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 the ministry and theology of the late Ray Anderson.

Edited transcript

This program is offered in tribute to the life and work of Dr. Ray S. Anderson (1925-2009), former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.


JMF: You just finished a book about Ray Anderson. I’d like to talk about that. The title is Reading Ray S. Anderson: Theology as Ministry, Ministry as Theology. How did you first come to know Ray?

Christian Kettler: Ray was one of God’s great gifts in my life. I was a student at Fuller Seminary. Seminary students are a weird breed. They’re supposed to be training for ministry, but they’re actually still in the process of wrestling through life’s issues and trying to really know God’s grace. You usually go to a lot of academic classrooms – you go to biblical studies, church history and so forth, and you try to translate it into your life somehow.

A friend of mine recommended that I take a course from Ray Anderson, and I quickly found out that this man wasn’t just teaching about grace. He was presenting grace, and I quickly found out that this was a life-changing experience for me. What Ray does, what’s so amazing is that, we think that it would be self-evident that theology and ministry should go hand in hand. But when you go to a typical seminary, that’s not the case. You have the biblical studies department over here, you have the church history department over here, you have the ministry department here, preaching, and never the twain shall meet.

Ray was the professor who was a one-man department – professor of Theology and Ministry. He went to both faculty meetings, Theology and Ministry, but really he was himself a one department, because he’s a unique individual. He was a pastor for ten years before he went on for his PhD under Thomas Torrance in Scotland and developed an understanding of a Christo-centric Trinitarian theology in a vital dialogue with the ministry of the church. He’s made a tremendous contribution that way in relating theology with ministry more than anyone I know of. He has written a succession of books throughout the years that are very profound, provocative, and controversial.

I realized that more people needed to know about Ray, and so last year I sat down and began to write this book, a kind of what I call to my friends, “Ray Lite” – it hardly catches the exuberance and excitement and creativity of his theology. It’s trying to just introduce people to some of Ray’s thoughts and invite them to get into Ray, reading Ray – I think they would be very much rewarded in doing so.

JMF: There are any number of directions you could take in introducing someone like Ray. What direction did you go?

CK: The subtitle of the book is Theology as Ministry, Ministry as Theology to communicate that. In different ways Ray sought to bring them together. Then I proceed through some traditional doctrines – doctrine of God, humanity, Christ and salvation, the church, Holy Spirit, last things… but then look at them in terms of Ray’s unique take upon them, and how he reflected on them in his teaching as well as in his books. You’re constantly seeing that he refuses to have a theology that does not meet the test of being in the local congregation – meeting people where they are at, with all their crazy-quilt of problems and questions and frustrations, and realizing that if theology means anything, it’s going to meet people where they’re at.

The only kind of theology that really does that is a Christo-centric Trinitarian theology – one that takes seriously first of all that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ – it’s not just the possibility, it’s not just a religious quest, but it’s a reality that we thankfully and humbly receive by faith. That revelation is of the Triune God, the God who is in a relationship of love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s seeing how that works out in terms of the ministry of the church, realizing that the ministry of the church is not our ministry. We often think that ministry is our part. God has done his part in Christ. Now it’s our part, as the ministry. That’s a terrible, terrible theology, and it bears terrible fruit in practice, because we end up creating our own ministries, our own agendas.

No, there is one continuing ministry, and that’s the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ continues to minister. Ray has written about that in many forms, and developed a Trinitarian theology of ministry that reflects a continuing ministry of Jesus Christ. He wrote a wonderful essay in the beginning of a book entitled Theological Foundations for Ministry – the introductory essay is titled “A Theology for Ministry,” in which he set out that agenda. It challenges theologians. This is not a case of a theologian saying to lay people, “You ought to read more theology.” No, it’s quite the opposite. It’s saying that the ministry is the ministry of Jesus Christ.

Ministry always precedes theology. But this is not simply to say that whatever is pragmatic, whatever is practical, then you shape your theology on that basis. No. The ministry, remember, is the ministry of Jesus Christ. That precedes the theology, and that should shape the theology. Theology should never be distant from ministry. Sadly, in theological education, distance is almost the rule instead of the exception – with separated departments, and the biblical scholars never talk to the theologians or never talk to the ministry people.

Ray is trying to break that apart. He’s been a tremendous influence on generations of students at Fuller Seminary. I just noticed at Fuller they have a plaque now that says his name: “The Ray Anderson Classroom,” for the encouragement he gave to doctor of ministry students. Ray was the theological adviser to the doctor of ministry program at Fuller for many years. He was the champion for that program. A lot of his colleagues were saying, “What’s this doctor of ministry? A doctor is supposed to be for PhD’s, not for ministry people.” And the ministry people were saying, “Why do I need another degree?”

Ray said, “We need to equip ministers, pastors, after their Master of Divinity degrees, to go on, to continue to learn at the highest level possible. He became the champion for these doctor of ministry students, and they appreciated that, even though he challenged them all the time with some very challenging theology. He did that for all of his students at Fuller, and some students don’t know what to make of it.

I have a good friend who’s a black pastor in Atlanta and a musician who said to me that he took one course from Ray Anderson and he thought afterwards “Either this man is a genius or he’s insane.” He is that much of a creative individual in his lectures, in his presence in the classroom. As I thought back on that, on my own experience, that many of us come into that classroom desperate for the grace of God, and Ray bore witness to that grace. I’m forever thankful to that. Fortunately, we have his books that communicate that grace as well, and I want to encourage people to dig into that… knowing it’s going to be challenging, but there’s a great reward in reading it.

JMF: His relentless tenacity in not letting go of grace and the reality of our union with Christ and communion with Christ as who we are, come through so movingly in his book The Gospel According to Judas. You don’t hear people talking about The Gospel According to Judas or even much focus on Judas, but in this book, Ray did take Judas as an example of who we all are. It was so moving…

CK: The subtitle was Is There a Limit to God’s Grace?, which may seem strange, but unfortunately for most of us, “Yes,” we’d say, “There is a limit to God’s grace.” But why do we say that? He questions that in terms of the person of Jesus and Judas, and presents an imaginary dialogue after Jesus’ death between Jesus and Judas. What would Jesus say to Judas? What would Judas say to Jesus? In a sense, would Judas refuse, not understand that he is forgiven? Or do we have to condemn Judas to perdition?

We all need a scapegoat. Ray explores this tendency we have, whether in church or business or family, to always want to have a scapegoat. We needed to have somebody to blame things on. In a sense he suggests for the disciples it was Judas – he’s the one. But Peter denied Christ, too. We think, well, Judas demonstrates that there is a limit to God’s grace. There is so far that you can go with this grace business or else you just hit license, and people would do whatever they want to. And so, Judas is a good example.

Ray challenges that and suggests, maybe there isn’t a limit… maybe Jesus really did forgive Judas. What would that mean? What does that say about grace? It would mean that if Jesus can forgive Judas, he can forgive me. That even though I fail him over and over and over and over again, that he can forgive me. In effect, there is no limit to God’s grace. We are the ones who put limits to God’s grace. God doesn’t. It’s a very powerful message about forgiveness that’s received a lot of readership from inmates in jails – many inmates convicted of murder wrote to Ray and say they read his book – “can God forgive me?” It’s a challenge for all of us to really rethink our theology and practice of forgiveness. Do we really believe in forgiveness, do we really believe in grace?

JMF: It’s an honesty question, isn’t it? Often we hide ourselves from our own knowledge of ourselves as being sinners.

CK: Yeah, we need to pretend we’re not sinners, and then we come out as phonies. Or else it just becomes a repeated wallowing in the fact that we are sinners. Not that first of all that we’re objects of grace. Our failings never deny that – as was true for Israel in the Old Testament. God’s grace doesn’t let us go – that becomes the motivation for us to seek him, rather than try to appease him.

It’s because he won’t let us go that we’re motivated to love him – and to serve him, and that’s absolutely the difference in motivation. It’s the kind of motivation you find in the New Testament. When Paul in Ephesians spends three chapters talking about our blessings in heavenly places in Jesus Christ, because we’ve been chosen, been given every spiritual blessing in Christ, it goes on for three chapters. Then with chapter 4, he says, “therefore, walk in a manner worthy of the calling you’ve received, because all this is who you are.

Ephesians 1-3 is indicative… [JMF: Is already so…] then, the imperative comes based upon that. It isn’t that the imperative is the basis for you to be accepted. It’s the opposite.

JMF: Like his letter to Titus – for his grace… that teaches you.

CK: Yeah. For the grace of God has appeared … exhorting us to renounce sin. [Titus 2:11-12]

JMF: The grace comes first [CK: Exactly], and in the context of the grace, we’re able then to move forward …

CK: That’s a constant theme, which Ray got very much with Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance, his mentor, and also from his own experience as a pastor – which he saw that many people had been wounded by the church. For most of his time as a professor at Fuller Seminary, he had a little church, meeting in a school multi-purpose building – Harbor Fellowship. It attracted about 20, 30 people a week. They didn’t have any programs, so if people wanted programs, they’d leave the church. It became kind of a half-way house for people who’ve been burned by the church. They came to this little group – just gathering together, hearing the word of God, sharing communion, and Ray preaching a very simple yet profound sermon, and people were healed. They were able then to go back to the other churches. This little community of grace, if you will.

Ray lives that. He’s lived that theology in the church, as well as writing about it. You see that in his writings much more than any other theologian I know. He never has ceased to be a pastor. There are plenty of professors in seminaries that used to be pastors and probably were failures at being a pastor. But then they went on to get their degrees and became a seminary professor. Ray Anderson never ceased to being a pastor. To the students of Fuller, his door was always open in his office – unheard of among seminary professors. You can walk in with a need. With the people at Harbor Fellowship he continued to preach the word and minister to them during the week. Particularly with the D.Min. students, mentoring them. Coming back, he used to say that they would come back anesthetized to theology by their own seminary training. Theology was irrelevant to them as a pastor. He had to help them work again at theology and ministry, and that became such a moving experience to a whole generation of D.Min. students.

JMF: A book you used in your classes, as well as one that I feel is very helpful and encouraging is Dancing with Wolves While Feeding the Sheep [CK: Yeah, wonderful title] – Musings of a Maverick Theologian

CK: The wolves are faculty colleagues who had trouble accepting Ray and his theology of ministry. But he still wanted to tend the sheep. He saw himself as a maverick theologian. This is a remarkable little book that consists of questions. Questions that people are asking, that lay people have asked – but nonetheless are profound, theological questions:

  • Will Judas be in heaven?
  • Is Jesus an evangelical?
  • What do you say at the graveside of a suicide?

It’s very profound, practical, important questions. One chapter is remarkable – Does Jesus think of things today? It’s a question that gets to a very important point. As we read Scripture, is Jesus reading Scripture along with us? Or has he left the building and given us the Bible because he’s not around anymore? What kind of theology is that? Practically, that often is our theology.

But it’s really a strange view of Scripture that thinks that we could read Scripture without Jesus. When we think of the road to Emmaus and Jesus himself had to explain to disciples where the Scriptures spoke of him. Ray plays with that a little bit in how we use and abuse the Bible and often don’t read it in a Christo-centric way – in terms of all Scripture bears witness to Christ. The chapters are very provocative (and mischievous in some ways) but very helpful in the end.

JMF: I hope your book will move some people toward wanting to be more familiar with some of Ray’s books.

CK: That’s the purpose. This is just to give them a taste of Anderson and some of his insights here and there, and to move them into reading his books, because I think there’s such a rich reward in reading Ray.

JMF: Many people may not know that Ray played part of a role early on in the transformation of the Worldwide Church of God, in the early stages after the transformation, of being a support and a help to many of our pastors, and attending many of our pastors’ conferences and speaking at them, encouraging our pastors.

CK: Ray’s always been able to connect with pastors, because he never ceased to be a pastor. The same time, he’s a world-class top-flight theologian who will challenge you academically and intellectually as much as you want to be challenged. He’s that rare individual who does both.

JMF: We had the opportunity to interview him two times on this program.

CK: Right, those were wonderful interviews, too. I commend them to the audience.

JMF: A couple of your books focused on some of these same themes that you were first introduced to with Ray, and one of them is this one – The God Who Believes: Faith, Doubt, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ. And your forthcoming one – The God Who Rejoices: Joy, Despair and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ.

CK: Because of Anderson’s influence, I increasingly saw that theology didn’t need to be restricted to an ivory tower, and deal only with abstract, arcane or irrelevant issues. But theology at its best is taking the gospel and applying it radically to our struggles in our lives – such as doubt and despair and guilt and anxiety and loneliness. Ray’s Christocentric theology reminded me that the solution needs to be constantly to go back to Jesus Christ. Maybe our Christology hasn’t been healthy or strong enough.

Through the work of Ray’s mentor T.F. Torrance, I encountered this doctrine on the vicarious humanity of Christ. It says that the atonement is not just restricted to Christ paying the penalty for our sins. He did that. But it’s not just his death that’s vicarious in our place. His entire humanity takes our place. It very much came out of Ray’s pastoral theology that I became intrigued with dealing with these issues – but also his profound Christocentric theology and the influence of the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, which has so much potential for us having a Christocentric theology of ministry. Often when people talk about theology of ministry, it’s just trying to be practical, or just become more skilled at being a preacher or a counselor or a church-growth strategist or whatever. No. It’s got to be a theology that drives us back to the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and to the Triune God whom Jesus Christ reveals. Because otherwise we’re just trying to do our best to do some crowd management in the church – or as Dallas Willard says, just do sin management.

JMF: Sin management, yes, that’s right.

CK: Rather, we do sin management if we don’t have that robust Christocentric Trinitarian theology. It’s so encouraging to me when I hear what you folks are doing at Grace Communion International in drawing up the implications of a Trinitarian theology for the ministry of the church. That’s really the future, and it’s an exciting future in doing that.

JMF: I appreciate that.

Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful book called The Return of the Prodigal Son, about the painting. On the newer cover, there’s Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal son, and then Nouwen goes through every aspect of that painting as it captures the pathos of who we are in Christ and the fact that we are held by his arms after everything we are and everything we’ve done, he’s made us new in himself and won’t let us go. It’s an embrace of absolute, unconditional love despite who we are, and it speaks to the vicarious humanity of Christ – who he is for us, that he’s made us to be in our rest and our comfort that comes of that. Because it seems like as you wrote about joy and despair, there’s so much despair. That’s where we’re coming from.

CK: We see ourselves as just in despair, yes, God help me, but [we think] God is still distant from that. Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics [volume IV.2, page 21] has a wonderful section – his exegesis of the prodigal son, do you know it? [JMF: No.] It’s fantastic, it’s called in a section, titled “the way of the Son of God into the far country.” He sees Jesus as the prodigal son. He’s the one who goes into the far country of our humanity, our despair, our doubts and so forth… taking upon our humanity, then is embraced by the Father. So we’re not left alone in our doubts and despairs and anxieties. The Incarnation means God is taking upon our humanity – that humanity is the humanity now, as it is now, filled with doubts and despair and anxiety. It’s a fascinating way of looking at the prodigal son. [JMF: A comforting picture.] Exactly, but very much connected with Nouwen’s emphasis and the Rembrandt painting. One question we’d like to ask everybody at least at some point in an interview: If there is one thing you want people to know about God, what would it be?

CK: God is love. Christians always say that God is love. But we know that God is love because God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s the significance of the Trinity, that God himself is in a relationship of love from all eternity, and that is made known, made manifest in the Incarnation. So when we speak of the love of God, we’re not talking about something that is a feeling or sentimentality or something abstract, or even our ideas of love. Love is at the center of who God is in this relationship between the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. That’s why the Trinity is so essential for the church.

JMF: And that’s the heart of the Trinitarian theology, which this program is all about.

CK: Exactly. It means that God is love – and that means relationship in God himself that he then has shared with us in Jesus Christ.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 2:54 PM