Ray Anderson, Starting Theology With Jesus
Dr. Anderson studied under Thomas F. Torrance at Edinburgh University in Scotland. He was a pastor, a professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, and author of numerous books. He died in 2009.
See also the interview in which Chris Kettler discusses the ministry and theology of Dr. Anderson: https://learn.gcs.edu/mod/page/view.php?id=4375. For an edited transcript of our interviews with Ray Anderson, and the Chris Kettler interview about Dr. Anderson, click here.
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J. Michael Feazell: Welcome to You’re Included. With us today is Dr. Ray Anderson. Dr. Anderson is senior professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary. He’s author of more than 20 books, including An Emergent Theology of Emerging Churches, and Judas and Jesus, Amazing Grace for the Wounded Soul. Dr. Anderson is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Psychology and Theology.
Thank you for being with us today.
Ray Anderson: Thank you, Mike, I’m glad to be here.
JMF: We’re looking forward to discussing some very interesting and important topics. I want to begin by helping our viewers understand a little bit about what theology is and what difference theology makes to the believer.
RA: You said my favorite word: theology. It’s a scary word, to many people. But really, if you stop to think about it, it’s simply a way of thinking about God in respect to who God is and how God has revealed himself to us. So theology, as I’ve often said, is reflection upon God’s ministry. So ministry precedes theology.
I tell pastors that it’s in the context of God’s ministry that theology emerges. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath day, for example, and the legalists challenged him on that, and said, you’re not supposed to do that on the Sabbath day. For Jesus, that’s what God is doing. God is working, and therefore Jesus said that human beings were not made just to keep the Sabbath in a legalistic way. The Sabbath was made for human beings, for their welfare.
That is a theological statement. Somebody could just have said, Jesus healed the blind man on the Sabbath, and that’s a narrative. But when interpretation is given of that, so that the work of God interprets the word of God, what God does interprets what God says. The statement of that, that’s theology. Jesus had no text in the Old Testament for that. The blind man who is healed is the text.
JMF: So the story tells us something about God and theology.
RA: Yes. But the responsibility of theology is to not just read and narrate the story, but it is to let the story tell us and speak to us of who God is. This is who God is: God cares for you. God loves you. God will do his work of healing even on the Sabbath day. That’s the purpose of the Sabbath to Jesus, that’s an example for me.
JMF: So everybody, it’s fair to say, everybody has a theology even though they may not realize it or think about it.
RA: Yes. You cannot be a believer in Jesus Christ, without implicitly saying, I believe he is of God, I believe he was sent of God, I believe that (as Paul says) he died on the cross for me, was raised again to overcome the power of death. In reciting the creed, whatever creed one recites, the Apostle’s Creed – that’s a theological statement. So that the average person in the church hearing the story and confessing their own faith in Christ, they are doing theology.
JMF: So one person might have a view of God (based on how they interpret what they read in the Bible) that says, “God is angry at me and I need to try to do better to get him back on my side.”
Another person may have a view that God has made things and wound up the universe, and he’s way out there; now we have to just work things out for ourselves.
Another person may say, “God is full of grace and mercy and therefore it doesn’t matter what I do – he will still forgive me in the end and that’s why I can behave however I want.”
The next person may say, “God loves me and therefore I want to please him, and live according to what I understand him to expect of me.”
Everybody, each of those four, let’s say (and more people may have different views), these reflect the idea that there are many different theologies on the shelf.
RA: It’s almost like when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” They thought it was a multiple-choice exam. So they came up with different possible answers: Some say you are John the Baptist raised from the dead, some say you are the prophet that Moses talked about.
They have all these kinds of answers, and each of those were theologies, they were current theologies. Jesus probed deeper: “But who do you think that I am?” – you have experienced me. Peter finally dared to blurt out, “You’re the Messiah, you are the one we’ve been waiting for.” Then Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, flesh and blood does not reveal it to you, but God who is in heaven.” In other words, he said, “Peter, you’re right, but you will never know why, because that’s a revelation of God.”
But Peter wouldn’t have been right, Peter wouldn’t have been able to have that theology – you are the Son of God, you are the Messiah – apart from following him, experiencing him, and being there. Standing off at a distance, the Pharisees came to different conclusions. They said, “This man is not of God” (John 9:16). After he healed the blind man, they said, “He is not of God because he does not keep the Sabbath.” Jesus was killed on exegetical grounds. They had a Bible verse that gives them permission to kill Jesus because he violated the law. Jesus must have said, what’s going on here? God is doing this work, God is in your midst, God is working through me.
The problem that all pastors face is, not that people are waiting to hear theology, not that they’re waiting to be told to believe something. They all believed something. Every person who sits down to hear a sermon already believes something, and that belief has to be taken away and changed. That’s the real task. That’s why pastors have to be theologians, because they have to know the true theology that God has revealed. That has to enter in, in such a way that it corrects the bad theology.
JMF: So theology is wrapped up in God’s revelation of who he is, rather than any other way of deducing or coming to it, and that revelation is in the person of Christ.
RA: Yes, and in the act of God. I went through three years of theological seminary and went out and started to preach and began to preach my systematic theology notes. God is omnipotent. He can do everything. God is omniscient, he knows everything. He’s omnipresent …
JMF: The classical…
RA: Yes, the classical doctrine of God. Some of my people hearing that, said, “That maybe true, that’s easy to believe that God can do everything, but can he do anything? If he knows everything (you want me to say he knows everything, fine. I already sort of believe that). But what I want to hear, does he know ME and my small place? Does he enter into my life? Does he make a difference in my life?” I realized that the theology I had been taught didn’t answer that question. I have to start all over again. I went to the Incarnation. Paul says of Jesus, in Colossians 2, “In him is the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily.”
Everything that God is, is revealed to us through Jesus. That’s why the Trinity is so important. People stumble at the concept of the Trinity, and say it’s just a theological bit of metaphysics and doctrine, it doesn’t make any difference. It makes a tremendous difference. If the one who heals and the one who weeps at the tomb of Lazarus, the one who groans with pain and agony when he is confronted with deformity, if that’s not the tears of God, if that’s not the pathos of God, then we’ve lost connection with that.
Then we’re back to a kind of a dualism, as Thomas F. Torrance (my former teacher) liked to say, in which you separate the concept, the doctrine of God from the act and being of God. Suddenly we lost touch with that [with the reality that everything that God is, is revealed to us through Jesus]. That’s why legalism and formalism and all of those things begin to “take the place” of the grace of God as a living reality.
That’s why I think the Trinity is that God is both above and he is below, God is involved. The one who dies upon the cross has to be as fully God as the Father in heaven. Jesus says, “God, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” This has to be, not only the language of Psalm 22, the human lament of forsakenness that Jesus takes on his own lips, but it has to be that God himself has, in a sense, assumed a humanity estranged from God, so that atonement begins in Bethlehem.
I wasn’t taught that in seminary. I was taught that the doctrine of the atonement began totally on the cross. It was Torrance who helped me to see. He said, you have to go back to the fact that the one who was born from the womb of Mary was born to assume the human estrangement, to assume the sentence of death, so that, in that sense, Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is a dead man walking.
Can God die? No. But for God to overcome human death, God has to become human and God has to assume that human death, so that when God the Son, the Logos (as John 1:1 says), enters in to become flesh, has in a sense, placed God from below.
In my book The Gospel According to Judas, my first book on Judas, I thought there is a way to get at this. If Judas is chosen by Jesus after a whole night of prayer (which we assume he prayed to make sure he made the right decision), and yet Judas, one of the 12, ends up betraying him and then in his own remorse, said, I have killed an innocent man, I have done something wrong, and in remorse he went out and killed himself. Many people say, well, that’s it. Suicide is the unforgivable sin and therefore that’s the end. But the gospel tells us that this Jesus who chose Judas, was betrayed by Judas, he’s the final judge. He is the one who will determine the final verdict.
JMF: Most of us grow up in the church hearing sermons, reading what we might read, and we get the idea that God is out in heaven, he is out there somewhere, he looks at us, he judges us, we read the Old Testament and we see that God gets angry and so we think of God as being a judge, an angry judge who is so angry that he sends his Son to die, because somebody has to pay this price.
RA: That ends up making the Son merely the victim of God’s anger.
JMF: But you’re saying we need to see God as he shows himself to be in Christ as, not just the Creator, but as the Redeemer at the same time. He is not just the judge, but the judge is the one who gave himself to save.
RA: As Karl Barth says, Jesus is the judge judged in our place. It’s not only that we can set the Old Testament aside and say, we don’t need that anymore because we have Jesus. It’s only through Jesus that we read the Old Testament aright. Torrance helped me to see that with Jesus, we can go back and see that the antecedents for everything Jesus revealed of God are already there [in the Old Testament]. The divine covenant that God made through Abraham was universal – through you, he said, all the families of the earth will be blessed, through that seed.
The particularity of the people of Israel was not simply, it’s only them and nobody else – nobody else has the chance, except they want maybe to join in with them. No, the promise to Abraham was the promise to a gentile. Abraham was a gentile. There were no Jews yet. When Paul sees the Holy Spirit coming upon uncircumcised gentiles, he goes back to Abraham and says, there is the example of that.
In Romans Paul says, when was Abraham declared to be righteous? Before he was circumcised, or after? The answer is obvious. Abraham as a gentile was declared righteous before God by faith, through grace. Then circumcision was given as a sign of that.
That’s Paul argument, that we can go back and see from the Old Testament from the very beginning we have, the grace of God is there. It’s grace that enters in when humans are hopelessly estranged from God, fallen away, and it’s universal, which means that through Abraham and through the grace of God everyone is included, no one is excluded from the standpoint of God’s intention. But grace itself places a demand. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, grace is not cheap. Grace is not just believing a doctrine and following the rules. Grace is abiding and living in that relationship with God.
JMF: We usually think of a relationship with God as being rules…
RA: Sure. Human beings, from Adam and Eve on, thought that by somehow keeping rules they could get back into that relationship, and they misunderstood even that the sacrificial system was not a rule to be kept, but it was a way in which they could re-enter through grace. It’s the grace of God that overcomes that death. The overcoming of death in the Old Testament moves forward to God assuming that death and therefore, as Barth made clear and I learned from him (and from Torrance as well), that through the death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, there is a retroactive kind of theology.
We go back and see that it isn’t just that the Jews were wrong and we can dispense with that. They are the ones who revealed to us God’s universal promise and purpose. But the Jews of Jesus’ day had torn the law out of the living community of faith and made the law a standard of correctness and became specialists in the law. Jesus said, I have come to fulfill the law, and grace.
That’s why it’s difficult to preach today. Because everybody enters in with their own sense, if I just keep the rules… Perfectionism and legalism didn’t start with theology. Legalism and perfectionism is a psychological effect. People think that if they somehow just do it right, that they will be accepted.
JMF: Jesus said that you search the Scriptures daily that you may find eternal life and then you refuse to come to me. [John 5:39-40]
RA: Because the Pharisees were, as I say, using Scripture to condemn Jesus, to crucify him. If he violates the Sabbath, they thought, he’s not of God.
JMF: In Elmer Colyer’s book How to Read T.F. Torrance, page 86, he comments under the subhead of “The Latin heresy: a ‘gospel’ of external relations.” He says, “Torrance sees a growing tendency in Latin theology from the 5th century on to reject the idea that Christ assumed our sinful alienated and fallen humanity and to embrace the notion that Christ assumed a neutral or an original and perfect human nature from the virgin Mary.” The book goes on to show how Torrance taught that whatever Christ did not assume, is not healed. [That is, if he did not become become real human flesh, fallen human flesh, then he did not solve the “fallen” problem that humans have.]
RA: Torrance is quoting there the Cappadocian theologian Gregory of Nazianzus in the 4th century who said, what is not assumed is not healed. That was in opposition to Apollinarius, basically, who argued that the Logos of Jesus was a perfect Logos, not totally human, that Jesus was only human from the neck down, that the self was not involved. Nazianzus said, The problem is that in the self, we are under sentence of death, and that has to be overcome.
“The Latin heresy” comes out of the Western tradition at Rome, from Augustine and following, that began to tear apart the atonement from the actual person of Jesus and made a formula – a system – out of it, and then began to take grace as almost a commodity, so that grace became something you could control by dispensing it. The sacraments became the means by which you could dispense grace and therefore control it. The heresy that Torrance points to, is the heresy of breaking truth apart from God, so to speak.
JMF: Is it the difference between a written contract between two people and a devoted friendship between two people? In other words, if there is a contract, you work out a law, penalties, etc. if something goes wrong in the relationship. But in a devoted friendship, you can hurt the relationship, but you’ve got the freedom to forgive and move on together …
RA: More than that. If a relationship (such as a marriage relationship) is contractual, then we hold each other accountable to keeping the contract, so to speak. As long as I’m keeping my end of the contract up, you are obligated to fulfill my needs. That’s hopeless. That’s a form of legalism in marriage.
When I do pre-marital counseling, I talk about friendship, I say that friendship is the only human relationship that survives only when it’s constantly renewed and kept alive. Husbands and wives often will end up saying things to each other in times of anger, or whatever. If they said it to a friend, they wouldn’t have any friends. Friends don’t have to take it. So, people will be [careful to] preserve a friendship and at the same time destroy their marriage [by being off guard].
God is more than at the level of the friend. God is the lover. God enters a relationship with Israel. Hosea said, He is the lover. He is betrayed, but God still said, I won’t give you up. I won’t let you go. [A friendship can be terminated by persistent offense, but God never gives up on his relationship with us; his relationship with us is not only better than a contractual relationship; it is also better than a friendship.]
So that it’s true that [for many people] the legalistic, contractual aspect enters [into our relationship with God], seemingly to give us security and truth, in a sense, that we can control. But the moment we think that we control the truth, if I think I control the truth about my wife, I’ve destroyed something. She’s always a mystery to me. She’s always someone whom I have to be open to. My concepts of her have to give way to who she really is, and it’s the same with our concepts of God.
C.S. Lewis had an amazing statement: “In his mercy God must destroy all our finest concepts of him.” Our theology is a set of concepts that must be redeemed. Torrance said the atonement is as much the redeeming of our theology and concepts of God as it is of our sin.
JMF: I see that we are going to have to have more than one interview, because there are a number of things we’ve got to talk about yet.
RA: Well, that’s because you get me started to talking on theology, Mike.
JMF: I need to get into your book Judas and Jesus: Amazing Grace for the Wounded Soul, but we’ll save that for the next program.
RA: I’ll be back.
JMF: I just want to come back to the kind of theology that Thomas Torrance and a number of other theologians are explicating from Karl Barth’s theology … I think we call it Trinitarian theology, and that is a corrective to what Torrance calls the Latin heresy. Could you talk about that?
RA: As Torrance often made clear in class (when I sat under his teaching in Edinburgh), Matthew 11:27 is the key verse. Most of us memorized Matthew 11:28, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.” But he said, Matthew 11:27 is the key verse, which says, “Only the Father knows the Son, and only the Son knows the Father, and those to whom it is given.” That’s a Trinitarian statement.
Knowledge of God is self-knowledge. It’s knowledge of God that begins with the Father knows the Son, the Son knows the Father. How do you gain entry into that? You say, If only the Father knows the Son, then if I go to the Father, I’ll know the Son. You can’t do that, because only the Son knows the Father. So, uh, ok, I’ll go to the Son to know the Father. You can’t do that, either, because only the Father knows the Son. OK, then I’ll have to be brought into that. So the Holy Spirit brings me into that inter-relationship between the Son and the Father.
Torrance said, that’s where atonement takes place. Atonement didn’t just take place on the cross. Atonement takes place within the inner being of God – to God’s love and mercy. Jesus is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Jesus said, the Son is come into the world in order to assume human death, die that death, and in resurrection overcome that death so that death no longer has the power to determine human destiny. No person’s death determines their destiny. That’s the thesis of the Judas book. Jesus is the one who determines the destiny of Judas, not even his own action. We’ll talk about that some day.
That’s Torrance’s theology of the Trinity: atonement takes place, and a relationship is bound up in that. If you don’t have the Trinity, then God becomes an abstract set of rules or concepts, and we’re on our own – our own humanity has to, in a sense, bear the weight of worship and prayer. As it is, Jesus, in his own humanity, continues even now to be the one who prays with us and for us. Our worship is the worship of the Son to the Father (James Torrance, the brother of Tom, wrote a book on that). True worship is the worship of the Son to the Father, and we are brought into that worship. Our own humanity cannot bear the weight of authentic prayer and worship. The humanity of Christ does that.
JMF: Practically speaking then, when we pray, we ought not to be thinking, “I hope God hears my prayer.” We’re able to say with the Holy Spirit that this prayer I pray is the prayer of Christ praying in me, therefore I have confidence that I actually stand with Christ.
RA: That’s why, when we pray in his name, it isn’t a little magical formula to put in the end. That’s not the bank code that gets you into the automated teller. Praying in his name is to say that the Holy Spirit brings us in, so that Jesus takes our prayer and offers it up to the Father.
JMF: A recognition that we stand together with Christ and he is standing with us in all that we do in our relationship with God, gives us a freedom that is not legalistic.
RA: The legalist thinks we’ve got to do it right, but we can’t ever do that, so we’re in default from the beginning. But if Jesus has assumed our condition and has, in a sense, made it right, that’s what justification and righteousness mean, he has made it right. He has made it right not as an abstract deposit in our account – he made it right by saying, come unto me and join with me, and we’re going to enter into the kingdom together.
JMF: Our faith is in Christ himself, not in how well we pray.
RA: That’s right. Our faith is not in something, not in doctrine, not in a concept. Faith is a relational aspect. It is trust and it is the Holy Spirit who brings us into that relationship. We’re saved not by works but by faith. Faith is for Paul a synonym for Jesus. (In Galatians 3, it’s interesting that Paul says, before faith came we’re under the law [meaning that before Christ came, we were under the law].)JMF: Let’s hold that thought, and let’s pick that up as soon as we get together. Thanks very much for being with us, Dr. Anderson.