Pieces of the penal puzzle

sacrificed-animal-clipart-7Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a popular understanding of how it is that Jesus’ death saves us. It views Jesus as suffering instead of us (thus ‘substitutionary’) the just punishment (thus ‘penal’) we deserve. That punishment is the consequences of our sins – death as well as the despair of estrangement from God.

I ran across a post of Scot McKnight’s. In it he argues that PSA is unavoidable. He offers the following five fundamental propositions as making PSA inescapable:

1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.

The only way to avoid PSA, McKnight suggests, is to through one of the following ways:

1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.

He concludes:

If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins? Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.

That is called penal substitution.

Several things can be said in response, the first of which might be that some items McKnight mentions require important clarification. What’s meant by “ultimate”? What’s meant by “death”? Is mortality a punishment for sin? Does ‘death’ also mean spiritual death? What’s the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiving us? And most importantly, what determines the “penal” nature of the “consequences” we suffer due to our sin? There’s a lot in these five propositions that begs further questions.

That said, I’d like to offer some reasons for thinking that PSA can be “altogether avoided” without essentially denying that our sin has consequences which Jesus saves us from. That is, PSA can be false and it be true (1) that sin has consequences, (2) that Jesus’ death makes clear God’s intention to bear these consequences, and (3) that God in Christ does bear these consequences (albeit not as punishment). Note that McKnight defines his conclusion into the premises (the third prop in each set).

WTB-Animal-sacrifice5

The first and perhaps most significant thing to question, indeed, the point at which PSA began to unravel for me, is the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiveness. McKnight feels Jesus had to die to make it possible for God to forgive. I’ve pursued the question elsewhere, but I’ll just say here that we have good reasons for rejecting this belief and for concluding instead that forgiveness precedes the Cross as its motivation.

God incarnates and suffers for us because God forgives us, not so that he can forgive. Stated similarly, the Cross doesn’t make it possible for God to forgive us. Instead, God’s forgiveness of us makes the Cross possible. This opens us up to understanding the Cross in altogether non-penal terms without dismissing the despair and estrangement from God which are intrinsic consequences of sin that Jesus deals with.

A second change in perspective would be to approach the consequences of our evil by understanding these consequences in non-penal terms. That’s certainly possible. We are punished by our sins, someone said, rather than for our sins. This does amount to rejecting McKnight’s (3), but that’s to be expected since he defines “consequences” as “punishment.” That, however, is the point being contested. True – if we want to avoid penal associations altogether, we have to deny that Jesus’ death addresses the penal consequences of our sin. But that’s not to say he doesn’t address the consequences of our sin.

There certainly are intrinsic consequences to our evil, and Christ saves us from these consequences, but we needn’t understand the consequences in punitive-penal terms. If the consequences of our evil choices are intrinsic to the choosing, they’re intrinsic to the chooser and by definition aren’t the kind of things that can be borne by another. We should recognize that we already suffer the intrinsic consequences of our choices. We all live the despair of not enjoying the knowledge of forgiveness and intimacy with God. Jesus doesn’t suffer these “instead of” us. He saves us from them not by experiencing them as such (i.e., not by being forsaken or cursed by God), but by making possible a relationship to God whose consequence is life and joy. The way to be saved from despair and estrangement from God is to make choices who consequences are other than despair and estrangement. So while it is true that Jesus suffers “as a consequence of” our sin, i.e., he comes to us and as a consequence of our evil and we murder him in consequence of his coming, but this is not to say he suffers “the consequence of” our sin.

Thirdly, an important biblical theme to contemplate in this regard is the repeated emphasis in the Psalms and Prophets that reminds us that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are all he cares about. Several passages point out that God isn’t interested in blood sacrifice:

Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Heb 10.8, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” though they were offered in accordance with the law.

The list could go on.

My own sense is that God had to work with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require it. Consider Israel’s (evil) demand for a king. God went with it, even incorporated the monarchy into Israel’s prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God into Israel’s religious traditions as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never waned or endorsed it. It wasn’t his idea. He only tolerated it because of Israel’s hardheartedness. Point is, we mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggesting divine endorsement of those positions.

lambI suggest we view blood sacrifice in its entirety the same way – something Israel insisted upon as a way to relate to God which God managed through the law for the best but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for making sure “somebody suffers the punishment” God requires. In the end – nobody “pays.” That’s the good news.

One could attempt to find a penal connection between Christ and the sacrificial system in places like Hebrews 10.5-7: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God’.”

Does the author mean God isn’t pleased with the blood of bulls and goats but he is pleased with the blood of an innocent human being? Does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by being the biggest most satisfying blood sacrifice of them all? Or does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by letting the sacrificial system exhaust itself upon himself in order to expose that system as failed and bankrupt? In the first sense, Jesus saves us “because” of the inherent efficacy of sacrifice; God just needed to find the right sacrifice. In the latter sense, Jesus saves us “in spite of” sacrifice. There’s saving efficacy in the Cross, yes, but only in the sense that God endures the full force of the sacrificial system – not because he requires it.

Take Gal 3.13 for example. We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). But assuming it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that he doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being 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.

So Heb 10.5-7’s “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” is true. Fine. But where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary. It is to demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to God. How can God get it across to Israel that he’s not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer is: by submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to our sacrificial machinery – antithetical to him in every way – and then rising from the dead to expose once and for all its failure and impotency.

Contra McKnight, we can affirm with full seriousness the consequences of sin, the divine intention to deal with them, and that Christ finally deals with them without understanding salvation in penal terms at all.

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The road to Emmaus — and to better theological grammar

grammarsI’m enjoying Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection (2009). It’s confirming suspicions I’ve had about recent works on the Cross (its meaning, theological centrality, hermeneutical dominance, etc.). The Cross is most certainly a “saving event.” But I continue to reflect on the attempt to make the Cross “the” theological-hermeneutical center in light of which other events are to be understood. I’ve felt this move to be a mistake since reviewing Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but it was James Alison’s Knowing Jesus that gave expression to what I was feeling. The center – to the extent there is one – is Christ as ‘the risen-slaughtered one’. Crucifixion and resurrection constitute together a single perception of faith which opens up to us the whole range of Christian belief and transformative practice. Alison first expressed this insight for me, and now Brian Robinette expands the insight into a more substantial set of convictions.

Robinette writes:

In soteriological matters, the only reason why Jesus’ death could be thought of as in any way salvific, rather than the colossal failure of a world-be messiah, was the radically new perceptual field  imparted to his earliest followers by the Easter event…

Now, as is evident in the history of Western Christian theology especially, the cross, rather than the resurrection, would eventually come to dominate how Christians thematized salvation. This did not occur all at once, or with such comprehensiveness that the resurrection was wholly abandoned as a source for soteriological reflection. And yet, it is abundantly clear that especially since Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, who emphasized the juridical themes of the Latin patristic tradition…and reinterpreted them in the context of his own feudal culture, Western theology became dominated by a sacrificial atonement theory centered on the cross…The consequence here is that whereas the resurrection was front and center in the soteriologies of the first, second, and third centuries, it eventually receded into the background to other foci. Although the resurrection is what gives  Jesus’ death its meaning…it would eventually become subordinate to sacrificial atonement theories that essentially isolate the cross as the precision instrument through which God offers us reconciliation. A broad survey of the atonement in Scholastic, Reformed, and post-Tridentine theology makes it difficult to determine how the resurrection is materially involved in God’s offer of salvation. Once redemption is secured by an act of reparation through the cross, Easter is made to seem a kind of aftereffect, significant primarily in terms of the private destiny of Jesus, or, as Karl Rahner puts it, “honored at best as a confirmation of the fact that our interpretation of Good Friday is correct.”

zheny_mironosicy_u_groba_gospodnjaChristologically speaking, a similar process occurs as the resurrection takes an increasingly diminished role relative to the incarnation for articulating Jesus’ identity. As will be explained more thoroughly later, the experience of the risen Christ in the paschal community is both historically and logically prior to the development of incarnational theology. In tracing the historical course of the christological process, we discover a shift of emphasis from resurrection to incarnation to express the identity and full ontological reality of his man from Nazareth. Whereas first generation christology (pre-50 C.E.) highlighted Jesus’ resurrection as the moment of his investment of lordship over creation — the climactic point at which he “becomes” or is appointed “Son of God” — subsequent generations of christology reveal a backward projection of this Son of God language. Although we should avoid thinking of this too simplistically, generally speaking, the ongoing reflection on the nature of Jesus results in a retroactive movement of resurrection theology so that his identity as Son of God, first fully manifested in his post-mortem appearances to the disciples, is associated with decisive moments further and further back in his life-story — his death, his transfiguration, his baptism, his conception, and finally, as we find most explicitly in the Logos poem of John, to a timeless origin antecedent to creation itself. This process is entirely logical When properly thought through, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead demands that we reflect upon the relationship between Jesus’ function and person. As we do, we will find that God’s work of salvation is intimately connected with Jesus’ very “being.” By raising him from the dead for the definitive salvation of humanity, the Proclaimer (Jesus) and Proclaimed (the Kingdom of God) become so conjoined that Christians cannot adequately articulate the meaning of one without the other…

The present work represents an effort to retrieve the resurrection of Jesus as a central site for thinking theologically. I have already spoken of soteriological and christological matters. Regarding for former, we will examine the drama and dynamics of human salvation under three related aspects that together flow from the Easter event: justice, forgiveness, and divinization. This is the primary objective of Part Two. It is my contention that the eventual marginalization of the resurrection from soteriological reflection, especially in the Latin West, where sacrificial atonement theories have long dominated, has led to truncated, and in certain important respects distorted, views of salvation. Among the most problematic distortion is the implication of God in the violence that led to Jesus’ death. When the cross is isolated from the broader narrative sweep of the Christ event, there is frequently a failure to understand the resurrection as anything more than a kind of ratification or postlude, when in fact it is God’s dramatic in-breaking into and unmasking of the cyclical violence that led to Jesus’ lynching. Indeed, often enough sacrificial atonement theories imply or explicitly affirm God’s complicity in the violence so graphically displayed on the cross, quite as though God were underwriting the very human disease that the gospels in fact would name, demystify, and abolish – the production of victims. Only if we see the meaning of the cross in light of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which is nothing if not the vindication of a victim from unjust death, will we grasp that God is a God of victims; that, in point of fact, God has become our victim in order to liberate us from producing and becoming victims (justice), to offer us pardon for our continued and frequently unconscious production of victims (forgiveness), and the draw us into active participation in the inner life of God through the imitation of the crucified and risen victim, who is the image of the invisible God (divinization).

It should be observed here that the retrieval of the resurrection deepens our understanding of the cross while also drawing us into further reflection upon Jesus’ life-ministry. The resurrection is precisely an act of memoria, God’s transformative memory. Resurrection purifies and redeems memory. As with the story of the travelers to Emmaus, the presence of the risen stranger facilitates an act of recollection in which the disciples are capable of remembering Jesus’ life from a fundamentally new perspective. They remember what he said and what he did, but they now do so in light of a transformative experience, brought to consciousness in the breaking of bread, that purges and deepens memory.

_______________________________________________

roadtoemmaus

The picture to the left is slightly cheesy. I apologize. I’ll get to that in a sec. The reference by Robinette to the two on the road to Emmaus caught my attention. I typically speed through this story as just another story demonstrating Jesus was raised. Simple. But Robinette’s point struck me. Here we have an event that demonstrates the point of Robinette’s book – the central place the resurrection occupies (even if we don’t recognize it) in every genuinely Christian experience and which it must again occupy (intentionally) in theological reflection. You can see the transformation take place in the two disciples. The Cross has no saving effect – is nothing but a disgrace and failure (for Christ and his followers), and a perpetuation of the rivalry that produces victims (for the culture that lynched him) – until one perceives it within the presence of the risen Jesus. Only the risen Jesus can tell you what the Cross means, and that is why the Cross cannot occupy or define the theological or hermeneutical “center” of the Christian faith in light of which other events (incarnation, resurrection, etc.) are interpreted. Previously:

If we must speak of a hermeneutical center, perhaps we should say that ‘transformational experience’ (of the risen-slaughtered one) is the hermeneutical center Boyd is looking for – i.e., the hermeneutical center isn’t a set of propositions as such but a confluence of the truth-making realities that inform human transformation – the whole life and death of Jesus as they are mediated to us by the risen, living Jesus. When the death and resurrection become a single experienced personal reality – the ‘risen-slaughtered’ one (Phil 3.10f), the center becomes a living dynamic…

Speaking of “truth-making reality that inform human transformation,” let me say why I chose this strange picture of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The two are blackened out. Only Christ is fully present, fully alive, not fragmented, not partial. But it is Christ who has been crucified. The two disciples are quite alive. One would expect, then, that Christ should be blackened out it is him they do not perceive. What gives? The story reveals their transformation, not Christ’s, and therein we see the point. The two are the ones who come alive, who wake up, who see what is truly there but which they had not perceived. They do the ‘appearing’, not Jesus. As such, they are what the Cross makes of us until we view the Cross with and within the risen Jesus.

Recall, Paul makes it clear (1Cor 15) that “if Christ is not raised…we are still in our sins.” So the resurrection is a “saving event.” But how, if the Cross took care of all that? Doesn’t Christ disarm the spiritual rulers and authorities by shaming them publicly “by his victory over them on the cross” (Col 2.14f)? Yes and no. Ask yourself how the cross becomes a victory. When does it become this victory? Where does the Cross “disarm” the powers?

Only in rising does Jesus’ dying become any of this. Heb 2.14f states as much: “He too shared in [our] humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free [us] who all [our] lives were held in slavery by [our] fear of death.” Interesting. One could reply here that there is no mention of resurrection in the Hebrews passage which states explicitly that it is “by his death” that Jesus “destroys the devil.” There you have it – the unique centrality of the Cross. But think it through. Our being “freed from slavery to fear of death” is also explicitly linked to his death with no mention of the resurrection. And yet it’s obvious that there is no freedom from the fear of death found in another person’s dying. We see such death all the time. That’s what constitutes our fear. But there is complete freedom from such fear found in a person’s rising from the dead. It is the resurrection, then, that “destroys the devil,” “disarms the powers,” and “frees us from our fear of death.” Taken together (thank you James Alison!) as “the risen-slaughtered one,” cross and resurrection constitute a single living presence (not a proposition) that accomplishes all that gets variously attributed (propositionally) to one or the other. But both are always present.

One final thought on the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. I do not mean this disparagingly at all, but these two can be analogously compared to certain passibilists eager to reduce God to the pain and tragedy of the Cross and to see (as Rahner lamented) in the resurrection only a vindication of their view of the Cross (composed entirely before the sun rises on Easter Sunday) rather than the meaning of the Cross.

I feel as if my own journey the past 10 years has been taken along the Emmaus road, slowly waking up to a resurrected view of things.

Hidden with Christ in God

blog-featured-image-iam-1_1I reconnected with with a friend and colleague in missions who works in the Middle East with Muslims. We haven’t spoken for a decade. I asked him what sort of response to Christ he’s seen from Muslims in his country during that time period. Last I knew there were maybe two dozen Muslims who had come to faith in Christ. He said that today they’re working with 5,000 small groups of such believers. I was astounded. He added that in the last fifteen months eleven of their number have been killed on account of their faith, two having been killed this last week. All of a sudden I realized that I don’t really have any problems. I sit comfortably in the United States contemplating life from the security of my home and office while many others know faith only as a life-threatening choice.

I moved on prayerfully after that conversation but haven’t gotten this amazing explosion of faith in the Muslim world out of my head, and these 5,000 groups are a small part of a much bigger story from the Muslim world which you won’t hear about on the evening news. As I contemplate the cost which faith presents to so many in the world today, I come back to three passages around which I revolve like a satellite, kept in obit by the gravitational pull of their truth.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20)
There’s a difference, someone said, between ‘seeing the Cross from where you are’ and ‘seeing where you are from the Cross’. In the first case, I’m not crucified with Christ. How could I be? I’m ‘here’ observing Christ living, dying, and rising ‘over there’. I observe the Cross from a distance. And at a distance it cannot be my death, my crucifixion. I might love Christ. I might believe that what I see on ‘that Cross over there’ achieves my salvation. I have faith in it. And I don’t doubt that God knows how to honor sincere but incomplete faith wherever he finds it.

We all start here in our faith journeys. But eventually we’re meant to adopt a new perspective as we draw closer, closing the distance between ‘seeing the Cross from where we are’ and ‘seeing things from the Cross’. At some point you move from that location to seeing the world from within the event of the Cross. I think the failure to travel this distance is part of what accounts for dysfunctional penal views of the Cross. As long as the Cross is Christ suffering what I don’t have to suffer, I observe the Cross from a distance and that distances is viewed to be my salvation. In this case I can’t join with Christ in that suffering. I can’t cross the distance to make it my death. Problem is – it is my death and I am meant to participate in it. Salvation isn’t the distance, it’s the collapsing of the distance.

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3.2-3)

It might seem at first that “setting you mind on things above” means contemplating those things “from where we are below” and thus is born ‘the distance’ that defines a two-storied worldview. Whatever the “above” is, it’s not where I am. It’s above where I am. For me to set my mind on the above, I have to leave behind, in a manner of speaking, the “below” where I actually live my life. But too many things Paul says make it clear that he didn’t think of that sort of distance between us and Christ. Whence the distance if we are “hidden with Christ in God? If I’m hidden with Christ in God, then my everyday mundane life is hidden with Christ in God. “Below” is only a mistaken way of perceiving the ‘here and now’, falsely identifying it as separated somehow from God. Setting your mind on “things above” is not to escape the ‘here and now’ in our minds. It is to uncover the ‘here and now’ through contemplation into the ‘above’, to remove the distance. We can be anywhere and be “set on things above” because the above things are everywhere and are the truth of all things.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8.15)
Who cries “Abba, Father!”? Only the Son. And we are given his cry as our own. We are given his own identity for our own. Now we relate to God, to ourselves, and to the world from within the cry that defines God the Son. The power of the gospel to heal and transform us is its power to include us within the Son’s own identity, a cry which cannot be deconstructed or undone by any severity of pain or suffering. It has already endured death and rose on the other side.

See here, Thomas

Doubting+Thomas

I’m anxious to chat with St. Thomas someday. Besides the name, we have other things in common, ‘doubt’ for instance. And if the tradition of him is accurate, we were both also missionaries in cultures very different than our own.

I love this painting by Caravaggio (16th cent). Thomas the ‘doubter’. Jesus (Jn 20.27) says to him, “Put your finger here. See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” There are several directions in which one could take this. Today I’m thinking about the nature of the resurrected body (something Paul discusses in 1Cor 15).

Start with what should be an uncontroversial statement: The resurrected Jesus is the Eschaton. He is what we shall be. His body is the only created reality that is already on the other side of death in its fulfilled, glorified state. And when we see him we shall be like him. And yet here in Jn 20 Jesus’ body bears its “wounds” for Thomas to inspect. A glorified, perfected, immortal body that bears the wounds of mortality? Resurrected perfection makes the lame walk and the blind see but it cannot heal scar tissue?

Hear me out. I don’t think this passage is evidence that Jesus’ “wounds” endure the way most people are likely to read the story of Thomas. Consider the possibility that Jesus presents his risen embodied self to Thomas in a way Thomas required, in a manner determined by Thomas. He doesn’t believe. Why? He can’t get past the Cross. The Cross is speaking the “last word” for Thomas. Jesus really did die. Thomas needs to see the Cross in the resurrected Jesus so Thomas’ faith can connect the real world he lives in to the real God in whom the world lives. That moment opens his capacity for faith to embracing the resurrection. Jesus is happy to manifest himself in a way Thomas requires, but I don’t think Jesus’ resurrected body permanently bears the wounds of death – holes in his hands and side, scar tissue down his back from flogging. (Folks will not hobble around or limp when perfected in God’s presence.) I think we (in part) determine what it is we see, and I suspect that when his faith finally rested secure, there were no holes for Thomas to see.

Just a thought.

If you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross

12724940_1720132754866853_78842786_nI’m in the middle of James Alison’s Knowing Jesus and hope soon to put together some thoughts on 1Cor 2.2 where Paul resolves to “know nothing except Christ and him crucified.” In the meantime, because I’ve been discussing a good deal about whether, and if so how, the Cross can be the “center” (the hermeneutical center of faith as it engages Scripture), I want to offer a thought on the general tendency to make the Cross (at least a certain vision of the Cross) the place where Christ suffers the godforsakenness we justly deserve because of our sin. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. I don’t doubt there is a Cross “because” of our sins, and I don’t doubt that Christ suffers “for” us. I agree also that the Cross defines or shapes faith. But that means it shapes a movement toward an end or telos. But the Cross can’t be that end, not if Christ is risen. I think it would be extremely helpful to think through these questions in terms of ‘ends’ rather than of ‘centers’. Perhaps that needs to become an additional part of our series What is the Bible? But for now, ask yourself what the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ of creation is. Where’s it going? What divine reality fulfills it? I suggest that while the Cross defines the shape of the journey, it isn’t the end of the journey, and it would be worth exploring whether we ought to make that end the hermeneutical center of our faith and not any means by which we reach the end, however necessary those means may be.

Since I’m doing a poor job of articulating this, let me offer a couple of thoughts on Phil 3 and try to describe what I mean by making the Cross as means relative to ends achieved beyond resurrection. I’m not negating the revelatory value of the Cross or its value as a demonstration of love. I’m suggesting it’s not the center of the center. Phil 3.8-11 (vv. 10f here):

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and to participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

a_light_in_the_darkness_by_abenteuerzeit-d5dlskcI’ll offer CWG as the backdrop for my thought here since it proposes an understanding of the Cross as a kind of suffering we can’t participate in because it is God suffering godforsakenness as the consequence of our sinful choices. Without question this is not a suffering we can participate in. It is suffering we’re saved from. Yet we see Paul wanting to “participate in Christ’s sufferings” and to “become like Christ in his death” (even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” Col 1.24).  These are curious things to say indeed if Paul believes the Cross is God suffering in our stead the godforsakenness we deserve.

I suggest that at the very least

…we understand the Cross not as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded (because it is a godforsakenness we are saved from) but as a kind of suffering and death we are saved in or through.

This difference in perspective is the kind of small difference between competing orientations that end up worlds apart the farther down the road one tracks their implications. I don’t think Paul could be any more explicit: the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in the worst the world can do to us, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence. But all this precludes the Cross’s being the place where Father, Son and Spirit are estranged from one another. On the contrary, it’s where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false and impotent precisely because they do not offer us a ‘way’, a suffering, we can participate in, a death to which we can conform. If Paul hopes to attain the resurrection on account of “becoming like Christ in his death” through “participating in his sufferings,” then Christ’s death can’t be the place where Father, Son and Spirit suffer godforsakenness in our stead.

This thought is found outside of Paul as well. Hebrews 13.13f:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Again, here the Cross represents sufferings we follow Christ into, “bearing the disgrace he bore,” hardly something we rejoice in being saved from. Mere verses prior to the call to follow Christ by bearing the disgrace he bore “outside the city” (a reference to the only ‘abandonment’ in view, viz., the abandonment of us by the world) we find this encouragement which precedes and introduces the whole passage:

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

The Cross is where these words are proved true, not the one time they fail to be so. This is a Cross we can follow, suffering we can participate in, a death we can conform to, and in conforming to his death, a resurrection we can attain.

Going fishing

masaccio12A colleague who led our office devotions this week shared from Matthew 17.24-27:

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

The substance of this thought was as follows.

● Jesus’ question to Peter concerns “duties” and “taxes” (basically two forms of tax – income and temple).
● By “sons” or “children” of the kings of the earth is meant, literally, the physical offspring of those kings, that is, their own children. Earthly kings do not levy taxes on themselves or their own children. The Royal Family doesn’t pay.
● This exemption parallels the truth about Christ as God’s son. He is the Son par excellence, by nature the creator and sustainer of the universe, the source and giver of its life, resources, blessings, and “every good and perfect gift.” By definition, then, he can be subject to none of the world’s civil or political burden. Christ is – like any son of any king who levies taxes on others but not on his own children – truly exempt from the taxes about which he is asked.
● Jesus includes Peter and, by extension, all the disciples, including those who follow Christ as God’s true children. We are quite literally not subject to the civil and political burden of sustaining the ‘kingdoms’ of this world. This is part of what it means to “not be of this world.” Thus we are subject to none of the burdens placed on the shoulders of people by any worldly attempt to establish and sustain a political or civil identity outside those realized in and as the truth of God’s loving and gracious kingdom.
● Nevertheless, in order not to offend those who don’t perceive the truth of filial relationship to God in Christ, Jesus agrees to accommodate the world in its less-than-perfect systems of self-governance.
● It is when we decide in love to accommodate the world in this way that we see the miraculous provision of grace. Had Jesus insisted on not paying the tax on the basis of his inherent identity, the miracle of provision Peter shares in would not have occurred. What we call the ‘miraculous’ is grace providing for love wherever it decides to accommodate a fallen world in incarnational ways.
● Oh yeah. Somehow Peter fishes his taxes out of a fish’s mouth. Yeah.

What d’ya think?

Do not swear at all

054a133563d7c1cab5f5bff8a838b5fbJesus’ statement from Mt 5.33-37 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 word. 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 or 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 him 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.