this to me a couple times now, and this could be Number Three.

As I now flop about, gasping, on this new ground, what I see is a sort of Krugerian thumbs-up to my Inner Pentecostal.  That part of me who thinks I may have 1). Heard God talk to me a few times, 2). Healed a friend’s damaged kneecap, and 3). Spoke in tongues once.  I’m hearing from Baxter that maybe that part of me is theologically legitimate, that this part of me fits in the real world of the Triune God.

That said, I’m not certain I agree with Baxter here. I’ve grown a lot less Pentecostal in recent years, and that has its benefits.  For example, I spend a lot less time worrying about being crazy.  But Kruger has steered me in good directions before, so I plan to give him a big fat benefit of the doubt.

There is such a thing as infantile greedy swindling Pentecostalism with big hair and small brains.  I’m not going back to that.

But what I see in PATMOS is not that.  I see the Apostle John live in easy rhythm with the Holy Spirit as his constant, real, practical connection to the Incarnate Son in face-to-face union with the Father.  And it wasn’t smarmy or weird.  It was kind of cool.

So yeah, I’m not done thinking about this.  Give PATMOS a read, and tell me what you think.


Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review.

Our Contentious Scriptures

messy-libraryI once heard “Community” defined as “a group of people who say many different things about the same thing.”  A community is not people who have all the same answers, but rather it is people who agree on what questions are worth arguing about.

Take, for example, the United States of America.  We are a community that has latched onto this concept called “Liberty.”  We barely know what it means, but we all know it’s worth dying for.  The question of Liberty is at the heart of our deepest and bitterest disagreements.  It is the one thing we agree is worth arguing about.

Imagine what it would look like to put together a library dedicated to this centuries-long national argument.  What texts would you include in the library?

Let’s see… the Constitution, certainly, and the Declaration of Independence… For the library to be truthful, it would also have to include some embarrassing texts, like the revised Constitution written by the Confederate states, a big volume of broken Indian treaties, and photos of Japanese internment camps… But it would have more inspiring bits too, like the Gettysburg Address and “I Have a Dream”… The library ought to include a songbook, a collection World War II propaganda films, and maybe the whole list of names from the Vietnam Memorial…

Our “Liberty Library” would be a collection of texts that have arisen from our contentious yet fruitful national conversation. In other words, it would look a lot like the library we call “The Bible.”

The Bible is our collection of texts that have arisen from our millennia of grappling with the Holy Trinity in the world. We, the People of Yahweh, are a contentious bunch, and our long life together has produced a contentious collection of scriptures.  In the past I have been tempted to harmonize this collection and paper over its jagged edges. I have been tempted to twist this dialogue into a monologue. Because the nice thing about monologues are that they tell you what to do, freeing you from the hard work of making good choices. But in the real world I live in, I am responsible for my decisions, regardless of what I think the Bible says. In the real world, “I was only following orders” doesn’t cut it.

In engaging the Scriptures I cannot be a passive recipient of a monologue.  Instead, I must be an active participant in an ongoing conversation.  I participate in this long dialog because I believe the True God is truly present in the conversation, revealing Godself in the midst of it, even in its contentiousness.

The Good News is that that Triune God of grace has breathed on us.  And this breathing (a.k.a, “inspiration”) has produced among us a conversation through which God is pleased to reveal Godself to those willing to participate in it.

How Trump & Hillary are (sort of) like God

unilad-donald-trump-bible6Donald Trump has been affecting how I think about God. Really. His popularity baffles me, but a new theory explaining it is making me think harder about what kind of God is revealed in the Bible.

Stick with me…

George Lakoff, UC Berkeley neurolinguist and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, believes current U.S. politics can become understandable if we think in terms of parenting styles. Here’s how it works:  In American parenting, there are two main styles which differ in their belief about what children need if they are to mature into responsible adults. The “Strict Father” style values clear rules and strict accountability above all else, while the “Nurturing Parent” style values empathy and people caring for one another above all else. For the record, I know great parents (and great kids) in both camps.

What kind of family should our country be? What is our gut-level vision of the kind of leader our national family needs?  People who want a Nurturing Parent tend to be more liberal in their politics, while the Strict Father types tend to lean more conservative. And for the record, I know great people in both camps.

The point that explains current conservative politics is that not all Strict Fathers are the same.  Some are strict non-interventionists, giving people space to explore and experience the consequences of their actions, regardless of how bad those consequences might be. But other Strict Fathers are more like kings –- setting rules and impartially punishing anyone who breaks those rules. When we understand that BOTH of these qualify as Strict Fathers, we can begin to understand why conservatives are backing a candidate as un-conservative as Donald Trump. He may be a bit dictator-esque, but at least he’s a Strict-Father, Law-and-Order kind of guy. Very deep down, he fits the conservative image better than that Nurturing-Parent Hillary (George Lakoff’s essay about this is the first explanation of the Trump phenomenon that has made sense to me, and I highly recommend it).

But believe it or not, this is not (supposed to be) a political post but a theological one. From here on, at least….

As Trinity and Humanity dwell together with our Father in Christ through the Spirit, what kind of family are we? What is our image of the kind of God/Father we have?

We, the People of Yahweh, have been arguing about that question for thousands upon thousands of years. Our Scriptures contain two voices, often at odds with each other, talking back and forth about which kind of God we have. And it’s not as simple as the difference between the Old and New Testaments, either.

In both testaments, we can observe Yahweh as a Strict Father who (in response to rule-breaking) punishes his children with natural disasters, disease, starvation, and invading armies. Jesus spoke of the same Yahweh, who would within a generation come in fire and judgment to Jerusalem, where not one stone would be left on another (which is exactly what ended up happening).

Yet, in both testaments we can also see Yahweh as a Nurturing Parent who protects his children from their own foolishness, who lets his children argue with him, and on their advice chooses to cancel well-deserved punishments.

Sometimes we see this tension displayed as coming from within Yahweh himself. For example, the first 10 chapters of Hosea are Yahweh’s extravagant description of Israel’s sins and the brutal punishments coming her way, until abruptly without warning in chapter 11:  “How can I hand you over, O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11.8-9). In the same self-conflicted mode, Jesus speaks of Jerusalem as a fruitless fig tree that will soon be chopped down and burned, and then proceeds to weep over his longing to gather the city under his wings like a mother hen.

What kind of God are we dealing with?  A Strict Father or a Nurturing Parent?

I used to think Jesus settled and ended this argument, that he once and for all revealed God to be “nice” and not “mean.”  But in recent times, I have come to see that as too easy an explanation, one that fails to take Scripture with adequate seriousness.

In Jesus we find revealed a God who is Father, Son & Spirit in holy eternal communion with one another and with us. Love is the final Word.  This is a settled fact of the gospel, not under question here.

But as I have discovered in my own parenting journey, Love lives in a persistently unsettled tension between Strict and Nurturing. Real-world Love is both tough and flexible. Consistent yet merciful.  Compassionate but not codependent.  As a Dad, I have no formula or equation for when I should be hard and when I should be soft. You could say it’s a constant fight between my Inner Trump and my Inner Hillary.

The fight doesn’t end. AND IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO.

This is precisely what the agony of parenting is all about. And it is here that I recognize this strange One of the Bible. When I let go of my ideas about GOD and his omni-this and omni-that, I can glimpse in the Bible someone like me –- a loving parent who is finding that Love in the real world is really really COMPLICATED.

I have decided that THIS is the God I believe in –- the God who is so human that he has to argue with himself about how best to love his children.

Even if that means he sometimes acts a little Trump-y and other times a little Hillar-ish.


Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Why we crucify

“The Cross alone exposes for the first time the real condition of mankind… [It] is the supreme revelation of the sin of mankind.” – T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Jesus Christ, p. 158.

What does the Cross say about the human race?  That we kind of suck?  Yes, but there’s more… Because what we did to Jesus was not unusual behavior for us. Anthropological evidence suggests that the lynch mob is one of THE constant features of all human societies. Isn’t that interesting?

Homo sapiens is the species that crucifies.

Why do we crucify? Because we must.


“Hanging Tree” by BigFace. Purchase a print at

At least we think we do.

I submit for your consideration an approach to anthropology called “Mimetic Theory,” which starts with the observation that humans crucify. For anthropologist Rene Girard, this theory arose from an intuition shared by us at — that Jesus on the Cross is the clue to what really makes humans tick.

Mimetic Theory suggests a universal pattern that all human societies follow –– When their social cohesion is threatened by internal conflict, they will resort to scapegoating. They find someone to hate, and that shared hate unifies the community.

It’s the exact opposite of the Trinity.

The Triune Life consists in the mutual self-giving of Father, Son and Spirit. This is THE inner logic of the Divine Life which the incarnate Christ is earthing in the world, the kind of Communion in which each gives one’s whole self for the good of others.

When you flip that perfectly upside-down, you get Scapegoating –– laying down someone else’s life for the benefit of the rest of us. Ultimately, all of human civilization is held together by the logic of none other than Caiaphas the High Priest—“It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).

Girard seeks an understanding of the human race which starts with the inner logic of the Cross. I think he’s onto something.

What do you think?

Right Questions: An approach to violent Bible texts

Some of us find it difficult to find the Triune God of Grace in the more violent sections of the Hebrew Scriptures.  This is something I personally have wrestled with for a long time, and none of the easier options have worked for me.  It is so important for me to worship Jesus as the Word incarnate, in whose Light all revelation is transformed. But at the same time, I know that the Scriptures are there to tell me things I cannot tell myself, so I find that I cannot simply discard the parts of the Bible that aren’t comfortable for me.

This sermon outlines a way of approaching Scriptures in a way that is sensitive to these concerns, but also emphasizes the question “What question is this text trying to answer? When I go to the book of Joshua with the question ‘How violent is God?’ am I disrespecting the text by asking it to answer something it is not meant to answer?  The audio is here:

Is Torrance opposed to healing ministries?

Is miraculous healing a nice thing that happens once in a great while when we ask God to do it, or is it central to the Church’s daily work in embodying the union of God and man in Christ? I enjoyed Ken Blue’s Authority to Heal, for example, but I’ve had long stretches of my life where I’m really not into that stuff.  I have gone back and forth on this more times than I’d like to admit.

So anyway, I was recently doing some T. F. Torrance reading, and I came upon this in his Atonement:

With the withdrawal of the resurrected body of Christ from visible and physical contact with us in this world, there is no appointed programme of anything like ‘faith healing’ or miraculous activity of a kindred sort. (Atonement, p. 306).

And then another in Incarnation.

To transmute the gift of healing from the strenuous domain of petitionary prayer to the sacramental domain as through we could have a sacrament of healing, or any programme of healing here and now is to deny the sacrament of the eucharist that we must take up our cross daily, die daily, and constantly communicate in the body and blood of Christ. It is to heal the hurt of God’s people too lightly, and to evade the fact that the cross must be inserted into the conditions of time, into the heart of our struggles and conflicts, redeeming the time. It is to deny that although we are redeemed, we wait for the redemption of the purchased possession. (Incarnation, p. 341).

I bring this up because this surprised me a bit, since most Torrancial people I know are rather INTO the healing thing.

What do you think?

God reveals the God we need

As God progressively reveals himself through time, God reveals those aspects of himself that we need most at the different eras of human history and development:

  1. Early humans’ prime concern was sheer SURVIVAL – Food, Safety, Reproduction. So, in Genesis, God revealed Himself as the PROVIDER who graciously gives those things. Hey Noah, do you need to know how survive a Flood?  God has blueprints for an ark.  Hey Abraham, do you need land that will feed you and your family?  God has a place all picked out for you.  Speaking of which, do you need some reproductive assistance?  God has your back.  Oh no, an enemy tribe kidnapped your loser nephew Lot?  God will make your raiding party succeed at getting him back. Hey Jacob, is this drought threatening your family’s survival?  God has had a rescue plan in the works for years; it involves a trip to Egypt to see your dead son Joseph…
  1. As humans made the shift from nomad-shepherds to settled farmers-ranchers, we became concerned more and more about SECURITY – victory in the fierce inter-tribal competition to claim and protect real estate. Some tribes, the Egyptians for example, found security by conquering and enslaving their neighbors. In that context, God revealed himself as a WARRIOR. Hey Hebrews, do you need freedom from slavery?  Good news – your God is bigger than your slavemaster. Hey Joshua, do your people need space to exist? God will do what it takes to make sure you win that competition. Hey Israel, do you need relief from your oppressive neighbors? God has a plan for giving superpowers to a long-haired dude with a temper.

Now, it must be said here that the brutality and gore of these stories are deeply troubling for many of us, and I have no interest in trying to explain it away or to un-trouble anybody.  All I want to say here is that these people needed a God who would give them an edge in a life-or-death competition for land, and they received the God they needed.

  1. As history moved on, it became clear that the best way to secure your land was by concentrating POWER in a single leader. As Israel became a monarchy (in the books of Kings and Chronicles), they became more receptive to God revealing himself as a KING – One who issues decrees and is obeyed (This didn’t jive perfectly with the long Hebrew tradition of arguing with God until he changes his mind, but we’ll leave that alone for now).  This image of God dominates the rest of the Bible, not to mention the Church up through the Middle Ages.
  1. Through the rest of Israel’s history (and much of Church history), it became clear that monarchs are not always all that great. Jesus is a great king, for sure, but all the other ones *most* often kind of suck.  So we experienced a growing concern for FREEDOM.  Our political systems became less about kingly judgment and more about laws and constitutions that people could have some control over.  Church became less about popes and priests and more about the Bible – a kind of God-Constitution full of spiritual laws we could study and use for our own benefit.  God revealed himself more and more as a God who cares for INDIVIDUALS, a personal God who offers personal salvation to anyone who wants to choose it.

In our current era of history, it seems to me that we are continuing to wrestle with Freedom and Individuality. For one thing, we’ve found that we’ve been good at giving freedom to wealthy white men, but our record hasn’t been so great with the non-wealthy, non-white, non-male parts of the human race.  So we’re working on that.  And we’ve found that when individuals are encouraged to do whatever they want as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of other humans, the results can be disastrous, not only for human communities, but for the non-human communities and natural systems that make life on our planet possible. So we’re working on that too.

Here is what I see going on:   God is now re-revealing himself as the Holy COMMUNION of Father, Son and Spirit.  We are rediscovering the God in whom perfect Freedom and perfect Community go hand-in-hand.

And in the midst of this, God is still the Provider who will somehow give daily bread to all from the soil of our damaged planet.  The Warrior who is on our side, not against our enemy tribes but against the inter-tribal hatred and violence that threatens all of us. The King whose Power is self-sacrificial love.


NOTE: My thanks to Brian McLaren for the overall idea of looking at the Bible this way, as well as for his labels of Survival, Security, and Power.

Rebuilding the foundations of human thought

foundationThe gospel subverts the foundations of every idea humanity has ever had.  What follows is an attempt to start rebuilding those foundations.

Because Jesus has died and been raised:

  • Theology – Creaturely life operates by the Spirit within the Son’s relationship with the Father.
  • History – The true story of any society is the story of those it has crucified.
  • Economics – Human needs are ultimately met by gifts, not transactions.
  • Anthropology – The supposed rightness of human sacrifice has been exposed as false, and therefore can no longer function as the glue that holds societies together.
  • Biology – Death is a temporary condition.
  • Space Exploration – Every point of time and space is occupied by a human being. Human colonization of the cosmos has begun, and has in some ways already been completed.

What needs to be added to this list?

What if the Above comes from Below?

When you study theology and get down into its bowels, you discover a debate between “Theology from Above” versus “Theology from Below.” Theology From Below means exploring our spiritual intuitions/feelings about God, and using those insights to construct our theology.  Theology From Above means listening for revelation from God, a voice outside ourselves telling us things we wouldn’t know otherwise.

The Trinity and Humanity community is mostly a Theology-from-Above kind of group.  We draw a lot of inspiration from Karl Barth, who, when approached with Theology-from-Below, replied with his famous: “NEIN!!!!

And I am really a Theology-from-Above kind of guy.  If God is real, then revelation is absolutely necessary for us to have any knowledge of God.  If I want to know about something other than myself, I have to look outside myself to learn about it.  If I want to know my dog, I have to go hang out with my dog; it would be silly to try and get to know my dog by contemplating my inner feelings about dogness.

In one part of his fantastic “Big Picture” series of lectures, Baxter Kruger recounts Friedrich Schleiermacher’s attempts at Theology-from-Below, and Baxter says something like “Schleiermacher was looking into his heart, which was good in that it got him out of his head. But he was looking into the wrong heart!”  Real theology looks into the heart of CHRIST, the one and only point of union and togetherness between God and humanity.

This makes oodles of sense to me.  This is why Theology-from-Above is my true home. But here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately:

Where does the heart of the incarnate Christ reside?

It resides in my heart.

And in yours.

And in the heart of every human who has ever lived.

Where does our Theology-From-Above come from?  How does it arrive?  Do we see it by looking up?  I would argue that we see it by looking down.  Isn’t that the scandal of Christmas — that our From-Above God comes to us from below?  From oh-so-human places like mangers? And from oh-so-human cities like Nazareth?

So here’s what I’m thinking…

Every human being has a [limited] ability to recognize Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  When we recognize these things, what’s really going on is that we are seeing creation move in harmony with the Great Dance of the Trinity.  But the only reason we recognize the Dance is that we already know the Dance, or rather, Christ-in-Us knows the Dance.  We know Goodness, Truth, and Beauty not because the human heart innately knows these things without revelation from God, but precisely because God has already made himself known in the One who now lives in us.

It is because of Christ that Beauty haunts every one of us.

It is because of Christ that my Theology-from-Above comes to me From-Below.

What this means is that my non-Christian neighbors have a lot more contact with God than they realize.

  • Every time my Atheist friend feels strong devotion to the Truth…
  • Every time my Buddhist friend enjoys the Goodness of compassion…
  • Every time my Druid friend exults in the Beauty of nature…

… they are touching Theology that has come to us all from Above.

My efforts at engaging my non-Christian friends with the Gospel involves a lot of talking with them about Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  So it can look like Theology-from-Below.  But it’s only because down there is where my Theology-from-Above lives.

I don’t believe in Adam, and I’m OK

Many of us are comfortable with a literal reading of Genesis, finding its account of human origins more plausible than anything else we’ve heard.  If that’s you, this post will either bore or offend you.  But if you’re like me—unable to swallow a literal reading of Genesis—this post’s for you.

I’ve believed in evolution for a couple decades now, and I spent much of that time in the closet, afraid to talk to anyone about it.  I spent a couple of those years not believing in God, because I’d grown convinced that my science and my religion were incompatible. It’s been a long and fruitful journey for me, and today I can’t imagine doing theology without evolutionary science by my side. My science provides my theology with fantastic depth, fruitfulness, and beauty that it couldn’t have any other way. I love where I’m at with it.

But a friend recently brought up a question about this, and it’s relevant to our theological project here in the Trinity and Humanity blog community, so I thought I’d post about it here.

Many Christian evolutionists believe in a historical pair of Homo Sapiens named Adam & Eve.  I do not, for a variety of reasons.  Does this fundamentally conflict with Saint Paul’s “Adam Theology” (expressed in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15), which is a really important piece of the Trinity-and-Humanity vision of God?

In these passages, Paul uses Adam to illustrate the universality of Jesus’ saving work.  The basic idea is expressed succinctly in Romans 5.18:

Just as [Adam’s] one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also [Jesus’s] one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.

Here are two quick reasons why my belief in Paul’s theology doesn’t conflict with my non-belief in a historical Adam:

1.  Divinely-inspired ancient people don’t know quantum mechanics.
Or Newton’s laws of motion. Or that the Earth orbits the Sun.  Or that all life on Earth is related by birth.  As far as I can tell, Paul believes in an Earth-centered cosmos and a historical Adam & Eve, and that’s okay by me.  My trust in Paul as a divinely-inspired messenger of the Gospel does not compel me to agree with his notions about the natural world.

2.  Paul’s argument rests on Jesus, not Adam.
In these passages, Paul wants us to know that Jesus affects all of humankind, and he uses his understanding of human origins to illustrate how that can happen.  Similarly, Hosea says that God is as trustworthy as the sun’s movement around the earth (Hosea 6.3). The truth of his theology does not rest on the accuracy of his science.  New Testament scholar N.T. Wright backs me up on this:

If you’re interested in learning more about the interface between biblical Christian faith and evolutionary science, Peter Enn’s Biologos is a pretty good place to start.


I understand that some of my friends might not like what I have said here.  If that’s the case for you, please know:  I don’t need you to agree with me, but I do hope I can continue being welcome at your table.  I think our theological project here is big enough for us to continue working side-by-side.

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