Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

End Times prophecy was a major focus in the first half of my ministry. My call to ministry came in 1991 and I was immediately caught up into cold-war epic readings of Biblical prophecy in the Old and New Testament (as we called them back then.)

I had them all memorized. I subscribed to End Times magazines. I watched weekly TV programs that read the news in one hand and the Bible in the other.

I was trained and ordained in a denomination that has the 2nd Coming of Christ as one of its 4 major themes. As a young pastor, I would lead weekend seminars to help people understand the timelines of our times,  complete with wall-charts.

If you are not familiar with this sub-culture of Christianity then you may not understand some of the news happening right now. You may look at the Evangelical support of the current President or the zeal over what is happening in Jerusalem right now and wonder what you are missing.

Last night, I got to hang out with some of my favorite conversation partners. This year we went through the ABC’s of Faith in Sunday school and 3 themes kept coming up:

Genre: Genre is by far the most important thing about the Bible that many people who claim to be ‘Bible-believing’ don’t know. Nothing matters more than genre when it comes to reading the Bible.

Simply stated, one must read a poem differently than history, prophecy differently than a gospel, a letter (epistle) differently than apocalyptic literature. When people claim, “the Bible says …” it can be a bit of a misnomer.

It would be like reading a newspaper and taking the weather forecast, the police report, the comic section, and the opinion column as A) equal and B) literal.

Revelation: I love the book of Revelation. I study it all the time. I am inspired by it and challenged by it and am constantly referring to imagery within it.

The only thing I dislike is what most people do with the book of Revelation.

  1. It is not a book about the end of the world.
  2. It is not a book about the 21st century.
  3. It is not a book that should terrify or intimidate us.

The early audience for that book would have taken great consolation and comfort from it. The sad thing is that we should be writing things like the book Revelation for our time – but don’t because we think that John’s letter is about our time!

Y2K: this event is emblematic of the apocalyptic mindset. As I said earlier, I became a bible-believing Christian during the cold-war era. Communist Russia was our biggest threat and ‘Christian’ bookstores and TV shows were filled with very specific projections about how current events lined up with biblical prophecy.

Not understanding that apocalyptic literature in the Bible is a critique of their time and that era’s order and a hope of future deliverance makes us vulnerable to panic in ours.


Now here is where things get wonky. You may think “so what – charismatics and evangelicals ignore genre and read things out of context – big deal.” But you are missing an important extra ingredient! The longer these things don’t come to pass the more that some have begun to work on them behind the scenes in order to help them come to pass.

The longer these prophecies go unfilled (in their reading) the more effort they put into helping fulfill them.

In my next post, I will tell you how a misreading of Daniel 9 “the prophecy of the 70 weeks” means that the Muslim ‘Dome of the Rock’ in Jerusalem is a major focus because eventually (according to prophecy) that temple mount has be returned to its former (and future) function for the Jewish people.


You might think that this stuff sounds silly, but I am hoping to let you see behind the scenes to how consequential this way of reading the Bible is to our current world. Imagine if you thought that all of this long-expected stuff was going to happen in your lifetime and that God has fore-ordained it (or at least foreseen it) before the foundations of the world. The Bible, seen this way, is a history book written before hand by an all-knowing all-powerful God.

Hopefully that helps you understand the evangelical support for the current President and this move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. It’s not trivia – it deadly serious.

W is for the Word of God (and the Wesleyan Quad)

There is no phrase that is more misused, or more contentious, than The Word of God. We might need to take a vacation from throwing the phrase around as a tight summary until we pull it apart and clarify its multiple uses. W-WordofGod

The Word of God, when used properly, carries three layers of meaning:

  1. Divine Communication. The prophets used the phrase in the Hebrew Testament to convey weight and authority. They had a message for the people of God that could be encouragement, directive, corrective, or illuminating.
  2. Logos – divine wisdom. New Testament believers are treated to a syncretistic twist when the Gospel of John prologue draws off the greek notion of logos and then shockingly says what no greek thinker could fathom saying: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
  3. Revelatory elements in the scriptures. When the Spirit who inspired the original works illuminates the message again for a contemporary audience, it is said to be ‘the word of God’. (Thanks be to God)

For clarity I will now refer to the first and third meanings as ‘the word of the Lord’ and the second as the ‘Logos made flesh’.

The pitfall that some fall into is that they take this last sense (revelatory elements within scripture) and attempt to make it concrete (or foundational). Doing so is to erroneously confuse the messenger and message, the vessel with the element, the sign for the object.

Calling the Bible the Word of God is as inaccurate as it is accurate. It is not exactly true … but it is true enough that it is tempting. The problem is that it confused the ‘curves ahead’ road sign on the mountain road for the road up the mountain. It is not that they are unrelated – it is that they are not equivalent. The map may be accurate, and trustworthy for the journey, but it is not the landscape itself.

Knowing the map well is not the same as going on the journey.

This is the important difference between a sign and symbol.

  • A sign points to a greater reality … even if it does so imperfectly. The yellow and black ‘curves ahead’ sign on the mountain road is not telling you the exact sequence of twists and turns ahead. It is not map. It is alerting you to something bigger than itself.
  • A symbol, when used theologically, is a sign that participate in the reality that it points to. In this sense, the Bible contains the potential for the word of the Lord, it records instances of the word of the Lord, and it tells us about the Logos made flesh. The Bible is thus not unrelated to the Word of God but is not exactly equivalent either. It records and points to a greater reality (like a sign) and under the influence of Holy Spirit inspiration participates in that reality to which it points (symbol).

One can see the problem in legal court and in Sunday school. It is ironic to place one’s hand on a Bible and swear ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God’. The irony, for those who have actually read the Bible, is that it says in two New Testament passages not to do such things. We are not to swear by things but to simply let our yes be ‘yes’ and our no, ‘no’. That should be enough. We don’t need to swear by heaven or earth or anything like God. It is an odd practice.
Similarly we see things like this in the songs we learn as children:

The B-I-B-L-E,
that’s the books for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God

The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of 66 books by different authors in different centuries representing different histories, perspectives and opinions utilizing diverse genres of writing. This is part of why you can not say ‘the Bible says’.
When we say that ‘the word of God is living and active’ or that ‘all scripture is God breathed and useful’ we are right … but we must avoid the temptation of too quickly boiling those three into down into one interchangeable phrase lest we miss the awesome power and invitation provided by the interplay between them.

Now, if we mean that because of what we learn in the Bible, we hear the word of the Lord and believe in the Logos made flesh … that would be fantastic. ?If, however, we mean that the Bible is equivalent to the Word of God, then we have set our children up to be confounded, frustrated and spiritually impotent.
We have given them a road sign and told them it was the adventure. ?The word of the Lord propels us on a journey! To walk the way of the Logos made flesh, to know the truth of that which was in the beginning – with God and was God – and to live the life of the ages (eternal life).
To paraphrase a famous line – we are like children making mud-pies out of dirt in the back alley while there are real pies waiting in the kitchen.

Part of the problem is that we have try to cram too much into the phrase ‘the word of God’ and asked more from it than can be expected from any sign or symbol.
The most helpful thing I have found to address this problem is called the Wesleyan Quad. The quadrilateral is composed of 4 elements:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Experience
  4. Reason

Those 4 elements also work best in that sequence.
– We go to scripture first for it records examples of the word of the Lord and points us to the Logos made flesh.
-We next consult the tradition, for religion has a given-ness to it. We inherent a living tradition and participate in its practices, rituals, ceremonies, train of the thought and teaching.
– We also recognize that importance of our community-experiences. No one is spiritual or religious on their own like no one uses language alone. We learn a language from others and use a language to communicate with others. It is not enough to know of a religion – one participates and thus experiences. We learn from and incorporate our community-experiences.
– Finally comes reason. We are made in the image of God and that divine Logos (reason) was given to us to exercise responsibly. We are not called to be robots who mechanically parrot the inherited sentences in rote repetition. There is a deep need to think about things so that our tradition does not become a dead artifact, or worse, a false idol.

The danger of what has been called ‘Bibliolotry’ is not simply that it makes the Bible ‘a paper pope’ or ‘the 4th member of the trinity’ (as bad as those seem). The danger is in missing the way, the truth, and the life that is available to us by instead settling for a road-sign instead of an adventure.


I would love to hear your thoughts about my distinction between the Word of God as the word of the Lord, the Logos made flesh and the Bible. 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

For more read my earlier posts about Inspiration and about Revelation.

Personal Prophecy: moving on (part 2)

I wrote earlier that we need to be careful with developing a dependance on personal prophecy.

Q: Why didn’t God tell you the accountant was embezzling?

A: Because that is not how God designed things to work.

Having said that, I want to be clear – I believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the prophetic. I have seen some wild stuff in the past 20 years and while I no longer run in charismatic circles, I am not interested in poo-pooing on my friends’ parade nor explaining away my experience.

Process theology has given me an interesting framework with which to view the phenomenon.
I can do it in 3 simple steps!  

  1. Step out of the 3 Tiered Universe. The Bible was written in an antiquated vocabulary that was embedded in a system that had Heaven above & Hell below. We still use that vocabulary but recognize now that it is only imagery – not physical reality.
  2. Step away from the super-Natural. Get rid of the imagery that God is ‘up’ in heaven and periodically pokes through the thin veil to whisper in your ear – if you have enough faith, or if you are a chosen vessel, or if you are not tainted by sin, or … the truth is that God is with you. Holy Spirit is a work all around you.

God doesn’t need to ‘come down, or ‘break in’ or ‘break through’. God is down, in, and through. 

  1. Be aware of and open to the reality of God’s presence in the world. From verbal cues to body language – there are hundreds of ways that we perceive and interpret other people and our interactions. The is nothing magical about your receptivity, openness or awareness of what is possibly going on with someone else. As Christians, we believe that God’s Spirit is alive and at work in the world. Part of that ministry is to heighten and intensify our already existent (by grace) ability to listen, perceive and interpret social and relational interactions.

I have done this enough to know the objections that are bound to arise. So let me just say 2 things with the space I have left:

  • There are several innovative definitions of transcendence (as it relates to God) that get us out of the 3 Tiered Universe but still hold that God is not just a big bearded guy in the sky that we made up to feel like ‘somebody is watching over us’ and will take care of things in the end.  Both Process theology and the work of Panneneberg give us visions of God’s otherness that squash most objections to moving in the direction that I am headed: we don’t lose the transcendence/otherness of God.

I love the idea that God is the power of the future. God comes to us in each moment and provides the possibility of a preferable reality complete with contingencies of the past. That gets me out of bed in the morning!

  • Prophecy is a sign that is meant to create in us a greater level of faith, trust and awareness. It is not a ‘party trick’ nor is it a primary mode of decision making. If you are relying on God’s Voice to plan travel itineraries, invest in the stock market, look for your missing child, counsel people getting divorced, or predict the weather … I got bad news for ya. That is not how God designed this all to work. 

Admittedly, you have to downgrade your expectations a little bit. Gone are the days of thinking that some stranger on the street is going to call out your name and tell you all the secrets of your heart – and which fork in the road is ‘God’s will’.  The magic show is over. Prophecy happens in relationship. 

BUT (and this is a big but) because God is relational and inside a relationship God’s Spirit can lead your friend to speak loving, kind, challenging words to you – by being open and available … that is  pretty great stuff!  It’s just not magic.

It’s like your sex life. One you get rid of the unrealistic expectations of porn, you can have a healthy real relationship that is both satisfying and sustainable. First, though, you have to acknowledge that the earlier thing was fantasy … or you will be perpetually disappointed.

 We are going to touch on this in an upcoming TNT so I would love to hear your feedback, fears, questions, comments, concerns and pushbacks. 

Personal Prophecy: a minority report (part 1)

I’m passing this work on to you, my son Timothy. The prophetic word that was directed to you prepared us for this. All those prayers are coming together now so you will do this well, fearless in your struggle, keeping a firm grip on your faith and on yourself.  – 1 Timothy 1:18 (Message)

 Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good
– 1 Thessalonians 5: 19-21 

 I was writing a letter to a friend the other morning about a devastating development in her family. I didn’t get to finish the letter so I put it on hold. A couple of days later I was watching the film The Minority Report (2002 with Tom Cruise) and had an epiphany.

In the film, Cruise’s character kidnaps a women who has cognitive abilities (pre-cog) to anticipate and ‘see’ the future. At one point he is smuggling her through a mall and she says to him “The women in the brown sweater will recognize you” just seconds before it happens. Then she stops another women (a stranger) and warns her, “He knows – don’t go home.”

It was jarring to me because that is how many people wish that God worked. I come from a charismatic background and in the past I have participated ‘prophetic words’ where secrets were revealed and the hidden was brought out into the light. I always enjoyed those unique occasions where something like this occurred. An openness to God was my general posture … but I was never quite comfortable with forming lines at the alter after every service with people lining up every week to ‘hear from God’. That seemed too forced, or too rote or too presumptuous. 

I have talked before about my progressive take on pentecostal stuff (after the Leif Hetland interview) and getting my mind around miracles. But personal prophecy seems to be an even bigger issue. For those who run in charismatic circles, words of personal prophecy (or ‘reading someone’s mail’) are something that they come to lean on. That is what makes me so nervous.

Let me be clear: I take the passages in the Bible where Jesus talks about hearing the ‘voice’ of the Father very seriously. I have taught hundreds of folks how to ‘listen to God’ in the past. I am neither apologizing for that nor am I explaining it away.
What I am wanting to address is when people

  1. expect it
  2. come to rely on it
  3. abandon other ways of ‘knowing’ because of a dependance on it.

I’m not talking about folks who pray about trivial stuff like prime parking spots or who try to discern which color to paint their fingernails (both are common). I am talking about real people who have said  sentences like the following over the past decade of ministry:

  • Why didn’t God tell me it was cancer?
  • Why didn’t God warn us not to let her take the car?
  • Why didn’t God alert us our that child was being abused?
  • Why didn’t God direct us and help us find the body?
  • Why didn’t God tell me that my spouse was cheating?
  • Why didn’t God expose the treasurer’s embezzling?
  • Why didn’t God say the Doctor’s diagnosis was wrong?

I am not making these up. These are real sentences I have been asked. (and I have many more examples)

I want to say two things:

That is not how God works. It’s just not. Look, I get the power of personal prophecy! I have called out things that I wouldn’t know in my own capability. I am not a doubter. I am just saying that if we come to rely on this way of knowing we could really endanger ourselves and those around us. We need accountability with our church’s finances because we can’t trust that the Holy Spirit would tell us if something was up.

Process has given me a framework to explain how this kind of prophecy works. I don’t want to quench the Spirit, or hold prophecy with contempt, or lose what is good and explain away some of the miraculous stuff I have seen over the years. I know that some will dispute that personal prophecy is what is meant when the New Testament speaks of prophecy – and it is illustrative to my about the contemporary church that many have NO frame of reference for this activity (it seems like voodoo to them) and yet for others it is their MAIN connection to God and they know of no other type of definition for prophecy.

Tomorrow I will post ‘The Process of Prophecy’ – but for now I just wanted to say that The Minority Report is fiction. That is not how God works. Yes, I think it is cool that we can know stuff we normally don’t have access to. BUT we have to be really careful that we don’t turn off other systems of navigation because we like playing with this one. People are getting hurt (by others) and are discouraged with God because we are playing with a toy that was never meant to be a real steering wheel or compass.

Personal prophecy is not a guide to life. It can be a sign (like in the Gospel of John) that points to a greater level of trust and awareness and creates a desire. However, it can not be our main go-to mechanism for making our way in the world. Prophetic words need to be integrated into a web-of-meaning that incorporates scripture, community, and reason. 

Why didn’t God tell you? Because that is not how God designed it to work.


if you have never encountered this type of thing before: check out this instructive blog about maximizing the impact your prophetic word.

Then you may want to check out my post “what has changed since I was your pastor”.

Democracy, Pentecost, and the Old Testament?

  • Is it possible that democratic desires are present in the Old Testament and I have just never seen them before?
  • Is the de-centering of Pentecost and the empowerment of the people foreshadowed in the Old Testament?
  • Can we say  A) that Pentecost in the undoing of Babel and B) that God’s desire has always been for the voice of authority to reside in the people (multitude) and not in top-down leaders?

Here is why I am asking:

Recently I stumbled on what might be the most interesting reading of Moses at Mirebah I have seen. It comes from the book Emergency Politics by Bonnie Honig (also on Kindle). In it, she is engaging the theology of Franz Rosenzweig – a contemporary and rival to the German (later Nazi) Carl Schmitt who famously said “” Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

In Numbers chpt 20, Miriam passes away. She had been a prophetess for the people and had challenged Moses’ authority on occasion. Immediately after her passing (this will become important) the people realize that there is no water and press Moses and Aaron for solutions. Moses and Aaron step away from the people to seek God and receive instruction to “take the staff and speak to the rock – it will pour out water before their eyes”.

Moses, as you may remember, doesn’t follow instructions to the ‘T’. He ad libs a little bit.  He does indeed gather the people but then he veers from the plan. He chastises the people and then strikes the rock. Two things happen:

  • water does indeed come out
  • God is displeased with Moses and will not let him enter the land that is promised.

I have preached this passage many times and have read lots of treatments. I am intrigued by this passage and have always been unsettled by one detail in the story, which I have never been able to resolve:

why does the Lord tell Moses to take the staff if he is just going to speak to the rock? Why even mention the staff?

Here is where Honig and Rosenzweig bring a unique reading. The staff represent something magical like sorcery – or the miraculous for the early 20th century. This is a political theology and what is at stake in the suspension of law in emergency conditions. Can a sovereign power suspend law in the same way that  God suspends the laws of physics in order to preform miracles? Leaders, being empowered by God, the thinking goes, could suspend ‘normal’ activity if they determined an exceptional circumstance.

In Honig and Rosenzweig’s hermeneutic the dispersed empowerment of the people (multitude) is the location for God’s will and is intended to be home to the will/voice of the Lord. But, as we know, this responsibility had been too overwhelming and was resisted by the people in selecting Moses as a king type who would speak to God for/instead of them (Exodus 20:19). This was an abdication by the people of what the Lord had desired for them as a people – to be prophets all.

This resistance is reinforced when the voice of the people rises in the absence of water, and Moses (along with his brother Aaron) turn away from the ‘stiff necked people’ and receive instruction to speak to the rock. Moses then, probably importing the top-down authoritarianism of his Egyptian upbringing, disobeys the command to speak and instead, chastises the people and strikes the rock with his staff in an act of magical sorcery. God, though it produces water, reprimands this act, and Moses is disallowed from entering the promised-land with the people.

This event is placed within the historical context, earlier in the passage, where Miriam passed away and immediately the people realized that they had no water and held a council against Moses and Aaron. Miriam’s name alludes to water and she was the sister who placed Moses in the Nile’s water when he was an infant. She had been the only one to challenge Moses’ authoritarian ways and she provided, as a prophetess, a check to Moses’ power. Without her, this reading states, Moses proved he will give the people … “not authentic prophecy, but sorcery.” In not recognizing the predictive prophecy of the people (and Miriam), Moses loses his leadership of the people.

Honig utilizes Rosenzweig’s two types of prayer – one that spontaneously arises in a situational moment, and another that is used by the community and creates an openness or receptivity – to analyze the judicial deliberation surrounding the Bush v. Gore presidential ruling. By imagining that the people could have risen up in expectation of a serious effort to count valuable democratic votes instead of waiting for a Schmittian top-down rule from the authorities. The sovereign power might have been within the people prepared for and receptive to the sign instead of what came from above it – a rupture from beyond them. This expectation is foreshadowed within the Mosaic tradition that one day all of the people would be prophets (like Miriam).

Honig asks if this metaphorical reading (which it expressly is)  is a good model for democratic politics and a comparison of the  “state of legal exception to the divine rule of god”. The people, she says, when bound together can give to themselves the powers of state and can again decide to suspend them when, as a multitude, they are oriented and receptive (having been prepared) to the consequences of such action and what they point toward as a sign.

This, in the end, is the problem with magical thinking! We abdicate our power as the people – to be receptive to and bring forward the voice and will of God – in favor of looking to magically empowered leaders to suspend the rules that govern due to exceptional (or emergency) circumstances and hand down solution (metaphorically) through sorcery.

It makes sense then why the Lord even mentions the staff if Moses is ultimately to speak to the rock. It is a metaphor (symbol) of concentrated power that is present but to be resisted in lue of the prophetic possibility of speaking. In that speaking, which is to be located in the people (multitude) prepared by prayer, that a sign is revealed that points to a greater reality. We never hear that voice if a receptive people continually abdicate that potential to exceptional leaders who are expected to provide magical results.

God’s of use of authoritarian leaders would, in this line of thinking, always be either a temporary measure, a concession, or a deviation from the Lord’s will to have the voice housed in the God’s people.

I started with questions and I will close with one:

  • What kind of effect would a reading like this have the kenosis  of Philippians 2 and that weird conversation in 1 Samuel 8 where the people want a king and God says “trust me, you don’t – you only think you do” ?

Obama, the Antichrist, and the Beast (reading the Bible better)

This past week a heckler was escorted from a speech by President Obama for calling the President ‘the Antichrist’. If you want to read about it or watch the video,  here are some links.

I find this story very interesting for four reasons:

First, I passionately believe that the Book of Revelation was a spiritual-political commentary on the Roman Empire of the first two centuries. It was written in a Jewish style of literature called Apocalyptic.  I do not think it is about our day nor is it about the end of the world. It is an inspired (and thus scripture) movement of prophetic imagination to call for (in hope) a preferable future.

but that is not how I was taught to read the Bible. I was taught to read it in one hand with a newspaper in the other (as they say). I was told that we could see events (like the Bear from the East) being fulfilled in the Soviet Union or Israel. I no longer believe this but am fascinated by those who still do.

Second, there is no such thing as the Antichrist. Now, scripture does speak about an antichrist spirit – it is all in the books of 1 and 2 John of the Bible and there are 4 references – none of them are what get thrown around these days. The idea of THE Antichrist is actually a horrible amalgamation of nearly every bad-guy in the Bible mashed into one. We take the Man of Lawlessness (from Thessalonians), the Prince (from Daniel) and a whole bunch of other baddies from the Old and New Testament and transform them into one galactically bad figured called THE Antichrist. In reality, there is no such thing.

Third, if there was such a cosmic bad-guy, do you think that you could just pay $250 dollars for entrance to a fundraiser and yell at him because he let gays into the military?  Don’t you think that he would destroy you with like… I don’t know… beams of hell-fire from his eyes or something.  You can’t just yell at the Antichrist and get away with it.  What are you thinking? Continue reading “Obama, the Antichrist, and the Beast (reading the Bible better)”

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