In John 14, before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, he tells his disciples that if they have seen him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9). And yet often our image of God can look very different from Jesus. Our God could be a doting grandfather, a deadbeat dad or absentee landlord, a punitive judge, or some Santa Claus blend. If Jesus is God-in-the-flesh and our vision of what the Godhead is really like, then we desperately need to see this more Christlike God. This is just the vision that Brad Jersak casts in A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel.
Jersak is an author I’ve read appreciatively in the past. His book Can You Hear Me? is one of my favorite books on listening prayer. He also wrote Her Gates Will Never Be Shut against the idea of Hell as eternal conscious punishment (like Rob Bell but with complete sentences) and has co-edited a volume critiquing penal models of the atonement (Stricken By God?). He was the pastor and church planter of Fresh Wind in Abbotsford, BC and got his PhD examining the political theology of Canadian philosopher George Grant. Additionally he edits a couple of online magazines (Christianity Without the Religion Magazine and the Clarion Journal). In recent years, Jersak has journeyed to Orthodoxy (OCA). He teaches New Testament and Patristics at the Westminster Theological Centre (Cheltenham, UK). I do not always agree with Jersak. I tend to have a more of a classical evangelical outlook, but I appreciate his challenge and think he raises some important questions about how we understand God.
Jersak’s case for the Christlike God unfolds in three parts. In part one he confronts our images of God and offers a vision of God, shaped by the Incarnation and the cross. In chapter one Jersak relays a conversation with a teenager he calls Jess who rejected Christianity because of God’s judgment, damnation and his-Old-Testament-genocidal tendencies, etc. (16-18). Jersak’s answer to Jess is to say to her every objection is, “God is exactly like Jesus.” Jersak then goes on to confront the various caricatures of God western Christians often present (chapter two), and confront the voluntarism underlying much of theology proper in Western thought (chapters three and four). In chapter five, Jersak points us toward the incarnation as a means of retooling our vision of the God revealed through Christ.
Part two further unpacks what this Christlike God looks like and what he does, giving special emphasis on how the cross shapes our vision of God. Jersak paints God as loving first and foremost. Because of this, God operates in the world most often via consent (Divine and human consent). This has implications for how we tackle the problem of theodicy. In part three, Jersak ‘unwraths’ God by recasting ‘wrath’ in the Bible as metaphorical language describing God’s consent to our non-consent (of Him). Much of part three is dedicated to unfolding the New Testament metaphors of the atonement as non-punitive.
Jersak contrasts the ‘God of Will’ in Western thought with the God of Love revealed in Jesus by his cross. According to Jersak. the God of Will emphasizes freedom of action (61). In this understading, everything God does and wills is right, because it is God that wills it. Likewise, If this is our vision of God, we also seek our own freedom to act as we choose. The theology of this willful God tends towards triumphalism. In contrast the God of love comes in the form of Christ: a God who goes to the cross and is crucified by humanity. He doesn’t force his will on his creatures but has opened up a way for them through his self giving, self-emptying (kenotic) love.
To my mind Jersak does one of the best jobs of confronting and critiquing the problem of voluntarism (the primacy of the freedom of the will in God) in a way that a general reader can understand. I think he is right to push us towards a more self-emptying vision of God. This is a far cry of triumphalism. Jersak writes:
A theology of the cross admits the obvious: namely, God is truly all-powerful and immovable in his love but also (though not only), is surprisingly, we often experience him as all-powerless in time, in the world. ‘All Powerless’? I only make such a bold statement advisedly, not to diminish God’s omnipotent love, but to resist human conceptions of power-as-coercion erroneously imposed on God. (170)
This is a challenge to any sort of Omnipotent-Might-Makes Right, sort of Will-to-Power picture of God. This doesn’t make God weaker, it makes him less coercive. As Jersak says, “Yes, Christ is mighty to save, since his love is a power far greater than force: the left-handed scepter of enduring mercy” (178). I think he is right to let this vision of Jesus shape his hermeneutic of scripture as he explores the image of God.
However I wasn’t completely happy with his handling of the Old Testament. He favors strongly New Testament texts and tends to only quote the Old Testament favorably when it coincides with his vision of this ‘more Christlike God.’ Passages that are more retributive (i.e. Numbers 31, the conquest, etc) are dismissed because they are out of character for this God revealed in Christ (16-18). Or the wrathful parts of the Old Testament are cast as an early, immature vision of God in early Judaism, using James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (putting early Judaism on par with Fowler’s description of school children’s faith development). There is something to the notion of progressive revelation in the Old Testament but I think Jersak’s canon seems too limited. Because of this, I think he commits the same error that many of those he critiques do: he offers an overly simple picture of God that does not do justice to all that God is.
That isn’t to say I didn’t really enjoy this and found reading it fruitful. Theologically Jersak pushes me in a good direction. I applaud his critique of where we done mussed up gospel. I want the more Christlike God that Jersak commends and share his discomfort with the way God’s wrath is described by many in the evangelical world. I also appreciate his pastoral insights into places that our vision of God can be detrimental to our life and soul. I give this book four stars and recommend it to everybody who reads John Piper.
Notice of material connection: I received this book via Litfuse Publicity in exchange for my honest review.