Do not swear at all

054a133563d7c1cab5f5bff8a838b5fbJesus’ statement from Mt 5.33-27 came up recently in conversation.

“Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (RSV)

Some find this to be a repudiation or rewriting of Deut 6.13 which apparently commands (Greg Boyd, CWG, takes it as commanding, not merely allowing) that oaths be taken in God’s name:

“You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name.” (RSV)

This raises the question of Jesus’ understanding of the sanctity and status of the Old Testament as God’s work. Not only does Jesus dismiss this OT command, he adds that to add anything too our simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ “comes from the evil one.” This seems to mean that obeying Deut 6 in this instance would be evil, as it would “come from the evil one.” Strange indeed.

I’m just thinking out loud on this one, so bear with me, but I think we’re missing the forest for the trees.

If by ‘oath’ one simply means confirming one’s intentions in a contractual way – that can hardly be forbidden. If we don’t do that much, there’s no basic promise being made to which our “going beyond” would be evil. So binding ourselves contractually either to the truth of our statements or our intent to honor terms of an agreement, doesn’t seem to be forbidden by Christ. Paul takes oaths and speaks in terms of adjuring others (Rom 1.9; Phil 1.8; 2Cor 1.23; 1Th 2.5, 10; 5.27).

My own sense is that taking oaths had become so false and corrupted, the truthfulness of one’s statements only came to bear moral importance if one swore. One’s very way of living in the world became divided into two stories. I noticed this in the Middle Eastern Muslim context I lived for years. Using God’s name to bolster one’s claims is an easy way to deflect attention away from the speaker’s character and believability. What it does is divide people from their own word. The weight of their words and promises only carried moral consequence if God was appealed to. Calling on God gave weight and accountability to your words.

But this is just the sort of two-storied worldview Christ wants to expose as false. Christ isn’t saying (I don’t think):

“Don’t swear oaths because when you add God’s name to your promise you run the risk of defaming him in some special way.”

That would be to assume never making oaths is a safe way to avoid offending God. But this leaves the two-storied framework in place. I suggest that Jesus is saying something closer to:

“God is in everything you say to begin with. If you think making mention of him adds something, you’re missing the point.”

The idea is – whether we live or eat or drink of whatever we do (Rm 14.5-9), we do for and unto the Lord. ALL of life is by definition lived “in God’s name.” It’s not that we shouldn’t appeal to it. It’s that we’re in it already with each breath we take, so to feel that you have to add God’s name to your promise is to already have a two-storied view of life that “comes from the evil one.” It’s not that we aren’t to do or say this or that “in God’s name.” It’s that we aren’t to dissect our words and actions into those done in his name and those not done in his name because everything already is in his name. Jesus isn’t repudiating drenching our conversations with explicit references to God, he’s repudiating the idea that God is only consequentially or especially present because we ‘say’ it is so and not all the time as a matter of fact no matter our words. You can add a reference to God that you understand as just a reflection of a truth you live in whether you say so or not, or you can add a reference to God that you think makes your language something it wouldn’t otherwise be. The first is the language of one-storied spiritual life. The second is two-storied talk.

We don’t cease to take oaths, then, because of Christ’s words. We turn all of life into a single promissory note that we give ourselves to in God’s name – everywhere, all the time. Christ raises the bar here rather than lowing it. He’s not commanding that we purge our language of references to God, he wants to save us from that view of God which sees him as present in the world because we put in it by saying his name. So the reason we shouldn’t appeal to God to bolster our promises is because to do so is already to have excluded him from actions we take without explicitly naming him. When you ‘swear’ you’re pretending God isn’t in the things you say and the promises you make that don’t explicitly mention him, and Christ wants to awaken us to the implicit presence of God in all things, at all times, in everything we say.

My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?

Easter-message-picMy final thoughts on the so-called Cry of Dereliction, after which I promise to abandon this subject (pun intended). We should finally consider the relevant texts themselves. In CWG (pp 770-774) Greg expounds his understanding of Christ’s cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46 and Mk 15.34) as the “paradigmatic judgment of sin.” Greg takes the words of the Cry to be the “most profoundly revelatory” words found in Scripture, for here God “experiences his antithesis” by “becoming the sin of the world” (2Cor 5.21) as well as “our godforsaken curse” (Gal 3.13), though Greg does not consider this to be the Father acting violently toward Jesus.

Evaluating Greg’s objections to the Ps 22 connection
Greg notes the Cry has always troubled theologians who were “invested in preserving the classical understanding of God’s impassibility and immutability,” aspects of which (viz., actus purus or ‘pure act’) he summarizes and dismisses; “How could God the Son truly experience abandonment from the Father if the Trinity is ‘above’ suffering and ‘above’ experiencing any kind of change?”

I’m not sure how “troubled” by the Cry theologians are who seek to defend a classical understanding of God’s impassibility. Greg doesn’t give any examples. Given the classical view of transcendence, I suspect there’s far less likelihood the Cry would trouble a classical theist than a kenoticist – truth be told. However, I don’t mind agreeing with objections to aspects of classical theism (as I understand actus purus). We’ve made them repeatedly ourselves here. But Greg’s account makes it appear as though any rejection of actus purus classically understood is a default adoption of his understanding of the Cry as the Father’s abandonment of the Son. But it’s worth pointing out that one could agree with Greg on all his substantive objections to classical theism and yet reject Greg’s thesis of divine abandonment as equally objectionable as whatever aspects of classical theism one has a problem with. There’s no default win for Greg’s view of the Cry if classical theism is proved to be wrong. But I got the distinct feeling in CWG that Greg construes his view of the Cry as following logically from certain weaknesses of classical theism, which of course it doesn’t.

Classical theism aside, however, there are serious theological problems with divine abandonment on the Cross as Greg imagines it. I’ve rehearsed these already. Even a thorough-going kenoticist could have as great a problem with Greg’s thesis as she does with Chalcedon. But what about the exegetical particulars of the Cry itself? Let’s take a look at aspects of it that Greg brings up in CWG.

First, consider the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Cry in both Mt and Mk:

Matthew 27:46: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
Mark 15:34: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

The transliterations in both Mt and Lk are followed by a similar “…that is to say, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”

Second, Greg offers two reasons for thinking Jesus is not alluding to Ps 22 but is in fact offering his own, original composition expressing his personal dereliction. First, he notes that if Jesus was alluding to Ps 22, he would surely have quoted it in Hebrew. But he speaks in Aramaic (which we have in the form of transliterated Greek). That Jesus speaks Aramaic suggests he does not have Ps 22 in mind. Secondly, Greg quotes R. T. France’s objection that “if we read into these words an exegesis of the whole psalm…we turn upside down the effect which Mark has created by this powerful and enigmatic cry of agony.”

Let’s look at this shall we?

(1) There’s no argument in France’s quote. Yes, if we take Jesus to be alluding to Ps 22 (“as an expression of confidence”), we understand Jesus’ pain as not indicative of a particular agony, namely, the agony of divine abandonment. But (a) this is the point of debate, so how is it an argument in favor of Greg’s view that if Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 his agony must be understood differently than Greg thinks? In addition, (b) no one who denies Jesus is abandoned by God thinks Jesus is not experiencing the agony of being crucified and left to die.

(2) More significant is the apparent fact that Jesus cries out in Aramaic. Jesus is a Jew whose Scriptures are written in Hebrew. It seems strange that in his dying moment Jesus should quote his Scriptures not in their original Hebrew but in his mother tongue, Aramaic. Greg reasons that this must mean Jesus is not alluding to the Hebrew Psalm 22 but authoring his own personal cry of abandonment.

It’s completely understandable that a dying person should cry out to God in his heart-language, which was Aramaic for Jesus, in spite of the fact that the text he alludes to is a Hebrew text. I don’t find this especially odd at all. There were Aramaic targums of Ps 22 that were popular in Jesus’ day, and he would not have been ignorant of these. Nor would it be at all strange for him to quote the Aramaic form rather than the Hebrew.

christ-on-the-mount-of-olives-1819But there are few other interesting facts about the Greek transliterations of the Cry found in Mt and Mk which Greg doesn’t discuss which I’d like to consider.

(a) Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic were different but very closely related languages. For example, lama (some MSS have limi, “to what” or “for what”) is both Hebrew and Aramaic for “why.” There’s no deciding what language Jesus cried in based on this word. And both Hebrew and Aramaic indicate the perfect tense of the 2nd person singular with the attached pronoun “me” (as in “You ______ ed me” ) by suffixing the verb root with “—ani.” The verb conjugations are identical in Hebrew and Aramaic.

(b) “My God” doesn’t settle the matter either, since it is transliterated differently in Matthew and Mark. Most ancient Greek MSS traditions try to normalize these differences between the two. Only the Byzantine text consistently preserves the distinction. (Of course the Nestle-Aland preserved the differences as well.) What differences? Well, Matthew transliterates Jesus’ Cry with Eli (Ἠλί) for “My God” which, interestingly, mirrors the Hebrew of Ps 22. Mark has Eloi (Ἐλωΐ) which is Aramaic and not biblical Hebrew.

(c) Though there is some question over its precise origination and meaning, the verb shabaq is not biblical Hebrew but originally Aramaic. Were Jesus quoting the Hebrew text, he would have used azavthani (“forsaken” or “abandon”) which we find in the Hebrew of Ps 22.

(d) The verb shabaq, however, is not only Aramaic, it’s also Mishnaic Hebrew (a descendant of biblical Hebrew that developed under the influence of Aramaic following the Babylonian captivity). It’s entirely possible that Jesus is citing Ps 22 in Mishnaic Hebrew. And there are those who argued that presenting a biblical text in Mishnaic Hebrew was a well-known Rabbinic technique introducing a midrash (interpretation or teaching) on the text in question.

(e) What does seem unlikely is that Matthew would have changed the Aramaic Eloi to the Hebrew Eli and not change sabachthani to azavthani if he was interested in making the quote conform to the Hebrew text. But if Mishnaic Hebrew is in view, then things fit. In addition, there is the question of Aramaic targums that do use shabaq in their translations of Ps 22.

What’s the point of all this?
The linguistic data isn’t easy to assemble into a coherent picture. But it’s not altogether certain that Jesus was speaking Aramaic on the Cross. My point is that if he was, there is nothing about this that would suggest he was not alluding to Ps 22. Matthew’s account makes the Mishnaic Hebrew connection stronger because Eli is clearly Hebrew, and Mark’s passion narrative (cf. Rikk Watts on Mark’s use of Ps 22) has obvious allusions to Ps 22 besides the Cry. I take it to be virtually certain that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22.

However, Greg offers yet a further reflection. Let us assume, he suggests, that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22. This would not, he contends, “undermine the genuineness of Jesus’ experience of abandonment on the cross,” for it was only “after the psalmist had expressed his authentic sense of abandonment that he regained his composure, as it were, and expressed confidence that God would eventually rescue him.” So even if one understands Jesus as referencing Ps 22, it needn’t lead us to deny that Jesus “was genuinely experiencing godforsakeness” and “was even experiencing confusion as to why it was happening.”

But this seems confused. Does Greg want a genuine abandonment of the Son by the Father, a true withdrawal of the Father that occasions a genuine experience of godforsakeness, or not? It seems his cruciform thesis itself requires that Jesus’ feel this particular agony and that it not be the result of misperceiving. But Greg’s proposed reading of the Ps 22 (on the assumption that Jesus is alluding to it) concedes that God in fact never abandoned its author. The author only temporarily loses his composure and misinterprets his suffering; but this undermines Greg’s case for more than an apparent abandonment. So I don’t see how Greg can concede that Jesus has Ps 22 in mind and still secure the particular view of divine abandonment that defines his view of the Cross.

What in Jesus’ experience parallels Ps 22?
What about those who argue Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 in its entirety but who also argue Jesus never despairs of the Father’s love, presence, and filial affection? Surely there must be something in Jesus’ experience that parallels or fulfills the psalmist’s cry which, admittedly, seems to reflect some doubt or lapse in his belief or confidence in God’s faithfulness.

This is an excellent question. My own sense is that there is nothing in Jesus’ experience that parallels any suspicions the psalmist might have in God’s faithfulness, nor must we suppose there to be in order to make sense of Jesus alluding to the psalm. To begin with, assuming the psalmist genuinely interprets his suffering as God’s having abandoned him, it does seem strange that he would go to this same God in prayer. Biblical prayer presupposes at least some confidence in the faithfulness of God, some belief that God hears one’s prayer and is open to responding. Is his opening cry a poetic-rhetorical device to heighten suspense and drama? When we cry “God where are you?” does it follow that we’ve concluded God has forsaken or abandoned us? If so, why are we addressing our prayers to him at all? No prayer to God can be motivated by a belief that God has absolutely forsaken and abandoned us.

7511534I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ve already drawn out this series on divine abandonment too long. My point here is that whatever the precise belief of the psalmist may have been, there is no one-for-one parallel between every belief and attitude held by the psalmist from the beginning of his experience to his vindication, on the one hand, and existential carbon copies of each of those beliefs and attitudes that must obtain in Jesus. There’s no warrant for insisting on this kind of ‘fulfillment’ simply because Jesus alludes to Ps 22. It’s enough that Jesus responds to the taunting crowds who provoke him with their “Where’s God now?” and “Come on down if God’s on your side!” by offering them a well-known account of an innocent, scapegoated victim who was not in fact abandoned by God but who was vindicated: “You think God has abandoned me here? You think I’m cursed by God as I hang here on this tree? Go read Ps 22 and think again.”

What about the Garden?
It occurred to me that Jesus’ sufferings en route to the Cross have an important role to play in deciding what Jesus took to be the meaning of his pain and suffering, and the intensity of his suffering in the Garden (Mk 14:32-34; Mt 26.36-46; Lk 22.43-44) came to mind. How are we to understand this suffering relative to claims that it is divine abandonment experienced as godforsakeness which gives Jesus’ suffering its redemptive value? In the Garden Jesus suffers beyond description, sweating blood. He confesses that he is at the point of death. He offers his humanity in all its finitude and natural weakness to God, truly wishing for there to be another way.

There is, however, no divine abandonment here. In fact, Jesus converses with his Father and is comforted by angels. At the center of his storm of pain there is the eye of the Father’s filial affection mediated to him by the Spirit. He is not alone (as he had made clear to his disciples – Jn 16.31-33). He knows the Father’s love and presence and still he sweats blood and feels like dying. So it doesn’t seem that divine abandonment either constitutes Jesus’ understanding of his own suffering or that it is necessary to give his suffering their unique healing, redemptive value – unless we wish to argue that Jesus’ suffering in the Garden, his flogging, or the pain he bears en route to Golgatha all have no healing, transformative value in our lives simply because they were accompanied by his belief that the Father was personally and affectionately with him through it all.

My fundamental point is that this suffering is healing and transformative in our lives precisely because the Father’s personal presence and affection are present, defining Jesus’ own self-perception and understanding of his pain at a level nothing could deconstruct or wrest from his heart. There, friends, is our saving act. The reason nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8) is because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ.

Happy contemplating!

How Jesus viewed his Cross

hqdefaultPermit me another reflection (or set of reflections) on the question of whether the Son was abandoned by the Father on the Cross. The question is often answered solely in terms of the Cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Disagreements over the meaning of the Cry are played out in terms of whether Jesus is referencing Psalm 22 and if so how this might or might not inform our understanding of what Jesus believed to be the state of his relationship with God to be. My own sense is that this cry is indeed a reference to Psalm 22 and that, given the context of the Psalm, what Jesus is actually saying is “I am not abandoned by God as you suppose,” which is the opposite of what many take the Cry to mean. But it comes as bad news to some that Jesus did not suffer from any dereliction of mind or belief regarding the Father’s abiding love, intentions, support or presence throughout his passion.

In this post I think it would be helpful to expand the search beyond the Cry itself for clues to understanding how Jesus might have intended these words. How did Jesus view his Cross? Did he anticipate his own suffering? Did he describe it ahead of time? Did he saying anything during his trial that might give us an insight into what he thought was going on or what he believed would be the meaning of his suffering? What else did he say while on the Cross? Can his statements in any of these contexts help us understand his own understanding of his suffering?

I think there are significant statements Jesus makes that reveal his perspective on his own suffering. I invite you to consider what Jesus says before, during and after (in a manner of speaking) the Cross.

Prior to the Cross
First, Jesus anticipates his sufferings and resurrection (Mk 8.31; 9.30-31; 10.33-34; Mt 16.21-28; 17.22-23; 20.17-19; Lk 9.22-27). We repeatedly meet with Jesus’ prediction that “the Son of Man will be betrayed, suffer, die, and on the third day rise” (and similar phrases). It’s clear that Jesus knows he will be betrayed and murdered. He knows he will be handed over to religious scapegoating violence. There’s no surprise here. In addition, and importantly, he is as confident that he will rise as he certain that he will suffer and die. He knows the game-plan heading into Jerusalem.

Second, Jesus makes it clear that “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up.” Not only does he know the game-plan, but he is quarterbacking the play. Some want to ignore or dismiss the implications of Jesus’ claim that he will raise up his own body, but it has to be taken into any account of what one takes Jesus to mean by the Cry. I suggest that at the very least this means Jesus decides to submit himself to be killed and that nothing done to him by others wrests his command of the narrative and meaning of his suffering from him. This in itself makes any deconstruction of the divine identity Jesus enjoys exegetically untenable.

Third, though Jesus clearly believes he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples, he does not believe the Cross is where his Father will forsake him. Jn 16.31-33 make this point explicit:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (Jn 16.33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground his disciples’ own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ despairing belief that God had in fact abandoned him.

These three sources of information from prior to Jesus’ passion suggest that Jesus’ understanding of the Cross had been forged over time and in the most intimate of conversations between him and his Father. He knows the what, the why, and the whence (resurrection) of his suffering to come, and his understanding of the Cross did not include “being alone” or “abandoned” by the Father. Those promoting divine abandonment, however, suppose that although Jesus anticipated the suffering of the Cross and its rejection, and knew he would be vindicated through resurrection, and although he believed the Father would be supportively present with him, this all comes unraveled in Jesus’ mind on the Cross as he ceases to believe it.

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On the Cross
Comments Jesus makes while suffering include:

“Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do.”
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
“It is finished.”
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

On the Cross Jesus has the presence of mind to connect his suffering purposefully to his mission and his identity as the Son beloved of his Father. He forgives sin, bestows eternal life, identifies himself as an innocent scapegoat, calls God his Father, confidently commits his spirit to his Father, and dies satisfied in the knowledge that his life’s mission is “finished” – that is, he continues throughout his passion to do what he sees the Father doing. This is perfectly consistent with the confidence he expresses prior to the Cross in what is to occur and what it will mean. Given what he says on the Cross, there is every indication that Jesus’ perspective on his own identity as the beloved of his Father and the success of his mission was not deconstructed or reduced to despair or dereliction by the intensity of his pain or by any internal perception or spiritual sensibility that God had abandoned him. He meaning-makes throughout his suffering without giving up any of this.

After the Cross
What other post-resurrection statements (of Jesus or others) might shed light on Jesus’ view of his own Cross? I’ll mention this as food for thought without going into detail, but the resurrected Jesus says to Paul, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9.4) What might this tell us about Christ and suffering? Anything? And what are we to make of Paul’s statement that he “fills up in his flesh what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ”? (Col 1.24) Heb. 12.1-3 introduces “hope” as a defining motivation for Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross? How is that hope sustained alongside his believing himself to be forsaken by God? Then there are 2Cor 5.21 (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”) and Gal 3.13 (Christ becomes a curse for us).

Does God really forgive sin if he pours upon Christ the “death consequences” we deserve? It would seem that rather than forgiving sin that God prosecutes it, for if Christ suffers the godforsakeness we deserve as the consequence of our sin, then God was in Christ counting men’s sins against them, which is just the opposite of what Paul says. To take passages like 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13 as expressive of the truth of God’s perspective and motivation is to read God as scapegoating Jesus in mythological terms.

Paul cannot mean (2Cor 5.21) that Jesus literally becomes sin in an ontological sense, or that his human, created nature even is transformed literally into sin, for Paul credits this transformation to God. I think if we read Paul here in terms of the broader narrative of the gospel and in the context of Jesus’ own anticipations and convictions, Christ’s being made sin has to be read as God’s turning Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms by which we (not God) identify the innocent victim with our sin and its consequences. God’s “making Jesus to become sin” is thus equivalent to God’s having Jesus become what we (not God) consider to be the divinely appointed mechanism by which our sin and violence are addressed – i.e., the scapegoat.

Same with Gal. 3. God didn’t curse Jesus and God isn’t of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed of God. That’s Israel’s false belief and her own scapegoating, skewed perspective, not God’s. But God does give himself to it – i.e., to be treated by it, allowing it to exhaust its resources on him. But if is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? He demonstrates it by hanging on a tree without being cursed (or abandoned) by God. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us, then, is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

Lastly, there is the question of the application of a proper understanding of the Cross for Christians who are suffering innocently. The Cross functions as an example of how Christians are to suffer, not how they are not to suffer because Jesus suffered. If the moment that defines Christ’s Cross is Jesus’ derelict belief that God had abandoned him, then it’s difficult to see how the Cross becomes an example for Christian suffering, for no NT writer promotes the view that Christians are called to suffer God’s abandonment of them. Quite the contrary (Mt 6.24f; Rom 8.31-39; Col 1.24; 1Pet 2.21; 4.12-19; Heb 12.2). But how does the Cross exemplify the promise to us of God’s sustaining presence in suffering if it’s true that the Cross is most fundamentally an embodiment of God’s abandonment of Christ in fulfillment of the death consequences of our sin? Hebrews 12.2 grounds Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross in a vision of the joy his suffering would result in, hardly the kind of perspective on one’s suffering that a derelict, God-forsaken mind would be capable of. But if Jesus has the joy-giving purpose of his death in mind, as the perspective from which he interprets his own suffering as he suffering, he can hardly think of himself abandoned by the Father.

We have in these competing interpretations of the Cry fundamentally different visions of the God-World relation and its relational, aesthetic, and moral dynamics. So as the Knight said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”

Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 4

c4ad7e508ccb60f8b33c65e87387262d-w600In this fourth and final of our review series I outline my response to vol. 2 of CWG. First some Pro’s.

PRAISE AND POINTS OF AGREEMENT
● Asks the right question
There are several things to admire in vol. 2. The first I’d point out is the refrain that forms Greg’s basic line of approach: “What’s going on behind the scenes?” This highlights the hermeneutical process well, and it gets at the struggle people have reading the violent portrayals of God in the Bible. And of course, for Greg it also is the key question to ask of the Cross itself. What really is going on here? If Christ (whether broadly understood as incarnation, life, death and resurrection or exclusively as merely that moment of Christ’s cry of dereliction) is the centered from which we are to read the Bible, then something like the cruciform thesis is needed to express the fundamental/quintessential narrative within which one is to read the Bible. And this is what vol. 2 sets out to do – bring a cruciform hermeneutic to bear upon specific texts through asking “What’s going on behind the scenes?” I generally admire the clarity that Greg is able to bring to complex issues, and this line of approach is a case in point.

● Driven by pastoral concern
A second point I admire (true of the entire work, not just vol. 2) is the pastoral heart that drives this work. I’ve brought troubled individuals of my own acquaintance to Greg for coffee and meals and he’s always found time to help people process the intellectual side of their faith struggles. Greg has a huge heart for hurting, struggling people and it shapes CWG from start to finish. If I didn’t think this was true of Greg, and if I didn’t believe the existential despair and struggles that people face could be better addressed through a more Orthodox Christology, I wouldn’t bother reviewing this work at all.

● Not afraid to dive in
A third thing I admire about vol. 2 is Greg’s willingness to dive into the deep end of the pool. As relentless as he was in vol. 1 to catalogue divine violence through the Bible, he’s as thorough in bringing those same passages under the review of his cruciform hermeneutic. He wants to demonstrate that this hermeneutic can do the heavy lifting he claims it can do. So he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and dive into the mess. This gives Greg’s work a fresh, honest appeal that people like. You can study gardening in a book sitting in your living room, or you can ‘do’ it by actually doing the work of gardening – digging and planting. To his credit, Greg doesn’t shy away from the latter.

CRITICISM AND POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT
● Shelley’s opening analogy
Greg opens vol. 2 with an imaginary story about seeing his wife Shelley on the opposite side of a street launching into a panhandler. She screams at the panhandler, slaps him around, kicks his wheelchair over and storms off with something of the panhandler’s. Greg observes her behavior and, knowing what a loving, non-violent individual Shelley is, reasons that there must be something else going on here that he doesn’t perceive, something that explains how her behavior is in fact loving and non-violent. But if you recall, this perfectly illustrates the truth of the Synthesis Solution which Greg rejects in vol. 1. In Greg’s view, God only appears to do violence. But Shelley isn’t appearing to slap the panhandler. She’s actually slapping him, kicking him over, etc. That this would be viewed as something other than loving and good for her to do is due to our limited perspective. But this is the Synthesis Solution straight up. So the analogy Greg opens vol. 2 with undermines everything.

● Misses Rene Girard
A good deal of online interaction (blogs and online forums) has chided Greg for adopting a non-Girardian, penal-substitionary model of the Cross/atonement (PSA). Greg found his way into these conversations and was, as he describes it, dumbfounded at how so many could read him as promoting PSA. He went on to clarify his position in a recent ReKnew post. You’ll have to read him and judge for yourself. I think the deeper issues remain unaddressed, and the persistent absence of any attempt to define what he believes constitutes ‘violence’ in the first place makes reviewing this work a stab in the dark.

● The Father abandons the Son
Much of our objections to Greg’s view of abandonment is based on the reigning evangelical Kenoticism, true. The idea that the triune experience that defines the divine relations in their full actuality can be severed such that Father, Son and Spirit all become estranged from one another (ad intra) is not historical, orthodox Christianity by any stretch of the imagination. But I don’t have to argue on Chalcedonian grounds that it’s impossible. Assuming Kenoticism were true, one still has solid theological, exegetical/biblical grounds for rejecting the notion that the Father abandoned Christ in the sense Greg argues our salvation requires. Thus – it really is a question about which Cross is at the center, defining a cruciform thesis.

To simplify – Greg distinguishes between God’s triune “existence” (Greg’s choice of word, by which he means, I think, God’s unchanging, necessary “essence”) and God’s triune “experience” (the content of God’s lived, experienced actuality). God’s “existence” is just his essential, immutable, triune relations – the unbreakable (ontological) unity of the Father, Son and Spirit. The most important thing about this essential, unbreakable unity? It grounds the unchanging nature of God’s character as love. When St. John says, “God is love,” this is the ultimate divine reality behind that. But – and this is key to Greg – the triune persons do not have an equally unchanging “experience” of this essential oneness. So though the three are (ontologically) united as one, their experience of their own oneness (that is, God’s experience of himself as triune), a oneness that constitutes God’s nature as love, is subject to cessation and diminishment.

How so cessation? For example, when the Incarnate Son is gestating in Mary’s womb. What of the triune “experience” constitutive of God? Well, the Son is offline, so to speak. In Greg’s words, he’s taking a nap. Greg’s example: He still loves his wife Shelley when he’s sleeping. So – by parity of reasoning – Father, Son and Spirit can also be the one triune God whether or not they are awake to each other. There is a cessation, a hiatus, of the lived-experienced reality of triune existence.

How so diminishment? As well, for example, when Christ cries “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” For Greg this moment represents God “becoming his antithesis,” the mutual “estrangement” that pervades and envelops God’s “experience” of himself utterly and completely. Underneath (so to speak) this estrangement that defines God’s triune “experience” of himself, there lies the immutable divine essence which is God as love.

It does give one a headache – essence, existence, experience, actuality, existential fullness, dispositions, and so forth.

One desperate problem with this – as Greg himself reviewed against Hartshorne and Whitehead – is that the loving “character” of God is itself not identified with any experience God has of himself. God’s character – which Greg argued (long ago) prescribes the consistently loving nature of God’s actions – is itself the character of God’s triune experience. Greg argued at length against Hartshorne and Whitehead on this very point, insisting that the predictably loving nature of God’s character had to be understood as grounded in the lived, relational fullness of God’s triune “experience” (as mutual knowing and loving). Greg’s present idea that God’s nature as “love” is not itself convertible with the nature of God’s triune “experience” of himself is another departure of his earlier (well-argued) work for which he offers no line of reasoning. Nothing about God’s experience of himself as essentially triune constitutes the loving character of God’s actions. Everybody seems cool with this. Nobody (sauf moi et quelques fidèles) is crying BS on this.

joysetbeforeFinally, as Greg has recently made clear, this mutual estrangement of the three divine persons, this “becoming sin,” this “stooping to become God’s antithesis,” is what does the work of salvation. To be sure – Greg makes it clear this is no penal-substituionary divine rage needing its pound of flesh so that it can forgive. Nor is there in fact anything in God that requires God inflict upon himself his own triune estrangement. The necessity of it proceeds, argues Greg, entirely from “the nature of our bondage” and not anything in God. It is we (viz., the peculiar requirements of our bondage to sin) who require that the “death consequences of our sin” which are “intrinsic” to our own choices have to be suffered by God as his own internal estrangement from himself.

It all falls apart in the end. If the consequences of godforsakeneness (estrangement from God) are intrinsic to our sinful choices, then by definition they aren’t something that can be borne by another. They’re intrinsic to our choices. And in point of fact, we do experience the consequences of our choices. Our lives are without peace, without the transforming enjoyment of the knowledge of God’s love, without the joy that embracing his forgiveness brings, etc. – the absence of all these are the natural consequences of our falleness, and so long as we persist outside the truth of them we suffer the consequences. God doesn’t bear them. We already are bearing them.

Nor is it at all clear how God’s triune experience being reduced to the estrangement that is the consequence of our sin actually does the work of saving us from that estrangement. Greg doesn’t explain. What happens objectively when God’s experience of himself is reduced to our despair and estrangement? Is something paid for? Is there a transfer? An imputation? If the necessity for God’s triune self-estrangement derives from the nature of our bondage to sin and not from anything about God, then we should expect some explanation of how that estrangement grounds our release from sin and freedom to grow in love.

Consider too – Greg admits God’s actually forgiving us precedes the work of atonement. God doesn’t need to suffer to forgive. That’s good news. Divine self-estrangement isn’t about forgiveness. So why should the estrangement from God that I suffer because of my sin, which is already forgiven by God, have to estrange God from himself to make my acceptance of that forgiveness possible? Greg doesn’t say. But as it forms the core truth of God’s cruciformity, I expected some explanation.

Greg, some time ago here:

“If the Trinity experienced no disturbance whatsoever when Jesus cried out ‘My God, My God’, — if they just went on in the unbroken bliss of their moment-by-moment experienced unity — then pray tell: a) what did the Trinity sacrifice in saving us — for it looks like it costs them nothing? and b) how was Jesus’ cry of abandonment not a charade?”

But if God forgives without sacrificing – which Greg has already granted – what’s the point? What kind of knotty, confused metaphysics supposes that God can forgive us without sacrificing his own internal triune happiness, but cannot be present in our lives in transforming ways without having our sin wrest his happiness and beatitude from his heart and reduce him to our despair and godforsakeness? I think of Jesus walking on the waters of the Galilee as an analogy. If Jesus walks to a sinking Peter on the surface of the waters that are drowning Peter but not threatening Jesus, is Peter supposed to feel it’s all a charade? Jesus isn’t sacrificing anything to save Peter. Is Peter supposed to complain that Jesus is ‘up there’ while he’s ‘down here’? Is Peter’s rescue not loving or objective?

The cry of abandonment as a declaration per Psalm 22 that Christ is not abandoned by God as the taunting theologians cried, is only a charade to somebody who needs God to be reduced to his own suffering before he’ll let himself rest in the forgiveness that’s his. It reduces to pagan scapegoating whether it’s framed in terms of suffering the consequences of our sin or in Moltmannian terms of solidarity with our godforsakeness.

I think I’ll wind down here. I had responses in hand to Greg’s particular view of Satan’s relationship to the material order (his principle of cosmic warfare) and some thoughts on his principal of semi-autonomous power (i.e., that Peter murdered Ananias and Sapphira through his violent abuse of God-given spiritual gifts), both of which are problematic. But – I’m personally spent on these issues. I hope readers will understand.

Exposing the problems inherent in supposing God can fail to experience himself in terms of mutually reciprocal knowing and loving has been a recurrent passion of ours here. But for those who can’t do faith standing in front of a Cross that does not shatter God’s experience of himself and reduce him to their despair and estrangement, God bless you. I can’t see it as anything but pagan mythology. Greg’s not a Cross I can stand in front of and see salvation in. But the feeling is probably mutual. I can only stand in front of a Cross in which death and violence are from beginning to end shattered by the infinite joy and delight of God’s triune life.

Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 3

Easter 2011 - Easter SundayWith this third review post on Greg’s most recent work I’d like to offer some responses. In this post I’ll stick to vol. 1 of CWG and in the next post to vol. 2. In a work of over 1,000 pages (not including indices), one is bound to find plenty both to agree with and disagree with. I’ll mention both pro’s and con’s. Reviews of CWG are surfacing and they share some commonalities. These have been helpful. There does seem to be a growing consensus among objections regarding what’s best and most problematic about CWG. I’ve also enjoyed online discussions in which Greg has participated. That’s been nice. He’s had a chance to process responses and to clarify key portions of the book for readers. I’ve always appreciated the way Greg has made himself available. The past couple of weeks have been a dizzying round of conversations.

“Texts in travail”
Let me begin by explaining the words “texts in travail” in the title of this review series. The phrase is Rene Girard’s and it describes the Bible. We prefer that every part of the Bible be a perfect, inerrant conclusion to some aspect of the human struggle and journey. Girard’s phrase suggests that the Bible itself is that journey. The texts of Scripture are Israel in process, in travail, trying to figure the world out. At times Israel lunges forward with the profoundest of insights, while at other times she conscripts God into the service of her own religious violence and apostate nationalism. Sometimes she gets it right. Other times she gets it horribly wrong. The texts we call the Old Testament are not just neutral, third part records of observations of events. The are one of the events. They participate in and constitute Israel’s up and down journey of faith. They lay bare the heart and soul of the human journey in its best and worst. They are “texts in travail.” Only Christ himself – the Word made flesh – is Emmanuel, God among us. I thought the phrase seemed an appropriate umbrella under which to review Greg’s book since coming to terms with the nature of the Bible as Scripture is one of the burdens of the work under review.

PRAISE AND POINTS OF AGREEMENT
I’ll start with some well-deserved praise and points of agreement:

● God is love
There are few people who express the essential, unchanging, unconditional nature of God’s love better than Greg. God’s loving passion and unyielding mercy for creation are Greg’s singular passion. If you think all Christians agree on this, think again. The opening chapters of vol. 1 outline the immutable nature of God’s love in broad terms, and I felt right at home theologically speaking.

● Love is non-violent
Not only is God love, but in his perceptions, intentions, goals, actions, etc., God is non-violent. Greg’s oft repeated phrase – that God is non-violent, other-oriented, love – quite rightly takes its place as the centerpiece of this work. Frankly I can’t bring myself to describe as Christian any theology that denies this.

● Quintessential revelation of love
I welcome the idea that Christ’s loving self-surrender for others constitutes the quintessential revelation of God’s character and love in a fallen world.

● Cross as hermeneutical center
I cheer on Greg’s call to make the revelation in Christ of God as non-violent love the hermeneutical center from which we read the rest of Scripture. Again, I don’t know any other ‘Christian’ way to read the Bible. Christ is the beginning, center, and end of the story.

● Dialectical inspiration
I like Greg’s description of divine inspiration as “dialectical.” This means God did not conscript the faculties of the authors of Scripture in a manner that produced texts equivalent in outcome to “dictation.” Not only is the personality and intelligence of individual authors the context in which God speaks, but so are the broader cultural conditions and worldviews of authors in the extent to which they succeed and/or fail to approximate ‘final’ truth. Inspiration is a conversation the Spirit of God has with less than perfect hearts and mind. Scripture is the conversation. This means we do not have a pristine record of inerrant perspectives lying on the surface of texts which readers can pick up with little effort the way one picks up shells walking along the beach. I think “dialectical” is a good word that takes us in the right direction.

● General failure of previous attempts
I agree with the general failure of most ‘Dismissal’ and ‘Synthesis’ solutions to the problem of divine violence in the Bible. Recall, the Dismissal Solution essentially rejects the revelatory nature of texts that portray God as willing or doing violence. These texts are not “Scripture” and can be essentially removed from the Bible. To the extent one’s “dismissal” of these texts resembles Marcion’s attitude and approach, I think Greg is spot on. But to respond here without enlarging upon it later, let me say that Greg’s own view includes a real dismissal (of sorts) of the violent portrayals of God. That is, the surface meaning of the violent passages is dismissed as their inspired meaning. Their inspired truth, for Greg, does not terminate in the truth-value of their surface portrayals per se. Where the dismissive models Greg has in mind end there, Greg own dismissal of these passages pushes forward. He wants to secure an inspired function for these texts that justifies calling them “scripture” but the function cannot be equivalent to the truth-value of their claims. Instead, it is precisely in their being false within the covenant God makes with Israel as it is finally resolved and fulfilled in Christ, that they behave in an inspired way. I don’t mind this as far as it goes, though it seems a round about way to put it. In my view it’s easier to say that we know in light of Christ that Israel got it wrong but we’re aren’t going to excise those passages from the Bible because they provide an abiding example for our instruction.

● Origen a genius
I think I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed the chapter on Origen. The distinction Greg develops between the “surface” and “depth” of texts is, I think, a helpful one. Given the dialectical nature of inspiration, one should expect to find ancient perspectives present in the text that represent aspects and beliefs not perfectly reflective of God’s intentions and nature. “Surface” and “depth” is as good as any contrasting pair of terms for identifying this dialectical give-and-take as it is found in the text.

CRITICISMS AND POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT
Let me turn to some hopefully constructive criticisms and points of disagreement. I don’t have the space here to fully defend these. If there are questions about certain points, I’ll be happy to elaborate.

● Writing and Composition
I might be one of a very small group of readers who feel this, but I didn’t feel like CWG was Greg’s best writing. I’ve read pretty much everything Greg’s published (not including journal articles), and I’ve never struggled with reading Greg like I did here. I don’t want to be overly critical, but I expected a steady pace that allowed me to take in the shoreline and contemplate the sights. It felt more like a white-water adventure – repetitious, somewhat roaming, and, I thought, at times not balanced (between points that seemed to me to require more attention that Greg gave them, on the one hand, and other points that seemed to receive inordinate attention and space). This may be my personal tastes taking over. I did not get the feeling that this was a work whose text was ten years in the making. It felt more rushed than I would have expected.

● Oops, no definition of violence
A second criticism has to be the absence of any attempt to define ‘violence’. This is a particular weakness of the book and it struck me as rather odd that Greg would write at such length about the “non-violent” love of God without offering a definition or brief theology of violence. I’ve tried to express my own sense of what violence is. It’s not at all an easy reality to define, but doing so brings the issues into clear relief. But no definition at all, I think, makes understanding and assessing Greg’s work difficult.

● Appeal to Trinity and Process
Third, there is Greg’s appeal to his doctoral work Trinity and Process in support of arguments in CWG. I mentioned this earlier but it belongs here as well. It does seem disingenuous to appeal to Trinity and Process for support of claims Greg makes in CWG when the arguments in Trinity and Process being appealed to are positions Greg himself disagrees with.

● The Cross as the center of the center
Fourth, I thought Greg was unsuccessful in showing that the Cross constitutes an exclusive interpretive center within a center, the latter center being a Christ-centered hermeneutic whose scope is the whole event of Christ’s birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection. The entirety is too broad. Greg wants just the Cross as the center. There’s certainly something of a truth here. The Cross is – to use a violent word-picture (sorry) – the key “front” in the war between good and evil, a uniquely decisive and unrepeatable confrontation of a cosmic scale. There’s no doubting that.

Greg suggests that the Cross exclusively, understood independently of all passages outside the passion narratives, is a better hermeneutical center than the entirety of Christ’s life (teachings, death, resurrection). One reason to take this position, Greg argues, is that the broadly Christ-centered approach inevitably succumbs to disagreements over interpretation. A broader center means more to disagree over and less likelihood of achieving agreement on what the center means and thus how it’s to function as a hermeneutical key. But the narrower cruciform center, Greg argues, provides a more clearly defined and broadly agreed upon basis for theological reflection and hermeneutical practice.

The-Serpent-Under-the-Right-foot-of-Mary

In response, it doesn’t at all seem to me that the Cross is an event whose meaning is easily or broadly agreed upon and which can occupy the center more easily than could a broader Christ-centered approach. It’s not like we all agree on what the Cross means. On the contrary, anyone who has spent the past two weeks in the online conversations (with Greg!) discussing the meaning of this more simple center (viz., the Cross) knows there’s nothing simple about what is actually going on behind the scenes as Christ suffers and dies.

In addition, if we all agree to make the Cross the exclusive hermeneutical center, it wouldn’t follow that we’d all be working from the same center. We would in fact all be working from different centers to the extent we disagree over the Cross as deeply as we disagree over any other event or aspect of Christ’s life. Recall, Greg doesn’t want just any Cross at the center, a Cross broadly agreed upon but whose defining terms (atonement, the Cry of Dereliction, divine abandonment, substitution, wrath/judgment, forgiveness, reconciliation, etc.) are open to being defined in a diversity of ways. On the contrary, the Cross that constitutes the hermeneutical center for Greg is a very specific Cross. It’s not a Calvinist Cross, an Orthodox Cross, or a Fundamentalist Cross.

This brings me to perhaps the most interesting, fascinating and frustrating aspect of Greg’s proposal. The Cross is supposed to function as the hermeneutical center for reading all of Scripture. But we meet the Cross in Scripture. Also, the Cross is not a self-interpreting act whose meaning is as obvious as a billboard on the Interstate. So how does one arrive at a specific, understanding of the meaning of the Cross that defines the center if that meaning is itself supposed to be the hermeneutical key to Scripture? Greg comments that it would never occur to him, standing and staring at the Cross in faith, to see anything else but the Father abandoning his Son. But isn’t this just the point? I see something different than Greg. In all honesty, it never occurred to me to suppose that the Father actually abandoned Christ, or that such a thing is even possible. But lastly, if the abandonment view of the Cross is as much a paradox as Greg admits it is, how is it the natural, default reading of the passion narratives? It’s not the case that faith self-evidently reveals the meaning of the Cross in the terms Greg views it.

In any event, one can totally agree with Greg’s thesis broadly expressed – the Cross is the hermeneutical center from which we read Scripture. I’m with him thus far. But which Cross? What’s going on there at the Cross? Answering this takes us into vol. 2 to be discussed in our next post. For now I’ll just say that for Greg, 2Cor 5.21 (“God made Jesus to become sin”), Gal 3.13 (Jesus became our “curse”), and the Cry in Matthew and Mark (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”) figure in decisively. These will have to wait until my next post for comment where I hope to show that Greg’s reading of these are at best on equal par with readings that give us a different Cross at the center. My point here is just that how one interprets the Cross on the basis of Scripture, when only a particular understanding of the Cross can be a hermeneutical guide to reading Scripture, is a fundamental hermeneutical question that, it seems to me, Greg doesn’t sufficiently grapple with.

One last thought on the difficulty of Greg’s call to make the Cross the exclusive center within a center. He acknowledges the inseparability of the Cross from the importance of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Take Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection does not only retroactively vindicate Christ crucified. It also fundamentally looks forward. Christ risen, not the Cross, is the eschaton, and the fullness of the gloried/resurrected life embodies the resurrection in a way which does not circle back around to merely supplement the Cross, though it must apprehend some center. So there has to be a teleological center which is hermeneutically central but which is not the Cross. I felt like Greg came close to saying the Cross just is the telos (end/purpose) of creation. Maybe that’s his view, but that’s something that would need to be argued explicitly. I, on the other hand, would want to argue that union with God (theosis) is the telos of creation and that this union is perfected and mediated fundamentally through the entirety of Christ’s incarnate life, teachings, death/resurrection. The Cross is certainly the definitive victory of the Incarnation over the systemic evil and violence of the world which God wills to unite to himself, but that’s just the point – it’s the uniting of the creation within God’s triune life which is achieved through the Cross, not the reverse.

● Cross as quintessential revelation of God
Fifth, I’m having difficulty accepting Greg’s argument that the Cross is the unqualified, unsurpassable revelation of God. True, Paul makes it clear in Romans (5.8) that God demonstrated his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, and Jesus himself makes it clear that there is no greater love one can demonstrate than in dying for another. But these are not unqualified demonstrations of love. They assume a fallen world deeply skewed and systemically perverse. In such a fallen context it seems obvious that love would do “whatever it takes” to secure the highest good of the beloved. But it doesn’t follow that the highest good of the beloved must be secured within a fallen, sinful context. My guess is Greg would agree, but I’m not sure.

My point is that Greg so passionately argues love’s willingness to do whatever it takes to secure the beloved’s highest good, it becomes tacitly impossible for him to imagine God loving creation without sin and evil contributing their part by constituting the necessary lowest point for the supreme revelation of God to arrive, as if the infinite intensity of God’s beatitude metaphysically entails an experience of what Greg describes as its very antithesis. I wonder if Greg’s emphasis on the definitive character of love as sacrificial/suffering undermines the absolute, definitive fullness of God as love sans creation and thus calls into question the belief in creation out of nothing.

● Difficulties with his view of inspiration
Sixth, Greg wants a robust view of the whole of the canon of Scripture as inspired. Fair enough. But once he admits a dialectical view of inspiration (and I’m not disagreeing with that view), you end up with a vacuous notion of inspiration as it concerns the composing of texts. The dialectical view of inspiration Greg proposes accepts that errors (of belief, of theological perspective, of intention, etc.) find their way into the text. God gets some of the truth he wants revealed and said – yes. But the dialectical nature of inspiration means some errors define the text as well.

But this much is always true of all that God attempts to convince human beings relative to truth, beliefs, perspectives, etc. In other words, Greg’s view of inspiration, admitting as it does only some level of success for God shaping the beliefs that end up constituting Scripture, reduces to what we suppose is true everywhere and always. God always seeks dialectically to enlighten minds as profoundly as possible. And the result is always a measure of success mixed with greater or lesser degrees of falsehood on the human side of the equation. So once one admits that in Scripture falsehoods as desperate and skewed as Greg rehearses regarding the violent nature of God are found, it’s hard to argue that divine inspiration of the Bible remains incomparably and qualitatively superior to all other outcomes where God is busy seeking to enlighten human minds dialectically with greater or lesser success. The Bible is just another instance of this sort of inspiration.

I don’t have room here to rehearse our own attempts at understanding the unique nature of Scripture. While we agree a great deal with Greg, we construe inspiration differently. Check out our six part series What is the Bible?

Lastly, regarding his view of inspiration, Greg relies upon his commitment to a particular view he thinks Christ held regarding the Old Testament Scriptures. I do not wish to suggest Jesus was in fact wrong in his opinion about the infallible nature of the Scriptures, but one can’t assume he was correct either once one admits Jesus wasn’t an infallible, omniscient knower. Greg seems to take it for granted that Christ’s view of Scripture ought to define his own simply because it’s the opinion of the Son of God. But Greg holds that Christ held false beliefs (generally) and about biblical characters (in particular), Adam and Eve being the historical couple who started the human race, for example. But Greg doesn’t feel it necessary to agree with Christ on these other issues. Why is Christ’s view of Scripture any different? Greg doesn’t say.

Given the central role Christ’s view of the Hebrew Scriptures plays in constituting Greg’s “conundrum” to begin with, and given Greg’s admission that Christ was not omniscient but held false beliefs (including false beliefs about biblical events and characters), and given that Greg doesn’t mind disagreeing with Jesus sometimes, I would expect these to have played some role in defining (or maybe alleviating) Greg’s conundrum. In other words, though I share a version of the “conundrum” that motivates Greg to write this work, it doesn’t derive from the fact that Jesus held the violent texts of the Bible to be as much a part of the inspired Hebrew canon as any other portion of that canon.

I’ll close here with a reference to Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? (2007). Interesting read. He points out, among other things, that what constitutes “scripture” would have been in Jesus’ day an open question. Understandings were fluid. The Hebrew canon was not closed and thus could not have provided an objective standard to which Jesus’ opinion could refer. The question of whether and if so how Jesus’ opinion of the nature of the Hebrew Scriptures (if we can even know exactly which books Jesus took to be “scripture”) ought to obligate Christian opinion on the same issues is more interesting and thorny a problem than Greg recognizes in the opening comments of vol. 1 that describe his “conundrum.” I’m not suggesting we know nothing of the documents Jesus considered to be Scripture. I’m only suggesting that it’s difficult to derive a normative definition of inspiration from the fact that Jesus held certain books to be holy Scripture. Perhaps a more in depth consideration of Jesus’ view of the Scriptures would dissolve Greg’s conundrum. Perhaps it would aggravate it. I’m not sure. Greg didn’t stop to consider the complexities.

Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 2

Aikido-Image-Source-Siamstarmma

In our last post I briefly summarized Vol. 1 of CWG. Here we’ll browse Vol. 2 and in forthcoming posts I’ll share some of my own responses. I was tempted to just repost Rob Grayson’s summary of CWG. It’s a great snapshot of the content. But I need to make sure I’m expressing Greg’s points accurately, so here’s how I see Vol. 2.

Volume 2 (Parts 4 through 6): “What’s going on behind the scenes?”
If the heart of Vol. 1 was the Cruciform Hermeneutic, the heart of Vol. 2 is the Cruciform Thesis. They are similar but distinct. Each is a side of the same coin. The Cruciform Hermeneutic tells us ‘that’ we should expect a dialectical mode of divine inspiration to give us a text whose surface claims and descriptions often reflect the fallen, mistaken, and violent beliefs of authors but in whose depths something else is going on. Inspiration doesn’t insulate the text from such beliefs. The Cruciform Thesis, on the other hand, tells us ‘how’ this hermeneutic actually works. It shows us “what’s going on behind the scenes” (an oft repeated phrase in Vol. 2), how to see beneath the surface of texts to perceive the cruciform depths to which surface claims and descriptions point.

This harkens back to Ch 10 of Vol. 1 where Greg picks up on Origen’s talk of texts having a “depth” to them which faith perceives. The Cruciform Thesis describes what one finds in those depths that accounts for the often ugly, violent, surface descriptions of biblical texts. A text’s “depths” reveal “what’s going on behind the scenes,” and is what Vol. 2 sets out to describe. In short, what’s going on behind the scenes (or beneath the surface) is the non-violent love of God accommodating his self-revelation to Israel’s fallen worldviews, sometimes withdrawing in judgment, always involved in cosmic conflict, and always making room for the freedom of created agents to use their gifts and powers to cooperate with or oppose God’s purposes.

What I’ve just described are the four principles of Greg’s Cruciform Thesis:

  • The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation
  • The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal
  • The Principle of Cosmic Conflict
  • The Principle of Semiautonomous Power

Developing and defending these are the purpose of Vol. 2. I’ll describe each very briefly and then engage more specifically in forthcoming responses.

Part 4 (Chs 13-14): Cruciform Accommodation
Divine accommodation is a familiar, longstanding concept in Christian theology. Greg gives it a unique cruciform shape, so that the ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ of God’s accommodating presence in the world always involves God’s stooping to take on the appearance of evil. Greg grounds this briefly (1 page) in the cruciform nature of the Trinity. Greg contrasts this with classical theism. Whereas the classical Christian tradition (viz., God as absolutely simple, immutable, impassible, pure act) constructs its view of God beginning from Greek metaphysical categories and assumptions, the Cruciform Thesis begins with Christ crucified. God is most profoundly defined in the event of the Cross, the supreme act of cruciform accommodation. Greg appropriates Luther’s idea of “divine masks” to describe how God takes on the appearance of the ugliness of our evil in order to maintain covenant relationship with us and secure our final redemption through gracious, forgiving love. There is also a brief (5 page) engagement of Rene Girard’s thought on “scapegoating” that interprets Jesus as the “arch-scapegoat.”

Part 5 (Chs 15-20): Redemptive Withdrawal
In Part 5 Greg develops what some feel is the most controversial aspect of this work, the principle of Redemptive Withdrawal. This principle states that God’s judgment upon sin is nothing other than God “withdrawing” in order to allow the consequences of our choices to play themselves out and to bring evil to its own self-destruction. Greg calls this “divine Aikido.” Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art, is a form of self-defense that seeks to avoid injuring others. Divine Aikido would describe God wisely sidestepping the violent tendencies of evil that he otherwise holds at bay. When God withdraws, evil is allowed to wreak the havoc it intends, but this turns out to be God’s judgment on sin and his defeat of it.

1366694472-chute+70cms+white+crucif.jpg-originalThe supreme act of divine withdrawal is God’s withdrawal from Jesus on the Cross, abandoning Christ in judgment upon our sin which Jesus bore. This abandonment was no mere charade. On the Cross, godforsakenness came to define the triune relations ad intra, reducing God’s experience of himself to the pain and despair of Jesus’ cry “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This quintessential withdraw is both an act of judgment and love, and it becomes, for Greg, the measure of a cruciform understanding of divine transcendence and that divine act which saves and atones for the world. There is a great deal in these six chapters which will have to wait until I engage Greg more specifically in forthcoming responses.

Part 6 (Chs 21-24): Cosmic Conflict
Greg’s Trinitarian warfare theodicy (expounded fully in Satan and the Problem of Evil) is one of the most well-known features of his writing. If you’re familiar with these works you’ll be familiar with what Greg’s points are here in CWG. The created, material order in its entirety, from the simplest quantum event to the broadest cosmic realities (including the laws of physics, entropy, thermodynamics, etc.) is a scene of warfare between God (with obedient angelic beings carrying out his will) and Satan (and his demonic cohorts). We human beings literally have our being in and as this state of war.

The abiding reality of evil’s reign in the material order is grounded in a pre-creational covenant of creation God established with Satan as a prince of matter. When Satan fell, all creation was implicated in his fall and caught up in all-out warfare. What we know as the laws of physics and other principles that maintain the intelligible, regularities of the cosmos are all to greater or lesser degrees perversions of pre-fall laws governing matter as God intended but whose original goodness we can hardly imagine given their present perverted state. This means that there is no such thing as purely ‘natural evil’ (what we traditionally call mud-slides, earth-quakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.) for in truth such events are caused by fallen, angelic beings who were covenanted by God the administration of the material order but who came to abuse their gifts and callings to oppose rather than promote God’s purposes for the material universe. Such an understanding of ‘natural evil’ obviously figures into Greg’s account of what’s going on “behind the scenes.”

Part 7 (Ch 25): Semiautonomous Power
The last principle that defines the Cruciform Thesis is that of Semiautonomous Power. This principle states that the various spiritual gifts and powers which God grants us to partner with him in accomplishing his will remain relatively operative even when we fail to line up with God’s intentions and purposes. We can and do employ these powers in unloving and violent ways. This capacity to misuse our God-given gifts is called upon to explain many instance of evil brought about in God’s name by God’s servants in both the Old Testament and the New.

What Greg has done is lay out the various types of violence either directly or tacitly attributed to God and suggest four governing principles that explain in cruciform fashion ‘what is going on behind the scenes’. Recall the flow of the argument as follows:

  • God is non-violent, other-oriented, self-sacrificial love as revealed in the Cross.
  • The same God-breathed Bible that gives us this gospel story also describes God as willing and doing violence, contrary to the cruciform character of God revealed in Christ.
  • Various attempts to resolve the tension between these two portrayals of God include (a) dismissing the violent passages as uninspired and thus non-revelatory, (b) synthesizing the violent and non-violent portrayals of God into a single, consistent, interpretation that attempts to defend divine violence as compatible with the goodness of God, and (c) the patristic allegorical method of reinterpreting the violent passages. All three, Greg argues, fail finally to resolve the tension in a satisfying way.
  • Greg’s proposal offers two fundamental theses: the Cruciform Hermeneutic, by which we take the Cross as the authoritative and defining center from which all Scripture is to be read, and the Cruciform Thesis which shows us ‘what really is going on behind the scenes’ when we apply this hermeneutic to the violent portrayals of God throughout the Bible. What is going on may be one or more of (a) God’s accommodating his self-revelation to the errant worldviews of his covenant partner Israel, (b) God’s withdrawing himself in judgment upon sin, (c) God combating spiritual warfare on a cosmic level, and (d) human agents misusing their God-given spiritual powers to do violently.

Responses forthcoming.

Zosia did you know?

cfdcb44dd87bd90b4e1db36fc5226663Reading through Greg’s CWG got me into Greg’s stuff again, and I ran across this quote from a podcast (May, 2013) of his. Consider:

“I seriously believe that if you caught one momentary glimpse of how much God loves you and the delight he has over you, every burden you carry, every grief you bear, would instantaneously be dissipated and be vanquished forever. And you would be filled with a lightness and a joy and a peace that passes all understanding. Just a glimpse. Lord, give us a glimpse of what is true.”

Greg recognizes the effect upon us (in our grief and suffering) of the vision of the depth and undying nature of God’s love and delight. A mere glimpse of it would “instantly vanquish” our pain forever.

We couldn’t agree more. But I’d like to ask Greg to expound on this a bit. Truth is, I’d love to see him write a book on just this. I say this because having finished CWG recently, it doesn’t seem to me that he consistently believes what he says in his podcast. For example, when is it true of our suffering and pain that were we to perceive a glimpse of God’s truest delight, our pain would be vanquished forever? It has to be true of God and of us as we suffer. And for whom is it true? These questions lead to conclusions very different from those Greg reaches in CWG.

We completely agree with Greg’s podcast comment, of course. It’s essentially what Paul describes in Rom 8, that experience of God’s glory-beauty that is so immeasurable and defining of our experience that suffering and pain become comparatively meaningless. I previously commented:

In Romans 8.18 Paul writes that “no present sufferings are worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” the glory that will thoroughly define us when our embodied selves are properly glorified by the beatific vision, the vision of God’s glory. What surprises are in this passage. How is it that our experience of God’s glory will render all conceivable suffering incomparably beside the point, not even worthy of being compared to the experience of God? Is God really that beautiful? Is the beatific vision really that defining?

If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours by virtue of this vision, what does this say about the God who always perceives his own beauty, about the very joy and delight God presently gets from seeing himself? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings when we participate in it, what must be the case about God’s present transcendence of all suffering in light of the fact that he eternally is this glory?

wurmbrand-mugshotWhat about Zosia? Is it true for her?

What about Romanian Pastor Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001) who was tortured for Christ in prison for years? Is it true for him? He actually believed what Greg says in his podcast. Wurmbrand confessed: “We were with Christ; we didn’t know that we were in prison.” He described his experience of Christ while being tortured as so profound that it seemed to him the walls of the prison were made of diamonds.

So my question for Greg would be:

Is there any human suffering too great to be vanquished by the realization of God’s undying love for us?

If yes, then what Greg is saying in this podcast would seem to be sentimental rubbish. If no, then does Greg not see the consequences of this for the relationship between our pain and the beatitude of God’s triune love and delight, and how we understand “what’s going on behind the scenes” on the Cross?