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*** If you listen to a preacher long enough, you can deduce what they wrestle with personally, and you come to realize that all preachers are essentially preaching to themselves.

*** Every preacher basically has one sermon. The really good ones might have two.

Two of my favorite aphorisms about preachers. Replace the word “preacher” with “blogger’ and I think the message still holds.

That’s one of the gifts of this daily blog. Over time we become familiar with the various bloggers — their style and rhythm, their issues and concerns. I’d even say the blog as an entirety, a communal venture, develops a persona, a hazy uniformity. And my voice is part of it. 

Of course, there is variety. Still, when you start reading a blog here, you have a general notion of what to expect. That’s okay, even good. It’s like a friend, a good conversation partner, the comfort of that favorite, gently worn sweatshirt. Certainly, there are surprises and twists. We are stretched, challenged, enlightened. We learn and are consoled. We’re reminded that we aren’t alone. Thoughtful, eloquent Christians believe like we do. They put into words some inchoate intuition within us. The poignant beauty they share nourishes our souls.

But if you know me, you know there is also a contrarian streak in me. So today I’d like to say “I disagree!” 

Actually, that’s too dramatic. The voice and tendencies I want to push against include my own. I’m not attempting to stand apart, over-against all the rest like some Hollywood hero. But let me stir the pot, maybe go against the grain a bit. So, here I go — pointing out two tendencies I notice here, hoping to provoke some interesting conversations, maybe even a few au contraires of your own.

I. Our God is too cozy

On this blog a few months ago Allison Vander Broek introduced us to Bo Burnham. I relish his song White Woman’s Instagram.  Perhaps it shows that satire can be so trenchant it becomes tender.

When I read this blog and the ways we say we encounter God it reminds me of Burnham’s song. Latte foam art. Fuzzy socks. Birds at the feeder. Precious lines from an elegant poem. Our labradoodle. A walk on the beach. No doubt all these things are gifts. Beautiful. Warm. Life-giving. 

But don’t we claim that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is universe-altering? Something incomprehensibly vast has happened — hasn’t it? How can we express that? How can we live it? Where is that vastness, that apocalyptic energy, that glorious triumph?

A colleague pushed back on my concerns. Doesn’t our gratitude for ripe peaches and the joy we find in purring cats demonstrate our acute observation skills? Our grateful hearts? We are looking for grace everywhere — in the small and the ordinary. Isn’t that a good thing? Recall the mustard seeds and little children and the invisible leaven in the loaf.

Moreover, when we Christians have tried to say or do “big things,” it has so often ended in tragedy and disaster. The Crusades. Today’s white Christian nationalism. The doctrine of discovery. Better, we know, to under promise and over perform than vice versa. Irony, authenticity, and self-deprecation are the currency of our age. 

I’m undermining my own argument here. I see the pitfalls and the wreckage in history. But I am not entirely deterred. In fact, I ask for your assistance, your input and ideas. If the Gospel is what we claim, as immense as we believe, as furiously life-giving as St. Paul or Martin Luther declared, then somehow it seems our expression of it needs enlarging. 

II. Nature and Grace

When Karl Barth asserted that the Belgic Confession is likely heretical, he put a pebble in my shoe that won’t go away.

Barth said that the Belgic is wrong to claim that God is known to us by “two means.” Our confession says these two means are “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” and “by his divine and holy Word.” Barth contended that God is known to us uniquely through the “Word” —  the eternal Word, Jesus Christ.

This pebble in my shoe unbalances me. Disturbs me. It doesn’t resolve itself. And I’m not smart enough or determined enough to figure it out.

Often here on the RJ blog we have compelling, beautiful writing about the urgency of facing our environmental crisis. I simply reply “Amen!” I visit National Parks, compost compulsively, hike, support green legislation, watch too many videos about bears, squirrels, snakes and more. So this isn’t about “loving nature.”

Still, I think I align more with Barth. I sort of doubt that the universe is “before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God” — although isn’t that glorious writing?

(And while we’re at it, haven’t we made that “without excuse” of Romans 1:20 one of the most overfreighted verses in all of scripture? An incredibly complex argument teeters on barely more than the head of a pin.)

Do people of faith encounter God’s handiwork in creation? Of course. Is their faith even deepened by what they behold? Often. Might a person become a theist of some kind by pondering creation? Apparently. But I have no interest in being a vague theist. I know they make nice neighbors and good friends, and that God loves them and showers them with untold blessings and grace. But that’s not what I am. 

When I try to talk and think about this, it always feels like I’m shooting around the target. But I can’t really find the bullseye. It has to do with the particularity of Jesus, and the otherness of grace. Making grace too common?

My intent is not at all to “demote” creation, but rather to promote the unique revelation of Jesus Christ. I wonder if we aren’t sometimes a little imprecise, unintentionally sloppy, when we talk about creation and grace. Because creation is so marvelous, maybe it is too easy to cloak it with qualities that it doesn’t possess. In contrast the “Jesus Christ” of today is often so cliche and tainted it isn’t surprising that we might think nature is the more likely source of revelation. Yet, when I read the New Testament, for example, I find very little along the lines of “the stars above the Mediterranean were stunning tonight.”

And I realize this sounds way more narrow, exclusive, and maybe “evangelical” than I wish. But it’s the same reason that I’m more inclined to say all people have inherent value because of the incarnation than because of the imago dei. I want to try to start theological conversations by talking first about Jesus. 

Forgive me if this is getting a little “too granular” — as we say these days. I began by saying I wanted to poke at some Reformed Journal truisms. There’s an image of two pugilists at the top of this blog. I’m not really throwing haymakers, I hope. 

Any counter-punchers and jabbers out there? Or even simply a few kind conversation partners?

Sweatshirt photo by Jannes Jacobs on Unsplash

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Wish I felt more confident about my grasp of theology to continue the conversation that your profound questions have raised. But in the interest of getting this going, I’ll offer two thoughts.

    On your first point about our reluctance to do “big things.” After reading your blog I read another of William Sloane Coffin’s sermons–my more-often-than-not-morning routine the past year or so–and read this, in a sermon called “The High and Long Road”: “Like Jeremiah, like the disciples, ours therefore should be a bruised faith, not a coddled one.” More often than not my faith feels more coddled than bruised. I suspect one of the reasons I love The Reformed Journal so much is for the reason you suggest: we find here that we are not alone. That is a good thing, yes, but sometimes we need more bruising than coddling, and so I need to be grateful when the RJ writers offer that as well.

    On your second point, I have only a request. I’d like to hear more of what you mean by your belief that “all people have inherent value because of the incarnation than because of the imago dei.” How exactly does that make a difference for you? Is it because of the clarity and challenge of Christ’s command to us about loving our neighbor as opposed to the more vague notion that we are to see God’s image in another? Can you expand on that?

    Thanks for your honesty here and for making me think.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Ouch. You’ve found some places that hurt when you press on them.
    What an irritating reflection — in a good way.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    You never disappoint in what you write. We need more thinkers on these matters of faith and life!

  • Don Tamminga says:

    Concerning the two ways of knowing God, maybe one way is knowing more that there is a God. Also, seems x-culturally that nature plays a huge part to create common ground and experiences of God. Just some thoughts. T

  • Uko Zylstra says:

    It seems to me that Barth’s objection to the B.C. “That God is known to us uniquely through the ‘Word’, the eternal Word, Jesus Christ” and your concern “to promote the unique revelation of Jesus Christ” misses the real unique nature of Jesus Christ in the opening chapter of John 1, “through him (the Word) all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” This message also comes through in Colossians 1: 16-17, “in him all things hold together.” I read these passages and several others in the N.T., to mean that in some mysterious way Jesus Christ, through whom all things hold together, is the law that holds all of creation together. Thus, as we observe and study God’s creation, we are indeed learning and knowing the Christ who holds all things together. So one of the reasons for the Word becoming flesh, is to overcome our blindness from our sin, and that through our blindness, we failed to see the Word through whom all things were made and hold together. I would place an even greater emphasis on the first way we know God than what the Belgic Confession does.

  • Laura de Jong says:

    Ooh, I’m here for this conversation. I resonate with what you’re pointing out, particularly in your first point. I don’t have solutions or ideas. Just some additional observations and questions from another writer’s point of view.

    There’s an inherent challenge in what you’re asking about: how do we present an incomprehensible God in an accessible way in 800 to 1000 words? Without resorting to talking about finding God in a sunset? Can we do so without our work sounding less like a blog and more like the Institutes? Or without it reading like a sermon? (Or should it read like a sermon?) I wonder what we might write about as we try to capture this.

    Which is the second challenge, for me at least. I write about what I know. Every two weeks I lie awake in bed trying to come up with something meaningful to say. Occasionally I’ll have read some brilliant book or listened to a podcast and can engage with those ideas. But I’m leery of commenting too much on big conversations because I simply don’t feel I know enough about them, and don’t want to write something unhelpful or untrue. (Part of this is just fear. It’s terrifying to put thoughts out on this platform and wonder how folks will respond to them.) So I generally stick to thoughts about my ordinary, humdrum, cozy life and how I experience God in it.

    I also wonder about capacity. How much universe-altering truth can we take in from day to day? Certainly we need some. But what’s the balance between those moments that pull us out of ourselves and into the astonishing vastness of the gospel, and the moments that allow us to bear the weight of this truth in a manageable way? Does God make himself known to us in such a way that we aren’t undone by this revelation over and over again?

    Thanks for asking some good questions…

  • Steven Tryon says:

    I was considering earlier this morning that the most radical statement in the New Testament is when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.”

  • David Stravers says:

    Your poking is great! Regarding your first point, most of us are not eager to identify with the “we Christians” (so-called) that did the Crusades, advocated white Christian nationalism, or taught the doctrine of discovery. Don’t sell short the other “furiously life giving” outcomes of Christianity to which some more knowledgeable than I have attributed so many good things that have happened in our world over the past few centuries: Less violence. Less slavery. Less poverty. Longer life spans. Fewer authoritarian governments. Less ignorance of the Gospel in the far corners of the planet.
    In agreement with your second point, I tilt toward the unique significance of the person of Jesus, yet I’ve been reading Richard Rohr, who claims to be a Christ-follower and whose perspective seems to be the polar opposite of Barth’s. So I’m intrigued to read or hear further on this issue from Reformed thinkers.

  • RZ says:

    What a great conversation! A few humble and speculative bullet points for considerstion:
    1. The Belgic Confession gave us this two-pronged revelation -of -God framework but it is nowhere in scripture that neatly laid out. It is like the doctrine of the trinity. We infer it, then just accept it. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral seems more useful and less confining to me, the four sources of truth being Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition.
    2. When I read Romans 1:20, I read the condemnation as pointing toward all who refuse to acknowledge God by making up a god in one’s own image, a logically futile exercise. Romans 2 goes on to explain that chosen, holy, informed people can arrogantly and blindly do the very same thing, the Hebrew people serving as the example then and Christians today following suit. Paul sets us up in chapters 1 and 2 for the supremacy -of-Christ solution in chapter 3 and thereafter. I do not read Romans 1 as diminishing natural revelation at all.
    3. I would speculate that the average Christian would argue that “special” revelation always trumps “natural” revelation. That seems intuitively wise, but the Bible does not claim that. Furthermore, the Jewish people had more “special”revelation than any of us and they still did not recognize the revelation of God.
    4. Personally, I think of “natural” revelation as including EVERYthing that written revelation does not and cannot adequately and definitively explain. One can certainly make an argument that nature can instill awe that written words cannot express. And that science, literature, history, and archaeology illumine scripture far more often than they contradict it.
    5. All of this leaves me in a place of deep wonder, deep gratitude, and deep humility. Steve, I really appreciate your ongoing capacity to wonder about the greatness of God!

  • Judie Zoerhof says:

    Oh this is so wonderful for a little pew-sitter like me! Thank you Pastor Laura, I get it. I marvel at God in nature and praise Him as sovereign, merciful, and loving. The degree to which I “Get it” is a direct present from God! I ask, seek, knock and it is overwhelming! Thank you for this discussion.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    As to the first, it might be that the RJ still harbours and suggests that Dutch critique against anyone who is really daring, “Who do you think you are!” Against anyone willing to make grand claims or seem overly earnest. Like if I were to make my claim, within 800 words, about the Priority of Matthew, and why that changes EVERYTHING in Mark.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thank you all for your generous, open, and helpful comments and questions. I originally planned to wait two weeks and respond with an Au Contraire II, but this seems more timely. It’s not like I’ll have “answers” for the various comments and questions. I have no airtight schema. But a few things…
    I intend nothing I wrote to be understood as disparaging or discouraging efforts to curb pollution, climate change and the fine people — many of whom blog here for RJ — who enlighten us and champion these efforts.
    I intend nothing I wrote to be understood as making any claims about who is or isn’t “saved” or that non-Western cultures and other religions can not convey and contain beauty and goodness. Likewise, non-religious people are not meant to be excluded from bringing anything good. The uniqueness of Christ is not necessarily a narrow or exclusive view.
    I am saying that our priority is not to move from the general to the specific. Not from theism, spirituality, the beauty of nature, etc. to trusting in Jesus. Instead, our starting point is from the particular, Jesus, outward to the general — creation, spirituality, etc.
    The basic Christian claim is “Jesus is the Christ” not “There is a god.”
    Wherever there is goodness and beauty it is a revelation of Christ, not a remnant or shard or ember of some past glory. Grace is never a holding pattern or a dyke to hold back evil. Grace is always toward the new creation.
    I don’t deny that all people are created in the image of God, but as Christians I think the incarnation — that God took human flesh — is simply a stronger, more central claim for us. The reason all people have inherent value is because God became one. Maybe this can also help speak into environmental issues. Why does this planet matter? Because God visited it, thereby hallowing it.
    How to speak God in “less-cozy” ways, especially in an 800 word blog? I wish I knew. I wonder about personal stories — once we called them “testimonies,” maybe now “spiritual autobiography” is a better term. We may feel jaded toward the “I once was lost…I once was a gang member/sex worker/terrible person” stories, but perhaps the “How I became who I am” stories we’ve been sharing among the RJ essays are a beginning.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Maybe it’s the format itself. If the model is the old RJ’s As We See It, for which the ur-model was the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town, you’re lucky to get material as un-cozy as you do get. As to Creation / Incarnation, a pox on both your houses: for the New Testament itself, it’s clearly and indisputably the Resurrection. Birdies and wildfires and Mary Oliver count because of the Resurrection (and the resultant Holy Spirit) which connection we have, in our tradition, not sufficiently explored (apart from Van Ruler).

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    After MUCH thought I wonder if a third way of knowing —in your knower—might be as Buechner witnesses in his book Now and Then (from this mornings reading)
    “ In the unfamiliar setting of a Presbyterian church, of all places, I had been moved to astonished tears which came from so deep inside me that to this day I have never fathomed them. I wanted to learn more about the source of those tears and the object of that astonishment.”

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Another view about incarnation vs. imago dei. Why does it have to be either/or? To me it’s a false dichotomy. The mistake may be that we begin too often with Genesis 3 and not Genesis 1, where everything and every human was declared good by God, and not even sin could change that if we take Romans 8 seriously. As for incarnation, framing it as God visiting us implies to me that God is not already immanent and even united in some mysterious way with all things and all people. I know that presents its own problems, but using terms of separation present far more for me. (It really bugs me when mission trip promoters talk about “bringing God to people” as if God were not already there. I’m not accusing you of that.)
    Romans 1:20 has me thinking that if God holds humans accountable for not acknowledging a Creator, then there must be something there that can inspire genuine faith. As you said.
    What if incarnation is more about solidarity with human suffering and compassion than blessing our humanity? I wonder.
    A bigger problem for me is the canon itself. I know I’m out on a limb here, but assuming that a couple of apostles’ perspectives on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the be-all and end-all of the truth about God doesn’t cut it for me. God is continually being revealed in various ways. Sure, that presents the problem of identifying genuine revelation vs. an indigestion-born erstwhile mystical experience, but God seems willing to take that risk.
    I truly appreciate your gracious way of asking the elephant-in-the-room or naked emperor questions, Steve. My theology has expanded from the Reformed variety in recent years, but it is my heritage, so I will always be curious about what is posted here. Thanks for enabling it to happen, along with the others who keep it going.

  • RZ says:

    Wow to what Deb suggested!
    Paul controls perhaps 90- some percrnt of our doctrine. And I doubt that he intended either to speak for God or to assume that his letters would become the doctrines used to launch wars or burn people at the stake. I continue to remind myself that he was a person-in-time, writing to specific audiences with certain very rigid assumptions. He believed, perhaps correctly, that he was the most reliable prophetic voice of his time. Where the proper line is drawn on which written opinion is a principle and which is an inspired, absolute command I doubt he even knew. I often imagine that he walked in circles debating outloud with himself, reconciling all his training with his Jesus- meeting.

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