God Unbound (Chad Bahl) -- A Review

GOD UNBOUND: An Evangelical Reconsiders Tradition in Search of Truth. Second Edition. By Chad Bahl. Nampa, ID: SacraSage Press, 2022.

                Theology is not just the province of the academically trained scholar. It is something that we all engage in. Hopefully, all Christians are committed to the search for truth, even if that means asking hard questions about the traditions we inhabit. While some of us do this professionally, it’s also useful for laypersons to engage in the process of asking questions and seeking the truth, no matter where it leads. This can be difficult, especially if we are part of more conservative traditions. But, it’s necessary. I know, from personal experience!

                In God Unbound, Chad Bahl offers us his take on a journey of discovery that has forced him to reconsider his evangelical roots. Bahl has written this book as an evangelical who has come to embrace an open and relational theology. He is a layperson without advanced theological training. He does have a doctorate in pharmacology, which means he has a background in the sciences. I would think that a good scientist wants to ask hard questions, so this is a good starting point for such an exercise as this one is. I should mention that Bahl also has a blog—TheLayTheologian.com.

                Bahl's book, God Unbound, was originally self-published in 2016 using the Lulu platform. More recently he has republished the book with SacraSage Press, which was created by Tom Oord to share books on Open and Relational Theology. What I don’t know is the degree to which it was revised. There is a reference to the Center for Open and Relational Theology, and organization of which I am part, but I believe that Tom Oord set this center up quite recently (before 2016). So, there may be a few adjustments, but as far as I can tell this is essentially the same book as Bahl put together in 2016. The difference is that SacraSage gives him a broader audience.

                So, my take on Bahl’s book is as follows. This is a relatively brief book that offers Bahl’s reasons for leaving behind the “classical theism,” which he believes dominates evangelicalism. Once he found it compelling, but have encountered open theism, he no longer embraces that version of Christian theology. Evangelicalism claims to be biblical, but Bahl isn’t quite so sure. In fact, he believes that Open and Relational Theology is more biblical than classical theism. The problem, in Bahl’s mind with classical theism is that it is indebted to (Plato/Neoplatonism), which he believes has led Christians and evangelicals to stray from a truly biblical theology. Since this is the starting point of the book, I want to push a bit on it. While much traditional Christian theology was developed in conversation with Greek philosophical traditions, including Platonism and Neoplatonism, I think it’s important to distinguish this influence from the Hellenistic context in which Christianity emerged. Paul was Jewish, but he preached in a Hellenistic context. He used the Greek language to communicate his vision of Jesus, and that required the use of Greek philosophical ideas. In other words, he contextualized the message. The same is true for his theological descendants, from Justin Martyr to Origen to Augustine and on and on it goes. So, we need to be careful when we engage with this early context in which Christianity took root.

                So, having made that qualification, we can address the issues Bahl surfaces, especially the philosophical categories of immutability (unchanging) and impassibility (no passions/emotions). The question is whether God can relate to us if God is timeless, unchanging, and cannot be affected by God’s creation. These are good questions, and those of us who have adopted an open and relational perspective recognize that if God cannot be affected by the creation, then it’s pretty difficult to imagine God relating to us in any real way.

                Having raised this set of questions, Bahl like many within the movement challenges the Calvinist/Reformed theology that dominates much of evangelicalism (chapter 2). He finds the determinism of this version of Christian theology wanting. He continues that conversation in chapter 3 with a word about the problem of pain. This is the question of theodicy and whether God is at fault. I will note that much of the conversation within open and relational circles focuses on theodicy—the defense of God in the face of evil. Instead of a determining God, Bahl believes the truth lies with the comforting/suffering God.

                In chapter 4, he takes up the important issue of our future destiny and whether unbelievers face an eternity of suffering in hell. Bahl doesn’t embrace universalism, but he doesn’t affirm eternal suffering either. Thus, he embraces annihilationism. It is a perspective that is growing in popularity in evangelical circles among those who cannot believe that a God of love would sentence humans to suffer eternally. It’s a position that I too found attractive, and it does have strong evangelical roots. But many of us have found that this ultimately doesn’t work. It’s too limiting. It appears that Bahl is struggling here with biblical literalism. He doesn’t want to be a literalist in one sense but he wants to be true to Scripture. In his take on the situation, conditional immortality makes the most sense. As for the idea of torment in hell, he traces that to Augustine’s embrace of Plato, such that Augustine’s Platonic belief in the immortal soul leads him to embrace hell as a possible destiny. Of course, Christians embraced the idea of an immortal soul long before Augustine—see Origen nearly two centuries earlier, if not before that.      

                In chapter five, he brings science into the conversation. Again I see myself in his journey, though I’m not a scientist. He wants to reconcile the science he has learned with the faith that he embraces. He seems to still be struggling with all of this.  He leans toward theistic evolution, but he’s not sure yet. Then in chapter six, he addresses the challenge of bibliolatry. I think perhaps the idea of biblicism might be a better term, but in any case, he takes up, in brief, the question of how we should read scripture. Finally, in chapter seven he writes about escaping evangelical elitism, though I would better characterize this as exclusivist Christianity. It is clear that he wants to embrace an inclusivist Christianity but not religious pluralism. He wants to envision a broader welcome but one that requires them to be included in Christ.

                As I read the book I saw a lot of my former self in his reflections. I went through many of the same stages of faith, asking questions and letting go of old beliefs. I’m still on that path. I expect that the same will be true for Bahl. This book represents a stop on the journey in search of the truth. He raises good questions, though many answers are still to come. The importance here is to remain open to new possibilities.   

                Because Bahl seems to still be on the journey, I’d like to push him on a few things, starting with his take on Hellenism. We need not embrace everything that goes with what develops over time, but it’s important to acknowledge the importance of the context in which Christianity emerged. The Hellenistic context enabled the message of Jesus to go forth from Jerusalem. Theologians like Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine, sought to communicate what they believed was the Christian message in a form that spoke to their contexts. That doesn’t mean they got it right, but I think we need to give them credit for attempting this. Lest we make Platonism the bogeyman, let’s also acknowledge that Open and Relational theologians make use of modern philosophical systems to communicate (Whitehead is not a pure biblical Christian). The historian in me is concerned about how Bahl (and many Open and Relational folks) interpret early Christianity. More specifically, it's important to remember that theology will get contextualized, and so the theology that we have inherited will have elements of that context. As far as the immortal soul, it is useful to remember that Origen contemplated the likely possibility that all things ultimately will be restored, and thus eternal torment isn’t in our future. Thus, Origen could conceive of universal salvation. Just a note, Eastern Orthodox theologians tend to be “classical theists” but many have embraced universal salvation in some form. I would also like to push Bahl a bit on religious pluralism. He seems open to some form of inclusion in Christ, but I think this needs further work. In fact, this might help clarify some conflicting points of view I found present in the book.

                On the science end, while I’m not a trained scientist, I want to push him further along in his journey from the creationism he originally embraced. I would suggest reading scientists and theologians such as John Polkinghorne and Jürgen Moltmann. Philip Clayton and Tom Oord also write on the subject. He might even enjoy reading my book Worshiping with Charles Darwin. He says he leans toward theistic evolution, so I would like to push him further along the path.  

                There is one other area I want to address, though it might appear that I’m being a bit picky. However, I think it's important. Bahl tends to use masculine language not only for God, which is common among evangelicals and even among many non-evangelical Protestants, but he also uses language for human beings. That is, he uses man and mankind generically for humans. While inclusive language may seem politically correct, it is an important advance. Many women see such language usage, especially in this day and age, as excluding them from the conversation. I don’t believe Bahl means to do this but watching his language will help communicate the message he believes is important, and that is the love of Jesus for the world.

                I am honored to have had the opportunity to receive a copy of God Unbound from Chad and engage with it. This is my hope, that Chad will continue his journey into an open future!  


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