The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditations on Faith

The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditations on Faith by Timothy J. Stoner (NavPress, 2008)

I have to confess I wanted to read a book about a God who smokes – literally smokes, drawing contentedly on a long stemmed pipe or even a Marlboro. It’s not too much to ask and given the provocative image of the lit match on this book's cover and its promise of "scandalous" (yes scandalous) meditations, I was sure this vision couldn't be far off. But after only a few pages, I realized that the title of Timothy Stoner’s book is misleading at best and offers instead a very conservative, even fundamentalist response to questions raised in contemporary circles. 

The vast majority of The God Who Smokes consists of Stoner's anecdotal reflection on these basic theological questions -- Not the type of questions grappled with in strict theological academia but rather those encountered in recent Christian literature or everyday discourse where emotional impact often overrules anything systemically derived. This is not to suggest, however, that Stoner's answers are not systematically derived, for they are. He is quick to point out that he is coming from a staunchly Calvinistic, fundamentalist stance. That Stoner lays his theological cards on the table so quickly to his readers is laudable. I wish, however, that this same forthrightness had been employed in the book's presentation of itself. Rather than suggesting "scandalous meditations" of a “smoking God”, although attention grabbing, a more honest description would have undoubtedly been a Calvinistic response to questions butting up against Christian fundamentalism.

My qualm with The God Who Smokes does not stem from its consistently fundamentalist answers but from its presentation and treatment of its questions. Take for example the first argument presented in the book. In the chapter entitled “Velvet Rembrandt” (Chapter 2) Stoner takes issue with an oft heard question recently (re)posed by author Rob Bell in the book Velvet Jesus. In essence,
Bell inquires whether classic orthodox theological formulation has not been so overly constructed and over-defined as to make its entire edifice dependent on the intellectual assent of each of its statements. In other words, does classic orthodox theological formulation allow for one to have a saving faith in Jesus while not, for example, believing in the Virgin Birth? Or does classic orthodox theological formulation suggest that belief in the Virgin Birth is required for salvation?


This is in fact a very important question which brings into focus the role and potential limitation of any systematic theology, orthodox or otherwise. In the question above, “Virgin Birth” can be replaced with any myriad of topics cited in historical creeds and theological declarations. Questions of biblical authorship or the nature of Jesus Christ are of the same type and equally important. (Must one believe John wrote his gospel in order to be saved?; Is one excluded from salvation if one believes Christ had two natures, one human and one divine, rather than one unique nature?; etc.)


Stoner spends seventeen pages dealing with this question, the first third of which records his internal dismay over Bell’s question prior to his having read Bell’s book. But after having finally read Bell’s entire argument, Stoner no longer perceives him as a reckless heretic and the entire tone of his response changes. In place of an incredulous “Does he really believe…???” approach permeating the chapter’s beginning, we are offered the following ominous warning:


“A teacher needs to tread very cautiously in such matters, lest his broad, open-ended questions confuse not just his friends but a lot of listeners too. The usual effect of a host of interrogatories is to weaken rather than support the brief indicative that follows them.” (41)


In other words, Stoner’s proposed solution to Bell’s question is that it is better not to ask the question lest it confuse people, a conclusion he then spends the rest of the chapter defending.


This is all fine and good but far from satisfying or even meaningful for anyone remotely interested in the original question, since the line of reasoning presented here seems to proceed from an emotional over-simplification to an out-right ducking of the question. Yet Stoner considers this to be one of the “scandalous meditations” so promisingly advertised in the book’s title. He deems this response scandalous in that it counter-intuitively suggests rigorous adherence to theological tradition must supplant human curiosity or intellectual inquiry. In other words, Stoner deems this "scandalous" to the contemporary intellect.


Needless to say I found this to be far from scandalous and far closer to false advertisement. For had Stoner truly wished to be scandalous within his own system of belief, he could have said outright that (a) You must assent in the Virgin Birth to be saved; (b) To ask this question is a sign of wavering, unhealthy faith, and (c) Those entertaining the question are clearly in the hinterlands of the Christian Church. But no such explicitly scandalous statements are made, and Stoner leaves us with only verbose implications that these are what he truly believes.     


Despite its lack of scandal, Stoner’s book does provide a consistent approach to the questions he raises, an approach he explicitly labels both fundamentalist and Calvinist. Through an amalgam of personal anecdote, reflection and scriptural passages he returns the reader time and again to what he sees as the pre-eminent role of Apostolic Tradition and the statements of classic orthodox theology built thereon.


The title of Stoner’s book, The God Who Smokes, derives from a chapter of the same name wherein he discusses briefly the wrath of God. The heart of this discussion amounts to a very brief word study of eight Hebrew terms used to describe God’s anger. Stoner notes how many of these Hebrew terms connote “fire, heat, and smoke” and that this connotation carries over into New Testament usages. Thus we are talking about a God who “smokes” and smolders out of righteous anger.


Stoner juxtaposes this obviously scriptural view of a wrathful God with what he considers the predominant contemporary view which he labels the “Auntie God” -- a politically correct, non-offensive deity filled with love and hugs for all.  Although Stoner is careful to ultimately segue this discussion of divine wrath into one of God’s love, he nevertheless fully intends to leave this imagery of a fiery God at the forefront of readers’ minds (hence the book’s title). His purpose for doing so is obvious, hoping that his readers might understand that theological imagination is not a win-win game, that there are rules set down by an angry, fiery God who means business. Stoner’s core position is that contemporary theological imaginations amount to nothing if they stray from the statements of Scripture and orthodox theology.


Sound simple? It isn’t. Take for example the conundrum Stoner’s own project ultimately leaves readers with. Stoner seeks to place front and center the biblical imagery of an angry, wrathful and “smoking” God while at the same time consistently arguing for the priority of orthodox theology and Apostolic Tradition over contemporary theological inquiry. But it is often easily shown that Scriptural statements and the declarations of orthodox theology are at odds when taken at face value. Consider the following passage from Calvin, the author of Stoner’s preferred strand of theology. Speaking specifically of Scriptural passages which mention God’s “anger”, Calvin writes:


God is described to us humanly. Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of him must be lowered to our capacity in order to be intelligible. And the mode of lowering is to represent him not as he really is, but as we conceive of him. Though he is incapable of every feeling of perturbation, he declares that he is angry with the wicked. Wherefore, as when we hear that God is angry, we ought not to imagine that there is any emotion in him, but ought rather to consider the mode of speech accommodated to our sense. (Institutes, 1:17:13; emphasis mine.) 


So on the one hand we have Scripture describing an angry God, and on the other we have Calvin, building on Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, saying that such descriptions are simply accommodations to our lowered conceptions and do not in fact represent God as he really is. Scripture on the one hand, orthodox theology on the other.


Without opening this particular theological can of worms, our observation does beg the question of why Stoner decides to prioritize the imagery of an angry, wrathful God when he is undoubtedly aware (via his Calvinism) that such language is deemed purely anthropomorphic by the pillars and authors of orthodox theology. Is it because he believes such linguistic accommodation is more educational and convincing than descriptions of what God really is? Or does he perhaps believe that despite their philosophical commitment to immutability, the classic theologians may not be entirely correct in their visions of a never-moving, fully actualized God?


Stoner does not answer this question either, but it does bring into focus the inadequacy with which he dismissively deals with Bell’s question as to whether one must believe in the virgin birth to be saved. We know that the historical creeds suggest that this must be believed. But does Scripture say something different from the theologians here as well?


The Gospel of John records an interesting event wherein Jesus is privately speaking to his twelve disciples and sees how they are unable to wrap their heads around what he is saying. Rather than belittle them for their lack of faith or require they cognitively assent before following him any further, he simply urges them to at least believe what they have seen with their own eyes (John 14:11). 


So here’s a pop quiz for you. If someone cannot honestly wrap their head around the virgin birth, can that person still be saved? To answer this question you may consult Scripture or orthodox theology, but apparently not both.

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