Brian Zahnd and a Loving God
Having just finished Zahnd’s latest work, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, I find myself loving, even more, the God and Father of us all. Zahn d focuses our minds on God in a way seldom if ever portrayed in Western theology unless it derives from the prosperity gospel that so many in the United States want to preach. Zahnd’s theology is profoundly Orthodox, though he might call it orthodox with the little “o.” In his other work, From Water to Wine he leads the reader to a robust theology of the Church Fathers of not only the West (e.g., Augustine) but also of the East (e.g., Maximos the Confessor), hence his orthodoxy.
Reformed believers and others influenced by Calvin will not like Zahnd’s recent book because the author often rebuts the premises given to depict God by Calvinism. To be sure, the Calvinism that now exists isn’t entirely the same Calvinism in early America which was often a more radicalized depiction. For a comparison of classical Calvinism in Antebellum America, I’d urge a reading of Leo P. Hirrel, Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998). The familiar reader will no doubt know that Calvin was influenced by Augustine as witnessed in the many citations attributed to Augustine in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. To read about even Augustine’s later thinking on free will that likely influenced the Reformation thinking on such, see Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 187–88. Since Zahnd used Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” as his portrayal of how God has so been depicted in America, Zahnd’s work is a polemic against such portrayals as that of Edwards and, by extension, Calvin.
Any reader who is familiar with Zahnd’s other works will sense Orthodox theology throughout this work—assuming the reader may also be familiar with Eastern theology. He beautifully paints the picture that is predominant from such church fathers as he cites in his works. The picture is clear that God is love. He even handles Old Testament texts that would seem unloving, such as the genocidal passages where God commands Israel to kill men, women, and children. However, I’m not entirely confident that he satisfactorily answers the skeptics’ concerns on this matter except to say,
What we should do is recognize that it’s very easy for us to project our own violence and immorality on God in an attempt to assuage our conscience by an imagined divine sanction for our sins.
While he’s correct in this statement, and a previous one that we who’ve read such passages as God endorsing what’s contrary to His divine nature of love have misinterpreted such passages, he didn’t so much offer a satisfactory solution except to lay blame for the misunderstanding at the feet of the reader. He is likely to be correct for this, but the critical reader wants to know how to correctly interpret those passages through the paradigm of God being loving when such was commanded.
Something else I would have liked to have seen Zahnd address is the notion of propitiation where many teach that it’s a sacrifice offered to appease the wrath of a deity. This is a concept (propitiation) that appears in a few places that describe Christ’s sacrifice (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), and if people understand it through the Greco-Roman cultic usage of the term, they may apply it to Christ’s sacrifice. To be sure, Zahnd dealt with the viewpoint of Christ’s sacrifice through the paradigm of the Incarnation thus offering that God would rather die than to see His creation come to harm. Furthermore, the author also dealt with the pagan views often attributed to God and the sacrifice of His Son. Nevertheless, propitiation may be a stopping point for some due to how it’s explained in commentaries and from pulpits.
On the whole, I believe Zahnd’s piece leads to God’s love for humanity. I think this work will also alleviate the anxiety from many Christians that may derive from not feeling that they can ever get Christianity right and that God is eagerly awaiting them to make mistakes so He can send them to hell. In the beginning, I said that this work made me love God even more, so I’d dare suggest that it should appeal to any reader who reads it for the benefit of their faith.