Eugene Peterson’s death this past week has affected me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. First of all, I did not expect it to come so soon. Our family had traveled to Montana in July and spent an afternoon with Jan and Eugene and, while he was weak and showing signs of dementia, there was also much hope that he might have several more years.
But the end of his long obedience has come.
I first “met” Eugene through his book Under the Unpredictable Plant. The year was 1990 and I was a very green youth director and my supervising pastor suggested we read and discuss it. The book is about vocation, specifically pastoral vocation, and what it means to pastor a church. It was a meditation on the book of Jonah summarized by a line in a letter Eugene would write to me nearly 20 years later, “the church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.” His writing was prophetic and beautiful at the same time. I found myself deeply attracted to be the kind of person he described, yet also profoundly convicted by his challenge to my self-oriented default approach to church life and, if I was honest, to Christian faith in general.
Four years later (1994), with the blessing of the San Francisco Presbytery who were thrilled that I would be studying under Eugene Peterson, I enrolled in Seminary at Regent College in Vancouver, BC where Eugene had begun teaching two years previously. Sharon and I were star struck at first, desperately desiring to have time with Jan and Eugene, but terribly awkward when we got it. They did their best to put us at ease (usually it was Jan who was most helpful there!), and over time they got to know us and we got to know them. I have no idea how many of Eugene’s classes I sat through. I took them all – if not for credit, I listened to them on “tape” and took notes just for myself. I even did a guided study with Eugene to fulfill some of my Presbyterian ordination requirements. I never grew tired of his perspective.
As I was nearing the time of graduation, I still was unsure about my future. Missions? (back to China where we’d taught for two years already?) Para-Church work? Pastor? I had completed the Presbyterian “call” process, but I still had my doubts about being a pastor – was I really cut out for it? I wanted to have it all planned out. I wanted to “design” my life so that it would be “used” by God in the most “effective” (and efficient…and with minimal pain) way. I wrote him a letter about this in 1997 and he responded with these words of example (and therefore challenge!):
“Most of the things I fantasized doing [by being ‘intentional’] I didn’t do. I have mostly just tried to be obedient to the work that was before me – as pastor and writer. I’m suspicious of ‘gift-defining’- too much ego involved. I don’t think any of us do a very good job of planning (intentionalizing) our lives – we aren’t smart enough – or lucky enough. Saying No and staying uncluttered is not so much a matter of intentionality as of obedience to place and work and the people who God has placed in your life: wife, children, family, etc. ‘Life-purpose’ and such rather crowds out faith and prayer don’t you think?”
Clearly I was a poor student, and a slow learner. Like most of Jesus’ disciples, I loved being with this man and knew that he was right, and yet my actions and choices were slow to follow. Yet Eugene patiently walked with me through my angst, until one day as I met with him in his office he said straight to me, “Geordie, you are a pastor. Stop trying to design your life, and be obedient to what God has put in front of you.”
And so with a bit of fear and trembling, I became a pastor.
Since he was a large part of the reason I became a pastor, I asked Eugene if he would preach at my Ordination. He agreed, and in March of 1999, Eugene and a myriad of other pastors and elders laid hands on me and prayed my ordination. The title of his message to me was “Eat this book,” taken from the title of the book he was currently writing. That title though expresses one of the foundational impacts that Eugene has had on my life. He, more than any other, has taught me to take the Scriptures seriously. But not in a stogie, uptight way. Rather, Eugene taught me that God is real and Jesus is alive and the Spirit is present and that there is nothing connected to this triune God that is not personal through and through. Boy have I needed that message. So much in me is wired to perform, to achieve, to compete, to hide. And yet his relentless message was to believe that God is present and speaking through his word. It is ALIVE – because HE is alive!
Along those same lines, Eugene taught me to have a Biblical imagination. Part of it was his way of speaking – it was so different than anyone else I knew. Whereas I’d been accustomed to thinking of salvation as a thing you “had” or didn’t “have,” Eugene talked about it as a “country” where you live, a spacious land in which you come to find yourself. And the scriptures were our access to that world. He taught me to appreciate and pay attention to the “spirituality” of the characters in scripture. In fact, one of my favorite classes Eugene taught bore that title: Scripture as a text for spirituality. I’ve never heard them the same since.
Like many eager seminary grads, my first call was both wonderful and very difficult. The context of the church I served was not very congenial to me being the kind of pastor that Eugene described. And yet it was Eugene’s vision of what pastoral ministry and church life should be that sustained and inspired me through those years.
During that time Eugene and I would speak on the phone a couple times a year. He knew my context was difficult and patiently listened to my vocational wonderings. Most of the time he was non-directive, but he asked good questions, and occasionally would challenge me to press in and get back in the game. Always he believed in me. He was such a good friend in this way.
Eventually, I knew it was time to move on. My desire to study the theology of T.F. Torrance had only grown with time and I began to feel drawn toward a PhD. I called Eugene to talk it over and get his input. He was pretty clear about his feelings. He said “I am not very enthusiastic about a PhD for pastors.” He worried that I would get caught up in the academic world and not want to come back to ordinary pastoral ministry. For Eugene, the PhD was showing up every Sunday and hanging out with ordinary Christians every week. Working out our theology in the real context of people’s lives was where the action was at.
While I believed him and respected his point, I still felt called to pursue the PhD. And that’s when the letter writing started in earnest….
I’d written and received a few letters with Eugene prior to our move to Scotland, but once we moved there letter writing became a regular thing. I suppose I realized that I needed his voice in my life. I worried that I might lose my footing, or stray from my roots. I didn’t want this new season of growth and learning to betray or reject any of my former growth, particularly my Regent education. I’d written a couple letters to Eugene, and he to me, prior to this, but during the season of the PhD and then re-entry into pastoral ministry, he wrote me nearly 25 letters.
One of the most important letters I received from Eugene was sent in March of 2009. By this time I’d completed a one-year Masters of Theology and was in the first year of my doctoral research trying to find my way and focus. I had sent Eugene my master’s thesis which he kindly read. His response, I believe, provided the fuel that sustained me through the fiery, lonely, despondent, frightening, overwhelming, isolating, spiritually costly trial that a PhD is.
Here is what he said:
I find your work on Torrance a great boost and affirmation – and an extension to what I have done, I think, most of my life. Namely, to rescue the business of growing up in Christ, coming to maturity (often treated today as spiritual formation) from the special interest groups, parachurch retreats and conferences, etc. and in general people interested in “spirituality.”
In the American church there is virtually no ecclesiology, no body of Christ humanity to deal with, the humanity that is given to us through the mediation of Jesus’ humanity. So the church is understand [sic] almost entirely in terms of its function, what we do for Jesus instead of what Jesus is doing for us. You and Torrance insist on something totally different, the church as ontological fact.
Given your thesis, it seems to me that what you now continue to do is resist in as many ways as you can think up the functional aspects church – our attempts at renewal and programmatic strategies – and insist on the ontological reality of the church….
The difficulty with Torrance is that he is, well, so difficult. You have done a superb job of making him accessible. He is a superb theologian; but he is not a pastor. Now, if I can be so bold, you have the task before you of doing for Torrance what he could not do for himself: provide the vocabulary and imagination that provides an ontological paradigm for the American church and demonstrates the emptiness and impotence of the functional.
Well, that’s a mouthful, and this is not the place to try and unpack all of what Eugene is saying here, but I cannot overstate the impact that his affirmation of the importance of my work has had on me. There were several seasons during my doctoral research when I considered dropping out, and every time one of the key elements that sustained me was the fact that Eugene felt what I was doing was important for the church, and in continuity with his own work. He could not have paid me a higher complement.
As I’ve thought about Eugene this past week and his impact on my life, I’ve come to realize that for the past 24 years his voice and vision has colored my life and ministry deeply. Whether it was his books, our face to face conversations, his classes, his letters, or his life example…I hear him beckoning me to center my life and ministry in God. Much of the time I am aware that I fall short, and yet I never have felt condemned in his presence. Convicted yes. Challenged yes. But never condemned. His way was always to call forth the best of Christ in us.
No blog or “tribute” can adequately honor the gift of a life lived with love and passion and grace. I think I’ll end with a quote from Fred (Mr) Rogers, who in his comencement address at Middlebury College, said the following:
“From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.”
And in the case of Eugene Peterson, pastored me into pastoring.
Glad to finally have this video ready for posting! A conversation about our books!
One of the most neglected central articles of the faith as laid out in the Apostle’s Creed and others like it, is the doctrine of the Ascension. We confess it: “I believe…he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” We celebrate Jesus’ coming at Advent, Jesus’ birth at Christmas, Jesus’ life and ministry during Lent, Jesus’ passion during Holy Week, Jesus’ death on Good Friday, and Jesus’ resurrection on Easter, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, but what of the Ascension? Why doesn’t the Ascension get a Sunday or a special service like all the others? Does this mean it is not actually that important? That we can take it or leave it without any real impact to the overall reality of our faith? What does the Ascension mean anyway?
The event of the Ascension
The New Testament records that after Jesus’ resurrection (Easter Sunday), he stuck around for 40 days and appeared to his disciples (actually, over 500 of them) many times. Then after 40 days “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9) The Bible teaches that he was “taken into heaven” and will eventually “return in the same way you have seen him go.” (Acts 1:10-11; see also Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51)
40 days after Easter always lands on a Thursday. This year that day is May 25th
Implications of the Ascension: What do we say when we say that we believe in the Ascension?
Let us no longer neglect this central article of our faith. Better yet, let it be daily nourishment for your soul. We are safe, we are not alone, we are accompanied, we are empowered…because Jesus is ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Two good people. They were regulars, for years. But one sermon sent them packing. What happened? I decided to be direct, to take on a poorly supported, terribly exegeted, yet popular view among many Christians. I rejected it and suggested it was a dangerous view. They didn’t like that, so they left.
Of course, I could put all the blame on them. I could argue that it is pretty sad if people assume that every week when they go to church that the preacher’s job is to simply corroborate their theological stances and that they are to leave unchanged, but somehow blessed week after week. I could argue that perhaps most church attenders (if not all) are looking for a place that simply confirms the way they already think and act, while allowing a very small space for very minor shifts. I could argue that our sanctuaries have lost their edge and no one expects an encounter with God to really mess with their idols.
I could also put the blame on myself. It wasn’t a great sermon. I could confess that my critique of that beloved viewpoint was not communicated with charity or grace, but rather was dismissive and critical. I could have admitted that I too held that view at one time but that as I carefully examined the evidence and looked at church history I had to leave it behind. I could have given them some space to hold to a divergent view. I could have recognized that some people, some good people, in my congregation probably still held that view. I could have spoken as if I was speaking to a friend across the table, rather than acting as I might on Facebook ranting about a view in the abstract.
So what does this say about “prophetic” preaching? I believe most genuine preachers want to be prophetic – they want to trust the Holy Spirit to use their sermon to speak into the lies and half-truths that infect people’s lives and inhabit our culture and even or especially our Christian culture. If that is the case, how do we do that well?
Well, from the congregation’s standpoint, perhaps we need to warn them a bit more. Perhaps we need to directly alert them to the fact that the word of God may not affirm their beliefs, even the beliefs that they believe are Biblical. Perhaps we need to remind them that each one of us is a fashioner of idols. If they forget that, and enter our churches to hear our messages and find those beloved idols being challenged, they will be shocked, and angry, and lash out.
From the preacher’s standpoint, I see a double call: we need to aim to be a centered church while also holding to the rule of charity.
A centered church: A centered church puts Christ at the center and aims for him in all things. A centered church does not fixate on boundaries and does not love to declare who is in and who is out by whatever standard of measure. A centered church preaches the gospel, a gospel center towards which all people can move, while a boundary oriented church cuts people out and declares there is no place for them.
A charitable church: Church is not meant to be a place where all people agree on all things. Do we allow space for people to hold some unorthodox ideas? (Can I admit that some of my own views are not spot on?) Can we have grace and tolerance toward people’s pet views and theological upbringings? In other words, will we love people in their shoddy-theological states and point them toward Jesus or will be rip on their views and tell them they have no place at the table of Christ if that is how they think?
I believe last week I failed on my part. I wrote a personal apology to one of the people for my failure – my failure in charity and in being properly centered. I don’t know if it will make any difference to that person, but it will make a difference to me going forward. Perhaps those who left our church also failed their own test. But until I learn how to deal with the log in my eye, I have no right to a holier than thou attitude toward those who choose to pick up their idols and leave.
My heart and mind are bursting with enthusiasm today after having two separate sessions with two different groups discussing my book on Grace and its implications for life and ministry. My purpose with these groups is to prove the truthfulness of what Eugene Peterson said to me once, “All theology is experience-able.” This should particularly be the case when dealing with a subject so relevant as Grace, and even more so when intrinsic in the definition of Grace is our participation in the life, love, and activity of God. Today was
proof of the relevance and I look forward to how this will continue to unfold.
My intention is to blog through the book as these conversations in community continue. This will enable others to join in the conversation.
The introduction provides a very brief background to T.F. Torrance, a rationale for a book on his concept of Grace, commentary on T.F.’s reception by the academy and the church, a note on his writing style, and a statement on the methodology and approach which I am taking in the book. The purpose and goal of the book is to translate and exposit Torrance’s theology through the lens of Grace. It, in effect, is a relentless pursuit of what I believe is the core of his thinking and theology, and not only that, the core of the gospel revealed in Christ send by the Father in the power of the Spirit.
The “meat” of the introduction is found in the section titled, “Background to Torrance’s Theology of Grace.” This section brings to light the versions of Grace that Torrance understands himself to be combating.
Rather than going point by point through the material (you can buy and read the book if you want that), I’m going to drop in at a couple places along the way and do a combination of riffing on what Torrance is staying about Grace, and reflecting on the conversations I’ve been having with those who are on the front end of engaging with these ideas.
What if we have misunderstood Grace? What if, even in the Reformation, we have reduced it to something we can understand, manage, and control? Torrance argues that our continual default is to naturalize grace by detaching it from the person and work of Christ. Once Grace is detached from the person of Christ, it gets reduced to something instrumental, controllable, and impersonal. In short, we turn it into a pharmaceutical (my term). We turn it into a pharmaceutical when we treat grace like a supplemental add-on to the Christian life. We say things and hear things said like, “…with the help of God’s grace…” you can do this or that. Grace becomes our energy pill. As a pharmaceutical, the Church and religious activities become the means by which grace is dispensed. We expect that by going to church, reading our bibles, fasting, praying, serving, etc…that we will “get” grace from that experience.
Forget the Catholics whom many Protestants so love to critique, let’s just look at how this plays out in the Protestant world. Here’s a quote from page xxvi in the book:
Pietistic subjectivism: Here we naturalize grace by melding it with common grace. There is a mutuality between God and us and as we do our part and God does his part, progress is made. We essential treat grace as something ‘infused’ into us, so we “grow in sanctification” and we “grow in grace” which is another way of saying, we get more of this thing, like muscle mass. Now grace has become ours, because we’ve worked hard at it, we’ve trained for it. Now it is “natural” to us when prior to our hard work it was not “natural” to us.
Impersonal determinism: Whereas pietistic subjectivism focuses on grace inside of us, impersonal determinism views it from the outside. Here grace is treated as an impersonal force. This is evident in both the theological position of limited atonement and also that of universalism. Each in their own way imposes a deterministic framework upon God’s relation to humans, the former by limiting God’s gift of salvation to a pre-selected group, the later by forcing God’s gift of salvation upon everyone regardless of their own wills.
Abstract extrinsicism: Here grace is reduced to and controlled by legal categories. This is grace on paper, where like an electronic bank transfer, grace is “imputed” to us, but that imputation takes place in ether world of “the cloud” and as such is abstract, distant, and external to us. Grace in this form does not transform the person. It bypasses the person, leaving them in the mire of their sin on an experiential level. Cognitively, we know we are free and forgiven, but experientially we are still left on our own to fend for ourselves – until we die.
In one way or another each of these versions of grace convert “it” into a thing, “thingifying” grace into an instrument or pill that helps us live the Christian life.
Pick up any book on grace today and the assumed premise will be that grace exists as a fix for a problem. How did we get here? In short, we have not listened to Athanasius who sought to teach us that the incarnation did not take place because humans are bad, but because God is good. We have reduced God’s gift of himself to a fix for a problem (humans are bad, sin must be forgiven), rather than recognizing it as God’s gift of himself so that we might participate in his life. (more on this next time)
I think this is where T.F. Torrance can become our best friend in leading us out of the quagmire of moralism, impersonalism, and extrinsicism that contaminates our gospel. And finally, I’d like to think that my book could be particularly helpful there. Here is the thesis as stated on p. xxviii:
James: In your assessment do Evangelicals need to re-discover Trinitarian grace and participation or do they have a robust theology of life and Christian living?
Geordie: Evangelical theology, with all of its strengths, has some significant lacks when it comes to how we think and speak about sanctification because we haven’t grounded it in a very robust theology of the Trinity. We’ve turned grace into a thing or a force or some generic divine favour, and in so doing we have depersonalized the gospel, the God of the gospel, and those caught up in the gospel (ourselves). The fact is, grace is not a thing, grace is a Person. Grace is Jesus Christ sent from the Father through the Spirit. And he comes and dwells among us to live the life we failed to live and die the death we deserve to die and to take our redeemed humanity in him to ever live before the face of the Father in our name. THAT is grace. And THAT is amazing. But it doesn’t stop there. Grace is not a gift with “no strings attached” – that kind of a gift has no interest in relationship. Rather, God gives himself to us in Jesus Christ SO THAT we might share in his life, so that we might participate by the Spirit in the Son’s life and love in the Father. We are brought in and lifted up that we might know a life of love and trust and joy and service and faithfulness and compassion like Jesus does by fixing our eyes on him who fixes his eyes on the Father.
Of course, the Evangelical depersonalized version of grace creates significant problems downstream, specifically in the area of Christian formation. Evangelicals love the Trinity (sort of), but talking about “it” a lot does not make us Trinitarians in practice. No matter how regularly we recite the Apostles Creed most Evangelicals are functional Unitarians. Cleverly putting things in threes only masks the problem. Liberals and Evangelicals alike have traded the objective reality of the gospel which resides in the person of Jesus for their own subjective creations that throw people back upon themselves in spite of how loudly they declare that they don’t throw people back upon themselves. This impacts pretty much every aspect of our faith and life. To be honest, a great deal of what I see churned out by the Evangelical world (which is my general camp), leaves a pretty uns
atisfactory aftertaste. One core reason for this, I argue, is that we have the nasty habit of making it all about us. In the book I make a distinction between what I call “Subjective Moral Formation” and “Objective Trinitarian Participation” as a way of highlighting the problem. If you’d like, I can sketch that out a bit here.
James: Please, go ahead.
Geordie: Subjective Moral Formation essentially focuses on behavioral modification, and from that standpoint, it is reasonably effective. On the surface this may not seem bad at all, but whatever “fruitful” change it produces comes at the cost of a self-focused, impersonal approach to the living God. This version of Christian formation is subjective because the primary agent is ourselves, rather than the ascended Christ. It is moral because its goal is development in virtue and other socially idealistic behaviors. It is formation because it assumes that we can train ourselves – through specific practices, habits and attitudes – toward the achievement of predetermined behaviors and qualities which imitate Jesus. Here’s the problem: anytime the Christian life gets reduced to individualistic and non-personal ideals or technique-focused programs, the living God is shrunk to the shape and size of a vending machine: programmable, predictable, and controllable. Jesus gets demoted to the status of a moral example or a moral teacher (and not just by Liberals). The end of subjective moral formation is an impersonalizing of that which makes us truly and properly human – a relation of dependence and trust with the living God.
In the book, based on my reading and unpacking of T.F. Torrance, I propose an alternative approach to Spiritual formation, which I call, ‘Objective Trinitarian Participation.’ Objective Trinitarian Participation takes place within the circle of the worshipping life of Jesus Christ, as participation in Jesus’ relation with the Father through the Spirit. It is objective because the primary agent is the living, ascended Christ. It is Trinitarian because its activity has its origin and continuation in and through the Holy Spirit sent by the Father with the Son. It is participation because we are included: through our engagement in specific practices, habits and attitudes, the Holy Spirit continually leads us, through Christ, to the Father in every area of life. From this standpoint, the main focus and concern of Christian formation is that the Father-Son relation be translated into the daily life of the children of God through the Spirit. It’s a totally different starting (and ending) point.
James: What is your favourite TF Torrance quote?
Geordie: I’ll give you two, one short and the other more extended, but both of them capture for me the beauty and freedom we are invited into in Jesus Christ. I am not alone. My life is not my own. I am included, caught up, enfolded, encircled, gathered up, secured, and the Spirit is the down-payment of the reality of this grace so that I might know it experientially even on this side of the veil.
“Christ’s faithfulness undergirds our feeble and faltering faith and enfolds it in His own.” (G&R, 154)
“The ascension means the exaltation of man into the life of God and on to the throne of God. . . . There we reach the goal of the incarnation. . . . We are with Jesus beside God, for we are gathered up in him and included in his own self-presentation to the Father. This is the ultimate end of creation and redemption revealed in the Covenant of Grace and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. . . . We ourselves are given a down-payment of that, as it were, in the gift of the Spirit bestowed on us by the ascended man from the throne of God, so that through the Spirit we may already have communion in the consummated reality which will be fully actualized in us in the resurrection and redemption of the body.” (STR, 135–36.)
James: In closing – In less than four lines what do you consider to be the “take home” message of your book Trinitarian grace & participation?
Geordie: Grace provides the heuristic key (the “logic”) for all doctrines that seek to order the relation of God and humans. Grace is God’s gift of himself (from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit) so that we might share in his life and love. As we are taught by this grace, we become truly human, personalized persons, echoing by the Spirit the “Abba, Father” of the Son.
James: Thank you Geordie.