Most anyone reading this is likely familiar with the portrait of Jonathan Edward’s vengeful God who loathes sinners. He is quite angry and is quite theologically present. Some might find it a little odd to write contra a sermon from the middle of the 1700’s. As one friend told me from reading Zahnd’s latest work, “I’m surprised someone hasn’t already accomplished that play on words and wasn’t that in like the 1800’s?” Well, close. However, one chapter into the book and it isn’t hard to see that it isn’t just Jonathan Edwards Zahnd is writing against, no. This is a theological manifesto from someone who has been to the very feet of the angry God. It’s important to understand this isn’t some anti-reformed, anti-neo-Calvinist book, but rather someone who is troubled (and rightly so) by the implications some of these systems produce.
Zahnd fully understands the theological world (and damage) of those holding to the vengeful God. The chief question for Zahnd isn’t whether or not you can stockpile verses from the Bible about God’s vengeful nature or his anger, the question is, “Is it true?” Again and again, Zahnd will revisit this question throughout the book. It’s an important one for anyone reading the book. I want to start with a couple disclaimers, and some tips on reading the book for anyone from the neo-reformed camp, fundamentalist, or conservative evangelical camp.
Disclaimer number 1: It’s important for any review to be just that, a review. They are most effective if the reviewer can keep their personal feelings out of it and just review. But, I won’t be able to do that completely. That’s because I love Brian Zahnd, I’m sharpened by him, and I’m beyond thankful for him. I listen to his sermons on morning walks, I read his blog regularly, and have all of his works. This is my first review of his, but I do want to give the disclaimer that I am fully on board with BZ, so perhaps it is better for this to be more of a recommendation. It’s my website after all.
Disclaimer 2: I will write about the good and better parts of the books. Things I thought were exceptional and thing(s) that I thought could be better (you’ll see that I don’t really mean this).
For the neo-reformed, fundamentalist, and conservative evangelicals: To really enjoy this book you’ll need to step out of your camp and tread the waters with BZ. Bring an open mind, and perhaps you’ll see why BZ made a transition theologically from many of the things you hold dear.
Ten compact chapters that cut straight to it. This book will take you a few hours to finish, and much longer to chew on. These chapters get after the theological issues we find ourselves in with a “flat reading of scripture.” The waters get muddy when we aren’t able to distinguish (if we even try) between the God of the Old Testament who seems to be a retributive, vindictive, angry warrior, and the God revealed in Jesus. We begin to see the difficulty in balancing the God who MUST be satisfied with the penalty bearing substitute, the God who MUST be just and have the eternal torment of those who do not believe, and the God who IS love as he is revealed in Jesus.
Each chapter is beautifully written (Brian Zahnd is if nothing else, a wonderful writer and communicator). They are easy to track with and engaging. He doesn’t waste time with all the theological jargon and cuts to the chase. You’ll be thankful for it because there will be many times you’ll need to pause and reflect.
My favorite thing about the book (and BZ) is his Jesus-centered reading of the Bible. Jesus is Lord, and that means even of the Bible. How we understand God is in the face of Jesus. Brian Zahnd is so helpful in this as we wade through the waters of Old Testament violence, eternal conscious torment in Hell, penal substitutionary atonement, and something as complex as the book of Revelation. Brian Zahnd delivers a beautiful and consistent picture of reading the scriptures through a Christocentric lens and understanding the God who is revealed in Christ, as well as the massive theological implications of that revelation.
The Lack (not for me)
There is one area that I have to write about as it came up a couple of times with some reformed friends in their reading of the book. Each of them had an issue with chapter 3, Jesus is what God has to Say. Now, I would be clear here that I had no issues with this chapter. I thought BZ wrote with clarity on this difficult topic. The dilemma is if Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, then why do we subordinate him to the written word of God that is written to point to him? It is an odd conversation to have. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, right? Right. He stands over the Bible, right. No. What? This is a much more complicated theological topic than I would even want to cover in a book review, but the dilemma seems to be (to some!) that BZ is diminishing the scriptures (and he isn’t). Christ stands over the Old Testament. If we really want to know what God is like we look at Jesus, you “…can’t cite Moses to silence Jesus.”
At any rate, it is something to be aware of if you’re in any of the above-mentioned circles. However, as I have told my friends Brian is preaching through this book and I expect him to cover this in more detail (though I don’t expect them to listen…alas). Additionally, I have not spoken with anyone who has read this book that has walked away thinking BZ has anything but an incredibly high view of scripture (he just has a higher view of Christ).
Any Christian should read this book. Brian has been on this journey for a long time. You will come away from this book with fresh eyes to read scripture with, a much clearer view of Jesus as the revealed God, and a much clearer understanding of some deep biblical issues. Brian Zahnd is an engaging communicator and will challenge any reader. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is a wonderful work and will benefit absolutely any body. You can pick it up here, and I hope it blesses you as much as it has me.