Christian KettlerChristian Kettler is professor of religion at Friends University in Kansas. He received his PhD in 1986 from Fuller Theological Seminary, working with the late Dr. Ray Anderson.

Dr. Kettler discusses how theology affects the average person, the importance of Jesus’ humanity, and how we share in the faith of Christ.

Edited transcript

JMF: Most people are turned off by the word theology, and people in some churches don’t even want their pastors to take a theology course – they’re afraid it will corrupt them and turn them away from the Bible, and yet on this program we’re talking about a specific kind of theology – Trinitarian theology. What difference does it make, and how does that apply to the average believer, and why should we care?

Christian Kettler: “Theo-logy” is what we believe about God, we’re saying that what we believe about God makes a difference. What would be more important? The word sounds technical, but literally it means a study of God – we spend a great deal of time studying other things for our professions, whatever they may be – a great deal of time and money. Why not give a little bit of energy (actually we should give it as much energy as we can) to the study of God? That’s what theology, at its best, is about. And Trinitarian theology says that who this God is – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is important – that your kind of theology should say something about who God has revealed himself to be.

JMF: Don’t all theologies talk about who God is and who God has revealed himself to be? How does Trinitarian theology differ?

CK: The church has almost always confessed God as Trinity. But our problem is we haven’t asked ourselves, what are the implications of that? We just assume, “Someone believes in the Trinity – they are orthodox Christians.” That’s the end of discussion. And the Trinity often becomes just a discussion of “How can one be three?” or “How do you deal with a logical conundrum?” – rather than looking at the Bible, what the Bible says, for example in the Gospel of John, about a relationship in God himself, between the Father and the Son through the Spirit. At its depth and height, the Trinity says that God is love, and reveals what love in God means.

Love could mean a lot of things – very sentimental and superficial. What Christians say about “God is love” often ends up being that. The Trinity says, “No. Love begins with God’s very being in his relationship from all eternity – from the Father and Son, through the Spirit. You see that portrayed in the Gospel of John, in the life of Jesus, his relationship with the Father, his dependence upon the Father and his promise of the Holy Spirit. It’s a question of the implications of who God has revealed himself to be.

JMF: We bog down in trying to talk about the Trinity – because we want to get the doctrine across to Christians – in counting, it’s a numbers game. How is three one, like you said, and how is one three? That doesn’t make sense, and we go down that path. You’re saying that’s not the path. The path is a biblical path of the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and God’s relationship with us.

CK: It gets at the heart of what we mean when we say, “God is love.” Every Christian would say, “Yes, that’s important.” But what do we mean about love? That’s when we look at a relationship of love, not just an idea of love. That’s what the Trinity is all about in the Bible, in this relationship between the Father, and the Son, through the Spirit – this mutual relationship.

The Trinity means that God is love, and every Christian believes that. But love is not simply an abstract idea or a sentimental feeling – it’s this relationship between the Father and the Son, through the Spirit. There’s a richness in God. God is not simply an abstract being up there in heaven – and not just a sovereign, not just a good buddy. God is in a relationship of love himself, between the Father and Son through the Spirit. There are tremendous implications of that for that church, that we need to draw out the implications.

JMF: What you said is so telling, because even though Christians are Trinitarians (they believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, they accept it), when they think of God, they don’t think of the Trinity. They don’t think of Father, Son, the Holy Spirit – they think of one solitary human-like figure up in the sky with a beard or powerful or whatever, some superman-kind of figure. Even when we say “God is love,” they picture a single solitary individual who loves us. But they’re not thinking about a love relationship between Father, Son and Spirit…

CK: Exactly, and that colors how we view love. We often think of love as what I get out of it. I want to be loved, and all of us want to be loved. But we often don’t see that love, first of all, is giving. Giving is in God’s very being from all eternity – the Father and the Son are involved in a relationship of giving to one another, through the Spirit. Love isn’t something God just decided to do one day because we messed it up, now what – got to love these people. Love is something that is in God’s eternal being. It’s not something accidental to God, but essential. That’s exciting. It puts a different dynamic and richness into our understanding of love – what can be more practical?

JMF: We often use terms when we talk about Trinitarian theology – we describe it with terms like “Christ-centered Trinitarian theology.” How does that work with …

CK: That’s essential, because the only way we know of the Trinity is through Jesus Christ. It’s because of his revelation, his Incarnation. It’s the Incarnation of the Son that reveals God to be Father. This is how we know God to be Father, not from our ideas of father. But we get into big trouble if we try to force our ideas of fatherhood upon God. They may be very good experiences, they may be very bad experiences. Either way, that’s a bad theological method. Rather, we need to allow God to define what he means when he speaks of himself as Father. And we know that through the Son. It’s through the Son’s relationship with the Father.

The Incarnation and God in Jesus Christ is absolutely essential for us to know God the Father and know the Spirit, because the Father sends the Spirit through the Son. The Son promises the Spirit to be with us, to be our helper, to be the power of presence of Jesus Christ after his ascension. So it’s through the Son that we know of the Spirit as well. We can get to all sorts of problems when we develop experiences of the Holy Spirit, or theology of the Holy Spirit, divorced from Christ. And some groups do.

JMF: We use the term Christ-centered Trinitarian theology, and we also call it an incarnational theology. You mentioned the term Incarnation, Christ became one of us, draws us into the relationship he shares with the Father. In that way Trinitarian theology has a focus very different from most theologies.

CK: Yes. It’s not saying that this is a new theology with new revelation. This is something that all Christians confess. The problem is that often the church hasn’t seen the implications of God as Trinity, the implications of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. That’s what a lot of us are seeing today. It’s very exciting. It’s not a new gospel. It’s not a new idea. But it’s building upon what the church has always confessed but failed to act upon, failed to think through, and to be a generally Trinitarian incarnational church and have a Trinitarian incarnational ministry.

JMF: That’s why we’re here, to talk about more of those implications. One of them has to do with the title of your book, The God Who Believes: Faith, Doubt, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ. “The God Who Believes” is an interesting title. Can you tell us about that?

CK: We often think of faith and belief in terms of something that we do. Often it that “grace” is what God did. He did 50% of it, now it’s up to us to have the faith part, the belief part. The Bible says something very different. It says that God isn’t just on one side, he is on both sides. He is on the first action of grace and revelation. But in Jesus Christ, he has also become the one who responds, the one who believes.

The New Testament speaks of Jesus having faith. When I read the four Gospels, the entirety of the Gospel narrative is a story of Jesus’ trust in the Father. Shouldn’t it affect how we view faith? I think the New Testament also elaborates on that, particularly in the letter to Hebrews … that the basis of our faith is in the fact that first of all, Jesus believes in our place and on our behalf. Faith isn’t simply something “we have to work up enough faith.” Often we don’t have enough faith.

JMF: Usually we think in terms of trying to emulate or imitate the faith of Christ. We hear in sermons, the pastor would say, “Look at this faith Christ had. That’s the kind of faith we need to have.” Instead of looking at Christ as who he is for us.

CK: Yes, we should imitate Christ, but what comes before that is our participation in Christ, our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and therefore our union with his faith …

JMF: And that union isn’t something we work up.

CK: Exactly. It’s something given to us by grace. That’s the implications of the faith that Jesus has already had in the Father, that we through the Spirit then participate, and therefore faith isn’t something that is simply a burden and for people who are plagued with doubts. That’s a part of my audience for the book. Often the response we give to them is, “You just need to have more faith.” That’s the problem I have in the first place. I don’t have enough faith. As James Torrance used to put it, “We throw people back upon themselves.”

We need to re-think that because of who Jesus Christ is. Yes, he is God, he is fully God. Make no mistake about that. But he is also fully human. That includes faith, and his faith becomes the foundation, the ground for our faith. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to believe. No, quite the contrary: it’s the fact that because Jesus has believed, there’s the imperative for us to join with him through the Spirit, in his faith. That can be a tremendous relief (it has been for me), to think of that when I struggle with doubts, the death of my faith, and questions I have, and if these questions aren’t resolved, am I no longer a Christian? Often Christians will play with that terribly.

When I counsel people, I say, “Look to Jesus, look to his faith. You may not feel very faithful right now. It may be difficult, if not impossible for you to believe. But look to his faith, to uphold you, to support you in your times of doubt.” It brings a tremendous amount of release and relief to people.

JMF: So it’s fair to say that Jesus is believing for us, and therefore we’re trusting him to be full of faith in our place…

CK: Exactly. When it comes down to it after my death, it depends upon what Jesus believes about God. That’s a solid rock on which I stand. Not what I believe about God. Because my beliefs can come and go. [JMF: Right.] But to place your faith in Jesus’ faith, is the foundation that the New Testament really calls us to. But often the church has emphasized, no, faith is your part. God has done this part, 50%, and now the other 50%…

JMF: That’s how it’s usually said. [CK: And that’s tragic.] Then, we know our faith waivers or is weak, and so we’re thrown back into doubt and frustration.

CK: Exactly. That’s a tremendous tragedy when we just throw people back upon themselves.

JMF: So their trust should be in Christ himself, not in our faith.

CK: Right. Yes, faith is in Christ. In the Reformation, Luther made a great deal about that. But Christ is both God and human. Yes, he is God, but he is also human, and therefore he has faith. As the centurion at the cross said, he trusts in God, let God deliver him. He was saying that, “Yes, this one trusts in God.” And he trusts in God even in the moment of the cross.

JMF: You wrote this book in what year? [CK: 2005.] What led up to wanting to give your attention to this project?

CK: It goes back to my studies at Fuller Seminary, where I met Thomas Torrance, the famous Scottish theologian, and I was able to be his teaching assistant. That was a life-transforming experience, and I became more and more familiar with Torrance’s theology. One aspect of that is what he calls the vicarious humanity of Christ – it’s not just Christ’s death that’s vicarious – the atonement for us, but it’s the entirety of his humanity that is atoning. This captured me so much and became so transforming for me personally, I wanted to explore this more, and so I did my PhD dissertation on the vicarious humanity of Christ and its implications for contemporary views of salvation. There’s so much more on this that needs to be unpacked, that I decided to devote my scholarly pursuits to drawing out those implications.

JMF: As you got into the vicarious humanity of Christ, what struck you or moved you along and kept you excited?

CK: It was a personal and pastoral thing, and wrestling with my own faith. I came from a point as a young Christian of wanting to reconcile faith and reason. Apologetics – the studies of the defense of the faith – became important to me. But the more I studied, then the more anxious I got, the more insecure I felt. What if I didn’t consider this objection of faith… or maybe I missed that objection. It became a great trial of insecurity for me.

Karl Barth’s theology was very helpful at this point. He was the mentor to Thomas Torrance. That question, how Christian apologetics went about trying to find external evidences for God… [Barth said] “if we know God, it’s only through God’s grace,” and that became very liberating. The vicarious humanity of Christ doctrine built on that, because it said, “Yes, my trust is in Christ.” But then, who is Jesus Christ? What do you do with his humanity? His humanity is, as you said, not just something to imitate, because if we just said, “Be like Jesus,” we look in the mirror and realize we’re not like Jesus, and we just become frustrated.

But the vicarious humanity means that he represents us, and he takes our place, in every aspect of our lives. My former professor Geoffrey Bromiley used to say that the problem with evangelicals is they say they believe in a substitutionary atonement – that Christ died for our sins, but we don’t really believe in it enough. We’re not radical enough about the substitutionary atonement. It’s not just that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. He did. But often evangelicals stop at that point, and the atonement therefore has little relevance for their lives. No, the substitutionary atonement means that Christ’s humanity took the place of every aspect of our humanity.

In a way, that’s threatening to us. It’s why some people fight against it. Because we want that one little aspect of our life – a religious niche that we control, that we still are sovereign over. But the claim of the gospel is that God claims our entire life, and that’s what the vicarious humanity of Christ is about. The atonement reaches into every aspect, every nook and cranny of our humanity, because Christ took on the entirety of our humanity. Even though that appears to be threatening at first, ultimately it’s just liberating – it’s the essence of the gospel, being in Christ. It’s why Paul so much talks about being “in Christ,” a man in Christ – because it is only in this union with Christ that we really have hope, for now and in the life to come.

JMF: If that’s true for us, or that’s true for me, then one of the reasons I might have trouble wanting to accept that will be that it would be true for the guy across the street that I don’t like, who does a lot of things that I don’t like or agree with. It’s true for him, too.

CK: Right. There are implications that are beyond my own piety but extends to how I treat others, to ethics and so forth, that the humanity of Christ means that the Word became the flesh of all people. The Word became flesh, John says in his first chapter. It doesn’t say that the Word became Christian flesh of those who believed. No. The Word became the flesh of all people.

In that context of John, it’s the context in which he came into the world – the true light came into the world, but the world knew him not, the world rejected him. The important thing is that the Word became the flesh of all people, and therefore we have to view other people in a different way now. That person is loved by God. That cantankerous neighbor Harry that we can’t stand – our approach to him has to be as one who is already loved by God. Not as one who just has the potential to be loved by God – that’s how we often are in evangelism. We view people as just potential converts. That’s a wrong kind of evangelism. The gospel evangelism says that they are already loved in Christ. That’s a theological issue, and that’s why theology is important, to get at the nature of the gospel, who God is, who Christ is – that affects how we then minister as a church in the world.

JMF: Typically, we’ll take the worst example that springs to mind and we say, “God can’t possibly love, let’s say, Adolph Hitler – you’re saying that God loves everyone unconditionally and he’s done this in Christ for everyone. But what about Adolph Hitler, surely God doesn’t love Adolph Hitler.”

CK: Right. It’s one thing to say that “God loves everyone.” It’s another thing to say what they do with that love… because we’re not talking about universalism, that everyone is going to be saved. We’re saying that God’s love, nonetheless, is unconditional to all. Jesus loved his enemies, and the moral implication of the gospel is for us to love our enemies. That is something that we can do only through the Holy Spirit. That is impossible, but that’s what we are called to do, because God is doing that and has done that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are ultimately saved because of it.

JMF: There’s a response to love – love does go two ways, and if it doesn’t, if it’s forced – if God were to make people (which doesn’t even make sense) love him, in response to his love – then it would not even be love, would it?

CK: A coercive God is not a loving God. In any loving relationship, if there is coercion, it is not a loving relationship. What’s ironic is that those who say that some are predestined to be saved – that’s a coercive relationship, that God’s going to choose A, B, and C and not choose X, Y, and Z. That’s just as coercive as saying that God is going to make the entire world love him – what is called universalism.

The predestination doctrine and universalism (that’s something that T. F. Torrance points out) are similar, in that they both have a kind of determinism, a coercion to them – which is the opposite of the biblical portrayal of the love God has for Israel, for example. God unconditionally pledges himself to Israel, not because they’re better or superior to other people in the world – but simply because God chooses to love them. They unfortunately rebel and reject that, but God continues to love them, continues to pursue them. That’s the story of the Old Testament, in a nutshell.

JMF: It’s a story that many parents experience [CK: Oh, yes.] We love our children and yet for whatever reason they become anti-parents, and rebellious, and they go away in a direction of life that is destructive and harmful. They cut themselves off – the parent continues to love and would welcome them home, and yet they have no intention of coming home (at least, not in any kind of a loving way). That doesn’t change the fact that they belong to the parent, that they are the parent’s child, and the parent never ceases to love them.

CK: For some reason people have this idea that there is a sin I can do, or do enough sins – then God will have nothing more to do with me. That’s a pernicious theology. We need to call that theology on the carpet and say, “no, that’s wrong.” That’s not the unconditional grace of God that we see portrayed in the Bible, and most of all in Jesus Christ.

JMF: That’s often done with the passage about the so-called unpardonable sin, that all manner of sin will be forgiven except blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Maybe you can comment on that just as we conclude…

CK: I don’t think anybody really knows what the unpardonable sin is. I don’t think it’s our purpose to know what that is. Our purpose is to bear witness to Jesus Christ who spoke that. Remember, that saying is not said by just anyone. It’s said by Jesus Christ. That means we go to him for refuge. We realize that, yes, it’s only in him, faith in him that I have any hope. Then, whether I blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is obviously a …

JMF: Isn’t the only way we can come to understand, trust, and know Christ, is with the Holy Spirit? Rejecting the Spirit’s witness to Christ is rejecting the only salvation there is. It isn’t the question of somebody saying certain words, and God says, that’s it.

CK: That’s a pernicious myth we have, that God’s love is conditioned by what we do, what we say, that we really are in control. Ironically, we think that that is freedom. That’s not freedom – that’s slavery. The true freedom is to be in obedience to the Father, and that’s what we see in Jesus Christ – the only one who can do that, however, is Jesus Christ – only in Christ do we see freedom and obedience come together.

In our experience, we seek to be free, and that’s big for Americans, it’s big for the post-Enlightenment person. Freedom is our mentor. But we also know there are times to be obedient, and certainly we’ve seen times in the 20th century when entire nations have become obedient to demonic forces. We have trouble putting together freedom and obedience.

The only person who’s ever put those two together is Jesus Christ. When we read the Gospels, the story of Christ is a human being who perfectly puts together his freedom (Jesus was the most free person of all), but he also was the most obedient to the Father. He puts those together, and in our union with him, that becomes the basis for our new humanity, in participating by faith in his humanity.

JMF: We have rest.

CK: Exactly. That’s exciting – it means we don’t have to be burdened by “Am I doing enough for God?” or “If I do enough for God, if I’m obedient enough, maybe I’ll lose this freedom.” That’s what we often think, and so we are afraid of actually becoming more committed to Christ – I might lose this freedom. No, Jesus Christ puts that freedom and obedience together.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 2:47 PM