Category: theology

Soft vs hard postmodernism

cover of Reformed and Always ReformingIn his book on postconservative theology – Reformed and Always Reforming – Roger Olson makes a valuable distinction between two types of postmodernism. It is a distinction that I came to make in some way in my own mind, but it would have been so very valuable to read it articulated like this back in my undergrad days at Murdoch University in what will turn out to have been the twilight of ‘absolute’ (and ‘hard’) postmodernism.

Olson describes hard postmodernism like this:

On the one hand is deconstructive thought that seeks to expose the oppressive power of truth claims and especially of metanarratives. Philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, and Richard Rorty engage in this hard kind of postmodern philosophy, which seems inevitably relativistic. For them, all truth claims are but masks for will to power. Some critics have described this hard type of postmodern philosophy as “cognitive nihilism.” Its main purpose is to relativize truth.

This is the kind of postmodernism which is more familiar to people. I think it is only of limited usefulness and insight. More helpful and insightful is what Olson calls ‘soft’ postmodernism:

On the other hand is a softer kind of postmodern philosophy found in thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, who does not deny ontological reality or objective truth but seeks to show that even reason always operates within a narrative context. In other words, knowledge may be relative even if truth is not… This is not relativism but recognition of the relativity of perspective inherent in all human thinking. All reasoning and judging takes place from within some local context shaped by a narrative about reality and carried forward within a community of tradition created by that narrative.

Conservatives will tend to assume postconservatives are embracing ‘hard’ postmodernism, when in fact they are only using the insights of ‘soft’ postmodernism.

Puritan and Pietist contending within evangelicalism

cover of Reformed and Always ReformingRoger Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Theology. (Baker Academic, 2007)

In outlining the difference between conservative and postconservative evangelical theology, Olson makes a fascinating proposal. For him, evangelicalism has always faced the challenge and rewards of its dual origins in two different streams of Christianity – Puritan and Pietist. The Puritan stream has emphasised doctrinal correctness and seen theology as the task of systemising the Bible into doctrines and then defending these formulations (basically already completed) against innovations. The Pietist stream has tended to make the experience of conversion and discipleship the primary mode of faith, with doctrine flowing from this. (This is a simplification of his generalisation, so bear that in mind before picking holes in it.) I don’t identify with either of these streams, but I am very sympathetic to the postconservative evangelical theologians.

Today, conservative evangelicals (inheritors of the Puritan stream) tend to look at the Bible primarily as a means of information. Postconservative evangelicals (inheritors of the Pietist stream) look at the Bible just as much as a means of transformation and encounter; just as important as propositions are stories, parables, poetry in the Bible which call for our response and participation. Postconservatives also believe that no post-canonical formulation of doctrine can be seen as final and beyond questioning; they tend to encourage theological imagination and creativity.

Olson believes conservatives are susceptible to an ironic kind of traditionalism. Despite the fact they tend to downplay tradition as a source for theology, conservatives will often defend Reformation (or later) formulations of doctrine as fixed and final, because they take them to be the only faithful way to understand the biblical witness.

The Evangelical Universalist

Years ago for my first year theology class, I read Four Views On Hell. The alternatives offered were literal flames, metaphoric flames but eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and a Catholic explanation of purgatory. I was convinced by Clark Pinnock’s idea of annihilationism or conditional immortality. It contends that we are only made immortal through God’s intervention, and the fate of those who reject God is extinction – not eternal punishment but non-existence.

It is a view that has some scriptural support, taking seriously the idea in the New Testament that without Christ we will perish, that death is the fate of those who have not found salvation. If not hopeful, it at least eased my conscience; the thought of an eternal torture chamber continuing on underneath the new creation is distressing.

An option not presented in Four Views of Hell, indeed an option that few evangelicals consider open to them is of hell as restorative punishment – or, to use a word evangelicals tend to be scared of – universalism.

A month or more ago I read an intriguing book called The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. Gregory MacDonald is actually the pseudonym for an evangelical writer who works for a prominent evangelical publishing house, and didn’t want the rest of his work and his employers’ work dismissed by association. Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald are two noteworthy universalists. MacDonald kept a blog where he kept his readers guessing as to his identity for a couple of years, assuring them he was not Rick Warren or John Piper, before finally revealing his identity a few months ago.

I have wanted to write about it, but I feel myself unable to; I’m not sure of my conclusions about the book. So I have called on two of my friends to offer their contrasting views of it. Please direct all your concerns about their heterodoxy or whatever to them.


Bill Barclay

The Evangelical Universalist is a splendid book. It offers both a theological and biblical framework for understanding that the New Testament actually affords us hope for a universal reconciliation between humans and God.

For MacDonald, universalism is an implicit doctrine in the New Testament, ready to be teased out, in an analogous manner to the way the Trinity has been developed as a doctrine. In particular, Colossians ‘provides the contours of a grand theological narrative with a universalist ending. It is this basic theology that I suggest can form the framework within which the rest of the Bible can be appreciated.’ (p.7) MacDonald makes important the verses which proclaim that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

So when I claim that universalism is biblical, I do not mean that all biblical authors were universalists but that the universalist tendencies of some authors provide the big picture within which we can happily accommodate the teachings on hell of all the biblical writers. (p.40)

MacDonald obviously has a lot of work to do to go against the tide of centuries of interpretation of passages about hell and final judgement. He certainly believes in the reality of hell, and that is a terrible place we should do everything possible to avoid. But he argues that its function is not to punish forever but to bring people to repentance. (Yes that does sound a little like purgatory, doesn’t it?)

MacDonald believes that Bible clearly teaches that God desires that none shall perish but that all should have eternal life. He doesn’t agree with Arminian logic that people are able to, finally, resist the love and will of God. If God desires that all should have eternal life, then He shall bring it about.

Many free-will defences of hell make the importance of free-will so much that protecting it justifies anything, even eternal punishment for eternity. Many discussions of hell also insist that while God’s justice – his need to condemn sin – is immutable and absolute, his mercy has its limits – that in the end, God’s justice will win out over his mercy for lots of damned people.

MacDonald spends considerable time with the relevant Bible passages about hell and makes a case for how they can be interpreted consistently with (eventual) universal salvation. His proposal about the lake of fire in Revelation is perhaps the most intriguing. Who is it that is thrown into the lake of fire? The rebellious nations who have followed the Beast. Who is it that is welcomed into the New Jerusalem in the next chapter? All the nations! Why are the gates of the New Jerusalem open day and night? Who are they open for? What is outside the New Jerusalem? Well, the lake of fire, and the people leaving it.

Most evangelicals will find the idea of universal salvation utterly disturbing. Which says something of how perverted evangelicals are. One can’t help but sense that most evangelicals will be a little disappointed if everyone gets to join the party in the new heavens and new earth.

If evangelicals are only driven in their mission efforts by the heat of the flames of hell, then perhaps their good news isn’t good enough.


Will Shedd

MacDonald makes the most sense in this whole book when he writes on p.3, ‘…universalism is so far off the ‘soundness’ radar that it does not even register! Universalism is so obviously false that it can be rejected with hardly a moment’s thought.’

It disturbs me, the plague of young ‘evangelicals’ who sound like liberals. The essence of liberalism is that whenever one encounters a biblical truth that one finds unpalatable, one reinterprets it in the light of other knowledge to make it palatable. Being evangelical means standing under the authority of the Bible.

You have to strain very hard to make the New Testament universalist, and MacDonald strains very hard indeed. Unclear passages, like the one in Colossians that he builds so much on need to be reinterpreted in the light of clear teaching of the rest of the Bible – which, in this case, we have so much of.


A summary of Tom Wright’s ‘Building for the kingdom’

Here’s a summary of Tom Wright’s chaper on ‘Building for the kingdom’ in Surprised By Hope. It talks about our role – our mission – as disciples in enacting signs of the kingdom here and now.

1. Introduction

God builds God’s kingdom, not us. But he’s ordered his creation in such a way that his own work in the world takes place through humans who reflect his image. Through the work of Jesus and the power of the Spirit he equips humans to help in the work of getting the project back on track.

We are not building the kingdom itself, but we are building for it. ‘Our labours in Christ are not in vain’ (1 Cor 15:58) – everything done for God will become a part of God’s new creation, his recreation when he brings together heaven and earth. We don’t know how he’s going to do this; only that he will. We haven’t seen the architect’s drawing of the whole building with our bit in its proper place. But we can get on with doing our bit, and one day God will enhance and ennoble it.

Our calling, then, is to enact signs and symbols of the new creation here today in the midst of the old creation.

This makes the task of the church very different than if we were just saving souls for a disembodied heaven. With that in mind, Wright wants to sketch three important aspects of our work of building for the kingdom; there are many other aspects of our work he could have written about.

2. Justice

Justice is the setting right of the world, evident in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It’s one of the main aspects of our task of building for the kingdom. Fundamentalists claim it’s hopeless trying to make things more just because it’s only going to get worse till Jesus returns; liberals attempt to make it better without the power and promise of the resurrection.

The resurrection was a revolutionary doctrine – that’s why the Sadducees hated it. It promises a new exodus, a liberation from slavery, a defeat of evil in the world.

For Wright, the main justice issue in the world today is third world debt. Like slavery in its time, there are lots of ‘common sense’ arguments against doing something to overturn it. But it is our duty as Christians to call for a radical transformation of how we live as a worldwide community, anticipating the recreation of all things.

3. Beauty

Wright believes that taking creation and new creation seriously is a way to recover the importance of beauty for the church today.

He writes, ‘To make sense of and celebrate a beautiful world through the production of artefacts which are themselves beautiful is part of the call to be stewards of creation, as was Adam’s naming of the animals.’ (234)

The challenge is the balance between the temptation to ignore ugliness and sin and pretend all is beautiful (leading to sentimental art) and the temptation to wallow in ugliness and pretend all is darkness (leading to brutal art). Wright believes there is an impasse between these tendencies and that Christian artists should be breaking the impasse and leading the way out. (I’m unconvinced of his account here; I don’t know any writers who make the mistake of ignoring ugliness – there is no such impasse from my observation, more just a balancing act that particularly confronts Christian artists.)

As Christian artists we should be describing the world not just as it is or should be, but also as it one day will be. He writes, ‘And we should never forget that when Jesus rose from the dead, as the paradigm, first example and generating power of the whole new creation, the marks of the nails were not only visible on his hands and his feet. They were the way he was to be identified. When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection, and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission.’ (235-6)

4. Evangelism

If beauty and justice are two key signs or tastes of the kingdom, then evangelism is the call of Jesus for every person to join the kingdom.

Wright starts by clearing away some objections. Even though most evangelism has been done with a very deficient gospel, God can still use it to draw people to him and despite the weakness of the message, people’s faith and relationship with God are still real. But it would still be better to have the full biblical gospel.

The proclamation of good news is much more credible where the signs of the kingdom are shown in the life and work of the church. The announcement of good news makes sense when a church is working for justice and demonstrating the beauty of the (re)creation.

Next, Wright asks what conversion is in his account of the gospel. It’s a regeneration, a turning around, a sign of new life in a person so that they can be said to be a little part of this new creation.

Seeing conversion in these terms has three consequences over against individualistic accounts offered by popular evangelicalism:

1. It’s an incarnational faith, not a rejection of God’s good creation.
2. It’s a kingdom faith, not an individualistic one where the primary reality is a private relationship with God.
3. It’s a faith of discipleship, where what we do matters because Christian ethics are an expression of Christian hope.

5. Conclusion

In his conclusion, Wright brings his three themes together and shows how they interact in the context of his ministry in a post-industrial wasteland, where factories have closed, leaving many unemployed, and a sense of despair pervades the ugly landscape and passive lives of television.

In this situation, the church needs to take up the cause of justice, speaking out against the injustice of a system that has led to this state of affairs. At the same time, it can embody hope by being place where the beauty of ‘new creativity bursts forth for the whole community’. Which will lead to chances to give an account for the hope which the church is embodying – that is, the task of evangelism.

Is God to blame?

When something bad happens, is it God’s will? And even if it wasn’t, why didn’t he intervene? Gregory Boyd’s book Is God to blame? moving beyond pat answers to the problem of suffering discusses these questions and offers some helpful responses.

Boyd starts by critiquing what he calls ‘the blueprint’ view of the world. According to this Augustinian/ Calvinist view (and I’m sure proponents feel both he and I are simplifying it) everything that happens in the world, God has willed for his higher purpose. There is a specific divine reason for everything that takes place. This comes out of a conviction that if God is all powerful, then nothing can thwart his will. It leads to people asking when their baby is stillborn or their brother dies in a car accident: What is God trying to teach me? What greater good did this serve?

In Boyd’s pastoral experience thinking of God like this has led people to lose their faith or at least develop a picture of God as someone who hurts them. (I think that God can teach us things through any tragedy. But I don’t think that he wills tragedies in order to teach us things.) It also presents a big apologetic problem to non-believers who are told this is the sort of God we worship. Of course, these reasons in themselves don’t make the blueprint approach wrong.

People who believe in the blueprint view of the world might say that God is mysterious; we can’t understand his deeper purposes. Boyd offers an alternative. His argument can be summed up like this:

Because of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we can be confident of our knowledge about God’s character and general purposes for our life. What we can hardly begin to fathom, however, is the vast complexity of creation, a creation that includes an untold number of human and spiritual free agents whose decisions affect much that comes to pass. (p. 79)

I like this a lot. We know what God’s like; it’s the created order that we don’t understand. We can assume that ‘whatever appears inconsistent with the character and purposes of God revealed in Jesus Christ ultimately comes from agents who oppose God’ (p. 80).

Boyd describes a rebellious creation at war with God. God is constantly keeping the forces of chaos at bay as best he can within the logical constraints of our free will world. When we wonder why God hasn’t intervened, it might be that he can’t.

He can’t intervene more than he does, not because he lacks power but because the kind of world he created prevents him from doing so. (p. 112)

The kind of world he has created is one where love is made possible because agents have free choice. Without free choice, Boyd argues, love would be impossible.

Boyd is careful not to claim too much for his approach here. It doesn’t answer all our questions. But it throws us back to a position of trust, confident that we know God is good and that he is at work in the world overcoming evil.

Published by IVP in 2003, it’s an accessible book suitable for the general reader.

The Shack : theological fiction for the disenchanted

Love it or hate it, in the last year it seems everyone in the evangelical world has had an opinion on William P. Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack.  Whatever its failings, it has moved a lot of people deeply and has them talking about the problem of pain, the doctrine of the Trinity and many other theological questions.

The book starts off like a conventional crime novel: Mack’s daughter Missy goes missing while a family is on holiday. The police find her bloodied dress in a shack by a lake. Despite clunky writing and implausible police procedure – would the investigating officer  immediately tell a distraught father that the ladybird pin left where his daughter went missing was the calling card of a serial killer? – this section has a strong narrative drive.

The remaining three quarters of the book is less a novel and more a series of conversations between Mack and God. It starts with Mack receiving a note from God inviting him back to the shack. When he gets there, the three persons of the trinity are waiting for him – Papa (a large black woman); Jesus (a Middle Eastern but very American sounding man) and Sarayu (an Asian woman). Mack spends the weekend hanging out with God, having all his questions answered and his pain healed.

I like the idea of God appearing in a novel, but this God, despite her ethnic diversity, is too folksy and too middle-American. Several times a page the characters smirk, laugh, chuckle and smile their way through awkward dialogue that gives Young a chance to put his theology in the most privileged place of all – the mouth of God.

The central question is the problem of pain: why didn’t God stop Missy dying? But Mack and God end up covering a lot of areas – Christology, ethics and the church among many – sometimes in a muddled, whirlwind way that may cause more confusion than good.

Often the ideas are quite familiar. On the problem of pain, Young’s answer comes down, in the end, to a free-will defence:

“If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all.” (p. 190)

Earlier, Papa assures Mack she was there with Missy as she was murdered; she doesn’t attempt to explain why she didn’t intervene. Theologians have only taken us so far past these answers; it would be too much to ask for anything startling here.

Whatever its literary and theological shortcomings, a key question in responding to The Shack is to ask why so many people love it.

I wonder if for many it’s their first exposure to theology which challenges conservative evangelical piety. I think of my friend’s grandmother who came away from it amazed by the idea that God might not be simply male.

I wonder also if Young speaks to and for the growing number of disenchanted evangelicals who have little or no attachment to a church but still identify as Christians. His novel shows a distaste for institutions and a picture of an evangelical in exile that would appeal to them.

Finally, I think The Shack‘s lack of literary and theological polish is probably a part of its appeal. Young writes as an amateur in the best sense, and the book has a naivety and simplicity which might be refreshing for a lot of people. It’s not only his God who is so very accessible and human, but his writing and his ideas too.


I found this review I wrote in 2002 for a Christology unit.

L.Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology of Our Time (Petropolis:Vozes, 1972) ET: P. Hughes (London: SPCK, this edn 1990; first edn Orbis: Maryknoll, 1978)

1. Introduction – Jesus Christ in 1972

Leonardo Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator is an important Christological work.  It carries with it unspoken controversy, struggle and passion behind and between its words.  It points beyond itself to a lived reality in the base communities Boff works in, where his thinking about and understanding of Jesus is enacted.  That is to say, despite being a work of thorough scholarly integrity, it is a deeply practical work that Boff would never want to remain in the theoretical realm, either of his thinking or readers’.

It is interesting to compare Jesus Christ Liberator with another book about Jesus also published in 1972 – Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.  As the major contemporary anabaptist work on Jesus, references to Yoder’s book will help to clarify comparisons between my own anabaptist tradition and Boff’s South American Roman Catholicism.  Writing from 1972, both theologians work from a position in the immediate aftermath of the turbulent 1960s, where the protest movement, the Cold War, the Vietnam War (which was of course still being fought in 1972), and Vatican II (1962-5) had changed and were continuing to change society and theology dramatically.  Appropriately then, both theologians are interested in the socio-political dimension of Christ’s reign – that is, the visible church.  Both describe a Jesus passionately concerned for justice and liberation from visible oppression; both reject the apolitical personal saviour of conservative piety – whether Catholic or Protestant. While Boff’s is generically recognisable as a systematic theology ‘Christology’ written to focus on the aspect of Christ as ‘liberator’, Yoder’s is a manifesto – concerned with the traditional questions of Christology only in as much as they touch on his revisioning of the ethics of Jesus, and the consequences for the church today.

2. Boff’s Project: An Overview

In the preface to Liberator,  written for the 1978 English translation, Boff briefly notes the situation in which he wrote in 1972 –

It was put together in Brazil at a time when severe political repression was being exerted against broad segments of the church.  The word ‘liberation’ was forbidden to be used in all the communications media.  Thus the book did not say all that its author wanted to say; it said what could be said. (xii)

Accordingly, the whole work has a subdued feel to it; it is balanced and carefully considered.  This works in Boff’s favour.  Often the problem radicals face is that when no-one is listening, they feel the need to shout louder and louder and become more and more extreme to catch attention.  Boff demonstrates the potential alternative – engaging mainstream thinking (at least partially) on its own terms.   In Boff’s case, this means a conventionally formatted Christology which carefully answers from a liberation perspective the questions the mainstream is asking and consistently points to the substantive ecclesial socio-political liberation that is the basis of liberation ethics and praxis.

Boff’s work is constructive and positive.  In each chapter, the pattern is a movement from an assessment of the state of New Testament and theological scholarship concerning the particular issue to the theological consequences for understanding Jesus in our time from the perspective of the oppressed.  This integration of critical scholarship with an apostolic, catholic faith is one of the work’s most important achievements.  Conservatives are sometimes on the defensive denying the findings of scholarship to defend their ‘traditional’ faith, while liberals are sometimes on the offensive, abandoning apostolic faith supposedly on the strength of scholarship.  Boff manages to understand and revision apostolic faith in the light of a sympathetic assessment of scholarship.

He undertakes the project with an appropriate framework.  He begins with a Christology from below with a section on ‘The History of the History of Jesus’.  This leads into wider hermeneutical methodological questions (Chapter 2).  With his approach explained, Boff then spends two chapters explaining the motif central to his Christology – liberation in the kingdom of God.  Chapter 5 explains the ethics and life of Jesus in very human terms of good sense and imagination (more on this below), leading onto the significance Christ’s death (Chapter 6)  and resurrection (Chapter 7).  Christological development is summarised and assessed in the next three chapters, with Boff suggesting some new ideas in his concluding sections.  Chapters 11 and 12 are about Christ today – notably, Chapter 11 engages the question of Christ’s current presence in the context of the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the reality of religious pluralism.  The final chapter summarises the work by assessing Christology’s place in the world and within theology.  In the English translation this is followed by an epilogue dated January 1978.  Although the epilogue supposedly has Boff discussing more openly and freely his agenda without interference from the Brazilian government or the Vatican, strangely it is more vague and dense than the main body of the work.

3.  Strengths and Weaknesses

Chapter 5 – ‘Jesus, A Person of Extraordinary Good Sense, Creative Imagination and Originality’ is worthy of an extended discussion because in it I find much of the work’s strength which pervades all the of the book but also almost all of its weakness, which is less pervasive.

Boff argues that everything Jesus preached was accessible by common sense (84); Jesus was a ‘genius of good sense’ (81).  Boff’s position reflects the strong emphasis on general revelation among Roman Catholics post-Vatican II.  The doctrine might be summarised as the idea that special revelation in Jesus Christ differs only in extent – not kind – to the general revelation accessible to all human beings.

On this point Boff finds himself on the other side of the fence to a very important contemporary Roman Catholic thinker – Alasdair MacIntyre.  MacIntyre (1988) argues for the peculiarity of each system of thought.  There is no ‘universal reason’ accessible to all people beyond the ‘accidents’ of language and culture or outside the activities of making meaning in a particular community.  What is ‘common sense’ depends on the sensibility of a person’s particular worldview.  Thus to most people in the world today, it does not make sense to ‘turn the other cheek’ when it comes to international conflict or to forsake one’s family for Christ, or to reject wealth.   Indeed, to a contemporary Australian such choices made in the mould of Jesus’ social ethics would be completely non-sensical.   This paradigmatic shift toward postmodernism (certainly evident by 1972) is such an important one that it at least deserves Boff’s attention.

The lack of attention to these issues plagues the rest of the chapter also.  Boff argues that Jesus was ‘without preconceptions’ (86) and this, it seems, gives him the ability to see the world ‘as it is’.  Given the substance of the rest of the section – Jesus’ connection to the material, everyday life of people – Boff’s language seems a misleading attempt to say that Jesus was ‘down-to-Earth’, as we might say, or ‘in touch’ with the working class.  Still, Boff’s choice of wording betrays a naive epistemology – postmodern argues strongly that there is no ‘view from nowhere’ (Kenneson: 1995, 156).  I would argue, in good company , that it is not that Jesus had no preconceptions but that he had the right preconceptions.  So, for example, he had the preconception that all people – even tax collectors, prostitutes, zealots, Samaritans – are worth knowing; a preconception that he did not share with many contemporaries.

4.  The effect on me and the work’s significance for ministry

In reading this work, I was particularly helped with my understanding of the resurrection and of Christ’s divinity.  Until this point, I had felt uneasy about these subjects because there seemed a considerable gap firstly between the different scriptural accounts and then secondly between these accounts and the doctrines formulated in the centuries after, taught to me growing up as foundational to faith.  Because of this uneasiness, I have tended to avoid probing these areas deeply.

Boff’s catholic, apostolic perspective makes more sense to me of the diverse scriptural witnesses and the later church processes than the rigid biblicism I have tended to encounter in the evangelical tradition.   He argues that the full significance of Jesus could not be appreciated until the resurrection and even the centuries beyond as the church reflected on what happened.  There is an echo here of liberation theology’s ‘praxis first’ approach – during Jesus’ lifetime and the years afterward the disciples were caught up in the practical task of living with him and partaking in his ministry.  There would not have been the time or distance to properly reflect on just what was happening.

This frame of thinking is important for the ministry of teaching and the process of ethical decision making in the church.  If we agree with Boff in this area – as I do – we affirm that the spirit-filled church has a mandate to creatively and imaginatively celebrate Christ’s presence and significance today.   The church and its ministry become not the archaeologist excavating the Word of God from the Scriptures (as we might see in Reformed and fundamentalist churches), but the site and locus of the Word’s presence and proclamation.  Believers are empowered with a responsibility to ‘bind and loose’ (Mt 16:13-20; 18:18-20), and to be the body of Christ in the world today.

There is a more general and deep way that Boff’s book affected me, one that is hard to describe.  It has to do with a new sense of God’s love for the world and his deep involvement with what happens now.  Jesus was not, Boff reminds me, superhuman, but fully human – he was what humans are meant to be.  While my faith and discipleship have tended to pit me, Holden Caulfield-like, against the world , Boff recovered in me the deep philanthropy involved in following Jesus.  Moreover, Christian hope, Boff argues, is not to be found in an otherworldly eschatological destruction of the Earth, but in Christ’s presence and transformation of the here and now – culminating as it will in the parousia.  A lesson I have heard before, but one of which I need to be reminded.

This, of course, is a key insight for ministry.  Firstly, it shows that the call to repent is only one half of the evangelion.  The other half is the call to be fully human, participating in the new humanity who live under Christ’s lordship.  Secondly, this insight broadens the idea of ministry significantly.  If Christ’s mission was the transformation and liberation of all creation, the mission of the church is surely similar.  We should recognise, amongst a number of other things, global justice and environmental responsibility as central aspects of the church’s mission.

In terms of the particular aspect of Christ which Boff focused on – Christ as Liberator – my understanding was enlarged without being radically changed.  Before reading the book, I was sympathetic to the Liberator motif of Christ, while harbouring a suspicion that the Western theological mainstream might be somewhat justified in seeing liberation theology as a partisan, quasi-Marxist picture of Jesus.  Reading Boff strengthened my sense of the extensive similarity to the anabaptist Jesus I tend to visualise.  The central difference is the lack of importance given to Jesus’ pacifism , an anabaptist emphasis I retain.

5.  Conclusion

Boff’s work is still relevant and insightful thirty years after its first publication.  The locus of global conflict has largely shifted from capitalism/ communism to global capitalism/ Islamic states, but the third world poverty and oppression from which Boff understands Jesus is only more apparent.   Western Christianity would do well to consider Boff’s perspective on Jesus.  For anabaptists and the free church movement more generally, there is a chance to achieve a very practical co-operation and ecumencism in understanding and being Christ’s church.  For the ‘mainline’ Protestant churches in Australia – Uniting and Anglican – their concern for social justice would benefit from seeing Jesus from Boff’s perspective of the oppressed.  Indeed, Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator is capable of bringing together divergent theological traditions by having them look afresh at the Jesus Christ they share.


Kenneson, P., ‘There’s No Such Thing As Objective Truth and It’s A Good Thing Too’ in Phillips, T., and Okholm, D., Christian Apologetics In The Postmodern World (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995) pp. 155 – 173.

MacIntyre, A. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: NDUP, 1988)

Newbigin, L, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989)

Salinger, J.D., The Catcher In The Rye (New York: Penguin, 1951)

Yoder, J.H., The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, this edn. 1994; first edn. 1972)