Welcome to the blog of Bishop Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School. Here you will find articles, sermons, lectures and other offerings from Will Willimon.
The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is, Daniel Darling, foreword by Russell Moore, Baker Books, 2015.
You know the old saw that God created humans in his own image and we have spent ages returning the compliment. How ironic that Jesus, who came to change us, has from the first been changed by us into a more congenial idol. Idolatry is the malady that Daniel Darling tackles in The Original Jesus. At the first we dressed up Jesus in a royal robe and placed a crown upon his head just before we nailed him to a cross. Today we continue to remake the original Jesus into a “Jesus” who is less threatening and demanding than “the Savior Who Is.”
Darling takes deadly aim at a score of popular but fake Saviors: Guru Jesus, Red-Letter Jesus, Braveheart Jesus, Dr. Phil Jesus, Prosperity Jesus and more. No matter how biblically faithful you are in your thinking about Jesus, Darling will snag you with at least one of his pseudo Christs. In his usually gentle, sometimes funny, always astute skewering of au currant myths about our Lord, Darling’s neo-Calvinism shows. Reformer John Calvin was convinced that idolatry is our root sin and that the human imagination is a factory for idols. Clear biblical thinking casts down our self-fabricated godlets. That’s what Darling does.
This book would be helpful reading for any North American Christian who is willing to have his or her Christology critiqued and corrected. Church study groups, if they dared, would find the short, fast-paced, hard-hitting chapters great catalysts for debate. At various points in my reading of Darling I reacted with, “Hey, I really like worshipping that Jesus. I’ve been personally blessed by the Jesus you are attacking. How dare you?” To which I hear Darling reply, “Gotcha!”
Anyone who sets out to correct our false, self-serving conceptions of Christ has got his work cut out for him. The challenge is not only that lousy Christology is rampant among us but also that the critic presumes that he knows the much more correct, biblically defensible, sure-fire original Jesus. It’s easy enough to knock down as biblically indefensible Joel Osteen’s Prosperity Jesus, or the goofy, hairy-chested Braveheart Jesus. But Darling tends to get tangled up in his own Jesus myths when he goes after more subtle heresies like American Jesus or Post-Church Jesus. In those chapters he is less theologically thoughtful and more personally revealing of the limits of his own Christology while he presumes to correct ours.
A favorite old liberal strategy is to attempt to reduce living, lordly, complicated biblical, resurrected Jesus to some abstracted essence, an essential core, a set of propositions. Liberals attempted to go back to the original, historical, real Jesus, peeling away all the pious accretions of the ages. While that’s the sort of reductionism Darling justifiably abhors in the Red Letter Jesus, he does the same in a book claiming to have zeroed in on the Original Jesus. Doesn’t John 1 say that Jesus’ origins are in eternity, going all the way back before Creation?
While Darling’s Original Jesus is divine savior he is not so much the Second Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit doesn’t make much of a showing in this book). We have attempted to cut Jesus down to our size, making him into a self-help guru or enlisting him into our pet political causes. Agreed. But in Darling’s definition of Jesus, Christ’s work appears to be limited mostly to salvation of us individuals from our sins, leaving us unchallenged politically, economically, racially, etc.
Probably mine is a predictably Wesleyan prejudice but I didn’t hear enough from Darling about Jesus as teacher, master of disciples, healer, rabble-rouser, scathing critic of the rich, and lover of enemies. In short, Darling fails to offer a picture of Jesus that’s half as rich Scripture. Where’s the Jesus who said not, “Believe correct things about me,“ but rather, “Follow me!”?
The church has done some rich reflecting about Jesus as Incarnate, Trinity, Lord of the Church, eschatological Lamb, actively revealing subject, thinking provoked by and faithful to the Scripture that Darling merely cuts and pastes to bolster his arguments. When you worship a Savior as complex and true, as rich as the divine/human Jesus, theological reflection is demanded. Scriptural citations alone, abstracted from here and there, are insufficient to talk about Jesus then or now.
I liked best Darling’s critique of the overly simplified, ripped-out-of-full-biblical context, Red Letter Jesus. Unfortunately, along the way, Darling lapses into saying, in effect, that, though Jesus is the Son of God, he is subordinate to Scripture. I was forced to ask, What about the living, active, revealing Christ now? I love the way that Darling allows Scripture to keep Jesus as difficult and demanding as he is, yet one has the nagging suspicion that Darling wants to limit Jesus to Scripture rather than worshipping Jesus as Lord even of Scripture. At least some of the questionable characterizations that Darling pillories believe that Jesus is relevant to us here and now.
I’m sure that Jesus would make a way to have us, even if we had not been given Scripture. Jesus is not only the Bible’s subject but also revelation’s agent. People met the original Jesus and were forced to ask, “Who is this?” Theology wasn’t something that occurred centuries later as folk distorted the obvious, self-evident Jesus. From day one, ordinary people were forced into complex theological rumination because of what Jesus said and did. The original Jesus didn’t assert obvious truth. Darling stresses that we must accept Scripture, all of it, as from Jesus, but doesn’t give us a Jesus at work in us and through Scripture. Jesus, the church has always taught, is a speaking, revealing subject rather than simply the object of a reliable historical record.
As I said, it’s tough to defend the assertion that you have the absolutely original Jesus. Most of us are more sure that Jesus has got us rather than that we have got him.
Darling seems not to want to offend his targets. Fine, Christian charity is a noble virtue. But who are these heretics who advocate for a Braveheart Jesus or the inane American Jesus? His book would have been strengthened with more citations from the specific fellow Christians whom he is presuming to correct. Is there really someone out there who preaches “Jesus is my buddy?”
Go ahead and call his name and nail him like you nailed Donald Miller.
It’s fine with me for Darling to attack Left Wing Jesus, though I can’t imagine he is much troubled by left wingers among his fellow Southern Baptists. Where was his chapter on Right Wing Jesus? Hard pressed to find any Scripture to bolster his good old American defense of capitalism, private property rights, hard work, and personal freedom, he simply asserted conventional conservative political wisdom. And where does Jesus praise marriage and family as wonderful pastimes? Oh, that Jesus is too challenging to our confidence that we’ve got the original Jesus.
As I said, anyone who claims to possess the real, scripturally certified Jesus and charges that others cling to a fake Jesus leaves himself open to fellow Christians who, because of Scripture, are quick to counter with, “But what about the Jesus who said…?”
Will Willimon is a popular author, United Methodist Bishop (retired), and Professor of the Practice of Theology, Duke Divinity School.
William Willimon: “How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching” (Westminster John Knox Press)
Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School, has written his 62nd book for all pastors who wonder why they drag themselves into the pulpit every Sunday or worry that their sermons aren’t reaching past the front pew. To order, click on
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Duke Today: A roundup of Fall books by Duke authors at
This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. Let’s see if our book helps to shake up the church in the power of the Holy Spirit!
Shaking Up the Church
The early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit slowly came to some consensus about what really matters. Christians decided what counts as Scripture, as well as what authority Scripture has and which rites are necessary for the churchʼs existence. The church came to a consensus about the role of its leaders. Of course each of these developments, significant as they certainly are, only produced further controversy. That Christians had disagreements is a sign that for the church truth matters and what counts as truth is often discovered through controversy. Few of us enjoy conflict but sometimes our controversy demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is continuing to energize and to reveal truth to the church.
It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to shake up the church, particularly when the church becomes self-satisfied and content with the status quo. For instance, there is still disagreement between churches of whether there are two sacraments – baptism and Eucharist – or seven. Perhaps that argument (between Catholics and Protestants) ought better be framed not by arguing about the number of sacraments but rather by agreement on the purpose of our sacramental worship. We like the way that Claude Welch speaks of the interplay between Spirit and word, sacrament, and ministry: “Word, sacrament and ministry together are structures of human existence taken up by the Spirit (which is to say, given to the church) and used as means whereby the grace of Christ is given, the power of new life made effectual, communicated through the historical life of the people of God. At the same time they are signs and instruments of the promise that Christ is even now newly presenting himself to his people and taking them into his new humanity.”
The special relationship of the Spirit and the church doesnʼt mean that the work that the Holy Spirit is limited to the church. The Spirit that gave life at creation, that breathed life into Adam is the same Spirit that came on those gathered at Pentecost. The same Spirit who breathed new life into the dry bones of Israel (Ezekiel 37:1-14) is the same Spirit at work in the world gathering into the church those who once knew not the name of Jesus. The same Spirit who drove the fledgling church in Acts even toward the gentiles is the Spirit who today makes settled, introverted congregations uneasy with the way they have limited the work of the Spirit to the care, internal maintenance, and safe keeping of the church.
Rowan Williams notes the Spiritʼs work “outside” the church by saying that the church is, “meant to be the place where Jesus is active in the world. And once we have said that, we can turn it around and say that where Jesus is visibly active, something like the church must be going on.” This doesnʼt mean that the visible church, its teaching and sacraments donʼt matter; it is simply to recognize that at times we learn what is most important for the church by looking beyond its visible boundaries. Though the Holy Spirit birthed the church, the Holy Spirit intends to have more of the world than the church.
Williams says that if we look at the current state of the church from the viewpoint of the Spirit, we must ask some “awkward questions” about how we have let ourselves be distracted so that the Bible and sacraments as well as the Christ whose life is the heart of the church are not at the center of church life. It is important to trust the Holy Spirit to work even in those churches that are in decline as well as those churches that seem to flourish. The Spirit has always challenged the church from unexpected directions. It is, therefore, not without reason that we pray to the Spirit, “Do it again!” so that our church might recover a radical sense of what God wants us to be.
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
 Welch, The Reality of the Church, p. 240.
 Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 128.
 Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 129.
This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. May this book be used by the Holy Spirit to address that!
We’ve Got an Advocate
That the Holy Spirit incorporates us into Godʼs very life is not only found in the letters of Paul. In the gospel of John, Jesus promises that though he will return to the Father he will ask the Father to send the “Advocate, the Paraclete,” who will be with us forever. That “Advocate” is the “Spirit of truth” whom the disciples will recognize because, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be with you.” (John 14: 17) The Advocate is sent to “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14: 26). The Spirit has distinct work to do: to make us one body, the Body of Christ.
That the Holy Spirit is here called “Advocate” indicates that in Christ we are more than simply accepted by God or even justified by God. The Advocate continues to plead for us, represent us to God in ways greater than our ways and speak in our behalf to God better than we could speak up for ourselves. At the same time the Advocate is God representing God to us, revealing God to us in ways that we could not have come up with on our own.
That the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything and remind you” of all that Jesus said is immensely reassuring. None of us is born Christian. We must learn the faith and, in the Holy Spirit we see that God loves us enough to teach us all we need to know to be with God. Jesus commands us to do some extraordinary things in his name but never commands us to attempt to obey him by ourselves. Jesus tells us some astounding truth that is easy to forget. Therefore the Advocate reminds us. Here is truth we cannot teach ourselves, truth that is not only a great mystery to us but also truth that we, in our human sin, cannot attain on our own. Therefore the Advocate is a truth-teller.
We know a person who suffered a great wrong at the hands of another. She was justifiably angry at the injustice perpetrated against her. In an encounter with her wrongdoer her rage boiled over and she was in the process of, “Giving him a piece of my mind.” In that moment she, “remembered that Christ commanded us to forgive our enemies. I said, ʻLord, Iʼll try to do what you want me to do, but youʼll have to help meʼ.” We believe her remembrance was the work of the Advocate, the true eternal truth-teller, the Teacher, the Living Reminder otherwise known as the Holy Spirit.
We spend most of our lives outside of the sacred precincts of the church. Thankfully, the Advocate is with us “forever,” at all times and places, helping us to be the disciples Jesus calls us to be.
The love that is Trinity is a wonderful but also a harsh and dreadful love, a love that (we learn in Christʼs resurrection) cannot be destroyed. Christʼs church is given the extraordinary opportunity to participate in the love that is God in a world that knows not God.
The Holy Spirit rests upon bodies, first on the crucified body of Jesus, then on the often full-of-holes and beaten Body of Christ, the church.
A little church in Alabama had been saving for a decade at last to build its own church and to enable the congregation to move out of the rented space where it worshipped. A couple in the church had raised four foster children. One Sunday, during the prayers of intercession, the couple said that social services had asked them to take on three more children who had become homeless. They asked the church for prayers,“to help us find a larger place to rent so we can take in these kids.”
With that, one of the oldest members of the congregation blurted out, “We donʼt need to pray for that. Letʼs give them our building fund money!” There was applause. That Sunday the church gave the entire building fund to enable the family to have a larger home. We believe that such a miracle is attributable only to having ordinary people pray, “Come! Holy Spirit!”
The Holy Spirit is the agent of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is present, often hidden, in the church. The Holy Spirit is the way that God keeps actively loving us in time, the way that the Trinity keeps showing up to us, keeps pointing us toward the truth embodied in the Crucified. By Godʼs love, we live in the Age of the Spirit, that new time in which the church exists and testifies to the world that our time is not our own. God has taken time for us and the sign of that divine intrusion is the Holy Spirit at work in the church that is lives and works in the world.
God through the Spirit draws us into the life of the Trinity making possible a people who would otherwise not exist. The Spirit must have a body on which the Spirit can rest. That body turns out to be called “church.”
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, the latest collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. In this book, we attempt to lure fellow Christians into the riches of Pneumatology, thinking about the Holy Spirit. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spiritʼs lack of prominence in contemporary theology is odd given that the movement generally known as Pentecostalism is the fastest growing form of Christianity. Charismatic Christianity has grown exponentially over the last century. The movement which many think began in 1906 in modest circumstances on Azusa Street in Los Angeles has exploded into a world-wide phenomenon producing some of the most lively churches in South America and Africa.
Of particular note is the Holy Spiritʼs special relation with the poor and the dispossessed. The sermon that Jesus preaches in Luke 4, claiming that the Spirit is upon him to preach good news to the oppressed, deliverance to prisoners, is taking form in worldwide Pentecostalism today.
The charismatic, Holy Spirit induced movement has not been restricted to Protestants. In 1967 during a retreat at Duquesne University a number of the participants were “reborn” in the Spirit. It was not long before the movement spread to the University of Notre Dame spawning summer meetings that for a number of years attracted thousands. This Catholic charismatic movement has generally had the support of the Popes and bishops.
Charismatic forms of Protestantism have often received a different response from the churches. In fact, the “enthusiasm” of the charismatics may be one of the reasons the Holy Spirit does not have, at least among mainstream Protestants, the same status as Father and Son. “Enthusiasm,” (infused with God) was a frequent charge against John Wesley and his Methodists.
Some fundamentalist churches ostracize members who claim to have received charismatic gifts, seeing such claims as dangerous undercutting the authority of Scripture and disrupting congregational order. As mainstream Protestantism loses the social and political status it once enjoyed, unable to attract new members, it becomes fearful about the future. Mainline Protestants sense that just identifying themselves as Christian is enough of a threat to secular culture; they are anxious not to be counted with Christians who speak in tongues, perform signs and wonders, believe in miracles, and are possessed by the Spirit. “Progressive Christians” know that many of their secular friends think that Christianity can no longer be rationally defended. That some Christians in the name of the Holy Spirit claim to be possessed by God in a way that seems irrational to modern, Western people only reinforces the secularist suspicion of the absurdity of Christianity.
In a field education seminar, Will had a student present a case study in which a parishioner asked her pastor, “What does the United Methodist Church believe about speaking in tongues.”
The pastor was rather pleased with himself to respond, “Oh my God, donʼt tell me youʼve gotten into that!”
She reported that she had experienced glossolalia, ecstatic speech, during a session of her Bible study group.
“Perhaps you are still dealing with grief over the death of your daughter,” said the pastor.
“I am. Is that what causes this?” she asked.
“Perhaps you ought to seek professional help,” persisted the pastor.
“Thatʼs why I came to you,” she concluded.
We find this a rather brutal policing of the Holy Spirit to assume that a report of
unusual spiritual gifts should be responded to with, “You are insane.”
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
From the Pew Research Center comes the sad truth about racial diversity in American churches. Some years ago I said that my own beloved United Methodist Church has shown little intention of taking the costly, painful steps that might lead to greater racial diversity; we prefer slogans about diversity to actual racial inclusiveness. Years ago Lyle Schaller said that the more a congregation talks about “diversity” and the less it talks instead about “evangelism,” the less diverse that church is.
During the four decades of my ministry, the UMC we spent millions to subsidize mostly failing ethnic minority local church, we have an elaborate, rigidly enforced system of racial quotas for our leaders, and a higher percentage of ethnic minority bishops than any other church. And yet, as you can see, we are at the bottom of the list in actual inclusivity of membership.
This data shows that the UMC is actually less inclusive than we were four decades ago. I think the data confirms my contention that racial inclusiveness is exclusively a local church issue; it is not solved by Annual Conference and General Conference measures. I pray that the UMC will use this dismal data from Pew as encouragement to dedicate ourselves anew not to being more inclusive in our hierarchy but inclusive in our Sunday worship. I bet we would have to reform our training of clergy, our deployment of clergy, our worship and hymnody. There is no painless way for us to move from being one of the most racially exclusive church to a church that more faithfully mirrors the mission of Christ.
The UMC’s location at the bottom of the diversity index is an affront to our tradition, our theology, and our fidelity to Jesus Christ. How ironic that we will probably spend more energy at the next General Conference talking about sexual orientation than about our now well-documented racial exclusivity.
If a religious group had exactly equal shares of each of the five racial and ethnic groups (20% each), it would get a 10.0 on the index; a religious group made up entirely of one racial group would get a 0.0. By comparison, U.S. adults overall rate at 6.6 on the scale. And indeed, the purpose of this scale is to compare groups to each other, not to point to any ideal standard of diversity.
Seventh-day Adventists top the list with a score of 9.1: 37% of adults who identify as Seventh-day Adventists are white, while 32% are black, 15% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian and another 8% are another race or mixed race.
Muslims (8.7) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (8.6) are close behind in terms of diversity, as no racial or ethnic group makes up more than 40% of either group.
Although U.S. Jews (90% white) and Hindus (91% Asian) are not very diverse, especially compared with Americans overall, the five least diverse groups in the index are all Protestant denominations. Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (a mainline denomination), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (an evangelical denomination) and the United Methodist Church (the largest mainline church) are all more than 90% white.
This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. We hope that our book, in some small way, helps to change that neglect!
The Holy Spirit as God
When we talk about the Holy Spirit we are speaking about God. You may find this an odd remark with which to begin a book meant to introduce the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. After all this is a book written by Christians for Christians. However throughout Christian history and particularly in our own day Christians have had difficulty remembering when they say Holy Spirit they say God.
God as Father, Son, and….
Surveys show that nine out of ten Americans say they believe in “God.” But weʼre not sure that the God in whom so many Americans believe is the God designated by “Holy Spirit.” Actually, when Christians say Holy Spirit they are not merely saying “God;” they are saying Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the one God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Often when you are third in a list, for instance, a list like the Apostles Creed, it can seem that third is an after-thought.
Thus the general presumption is that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit—well, what does the Spirit do? Too often the Spirit is associated with our feeling that we have had some sort of “experience” that is somehow associated with God or at least a vague feeling that seems to be “spiritual.” Human experience is a questionable place from which to begin thinking about God. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are often cited by United Methodists as constituting authority in theological argument. Some even claim that John Wesley was big on experience as a source for theological reflection. Subjective experience is no place to begin thinking about the Holy Spirit. Such thinking can result in a dismissal of what the
Bible says about the Holy Spirit and an unfortunate degradation of Christian doctrine. So we say again: to believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in God. To have had experience of the Holy Spirit is to have had an experience of something other than yourself.
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
 See Jason Byasee’s book in the Belief Matters series, The Trinity (Nashville: Abingdon 2015).
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