Truly Good News

Have you ever considered Jesus’ parting words to His beloved disciples, spoken just a short time before ascending into heaven? “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to all creation!” [Mark 16:15] And yet, to listen to many preachers, teachers and disciples talk about Christianity today, one must ask his/herself, “What about that is ‘good news’?” The God in in Scripture who so loves the world [John 3:16] and desires that none would perish [2 Pet 3:9], does not appear to be the same God often preached on street corners, and taught in church classes.

Does God truly love His image-bearing creation, or is He ultimately overcome with anger, wrath and hatred for the sinner? How well does our theology properly reflect and teach our conclusions about His nature and intentions? Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow, dissatisfied with the effectiveness and accuracy of traditional theological frameworks, propose a fresh, hopeful, good news theology in Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st Century. In considering the doctrines of God, Sin, Salvation and Faith, Pinnock and Brow propose Creative Love Theism (CLT), a theological model meant to replace the historical and “distorted” model [Pinnock & Brow, 8].

Three foundational principles of CLT include God’s universally offered love and grace to the entirety of His creation (vs a select few), His interaction with humanity as a loving Parent (vs a demanding judge) and God’s openness and vulnerability (vs a misrepresentation of sovereignty). Unbounded Love specifically explores the significance of CLT upon doctrines, understandings and the practice of theology.

Love or Wrath?
Are we to fundamentally understand God as wrathful or loving? Many people perceive and wrestle with a disconnect between the angry, wrathful God of the OT, and the kind, loving Jesus in the NT. Some even claim they are different gods altogether. But the accuracy of those perceptions and claims is circumspect. Yahweh introduced Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, describing both His lovingkindness and response toward the guilty, but greatly emphasized His love, grace, patience and mercy. Yahweh’s self-description, and a thorough, complete understanding of God’s “angry” behaviors in the OT are consistent with Jesus’ nature in the NT. Not only is there no inconsistency between Testaments, God’s speech in Exodus clearly communicates His preference of love over wrath.

Pinnock and Brow present God as ultimately desiring a loving relationship, claiming “God is for us, not against us” [47]. God’s anger or wrath is subordinate to His love, and reflective of His love for His children. It is a response to those who reject His love and intended as discipline as in Proverbs 13:24. Unbounded Love goes further to describe God’s judgment and righteousness as acts of His salvation and mercy, rather than condemnation.

Pinnock and Brow face an uphill battle convincing readers who are well-steeped in traditional, forensic models that God is not only fundamentally loving, but His wrath is purposeful in redemption. While I agree with the authors’ conclusions, the strength of their argument could have been greatly strengthened by utilizing the numerous examples from Ancient Israel’s errant ways found in the OT. References to passages such as Amos 4, Haggai 2:17 and Ezekiel 18:32 might better illustrate God’s ultimate purpose in His anger. Additionally, Scriptures like Isaiah 63 and Judges 10:11-16 demonstrate God’s sorrowful response to His judgment – hardly what one would expect from an angry, wrathful God intent on punishing the wicked.

Punishing Judge or Loving Parent?
When we begin to understand God as fundamentally loving instead of angry and wrathful, our forensic metaphor of Him as a courtroom judge falls short. Pinnock and Brow propose instead viewing God as a loving parent, desirous of a relationship with His creation. Drawing on Scripture describing God as a Father and Mother, the authors suggest our interactions with Him are more analogous to living room conversations than courtroom hearings. I fully appreciate and agree with the authors’ metaphor of God as loving Parent as I believe it not only represents the whole of Scripture, but more importantly the nature and character of God. Even Jesus Himself describes and prays to God as Abba, Father and instructs us to do the same.

Salvation’s Hope
As the loving Parent, knowledgeable and concerned about His creation’s need, God initiated the solution that would ultimately restore and renew humanity. Jesus’ representative atonement for all of humanity, repaired and healed our broken relationship with God, delivering us “from the power of evil [so we] become people who love God again” [Pinnock & Brow, 103]. While Unbounded Love stops short of suggesting automatic, universal salvation for all of humanity as a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it gives only minimal attention to the “how” of salvation. Perhaps my evangelical bent is showing, but I think the authors failed to adequately describe how believers are to respond to Jesus’ atonement outside of considering baptism as entry into relationship with God and describing the church as a redemptive bridge.

Pinnock and Brow dedicate an entire chapter to focus on the reality of human freedom and the implications of rejecting God’s love. Their consideration of hell is consistent with a loving, parental God, intent on restoration and relationship, yet committed to free will. While the eventual result of spurning God’s love is discussed, the authors fail to address how Jesus’ atonement really addresses humanity’s sinful, fallen nature. If the relationship is truly restored and made new completely by the work of Christ, does that in turn become too easy and permissive of sin? If Jesus’ atonement made the relationship right, can anything ruin that relationship? Covenant relationship with God requires our faith and obedience; however, Christ appears to meet even those requirements on our behalf. Is there no responsibility on our behalf? How are we to respond to God to receive His forgiveness?

Holistic Perspectives
Aside from the concerns mentioned above, I find Creative Love Theism to present a holistic approach to theology. It restores a proper and meaningful view of the Trinity to our theological discussions. God the Father, Jesus the Christ and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons in one unified whole that enjoy continual fellowship with one another. In the same manner, God intends and desires His creation to relate to Him and to each other, reflecting His social community. This trinitarian perspective not only welcomes and recognizes the active involvement of all three persons of the Trinity, but also uniquely answers the query about the meaning of men and women being His image-bearers.

Salvation viewed through the lens of CLT also reflects Jesus’ complete work and ministry. Salvation is about healing – healing of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ailments. It even restores relational breeches – with God, and with each other. Salvation is about liberation, true freedom and actively engaging in “impact[ing] the world and introduc[ing] a process of healing in the whole universe” [Pinnock & Brow, 117].

Pinnock and Brow’s final CLT principle, God’s openness and vulnerability, most challenges my traditional perceptions of God. I do think a more open theology better represents and respects God’s power and might than every detail in history being pre-planned, pre-destined, and pre-determined. However, I struggle with the authors’ language suggesting that through Jesus’ incarnate suffering, “God gained a moral authority and credibility”, “added to His divine experience” and became “qualified…to reconcile and transform sinners” [Pinnock & Brow, 106]. Was God lacking before? Was He incomplete prior to Jesus’ incarnation? Should we view Him as unqualified to reconcile and transform sinners prior to the Incarnation? If that’s true, how then should we view God’s reconciling actions in the OT? Were they insufficient, incredible, and inexperienced?

Perhaps my questions reflect minimal understanding, or acceptance, of open theology. While Scripture supports the idea that God is, and can be, affected by His and our choices, I struggle thinking God could add to His perfection and somehow become more qualified. And even more than that, I cannot support the logical outworking of that claim, because it suggests God was somehow “less than” when relating with His chosen people Israel.

Finally, as much as I appreciate the love-approach to theology that CLT takes, I wonder if it needs to be nuanced and held in tension with another perspective. After just one year in seminary, I have come to realize the value and importance of holding ideas – not in balance – but in tension with each other. God’s love and wrath. Individual and communal salvation. Doctrine of individual retribution and reward and transferability of sin. Justice and righteousness. Faith and works. With what might CLT need to be held in tension? Does the forensic model perhaps provide the tension between love and wrath, and grace and justice? Or perhaps the propensity of today’s western church to view Jesus’ atonement from the perspective of penal substitution automatically provides the needed tension when CLT is introduced.

Seven years ago, faced with meeting the educational needs of an academically-advanced preschooler and four uneducated school-age, Russian-speaking children we had just adopted, I was forced to reconsider and rethink my views on homeschooling. While I had no personal experience with homeschooling, I had formed many negative opinions about it. However, as I began to read, learn and explore this educational option, I found myself saying, “I didn’t realize homeschooling could be like that!” Now seven years later, as the homeschool teacher of all ten of our children, I am thankful for not only the opportunity, but also my willingness to reconsider that which I had previously discarded.

Reading Pinnock and Brow’s Creative Love Theism in Unbounded Love provided me similar enlightenment: “I didn’t realize Christianity (Christian theology) could be like that!” It was truly a breath of fresh air in the theological world, which often gets sidelined by angry, wrathful gods punishing depraved, fallen, worthless people. I have struggled with the church’s over-emphasis on the distribution of “get out of hell free” cards to the detriment of bringing God’s kingdom into existence on earth. I have become frustrated at the angry, hateful sounding Christians who elevate God’s wrath over and above His love, and act toward sinners in the same manner they assume God does. I didn’t realize Christianity be like that – and that truly is Good News!