Robert A. Chesnut
Wipf and Stock, 152 pages
“We need to be saved. We need a Savior.” This assertion is at the heart of Bob Chesnut’s message to the PC(USA) today. His book, “Meeting Jesus the Christ Again,” is an incredibly well-researched, articulate and emotional plea for progressives and conservatives to find common ground in our need for salvation – salvation found in and through the person and ministry of Jesus. His description of salvation brings together the personal, individual, social, economic and political aspects of salvation. The book is an inspired exercise in systematic theology in which Chesnut looks at many of the major doctrines of the church with a critical eye to how they have been used, misused or ignored by both progressives and evangelicals.
I have to say that the book I read was not the book I expected to read. Chesnut has a long, rich history of being a pastor and vocal advocate of progressive positions in the PC(USA). While I knew he would be making a case for developing theological common ground between conservatives and progressives, I thought it would be more practical than systematic theology. I did not expect the extremely skillful way that Chesnut makes his case systematically for a conservative-progressive faith.
As he deals with doctrines ranging from original sin to biblical authority to the atonement, Chesnut moves with dexterity from the Scriptures to the development of church doctrines to contemporary theology (ranging from feminist to liberation to evangelical theology). His arguments are convincing and well-documented. But the book isn’t dry doctrine. Into the discussion of doctrine, Chesnut weaves wonderful personal stories from his own life, his long work as a parish pastor and events in the world.
Chesnut asks questions that deserve wide and deep discussion in the PC(USA) today: “Can progressives reevaluate their inclination to push the envelope of traditional, classical Christian faith so hard and far that at points it threatens to burst the seams of faith, hope and love within our faith communities?” “What is our core? … Is there a progressive Christian faith that can answer this question in a distinctively Christian way, while still qualifying as progressive?” Citing the evangelical tendency to reduce God to a highly personalized God, he asks, “Don’t progressives often lean toward the opposite fault – making God too remote and impersonal, an ill-defined, diffuse presence, a faceless, impersonal cosmic force?” He wonders why we can’t proclaim a view on human nature that “is neither unduly pessimistic nor unduly optimistic.” He laments that “one must wonder if the cross is now lost to progressive Christianity.” “Having rejected penal substitutionary theory, must progressive Christians also reject any convincing place for a cross-centered notion of salvation that goes back to earliest Christian faith?” These are not damning questions aimed at progressives. They are questions posed by a pastor-theologian who has unquestionable progressive bona fides. They are questions I share for the progressive wing of the PC(USA). We should not be afraid of them. We should discuss and answer them.
Chesnut’s final chapter is typical of the entire book. In discussing the idea of an afterlife, he delves into notions such as purgatory and universalism in a distinctly conservative-progressive way. He rejects a Christianity solely about “pie in the sky” – but he doesn’t want to throw away the pie! Chesnut writes, “It is not just about getting ourselves to heaven when we die, a question that is, I believe, already settled in our favor.” It is settled because of God’s actions in Jesus the Christ.
The book is written in a way that each chapter would be a great conversation starter for an adult education class or, dare I say it, a group of progressive and conservative pastors seeking to move beyond our current polarized state.
Long story short, buy the book. It is a short, powerful read.
John Wimberly is a congregational consultant in Washington, D.C.