Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Prodigal God: My Rambling Response.

Aaaargh. I agree with this piece but I’m not happy with it. Why? I’ve published it partly to just get it out of my head. I have a lot of other things to think about and having this sit on my hard drive is stopping me. I recommend it for the dedicated only.
My younger brother Simon and I probably seem similar from a distance. From the proximity of our relationship though it is as if we’re opposites in our theology and philosophy. You can read his blog here. You’ll see he’s intelligent and caring and humorous and ridiculously knowledgable on the bible.
Me and Simon love each other but often there’s scant common ground to our opinions. That makes for a very fertile ground to write on because he not only helps me to define my own views in argument but he shocks me into recognizing my assumptions. Simon occupies a perspective I genuinely care to oppose as well – I find it life-denying (in part), he finds it life affirming. He similiarly isn’t ambivalent about my views.  Hot heads have prevailed at times. Clear thinking requires respect and more than a little effort on both sides.  Basically its great for my writing!
Simon loaned me many months ago, The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. This slim novel expands on a sermon Keller once heard and has repeated as a Presbyterian minister. Keller is also the author of the New York Times Bestseller “The Reason For God” and for him this sermon is the clearest possible exposition of the Christian Gospel.
In this response to Keller I’ve had two tasks. I’ve given my own view of the subject matter – the fascinating parable of the prodigal son in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. I’ve also outlined Kellers views and tried to show how I think he gets it wrong. This would probably make an easier read as two seperate posts especially for those readers who just aren’t that interested in Keller’s mistakes. Kellers mistakes are not however as uncommon as you might imagine if you’re reading them here first – they are part of a certain Christian orthodoxy. Subsequently even if you’ve never heard his name I think he’s worth rebutting.
I also think this is another too long post. But telling you that hasn't made it any shorter.
A response to Timothy Kellers' A Prodigal God.

Luke’s Gospel contains several parables. Arguably the most well known is usually referred to as the Prodigal Son. A younger son spends his share of his inheritance wastefully while his Father is alive. In poverty he returns home intending to beg for employment as a lowly hired hand. Instead, to his surprise, his father restores him to his household with a great celebratory feast. When the older son refuses to join in the celebration his father pleads with him to change his mind. 
In The Prodigal God Timothy Keller explores the meaning of this parable. Keller points out that the Prodigal Son is an extra-biblical title that focuses the story on the younger son and his reconciliation with his father. The parable (see for yourself in Luke 15) is about both younger and elder brothers perhaps even more so about the elder brother. Certainly, without neglecting the younger brother’s story, Keller’s focus is on the older brother.
In a nutshell Keller argues that the position of the elder brother is one in which he has sought to control his father through his own obedience. Put simply he feels “owed” in a way that is betrayed by his father’s forgiveness of his younger brother, hence his angry refusal to join the celebratory feast. In Keller’s interpretation the older brother is only doing good for himself. Keller contrasts this with obedience to the father motivated by submissive[1] love. Such obedience would not have permitted the older brother to resent the younger brother’s return to the family because he would not have felt entitled to resent anything. Keller takes us to other parts of the Gospel to argue that this submissive obedience is the prescriptive message of the parable.
Keller elaborates on this theme with a range of extra-biblical sources. Keller draws a sharp distinction between doing good for God and doing good for ourselves – for what God will have to give us if we are good. Keller’s strongest example of this is Salieri in Peter Schaffer’s play, Amadeus. Salieri declares God his enemy in response the rising star of Mozart eclipsing his talent. After all Salieri has served God dutifully while Mozart is decadent and irreligious. Because Salieri was only doing good for his own benefit however Mozart’s talent destroys his motivation.
It is clear however that Salieri’s story is not a good fit to the parable of the prodigal son.  For one thing Mozart isn’t repentant. More importantly though the elder brother in Luke 15 does not give up being “good” like Salieri does. He doesn’t refuse to do his chores or demand his inheritance from his father. That may come next but it isn’t in the story. Instead the elder brother refuses to celebrate his younger brother’s return. That refusal is the brother’s only transgression.
Keller is basically inserting too much into the story. From my own reading of Luke 15 the issue is not one of the elder brother’s right attitude towards the Father but right attitude to the brother. Specifically if we add nothing to the text then we see that the father expects his older son to be joyful for his sibling’s restoration to the family. In fact the father asks, in my favourite translation, the New English, “How could we help celebrating this happy day?” (Luke 15: 32) Joy in the younger brothers’ return is both unforced and inevitable.
What prevents the older son from being joyful is his sense of (in)justice. Perhaps even that is assuming too much. He says “You know how I have slaved for you all these years; I never once disobeyed your orders; and you never gave me so much as a kid, for a feast with my friends. But now that this son of yours turns up, after running through your money with his women, you kill the fatted calf for him?” So very specifically it is injustice of the sort that unfairly compensates him and unfairly rewards his brother that screws with his joy. He might be fine with a bit of injustice in his own favour.
These are two distinct sides to this injustice. Firstly the son may have resented his duties. That’s certainly indicated by the use of the word “slaved”. It’s as if all the time he worked at home while his brother whooped it up in decadent style he comforted himself with the belief in a greater regard by his father. This is the side that is explored by Keller. I wouldn’t exactly call it controlling but there’s definitely a contractual expectation held over the father in it. Notice however that it isn’t until his brother is welcomed home that he complains. The elder brother is not saying “I expected the fatted calf”, he’s saying, “I expected it before you would give it to him.” The issue is justice. The son expected the father to be just.
The other side to the injustice is the outrage that “after running through your money with his women, you kill the fatted calf for him.” The first side is about the injustice to the elder brother, the second is about the injustice to his father. The first can be contrasted with love for the father to some extent but the second is potentially consistent with it. The elder brother has no joy for his younger brother’s restoration in this regard, because he can’t let go of what the brother has done to the father. Once again it is a choice between joy or justice for the elder brother.
Any uncertainty that joy is the central message of the parable is banished by the preceding two parables in Luke 15. In the first a shepherd leaves his flock of ninety nine to search for one lost sheep. My New English Bible has the “delighted” shepherd cry out “Rejoice with me!” once he recovers his sheep. In the second parable of Luke 15 a woman holds a party with her neighbours over finding a single silver piece she had lost.
It is also very clear what all this rejoicing is meant to be about. Luke 15 begins with the Pharisees and doctors of the law grumbling about how Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke15: 2.) After the first parable Jesus says “In the same way, I tell you there will be greater joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine people who have no need to repent.” and after the second parable, “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” There should be no doubt then that what Jesus is saying is that the correct response to the restoration of a sinner to the family is rejoicing. Jesus is bringing to his grumbling audience’s attention that their sibling relationships with the sinners he is eating with is broken because of their lack of joy at their inclusion.
So what could produce this joy? I struggle to see how Keller’s submissive love of the father would lead to an unforced and inevitable rejoicing over a brother’s restoration. I’m not saying they’re inconsistent – but the former won’t produce the latter. In fact as I’ve mentioned above if the brother who is to be restored wronged the father then there is a tension between loyalty to the father and joy for the brother. Instead the problem lies in the relationship between the brothers. There is a lack of love. The three parables together are saying “You value a sheep, you value a coin, but your own brother you would rather see lost? Really? Where is the love?”
If you accept my above paragraph then you can see the contrast between joy and justice is actually between (brotherly) love and justice. I think this is a fascinating theme because I see it in my own life and I don’t consider myself unique in this regard at all. There is a common measure of morality which is set by how much you actually want people who you deem immoral to suffer. For example, a really good person would of course want a mass murderer to end up in hell. Only a bad person would want them to be in heaven.  If I have interpreted this parable correctly then Luke’s Jesus is actually saying that this measure is false. Here Jesus is asking his listeners to adopt a familial love towards sinners that is greater than their love of justice.
Let’s remember that when Jesus was preaching Jerusalem was an occupied city. Luke is commonly dated as being written within a decade prior to the temple’s destruction by Roman forces. The Pharisees like all Jews felt humiliated by regular Roman blasphemies against God.  If we imagine that some of the sinners sitting with Jesus might have been Jewish collaborators with the Romans doesn’t this give us a fresh sympathy for the Pharisees’ grumbling at the start of Luke 15. Such collaborators would be a good fit for the disgraceful behaviour of the younger brother. The older brother’s attitude is understandable in this scenario while the father’s is truly radical. To the Pharisees the father’s behaviour and Jesus’ would have easily seemed immoral. In fact it still seems immoral today.
Is there a lot between Keller and my interpretations? Not necessarily. Justice is enmeshed with control. I think of the helplessness I felt when I was on unemployment benifits and they were almost cut off for no reason. With some form of justice – even cruel justice – you can predict what will maintain your payments. You can have some control. So where I say justice you could insert Keller’s idea of controlling the father. I think you miss out on what sort of control we’re looking at though. Additionally I think there are two crucial differences between my own and Timothy Keller’s way of thinking.
The first difference goes to the nature of sin. Keller defines (redefines in my opinion) the elder son’s transgression purely in terms of his relationship to his Father. In this way Keller is sharing in a theological perspective that all sin is against God. In this view the wrongness of any interaction with God’s creation (other people, animals and the world) is only derived from the wrongness in our relationship to God that such an act speaks to. To use a simple analogy a work of art has no right to be in and of itself. Treating it disrespectfully or unlawfully is in both cases a crime against the creator and in the latter a crime against the state. God is understood to occupy both places in relation to us and it is this which creates sin in how we treat each other. While it’s not clear that Keller holds this opinion of sin in its entirety he adheres to it in his book.
I think there is a tragic aloneness to this perspective; the only relationship that matters is between ourself and God. If every person we meet are only met as opportunities to love God do we ever come to terms with their basic realness? We are living as if their basic realness is incidental to how we interact with other people – whereas to me it seems fundamental.
I also can’t shake the following dread; A purely vertical (us to God) basis for sin means that if we believe God has withdrawn his love from any part of his creation all bets are off. If the artist says “Meh, I don’t want that art work anymore,” we can’t say that endless, pointless torture of them is unjust[2]. They have no intrinsic moral rights. In practice this means that if we want to treat someone with absolutely no regard we merely have to declare them God forsaken. I would much rather anyone’s morality towards me was based on primitive empathy towards a fellow human being.
Of course as a non-theist I am likely to define sin as horizontal. Any wrong I do others is ultimately between me and them rather than me and God. However as I argued above I’m actually being more faithful to the text in Luke when I stress that the issue here is the love lost between the sons rather than a lack of love for the Father (God). Certainly there would be a great many Christians for whom their morality is based on seeing other people (and animals) as fellow beings – with the unity of their creator being the very reason for that empathy. I would consider embracing a radical siblinghood of all people to be a very theistic position and consistent with the parables of Luke 15. Yet this simpler reading is profoundly overlooked by Keller.
Secondly Keller is approaching the text to make a very specific theological argument. The only way a person could reach his conclusions is if they draw on theology outside of Luke 15. Keller does this so overwhemingly I don’t think you could say he gives Luke 15 meaning without also accepting that he takes the simplest meaning away.  Is Keller drawing on the same limited theological script to interpret all of the bible? That’s a possibility I can imagine because his script is recognizable as one that is often used in that way. That script is a doctrine known as the doctrine of free grace (also called anti-pelagianism). This doctrine is clearly supported in the Bible (particularly by Paul but also elsewhere) and I don’t mean to dispute its basis. However it is wrong to say that it is the only message of the Bible and that all the bible speaks to it.
Kellers’ idea that the older son’s real sin is to try to control the father with his obedience is merely a substitution for calling them a pelagianist (someone who believes they can earn their way to salvation). Keller claims that the presence of someone looking for the lost sheep and lost coin in the first two stories should point us to the missing “looker” in the third story - that Jesus deliberately doesn’t mention anyone who searches for the lost younger son so that we search the Gospel specifically for Jesus, the perfect older brother. This is sermonising from what isn’t there.
 Keller has to do this in order to introduce Christ (as the one who looks for us) into the parable. Keller has to introduce Christ to make the parable about an argument for accepting the free grace of God in contrast to attempting to work our way to God. I defy anyone to find a sensible position for Christ in the parable of “the prodigal son” without obviously altering the story. I think it’s a tragedy Keller distorts the parable to stress this one doctrine of Christianity when the simplest reading of the parable contains such incredibly amazing teaching – just not on anti-pelagianism.
Despite my criticisms this response/review was a challenge to complete precisely because I couldn’t maintain any great rage against the book. Timothy Keller is wrong in all the ways he disagrees with me (of course) but his theology is hardly evil, even if it potentially has unfortunate consequences. It is also true that Keller’s understanding of Luke 15 has very fortunate consequences. Keller challenges judgmentalism through the universality of sinfulness. Keller encourages a radical generosity through a belief in Christ’s purchase of us. One thing I am personally grateful to Timothy Keller for is leading me to reread the parable of the prodigal son.  I hope you will too.

P.S. Simon that gratitude extends to you - probably one of the very few who'll read this far.

[1] By submissive I do not mean that Keller means fearful submission. Kellers’ submission is based in overwhelming gratitude. Keller has to insert this gratitude however from other parts of the gospel into this parable. It is essentially gratitude for Christs atonement for our sins.
[2] Yes, this is an allusion to traditional understandings of Hell.


  1. Hi there, I hope you don’t mind me commenting, but I think you’re misinterpreting the parable of the two sons. Parables (like analogies – including Keller’s analogy of Salieri and Mozart) demonstrate one truth about something unknown using something that’s known. Pushing a parable (or an analogy) beyond its design doesn’t invalidate its teaching point, reading in this way is invalid because you’re not taking its literary genre into account.

    The parable of the two sons in Luke 15 is not about justice, it’s about grace. It designed to show the audience that the father’s favour is undeserved. The older son was upset at the father’s grace towards the younger son because he thought it had to be earned, but it was a free gift. It would be like you getting angry at me for giving Simon a new car, if you understood it to be a free gift you’d be happy for him, if you felt you deserved one you’d be angry that I didn’t give it to you. The issue is that the older son doesn’t love the father for who he is (submissive love), but for what he can get from him. And that’s why he gets angry.

    Jesus demonstrates that the older son isn’t actually good, he’s in it for the inheritance just as much as the younger son is. Your example demonstrates the point well, a good person would want a murderer to go to hell, only a bad person would want them to go to heaven. Christians aren’t good people but bad people who have received grace. We don’t have contempt for God’s kindness because it’s his kindness that leads us towards repentance (Romans 2:4). This isn’t neglecting justice, the only way you could demand justice is if you yourself were a good person who deserved God’s favour, the very assumption that Jesus is exposing to be false.

    Far from leading us to treat people with no regard, salvation by grace is the only thing that can lead people to love others as they love themselves. If what makes you ‘good’ comes from something you do then you’ll look down on everyone who doesn’t do it or is opposed to it. You’ll always idolise those who do what you deem ‘good’ and demonise those who do what you deem ‘bad’. Christians who are saved by grace have no right to look down on anyone, we’re just poor beggars trying to tell other hungry people where there’s bread.

    Finally, I think you’re drawing a false dichotomy between vertical and horizontal sin. If God tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, then sinning against a person is sinning against God. Loving God involves loving people, you can’t just divorce the older son’s relationships between his father and his brother, if he truly loved his father (for who the father is and not what he could get), then he would love his brother as well. Grace is the only thing that can free you to love like this, not in order to get favour, but because we’ve received favour.

  2. Hi John, I certainly don't mind your comments.
    It seems to me you agree with Kellers reading. I won't just repeat my post again - you can see where I disagree. ( just one example - I don't think Jesus demonstrated the older son is just in it for the inheritance at all. He merely refuses to celebrate what he sees as injustice.)
    Also you can definitely draw out Grace from the story - no question. It's just what causes the older son to resent the fathers grace to the younger is where we disagree. Only slightly I might add.
    As to your comment about vertical and horizontal definitions of sin being a false dichotomy as a fan of Taoism I would agree. Dichotomies are seldom real, including the dichotomy between a dichotomy and unity! In other words even though horizontal and vertical ideas of sin are not opposites they can be in opposition. Eg. Was it wrong for Abraham to kill his child before God changed his instructions or only afterwards?
    I mention this example because you used Gods command as the basis for the wrong in not loving others... but you may not have meant the only basis. (You make other statements where I don't fully see where your going, sorry.) If Gods law is the only basis for loving others then a difference (not a dichotomy perhaps) can exist, surely.
    I certainly believe there are other ways to integrate the horizontal and vertical that lessen any difference. I mention a theistic siblinghood by virtue of creation in my post.

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